The Night That Never Finds the Day

by MyOwnNameWasTaken

First published

Princess Luna has many duties: to keep the night soft and safe; to keep her subjects hale, in flesh and in dreams; to keep her realm and its allies strong. But sometimes, all she wants is to be there for her sister. Is that too much to ask?

Princess of the Night, Mover of the Moon, Sentinel of the Dreamlands, Marshall of the Night Watch, Co-Regent of Equestria... Luna has many titles, and as many duties: to keep the night soft and safe; to keep her subjects hale, in flesh and in dreams; to keep her realm and its allies strong.

But sometimes, all she wants is to be there for her sister. Is that too much to ask?

1 — Outcasts Always Mourn

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“...I know not whether Laws be right,

Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol

Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,

A year whose days are long...”

Luna, Princess of the Night, Mover of the Moon, Sentinel of the Dreamlands, Marshall of the Night Watch, Co-Regent of Equestria, once Bearer of the Elements of Harmony, and the bearer of several other titles besides, shifted on her reclining couch to take a quiet sip of crystal berry wine. It had been quite some time since she had last used a drinking straw; the novelty amused her.

She could levitate the glass, of course, but levitation, along with most direct applications of Unicorn magic, would produce a noise, however slight, and as she was attending a poetry reading... it would be uncouth.

Besides, it was a fine drinking straw indeed. It was made of glass; she felt through her teeth that crisp hardness which modern ‘plastics’ could not achieve. Versatile as those new materials were, Luna favoured glass and ceramics, particularly for tableware. She could swear plastics left a faint aftertaste, whereas glass was pure.

Furthermore, the glass was hoof-blown. The ponies of the Crystal Empire were adapting to this modern era into which they had been abruptly thrust at a commendable pace, but mass-manufacture was not something they were in great haste to adopt. They were much divided in opinion concerning this and a good number of technologies, as each new innovation had its drawbacks as well as its advantages.

Naturally, they could not stay in the past forever, but having had no time to adapt gradually to the world’s changes, they found themselves constantly wrong-hoofed. Luna could relate to the feeling perfectly, for she was in the same situation herself. It was one of the reasons why she so loved visiting the Crystal Empire when, as now, her duties permitted it: it was pleasing to be around ponies who understood. Most were a little too much in awe of her to discuss any subject with her openly, but in the dreamlands, their souls sang out clear and unconcealed. Modernisation was a potent and commonly occurring theme in the dreams of the Crystal Ponies, inspiring both dreams and nightmares, and they wrestled with this theme in their daily lives as well.

Tonight’s recital dealt with another recurring theme in the dreams of the Crystal Empire’s populace, though this one inspired only nightmares: Sombra. The mere mention of that name was enough to make any Crystal Pony shudder, so powerful was the smoking hoofprint the foul fiend had left on their collective psyche. Every last stallion, mare, and foal in the Empire bore scars from his cruel reign, but they were beginning to come to terms with them: what they had at first kept locked inside, where Luna alone could see, they were learning to share. Luna was glad of it. Nothing good came out of repression and denial; she had seen this borne out far too many times in dreams, she had seen it in her own life, and she had seen it in—

No, nothing good came out of it. To keep one’s suffering to oneself meant to suffer alone, but a burden shared was a burden eased. Could this be part of the Magic of Friendship? she wondered, struck by the sudden thought. She formulated a mental note to consult Princess Twilight Sparkle on the issue—

Tree of Harmony
Sun & Moon lean ‘gainst each other
The Star bears witness

—before turning her mind more fully towards the recital.

“This too I know—and wise it were

If each could know the same—
That every prison ponies build

Is built of crystallisèd shame
And bound with bars lest They should see

How mares their sisters maim.”

The gathering was typical of its kind, held in a broad shadowed room with deep booths and soft furnishings to muffle sound—everything to reduce environmental distractions and provide privacy, for while the Crystal Ponies came to these gatherings to share their common pain, they also came to have the privacy to relive it, and to cry. The voice of the reciter, standing on the stage, carried to every booth, but each booth was fitted with a heavy curtain which could cut it off, if any of the ponies within found herself in need of a respite, or the privacy to weep. There was a system of flags to signal the staff, particularly if a pony found herself overcome and needed to quit the room entirely. And no pony came here alone. None save Luna, at least, but in her case, the memory of Sombra’s reign did not dredge up trauma. Rather, it was....

“With bars they blur the gracious Moon,

And blind the goodly Sun:
And they do well to hide their—”

Luna’s attention sharply focused, her ears swivelling forwards as she flicked her eyes quickly about to cover the room. There had been a shift in the atmosphere, and she found a lot more attention was now focused on her: the ponies in the nearby booths—as a Princess, she had been granted a booth with a commanding view—were stealing furtive glances at her, while attempting to conceal their scrutiny. A sense of nervous unease pervaded the room, and she could find no cause for—

Oh, but of course: “the gracious Moon,” “the goodly Sun”.... A reference to herself and her sister. Allusions to themselves were not uncommon in art, but the poem’s composer—one Wilde Words, who was conspicuously not looking at her as he recited—doubtless did not expect one of his allusions to be in attendance at the poem’s first public recital! The Crystal Ponies merely feared causing offence.

Luna acknowledged the gesture with a gracious bow of her head, and the tension in the room dissipated immediately, a susurrus of relief rippling through the crowd before they turned their attention fully back to the reciter, where it belonged. Luna felt some relief herself: in the Crystal Empire her style of etiquette was not mortifyingly out of date, and she was glad to have been able to communicate her appreciation clearly—the delicate reference had genuinely pleased her, not the least because it depicted her on equal footing with her sister, something which still happened rarely in Equestria.

That was the other thing she liked about the Crystal Empire: its denizens had never known Nightmare Moon. To them, she was Equestria’s Princess of the Night, who along with her sister had ever kept the balance of Day and Night, and had come in their hour of direst need, wielding the Elements of Harmony—the mightiest magic known to ponykind—to break the shackles Sombra had forced upon them.

Although what exactly transpired during The Vanishing, as Celestia came to name it, was lost to the Crystal Ponies, Luna and Celestia’s attempted act of deliverance had left a kind of impression in their minds, and the Royal Sisters had the status of mystical heroes in the Empire’s collective memory, in addition to their usual reputation.

Luna was well aware—it went without without saying, really—that every living creature that walked, flew, slithered, or swam beneath the sky owed a great debt to her and her sister for maintaining the saraband of Moon and Sun along the stream of stars, and the sisters did much else besides to benefit ponies of Equestria day to day, and yet, all these acts were.... Those that were not subtle were ritual, and the routine of those rituals had robbed them of mystique....

And so it was pleasant, occasionally, to receive the sort of appreciation she found in the Crystal Empire. There was a time, long ago, when it had been all she thought she wanted. How bitter an irony it was, then, that in this particular case it was so woefully underserved.

Sombra... that blighted name engendered fear in the Crystal Ponies, but for Luna and her sister Celestia, it inspired only shame, and regret. Were they blind that they did not see the rise of the Shadow in the North? Granted, Equestria was smaller then, the Empire far off and ensconced behind the Crystal Mountains, but that was a poor excuse: as Alicorns, they could bridge great distances with a wink—the Crystal Mountains were no insurmountable barrier. And were the Empire’s citizens not ponies too? Could they not at least have scried regularly upon this place? And in dreams—in dreams all ponies were close-by. Luna might have looked in once in a while... they feared diplomatic complications, and so had left the isolationistic Crystal Empire alone, but there were not even any diplomatic channels in place! Perhaps the Crystal Ponies had shared the Royal Sisters’ complacency. Whatever the reasons, when Sombra fell upon the Empire, Equestria had no warning.

It was Luna who noticed the first changes, in the dreamlands. Pleasant dreams dimmed and faltered, while nightmares gained in intensity. She had thought it a temporary thing at first, attempted to hold back the tide on her own... when she finally admitted it was larger than herself, and slunk to her sister to advise her of the matter, disharmony had been breaking out in the waking world for some time. Should she have called upon her sister sooner? That doubt always surfaced when she looked back upon these events. She had thought the break-down in her relationship with her sister had come after their failure with the Crystal Empire, but perhaps it was more than mere sibling rivalry that had prompted her to attempt to remedy the situation herself; perhaps they had subtly been growing apart for some time prior.

Be that as it may, by the time the sisters had consulted with one another, the situation was dire. They had known the Crystal Empire to be protected by powerful magic, but they had not had an inkling of just how potent and far-reaching its effects could be until their own lands, so far to the South, found themselves deprived of it. Neigh, more than deprived: the Crystal Empire cast the manifestation of its wellbeing far and wide, and under Sombra’s reign... ‘wellbeing’ was no longer the appropriate word, for nothing was ‘well’ in his land—Luna had seen enough of the blight he lay upon the Empire through the dreams of its inhabitants to know that much.

And so they had come. Two ponies against an Empire—but two Alicorns, girded with the Elements of Harmony, the power that had made their dominion unassailable, against a nation of withered ponies shaking in their chains—they had come. They had never previously visited the Empire, so a direct teleport was out of the question; instead they jumped to the then-Northernmost borderlands of Equestria and proceeded via line-of-sight winking into the less charted North before riding the winds over the steep sides of the Crystal Mountains.

The land beyond the mountains… nothing could have prepared them for the sight of it; it was literally a vision out of nightmare, for Luna had seen the Empire through the tortured dreams of the Crystal Ponies, but she had thought the warped and disturbing landscapes that had paraded through those dreams to be exaggerations, frightful reflections of reality distorted by suffering and terror. She had been wrong; the visions had not the slightest exaggeration. The very land itself had warped into something twisted and abhorrent.

They dared not fly too high into the miasma of despair that writhed over the Crystal Empire, and travel on foot through that Tartarean landscape was a daunting prospect, but the Pole Star knew the North well, and its soft song guided Luna along safe paths, into the heart of the capital.

Thus did they steal through the shroud of Sombra’s reign like two thieves in the night, and shiver it with a mighty blast of rainbow light. Did Sombra even understand what happened? He screamed once, as his very form dissolved in the flood of power that washed over him, but it seemed more a cry of rage or surprise than actual fear. And then... he was gone, a coiling shadow trapped beneath the Arctic ice—and the Empire gone with him, the sisters’ victory turned to ash.

