Luna is a Harsh Mistress

by Starscribe

First published

When Celestia banished Nightmare Moon, she didn't go alone, but with her loyal army. Now they're trapped in an alien environment, with tensions high and the air running out. If they don't work together, their princess will soon be alone after all.

History is written by the victors, but there’s nothing to guarantee they’ll be honest.

When Nightmare Moon’s rebellion tore across Equestria, leaving a trail of blood and horror in its wake, Princess Celestia knew that merely banishing her sister wouldn’t be enough. Her army was too powerful, and too bloodthirsty, to be left behind without a leader. When she finally turned the Elements of Harmony against her, she didn’t just banish Nightmare Moon. She banished thousands.

Now they’re in a race against time, to find a way to survive in an environment so alien that every aspect of it is trying to kill them. They face suffocation, freezing, boiling, starvation, radiation, meteorite impacts, low gravity… the list goes on.

Nightmare Moon thought she should be the ruler of all Equestria. Now, in a world nopony was ever meant to survive, her abilities will be put to the ultimate test.

Updates Saturdays.

Editing by the indulgent and patient Two Bit and Sparktail. Coverart by Zutcha.

Note: I intend this story to be as faithful to our current scientific understanding of the moon, and I’ve consulted for help with the aspects outside my technical purview. That said, I fully expect to make decisions that some may see as mistakes, based on their own independent interpretations.

I am a storyteller first, and I realize it’s likely I’ll eventually make a mistake, or an arbitrary decision to simplify the storytelling over accuracy. I’m doing my best here, but this isn’t a NASA white paper. Set your expectations accordingly.

This story was commissioned by Canary in the Coal Mine on my Patreon, feel free to contact me if you’d like one of your own!

Chapter 1: Crash Landing

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Iron Quill landed with the harsh impact of dust and blowing sand. The incredible force of Celestia’s magic washed over and around him for a few more seconds, charring at his mane and burning at his eyes. Is this the end? The Tyrant has beaten us. Now I die for choosing the wrong side.

But he didn’t die. Alicorns were capable of terrible things, and he’d heard all the stories about the artifacts kept securely in the Castle of the Two Sisters. That was why they had to seize it so badly. That was why the consequences of failure were so high.

After a few seconds, the magic had all burned away to sparks, and Quill finally sat up. He had made a small crater on a gray desert, from the look of it. Dry powder spread around him in all directions, so dry it was uncomfortably rough on his bat wings. He rose, shaking them as clean as he could and taking in his surroundings.

The sky overhead was black, without even a hint of blue. His bat eyes adjusted quickly, and many stars came into view. But no moon—just the stars. The sunlight was relatively bright, though it felt strange on his skin.

Quill was surrounded by army ponies, landed almost in the ranks they’d been marching in. The supply tent’s poles and canvas were strewn around him, and his logs were scattered in the air. No wind blew to take the papers away. “Silver Needle!” he yelled, looking around for his first aid. “Silver Needle, where are you?”

“Here, sir?” said Second Lieutenant Silver Needle from not far away. He turned to see her emerge from the fallen tent, a unicorn wearing the white apron of a clerk. She rose, taking a few steps over to him—and she bounced. She curved through the air in his direction in a wide arc, scattering dust and sand. “What kind of spell is that?” he asked. “I don’t think this is the time. We’ve just been—”

“It’s not a spell, Colonel Quill! I was just trying to get over there!” she squealed as she went past, landing wrong on one hoof and tumbling. She landed past him, though without any apparent injury. “Sorry, sir.”

Quill raised an eyebrow, then jumped himself. He kept his wings folded, yet… he drifted. The earth beneath only seemed to hold him loosely. “No need for an apology, Silver. Just get the crew in order and…” He looked behind him, to the master stockpile.

It was every bit the nightmare he feared. Shelves turned over, barrels of wheat and barley and bales of straw scattered madly. “Moon and stars, what a nightmare. See to the wounded, and… deal with this.”

He bent down, offering a hoof to the fallen unicorn. She was young, too young to be part of a war.

But the Lunar Rebellion needed every willing hoof, even those that weren’t ready. Quill might not have fought in ages, but he could claim the best minds for himself. See that they weren’t wasted in the bloody machine.

“Aye, sir. But what of you?”

He looked away, towards the front of the formation. Where the princess had fought her terrible battle, and the Midnight Guard’s banners still flew proudly. “I’m going to find out what’s going on.”

The rest of his crew were assembling—aside from Silver Needle, they were all laborers of various kinds, young mares and stallions he had snatched as recruits from combat squads in exchange for extra rations. They were a dozen in all. With twice the brains as the rest of the army.

“From her?” whispered Swift Wing, his latest page. “Good luck, master.”

“Stay alive,” he said, shaking the dust from his wings again and taking off.

It was incredible—flying took barely a flap of effort and he was up. Instead of constantly fighting against the ground, he only had to occasionally pay it a little respect, flapping every second or two as he passed over the camp. Most of the soldiers were slower to recover than his inventory had been. The powerful wards around the armory and other supplies had probably shielded him from the worst of Celestia’s magic.

There were thousands of ponies in the dirt. They came from all over Equestria, farmers and blacksmiths and serfs of all kinds. While Celestia’s castles were filled with the elite, her sister had seen the suffering of the ordinary stallion and taken pity. They had all answered her call.

But now many of those brave ponies were lying in the dirt, pierced by white-shafted arrows or charred by magic. He didn’t want to guess at the casualties, but he knew they were devastating. Bad enough that Nightmare Moon herself had emerged to face their attackers. Each company had its own banner, sewn to represent the little villages and towns they’d joined from. They might be stupid louts the whole army over, but they were his brothers and sisters in arms.

And now we’re here. Now that he looked up, he could see that there was a moon after all. It looked strange in the sky, and it wasn’t casting the comfortable gray light he knew. It was so blue, so green… why was everything so wrong?

Something shimmered in the air above him, higher than he dared to fly. Iron Quill knew a shield spell when he saw one, and he kept well away. This bubble is gigantic. Had Nightmare Moon managed to protect the entire army?

He didn’t make it to the center of the formation before the Voidseekers stopped him. They were bats like himself, with black armor and black wraps underneath. Even he knew almost nothing about the sacred sect, except that once they joined no non-bat would ever see their faces again, and they would fight only by night.

They were also terrifying, just as much as the one they served. “Are you Colonel Iron Quill?” asked one—a stallion he was fairly sure, though he didn’t know the name.

“Y-yes,” he answered, slowing to a stop in the air and saluting with one wing. “The Moon shines forever.”

“Yes, yes.” The stallion waved his own wing dismissively. “Come with us. She asked for you.”

“Me?” Nightmare Moon was like a raging storm on the battlefield, but she had nearly zero interest for the day-to-day of how her army was run. When they attacked, they always tried to gather as many valuables as possible. That was about the extent that she helped him keep her army marching. “Why?”

When they turned to fly away, he followed without waiting for an answer. He hadn’t really expected one—the Voidseekers said almost nothing to outsiders.

They passed over the center of the formation, where the medical relief ponies were even now going through the most battered and beaten groups. My job is hard, but at least I don’t have to explain to their mothers why they won’t be coming home.

Then they were past the army completely, and into more of the gray wasteland. There were many little impacts, even where no ponies had landed. Bits of rock and stone were scattered everywhere, apparently thrown here by the force of Celestia’s spell. Except… the soil continued ahead of them, with openings of various sizes. Some were so deep he couldn’t see the bottom in the too-harsh sunlight.

They were flying up a slope now. A pony sat at the top, looking down into the darkness. Her mane radiated up into the air behind her, like a burning storm. Her horn glowed so brightly blue that even the sunlight seemed pale. She was casting a spell, a spell so powerful that getting close made him feel it. It moved through him, too.

The Voidseekers landed on the ground maybe twenty meters from her, at the base of a slope. He followed. The same one that had spoken to him gestured up the slope toward her.

“So that’s it? I thought maybe I’d be talking to General Stalwart Shield, or maybe General Night Stalker. I’m not important enough for this.”

He pointed again without answering. Iron Quill saluted in response, as stiff and angry as he could. Then he started walking.

Not walking as he’d known it before, each step was a kind of bounce, threatening to take him off his stride. He would have to be careful—where his princess sat there was a ridge, looking down into an impact crater of incredible size. Maybe the place she’d landed?

“G-great Princess of the Moon…” Iron Quill called, when he was close. He had only stood this close to her once before, when she’d taken away his feathers and given him the night. “It is my honor to stand before you.” He lowered himself to the ground, eyes in the dust. “I am at your service, as in all things.”

There was a long silence. He nearly stood up, confused as to whether she’d heard him at all. But then she spoke. Nightmare Moon had lost all her venom. Her voice was… weary, defeated. If she had spoken like this when she came to his monastery, Quill would’ve kept copying scrolls and never even thought her name.

“You are… Iron Quill,” she said. “Is that right?”

“Yes, Princess.”

“Rise out of the dust,” she commanded, tapping the ground on the edge of the ridge beside her with a hoof. “You will come and stand beside me.”

He obeyed. As he stepped up to the side of the ridge, he could see what Nightmare Moon had been looking at. A bleak expanse of shady ground, stretching away from them. Various craters broke the surface, just as frequently as the ones surrounding them. It seemed to continue on forever.

He probably should’ve kept his mouth shut. That was the smart thing in the presence of one so great. But curiosity was what got him here in the first place. “What did she do to us?”

Nightmare Moon turned her eyes on him. Those slits seemed to narrow, seeing him for the first time. Then she looked away. “My traitor of a sister… has banished us from Equestria. Look closer, child of the night. You know where we are.”

He looked. It took him a few more seconds—the green and blue sphere in the sky, the dark spots in front of them, the gray soil. His eyes went wide. “P-Princess. We can’t be…”

“We are,” she said. “Welcome to the Moon, Quill. You and every other pony who fought for me. It will be your grave.”

