The Midnight Run
A Carpet of Stars
An MLP:FiM Fanfiction by Midnight Shadow
The world spun beneath their hooves. They passed through the night in a raging torrent of thunder and sweat. Their hoofbeats were a ceaseless staccato downpour, a perfect storm of movement and drive. Tonight was the spring equinox, and as they danced, their very essence flavoured the wind with hints of summer, sunshine and freedom. They swept away the last of winter's chill and breathed warmth into the land. They were the body and essence of the Great Herd, forging through the seasons in their eternal dance, the lifeblood of the world and the heart itself.
Heartbeat ringing in her ears, Twilight Sparkle watched them. Yearning sang in her blood, and every fibre of her being ached to run with them. The moon was full, the sky was clear, and stars twinkled in the tears that fell down her muzzle to land amidst the dew on the hilltop. Twilight Sparkle was crying; a heavy lump lay in her throat as she stood alone in the cool night air.
The spring equinox was upon Equestria, the Midnight Run surged once more across the land... and Twilight was no longer invited.
Her tears fell hot and steady as Twilight lamented that which was lost to her, for she would never again run with the herd. With them, she had been wild and free, untamed and untameable. But now the eternal herd that surged across Equestria would gallop on without her. Now she was apart from it, and all because of a single, beautiful, painful gift.
Twilight rustled her wings, the simple movement bringing a bitter-sweet joy, as she contemplated what it meant. She was an alicorn now, a princess, one amongst many. She was of the earth, it was true, but she was also of the sky. Twilight's nature was no longer only of the rock, earth and plants. She was also of the thunderheads, lightning and the rain. She could no more simply run with the herd than the herd itself could take to the skies; to deny one's true nature is to lie to the herd and to one's self. Neither are where earth pony magic springs from.
She sighed, and the wind sang its answer in her ears, bringing with it tales of the Great Herd, the Time Before Time, and the Forever Plains of the Summer Lands. The spirit moved her; she spread her wings, and took to the skies.
Twilight moved easily through the air, revelling in her own power and grace. With a deft flick of her pinions, she wheeled and spun, each beat of her wings breathing life across the fields and forests. All of Equestria sang to her, musical notes that danced and twirled through her very being, her veins alight with the warmth of a thousand-thousand mornings, succoured by the cool embrace of gentle night. Here amongst the clouds, she felt her spirits soar. She could no longer run, but she could fly. If only... she sighed again to herself. If only it weren't so lonely on the wing.
Some time later, muscles aching pleasantly with exertion, Twilight found herself circling a cloud as she obeyed her body's desire for rest. She sculled playfully through the ethereal outer layers of the impromptu bed before backwinging to land. Turning in circles to even out the soft and fluffy surface, she sat carefully down and tucked her hooves under her body. Ruffling her feathers and stretched her wings just so until she was warm and comfortable, she settled down to rest. Placing one wing over her muzzle to keep the chill off, she closed one eye, and watched over the sleeping land with the other.
It was only when the cloud spun at the touch of another pony that she realized she had been dozing. Giddy with the sudden motion, she snorted awake. For a few brief moments, she forgot who she was, where she was, and why, spreading her wings in surprise. Bright laughter brought her fully awake as a dark form alighted on the cloud next to her; a dark blue winged mare, with an ebony horn rising from her forehead, stood regally before her, resplendent in the moonlight.
"L-Luna!" squawked Twilight, covering her muzzle with both her wings in a futile attempt to hide her blush. "I-I-I... I'm sorry I was just--"
Luna laughed again, her mirth bursting forth unrestrained by any sense of propriety. "My dear Twilight Sparkle! Thou, if any, hast little use for apologies. Come, let me sit for a while. The night is cold, and together we may keep warm."
Twilight blushed hotter, shuffling over in the soft cloud bed as the lithe, dark blue princess demurely sank into the hollow depression next to her.
"Though we tread now in the world between the world, exposed to the elements of wind and rain, surely we have little to gain by remaining at their mercy?" Luna mischievously stretched her wings, teasing at the metatarsals with her teeth, blithely ignoring the heated blush that threatened to escape the confines of Twilight's face and spread to the rest of her body. Twilight resolutely stared at the ground, where the Run had recently finished, the members of the herd grazing sleepily by the side of a lake. Once both glorious wings were preened, Luna flipped them closed and chuckled softly to herself.
