By the Grace of a Moonlit Night

by Cynewulf

First published

When Luna is lost within dreams, Twilight leads a rescue party.

Luna has always been the mistress of Dreams. That much survived the long years of her absence. No pony, perhaps no being on Earth is as knowledgeable as the world beyond the material as Luna is...

And so when she becomes lost in the aether, who would know better than she how to free her? That's Twilight's answer, anyway, and so she gathers a team together to rescue the Princess of the Night.

I. Need / Expedition

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Ceremony is a curious thing. Some rituals are grand, full of wonder They are heralded by trumpets or by processions--solemn or not--and they are hard to miss. Some are private, intimate in the way that only some things really can be…

And then there was this. Celestia stood in about the same spot she stood every day at this time. Were she to look down, she might see where her hooves had left impressions in the stone. Or at least, she often imagined that she might that. It was a recurring theme for her, this sense that she would wear away the world with her repetition, and she was painfully aware of it.

Her thoughts continued to spiral around meaninglessly, but Celestia had learned to act almost independently of the ruminations of the long-lived. Her horn lit, and in an instant she was connected.

Sleep, she thought.


She took a breath. Another recurring theme: what was even real, anymore? Did the sun truly speak, or had she over time imagined the voice?

But she answered. West. West until you cross over the sea and to the lands beyond, and find the Door of Night. She thought the same thing every day. She always had. Perhaps.

Celestia felt the jolt of connection and let her horn go dormant again. She did not need to guide every moment. The connection between herself and the sun was secure. Now it was simply time to wait for Luna’s answering.

She sat, folding her legs with an almost alien care, as if she had first learned to use them. Her brain was muddled, and her body ached. The first moments were always so disorienting. It had been years before she had even witnessed Luna call up the moon, so great had her own astonishment been when the task was new.

But she was older now, far older--age had perhaps taken some of her, but it had imparted some resilience. She waited for the familiar taste of her sister’s magic on the air and smiled. It was good to have Luna back.

She waited. Had she been more disoriented than expected? Surely it hadn’t been so long without Luna’s call. Had something distracted her?

Celestia felt, in succession, worry and then annoyance. Some mild embarrassment followed. Of course Luna was fine, and it was certainly possible that she had become engrossed in something or other and simply not noticed the time. It was easy to be overbearing in her relief, and she knew that.

But more time passed, and Celestia could only distract herself with daydreams and the occasional glance down at Canterlot for so long. Something was definitely the matter.

But only after a full hour had passed did she rise. An hour, and no call? Luna knew her duties. She stopped only to grab her peytral from the bedside table where it lay discarded, and then threw herself out into the halls on a search.

What time was it? No, the sun hadn’t left the sky but fifteen minutes ago at most, maybe twenty. Night court would not begin for another hour yet. She found no sign of Luna, but that was to be expected. Unlike herself, the Moon’s shepherd preferred to have her “mornings” to herself entirely.

But she did pass by the captain of the night’s watch as he was about his rounds near the great hall. She stopped and doubled back, making sure to compose herself before she coughed for his attention.

Captain Meadowlark turned on a bit with the seemingly effortless attention to detail that she had long grown to expect from him. He bowed, and then spoke. “Your Highness, how can I be of service?”

Celestia gave him one of her many finely-crafted smiles, one that she knew from experience was expected of her. “Good evening, Frolic. Have you seen my sister yet?”

The batpony’s ears twitched slightly at her shortening of his name, but he didn’t comment on it. Mostly because she would only smile and say, “of course.”

“Not yet, Princess. Usually, I see her around sundown before I make the rounds. When I arrived at her chambers, the maid informed me that she hadn’t yet roused. If she is occupied, I assume that she has nothing for me.” There was a beat. “The maid did mention that she was being awfully quiet. I can go by and deliver a message for you, if you would like.”

She shook her head. “No, I was already headed that way. I’m sure she’s just going through correspondence. Something of that nature.” She almost turned away, but then thought better of it. “Though, might I ask you to walk with me?”


She smiled genuinely and nodded at him as they preceded.

“How is my sister adjusting to the modern guard?” she asked lightly.

“Excellently,” came the dutiful answer. She waited for the less-dutiful answer. “It was a bit rocky at first, but my Lady is at peace with, well… peace.”

“I’m glad to hear it. We did not have as much as I would have liked when we ruled together long ago. I was glad to hear that she had re-established her Nightshades, to be honest with you. Peace requires work.”

“It was chaos, but I’m happy to report that her Lady’s Nightshades are the match for their predecessors.”

Celestia nodded, but her mind could only stay on smalltalk for so long. Luna hadn’t risen yet. Her sister was a recluse, but she was a recluse with habits. Some of her worry returned. Overbearing or not, this was unusual. She would deal with Luna’s irritation about it if she had to.

The guards posted at her sister’s doors saluted their captain as they approached.

Celestia gave them both another constructed smile. “Has my sister risen yet?”

They blankly stared at her, and then at each other. “No, your Highness,” said one at last. “She has asked us in the past not to bother her about anypony coming to the door without a note in hoof, but I’m sure--”

“No need,” Celestia said gently. “I’ll tell her I bullied my way in.” She flashed them a smile and they repressed grateful grins as they scooted aside and let her enter.She opened the door slightly, and then turned to the Captain. “I’ll go in alone. Would you do me a favor and stay here for a moment?”