“Lord and land are one.” It was an old pony’s tale, a superstition which Luna and her sister had not found credible, until Sombra gave it proof. Whatever else could be said of him, Sombra had been a magical genius. The Empire’s magic, which she and her sister had so foolishly ignored, he had mastered to an undreamed of degree—a shame that he only thought to corrupt and co-opt to his own twisted ends. How had he, an outsider, managed to tie himself to that power so completely that a threat to him was also a threat to the entire Crystal Empire? And had he planned such an outcome?

She had read Twilight Sparkle’s—now Princess Twilight’s—report on the recovery of the Crystal Heart: Sombra had been enamoured of sadistic traps, seeming to delight in predicting another pony’s response to any given challenge, and then laying a snare to trip her up when she acted. This well matched the impression of him Luna had gleaned from the Crystal Ponies’ dreams, a thousand years ago. Had it been a final snare, a means to cheat his vanquishers? Or had he only meant to hold the Empire hostage, his link to it shielding him from reprisal?

Were that the case, it had not worked, for the sisters wasted no breath in speaking to him. What was it, with the evil ones, that they always needed to talk, to gloat and to taunt? Luna had done it herself, as Nightmare Moon. Loneliness, perhaps? It had been lonely, in the Moon, though she had been far too wrapped in rage to think of it that way at the time. Interacting with other ponies, even from such a domineering stance, had been... something she had missed. Perhaps all who do evil are lonely, she thought, locked up alone inside their minds, without bonds of friendship to keep them connected to others. Perhaps the evil they do is the only way they have of reaching out....

At any rate, Sombra was dispersed, and the Crystal Empire had gone with him. It had been a shock to both Luna and her sister. It weighed on both of them, but never did they discuss it openly. Celestia had believed the Empire would return, yet Luna had not had the same confidence. Though she could not have them herself, Luna could sense when her sister dreamed the true-dreams, the dreams that were prophecy—and she knew none had come to Celestia in the wake of The Vanishing. It was a leap of faith, one Luna had not been willing to make. Had her sister been wiser, or had she needed to believe, to assuage her guilt?

Celestia had clung to faith when the Empire returned, as well: Luna had been champing at the bit to rush North and undo their error—she knew she could have finished Sombra, or at least contained him, for she was the Princess of the Night, and no stranger to shadows—but her sister had insisted in making assay of her admittedly promising student. While Twilight Sparkle and her friends had succeeded in restoring the Empire and dispersing the Shadow in the North, from her report, Sombra had come frightfully close to regaining his old estate. Ultimately the world had not only regained the Empire, but in time also gained a new Princess, so Luna could hardly complain, and yet... had they fallen but a trifling short that day!

Luna shook her head, bemused. Her sister had not been prone to such gambles in the previous era. What had happened?

Her right ear twitched as it caught a distant sound, and she cocked her head reflexively to catch it. Truth be told, it was no sound at all, that was simply how her mind interpreted the stimulus. Many ponies were surprised to learn that the Princess of Dreams never dreamed herself. Oh, she had, once, when she was a filly, and fillihood for her and her sister had lasted over six centuries, so slow were they to mature. Even then, she had always been a lucid dreamer—had been surprised to find that her sister, and most other ponies besides, could not control their dreams—but when she and her sister first attempted to move the Moon and Sun, when their Cutie Marks appeared and she was chosen by the Night, she unlocked a door in her dreams that she had never before known how to open, passed out of her own dreamscape into the wider dreamlands, and never fully returned. She no longer slept because a part of her mind was always dreaming, though it was the dreams of other ponies that she saw. She needed to rest her body at times, to recover from exertion, but it was not the same thing.

She liked to say that she had three hooves in one world and one in the other, and which world was which was a simple matter of shifting weight. At present, she shifted her weight away from the waking world and stood more firmly in the dreamlands. The room around her dimmed, its colours and sounds fading to a soft background awareness, while the world of dreams came into clear focus. Fittingly, the realms of dream looked much like a starry night: the personal dreamscape of every sleeping being spread before her, all around her, as a great ocean composed of discrete points of light. And like the stars, those distant lights sang. Again, that was only a metaphor; perhaps Luna’s mind interpreted it as such—or perhaps it was the closest language could come to expressing what she experienced. She had tried to explain it to her sister once, via dream-shaping, but it had only resulted in confusion on Celestia’s part, and frustration on her own.

And yet, stars or dreams, they sang. Each had its own voice, and those voices merged and flowed together into a susurrant harmony. Luna ever listened for those voices that stood out from the multitude, those strains that grew melodious and strong from bright, inspiring dreams, rising out of the swell… and those strains that fell into jumbled discord, tangled in nightmare. The strain her soul had just caught was but the first few disquieting notes of a nightmare taking shape, but they were of a cadence and timbre that she knew all too well, leaving no doubt as to their provenance.

Looking out over the dreamlands, there was one dreamscape that stood out starkly from the dreams of little ponies. Far off—and yet close by, as distance was fluid in the Dreamlands, Luna could see it clearly: whilst the dreams of lesser beings shimmered and twinkled like little stars drifting through the night, this mind shone like a blazing sun, casting its radiance far and wide, and the lesser dreamscapes that drifted into its orbit grew warm and bright from its influence.

Her sister, Celestia, the Princess of the Sun.

Even in her sleep, Celestia inspired all around her; she always had. Seeing her sister like this, Luna could understand how their subjects had preferred her sister over herself. Celestia had a bearing, and a presence, that illuminated every pony, dissipated their doubts and fears, made them unfurl and stretch themselves to their utmost, like flowers reaching for the Sun. Luna, on the other hoof, was the dark that swam between the stars, often hidden, moving out of sight; she was intimately familiar with the world's shadows, knew the secrets that ponies kept from others— Luna could see how she might have been... misunderstood. And most ponies were, in the end, creatures of the Day.

When she had been younger, the favouritism her sister enjoyed had upset her, and the resentment it engendered had festered and led her into evil, into pain and sorrow and that not merely for herself, but for—

She shook her head to clear her thoughts: the past should be a foundation, not a cage.

She had made her peace with it. She did not mind being the watchmare of the night, the eyes in the dark. Perhaps it was for the best that most ponies did not know how much she did for them. Let her somber wings be her subjects’ shelter, and keep the night soft, and its terrors at bay. It was satisfying work, even if few ponies saw it. Celestia, for her part, involved Luna in diurnal functions far more than she had in the previous era, which kept the Princess of the Night in the sight of all their little ponies. Besides, she had been shown that true friends were better than fawning admirers, and she was learning to make those, as well.

It was not one of their subjects who needed to be sheltered tonight, however: the dissonance she had caught resonated from Celestia’s own dreamscape. Still subtle and faint, these were but the first notes of disquiet, but the pattern was well-entrenched, and Luna knew how to recognise it. She gave a pitying shake of her head: her sister was going to have the dream again.

Shifting her awareness back into the waking world, she quickly evaluated her options. She had time enough: while other ponies’ dreams flitted by with mercurial quickness, Celestia’s unfolded at a glacial pace—Luna had long thought it a side-effect of her sister’s immortality, but as she herself no longer dreamed, and the newer Alicorns were not born Alicorns, and were yet unconfirmed in their longevity, it was little more than a supposition.

At any rate, she did not need to act immediately, and that was for the best: phasing into full dream-trance in the middle of the poetry recital could be seen as rude, even deliberately insulting. At the very least, it would be eerie, for her eyes glowed while dreamshaping, and would likely disrupt the proceedings. That said, she could not afford to tarry overlong, either, for the horizon of Celestia’s dreamscape was no gentle soap bubble that she might pass through on a whim. Following Luna's Banishment, her sister had, through stern discipline and carefully wrought enchantment, fortified her mind against unexpected intrusion; would-be dream invaders faced a brutal and daunting psychic gauntlet. Luna could run that gauntlet—she had both the dream-shaping skill and the intimate knowledge of her sister required to do so—but even she needed time and care to pass unscathed.

She could draw the curtain to obtain privacy, but that might provoke comment or speculation, for she had not come here to exorcise personal demons the way the Crystal Ponies had, and Luna loathed loose rumours. Besides, what was spoken of a Princess was ultimately spoken of her realm: appearances were of grave import to those who wore a crown.

The present poem had gone on for some time now; there could not be much left to recite. Luna resolved to wait until the poet took his bow before excusing herself, citing affairs of state. It would even be true: in many ways, her sister was the state.


A surprise awaited Luna just beyond the velvet-padded double doors of the recital hall, in the form of a small grey-and-yellow blur hurtling towards her. In the space of a wink, she instinctively teleported out of its path, materialising at the far end of the vestibule whilst simultaneously snatching up the darting shape with her levitation, arresting its motion and plucking it back before it could careen through the doors and disturb the ponies in the recital hall.

“Infamy! This is an outrage!” The maître d’hôtel, coat purpling with wrath, all but pounced on the trapped projectile, fuming and vociferating. “How dare you, Miss?! Have you no comprehension of the significance of—”

Luna teleported the projectile—or rather, the pony—to her side, interrupting him. “We doubt very much that she does. No harm has been done, and ignorance is not malice, so find it in yourself to forgive. We shall mind this pony.” She used the Royal We to emphasise her status: she had time, but not for this. Without awaiting a reply, the Princess of the Night willed the building’s front doors open and strode out into the street, towing the pony who had nearly barrelled into her in her wake.

“They wouldn’t let me in to see you,” drawled the little grey mare. She had an odd way of speaking, fairly slow. Her golden eyes were askew; Luna thought she was likely half-witted. That would explain her speech pattern, at least.

“No, they would not. A ceremony of sorts is taking place within that building, one of great importance to the Crystal Ponies. It would not do to disturb it.”

This was the second time tonight that this pony had encountered—and nearly collided with—Luna. She had spoken briefly with her on the previous instance; seeing her again triggered the memory association she had formed.

Her mind recalled the Palace of the Royal Sisters, in which she has lived so long and knew like the capsule of her own hoof, though it would be harder to pick her way through the tumbled-down ruins it had become: she remembered it in its prime.

First, the bridge over the ravine, something rising from the mist-filled depths—

Bubbles most tender
Gold orbs présage myopy
Mist-grey wings & hooves

Next, upon the path to the palace—

Many missives scattered
Hung upon a crystal tree
A well-worn satchel

Her name was Derpy Hooves—the first word of that name was unknown to Luna, which had forced her to sound it out—and she was a delivery mare based in Ponyville who was often entrusted with long-range deliveries. Luna would clearly remember her, and her appearance, a week, a month, or a thousand years hence. Some philosophers defined the span of a pony’s life as lasting as long as she was remembered; if they were correct, then to be known to the Princess of the Night was to live forever.