"Tell me, princess of magic," Luna whispered, leaning conspiratorially against Twilight's flank and gazing down at the gaggle of ponies below them, "Which of those stallions is it that you have your eye on?"
Twilight spluttered again, to renewed chortles from Luna.
"Relax, child, I jest with thee. Mine eyes see as do yours, Twilight Sparkle." Twilight glanced up sharply at the new tone in the elder princesses' voice. "You watch far across this other realm, this Other Equestria, where mortal ponies seldom tread. You watch the Run, not merely these ponies, as it moves on its sacred and ceaseless journey from past, to present and on into the future."
Twilight nodded, the breath caught in her throat. "I... I thought--"
"That we did not know? That we, Celestia and myself, custodians of Night and Day, were ignorant of our peoples' true nature?" Luna snorted derisively. "I had thought you smarter than that," the princess chided, a cheeky smile playing across her lips at Twilight's sudden look of hurt.
Twilight blushed hotly again, looking away, eyes fastened on the horizon. "I just thought... you're, we're... not like that. Anymore."
"And it is true, little one, we are not. Yet you wish you were with them, even now?"
Twilight nodded. "I do. When I was with them, it was... I felt like I could run forever, like I was bigger than the mountains, deeper than the seas..."
"And in truth you were, for the Herd is within all things, and all things are within the Herd. It will run forever, a stampeding torrent of love and friendship, until there are no more ponies to partake in it. Who would not wish to be part of that?" Luna nuzzled Twilight at the latter's strangled cry of sorrow. "Be at peace, my child. You are yet one with the Great Herd, just as you always have been. Just as I always have been. Even--"
Luna hesitated, and at that hesitation, Twilight turned once more to look at the elder princess. She met a gaze which was at once both fearsome, and incredibly sad.
"Go on." Twilight barely breathed the words, conscious of the gulf between herself and this ancient alicorn beside her, fully aware of the weight of history born by the odd mare out of time that shared her cloud.
"Even when in the Nightmare, when I was locked in the moon, I did not shirk my responsibilities. I can no more cease being who I am, than you can cease being Twilight Sparkle, Princess of Magic."
Twilight's heart thudded in her chest at those words, and blood roared in her ears. With great trepidation, she opened her mouth and asked a simple question, "Who are you?"
Luna looked down at the lavender alicorn. Even now, Princess Luna towered above Twilight as much as Celestia towered above her younger sister, but at that moment, Luna's height was nothing compared to the sense of presence she exuded. It was almost overwhelming.
"I am she who guards the sleepers, child. I am she who watches over the souls of Equestria in their slumber, she who carries them to the fields of forever, and she who guides them back home again by the break of dawn. I am she who paints the sky with the eyes of our ancestors, who sees all ponies to their final resting place, and who sits alone waiting for the Herd to come home."
Twilight shuddered, her fur sticking up all along her back, as those words rolled across her mind. Panting, she shook herself, and then looked up at Luna, and smiled. "And even then, when you... when Nightmare Moon was trapped in the moon, you did your duty, didn't you? Not out there, where normal ponies tread, not down amongst the streets of Ponyville, or the squares of Canterlot, but here, in this... other world."
Luna's exhale of breath came like a hurricane, as if the weight of a thousand, thousand years was lifted all at once. "Yes," she said simply.
Twilight leaned against Luna, embracing the suddenly vulnerable elder princess with a wing. "Tell me about it," she whispered. "What is it like?"
Luna's nostrils twitched, her mouth taut as if afraid to speak, then she cleared her throat. "I... wish you to accompany me, Twilight Sparkle, now, as you have done in the past. Journey with me? Please?"
Twilight stood up, stretching, confusion wending its way across her face. "I don't understand... when have I..?"
Luna stood and spread her wings, before taking to the air. She swooped easily through the sky around the cloud that Twilight perched on, hooves galloping on empty space. Twilight watched her with astonished amusement as the elder princess whooped for joy with every wing-beat.
"Tell me!" Twilight laughed, stomping a hoof in mock-frustration.