Meadowlark gave her what she could only describe as a piercing, knowing gaze, and he nodded.

Celestia entered. Luna’s chambers were dark, which did not surprise her. Luna had preferred quiet and dark spaces even before she had touched the moon. But generally she would at least have a candle or two.

It was as she was opening her mouth to quietly call out that it hit her. She dropped, not fell but simply folded in like paper crushed into a ball. Pain wracked her body, drove all thoughts away, drove everything away but a penetrating, freezing panic. She was going to die. She was going to die outright unable even to scream on the floor of--

And then it was gone. She was shivering in the darkness.

She rose shakily and threw herself along, lighting up Luna’s antechamber with magical light. There was no time to call out. Something was wrong.

The door to Luna’s bedchambers groaned on its hinge as she forced it open.

Luna was half on her bed and half off, her hind leg caught in the covers still as her limp and lifeless form pooled on the floor. Her jaw was slack. She looked dead. She looked as dead as any pony Celestia had seen on the battlefield.

She stared. No. Surely she was just…

And then she screamed.

Twilight awoke to an annoying but familiar sensation: her flank was buzzing.

Specifically, her cutie mark had lit up of its own accord and was currently broadcasting her Map’s summons. She stirred and tried to reform her carefully constructed blanket-nest, but the call continued.

So, grudgingly, she threw off her sheets and stomped the whole way down to the Map, stopping only to check the time. Midnight. Wonderful. Twilight the Chronic insomniac finally manages to go to sleep on time, and here she is pulled away from the sweet oblivion of sleep.

She blinked owlishly at the Map as it glowed and zoomed in on Equestria. Whatever it was going, it would get there. Her mind wandered to coffee, maybe even a pancake or something else warm…

It wasn’t until she noticed where the Map was pinpointing that she really woke up. Canterlot Castle, and it wasn’t just her cutie mark. It was everyone’s. All of her friends, and even the Pillars of Equestria. She squinted, questioning what she saw for a moment before springing into action.

Even half-asleep, Twilight Sparkle knew when it was time to get a move on. That many ponies? At Canterlot, in the middle of the night? Her mind ran wild with possibilities--everything from Chrysalis to outlandish Nightmare Moon cloning--but the what didn’t matter.

She was, of course, prepared. Sending flames could get one-way messages to all of her friends, and the Pillars would already know they had been summoned. They needed to be there before the sun rose.

Rainbow Dash arrived first, which was a little surprising. It took a lot to rouse her from sleep, but danger was her self-claimed middle name. Rarity was next, as she lived not that far away, and the others filed in. Only Pinkie seemed to be anything other than groggy and irritable, and she had already brought a box of donuts. She’d had a feeling, she told Twilight with a little smile.

When she’d gotten them seated, Twilight explained briefly what she’d seen and let them witness it for themselves. Applejack got it immediately, but it took a few more ways around to get the others onboard with how serious this could be, and how urgent.

She technically had a chariot, but the only one coordinated and strong enough to pull it was maybe Rainbow Dash, and she flatly refused. It was easier convincing her to work with Twilight to help get the balloon to Canterlot faster, and in the annoyingly incomplete light of her horn they got the balloon up and into the air.

The flight was unpleasant. They were cramped, even with the winged ponies out of the basket, and Rainbow’s speed boost was effective but rough. But they made good time.

When they reached Canterlot airspace a few hours later, they hit a patrol of batponies in frightening armor. Twilight wouldn’t have seen them at all if they hadn’t flashed her with lights built into their armor.

It took only a moment to sort things out, but it was a tense moment. They asked her for several pre-arranged security calls-and-responses, more so than were probably strictly neccessary. When they insisted on providing close escort all the way to the parade field in High Canterlot, Twilight’s anxiety spiked.

Celestia did not meet her upon landing, but her seneschal Raven did. She’d known Raven most of her life, and not once had she seen her so obviously shaken.

“It’s good you arrived,” Raven said as soon as Twilight landed. “Celestia was just about to send for you and your friends.”

“Cutie Map clued us in,” Twilight said and then steadied herself. Flying she had the hang of, but long distances were still rough. “Sorry. Give me a second.”

“I would if I could, Princess. Celestia’s asked that you be brought to her at once. I’m sure the Nightshades here can look after your vehicle.”

Behind her, she could hear Rainbow Dash insisting that she hadn’t been that rough with the balloon as Applejack bickered back about the recklessness of pegasi. Her lack of sleep made it hard not to let it grate.

“I understand. I…” She blinked. “Nightshades?”

Raven nodded, and for the first time her anxiety and urgency gave way to something new and uglier: fear. This was not normal.

The walk up to the palace felt longer than it needed to, and her friends’ bickering and conversation died away. Twilight knew she was probably radiating worry, but she couldn’t help it.

Celestia was a whirlwind of frantic action when Twilight and her friends arrived at Luna’s chambers. She was hurling orders like spears, and ponies went scattering in all directions. Letters were sent, ponies contacted. The Night Court had fewer petitioners, but they still needed to be dealt with in a careful manner.

As soon as she saw Twilight, Celestia abandoned her panicked staff and embraced her former student fiercely. Alarm bells were still going off in Twilight’s head. Celestia had always been affectionate with ponies, but this was new.

“What’s wrong?” Twilight asked as soon as Celestia pulled away. “We got here as soon as I got everyone out of bed.”