“You wished to see me, Derpy Hooves?”

“Yeah, I had a letter to deliver to Prince Shining Armour from his sister, Princess Twilight Sparkle. It took me awhile to find the palace—thanks for the directions, by the way—”

Princess Twilight was still newly come to her crown, and felt self-conscious about using the elite governmental courier service for personal correspondence, even to her brother, himself a prince and co-ruler of the Crystal Empire. It was endearing, in its own way. The poor filly was so proper about everything.

“—only when I got there, he’d gotten another letter, and he wanted to see you, so I said I knew where you were and I’d bring you right away. He sent some other ponies with me, ponies who knew what was going on, but I think they got lost along the way.” Derpy nodded sagely. “It happens.”

“Did you fly directly here to bring me this news?” Luna felt she could deduce precisely what had happened to Derpy’s escort.

“I sure did: Prince Shining said it was urgent! Only when I got here, I was all alone.” Derpy shrugged, puzzled.

“Crystal Ponies cannot fly over city blocks, Derpy Hooves.”

“Oh. Oops.”

“This is urgent, yes? And Prince Shining Armour was at the palace when you left? How long ago was this?”

Derpy’s brows furrowed in concentration as she laboured to keep the questions straight. “Yes, and yes, and a few minutes, I guess. I had to wait a while for you to come out.”

“Very well. I thank you for your service; I shall go there at once.” She hesitated a moment. “Derpy Hooves... have we met before today? Normally I can remember ponies unfailingly, but while I have no true recollection of you, there is something... distantly familiar about you.”

Derpy crinkled her muzzle oddly, and her gaze—insofar as Luna could read it—seemed to grow evasive. “...I was in Ponyville on Nightmare Night, when you visited,” she ventured at last. “Did you see me then?”

A face in the crowd? Her mis-aligned eyes might have registered on a subconscious level, and yet... this feels like something else, something more remote....

She shook her head. She certainly didn’t have time for this and besides, her recollection was nigh-infallible since she’d mastered the Art of Memory, a little after the founding of Equestria. She could clearly recall every pony she had met since then… she must have glimpsed her in the crowd, in Ponyville. There could be no other explanation. She made a mental note to walk through Derpy’s dreams when time allowed.

“Possibly,” she said, concluding her inquiry. “Farewell, Derpy Hooves. Give my regards to Princess Twilight Sparkle when next you see her.”

“Take care!” Derpy called after her, waving, as Luna swiftly gained altitude, climbing into the night sky. The moment she cleared the rooftops and the majestic spire of the imperial palace came into view, she teleported, and was lost to Derpy’s sight.

From a distant view in miniature, the palace leapt suddenly to full scale, looming far over Luna and eclipsing much of the spectacular aurora that coruscated across the breadth of the night sky. Luna threw back her head and gave a long, piercing cry, and yet none of the guards and functionaries moving about the palace started at it, or even noticed it passing through them, for it was pitched far too high for ponies to hear—excepting a select few.

In the sheltering shadows beneath a vaulting overhang high up on the tower, three forms, nearly invisible in the darkness, stirred in response to her summons. As one, they released their perch and dropped into the moonlight, unfurling membranous wings to catch the night winds and drift down towards their mistress in a loose circular formation.

Luna, from whose eyes the Night hid nothing, saw them clearly as they descended: coats in greys and blues, royal guard armour lacquered darkly and retooled to represent the Night Watch, great long tufted ears and amber eyes, pupils slit vertically like a cat’s. Bat ponies. Her ponies.

While the rest of ponykind forgot Princess Luna and Nightmare Moon over her thousand-year exile, the bat ponies had remembered. They had learned of her prophecised return as well, passing that prophecy down from parent to foal, generation after generation, for one long millennium, such that when the day of the thousandth Summer Sun Celebration failed to dawn, when the moon lost the shadow on its face, they had understood, and they had come. Young and old, from near and far, to Canterlot they had come, in a great pilgrimage. Their appearance—and perhaps, their ties to the Night—had kept most of them on the edges of settled territories, and it had taken them days to cross the distances separating them from the capital, but they had all embarked on the long flight, congregating into larger and larger flocks as they closed with their objective. They gathered in such numbers that their sudden appearance darkened the skies over Canterlot and caused widespread panic... but Luna had been moved to tears to find herself thus remembered.

They had not even known what they would find—princess, mad goddess, or simply a fresh grave—but they had come anyway, in honour of a bond placed on them by distant forebears... and in the hopes of seeing something of themselves at the seat of power in the land.

Alicorns were the ideal rulers of Equestria. This was not because of their greater magical potence nor even the long lives that Luna and her sister, at least, enjoyed; it was simply a matter of symbolism. Equestria was founded by the unison of the three major tribes of ponies: the Unicorns, the Pegasus Ponies, and the Earth Ponies. This founding happened once the three tribes learned that they could be far more together than they could ever be apart, and this harmony between ponies of all kinds was one of the nation’s highest ideals. Who better to lead them than ponies who embodied each of the three tribes in a single pony?

And yet... could the bat ponies see themselves in their leaders?

Luna had modified her own ear canals and nasal passageways, reshaping them to be able to hear and produce the ultrasonic registers of the bat ponies, but she had wanted to affect an external resemblance as well. She could not transmute her wings without renouncing her ties to the Pegasus tribe, but her eyes—that would have been ideal. Or at least her ears, if the slit-pupils proved too intimidating for diplomatic functions. Her sister, however, had advised against it.

“The memory of Nightmare Moon has recently been revived,” she had argued. “Such changes would only recall a figure of terror in the minds of our subjects, and make your re-integration more difficult. Wait a generation or two, sister. Wait until those who saw Nightmare Moon, who witnessed the vanishing of the Mare in the Moon, have all moved on, and then work what changes you will. Rather than associating one of their princesses with Nightmare Moon, our subjects will instead associate the bat ponies, whom many do fear unjustly, with a trusted and beloved princess. Have patience, and you will do your bat pony subjects the greater service, and the greater honour, in the long run.”

Celestia was a shrewd politician, and Luna could hear the wisdom in her words, but what of the bat ponies of this generation? The ones who had answered the ancient call of duty placed upon them? Were they not owed some thanks? And Luna had lost a thousand years already; she did not wish to be patient.

And so as a compromise, she had made herself able to join in the bat ponies’ high-pitched speech, and taught herself how to see with sound. She had also sought to involve herself more in the affairs of the ‘night tribe’ as her powers returned, taking over the Night Watch, the division of the Pony Protection Platoons composed entirely of bat ponies, which for a thousand years had nobly served Equestria from the shadows, ranging through the wild places in the dark of night, the time of monsters, to head off threats so that the innocent ponies of the daylight need never know what slunk and crept so close to their homes and families whilst they slept.

Luna’s honour guard tonight was composed of three of the Night Watch’s numbers: Twelfth Stroke and Nightfall, a pair of solidly built stallions from the Combat Corps, experienced in monster hunting; and a mare named Witching Hour, far lighter in build than her compatriots but more agile and alert—she was of particular value to the Night Watch’s Rangers by dint of her unique Special Talent: a sensitivity to magical auras and creatures, a style of second sight that extended even to her echolocation.

Luna chirped a quick command to follow and banked her flight to the lower observation balcony. Shining Armour would likely be awaiting her there; it was easy to reach from both within and without the place structure.

“Prince Shining Armour summons us,” she called to the guards positioned just inside the palace, who were starting forth even as she touched down, her honour guard perching on the balcony behind her. “Fetch him swiftly if he is not here!”

“I’m here, Princess,” Shining Armour’s familiar timbre answered from within the building. He quickly stepped out into the moonlight. “I’m glad that messenger mare got through to you: she lost the ponies I sent with her pretty quickly, and I wasn’t sure—”

“Forgive my brusqueness, Prince Shining Armour,” interrupted the Princess of the Night, “but we are both under some urgency, I feel. Why did you summon me?”

“We’ve had some alarming messages from a signalling tower on the very edge of the Empire’s North-Eastern border—”

The signalling towers were a most recent addition to the empire, instituted by the Prince and Princess on the Equestrian model: a network of tall watchtowers, each positioned within sight of at least one other, so that warnings of emergencies might quickly be sent from tower to tower, using spotlights by night or heliographs by day, beaming reports where they might do the most good. Luna and Celestia had devised the system together, long ago, and it had proven invaluable for the defense of the land, enabling the two sisters to mobilise in response to crises in mere minutes, even from great distances, and teleport over to deal with upheavals swiftly and decisively.

In many ways, the signalling network was even more important to the Pony Protection Platoons, as the Conveyers’ Cadre had never enjoyed great numbers: ‘winkers’, Unicorns whose Special Talent enabled them to cast teleportation spells, were rare, and thus mostly reserved for the rapid deployment of strike teams or the deep insertion of special forces units. The rest of the PPP divisions were constrained to cross the intervening space that stood between their barracks and their mission objectives—with portable signalling tools, they could query the towers and receive updates on the positions of other units to better co-ordinate their movements.

Celestia had even grander aspirations for the signalling network, expanding it to serve the general public by relaying civilian messages as well, but Luna feared the titanic increase in signal quantity would compromise the rapid response time the system had always enjoyed….

“—The tower had reported some higher than usual seismic activity earlier today, but given the volcanic activity beyond the Greenthaw Glacier, that wasn’t an uncommon report. Less than half an hour ago, however, they flashed amber, signalling a potential forest fire breaking out in the Winterward Woods, but even then, it wasn’t a concern—“

Not much of a concern, no. The Winterward Woods were wild, the way the Everfree Forest was; in there, the land lived by its own laws, and needed no pony’s care. In primeval times, a single such forest had stretched across much of the continent, but as ponies and other species had learned to tame the land, the wildwood had retreated, then broken up into separate enclaves, isolated from one another by stretches of settled territories. There were few wildwoods left in the present day.

The Winterward Woods were something of an enigma, however, as they grew within the warming aegis of the Crystal Heart: the Crystal Heart’s magic was born from the Crystal Ponies’ love, and so had nothing in common with the resident magic of the wildwood… how then had the Winterward Woods thrived North of the mountains, above the permafrost, before the Crystal Ponies had come to give it the warmth it needed to survive?