"Dreams, Twilight Sparkle. I thought I said! I am the princess of dreams, and every night, my children flock to me as they slumber. Each of them, every one. Even you, even Celestia. Come with me, Princess Sparkle, and see now my realm, as only I have truly seen it before. You are no longer of the earth, you belong to the sky. You cannot run with them, but you can fly with me. It is a short trip, merely the breadth of a shadow..."
Pulse racing, Twilight gathered her magic, spread her wings, and leaped.
Twilight was used to flying; in the weeks and months since her coronation, flight had become foals' play to her. But this... this was not flying. She kicked and wriggled her hooves, tumbling, whilst around her spun and twirled a ghostly glowing echo of Luna, teasing yet gentle laughter rolling from the elder princess in great waves.
Twilight struggled against her body and senses. There was no sky, there was no land. There were no stars, no light, just an absolute void that covered all things. "Help!" cried Twilight, struggling to right herself. It was dark, so very dark, and she felt so alone, and afraid.
"Be calm, my child," came Luna's soft voice. Deft wings righted her, and Luna's hot breath fell against her mane as she was nuzzled comfortingly. "Be calm, there is no danger here."
"Wh-where are we?" Twilight asked, fearful despite the reassurances.
Luna laughed in an easy sigh, her tinkling chuckles dancing through the blackness. "Do you not remember? Before you were, there was this place. It is nowhere, and everywhere. You tread now in the moment between dreams and awakening, where all things are possible." Unashamed of the grandiose gesture, Luna bowed her great head and swept her wing from horizon to horizon, and as it passed, the world shimmered into being. With a gasp, Twilight realized she could see. Blinking away swirling tears, Twilight's gaze fastened on Luna as the alicorn trotted towards her, hooves striking empty space with the same precise motions as on solid ground. The dark blue princess seemed to glow, bright against the blackness.
Twilight fought for breath, quite simply astonished. "I don't understand..."
Luna giggled, closed her eyes, and lit her horn. With a flash of light, a mote of brightness burst into view at the tip. With a flick of her head, the princess sent the ball of fire tumbling through space. Then she did it again, and again, until a veritable cloud of fireballs surrounded them, twisting and turning in the ethereal breeze. "Come, Twilight, do you still not remember?"
Frowning, Twilight screwed up her face. Persuading her horn to light up seemed... harder than usual. With a grunt of effort, her horn suddenly burst into blue flames. The light crackled and fizzled up her horn before it leaped from the tip into space, whizzing away like a firecracker. "I did it!" she cried triumphantly.
Luna clopped her hooves together excitedly. "I knew you could do it! And just in time, because here they come!"
"Here come wh--" Twilight began, but broke off as she suddenly felt them - a tidalwave of hoofbeats surged through the void, invislble, intangible, and yet irrefutably present."What is this? What are they?"
"Shh," whispered Luna, "this is the best part."
Around Twilight, as she hung amazed in the emptiness, faint glimmers of light could be seen. Moment by moment, the ghostly glowing forms of ponies became stronger and stronger. They were all running, jumping, rolling, playing and laughing. There were earth ponies, unicorns and pegasi, all sorts, all of them in a jumbled, playful mass... and all of them were--
"Foals!" cried Twilight, eyes wide and bright with wonder.
Luna smiled, nodding. "Foals. The dreamers. I keep them safe from harm, Twilight, I always have. And tonight... so do you."
Twilight put forth a hoof, and gently stroked the mane of a unicorn. His eyes were closed, and he smiled as he floated past, clearly asleep. Another bumped into him, and the two bounced apart. Yet another, laughing and very much awake, jumped into the pile, scattering the floating foals to the four winds. Giggling helplessly, the recalcitrant foal trotted around Twilight, lithely evading her probing hooves, before galloping off to go galumphing with another impish spectre.
Twilight laughed, and as she laughed, she realized her own body was glowing brighter and brighter in concert with her blossoming joy. All around her rolled wave after wave of happiness as the children of Equestria gamboled and played in the spaces between earth and sky.
Twilight could move easily now - it wasn't down to her wings, it seemed to be pure joy that buoyed her. She swooped and dove, turned and spun, dived and whirled. Foals scattered before her, and followed in her wake, unafraid and joyful.
"Twilight," called Luna softly, and Twilight spun to look at the elder princess. "Look around you, young princess, and tell me what you see."