“W-what?” He stiffened, glancing back towards the army. Up here on the slope, he could see them moving. Many were dead, but thousands more were still alive. They were rising up from the dirt, lifting up their banners, righting their war machines. “We aren’t defeated, Princess! I’m no warrior, but I can see your army is prepared to fight. If we call for General Stalwart Shield—”

She draped a wing over his shoulder, holding firm enough that he couldn’t move. “Stalwart Shield is dead,” she said. “Night Stalker too. And whoever else you are thinking of. I do not know how, but their bow mares somehow knew our officers even though you wore no markings. My army’s chain of command has been decimated. Do you know how much danger we’re in? How precarious our survival, even now?”

He shook his head.

“Let me enlighten you,” Nightmare Moon said, lifting one hoof and pointing up. “You stand inside a bubble two kilometers across. It contains the entire army, every pony who stood on our side of the siege, living and dead. As we sit together, the whole of my power holds this thin film and all it contains against the stone. Do you know what waits outside it?”

“I, uh…” He looked out. He couldn’t see the edge of the bubble—at a guess, Nightmare Moon was probably in the exact center. “This is a barren land,” he said. “The sun is high, and the soil seems desolate. Even our earth ponies may have trouble—”

Nightmare Moon silenced him with a glare that could’ve melted rock. “There is nothing outside my spell, child. Nothing but hard vacuum, as merciless as my traitor of a sister. Do you know… of course you don’t. The thing you’re breathing now, that you’ve always taken as endless and inexhaustible… is not.

“My magic contains it, for now. But that power will run out. I can feel it even now, a weakness beginning… when it overtakes me, the bubble will burst. The air I’m holding will escape into the void. You will all die in agony.”

Quill’s mind struggled to even comprehend what he was being told. What did it even mean to have land without air? No wind, no clouds… why would that kill them? And more importantly… why had she called for him of all ponies? Quill felt a sudden chill pass through his spine, unconnected to the blackness overhead. “And why tell me, Princess? What am I to do to serve you?”

“You are the highest-ranking survivor,” she said. “You must lead my army now.” She let go with her wing, though even this small movement seemed an effort for her. Her eyes went unfocused again, and her horn continued to glow.

Iron Quill did not dare contradict the princess directly. But perhaps there was a tactful way he could point out the flaws with her decision. “I haven’t held a sword in my life, Princess,” he lied. An old, famliar lie. One they shared. “My promotion was… a courtesy. I only know how to manage.”

The single eye looking in his direction narrowed, but this time she didn’t even bend down. “That should be no trouble for us here. Do you see an army to fight? Open your eyes and see the doom that comes for you. I cannot move from this place, cannot divert my attention to anything save the spell that preserves your lives. I believe I can give you… three days. Measure them by hourglass, as there will be no sunrise and no sunset during all this time. The light will endure.”

His eyes widened. He barely even understood the problem, and the thousands of lives of the army depended on him? “What should I do, Princess?”

She shook her head. “I wish so badly to bring us back to Equestria and have my revenge. My sister… dared to use the Elements against me. Their magic took us away. But I cannot turn my power to that, or else my army would be lost to the void.” She met his eyes, growing stern. “I grant you the service of Penumbra, my eldest Voidseeker. She will be your mantle of authority.”

A pony settled in beside him, moving so quietly that he hadn’t even heard her approach. She wore the same black armor as the other Voidseekers, with only her eyes visible from inside her helmet. She dropped something on the ground behind him. It was a bloody iron band—the general’s diadem, worn as a symbol of authority. Stalwart Shield had been wearing it last time he saw it.

“Take the diadem on your ears, Iron Quill. My revenge depends on you. Your survival depends on you.”

Had he imagined it, or did Penumbra turn away and snicker as she said it. He tensed, but then turned aside, taking the crown and dusting it with a wing. He settled it on his head, blood and all. “I will try, Princess.”

“No!” Her voice boomed through the bubble, lifting dust from the hill and causing the distant hum of sound to fall silent. The Royal Canterlot voice was always loud, but to a bat it was excruciating. “You will succeed! Our revenge is deserved, we cannot fail. Is that clear?”

He saluted, as crisply as he could. Not very, compared to the last pony who had worn this iron crown. “Completely, Princess!”

She waved a dismissive wing, turning away from him. “Then go to it. When you have solved it, find me here. On my life, you have three days. Use them well.”

Three days to understand the unknowable, then do the impossible. How hard could it be?

Chapter 2: Desperation

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If Iron Quill was the kind of general he’d copied stories about in the scrolls of ancient history, he probably would’ve flown proudly through the camp then, uniting the surviving companies and making some decisive orders that would save the army. Unfortunately for Nightmare Moon, unfortunately for their chances of freeing Equestria from the tyrant and getting their revenge, he wasn’t a legendary general.

Iron Quill flew straight back to the place he’d come from—the stockpile.

Despite the disaster he now knew they were in, despite his terror over their future, some small part of him filled with pride when he saw what had happened since he left. Silver Needle had been hard at work, along with every other member of his staff. The supply tent was back up, and the wooden walls of the granary were already rising once again. They had always been temporary buildings—soon they would be back.

“Sir!” Silver emerged from the tent, a quill and a scroll levitating in front of her. A checklist of some kind. She made it most of the way, then saw Penumbra beside him.

He landed. “Silver, this is Penumbra. The princess, er…”

“Knew we would be guano without me,” she supplied. Her voice was dark and smooth, a melody carried through each word. She also spoke far more than the stallion he had last seen.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “Fine. Report, Silver Needle.”

“Uh…” She whimpered. “I can’t give you the complete inventory, but… it looks like we have everything. We will require several shifts to know for sure. I can have the inventory ready in two days.”

“Two days.” He closed his eyes. “Silver Needle, congratulations. As of this moment, you are now Nightmare’s Chief Supply Officer. You’re a colonel.” He reached down, carefully removing the metal pin from his uniform and tossing it towards her. She caught it in her magic, speechless.

“And… what about you, Quill? Was she that upset with you? Nightmare would really… take your commission?”

He shook his head. If it weren’t for his new set of watchful eyes, he might’ve said something like “I wish.” The idea of losing his commission sounded a lot easier than somehow saving this army and everypony that was part of it. But there was no telling what a Voidseeker would do. He’d known them to kill for disloyalty, no matter how important a pony was. He could be taking no chances today.

To his surprise, Penumbra actually laughed from within her suit. His whole life, this sect of warriors had spoken to him so little, but now... “It would be easier for him if she had. Better to be a slave than the work our princess has in store for General Iron Quill, Lord Commander of the Lunar Army.”

The weight of that title settled on his shoulders like a mountain of shattered moon-rocks. He wavered, nearly fell over. Three days. He couldn’t give up.

“Penumbra,” he said, more directly. “I need to know what we have. I’m an inventory pony, it’s what I do. How do I marshal the surviving captains?”

Penumbra laughed again, though some of the bitterness was gone, along with the amusement. She seemed a little… annoyed? “You expect my help?”

“Why not?” He flicked one bat wing up towards the sky. “You breathe air too, don’t you? You eat food and drink water the same as us. Do you want to live through this or not?”

She had no sarcastic quips this time. Good. “There’s a call to assemble. Only the Lord Commander is permitted to blow it. You should have a horn here somewhere, don’t you?”

Right, stupid. He was so off-kilter by everything he’d completely forgotten about the call. Now that he was the Lord Commander, it was his signal to blow. “Silver, get me a horn from the stores.”

A few seconds later, it was in his hooves. He lifted it to his lips, closed his eyes, and let off four short blasts.

Having the entire inventory at his disposal meant he had the resources to erect a pavilion while he waited, filling the inside with an intact table and chairs for the ponies he expected. It shouldn’t take them long.

It took nearly an hour for the army to respond to his call. Each company should have been marshaling to arms, sending their high-officers forward to plan the next battle. But of course there was no battle up ahead. And it wasn’t often that the call came from the rear.

Still they came, beleaguered ponies trickling in. A few actually wore captains’ uniforms. Most of them wore lesser ranks, those who had survived to take their captains’ places. Twenty ponies in all, for the twenty companies. When at full strength, each would represent two hundred fighting creatures. Now… probably less.

“I don’t see Stalwart Shield,” said Permafrost, one of the few captains among the crowd Quill could see. He shuffled forward, looking around at them in disbelief. “I knew in my nightmares I’d have to take command of this sorry lot, you—”

Penumbra nudged Quill sharply in the flank, and he strode forward. Of course every captain knew him, mostly as the pony who stood between their ridiculous demands and the army running out of grain. But whatever they were about to say didn’t make it as far as the crown on his head.

“You,” Permafrost said. “By what right of the heavens above or sea beneath are you wearing that?”

“By appointment…” His voice turned into a batlike squeak, and he cleared his throat. “Nightmare Moon herself gave it to me,” he said. “And the responsibility of saving this army.”

“You?” asked another voice, all disbelief. “The monk? Shouldn’t you be counting rice?” More laughter.

“If I had time to count rice, I would,” he said, ignoring it. He might not know how to command an army, but he did know how to ignore a pony who was mocking him. “Our princess has told me we have three days until we all die.”

That silenced them. The less-senior ponies he saw visibly paled at the news, retreating a few steps. But there was nowhere for them to run to.

“Then why put anyone in charge?” asked Moonshadow. One of the only other surviving captains, one Quill didn’t completely hate. “Open the stores, let the stallions and mares enjoy themselves. If we’re dead anyway…”

“We will die if we do nothing,” he said. “I’ve been chosen to prevent that. There will be no final feasts burning off all our supplies. We will need them to survive up here, once we know how.”

“Survive what?” Permafrost asked. “We’re… I don’t know if you’ve looked around much, monk. There are no armies here. There aren’t even any trees. I have no doubt the princess is correct if she says we are in danger, but I can’t fight what I can’t see.”