Nonetheless, the forest was fairly isolated from the rest of the Crystal Empire, its encroaching held back by a steep retaining ridge which kept the forest confined to a broad valley, hedged in on all other sides by the arctic cold.

A fire in the forest could never climb the cliffs, and the Heart’s Breath—the fluctuating air current produced by the Crystal Heart’s emanations, which regulated the Crystal Empire’s weather in the stead of Pegasus Ponies—always blew away from the Crystal Heart, so smoke would not be a problem, either. As for the Winterward Woods themselves, they had weathered countless fires over the millennia; without ponies to clear out accumulating dry brush, the cycle of fire and regrowth was inevitable.

“—They were simply keeping an eye out for future developments, when suddenly, they flashed crimson, signalling ‘monster’ and ‘extreme threat’, and... we’ve gotten nothing since.”

“The tower went dark?” asked Luna.

“The tower burst into flames,” answered Shining Armour, soberly.

“How long ago was this?”

Shining Armour glanced at a Crystal Pony who was standing a little ways back from him. The cyan mare’s eyes unfocused briefly and her lips twitched, as though subvocalising. In spite of the sudden serious turn in the conversation, nostalgia brought a faint smile to Luna’s own lips at the sight of her. Of course, she thought. The Crystal Empire would still have them.

She was a Cadence Keeper: a member of a venerable profession the origins of which reached back to long before the founding of Equestria.

Prior to Luna and Celestia's taking upon themselves the task of moving the Moon and Sun through the sky, it had been the duty of the Unicorn tribe to keep the ‘Heavenly Dancers’ moving. But that duty had been a weighty burden, for moving the Moon and Sun realigned the magic of Earth and Sky. To Alicorns like Luna and her sister, this was beneficial, as they existed at the fulcrum where those energies are balanced, and not only was the act of moving the Dancers made far easier, being at the centre of the resultant energetic flux actually strengthened their already considerable magical might. But to mere Unicorns... they were straining against the currents of the world, and had no way to recoup the dire expenditure of personal energy required.

As such, the Moon and Sun did not, in those times, glide gracefully across the sky, but rather were lurched a span of forty-five degrees along the arc of their trajectory at each of the eight Celestial Offices maintained by the Unicorns, who were unable to continuously impart motion to them. Most ponies based their reckoning of time on the Offices, such that friends might schedule to assemble ‘from None’ or ‘before Vespers’, but some needed a more precise understanding, chief amongst them being the Unicorns tasked with keeping the Moon and Sun moving at the correct times to allow the others to have any sense of time at all.

Thus were the Cadence Keepers born. Typically drawn from the pool of ponies with a musical Talent, they trained hard to develop an ironclad sense of rhythm—cadence—which allowed them to recite songs and sagas at a pace so precise that they could accurately measure the passage of time with the stanzas. The Celestial Offices of old had been kept regular by Cadence Keepers intoning hymns selected such that their combined length matched the desired interval between the movements of the Moon and Sun—each day of the year requiring a different combination of hymns, to match the ordering of the seasons. Beyond their necessity to the Unicorns’ duty, Cadence Keepers had been invaluable for their ability to keep accurate time from any given starting point. Luna closely observed the base of the pony’s tail—sure enough, the slight, yet precisely regular back-and-forth twitch that betrayed the Cadence Keeper was plain to see.

“Seven minutes, forty-two seconds,” declared the Crystal Pony, sharply tapping the ground with a forehoof, once, to mark the exact time.

Less than a heartbeat to calculate, thought Luna. She’s skilled, even among Cadence Keepers. The Princess of the Night felt a soft pang as she realised that this pony likely represented the Crystal Empire’s last generation of her profession. More accurate, flexible and precise than any hourglass or water clock, her kind had been indispensable in the days before Luna’s Banishment, but since then mechanical timepieces had been invented and perfected, and a proud, ancient tradition requiring great focus and dedication—indeed, a lifelong commitment on the part of the pony who entered it—had been made obsolete by a hoof-full of small metal gears and a wound spring.

The world must evolve; all things grow stagnant without change. This had never troubled Luna previously, but having been absent for so long... so many of the things which had seemed essential to her world had been lost in the interim. And tonight, she did not even have the time to mourn them.

“We clearly have a rapidly evolving situation here,” rejoined Prince Shining Armour. “Runners have been dispatched from the nearest tower, and every lookout in range is pointing a spyglass at the ridge, but we’ve had no word back yet, and since Princess Cadance is away on diplomatic negotiations, you and your escort are probably the only ponies in the empire right now combining emergency-response training, wings, and teleportation, so….”

Luna’s lips pulled into a taut, thin line. He was right, of course. There was a clear and present threat, and the signallers in the stricken tower, if they yet lived, might be in grave danger, and this from an unknown source—a large dragon could immolate a tower with a single breath, but most monstrous creatures had their own, specific signalling codes. That the tower signalled only ‘monster’ meant they had met with something they had not even known how to name. How could they or any relief forces deal with it adequately? And this was the Night Watch’s function.


Her sister was having the dream again.

“We shall investigate forthwith,” replied Luna, after only a moment’s hesitation.

2 — Shadow & Flame

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There are many powers in this world, for good and evil. Some are greater than I. Against some I have not yet been measured. But my time is coming.

- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

“Ascension!” cried Luna to her honour guard as she lanced heavenwards without warning. Shining Armour and the other ponies on the balcony staggered back, buffeted by the blast of wind powering her takeoff.

Alicorns were not constrained to flapping their wings to fly: they wielded the mingled magic of Unicorns, Earth Ponies, and Pegasus Ponies, and this allowed for some impressive feats impossible to a member of any of the three tribes. Their Pegasus sense of air currents could guide their Unicorn magic, allowing them to Levitate the air around them and blow it across their wings. This Levitation-born wind-stream was not powerful in itself, but by shaping it with their wing surfaces and drawing on their Pegasus Weather-Working magic, they could magnify its speed and produce staggering lifting force.

‘Magico-Aero-Dynamic Flight’, Starswirl the Bearded had named it, long ago when Luna and Celestia had discovered this technique. Luna had taken an immediate dislike of the term for two reasons each, she felt, sufficient on its own: it combined root-words from two different languages, and abbreviated to ‘M.A.D. Flight’, which was a ridiculous appellation. Celestia had defended the name, however, arguing that it certainly did grant them ‘M.A.D. Speed’; Luna had angrily pointed out that her sister’s claim was founded on circular logic.

It was only now, as the scene resurged unbidden in her mind, that Luna realised her sister had likely only meant it as a pun, intended to lighten her mood. Humour was still a new concept to her, but it was dawning on her that her sister had often spoken in jest when Luna had thought her serious.

“Princess!” Shining Armour was calling to her over the rushing wind. “Troops are mustering at the—”

Luna snapped her wings down hard, breaking her upward momentum and blowing the rest of the sentence away from her ears, which would allow her to claim not-entirely-dishonestly that she had not heard him. She was not about to blindly lead loyal servants of the Empire into unknown danger.

She hung in the air a moment before banking right under gravity’s pull and streaking off again. Behind her, her honour guard had lifted off and was flying hard after her. Once she was a sufficient distance from the tower, she switched to an unpowered glide, allowing the Bat Ponies to catch up.

“Wake-ride on Her Highness!” called Witching Hour as Luna’s escort closed in. “Bent diamond—take flanks! Imminent teleport!” The stallions had not served directly under their Princess before, but the little mare had flown with her a number of times now: Luna found it useful to have a sensitive with her, as it saved her having to rely on sustained scrying spells. Witching Hour was a quick study, and had proven adept at translating the Princess’ intent into modern battle-language.

How complex military organisation had become! Equestria had been mostly defended by citizen militia before the Banishing, acting in support of the mighty warrior-princesses, who teleported in to smite any beings foolish enough to imagine their little ponies might be preyed upon with impunity. But now... the Earth-Unicorn-Pegasus Guard was trained to solve problems on its own, without Alicorn intervention, and as such relied on sophisticated co-ordination between its members. The need to rapidly convey orders and information had birthed a specialised language—something termed a ‘jargon’; itself one of the many new words that had been added the Equestrian lexicon during Luna’s lengthy absence.

The three Bat Ponies slid into formation behind Luna, Twelfth Stroke and Nightfall off to either side, level with her in altitude, with Witching Hour further back and directly behind her, but slightly higher than them, to minimise the obscurement of her forward field of vision. Luna bent the air from her slipstream up under their wings, wrenching gasps of surprise from the two stallions as she reverted to magically powered flight, tilting her trajectory upwards and drawing her escort along as she soared high above the imperial capital.

“What’s your teleport experience?” Witching Hour called to the stallions over the rushing wind. Luna and her escort had arrived at the imperial capital via train this morning; they had not teleported with her yet.

“Over two dozen combat insertions,” answered Twelfth Stroke promptly. After a moment’s thought, he added, “Only ever did the one while in flight, though. Things went south and we hadda evac.” That last sentence had little meaning for Luna, but Witching Hour accepted it.

“I’ve, ah, done the training course,” said Nightfall rather less promptly. “I haven’t had a live jump yet.” He was the youngest of the three, newly graduated from the training programme. The Princess did not rotate the ponies of her honour guard on the basis of skill or experience, but randomly: she wished to become better acquainted with the Night Watch and its ponies; their service record was irrelevant to her. Luna guessed from his tone that he might be feeling overwhelmed. She would have to keep his inexperience in mind during this sally.

“Her Highness’ wake’ll keep you as steady as if you were on solid ground; just stay level with her and you’ll be fine,” Witching Hour reassured the younger stallion as Luna reached what she estimated to be a sufficient height.

Flattening out, Luna maintained her speed, still on a North-Eastern bearing, while she drew moisture from the air and shaped it into a series of lenses formed of perfectly clear ice. She lined up these lenses with her Levitation, pointing them towards her objective.

By morphing the ice layers and varying the distance between them, she bent the visual species—ah, not quite: that paradigm had been proven false in her absence—she bent the sight lines, whatever the current theory as to their composition might be, allowing her to see distant places as though nearby; a physical alternative to scrying which had the advantage of being unaffected by warding spells.

Luna and her sister—more her sister than herself, in truth, as Celestia had always possessed the more scientific mindset—had developed the process in ages past. Celestia had eventually guided artificers to replicate it with ground crystal lenses, leading to the invention of the telescope, but Luna enjoyed dynamically conjuring her own lenses.