Twilight moved to float beside Luna, and then she turned... and gasped. Ahead of her, below her, above her... all around her, were little points of light, burning with joy and laughter. Looking down, and she knew somehow it was down, was Equestria.
"They're like stars!" she gasped, eyes wide.
"They are. All foals come here when they are young, when their spirits are still free. I watch over them, and show them the world they will inherit. Eventually... they come less and less, until, one day..."
"They don't come back?" Twilight's heart ached as a tear trickled down Luna's muzzle.
"It is the way of things," said Luna with a sigh, "The older ponies make their own dreamscape. I watch them there, too, but it is not the same. The young come from here, and those whose time has passed return to this same sky. Those who have gone before, those whose love has touched the most others during their lives, shine so brightly, that they form the stars my little ponies watch at night. They stand guard even during the day, watching over their own children as I have watched over them."
"And... the ones that are sleeping?"
At this, Luna smiled coyly. "Come, let us watch."
Gathering the younger, only recently fledged princess in her power, Luna swept through the ether. No foal that she passed went un-greeted, and many remained close to her, buzzing around the smiling alicorn like fireflies. Twilight was drawn along with them, wings half-spread as the pair picked up speed. Grinning widely, Luna flicked Twilight with a wing, causing her to tumble. Twilight squawked in frustration, reflexively stomping her hooves in anger, which only caused her to spin more. Luna guffawed, and increased their speed. "Do not fight yourself so! Flying here is foals' play, Twilight Sparkle."
"Where are we going?" huffed Twilight, gyrating helplessly.
Luna pointed a hoof into the distance. "There."
The princesses surged onwards, powering through the void, whilst behind them swarmed a mass of glowing foals, all laughing and jumping and running. Those with wings flapped them profusely, those without merely remained blisfully unimpeded by such mundane things as gravity, galloping carefree through the inky blackness.
"Behold, Twilight Sparkle," said Luna, voice soft yet commanding, as the princess momentarily slowed. "Now begins my most sacred task, one I have performed for millennia, and it all begins here. Come, we must move faster still!"
Luna poured on the speed. Whilst there was no wind, the feeling of pure velocity was unmistakable. As Luna worked her ethereal muscles and her magic, the princess of the night began to glow brighter and brighter. Twilight turned, almost blinded, and looked behind her... and gasped. Trailing them, like a blanket of stars, were hundreds - if not thousands - of foals, spread out across the night like a shower of diamonds. Faster and faster they moved, whirling and twirling, circling a single, sleeping figure. As she neared the centre of the maelstrom, Twilight fancied she could hear singing. Drifting closer, she realized Luna was, indeed, giving voice to an ancient lullaby. Around the one, tiny foal, drifted a glowing mass of stars, each one bidding their new herd-mate welcome. In Luna's gentle wings, the little creature fitfully stirred, and then opened her eyes, drawing in a great breath of surprise.
Luna bent closer, kissed the foal on her forehead, and said simply, "Go!" As Luna released the foal from her gentle ministrations, the child turned to Equestria and raised her head as if sniffing the wind. With a wordless cry of joy, the foal cantered as fast as she could groundwards, with the entire heavenly host following.
In Equestria, the sight of shooting stars was almost entirely ignored, in favour of the precious moment of a foal's first few breaths, and the ear-piercing wail that followed.
Somewhere nearby, near enough to observe, not quite close enough to touch, Twilight Sparkle watched as life began.
"Prithee tell me, young princess," said Luna softly, nuzzling the younger alicorn, leaning into her and covering her with a wing, "doth mine gifts prove a suitable recompense for your loss?"
Twilight laughed through the tears, nodding. "I can make do," she said, wistfully. The Herd was eternal, it crossed the world from horizon to horizon, uncaring of the future, ignorant of the past, revelling in the now. She held that memory dear in her heart, cherished it, and would never forget it. But fate had led her to a new destiny, and into a new world. Like Luna, she would be there, always, on the edge of forever. She would stand on the cusp of each new day, and she would be there when the Run left, and be there when the Run returned, and she would greet all the members with an open heart, and full of joy. For, in truth, the Run never ended. It ran in every beating heart, in every hoofstep and in every embrace, in every flick of a wing or swish of a tail. And Twilight was there, as she always would be.
"Come, Twilight," said Luna. "Like yonder foal, it is time... to go home."