“We’re in no state to fight,” a young unicorn said, adjusting his ill-fitting captain’s helmet. He barely looked out of basic training. “Half my company is gone, Lord Commander. We were at the front.”

“You don’t have to call him that—”

They did. He glanced to one side, but Penumbra only shrugged at him, unhelpfully. She wasn’t going to step in to reinforce his authority.

“Permafrost, I need you to keep order. Help the other companies make proper graves for the dead, and make camp.” He spoke quickly, directly. Didn’t even hesitate long enough that the captain could object. “Moonshadow, did your company’s alchemist survive? I want him here. And uh…”

He pointed to a third pony, an earth pony wearing the skull crest of Motherlode. “All your surviving scouts, Motherlode company. Send them here. Everypony else, keep good order in your camps, and do not tell them of the danger we are in. Expect an order to relocate to come any moment.”

Quill expected Permafrost to keep arguing, maybe to try and take the crown from his head. He strode up to Quill, wide bat wings spreading a little at his side. “When you realize you’re in over your head, Quill. You know where to find my camp.” Then he left.

Quill hadn’t called an end to the meeting, but apparently he didn’t have to. The others watched Permafrost leave and scattered themselves, even the greenhorn recruits standing in for their dead officers. Quill felt his shoulders slumping, under even more weight than the strange gravity of this place.

You’d think for all the time we swore on the beauty of the Moon that she would be a little more welcoming.

“I’ve seen worse,” Penumbra said, circling around him like a predator looking for the best half of meat to latch onto.

“You let them walk all over me,” he said, pushing away from his chair and not caring that it fell over sideways. “What did you expect to happen?”

“Wait.” She stopped dead, wing on his chest. “You thought I was supposed to help? To… give you authority or something?”

At his nod, she rolled her eyes. “I take it back, maybe I haven’t seen worse. You…” She hesitated. “Stars above, you really are that clueless.” She sat down on her haunches, reaching up and unwrapping the black cloth around her face. There was nopony else in the pavilion with them, no non-bats to look on her face.

She was even prettier than her voice had led him to believe. Though she wore the armor of battle with confidence and carried her enchanted blade with skill, she was still young. Young compared to a former monk like himself, anyway. “Iron Quill, look at me.”

He looked.

“If I had supported you now, maybe threatened them in Nightmare’s name… would that have helped?”

“Yes,” he answered reflexively. “Everypony knows how powerful you are. You’re her will, while she can’t be here. If she was here—”

“If you need my permission to be in charge, then I’m the Lord Commander, not you. It would only be a matter of time until one of them tried to argue that he or she should take your place. You would have ponies talking to me when they wanted things, asking my permission. They’d see you as an indulgence, a puppet. Is that what you want?”

He didn’t need to answer that.

“If you don’t want them to walk all over you, don’t let them,” she said. “They’re only captains. You’re the Lord Commander. Their lives are in your hooves. They’ll realize it sooner or later.”

“We don’t have later,” he said, walking past her, past the empty table to the pavilion’s wide entrance. There was a pony on their way towards them, struggling a little as he dragged a cart along the dusty ground.

Sylvan Shade, he realized. The alchemist. At least Moonshadow had followed his orders. Maybe Motherlode Company would send the scouts too. He gestured urgently to the pony as he approached, waving one hoof.

He watched as the pony rumbled up, his heavy wooden cart overflowing with crates and tightly-wrapped arcane bundles.

“I’m told I’ve been called for,” the pony said, as he got close. He dropped into a slight bow. “It’s a great honor to be requested by a pony with such a history as yourself. My name is—”

“Sylvan Shade,” Quill interrupted. “Inventor of Builders’ Lime, architect of Manehattan Harbor, intellect so great that Star Swirl himself feared your wisdom.” He rolled his eyes. “Am I missing anything?”

“Y-you’re uh…” He trailed off, visibly deflating. Quill’s recognition had stolen all his energy, replaced with simple confusion. “You forgot about my achievements in agriculture, growing wheat even in the desert.” Then he relaxed, and his tone changed. “Who are you?”

“Right now? I’m the Lord Commander of the Lunar Army, Iron Quill.” He stepped aside, opening the entrance. “Please, come inside. You’re the closest thing we have to a scholar, Celestia help us.”

He heard a hiss from further in the tent, and caught Penumbra glaring briefly at him. So maybe he wasn’t wrong about everything their religion taught.

“An army that needs a scholar,” Sylvan Shade said, standing a little straighter. “I knew my time would arrive. No doubt you’ve reconsidered my offer of a way to penetrate the castle walls without magic. Stalwart Shield rejected my wisdom, but…”

“We won’t be returning to the castle for some time to come,” Quill said. “But I might need your, uh… we can call it wisdom. Do you know where we are?”

Sylvan unhooked himself from the cart, and followed him a moment later. “Yes, uh… yes! I’m fairly certain our princess has moved us to the safest place for her, where her magic is strongest. We’re standing on the Moon, yes?”

He nodded. “How well do you understand the Moon?” He raised a wing, silencing him. “Besides holy, beautiful, sacred, greatest of the sky, softer and kinder than the sun… yes yes. All of that. But otherwise. What is known about her?”

“Well…” Sylvan took the offered seat at his table, when most of the captains hadn’t. “It is a place like Equestria, with its own geography. Its days last for twenty-nine of ours, followed by darkness. It regulates the tides. Many believe it is hollow, or made of various strange substances. Lunarium is the most popular theory, a silvery metal with profound strength and endurance to magic.”

“We don’t need new swords…” he said. Though if it were five years ago and this campaign were still a dream, I might’ve been eager to hear those stories. “Wait, hollow? What makes you say that?”

He shrugged. “I’m an alchemist, Lord Commander, not an astrologer. I can only tell you what has been told to me. Some of it may be true, or perhaps it is all wrong. I never imagined we would be able to travel here physically to test it. When we return, the entire world will shake from the discoveries I will make here.”

At least he didn’t get up to leave. “We… won’t be able to return,” he said. “At least not now. The princess said that the Moon has no air. She called it a… hard vacuum. Do you know what that is?”

He could see from Sylvan’s face that he did. His ears flattened, and he glanced over his shoulder in horror. “How are we still alive?”

“Princess Nightmare Moon holds the air at bay,” he said. “For the next… three days. Less a few hours now, I expect. Three days before her magic ends.”

“And we’re all…” He gulped.

“You knew the term,” Quill said, impressed. “I’ve… I’ve not studied as widely as you, I admit. I mostly managed affairs for the monastery that was my home. How did you know what the term meant?”

“My alchemy, obviously. Certain reactions cannot take place when air is present, and it must be kept back. Some materials transform when the pressure is reduced. Pressure is… the amount of air, usually in some closed vessel of glass. I have a reaction flask in my cart there, one I can use to create a small amount of vacuum. I have… seen what it can do to a mouse. For… entirely scientific reasons, of course.”

Quill shuddered at the thought, though he didn’t ask for details. At least now he got some idea about why Sylvan Shade might’ve ended up with the Rebellion. Perhaps he was a scientific extremist, as well as a braggart who had slept with one too many important mares.

“Suppose we needed to… construct such a vessel, large enough to house the entire camp and everypony who still lives. I don’t know the number, but… if we lost less than half in that siege, we should still have two thousand fighting ponies. Another three thousand in camp staff, followers, and…” He cleared his throat. “Helpers. How would we contain the air they all depend on?”

Sylvan’s horrified face did not relax. “You’re asking how to… contain the air that thousands of us are using to live? Stars above, Lord Commander, I don’t think you know what you’re asking.”

“I don’t know,” he said, without shyness. “So tell me. What am I asking?”

“Air might be invisible, but it has strength. This is why the pegasus can fly so well. A weak vessel that all the air is removed from will shatter. I have attempted to measure this strength, though my results would mean nothing to you. I assume if we wanted to construct something of the reverse, then we would have the same problem. I lost many shattered vessels before I found one strong enough to reuse.”

“Show me.”

Sylvan walked out, his eyes watching the sky as fearfully as a watchpony who knew there were enemy pegasi flying overhead.

As he worked, Penumbra circled past him, sounding annoyed. “Is this really the best you can do to save us? This… charlatan? He sounds like the greatest fool in the army.”

“Do you have a better idea?” he asked. She didn’t, returning to a dark corner of the tent to sulk.

Sylvan Shade returned after a few minutes of shuffling around, with a tightly packed bundle. He removed it, setting a heavy box and bellows and several thick pieces of glass on the conference table.

“Here is my strongest vessel,” he said, depositing the almost clear glass in front of Quill. The glass was curved at the bottom, without any sharp edges, and was as thick as his hoof in places. “This is what it would take, only… larger. Beyond even the greatest glassblowers in Equestria.”

“So it couldn’t be built,” he said. “Are there… any other materials that can hold back the strength within? Spells perhaps?”

Sylvan tapped his empty forehead with an exaggerated hoof. “I know as little of spells as you, Lord Commander. But our princess had demonstrated that there are indeed spells strong enough. But… if you allow me to be bold, I doubt that will be the answer. My entire company had two unicorns. How many does the whole army have?”

“Not enough,” he agreed, voice reluctant. “Buck it all. There must be a solution. I refuse to believe we’re doomed to die.”

“I hope you’re correct… as much as you do, Lord Commander,” Sylvan said. “But one thing I cannot provide you is a magical solution to this difficulty. There are no spells that prevent a pony from needing air. The suffering I’ve… observed under these conditions… will strike us down as well as any rodent, I can promise you that.”

Quill turned over the pressure vessel in his hooves, staring down at its rounded interior. He looked up and out of the tent, where Equus was still high in the sky. A little ball of light, where life was possible. Instead of the gray wasteland around them.