Even then, in Equestria ponies no longer needed such a device to teleport to unknown locales. During Luna’s long absence, Celestia and the scholars of the School for Gifted Unicorns she founded had devised a revolutionary technique for long-range teleportation based on mystic geometry: rather than winking between visible locales, the teleporter envisaged an imaginary line drawn though three-dimensional space and shunted herself from one end of that line to the other. This allowed Unicorns to teleport to the far side of a mountain range without being able to see what lay beyond the peaks.

This method was, however, dependent on exacting contour survey maps, so the caster could determine the precise elevation at which to reappear, avoiding both merging with the ground or falling out of the sky. Therefore, the technique was not yet useable in the Crystal Empire, as no maps surveyed to the requisite level of detail existed: the technique had been developed during the Empire’s absence from the world. At any rate, Luna preferred using telescopic high-altitude line-of-sight teleportation; careful calculation had ever been her sister’s forte, not hers.

Luna adjusted the ice lenses to sweep the horizon; it did not take long to find what she sought, as there were no mountains between her and the ridge, and the plume of smoke from the burning tower was clearly outlined against the aurora that danced across the Northern sky. The base of the column of black smoke writhed with red—the tower was a pyre. She winced at the sight, and hoped the tower’s garrison had managed to escape the building in time.

“The tower is sore stricken,” Luna informed her guards. “If there is to be any hope of finding survivors, we must wink at once. I see no obvious threat, but be alert as you search the area.”

“Blind jump!” barked Witching Hour. “Scattershot deploy; chirp-range sweep with high chatter—let’s find some breathers!

“On your mark, Princess,” she directed at Luna in a deferential tone, as the two stallions trimmed their wingspan in preparation for the insertion manoeuvre.

“Mark,” Luna intoned, as her horn flared with new magic. There was a flash of light and they were gone, leaving only the miniature thunderclap of inrushing air and the tinkling of splintering planes of ice.

A mirrored flash and thunderclap leagues away heralded their arrival. Luna placed their rematerialisation point a hundred body lengths inland from the edge of the cliff face on which the tower had been perched. The Bat Ponies immediately split off from the formation, the stallions banking steeply off to the left and right while Witching Hour soared upward for a wider view. They lost speed as soon as they left Luna’s energized slipstream, falling behind her as she streaked straight on to the tower.

Her eyes could see through the Night, but the fire’s light was an alien intrusion into her domain, and its shadows were impenetrable to her. Yet it was not the fire’s shadows that she thought to probe… she was seeking other shadows. The Night had additional associations, which were not often brought up among the general populace, but which Luna now drew upon. Otherworldly light shone through her eyes as she focused on the rapidly approaching tower. In her transformed sight, the raging flames were dim, flickering ghosts, and the tower was but a bluish outline, a rough sketch. She could peer clean through its walls, seeking the one thing that stood out… there. Writhing among the twisted beams was a somber equine shape, diaphanous, little more than a faint shadow cast against the background: a pony-shaped hole. Her sister could glimpse the light within each pony, but Luna could see the emptiness they left behind.

There, another. And another. Luna winced; three so far. She gained altitude just before she passed the flaming ruin, allowing her to gaze down through ghost of the superstructure into the foundation… no, there was nothing there.

She shut her eyes as she shot by the tower and let the magic flow out of them like starry tears, using the radiant heat of the blazing tower as a reference point to guide her as she swept into a gliding turn, winging over the precipitous drop from the cliff face to the valley below as she came about. The magic flux flowed over her face, streaking back under the wind of her flight before melting away into her ethereal mane.

She could hear the ultrasonic calls of her escort as she wheeled around to fly back towards them.

“Sky’s clear; no hostiles, no hazard,” chirped one voice—Witching Hour’s; her voice had a higher pitch, even in the ultrasonic range. “No contacts groundside; proceeding to tower.”

“Left clear so far; there’s a grassfire spreading from the tower on my side, though it doesn’t look like trouble—the wind is pushing it back towards the cliff. I’ll check the edge of the flames.” That was Nightfall: he had banked left.

“Keep your ears open,” Witching Hour cautioned; “the flames will wreck your night-sight!”

“Right field negative; shrubs grasses leading to a ridge of hills,” called Twelfth Stroke. “I’m going to have a look over the ridge, see if there’s anything.”

“Stay aloft,” ordered Witching Hour. “I don’t want anypony dropping off the soundscape.”

“There are three shades in the tower,” Luna called across the field.

“Uh, no copy, Highness.”

“Please repeat, Princess?”

“Triple KIA,” Witching Hour translated, with an edge to her voice. She knew all too well what Luna meant: she could see the shades as well, but unlike Luna, she could not dispel the effect. The Princess had rushed ahead to the tower in part to save her the necessity of scanning it herself.

“Signalling towers have a five-pony complement, so we’ve got two hopefuls yet,” the Bat Pony mare added. “If your sweeps come clean, search for trails and blazes!”

“Contact!” Nightfall chittered excitedly. “Two ponies falling back in front of the grassfire! One’s dragging wounded—moving to assist!”

Neigh, climb!” countermanded Luna immediately, following her order with a sudden burst of speed to clear the grassfire herself, so that the heat distortion caused by the flames would not foul her echolocation. She chirped out a powerful echolocation pulse, aiming in the direction of Nightfall’s voice, and shortly picked out a flyer rising up from the field—there he was.

She teleported, aiming her jump right at him, knowing the distance between them meant that his true position was a little ahead of his image in her soundscape, as he had moved on while the echo of the call made its way back across the field to her. She nonetheless startled him as she materialised a single one of his body lengths behind him.

“Where?” she demanded, but she had spotted the survivors before the word reached his ears. She had come in low, which allowed her to gaze flat across the grasses, and from that angle she easily found her object, lit brightly by the blaze—the survivors. One pony was indeed dragging another with some difficulty. It was a mare, dragging a larger stallion, but the Crystal Ponies were Earth Ponies underneath the shimmering coats, and the strength of the broad Earth was theirs to draw upon whenever they stood on it. If she was having difficulty, then she was either exhausted, or injured herself, if not both.

Luna had marked the shape of the grassfire as she had flown back past the tower. Whatever fearsome blast had engulfed the tower had been just that: a spray of some kind which had not struck with complete precision; part of the stream had arced past the tower on its Western side, igniting the grass in a curving, West-reaching swathe. This had left a stretch of intact grass leading to the tower along the West side of the ridge, but the Heart’s Breath blew in the right direction to drive the flames back into that greenway and incinerate it. Unless she missed her guess, the survivors were struggling to avoid getting caught in the closing net. She needed to quell the flames, and swiftly.

“I shall send you ahead,” she told Nightfall. “Drop before those ponies and shelter them with your wings.”

“ ‘Shelter?’ From what, Highness?”

“From the wind,” Luna replied as she bent space around him. With another pop of inrushing air, the Bat Pony was translated across the field. Luna saw his figure, his dark fur and armour but little brightened by even these flames, drop down to cover the survivors.

Immediately, she streaked forwards, gathering a vortex of turbulence behind her, to land hard right at the edge of the flames. Her wings slashed ahead into the blaze, and the air gathered behind her was thrown before her, focused into two narrow, horizontal waves which scythed across the field, tearing flames and embers loose and casting them over the cliff’s edge beyond. The Princess of the Night folded her wings back against her flanks; of the grassfire nothing was left but smoking, blacked stubble.

“What are your injuries?” demanded Luna one wink later, as she rematerialized over Nightfall and the survivors. Both the Bat Pony and the Crystal mare seemed dazed by her quelling of the flames, but they recovered swiftly. Luna was more concerned for the Crystal stallion, who was clearly unresponsive… and badly burned.

“P-princess!” gasped the Crystal Pony mare. She turned immediately to her fallen compatriot, cradling his head with her fore hooves, and leaning an ear over his mouth. “He’s still breathing! Thank goodness he’s still breathing! I pulled him from the tower—I was out for a walk when the whole thing went up! He was the only one I could get to! I haven’t even had time to look him over, I had to get him out, the fires kept closing in on us, I had to drag him, and he wouldn’t, and he wouldn’t—”

Luna gently yet firmly folded her wing over the unravelling pony and slid her over to Nightfall. “You’ve done all you can do for him; now let me do all I can. This is Nightfall, and he will tend your own injuries.”

And do not allow her turn her gaze back at the tower or her comrade,” she directed over the mare’s head to Nightfall, in the Bat Ponies’ ultrasonic speech. Nightfall gave a quick, short nod of understanding. The Crystal Pony was showing the early stages of shock; he needed to focus her attention elsewhere to allow her to recover.

Luna turned her full attention to the stallion. He was a grim sight. It had been long indeed since she has smelled scorched hair and burnt flesh, but those scents, once known, could never be forgotten. She felt ill. He must have been trapped within the building, near enough to the door for the mare to reach him, but certainly not in the doorframe: the mare who extracted him was herself badly scorched. How long had he been in that blaze?

Would that Derpy Whooves had been able to reach me sooner!

The stallion’s breathing was laboured and wheezing—likely from smoke inhalation—and his heartbeat was bounding and erratic; he was in shock himself. His limbs and the muscles along his barrel spasmed without rhythm, and though his half-lidded eyes showed much white, he was clearly delirious, lacking even the mercy of unconsciousness.

Luna touched the tip of her horn to his forehead and strands of magical flux flowed out of it to gently slither into and around the Crystal Pony’s tortured body and mind. Gradually, he ceased his twitching and grew still, his breathing and heartbeat drawing out and slowing to a healthy pace as he drifted into a dreamless sleep beyond the reach of pain.

“That’s nasty,” hissed a voice at her wing, in an ultrasonic register. Luna looked back in surprise at Witching Hour; so complete had been her focus that she had not heard her land. “Will he live, Highness?”

There was little moisture left around them, but the Heart’s Breath brought fresh night air to them, and from this she condensed a fine coating of dew over the stallion’s burns, to help provide some gentle cooling, before drawing the tent sheeting out of Witching Hour’s pack with her Levitation and, Levitating the stallion in turn, winding the improvised wrapping around his wounds. It was all she had time to do for him at this point. She saw Twelfth Stroke closing in, and gestured for him to watch over the sleeping pony.

Luna turned about to face the mare, whom Nightfall had led back a few paces. “What is your name?” she asked her.

“Jade Lustre, Your Highness.”