Celestia looked around, and then shook her head. “All of you… Thank you. May I take Twilight with me for a short time? Applejack, I believe the kitchen staff was preparing something to keep you on your hooves for awhile.”

Applejack nodded, and Twilight watched her chew on that for a moment. “Right. We’ll be on stand-by, Princess. Soon as you need us.” She cleared her throat, and then she was herding their friends down the hall and Twilight turned her attention back to Celestia.

Celestia grimaced and then swept Twilight into her sister’s chambers. She did not say a word, but Twilight wasn’t even sure what there was to say. “Don’t tell anyone?” Twilight had more than proved that she was capable of something like discretion.

Celestia opened the door to the bedchamber and Twilight was stopped in her tracks.

Luna laid as if in state, her eyes closed and her limbs folded. Two nurses attended her, and when the princesses entered they jumped to attention. Celestia ignored them.

“She won’t wake up,” Celestia said. Her voice was tight, as if she were only barely holding on to her composure.

“Do we know what’s wrong?” Twilight asked. She was frozen to the spot, unsure of what to do.

“We…” Celestia shook her head, hesitated, and then took a deep breath. “I contacted Mage Meadowbrook and set up a simple scrying spell. We spoke at length. She mentioned something odd, but even she did not know what to make of it.”

“What was it?”

“At one point, she mentioned… Ah. Something about Luna being ‘cut off from herself’. I pressed for more, but she wasn’t sure where she’d gotten that. I asked her to follow up on it. She said she would. We…” Celestia gave up. She groaned and sat back on her haunches. “Twilight, I will be back to normal in a moment. I apologize.”

Twilight shook her head. She gently touched her former mentor. “It’s okay. If anyone can figure this out, I’m sure Meadowbrook can.”


Twilight, startled, looked up. Celestia did not meet her eyes.

“Dreams?” Twilight repeated, blinking. It was one thing to hear something, and another to understand it. Her lack of sleep was starting to catch up with her, and conversations were starting to slip out from under her.

The old pillars of Equestria had been gathered alongside the bearers of the Elements, or at least so much of the old heroes as could be gathered on such short notice. They had sent Meadowbrook to work as soon as she'd been woken and arrived.

Meadowbrook nodded. “That’s all I have. I’m sorry, Princesses. All I have is that this isn’t a physical ailment. If it were, I could cure it. I’m sure that I could! Given time, resources…” She sighed and shook her head. “I’m sorry. This is a sickness of the spirit, of the mind. I can wake the body, but I cannot go beyond. I cannot call the spirit back.”

“Then…” Twilight leaned in.

Celestia cleared her throat. “No one knows as much as my sister in regards to the Dreaming. The lore was stronger once. But now?”

Twilight bit her lip. So it was all a shot in the dark. She had placed so much hope on this moment. If. If.

“So…” Twilight leaned on the table between them, and let her mind work.

The great healer, herself, and Celestia were situated around one of the many tables in the many meeting rooms in the palace. No one had slept. At first, addled from lack of sleep, Twilight had been paranoid that she in fact couldn’t sleep because of Luna’s strange misfortune, but for her own sanity she had locked that fear away.

Celestia had been managing the moon. No one outside of the palace knew, and all staff had been kindly but firmly informed that quarters would be provided for those who lived in the lower city. No one left.

“Something working its way through your mind, Faithful Student?” Celestia asked.

Twilight glanced over. Celestia looked… Well, to any other pony she would look remarkably composed. But Twilight had grown up in her shadow, and Twilight knew she was ragged.

“I think so. It’s just…” She shrugged. “Celestia, the only person I can think of who can solve a problem like this is Luna. We would have to ask her…” Twilight’s mouth fell open. “Directly. Stars, that’s it, isn’t it! Only Luna can solve this. We ask her. That’s it!”

The other two blinked. That wasn’t the reaction she had hoped for.

“You know. Dreamwalk,” she supplied lamely. Meadowbrook shook her head.

“How? How would such a thing even be--”

“No. You’re right.” Celestia’s whole demeanor changed. Where before Twilight had seen wariness she saw something hard. “Luna left behind many artifacts when she was exiled. I kept them all and I… I catalogued them. As a form of mourning. There exists an artifact designed to facilitate such a thing. Luna was obsessed with showing the aetheric realm to mortal ponies for a time, and she succeeded.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing!” Meadowbrook cried.

Neither had Twilight. She had been thinking of just working out the magic herself.

Celestia sighed. “It works. But the journey is always perilous for those who are frail with mortality. She lost a pony in the dreaming world, and would not tell me how. But the device itself? It could draw several in with the wearer.”

Twilight bit her lip again. “How many?”

“You and your friends. Which I think is the time that I formally--”

“We’ll do it,” Twilight said quickly. “Way ahead of you. That’s why we’re here.”

Celestia seemed taken aback, but then smiled gratefully. “Twilight, I sometimes wonder what I would do without you. We’re decided then. I’ll show you the circlet and teach you how to operate it, and then we’ll find a place for your bodies to rest. If your friends need time, I implore you to let them have it. This is a dangerous thing.”

“I know. Applejack may want to go home quickly. Is that okay?” Celestia nodded. “Otherwise… I think we’re all set. Pinkie told me on the way over that she’d left a note for the cakes and I can send Spike over. He’s been wanting to try and get a little part time job away from the library anyway.” She offered a crooked smile. “Maybe it’ll be fun.”