“So a container would have to be… this thick at least to hold air, yes?”

The alchemist nodded.

“And the moon is hollow. Surely to exist for so many thousands of years, it must be strong. Thick enough that we could fill it with air, perhaps?”

“That is…” Sylvan opened his mouth, then shut it again. He looked outside, then back at the container. “Positively insane, Lord Commander. And if I have learned nothing about the most brilliant ideas, it is that they always are.”

“Perfect.” Outside, he could see three ponies in scouts’ green, landing in the sand beyond the pavilion. Motherlode had sent them after all.

Chapter 3: Hollow Heart

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Gale was worn, bloody, nearly broken. The monastery stone was soaked with blood, dribbling down from the carnage above. His own foreleg was heavily bandaged, and the ledgers of grain and vegetables were splashed with bandit blood.

There were three of them dead on the floor near the stairs, laying right where they fell. Gale had only taken the time to remove the daggers from them, spreading them casually around the room where he could reach them. Behind him was the final, greatest target of the nameless bandits—a huge steel door, with the wealth of Celestia’s greatest monastery inside.

The only key was around his neck.

Gale wasn’t a warrior anymore, not since the slaughter at Day River. But he could hear the battle just about over above him. The bandits didn’t seem to be taking prisoners. What’s the point? As soon as Celestia discovers this slight against her, she’ll burn them from the planet. I’ll be too dead to care.

Hooves thumped on the wooden steps over his head, two sets. They walked like stallions, bulky and strong. Can I take two more?

They emerged at the base of the stairs, both ponies wearing black cloth over their whole bodies. Dark blue wrapped around their heads, though one still had a prominent horn. He couldn’t see anything but their eyes.

The horned one pointed at him with one hoof, splashed with blood. The other lumbered forward, hefting a crude stone axe. Stone? Captain Starsword hadn’t been wrong, the old fool. This really was a peasant uprising.

Gale was fairly certain he’d heard the old man’s dying screams a few hours ago.

“Go right back the way you came,” Gale said, stepping back, to put the table between himself and the attackers. “Leave with your lives.”

“We can’t,” said the unicorn—not a stallion, despite her remarkable height. A mare, younger sounding than he would've expected. “You have something we need.”

Gale glanced back at the shut vault door. There was a tightly-bound bundle of cloth on the floor there, shaped into a crude pony figure. Gale gritted his teeth, adjusted his wings in the loose monk’s robe. “Something you want,” he argued. “Not something you need. Turn around.”

The stallion swung his axe—crudely. It smashed into the table, wedging deep into the old wood, feet from where Gale was now standing. He didn’t wait, flipping one of the daggers off the table and jamming it into the earth pony’s legs. It barely sunk down an inch before the magic of earth stopped the blade, and he was forced to duck to doge an overhead blow.

The earth pony roared in pain anyway, flailing around madly. The table shattered under him as he stumbled towards Gale, recovering his axe. All the while the unicorn just watched from the stairs, silent.

Gale kicked another blade from the floor into the air, adjusting its path with one wing and bringing it up at the pony’s jaw from below. He dodged the retaliatory strike, which shattered the stone wall in a ring from where it hit.

“Die, monk!” the pony screamed, blood spraying from his mouth.

Gale recovered his first dagger, and shoved it into the stallion’s eye-slit. He squirmed once more, then fell limply to the ground at his hooves.

“Celetia guide you in your journey,” he whispered, rising to glare at the remaining intruder. “Are you the fool who promised them glory? Some… unlanded child of a forgotten house? Their blood is on your hooves.”

“I didn’t promise them glory,” the pony said, her voice bitter. “I promised them freedom. Freedom from the oppression they’ve grown under, near-slaves to the ones who own the land their families live on. No promise of a future, no chance for anything other than working to death. I showed them something better.”

I can’t fight another unicorn. The last one had given him the deep gash down his foreleg, which had been meant for his heart. As soon as she’s done with me, I’m dead. But she was also a mare. There was a chance, however small, that his death didn’t have to mean his failure.

“You showed them how to kill monks? The Ordo Celestial didn’t put their families into serfdom.”

“No, you just uphold the system that did. Strengthen their grip on the people with lies and meaningless worship. You are complicit in it.” The unicorn crossed the room slowly, watching his face with sudden interest. Gale lifted his robe a little, subconscious. In vain. “What’s your name?”

“Iron Quill,” he lied.

“It isn’t…” She was close now, though not quite within reach of his daggers. But she hadn’t lifted a weapon yet—he couldn’t attack her when she hadn’t done the same. It just wasn’t right. “I’ve seen you before. You were one of her generals. I’ve seen those golden eyes, I know that scar. You’re… Cinereous Gale.”

“Not anymore.” He reached down into his robe, removing the little seal of Celestia’s cutie mark, but not the key.

The more he heard her speak, the more he was beginning to realize he knew her voice, just as she had known his face. It hadn’t been obvious at first, but the more he heard… her armor was awfully thick around the sides.

“If you care about the ponies of Equestria, you will let me pass. The gold in that vault was stolen from them. It will help finance their freedom.”

Gale shook his head, then tossed the dagger on the ground at her hooves. “Might as well get it over with and kill me. I can’t win against an Alicorn.”

Her whole body tensed. The magic from her horn grew so bright in that moment that her thick wraps burned away in a few seconds. The rest started to fall away in strips, revealing the one Gale knew would be beneath. Princess Luna, her eyes wild with pain.

“I’d rather not,” she said. “Gale, you won the battle of Sun River. If anypony in the world can help me free the ponies of Equestria, it’s you. That gold doesn’t belong to the order that extorted it from desperate and starving serfs.”

He shook his head again. “There’s no gold in there, Princess. That was always a lie--the Ordo Celestial keeps up the appearance of extravagance. But it’s just an appearance. Most of the time we stock grain in there, but I ordered all of that removed. There’s nothing in there you can use.”

She raised an eyebrow, glancing at the stairs. “You’re willing to die… and to kill my stallions… for what’s in there?”

He nodded. “So were the other Cellerkeepers. They’re.... all dead. Your peasants fought well. But I’ll keep fighting too. You have to kill me.”

She shook her head. “I must have something from this place. I… yes.” Her eyes settled on him. “Arrangement can be struck. Show me what you hide, Gale. Do this, and I will allow you to trade your life. I will leave it behind in exchange. Do you agree to my terms?”

What choice did he have? This was an Alicorn—if she wanted, she could kill him with a thought, take the key, and have both the wealth inside and his life. He nodded, removing the necklace from around his neck and tossing it to her. “I accept.” He stepped out of the way. “But I suggest you cover your face before you open it.”

She did so, replacing the wraps, though she watched him curiously as she did. “I can’t imagine why. What treasures you think are worth dying over.”

She slipped the key into the vault, then turned it. One of the doors swung open.

The smell hit him first, the stink of many unwashed bodies in a small space. Through the partially open door, Gale saw a crowd of hundreds—mares and foals, from the land around the monastery. The farms these bandits had burned and pillaged.

Even now they looked out, desperate and terrified. Somewhere down in the vault, a child cried. Gale reached down, picking up the doll from where it had fallen near the door, and offering it to a foal crouching just inside. “I heard what your ‘army’ did to the ones who couldn’t get inside our walls,” he said. “I don’t want to hear it again, please.”

“The Gale of Dread cares about the lives of the innocent,” Princess Luna said, mocking. “Where was compassion when you set Rock Roost on fire?”

“I can’t go back and die with them,” he whispered. “Just… let these ponies live, please.”

“We made a deal.” The princess turned her back on him. “And you’re right. My army can make no use of that wealth. I will take your life instead.”

He closed his eyes, bracing for the blow. It was what he deserved—much less, really. He’d earned something agonizing.

It didn’t come. Instead, Princess Luna tapped an annoyed hoof on the stone floor. “Hurry up. We have to be gone before the Sky Calvary can be deployed from Cloudsdale. You of all ponies should know that.”

We. “Aren’t you going to kill me?”

She shook her head. “No, ‘Iron Quill.’ I said your life was mine. I didn’t say what I was going to do with it.”

"Sir!" The voice came from just outside his tent. Iron Quill sat up, wiping away the sweat of old nightmares. "One moment!"

The scouts gave him maps marked with several potential destinations. From the look of it there was intense attention to detail, with the heights of the hills and depth of the craters estimated with shading.

So he went to Permafrost, flying quickly across the camp to get a better look at what the other ponies had been doing while he tried to save their lives.

The madman was building fortifications. As he flew, he could see ditches going up, with pickets made from broken carts and ruined siege-equipment. Ponies with bows poked their faces from the burrows to salute as he passed overhead. Most were concentrated in the camp in the middle, where tents had been arranged in orderly rows. Permafrost’s was joined by all the other companies, though none looked quite as clean and perfect as his.

Quill wasn’t alone—Penumbra had come of course, his ghost in everything he did. She hadn’t even left the tent when he slept, hadn’t so much as glanced at the bed. When had she eaten? He didn’t ask.

But Permafrost’s banner flew high, in the center of camp, outside the massive tent he knew belonged to Stalwart Shield. The Lord Commander’s tent. His tent.

Iron Quill bit back his frustration, standing straight as he marched past the officers outside. They lowered their spears as he pushed inside, so confused by his crown and his uniform they neither attacked nor saluted.

Permafrost was there, along with half a dozen other captains. They were bending over a map on the table between them, talking in hushed voices. Quill might not know anything of war or strategy, but he knew that map. It was the Castle of the Two Sisters, with all its fortifications.

You stallions have lost your minds! We’re going to die in hours and you’re plotting the next attack? What kind of fools had Nightmare Moon found, that they ignored the obvious signs all around them.

“I didn’t invite you, Quill,” Permafrost said, not getting up. “You may wait.”

This time, he ignored it, storming right up to the table. “I require you now, Permafrost. Send these others away for a moment.”