“And your fellow signaller?” Luna asked, indicating the sleeping pony behind herself.

“Garnet Gleam—is he…?”

“He will live; I have placed him in a trance, which will allow his body to bend all of its strength to mending his injuries. He will need extensive hospitalisation, but he will live, so put your fears aside and help us understand what has happened here.”

“I don’t really know anything, though! I was on my off-duty shift, and I like to get out of the tower and take a long hike around the perimeter, and I was over a mile out when I heard this horrible, impossible grinding sound, like rocks breaking up or sliding past each other, only it sounded alive, like a roar, and there was a flash through the trees, and a different roar, the roar of flames—I ran as fast as I could, but it took me awhile to even find a way to the tower; there was fire everywhere… I couldn’t get through to them!”

Luna put a hoof on your shoulder to steady her. “But you did get through, and Garnet Gleam will live, thanks to your efforts. You did well, Jade Lustre.” The Crystal Pony nodded once, her dishevelled green locks bouncing. She looked drained, but Luna judged this mare had some strength left in her yet.

She turned to address the ponies under her command.

“Nightfall, do you have a travois in your pack? Assemble it the moment you’ve treated Jade Lustre’s injuries; I wish to move the injured past that ridge of hills on the far side of the field as soon as possible.

“Twelfth Stroke, unpack our signalling kit, fly up and send a report to the signalling network—hopefully the relief runners on their way will see the signal as well. They should be arriving within minutes, at the most.

“Witching Hour, walk with me. I wish to ascertain what truly happened here before we fall back.”

Luna and the Bat Pony scout walked over the scorched, smoking stubble towards the tower while the stallions busied themselves with their gear—the Night Watch always travelled with their full scouting kit, even when acting as an honour guard, and this night had proven them wise for doing this.

“I can’t see much in the way of residual magical traces here, Highness,” admitted Witching Hour, “not even with sound-sight. I’d say this wasn’t the work of a spell. Some magical creature perhaps, like a dragon?”

“Not a dragon,” Luna reminded her. “The signallers had time to send one code, and they did not name their aggressor such. Also, this blast was not made of flame: viewed from on high, it seemed to have come from beneath, struck the tower, and then fallen down onto the grasses beyond, whereas the density of flame inclines it to rise above air, not fall below.”

Witching Hour gave her princess a puzzled look. “Fire has density?”

Luna hesitated. What did they teach in schools nowadays? She desperately needed to catch up with certain fields. “Whatever the cause, flame does rise,” she concluded, “and whatever burned this tower fell. We must ascertain what—”

She halted as her leading hoof came down on pebbly material. Witching Hour pulled up short and prodded at it. There were loose, jagged, pockmarked black pebbles throughout the ruined grass ahead of them, all of them still quite hot to the touch. They made a light, crunching sound as the Bat Pony stirred them up.

“These rocks are on top of the grasses,” Witching Hour observed, with suspicion.

“Unusual seismic activity,” Shining Armour had said, followed by “forest fire.” And now—

“Pumice,” Luna breathed, as a horrible idea rose up in her mind like a serpent poised to strike. Her adjutant did not make the association, but Luna’s tone of voice spoke volumes.

“Twelfth Stroke! Eyes over the edge, now! Stay clear of the wounded!” Witching Hour followed Luna as the Princess of the Night herself took flight, sweeping up and over the edge of the precipice, to view the ravine beyond.

“Contact,” gasped Twelfth Stroke, voice strangled with awe, as he looked Westward along the precipice towards the Greenthaw Glacier and beheld the massive thing lumbering back down the gorge towards their position.

“What—what in Equestria is that?!” exclaimed Witching Hour, pulling up hard as her eyes followed his gaze. What her witch-sight saw as she looked on such a being, even Luna could not guess.

“Heart-of-the-Mountain,” the Princess intoned, her voice flat. “In all my years I have never encountered one, but legend claims that entwined amongst the roots of every mountain an elemental creature of fire sleeps, its heat the mountain’s living heart. When one stirs in its slumber, the earth shakes, and when one fully wakes, and claws its way out from its stony womb, the mountain bursts asunder and the molten rock of the creature’s afterbirth sets the surrounding lands aflame.”

From another world entire seemed the uncanny creature making its way back towards them along the gorge leading away Westwards from where the incinerated tower had perched. The thing was crusted in hissing, popping, cooling rock, in shape mostly serpentine, and the jagged cracks and breaches that continuously opened in its crust to reveal the true Mountain’s Heart, the blazing magma within, gave it the illusion of being covered in shifting scales.

But towards the front, the serpent gave way to the centipede, or something more alien still, for exposed rock beneath the foremost, uplifted part of its neck churned and tore constantly as ever-new tendrils of magma burst forth, limb-like, to support its raised, bloated head above the ground. These improvised appendages were quick to cool and snap beneath the creature’s titanic weight, however, shattering and being swept over, crushed, and reabsorbed by the ponderous body as it slithered on. And the size of it! It did justice to its name.

As the ponies watched, the monster slowed, raising its head yet higher as its writhing, ever-renewing pseudo-limbs grasped at the face of the crag. Ponderously it rose up, scorching the rock clean of moss and lichen as it reached for the top of the cliff face, but the angry sounds of cracking, spitting rock intensified and the rearmost third of its body, near the base of the cliff, broke off from the main, collapsing onto the floor of the ravine, exposing flowing rock that glowed a bright and vicious red. The creature gave a monstrous roar—a sound just as Jade Lustre had described, that of heavy, jagged boulders grinding together—and slid back down the cliff, crashing down into its severed hind section. The rock crust burst asunder, the magma streams merged and flowed together, and the severed pieces of the creature reformed into one body. Laboriously did the beast resume its progress towards them.

“It’s like… like its body is constantly breaking apart,” whispered Witching Hour. Pity, horror, and stark naked awe struggled for dominance in her voice.

“The rock of its body remembers solidity, but the furnace-heat within, as all heat, cannot stand still,” Luna conjectured. “And yet it cannot flow freely, for the more of its inner self it exposes, the more swiftly it will lose that heat which is its life. The beast is outside its world, and here its nature wars with itself!”

“Does that mean it’s in constant pain?” asked Twelfth Stroke. “Because that’s going to put it in one heck of a bad mood….”

Luna pointed a forehoof out across the ravine. Beyond opened the great, wide valley that held the Winterward Wood, hemmed in by the ice-shrouded peaks which stood outside the warming radiance of the Crystal Heart. Not too far off, some of those peaks were obscured by mist.

“That is not mist, but steam,” Luna observed. “The creature must have burst forth there, into the Arctic ice and snow, and slithered between two peaks and down into the valley, there,” she pointed at the edge of the Wood, which was thick with smoke—the forest fire the tower had reported. “The trees would have kindled at its touch, and the smoke raised must have allowed the monster to approach the tower unseen.” The ponies, as one, looked to the rock face beneath the tower and found a vast black scorch mark, identical to the one the beast had left further down the ravine a moment ago.

“It is fleeing the cold,” she concluded, “striving to reach deeper inland!”

“That’ll lead it straight into the Crystal Empire,” gasped Witching Hour. “I’ve seen maps—it’ll set half the Northern farmlands ablaze!

“But it can’t get over the cliff,” countered Twelfth Stroke. “Its body’s not solid enough to reach: we saw it ourselves!”

“Not here, no,” Luna agreed, “and we were fortunate that it chose to explore Westwards first, as that way leads directly into the Greenthaw Glacier. It could never survive a crawl over that! But Eastwards….

HO, JADE LUSTRE,” she called in a booming voice to the ponies they had left on the ground. “Does this cliff maintain a uniform height along its entire length?”

Jade Lustre’s answer came more faintly, but borne by the Heart’s Breath her words reached them: “The height never changes, Princess! However, it gets a lot less steep as you go East. It’s gradual, but after a few miles…”

“Highness, the only maps we have of this part of the Empire are charts surveyed a thousand years ago,” Witching Hour warned. “They’re grossly inaccurate, and there’s no contour information; nor do we know how shallow a slope that thing needs to crawl over the top. But if we assume the worst—”

“We must assume the beast can scale the Eastward slopes and find its way into the Empire’s heartland,” Luna finished for her.

“Is there some way to head it off?” Twelfth Stroke asked quickly. “I know there’s not much we can do, Princess, but you’re an Alicorn. Can you carve a trench, or raise a wall from the rock, or something?”

“Ice might work,” suggested Witching Hour. “If it hates cold, dropping a lot of ice and snow in its path might discourage it, make it turn aside.”

“Those are all excellent suggestions,” Luna judged, “but you are overlooking one crucial detail: if we corral the Mountain’s Heart in this valley, the Winterward Wood will burn entire as it feels around for another means of egress. That forest supplies the Crystal Empire with most of its medicines, many of which are unique to this forest—wildwoods each have their own magic, and cultivating their plants outside their confines is arduous at best.

“The Wood has weathered many a simple forest fire, but that thing will burn every last plant to ash, in an attempt to stay warm. This cannot be allowed to happen.”

Luna took a deep breath; it braced her not at all. “I must hold the living volcano here,” she determined.

3 — The Great Dangers Lie Within Ourselves

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“If one desires to be happy, sir, one must never understand duty; for, as soon as one has comprehended it, it is implacable. One would say that it punished you for comprehending it; but no, it rewards you; for it places you in a hell, where you feel God beside you.”

- Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

“Witching Hour, Twelfth Stroke,” said Luna, “you are to assist Nightfall in evacuating the wounded Crystal Ponies. This creature is not swift, but it can spew magma, and we do not know its effective striking distance. Get past that hilly ridge at the least, then relay all you know to the next signalling tower, and intercept the Crystal Empire’s runners, who should be drawing near by now…”

“With respect, Your Highness,” interrupted Witching Hour, even as she directed Twelfth Stroke to fly down to Nightfall’s position, “we may be able to run some interference if you need a distraction.”

“This foe is beyond you.”

“Everything’s got a weakness, Princess. We Know,” she added, quoting the Night Watch’s enigmatic motto.

“No,” said Luna firmly. “Fall back, consolidate, and stay well clear of this. Those are your orders.” With that, she turned about to face her foe.

Luna considered the situation. She had the clear advantage in mobility, but she had to halt a mountain: it was not her mobility that was of concern. She could likely stay out of the creature’s reach, but its seeming ability to spew magma worried her. Avoiding the spray should be possible, given her ability to teleport, but she was worried about the forest she meant to protect. Simply dodging the projectile would let it fall upon whatever lay behind her.