Applejack had indeed asked for time to go back to her family, and Twilight had gladly informed her that Celestia had given her permission to leave. If anyone could be trusted with a secret that wasn’t hers to share, it was Applejack.

In the meantime, the others slept. Twilight sat in her old apartments, poring over books older than Ponyville.

There wasn’t much on the subject of walking in dreams. Or, rather, there wasn’t much on what it was like. She’d found plenty of speculation on the nature of dreaming, both mystical and scientific. There had been heated discussion surrounding the connection between dreaming and magic, and dozens of elaborate but ultimately abortive attempts to do what Luna did seemingly by a mere thought.

Some of it was fragmentary. Using the power of royal fiat, she had managed to bully the archivists into letting her have the oldest sections to herself for an hour, and there she had found a work in old Adunaic. Poetry, but of the curiously didactic sort one found in the frozen northern edges of the realm. Most of the text was missing, but the title was intact.

On the Origin of Nightmares was not exactly a calming title.

It’s premise was not entirely foreign. Magic was never destroyed. It could be repurposed, reused, called upon across time and space. One could store it away and call upon it an hour of need. But it could not be destroyed.

What appeared to be dissipation was in fact simply an illusion. Just as dust clouds dissipate, so does magic: namely, the dust still exists. It is simply no longer in a cloud.

The text went further. Dream magic, it stated, worked under the same rules. So far, Twilight followed. Purely conceptually, it made sense.

It was the rest that troubled her. Dream magic lingered in the aether, in the realm of the immaterial, and it wanted to be used. To say that it had a will was to misunderstand it entirely. It was a construct, a force with neither personality or mind, and it could not make decisions. It needed to enter pony’s minds and play out as dreams.

But what if a pony’s mind proved… unreceptive, for one reason or another? Nightmares, the text claimed, were the result. Terrible nightmares that injured the psyche if left unchecked and uncontested. The “manaveil”, the immaterial existence wherein this occurred, could only be entered through via dream magic, and because apparently it was not something lost and dead when this was being written, it offered very little in the way of explanation.

Twilight clicked her tongue and blearily looked around her. What time was it now? Did she even want to know?

Everything was going in circles. They had a plan, or at least something that could pass as a plan if you didn’t look at it too closely. Applejack would be back soon, and as soon as she was back Celestia would give Twilight the artifact and they would… what, dream?

She had felt Luna’s dream magic before, but the more she read, the more it felt like what was coming would be very unlike what she had experienced before. Luna had struggled before to keep them safe and to keep her own dream from spilling out into the material world. How much more frightening might it be to walk beyond the pale without such an aegis?

She guessed that it would be a lot more frightening.

Applejack returned in the afternoon. When she embraced Twilight, it was a bit more firm than the Princess was used to. Her smile was strained.

“We ready?” she asked as she straightened her hat.

They were at the palace doors. Twilight nodded and led her further in, talking all the while in a low tone.

“More or less. Well, as ready as we can be!” Twilight chuckled nervously, but Applejack didn’t join her. Twilight cleared her throat and continued. “The artifact works, and we’ve already set up a nice little room for us to, uh, sleep in.”

Applejack nodded and grunted. “I see.”


“And when we’re stuck in?”

Twilight sighed. “I don’t know. I’ve spent the last, like… The whole time you’ve been gone I’ve been poring over everything I could find. I have some vague ideas about what it’ll be like. I wish I knew more. I just don’t. And we may not have the time for me to figure it all out.”

“I ain’t blamin’ you,” Applejack said softly. “Took you by surprise, and I know how you try to be thorough.”

“If… if you’re not sure, I mean…”

Applejack stopped and tapped her with a hoof. “Twi, I’m with you. Wherever you’re leadin’, I’ll be there. Any of the girls would say the same. Ain’t just that you’re our friend, and aint’ just that we love you dearly like a sister. This is an emergency, and if anyone can figure out what to do in an emergency, its Twilight Sparkle.”

“Heh. Thanks.”

“Keep your chin up,” Applejack said, tapped her again, and continued on.

The rest of the girls were in the large dining room usually used for large parties. With the palace staff currently unable to leave, it was lively. But Pinkie was not one to be stopped by such trivial things is there literally not being enough space to sit, and so had secured a table in the corner regardless. She flagged the two new arrivals down, and it took only a moment of hugs and greetings to get down to business.

Rainbow Dash lounged, but her voice was hardly light. “So. No real plan, no intel, no back-up plans. Just dive in there.”

“It isn’t the most elegant solution,” Rarity said as she picked at a salad. “Neither is the fare. Honestly, Twilight, how can a palace have such paltry, pedestrian options?”

“When it’s feeding twice the normal amount of ponies twice the normal amount of times. Er. Something like that,” Twilight said with a wave of her hoof. “I get it, Dash. I would say the same thing. But I’ve done what preparation I can. We’re paying the price of others forgetting important magic, and you can imagine how frustrated that might make me.”

“Is it going to be that dangerous?” Fluttershy asked. “I mean… we’re just going to go talk to her, right?”

“You remember the whole, ah, tantabus thing?” Twilight said, and waited for the cringe. There it was, retreating behind the hair and all.

Fluttershy nodded. “I do. So it will be like that? That sounds terrible. But we were able to do it before, weren’t we? We could do that again.”

Pinkie had, again against the grain of the universe, somehow managed to secure two boxes of Donut Joe’s for which Twilight would be eternally grateful. She had promised a royal favor after the second custard filled eclair and its heavenly pleasures. Currently, she was poking the empty box that Rainbow Dash wasn’t raiding.