Their eyes met. Permafrost’s eyes went to the place at his neck where a weapon might’ve hung, but of course there was nothing there. Quill could barely swing a sword, and knew nothing of daggers and bows. He carried none. “Is that so?”

“It is,” he said, pointedly adjusting the crown on his head. “I could call our princess here to resolve this, if you like.” He could hear Penumbra’s disapproving click of her tongue, though she didn’t say anything. No way Permafrost had heard that… She’s the princess. It’s okay if they think she’s the real authority. They’re right.

Finally, Permafrost nodded. “Very well, mares and gentlecolts. I’m sure the quartermaster has… an important reason for this meeting.”

He stood in place, forcing the captains and interim commanders to walk around him, until it was just the two of them in the tent. Permafrost’s body was tense, and he adjusted his belt so that the hilt of his sword was visible from under the table, catching the harsh sunlight from outside.

“It is foolish, what you’re doing,” Permafrost said. “Making an enemy out of me. Our relationship could be more of what it was.”

With me groveling and having to bow to your absurd demands, even though I outranked you? “Our time is running out,” he said. “We have two days and… fifteen hours, by my best guess. If I am not successful, we will all die. Why are you fighting me?”

Permafrost remained silent for almost a full minute, looking him up and down again. When he finally did speak, there was something familiar in his tone. It couldn’t be… pity?

“This is above your head, Quill,” he said, sounding sympathetic. “I know why you hold that rank—without it, you might be ordered to make decisions that would put the army at risk. If any of the captains could require you to do what we asked… but that does not mean you’re part of the chain of command.”

“Our princess thinks otherwise.”

Permafrost’s sympathy vanished in a flash, and his eyes hardened. “Our princess is testing our resolve. That is the true explanation for this. I understand what you’ve been ordered to do… the story you tell probably comes from her as well. But that does not mean it is the truth. It seems more likely that we are being… tested. Our obedience to the princess must be known. Our resolve before we return to the battle. Those who commanded before made… incorrect choices. They lacked faith. We must do better.”

Could he be right? For a moment, Quill doubted. But then he remembered the desperation. He had seen no anger on Nightmare Moon’s face, only abject despair. “I need an expedition to explore some nearby… caves, we found. If I’m right, one of them will lead to the hollow center of the moon. There are too many for me to search on my own.”

“I can’t afford to help you.” Permafrost rose, turning his back. “I have no doubt you’re right about those two days, Quill. Only we won’t be dying when they end, we’ll be returning to battle. I need to rebuild the command structure, to prepare to fell Celestia’s fortress. I can waste no more time on you.”

“You’re…” Quill fell silent, assessing the bat. He smelled of defiance, just daring Quill to push it too far. If he did… would Penumbra protect him then? Why was she here, if not to be the voice of Nightmare’s authority?

His hesitation was apparently the invitation Permafrost was looking for. “And don’t let me hear that you’ve wasted the time of any other of my troops, either,” he went on. “This charade is… indulgence enough. You have your own laborers in the supply corps. Waste their time, and not ours. I’m taking back those scouts.”

Quill left before he did anything else stupid.

“You’re just going to let him say those things,” Penumbra said, as soon as they were in the air back towards the stockpile. “You know he was inviting a duel. You could rip out his throat right there, in front of them all, and the Moon would’ve upheld your judgement.”

Iron Quill shuddered at the implication. But what could he say that wouldn’t make him sound like a coward?

He couldn’t think of an answer, so he told the truth. “He wanted a duel. If I fought him, I’d be dead. He could’ve nominated his weakest recruit as his champion, but as the aggressor I’d get no champion of my own. I’d be dead in the sand.”

They landed. Penumbra touched her wing to his shoulder, almost respectfully. “Not as stupid as you look, Quill. So maybe you can think.”

Is everything you say an insult, Voidseeker?

The scouts were already gone. But Sylvan Shade’s cart was still here, and that was something. He strode into the pavilion, feeling like the crown got heavier with every step.

The stallion sat up from where he sat at the table, settling down a heavy tome. “Quill, back already? How’d the expeditions go?”

“There won’t be any,” he said, grumbling. “Silver Needle!”

She was beside him almost before he called. “Lord Commander!” She saluted.

“Assemble everypony here, as soon as you can.”

“Even the pages?”

“Even the pages,” he said. Permafrost had said one thing that was true. Quill did have his own company. It might only be fifty hooves, without a warrior among them. But they had twice the brains of the rest of the army together. “Now.”

Whatever enthusiasm Quill had been feeling died after the third shallow crater.

It wasn’t as though he could be that angry with the scouts, not rationally. How could he possibly ask them to “find the entrances to the Moon” and expect anything but confusion and bewilderment.

“I hope the other teams are doing better,” Sylvan Shade said from somewhere behind him, apparently struggling to keep up. Just because it was easier to move here in some ways, that didn’t seem to be a guarantee that getting anything done would be easy. Sylvan Shade might be intelligent, well-read, maybe even some kind of quiet genius. But he was also not physically fit enough to be marching over hills in the scorching sun. His strength was… less than Quill expected from an earth pony.

Magic does weaken with altitude. But what did that mean for literally walking on the Moon?

“How long have we been going?”

Quill looked up to check the sun reflexively, then regretted it instantly, lowering his eyes and wincing. He wouldn’t be able to judge the time of day from that. “Don’t know. Six, maybe seven hours?”

“And… how many search areas left on our grid?”

Quill removed their copy of the map—or their quarter of the map, torn evenly where their group was going. There were several others, Quill’s laborers, carrying supplies and Sylvan Shade’s machines for the (apparently unlikely) event that they actually found anything.

“Uh…” He smiled slightly, relaxing. “One. Just one, looks like.” According to the tiny scribbled note, it was “unlikely to lead to anywhere significant.” But it was on the map, and they weren’t exactly overflowing with options.

So they walked. Quill’s hooves ached, his wings were covered in abrasive white dust, and sweat dripped down his mane. He wasn’t wearing the crown anymore, though he kept it close at hoof under one shoulder.

Penumbra fluttered overhead, barely a ghost in this strange place. She’d never landed during their trek, not for hours. I wish I knew how you have that kind of endurance.

But the Voidseekers were barely even ponies anymore. Their powers were supposedly like Nightmare Moon herself. Would they tell me about their magic if I asked? I’m the Lord Commander now.

But he didn’t ask, just walked. There was one opening left, then he could return to rejoin the rest of his crew.

“Hey, uh… Quill?” Sylvan asked. His voice wasn’t disrespectful when he said it, either. As a civilian, he had no obligation to use rank. “Is that who I think it is?”

Quill looked up, following his gesture. There, at the top of a distant slope, was the outline of an Alicorn, staring defiantly out at oblivion. Her back was stooped, her horn drooping. But magic still radiated out from her as it ever had during the duels with her sister.

We’re near that single huge crater. Nothing but ice down there, that’s not the way into the hollow center.

“Yes,” he said. “She’s keeping us alive, right now. Don’t distract her.”

It wasn’t as though they could afford to waste the time traveling to prostrate before the princess, while they still had so much of their own work to do.

“One more cave,” Sylvan said, his voice distant and pained. “Then we can… go back. See who actually found the way in. Some creature surely did…”

The walk didn’t take them much further at all before the ground started to slope. A wide ramp went down deep enough that they could enter total shade. Quill stepped down, closing his eyes and letting the sunless darkness surround him. Maybe he could just enjoy the peace for a little while…

Not long enough. He had to confirm that there was nothing here, so he could go back to the others. Hopefully their luck had been better.

“Anything down there?” Sylvan asked from over his shoulder. “Are you discouraged already, friend?”

“No.” He opened his eyes, and moved deeper into the gloom. The sand felt cool against his hooves, though still it rubbed abrasively wherever it touched. He could only imagine the difficulties ponies would have who got it in their lungs.

He didn’t have much further to travel before he made it to the bottom of the crater, and struck against solid ice. It thunked under his hooves, a hollow empty sound as empty as their hope.

“There’s… a little ice down here!” he said, turning back up. Now that he was at the bottom, he was briefly taken with the scale of the hill. It had seemed like nothing going down, with how little he seemed to weigh. But at the bottom…

His entire group were scattered on the slope above him, with expressions between helpful and bleak. Sylvan Shade was closest, and he approached a few feet behind. “Ice, huh? Not Lunarium? I was hoping if we died, at least we’d… be able to take some precious metals with us.” He removed a metal pick from his belt, sturdy iron but small enough to swing with one hoof. It was totally clean, without even a speck of moon-dust.

“No luck,” he said. “The others will probably be turning around by now too. I’ll fly back, the rest of you can catch up.”

“Suit yourself,” Sylvan said, bending down beside the ice. “I’ll take a sample. I’d like to study this, see if… maybe it would be safe to drink. At least I can die with a cool beverage, eh?”

Dust scattered around Iron Quill as he took off. It took almost no effort and he was flying, lifting lazily out of the crater to where Penumbra waited for him in the air.


“Same as the others,” he said. “There’s ice at the bottom of this one instead of metal, but that’s it. No entrance to the moon.”

“Because…” Penumbra rolled over in front of him, glaring at nothing. “Because maybe it isn’t? Because that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”

Somewhere far away, Quill heard a pony shouting. He ignored the voice—if order was breaking down in the camp, maybe that was for the best. They had so little time to live anyway.

“We aren’t supposed to be here,” he said. “If you know something we don’t, you should share it. Maybe you know the secret we need to survive this.”

“I don’t know,” Penumbra said, circling around him again. “I just know that Equus isn’t hollow. It goes deep. I’ve been in caves that go so far down you can feel the warm heartbeat of the planet against your hooves below you. So far down that the air feels heavy and light itself is a memory.”

“Your… initiation,” he guessed. “The secret temple everypony talks about. It’s underground.”