A ward, perhaps, she thought. A field of force to arrest the magma’s motion, let it slide to the ground. She did not think she could hold back the Mountain’s Heart with a ward—the creature was simply too massive—but as long as she prevented it from blundering into the Winterward Wood directly, she should be able to keep the forest mostly intact.

As for how to keep the creature confined… she would need to come up with something.

She glided on the Heart’s Breath, drifting towards the Mountain’s Heart. A beam shot out of her horn and touched the rocky ground a little in advance of the creature. She dragged the beam over the land, leaving a glowing blue line cutting perpendicularly across the creature’s path. She waited until the creature’s head and erupting pseudopods had passed over it before wrenching the line asunder with a grunt of effort.

The line broadened abruptly, opening like a great eye to reveal a yawning chasm directly beneath what passed for the creature’s head. There was a short growl of surprise—rocks snapping under strain—and the massive head dropped into the newly formed fissure, brittle forelimbs snapping off and shattering as it fell. The forefront of the creature’s body smashed into the bottom of the ravine, breaking open like a pumpkin, with a sound of bursting rock. Bright magma flared in the depths. For a moment, all was still.

Then, with a crackling of cooling stone, the serpentine form reversed, dragging its bulk back out of the chasm. At the bottom, the oozing magma drew back into the shattered ‘face’ of the creature, leaving little detritus behind it as it rose back out of Luna’s pit.

Luna stooped to the ground, landing on all four hooves on the far side of the newly crafted hole, upon a patch of avens. Another beam surged from her horn, but this time it drove into the rock directly in front of her, reaching deep into the ground. She ducked her head, drawing a glowing line between her legs, directly underneath her, before raising it again, the beam sweeping ahead, across and through the gap before her, and deep through the rock underneath the Mountain’s Heart.

The massive creature raised its ponderous ‘head’, in a grinding and cracking of stone. The head rose high, high as a castle wall, before holding still. For a moment, it seemed as though it might be listening, when with a sudden pop, six vents burst open in the front facing, in a V-shaped wedge reminiscent of a flight of migrating birds. Steam and less wholesome fumes billowed from these new orifices, and through the vapours shone the angry red of molten rock, distorted by superheated air. Something else shone through as well, something Luna could not mistake: awareness.

‘Windows to the soul’, indeed.

“So you can see, after a fashion,” she called out aloud. She thought of booming her voice, making it thunder and echo down the length of the ravine, but to what end? To make herself feel less small before this colossus? Could thunder move a mountain?

More cracking and popping sounded from the Mountain’s Heart, and its head suddenly dipped. Tendrils of magma vomited forth from beneath the drooping extension, turning to pillars of basalt, arresting the creature’s fall. The eyelike vents did not change shape, betrayed no expression, but magma now oozed out of the slits and ran in rivulets down the Mountain’s face. Tears for the titan, though whether indicative of some inner turmoil or simply a result of their head’s sudden, jarring drop, Luna could not tell.

“You’ll not move me with tears, Creature,” Luna cried. “We are the Fulcrum; the World moves around Us!” With a grunt, she pushed her hooves apart.

And how they parted! They did not scrape across the wind-carved stone of the valley floor, nor tear the hardy growth upon it. They parted, and the rock parted to keep even with them. Luna’s line of gloaming split asunder, a fissure opening beneath her, and reaching forward, reaching far, and widening as it reached, as ripples do when they stretch out over broad waters. Beneath the beast, along its long length, the fissure yawned wide, a maw of the Earth’s, broad enough to swallow a mountain—or its Heart.

With cracking and tearing and a mighty roar, head uplifted and spewing streamers raw and red, the colossal form fell into the abyss. It would not be enough; Luna could not reach as deep as the steep-sided ravine was tall, and so trap the creature in a trough. Rather, she watched the fiend’s form burst upon the rocks and then, splay-limbed, she reached once more deep within the Earth, and drawing in a deep breath of the cool night air, drew her hooves back underneath her body, and the Earth followed suit, the rift sealing beneath her.

Beneath Luna’s hooves, the avens burst into fragrant flowers, white as her Moon.

Further out, the ground was more stubborn, forced as it was to crush a great deal of molten rock within the sealing chasm. Pushed by pressure, the magma burst forth into the eye socket she had first opened in the rock, pooling and collecting in the empty orbit in a way that was nothing natural.

“No,” spoke Luna. A carving beam of moonlight from her horn sheared through the rock face rising before her, parting it as a pony might cut a pie. A large slice of rock slid clear, Luna slashing it thrice more as it tipped down towards her, adjusting its fall until the carved cliff careened into the open space and onto the reforming Mountain’s Heart, burying it deep.

The rumble of rubble gradually subsided as Luna stood watch over the pile of broken boulders and tumbled scree. After a time, the usual noises of the night began to reassert themselves.

Luna turned her tail to the scene, but as she was yet unsure of victory, did not fly away. Rather, she kept the tumble of boulders in her peripheral vision as she stepped away, and most importantly, she walked. It was the walking that brought warning: before her ears, before her eyes, her hooves felt the sudden, terrible surge of pressure, the too-fast bloom of primal magic within the rock.

Will-wound wind streamed beneath silent wings and she soared off as behind her the Mountain’s Heart erupted from the stony soil a second time in a single night, bursting boulders and flinging them forth and far—and directly in Luna’s path. Luna ably avoided the smaller debris, bisecting with witch-fire missiles too large to evade. As the airborne avalanche thinned, she dared a backwards glance.

Roiling with what might have been rage, the molten monster streamed forth from the rock, like a geyser with direction—and dire intent. Its forward part churned as more of its spindly pseudo limbs shot out frenziedly, tumbling over themselves in a scrabbling attempt to keep the front of the wave aloft, the rest of the cooling mass flowing behind it at a more sluggish pace. The effect might have been comical in a less fearsome creature. Here it was horrific.

At the front of the beast was a rough face of scaly, congealing plates floating over runny rock, and out of it shone the six vents of its eyes, as it flowed after Luna. Belatedly, she realized that she was headed towards the widening of the ravine, where it opened onto the vast valley that held the Winterward Wood. She could not let the creature in there. She pulled up hard and to the right, wrapping around and doubling swiftly back over the beast, skimming the rock face.

The Mountain’s Heart’s ‘head’ swung about to intercept her, but she ducked under it, too quick to be caught. The rest of the creature’s mass seemed to bunch up as its tail end, propelled by momentum, flowed into the front, which was seeking to turn about. Luna slowed and came about again: she had to see this, needed to learn how the monster moved. If its mass made it slow to turn, she could use that to her advantage.

But the thing’s face! Its six ‘eyes’ had torn, their fire mingling together, leaving a single large orifice in the cooled rock surface. That fiery furnace folded in on itself, twisting like a whirlpool, while beneath that face, the beast’s body bulged.

It is going to spew! realized Luna, at once weaving a magical ward, night-blue power spreading out in domed rampart before her. She stood ready to teleport, but needed to know if she could deflect the stream without harm.

The test came immediately, as the invagination in the creature’s face inverted itself in a sudden grinding roar, a torrent of magma blasting forth in a scorching stream. It struck Luna’s shield and splashed along its curved surface; Luna extended the shield into a domed shape as some of the stream threatened to slither over the top.

So her ward could hold off the lava and keep her shielded from its heat! Luna allowed herself some satisfaction—which was immediately dashed as a massive weight smashed into the ward; she felt the scream of strain in her mind. Her floating rampart dropped at once, the top of the dome smashing down onto her, driving her down towards the rocks. The lower edges of the shield caught the ravine's floor, wedging themselves into the ground and allowing Luna—barely—to save her legs by arresting her fall with her wings, mere hoof-widths from the ground.

In place of magma there was now a great, slithering bulk. It must have lunged at me in the magma’s trail! Luna desperately tried to clutch at a thought in spite of the fire blazing through her mind. She cried out in pain as her ward, unable to buckle, cracked under the titanic weight, its smooth surface splitting and splintering. Luna bowed beneath the mental strain, her horn become a blindingly bright flare with the effort to maintain her only rampart against the creature’s crushing bulk.

Moon and Sun, the weight of it!

In her mind’s eye, she saw—and felt—her ward shatter. What heartbeats ago had been a smooth curved barrier was now a shimmering cloud of dust, held roughly in shape by Luna’s fast-flagging will. Another moment, and it would wink out of existence, leaving Luna to be crushed to paste by the Mountain’s Heart.

She had to teleport; it was her only hope now. A mile or two, straight up—that would give her enough time to re-orient herself… but her mind was on fire from the impossible task of holding up a mountain with a puff of dust. If she let the ward dissipate, she would have a split-second to escape. She was not sure she could do this, not after maintaining such a sorcerous surge, but what choice had she? To stay was certain doom.

The weight lifted! Without warning, the beast reared up and off her. Her ward dissipated instantly, vanishing into moonlight as Luna staggered forward drunkenly, her head spinning with the sudden release from strain. Above the rushing of blood in her ears, she heard the monster roar.

A mass drove in under her left wing and struck her in the flank low and angled upwards, lifting her off her hooves.

“Fly, Highness,” Twelfth Stroke cried as he spun her perpendicular to the beast’s path, “you’re too big to carry!”

Luna snapped her wings out on reflex, catching the air and sweeping forward, Twelfth Stroke keeping on her left. Together, they flew out sideways, past and away from the Mountain’s Heart.

“You’re listing to port, Highness,” cautioned her escort. “Are you alright?”

Luna knew that she was not. Though the unbearable pressure of the monster’s weight had lifted, her head still spun. “Guide me a moment,” she said curtly—Twelfth Stroke immediately swept closer, respectfully placing a fore hoof against her ceremonial armour before leading her along the curving Southern wall of the ravine, always keeping himself between his Princess and the rock.

Meanwhile, Luna waved a hoof before her face. She could see it, but not well. Her eyes refused to focus, and it seemed that three hooves were waving where only one should be. Her legs were unsteady, as well: suspended in flight, she could feel faint tremors running through them.

Luna gave a short, bitter laugh, recognising the symptoms. Channeller’s Sickness! She?! When had she last experienced that? She could not recall: time out of memory, even for her—assuming she had ever suffered it at all before now. But a Unicorn who strained herself too hard, who channelled too much power through her horn could be left drained and dizzy for a span. She tossed her head again. She should be able to cast spells, unpleasant though it would be, but with her vision swimming, aiming them would prove a different—

High overhead, the beast loosed its grating roar again, bellowing in anger or… pain?