“It won’t be the same,” she said lightly, almost bored. “Luna won’t be there this time. Sounds less fun.”

“Right. Without Luna to keep the environment somewhat stable… or at least try to keep it stable, we’ll probably be seeing stranger things. We won’t be in our own minds and dreams either,” Twilight explained.

“So… where will we be? Luna’s dreams?” Rainbow Dash asked. She finished off the last of the donuts in a shockingly quick fashion. “How does somebody who’s always in other pony’s dreams have dreams? How does that work?”

Twilight shrugged.

“Really don’t know,” she said. “We won’t be in her dreaming at first anyway. From what I can tell, we’ll have to access that after we’ve crossed the manaveil into… well, whatever you want to call it. Manaveil is a newer term. Aether gets thrown around. Ponies a few hundred years ago were calling it the Immaterium. The Field of Arbol is one. Whatever it is, that’s where we’ll be. Celestia’s given me everything she knows about using the circlet, and I think I can navigate us to Luna from wherever we land.”

“Sounds more like an expedition than dreaming,” Applejack drawled.

Twilight smiled at her. “It’s honestly not that inaccurate to think of it that way. It’s certainly uncharted territory for us, and for ponies of this age in general. The last serious practioners of proper dream magic died off a few centuries ago, and it hasn’t exactly been something that a lot of ponies specialized in in even longer. So it’ll be historic, I guess. Just another one of those wild, historic things we do. You know, Tuesday.”

This time she did get a few chuckles, and the tension that had built up in her chest loosened. Maybe this would be alright. Maybe.

She’d done all she could. The idea that one or all of her friends could be in danger because of her ignorance was something Twilight wasn’t used to, and it was something she hated. She had been outwitted before, and outmatched on a few occasions. To be absolutely in the dark? That was new.

But, as her friends crowded around her, Twilight felt better. She felt if only for a moment that even without as much knowledge as she could want, that all of this might work out. They’d been through so much together and come out grinning on the other side.

All that was left was to set out.

Celestia sat in the center of the room, nodding to the assembled ponies one by one. She met their eyes with such intensity one expected the room to burst into flame.

It was hard to meet her eyes. Even for Twilight, it was hard. It was as if the sun itself had come to rest there among them, burning and burning forever. She had always read in the histories how Celestia’s ire made grown war-hardened stallions quake with a fear beyond mere mortal terror, more akin to the terrified worship of simple fools. Twilight now found those descriptions too tame. Was she absolutely sure the room hadn’t caught fire?

“Thank you,” Celestia said. “Before I say anything… I want to thank you.

“Time and time again, you six have been our bulwark. You’ve rescued my subjects and my realm. You’ve protected my little ponies who are so dear to me, and for that I do not think I can ever adequeately repay you. What you do today is… it is the same as those times, but it is also personal.”

“Luna is, um, our friend too. It’s personal for us too, Princess,” Fluttershy said. She cleared her throat and stood a little straighter.

“That she is.” Celestia took a deep breath. “I am sending you beyond my help. I do not know much about the world my sister walks. Fool that I am, I left her to her own devices and did not learn more of her when I had more ample chance. I do not know what dangers await you. But… thank you.”

Twilight bit her lip as Celestia turned at last and called up a box from beside one of the beds. It was onyx, smooth and black as midnight, and when she opened it there was nothing but gentle plush bedding and a silver circlet. She levitated it before them all and continued speaking.

“This is the Circlet of Dreams.My sister designed this ages ago so that she might more easily share her demense with the frailer ponies we walked upon. The sages could walk where she walked, but she wished to show the common ponies wonders beyond their ken. Tragedy dashed her dream, but now it shall hopefully be the means of her salvation. Twilight?”

Twilight nodded and stepped forward.

“I trust you recall how it operates.”

“I do.” She took a deep breath. “And I remember how to connect us all once it’s on.” She turned to her friends and offered them what she hoped was a confident smile.

“So… what now?” Rainbow asked. Her wings fluttered at her side.

Twilight chuckled, and tried not to wince about how it sounded only a bit hysterical. “No big deal. Just… lie down and wait. Leave it to me.”

Her friends shuffled around a bit, and she felt a pit of ice clawing up from the bottom of her stomach. But then they moved off to the beds. Fluttershy looked from Rainbow Dash to Rarity and back, looking like she wanted to ask a question.

Twilight came up beside her. “Nervous?”

“I… a bit. Magic is so strange to me, Twilight.”

“Ain’t my area of expertise, either, Shy,” Applejack called as she flopped down on a bed. “I’m with you, filly.”

Fluttershy squirmed. “I don’t know if I can fall asleep with all these nerves, Twilight.”

Twilight’s smile this time wasn’t forced or calculated. In a way, her friend’s mundane distress washed away her own more dire concerns. This was something she could actually understand and get a handle on. This was normal, natural. Easy.

She nuzzled Fluttershy amiably, soothingly, and said, “Would it help if you had someone there? You can lay next to me and see me use my magic.”

Fluttershy hesitated, and then nodded. “Watching helps.”

It took a moment more, but soon everyone was still. Twilight and Fluttershy cuddled up, and Twilight was absurdly reminded of being a small filly sharing the couch with her sleeping brother after an exhausting day running around in the park in High Canterlot. She kept ahold of that memory and then lit up her horn.