“Well obviously.” She seemed to be grinning from behind the cloth, though there was no way to be sure. “Pegasus ponies rule the skies; earth ponies have the ground. Unicorns have their castles. Where would a bat’s domain be? In the skies below the planet. The dark, forbidden places. It goes just as far down as it goes up, that’s what they told us.”

“So why is it stupid that the moon would?” he asked, stubborn. But he didn’t get an answer.

A beleaguered page, Swift Wing, popped up from behind, his wings drooping with the effort. The poor bat was young enough that the trip had obviously been a great struggle for him. Though he had still caught up. “Please, Colonel… Lord Commander. Sylvan Shade says there’s something you need to see immediately. Back in the crater.”

Quill opened his mouth to send the page away. Whatever academic interest Sylvan Shade had would do nothing to help Luna’s army of revenge make it back to enact some of that revenge.

But on the flipside, Quill wasn’t seeing too many escapes left open to them. Maybe he could use a slightly longer trip away from camp.

So he turned, angling down towards the crater and the total blackness within. At least the shade would be easy on his eyes.

He landed with a streak of dust on one sloping side, letting the powder scatter and make for a smooth landing. He turned slowly, expectant. “I appreciate the support you’ve given to me, Sylvan Shade. But I do have the rest of an army to run. Even if no one but the princess seems to believe I’m in charge.”

Sylvan Shade was on his knees in the sand, hammering franticly at the ice. Chunks of broken gray surrounded him, and he swung now with the full energy of an earth pony. Cracks spread slowly around the disk of water at the bottom of the crater, widening a little with each swing.

“Quill!” he called, out of breath, but not slowing down. “I believe I found something that might be interesting to you.” He stopped abruptly, gesturing at the crack. “Look at the dust.”

Iron Quill hurried over, and watched. The dust was rapidly drawn into the opening, pulling little pebbles along with it. He held one wing over the opening, and could distinctly sense the current being pulled down.

“That’s pressure!” Sylvan exclaimed, excited. “Negative pressure, to be precise! It means the area beyond this ice has less air than the one outside it. Perhaps… and I don’t wish to get your hopes up, but…”

“The interior of the Moon,” Quill whispered. “The entrance.”

“We’ll know soon enough!” Sylvan lifted the pickaxe again, and started swinging. Quill stepped aside, calling loudly. “Ponies, bring those shovels, hammers, everything! Swift Wing, that was some excellent flying! I have a few more trips for you.”

If Quill’s hourglass-keeper was right, they had just under 20 hours left. Was that long enough to give them a hope?

Chapter 4: Iron Crown

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It took over an hour to break a wide enough gap in the ice to permit a single pony through. It didn’t help that the ice had dripped through the cracks in existing stone, melting until it was merged with the rock. The shade had protected the ice on all but the outer layer from melting.

But eventually they broke through, and Plowshare from the labor crew walked over to the makeshift supply area on the slope.

Ponies from his entire crew were arriving now, except for the guards who protected the stockpile.

They had brought anything from that stockpile that might be useful, mostly lanterns and lamp-oil, though there were ropes and picks and various other construction tools.

It wasn’t all that unusual for their army to have to build a bridge as they crossed Equestria, or maybe destroy one.

“I’ve got it,” Plowshare said, pulling down a greasy cloth soaked with gray dust, sweat dripping down his face. “That should be big enough for anypony.”

I should go get the scouts again, he thought, before realizing how unlikely Permafrost was to let him have the scouts. He would soon have to deal with that problem, but… he wasn’t afraid of a cave. He had a pony nearby who would be the perfect partner for this.

“Take ten minutes to recover,” he said, raising his voice so the others could hear. “Then return to digging. We need it wide enough for a supply cart to pass, fully loaded.”

“What if there’s nothing down there?” Silver Needle asked from the opening, lowering the cloth she’d had around her own mouth. They had all worked, even Quill had taken a turn.

They were all just as exhausted, and this time in the sun was not making things better. “Maybe we should be… finding another way.”

There had been a few locations with promise, though none as promising as this. “Hopefully I’ll be back by then,” Quill said, glancing down at the hole. Air still blew past him, though with the opening so wide it was more a breeze than a mad howling.

“Penumbra,” he said, not turning around. Somehow he knew she would be standing beside him, waiting for this moment. “I would like you to come with me.”

He was not wrong about her. “Into the Moon,” her voice said, almost a whisper. Trying not to be heard by all the others watching nearby. “This is… It could be interesting. But will it help us?”

Quill struggled into a climbing harness. His body creaked and protested at the abuse, but he forced it to move anyway. Once it was settled, Silver Needle secured the straps behind him. It would have to do.

“We can’t answer that question out here, come on.” Penumbra led the way ahead of him into the dark.

Quill crawled along behind her, past bits of broken ice and stone that had been cleared away just enough for them to pass. The wind whipped at his mane, ushering him down with darkness and the cool breeze. The light went from blinding sun to comfortable after a short time, though there was still further to climb.

The tunnel was about ten feet in all, before a cavern abruptly opened. It led down into the gloom, past the reach of the light.

Here the constant abrasion of the sand was gone, replaced with a constant whine of unseen wind.

“Stars above,” Penumbra whispered from beside him. He turned, and nearly fell over in shock at what she was doing. The bat was undressing. Her armor came off in a few quick shrugs, until she wore only the bladed belt.

She was beautiful, even more than he’d imagined. All this time without rest or bathing meant her scent practically assaulted him in the tight space.

You are going to bury that thought and strangle it, Quill. He tried, anyway. “You’re…”

“This is where we belong,” Penumbra answered, grinning slyly at him as she tucked her armor into an alcove. She knew what she was doing to him, and she did it anyway. “You know what armor will protect you from in a cave?”

“Monsters,” he answered. “With tusks, sharp teeth. Fangs.”

“No.” Her voice came from behind him now. “Caves are desolate places, long abandoned. There is so little food here that nothing large can grow. We are the largest predators here.”

“That sounds…” He didn’t object. There was no time to argue with his expert. If she said caves were safe, then she would probably know what she was talking about. “Okay. So now we see if this goes into the hollow core. Where we’ll… hide until the princess recovers her strength.”

He twisted his head around, emerging with a lantern. Lighting it was a struggle, but he managed to get the flint and striker together on the third try. It lit up, filling the cave in front of them with orange.

The deeper he looked, the wider the cave became.

It wasn’t like any cave Iron Quill had ever seen. The monastery had caves beside it in the hills, carved into the mausoleums of honored saints. That cave was built of smooth walls, dripping with moisture and broken by spectacular multicolored formations.

This was a single shaft, getting slowly wider as it sloped gently down towards the moon’s heart. The ceiling went from barely cart-height to tall enough for a pony to fly without kicking the heads of ponies walking beneath, and still they walked. It was a good thing it was wide enough for a cart to roll even at the entrance, because there was much too much stone to carve here. Even with iron tools, this would take too much time.

“Have you ever seen a cave like this?” he asked. “I know you’re… trained for this. Or… maybe trained by this. Nopony knows.”

“Yes,” she answered, without anything snide this time. She sounded as awed as he felt. “Once. Aminon calls this a… lava tube. I expected more to be alive down here, though. The one I visited had water trickling inside it.”

They walked for long enough that he had to refill the oil in his lantern, prompting more familiar mockery from Penumbra. But he ignored it, got the faint lantern lit again, then resumed their trek. Eventually they reached the center of the moon.

The chamber rose above them so high that he couldn’t see the ceiling even aiming his lantern directly up, with uneven walls of melted rock and a slick, transparent surface of nearly-clear ice dripping down from one side. It was so large the cavern could easily have swallowed the Castle of the Two Sisters, and had plenty of room left for dessert.

How could such an incredibly massive space remain open without collapsing? There weren’t pillars to hold it up, just a huge, rough globe of nothing.

There were no other entrances, at least none large enough to easily see. The ground wasn’t flat, but continued to slope sideways just like the tunnel. Towards who knew what—the other side of the Moon, probably. We always knew it was small, it has to be to travel around the sky so quickly. We’re here.

For the first time since arriving, Quill let himself feel hope. Maybe they wouldn’t all die up here after all. Permafrost might’ve been right about one thing: he was wrong to doubt Nightmare Moon. She had chosen this location specifically, dumping them exactly where they needed to be.

“Big,” Penumbra said, voice awed. “I would think unsafe, this big. But there’s no rubble on the ground, look. No previous cave-ins. This cavern is stable.” She spread her wings in a submissive gesture, nodding to him. “I was wrong, Quill. Our princess really did pick the right pony for the job. You somehow… led us straight here.”

She says after we hiked across the entire bubble, digging into every opening we could find.

It was more than a little unfair, but maybe he could live with that. They might actually survive which seemed to be the important thing. “It won’t be easy,” he said. “Getting everypony down here, all our supplies.”

“Because their necks are made of iron and they swapped brains with moths,” she countered. “I know, I get that. But maybe that isn’t something to do on your own.” She wobbled, swaying briefly on her hooves. “Does the air feel thinner down here?”

She wasn’t wrong. He could feel a little light-headed himself, though not enough that it bothered him. He reached out, steadying her with a wing. “Golden Gate Monastery was high in the mountains,” he said. “The air was thinner than this. You’ll adapt, the others will too. I can teach them how to breathe if we have to.”

“Good enough.” She didn’t pull away from his touch, as he’d initially expected. Touch he’d given for no other reason than to help her remain standing, of course. “As fun as it was to watch you struggle, I think… maybe we don’t let you do all this yourself from here on. Since we… have a chance of living now, we should fly straight to the princess. We don’t have time to waste with Permafrost challenging your authority while everyone suffocates.”

He glanced up the path they’d come, long enough that he couldn’t even see the faint light of the entrance. Penumbra was right, as she had been about so much so far. “We can keep the army here,” he said again, taking one last glance at the huge cavern, before hefting the lantern and turning back for the surface.