“Witching Hour,” gasped Luna. “Where is she?!”

“Shoving a great big icicle in that thing’s eye,” Twelfth Night answered proudly. “Ice does work, like she figured!”

The Northern cliffs are hung with dripping ice, Luna remembered. Quickly, she looked back at the Mountain’s Heart. It was rearing in the air, pseudo-limbs writhing obscenely in the moonlight, its head sliding back and forth on a semi-solid base as though trying to shake something loose. Luna squinted desperately, but her blurred vision couldn’t pick out the Bat Pony’s tiny form against the massive monster’s bulk.

“We are going back,” cried Luna. “Steady me!” She dragged Twelfth Stroke into a tight turn, racing back towards the creature. Luna gave a frantic ultrasonic call: “Witching Hour, fall back! We are clear; fall ba—”

The beast bellowed once more, shaking the air, drowning out Luna’s call. But even her distorted vision picked out the tell-tale swelling of the monster’s form, and the sudden yawning red gulf opening in its head.

“I cannot see aright! Is she still in its face?”

“Yeah,” croaked Twelfth Stroke as he grasped the situation. “Drop, Witchy,” he cried. “Get out of—!”

I can neither shield not teleport her without sight, thought Luna frantically. She saw the sudden ripple, that bulge in the beast’s body lurching upwards to incinerate Witching Hour, and did the only thing she could.

A flare of silver-blue flooded the ravine—and gravity itself bowed down before the Princess of the Night. Next to her, Twelfth Hour gave an inarticulate cry of surprise, his fight destabilizing as his inner ear flipped. For the Mountain’s Heart, it was worse: its massive bulk, previously piled against gravity’s pull, was suddenly impossibly overextended, warping backwards as it fell, magma spraying out in an arc high overhead.

Yawing hard to the left, Luna caught Twelfth Stroke’s tail in her teeth. Another pulse of power, and gravity spun one-hundred and twenty degrees widdershins, angling downwards, hard. Luna let the air catch her as she tossed Twelfth Stroke over one shoulder, spinning him around so that he landed on her back, his muzzle in her mane.

“Take hold of me, and be my eyes,” she shouted at him over the beast’s startled bellowing. She dove down the new axis of gravity for a quick burst of speed before twisting out to fly towards the Mountain’s Heart, which was now splashing across the ground, rolling and tumbling along the bottom of the ravine. Fearing to let Witching Hour strike the ground herself, Luna spun the axis once more, arching her back and wings to dive up into the new down as the monster began to fall into the sky.

Twelfth Stroke, his legs clenched tight around Luna, pushed his face through her flowing mane and gave one short, high-pitched chirp. It was answered almost immediately, up high and to the left—Witching Hour. The call bounced off the beast’s unnatural geometries; to Luna’s ears it has a hopeless jumble.

Even my sound-sight is fouled, she thought bitterly as she dove past the Mountain’s Heart, driving towards Witching Hour’s call.

“On your four!”

Luna turned her head to her left, rotating her ear so that it faced Twelfth Stroke. “What do you—”

“Four o’clock! Bank-left-bank-left-bank—”

Luna read his tone and banked, immediately and hard, bending the air around her to boost her speed. Twelfth Stroke’s weight pressed in sixfold on her and she felt him grunt as the force flattened his head against her neck. One of the beast’s tendrils slashed down past them, missing her right flank and wing by half a hoof. The turbulence of the stroke grasped at her fur in a parody of affection; she rent it with her slipstream as she soared away, passing the monster on her right.

“ ‘Four o’clock,’ ” repeated Twelfth Stroke, his breath hot and ragged against her ear. “It’s short-wing, Highness—imagine you’re standing on a big clock face, your muzzle pointing at twelve: due right is three o’clock, straight back is six, due left is nine… get it?”

‘On your four.’

“Ingenious! I comprehend.” She realigned her flight, turning back towards the beast. “Now, let us pluck Witching Hour from the fire!”

“Those leg-things are wriggling all over the place,” shouted Twelfth Stroke in her ear, as the Mountain’s Heart writhed in its fall, flailing desperately for purchase. “It’s a real gauntlet!”

“Use your clock-code and give warning, then! I can see them when close at hoof!”

A sudden lance of columnar stone shot out, driving straight at them. “Six o’clock!” Twelfth Stroke screamed.

Light seared from Luna’s horn, and the extruding stone was shattered to shards and dust, which she scattered in her wake.

“…That works too,” added her helpmate softly as they streaked on. In a much more urgent voice he added, “We’re going to pass the beast at this rate!”

“It can’t catch the air as Witching Hour does! Find her so we can escape!”

Twelfth Stroke gave a grunt of approval and chirped once more; Witching Hour’s response could again be heard above the creature’s grinding tumult. “She’s past us—five o’clock and under! We overshot!”

Another flash of witch-light and Luna undid her gravity spell. Both she and the Mountain’s Heart drifted to a gentle halt…and then began to fall back to earth. Luna dove through the creature’s sulphurous roar, facing the direction given by Twelfth Stroke. The slipstream was like ice against her lathered sides. Better ice than fire, she reminded herself.

“I’ll not be able to spot her,” she panted, head still spinning. “You’ll have to snatch her as she goes by!”


The now all-too-familiar spindly cracking sound that accompanied the fiend’s tendrils rang out again, this time in a multitudinous cacophony.

“It’s like a nightmare flower—leg-things everywhere,” screamed Twelfth Stroke in her ear as a forest of jagged stone ribbons exploded upwards at them.

“Better ourselves than Witching Hour!” Luna answered, and from her horn six lines of power stretched out in a vortex, perpendicular to her flight. The lines of destructive sorcery looped back on themselves again and again, weaving an array of petal-like outlines in the air before her.

I’ll show this beast a ‘nightmare flower,’ she privately vowed, before adding aloud, “Cling fast to me; leave no extremities loose!” She spun the tracery, turning the filigree into a thrumming disk, just as they rushed into the rising tendrils.

With a dreadful hum and an angry shriek, Luna’s conjuration vaporised the incoming stone on contact. She closed her eyes against the flying dust and minute splinters of stone, twisting and writhing amongst the flailing spikes, guided by little more than her Pegasus sense for the air around her, as she interposed her shearing shield between the two of them and the Mountain’s ribbons.

The Battle Blossom, she had named that spell, ages ago when she had devised it. Once, she had reaped an army with it—and had never cast it again, until tonight. Scorched hair and burnt flesh… those scents, once known, could never be forgotten.

Luna cleaved through the nets of living stone and dead memories both, the suddenly clear air making her lose the conjuration, which promptly dissipated. She tumbled through the air, attempting to regain her prior orientation.

“Legs out! We’re about to hit!” came Twelfth’s Stroke’s warning. Luna righted herself at the last moment, pulling up along the surface of the falling monster, catching herself with her legs and half-gliding, half-running over its torrid surface as it popped and steamed, the support from her wings keeping her legs steady.

“Bank left a little,” advised Twelfth Stroke in her ear. “We can spiral around its body!”

“Keep a weather eye!” Luna shouted back as she picked her way at speed over the ragged, furnace-hot stone, her horseshoes hissing as she went. The beast’s bulk heaved and twisted underneath, but she broke into short glides to avoid the pitfalls—against the monster’s form, every current was an updraft.

Suddenly, the surface cracked and pitted, and Luna leaped clear as more tendrils erupted beneath her.

“The hay?! I thought we were on its back!”

“It lacks a fundamental orientation!” shouted Luna over the din. “Just find me Witching Hour, and the ground!”

“Witchy, talk to me!” Twelfth Stroke called. He and Luna both exulted when they heard her chirp back, close at hoof.

“Contact!” the stallion cried out in triumph. Then he spotted the ground and triumph died. “Oh, horse app—”

“Catch her and aerobrake!” commanded Luna as she rode a spike erupting from the main body before leaping clear. She felt Twelfth Stroke thrust off from her and then could only worry about herself.

Leather and feather caught the wind as the Mountain’s Heart smote the ground, a mere second ahead of them. The heated shockwave drove into them, pummelling them even as it wrenched them upwards out of their fall.

“Witching Hour, Twelfth Stroke,” Luna called out across the acrid air as she rose. “Are you…?” She could not bring herself to finish the thought.

“Present and accounted for,” called back Twelfth Stroke as he came flapping out of the smoke, holding Witching Hour firmly between his forelegs, her back pressed against his barrel.

“I’m a little dizzy, but still able, Highness,” Witching Hour assured Luna after briefly and neatly vomiting over to one side. “Thank you for coming back for me,” she added in a softer tone.

Luna felt a sudden urge to sweep both Bat Ponies up in her forelegs and crush them to her barrel, but she feared to let them know how badly spent their Princess was, so instead she pressed her fore hooves together to hide their shaking and held her head high to steady her voice before she spoke.

“It is I who owe you thanks,” she answered in a formal tone, “for it was you who returned for me. Though in defiance of your orders, I must concede that the intervention proved timely.”

“So is that thing down for the count or what?” asked Twelfth Stroke, prompting all three ponies to look down at the bubbling ruin of the Mountain’s Heart.

“I crushed it to a similar flatness previously,” said Luna. “I fear that we have only gained a brief respite—”

No sooner spoken did her words prove prophetic, as the molten magma suddenly surged, dozens of tendril-spears spraying outwards all around them, curving in towards their position.

“ENOUGH!” bellowed Luna, pointing a condemning hoof at the beast as she reached for the boundless power of the Elements of Harmony—

…Which was no longer hers to command. Taken aback by frustrated instinct, Luna hesitated for one moment. One moment too long.

“ ‘Been an honour, Witchy,” she heard Twelfth Stroke hurriedly whisper behind her.

“Likewise, Twelve,” breathed Witching Hour in turn.

“NO!” cried Luna, spinning about to face them. She cupped the air in her outermost wing and, accelerating it to gale force, threw it into the wings of her escort. Their wings filled and pulled taught, wrenching them backwards between the scything tendrils and clear of danger.

There was a sudden, shrill whistling in the air on her left, and even her dazed eyes caught the blur of movement, but too close, too late.

Her sister had been proven right, again: they had depended too much upon the Elements of Harmony.

Luna closed her eyes the instant before the titanic blow swatted her like a vulgar fly.