The sensation was radically different. The inert circlet cast argent light throughout the room, and it felt warm and alive on her head, tucked just above her horn. The place where they touched felt electric and she shivered.

Gingerly, feeling oddly like she was relearning how to walk, she channeled her magic through the circlet itself and through it reached out for each of her friends in turn. She came back to Fluttershy last, letting her watch as the light danced around the room. Fluttershy shrank back, but when the light touched her she calmed. “It’s… warm,” she said.

“Yeah,,” Twilight said breathlessly. “Wild stuff, old… magic.” Words were a bit more difficult to hang onto as she found the “switch” that Celestia had shown her on the circlet’s finely carved runes. She channeled magic into it until she hit the threshold, and the light intensified briefly.

It was like falling. Falling and falling, and though she knew it should be a horrible sensation, it was not. No, she felt… she felt…

Celestia was there. She stood quietly by the side of the bed. Twilight’s eyesight was failing, and she smiled up at her former mentor.

“See you…” She yawned. “See you in a bit. Promise. Promise?” The last one became a question.

“I promise,” Celestia said, and seemed to have a bit of trouble. How odd. Twilight wandered what was wrong. “Good luck, Twilight.”

“Don’t need luck. Luck’s… dumb,” she replied and tried to smirk. But the falling kept… happening? Yeah, that was the right word. It kept happening, and it was pulling her back into the black and then Celestia was so small and indistinct like a mirage, like a cloud, and then Twilight was gone.

II. Descent

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Twilight found herself walking down a long stairway, circling a chasm. Above her was gray, below her misty unknown, around her featureless flat walls. She had no memory of coming to this place, no memory of having chosen to come here.

She stopped, and looked around. Her friends were also walking behind her, strung out over dozens of meters, walking with the same thoughtless plodding step. She waved, and one by one they seemed to wake and see her.

Twilight tried to call to them, but no sound escaped her lips. She tried again, and still nothing.

Frustrated, she waited for the others to come closer and tried to take stock of herself.

Voice didn’t work. She’d established that. She touched the walls and tapped her hooves on the stone stairs beneath her. Improbable, yes, but sturdy. So this was dreaming when Luna wasn’t there to shape it. It certainly felt real.

Pinkie made it to her first and tried to speak as well, but no words came out. She sat down heavily on one of the steps, pointed to her mouth, and looked for all the world like a pouting dog. Twilight suppressed a giggle.

When they were all lined up and close, Twilight shrugged and gestured for them to follow her.

They naturally spread apart a bit, with about a pony’s length between them. The echoes of their hooves bounced around wildly, coming back sounding like distant cannonblasts from the other side of the gulf.

Hours must have passed, but she had no way of telling. More than that, she wasn’t even sure time worked here in a way that she could understand. If she tried to measure it by the cacophony of their steps she would go mad parsing nonsense.

Where was this? Was that a question that still had meaning here? The vague hints she’d found buried in other things suggested that the rules of this place were fundamentally different, but there was still an internal logic. Things made sense. You simply had to sort of tilt your head and squint very hard.

Eventually, the mist began to give way and she saw a flat floor of the same featureless stone. She turned back, opened her mouth, and then internally cursed. If this muteness carried over into Luna’s dream, it was going to become a rather serious problem.

She needn’t have bothered. The others saw it as well and quickened their pace. Still, it took an eternity before they reached the bottom.

She knew what she would see, but Twilight looked up anyway. This void seemed to go on forever up and up until her eyes lost tack of it. The only feature anywhere was the narrow stair, and here at the bottom a door not unlike the one she had walked through to first see Luna in her afflicted state.

She didn’t wait or explain. She just kept marching on. Anything that wasn’t endless stairs.

The small party gathered around the door solemnly, sharing looks. It cheered Twilight to see that the main emotion wasn’t worry but rather bemusement or impatience. They were still with her.

She gestured to herself, and then to the door. Then Rainbow, and then Pinkie and Rarity. Applejack nodded before she even pointed, as if to say, I’ll take the rear. For lack of a better term, they had two dedicated fighters, and she wanted one at each end of the train.

Twilight looked at the door, looking over it. What had she expected? Runes? Some sort of sign? The fragments had spoken of the world beyond the material as a land of confusion and symbolism within symbolism, shaped by the Logos itself, the very fabric of meaning filtered through the film of the collective unconscious interpretations of those who sleep. She had expected obvious signs, things lit up or presented to her as signs.

But now that she reached for the door… weren’t the stairs one, in a way? Was the very nature of things here one large parable?

She door swung open at her touch. There was nothing inside. She could see the rest of the pit beyond and… that was it.

If she could have, she would have growled. What was this? It was nonsense. She stepped through--

And tripped over loose masonry.

She let out a cry of alarm and faceplanted right into mossy, broken stone. Her voice echoed, and Twilight rose in alarm.

The pit, the stairs, her friends--all gone.

She was in a large stony chamber, reclaimed by time and nature. High arches held up a ceiling where moth-bitten banners hung. Some of the wall had collapsed, and through the gap she saw a night sky full of stars.

Twilight rose swiftly and spun. “Applejack? Applejack? Rainbow? Pinkie?” No answers. Her heart hammered in her throat, pounded against her skull. “Fluttershy? Rarity?”

Nothing. She was alone.

Twilight squeezed her eyes shut and took a breath. Then another. Then ano--

That was when Applejack’s signature grunt reverberated much as her own had.