“Until our revenge,” she added, without skipping a beat. “The Tyrant took so much from us. But we’ve proven we’re the ones meant to survive. We’ll return to Equestria, and its rightful ruler will be on the throne. All because of you.”

Quill could accept that praise, even if the flavor of it made him a little uneasy. It was hard to argue with a bat as pretty as Penumbra.

By the time Quill emerged from the rock, his work crew had done excellent work widening it almost enough to permit a cart. They were on the lowest section now, where it was almost all ice and not much stone.

Strangely, several of his strongest laborers were on their backs, panting with effort like a young initiate at his monastery whose blood had still not adjusted to the altitude.

“Good work, all,” he said, striding past them. There was one pony he needed to speak with before he went to the princess—well, two.

“Silver Needle,” he said, tapping her on the shoulder.

“Good news?” Her eyes lit up as he approached, alone. Penumbra would still be in the cave, putting her armor back on. She couldn’t return to the surface unclothed.

“Good news,” he repeated. “The best news. As soon as the crew is finished here, prepare to make the trip down. Requisition every laborer you can to start transporting supplies. I want you to grab the highest section of cave you can near the ice-fall, and stake out twice as much room as you think we’ll need.”

“You, uh…” Her eyes widened. “You want us to move everything? All the way out here?”

“We have to,” he said. “Go to the camp followers. I have a feeling we might be needing more strong hooves, so you can go ahead and hire… as many as you need. Don’t let bits stop you, just get it done.”

“As you order, Quill,” she said, obviously confused. “How will you convince the others?”

“If Quill was the only voice to convince the army, they would all be doomed,” Penumbra said, emerging from the cavern entrance and shaking the worst of the dust from her armor as she went. She moved past Quill, taking off in a rush and scattering more gray dust. Flying north.

They wouldn’t have that far to fly to reach the princess. There was mercy in that.

“Nightmare Moon will have to convince them,” he said. “But you will have a head start, Silver. Make me proud.”

“Have you…” Sylvan Shade hadn’t been working, despite being an earth pony. Apparently he was more interested in the rock-samples they’d extracted. But now that he saw Quill was about to take off, he hurried over. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but have you thought about how we’ll close this again?”

“I…” He shook his head. “I have no idea.”

“Well, good thing you have me,” Sylvan said, looking prouder than ever. “I know exactly how we’ll do it. All this ice… we’ll quarry more, enough to clog the entrance several feet thick. We can use unicorn magic to seal it behind us, once we’re finished.”

“That is…” Quill grinned. “Brilliant, Sylvan. Silver, make sure Sylvan Shade has the help he needs to have that plan ready.”

He didn’t wait for her objections, just took off into the air. The flight to where Nightmare Moon rested did not give him very long to think.

What was worse, the Princess of the Moon had obviously been suffering tremendously, even with so much time still left. From the way her head drooped, nodding slightly forward as they flew closer, Quill guessed she might be on the edge of sleep already.

Please don’t let it be too late!

They landed at the base of the hill, and half a dozen other Voidseekers appeared from the shadowy gloom of nearby craters, their eyes suspiciously on Quill. Penumbra walked off to join her companions, while Quill continued up the hill.

“Princess,” he said, as he got close to the top. Just not close enough that he might startle her. Besides, he understood that exhaustion perfectly. He had only had a few hours rest since they arrived, none of it very helpful.

“You.” She didn’t turn away, though her body did tense a little. “The one I appointed as my commander. I have heard the camp is hard at work. You thought it would be… useful… to use precious air digging bulwarks on the surface of a sterile rock?”

Quill didn’t know what that meant—how could they use air? But instead of letting the stress of it overwhelm him, he just surged on. “I didn’t command them, Permafrost did. He thinks he should be the commander. But I thought I should be trying to solve the problem you gave me, not fighting him for control.”

Nightmare Moon nodded; expression blank. Was that approval? Anger, building to burn him away to a crisp? Considering how long they all might have before her magic ran out, he wasn’t afraid either way.

“We will see,” Nightmare Moon said. “What have you done with this time? So… so much of it gone. I feel the strength leaving me. Even here, I am not invincible. I hope you have not squandered my trust. If you have… I have enough strength to enjoy your suffering. Before the end comes.”

Iron Quill swallowed, unable to meet her eyes. This was the part of being Lord Commander that had always made it much too dangerous for him. The pony Nightmare Moon trusted most was also the one likely to suffer her anger if some failure struck.

“I spoke with a… scholar. The wisest I could find in the army, and he informed me that many believed the Moon to be hollow. I devoted myself to locating an entrance to—”

Nightmare Moon silenced him with one hoof on the stone. She snapped it down, and a little crater spread from where she touched, throwing dust and cracking rock beneath it. “You’ve wasted what little time my survivors had on a primitive myth?”

Iron Quill closed his eyes, bracing for the blast of magic that would kill him in agony. He’d done something wrong, though he had no idea what. The result was… inevitable after that.

But after a few more seconds, he opened his eyes to see Nightmare Moon’s head hanging low, her horn flickering and the spell nearly going out. She wasn’t going to torture him after all. “You truly are doomed then. I will have to take my revenge after… an eon alone in this abyss.”

“No!” He probably should’ve shut his mouth and walked away, but Iron Quill was too exhausted to care. He hadn’t fought the army and the Moon both to curl up and die now. “Princess, we found it. There was an airtight cave, leading down for what feels like forever. We reached the center, just like Sylvan Shade said. It’s more than large enough for the entire camp, and many more besides. We can travel there, and rest while your strength recovers.”

Nightmare Moon finally turned. The glow from her horn stabilized, and she seemed to see Quill for the second time. Her slitted eyes passed through him to his soul, as only an Alicorn could. That dark power was judging him… and this time, it didn’t find him wanting.

“That is… a miracle,” she said. “Your primitive, misinformed… but of course, you can’t be blamed. How little of their knowledge is still taught anymore? They destroyed so much themselves, and the Tyrant erased the rest. No matter. Incorrect conclusions, but useful results.”

She rose to her hooves, and the whole moon seemed to tremble under her. “We will travel there at once. It will take some strength to compress this atmosphere down into the cave you’ve discovered, but we cannot afford to relinquish any of the oxygen we brought. Stars only know where we will obtain more.

“But of all the mountains standing before us, this was the closest. We may only climb them one at a time. We will climb forever, until we reach the revenge that is due to me for this betrayal, and liberation for Equestria from the Tyrant’s hooves.”

She no longer looked like she was about to collapse from anger. Now she seemed resolved, and utterly confident. The Nightmare Moon that had inspired him, as well as so many others. The one who would set Equestria free.

“There’s…” He hesitated, not wanting to take away whatever respect he’d apparently earned with her. But given the alternative was even more of her anger, or worse… “Your army doesn’t treat me like their Lord Commander,” he said. “If I ordered them to move into the cave, they would not follow.”

The Alicorn turned on him, her expression twisting into a sneer. “I wouldn’t expect them to. You’re high officer by name alone. If we were about to return to battle, you would lead us to the greatest defeat yet. But we aren’t in battle. You may even have been the perfect pony for your position. But for now… I will make the orders. Walk beside me, and stop standing like a coward. If you wish to command, you will learn to meet ponies in the eye. With me.”

He obeyed, hurrying up until he was only a wing’s breadth from the princess, on her right hoof. An honored position. When they reached the bottom of the hill, the surviving Voidseekers joined them on either side. Protecting him as well as the princess. There were only six of them left. Where did the others go?

A chill passed through him, and somehow he knew he would never see those ponies again. Maybe three days hadn’t been a measurement of Nightmare Moon all along, but on their lives.

“Loyal army!” Nightmare Moon bellowed, her voice echoing through the bubble with the magical magnification of her best spell. “The time has come to travel below the ground. My chosen Lord Commander, Iron Quill, has prepared a place for us. It is my order that every pony healthy enough to walk follow us, bringing every weapon and supply of any value. Those too injured to walk from the battle should be left in this camp. My magic will see to them. But for you, we must retreat.”

Quill’s eyes widened as he realized what she was doing. But he didn’t question the princess. Nopony could do that. If air is something that can run out, then maybe it makes sense. Not only that, but what about food? Quill knew almost exactly how many months of grain they had prepared for the siege. When it ran out…

Don’t think about months. We’ll be long gone before that.

They passed through each camp, pausing just long enough for Nightmare Moon to repeat her orders to the ponies there. Soon he could see a frenzy of activity as defenses came down, tents were stowed, and cargo wagons were packed. It would take hours to break down a camp, but they might just have those hours now.

When they reached Permafrost’s camp, he could see the resentment on his face, the anger. Yet the insubordination was gone—he could argue and hiss at Quill, even threaten him. But not with Nightmare Moon beside him.

That pony is going to be a thorn in my side as long as I’m wearing a crown. I wish the bucking fool would’ve had this office instead. But then again, Permafrost wouldn’t have understood the meaning of Nightmare’s command. They probably would’ve waited for an attack until the moment their magic ran out, and they all died.

When they reached the entrance to the cave, Quill was pleased to see one of his own cargo wagons rolling through, with Silver Needle directing the next one. She dropped into a deep bow as Nightmare Moon approached. The princess didn’t so much as speak her name, just walking past with an approving look on her face, into the icy entrance.

To his surprise, she did stop on the other side. Sylvan Shade stood there, along with a crew of laborers, cutting down a huge chunk of ice until it was about the size of the opening.

“You’re going to freeze it closed?” Her expression looked doubtful. “I don’t believe…” She shook her head. “Well, I suppose it could work. Roughly a single atmosphere, depending on the volume within. We must work with what we are given.” She walked on, horn casting a brilliant green glow to illuminate the cavern. Quill could hear several carts rolling along ahead, their wooden wheels grinding against stone.