Twilight’s eyes popped open. Applejack was sprawled out in a heap a few strides in front of her, and Twilight was by her side immediately, helping her up.

“Where are the others?” she asked. “Did you all come through with me?”

Applejack shook her head, put a hoof on her head and realized her hat wasn’t there. She pushed past Twilight and located the worn hat next to her. “You vanished, and I ran in after. Don’t know about the others.” She shook the dust off of herself and fixed Twilight with a hard look. “Where are we?”

Twilight shrugged and bit her lip. “I’m… I’m not entirely sure. I think we’re somewhere in Luna’s, uh, mind? That’s probably the best way to put it.”

Applejack grunted and looked around. “Well. We made it at least. The others probably just got dropped here or there. I gather it didn’t drop me on top of you, so stands to reason…” She shrugged.

“It’s possible,” Twilight allowed.

“Better than standin’ here, doin’ nothing.”

Applejack strode ahead of her, and Twilight followed behind. Her tail lashed nervously, her ears were on swivel--she had no idea what to expect. Nightmares? It was certainly possible. How would one even fight nightmares? Would you fight them?

They did a joint sweep of the chamber they had fallen into and found very little. From what Twilight could tell, it had once been a dining room or banquet room of some kind, with a ruined long table crushed underneath the weight of rubble. The walls weren’t simply coming down on their own, she noted as Applejack circled a seperate table with high-backed chairs. This place had been attacked.

As they left and wandered into the hallways, she felt more and more that this wasn’t simply a ruin, but was a battlefield. Torn banners and tapestries, scattered weapons… the skeletons were certainly a hint. Applejack walked around them carefully, reverantly, and Twilight tried to follow in her wake. She grimaced down at the armored remains of a pony and noticed something on the helmet.

“Applejack, wait a bit.” She leaned down and carefully manuevered the helmet off of the skull, trying to disturb the body as little as possible. She brought it up to eye level, and then showed her companion.

“A sun,” Applejack said.

“Not just a sun. It’s a very specific symbol. This was the way that the first followers of the sister wore,” she said, and licked her lips as she fell into the normalcy of lecture. “When they first arrived, before confronting Discord, some ponies rallied to their banners. They’d just landed in Tall Tale, and it was the beginning of the guard.”

“What’s it mean?” Applejack held out a hoof and Twilight passed it over. Applejack spat on it, which Twilight raised her eyebrow at, and then proceeded to polish the front. “Like the design. Sturdy. Simple.”

“A lot of the earliest followers of the sisters were picking up arms and armor as they made their way to the coast,” Twilight said absently. “Some bought them from the smiths in Tall Tail minutes before pledging allegiance.”

“I can respect wantin’ to get to the heart of the matter, without wastin’ time,” Applejack drawled, and then set the helmet back carefully. “Figured they’d like it,” she muttered, and then cleared her throat. “So what’s it mean?”

“Hm? Oh. Oh! Sorry.” Twilight shook her head. “I think we’re in a memory of Luna’s. Some old battle, I think, by the look of things.”

“One long done with, if this poor bastard’s any indication.” Applejack continued on, and whistled a tune. “Figure we don’t need to be all that quiet, am I right?”

Twilight growled to herself. She hated not knowing! “I don’t know. But if we were going to be jumped, we probably would have earlier.”

They continued. Hallways gave way to a another wide chamber, but this one was far more opulent. Or, well. It had been at some point.

Littered among the gold and the trimmings were more bodies. Shields and long broken lances littered the floor. The throne itself had been toppled from its dias, and had broken apart. A large griffon skeleton laid atop it, its claws still clutched around a massive rusted axe.

Applejack whistled appreciatively as she approached. “Strong feller. This is a grisly bit of work, here.”

Twilight nodded as she wandered through the wreck herself. “It’s hard to imagine,” she said. “I mean… I mean we’ve been in danger.” She wasn’t even sure how to express it.

“Quite a bit of danger,” Applejack said and adjusted her hat. They were speaking across a long distance, but their voices carried very well. She was reminded of a family visit to an old ruin, and standing in the skein of the ancient Unicorn theatre. “But you’re thinkin’ of war, I guess.”

“That’s correct. Danger, but never battle. Not exactly. I guess the changeling invasion counts. But that… it was so chaotic and sudden, and we didn’t march anywhere or plan to fight anyone. These ponies… that griffon. Armies don’t pop up out of nowhere. They have to be rallied and commanded. Plans have to be drawn up. Over and over again, ponies have to make the choice to fight.”

Applejack nodded. “They probably think of it like we did, in Canterlot. Act and react, all that.”

“Nice rhyme,” Twilight said softly, and smiled. “But maybe.”

Applejack circled the griffon skeleton and Twilight found herself exploring the large space in silence before she groaned. “I’m not sure we’re going to find them here.”

Applejack trotted out from behind the throne and cocked her head to the side. “Pardon?”

Twilight bit her lip. “I’ve been… thinking. Follow me here for a bit, but if this is Luna’s dream, or her memory… it may not be the only one. If we assume she works like we do, we’re bound to find ourselves hopelessly lost. Dreams change, right? You have several any given night. Luna could do the same, but because we’ve wandered in this dream hasn’t decayed as it normally would.”

Applejack shrugged. “I guess. I mean, I don’t know, but I’m willin’ to go along with it.”

Twilight chuckled. “Let’s just see if we can find something that Luna might be associated with or fixated on here, and--”

At that moment, Applejack walked again in front of the Griffon. Her eyes were on Twilight, but Twilight’s saw past her to the great axe as it moved. She tried to call out, but her eyes must have told the story in full, because Applejack jerked out of the way and avoided it by a hoof’s length.

The skeleton was still rising, dragging the axe along the stones as it did. It’s eyes burned red and its movement was stiff, as if it had just woken.

There was a general rattling, and Twilight didn’t have to look around to know that they were surrounded.

What she didn’t expect was for the new arrivals to attack each other. The rattling of bones gave way to a general clamor as the old armies fought again, tearing each other apart. But the griffon and its axe had eyes only for Applejack, and swung again as the farm mare struggled to keep herself beneath its arc.

Twilight yelled. “Over here! Get out of its range!”

Magic lanced up her horn, formed itself into a powerful spike of power, and arced towards their assailant. Her blow was well aimed, but the magic seemed to do little more than leave black burns on the old bones. The beheamoth did not falter.

Applejack kept light on her hooves, but she was on the defensive and the room was only so long. This might work with living foes, but against the implacable dead who could not be tired out…? Twilight fired off another arcane bolt, but it was about as useless as the first.

She was already charging, keeping steady fire up until she was close enough, and then teleported twice, once to land beside her friend and wrap herself around Applejack, and again to carry them both to the other side of the room.

She let go and called up her magic. Applejack shivered and then crouched into a ready stance. “Have I told you how much I hate doin’ that? It’s cold an’ unnatural!”

“Just teleporting,” Twilight said. “It’s normal as can be. I don’t think I’m going to be able to blast it apart with magic. Ideas?”

The skeletal assailant didn’t take long to find them. It lumbered in their direction, held up momentarily by the battle around it. Twilight watched as a scrum of combatants bowled right into the griffon, and then gulped as the axe destroyed the whole lot in one swipe.

“I could buck that thing to pieces if it’d be still!” Applejack said. They edged back together, steps almost in perfect time. “Hell, all I’d need was a couple of seconds. But my legs only reach so far!”

“I can give you those seconds,” Twilight said. The griffon picked up one of the smaller skeleton warriors and threw him at the ponies, who scattered and let the hapless dead shatter between them. Twilight grabbed the fallen hoofblades off the skeleton in her magic and bore them aloft.

“If’n you think--”

“Start running as soon as you have an opening!” Twilight shouted, cutting her off. The hoofblades soared through the air like arrows, and the griffon brought the flat of his axeblade up to shield his face. They bounced off harmlessly.

But that was all she’d needed. With it’s eyesight obscured, Twilight grabbed several of the fighting skeletons and pushed them into the space between them and the beast, pressing them like an undead wave until the griffon was driven back a step.

It roared, almost startling Twilight into dropping her spell, and then it had shattered more of her pawns before she was even done flinching.

That was when she brought more from behind it, throwing them stones despite their flailing protest.

Applejack had already leapt into action, and closed the distance in a fearsome charge. She let out a roar of her own and as the Griffon picked an ancient armored pony off of its back, Applejack planted her front hooves solidly in front of it and kicked hard against the ground with her back hoof, spinning both hindlegs around and off the ground to deliver a devestating double-hoofed kick directly to its center of mass.

Twilight winced at the cracking noise, but pulled the last of the room’s smaller skeletons into another bunch to give the Griffon more targets for Applejack to put before herself.

She needn’t have bothered. The griffon’s ribcage was shattered fully, and it couldn’t support its own weight. It fell, breaking into pieces. The axe fell, landing on its blade and then falling over to clatter on the stone.

Applejack, still crouched, panted amid the now crumbling dead. Twilight slowly walked towards her, and together they watched the old griffon bones for signs of movement. Nothing, nothing at all--and even after Twilight had counted down from fifteen, just to feel better, it refused to rise.

Applejack whistled. “I’ll be damned.”

“I have a feeling that Luna knew this griffon when he was alive,” Twilight said. “I’m not sure who it could be. An enemy? Some old foe from a thousand years ago?”

“Maybe a friend,” Applejack said, chewing on her lip. “Y’know, some grif she knew way back when. Someone she could rely on, and now he’s sorta guardin’ her sleepin’.” She chuckled. “Not sure how nice it’d be to make your old pal a watchdog, but I guess I could do worse than Winona keepin’ me nightmare free.”

Twilight allowed herself a shaky smile. “I have another feeling that the axe may be our key, if that theory is even sound. Try… No, it has to be both of us. We’ll touch it together, with one hoof on the other just in case.”

Applejack nodded, and they stood side by side, front legs interlocked, and reached out for the axe.

As soon as she touched it, Twilight knew they’d been right. Something--the dream, intertia, something--gutpunched her and she tried to cry out, but it was as if the air had been sucked right out of her lungs. They were falling, the two of them together, and then she lost track of herself.

Until she felt heat. Twilight untangled her leg and tried to open her eyes--when had she closed them?--but Applejack was also trying to struggle free and they succeeded only in causing mutual trouble.

When Twilight opened her eyes, she saw only blinding red and then white, as if she’d been in caves for hours and only now come into the sunlight, but then her vision cleared.

And she found herself on a ruined walkway, under a blackened sky, in the shadow of a volcano. Ash smothered the air, but the ruins were free of smog for now. She tried to stand, but a tremor shook them both and Twilight collapsed again.