“What do you think?” Quill asked, when they finally reached the center of the Moon. Tiny lantern-lights glowed in one corner; in the place he’d told Silver Needle to build their camp. They would probably have the best place of all, thanks to that advice. “Is the Moon large enough to…”

“Your questions are ignorant and absurd,” Nightmare Moon said harshly. “But irrelevant. I have no doubt you will understand plenty in time. This was only the first of many terrible trials ahead of us.” She walked to one side, where she would be out of the flow of traffic.

“Inform the soldiers on the surface they have two hours to reach us here. And… good work, Lord Commander. I believe I will have further need of you.”

Chapter 5: Dead Air

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Cinereous Gale sat at the back of the high table, surrounded by ledgers and records. The Nightmakers were more than just a faction of barbarian marauders—they were an open rebellion against Princess Celestia and Equestrian authority in general. Of course every member was more important than Gale—his service to the princess might be eternal, but he still refused to kill for her. So instead he managed her finances, so her troops could keep eating while they killed.

Even without his tactical experience, without even looking at the map, he could tell from the faces of everypony here that the war was going badly. “Skyforge has fallen, Princess,” said General Night Stalker, his voice flat. “We were unable to hold back the legion. Their solar device evaporated the clouds, and the city fell.”

A city of fifty thousand ponies. Not all of them had been loyal to Princess Luna, only their rulers had.

The princess no longer hid her face, but dressed in the same royal armor that she’d once worn to parades and rituals in the capital. Where they’d once been shiny and perfect, the armor was dented and scratched, mended and reforged a hundred times. Luna led from the front. “And how many escaped the city?”

“Of our troops? Twenty thousand warriors, Princess. Twice that many citizens of Skyforge as well, all flown here to Datura.”

“More mouths to feed,” somepony else muttered. “Who let them in? We’re full.” Uncomfortable, frustrated mutters filled the room, as ponies blamed one another.

Finally Gale rose. He still wore his monk’s robe, though there was a rank pin stuck through at the breast. It was still lower than anypony else in this room. “I did. I’m master of stores—I decided it would be better to suffer the hardship than let word spread that the princess allows her allies to starve.”

More uncomfortable muttering, with various dark words from the lips of generals Gale didn’t know and liked even less.

Eventually it was the princess herself who silenced them. “I support Quill’s decision. Last I checked, half the great cities were still undeclared. We will have to find a way to weather the short-term disadvantage in the interest of winning more of Equestria to our side.”

Gale sat down, returning to his wall of books and trying very hard to be unseen. These ponies didn’t care that he existed—he was a nuisance, the one who stood between them and ridiculous requests for their troops. Sooner or later he was going to wake with a dagger in his back.

“And the Legion’s losses—” Luna continued. “I’ve seen reports that they’re making for Trottingham. How many did they lose?”

Silence descended on the room again, much more swiftly this time. Ponies glanced awkwardly between each other, and again only Night Stalker was brave enough to finally speak. “Just over… one hundred thousand, Princess. They march slowly, seizing the grain from farms and villages to supply their advance. But we can use this to our advantage—they’re in unfamiliar territory, cut off from supplies. Once they steal all the food they can find, they won’t have any left for themselves. They can’t besiege Trottingham for long enough to break our supplies.”

“Our brave soldiers can be there first?” Luna asked.

Stalker nodded. “All of our soldiers can fly. The Legion… not so much.”

Yes, but how long until they turn that against us? Gale had warned against this tactic—and been completely ignored. Forming an army of pegasus ponies alone, and only using the others to reinforce static positions was bound to segment the army. When they did fight together, Luna’s soldiers fought as two groups—the pegasi, and the land folk. They didn’t see themselves as the same faction.

“We have… five thousand souls defending Trottingham,” Luna said, inspecting the map. “Even if our forces make it there, we’ll still be outnumbered four to one, isn’t that so?”

“It is,” said General Stalwart Shield, in a thick accent. She wasn’t even a flying pony, and as a result could visit the fortress for a meeting like this only with the aid of her unicorn magic. “Every brave stallion and bannermare is worth ten of them, Princess. You’ll see.”

It isn’t enough, Gale thought. We can’t keep suffering losses like this without losing morale.

He wasn’t the only one who thought so, because another pony spoke near the front of the table. Aminon said even less during these meetings than Gale did, though his interruptions were always more welcome. “There is an alternative, Princess. A thaumaturgic solution to this martial problem. Every student of war learns that magic always triumphs against mean force.”

Gale looked up from his books, at where Aminon had risen to stand in his seat.

Even at this distance, Gale felt a shiver of discomfort in his presence. Aminon was one of Star Swirl’s own apprentices, or he had been. Gale didn’t know what had happened, but now he was blind in both eyes and his mane had gone white. Yet he still seemed able to see.

“I am always open to considering other avenues,” Princess Luna said. “But we’ve already tried that kind of intervention, Aminon. Star Swirl’s protection cannot be overcome.”

“Against their soldiers, yes,” Aminon admitted. His voice was bitter, and his glassy eyes seemed to glare down in a direction none of them could see. “But we didn’t consider the solution might be the reverse. If we cannot attack the Legion with spells, we can augment ourselves. Then boasting like Stalwart Shield’s here might be true.”

“How?” Luna whispered, tone desperate. Gale knew that voice as certainly as he knew anything—the princess was going to agree no matter what Aminon wanted.

“With the Sun Tyrant’s restrictions lifted, I have studied in domains she would forbid. I have plumbed far and deep in search of allies, and I think I found one.”

Night Stalker cleared his throat, glaring at Aminon. “Princess, my stallions and mares require no arcane crutches. They will triumph for you on their own.”

Princess Luna silenced him with a wing. “Tell me.”

“It was not easy to find a creature with sufficient power to serve us, but with enough eye for mortals to care what becomes of us. The one I discovered calls itself Nightmare.”

Was it Gale’s imagination, or did the candles at their table flicker and dim at the mere mention of the name? The clouds under their hooves kept drifting, blown towards Trottingham by the brave pegasi outside.

“Be cautious, Princess,” Stalwart said, her voice nervous. “I’m no great wizard, but I have heard… never to traffic with spirits. They always take more than they ask.”

Princess Luna stomped one hoof, glowering at her. “Thank you for your advice, Stalwart Shield. But I have been studying magic since before your mother’s grandmother was born. I’m aware.” She gestured over one shoulder. “My ponies of war, return to your preparations. Do not concern yourself with this. I will converse with this Nightmare and return to you if its terms are agreeable. Trust in the wisdom of your princess.”

They rose as one, bowing to her. Gale remained where he sat, however. He wasn’t a general. Technically, he hadn’t been told to leave. Nopony seemed to care that he was left behind. As the captains filed out, Gale wondered if they were hoping that Aminon would make him disappear next.

She didn’t continue until they were all gone. “What does the spirit require?” she asked, as soon as they were alone again.

“I do not know,” Aminon said. “But we could ask it now. It gave me its secret name—I can call upon it whenever we require.”

Princess Luna levitated the large map of Equestria off the table and onto a nearby shelf, pushing aside the histories and books of strategy.

Aminon walked away, gathering his cart of possessions from near the far side of the room and carrying it back in his magic. He settled a circle of candles on the table, and began marking it with powder. Not chalk as would be used on the ground, since chalk and clouds didn’t tend to work well.

He set a wicker cage in the center of the circle. Gale winced at what he saw inside—a gray squirrel, lean and terrified. Its eyes darted around the room, as though it knew what was coming.

Luna looked up, noticing Gale on the far side of the table. “You’re still here?”

He nodded once.

“Are you here to judge my rule? You know my sister has left me no choice. She’ll sacrifice any number of lives at the altar of stability and prosperity. While the ponies who love her prosper, thousands of others are crushed under their hooves.”

Gale nodded. He didn’t get up, barely even met her eyes.

After a few seconds, Luna looked away, losing interest in him. That was just as well, though just now it wasn’t the princess that Gale feared. She could kill him whenever she wished, so that wasn’t a change.

Aminon took a long breath, then started chanting. Gale retreated a little behind his books, unable to understand but still shuddering at the sound. Whatever it was, he was saying things that no pony was meant to hear. He lifted a knife in his magic, and there was no mystery about where it would go. When a faint, pained squeak echoed from the little cage, he knew the source of it too.

The room darkened around them, until the circle of candles was nothing more than faint specks. The sunlight streaming in from outside was shifted so far red that it barely lit the room at all.

He could only see the princess by the occasional twinkle of her mane, the only thing immune to the effects.

But while he couldn’t see whatever was happening in the circle, he could hear it. A voice—not a pony’s voice, not male or female or describable according to any other terms familiar to him—but a voice nonetheless.

It spoke strangely, with a cadence of unusual pauses and diction. Like a pony who had memorized several books on Ponish without ever meeting a pony.

“The light dwellers come to me, as they always did. What can one who serves do for those who live?”

Princess Luna stared straight forward into the circle on the table. “My sister rules Equestria with a neck of iron. She lives so high up in her tower that she can’t see the suffering of the ponies below her. I want to stop it. Take Equestria for the ponies without a voice.”

There was a strange sound—not laughter, though Gale couldn’t tell exactly what it was. Something similar, maybe. “The living speak of generalities. We are not… well-equipped to see thus. Even the concreteness of physicality is anathema. Describe in what is seen, and what is needed. Then we will decide.”

Luna hesitated for a moment, then continued. “I need my army to be invincible. I want soldiers that can fight for days with low supplies, fight through night and snow and thirst and famine. I need soldiers that don’t break with fear when they are outnumbered, and their friends die around them. Most importantly, I need to be the pony who leads them. Only I can repair what my sister has broken.”

Maybe it was Gale’s eyes adjusting to the gloom, or maybe the darkness between them was just growing more distinct. Either way he could see it now, the sparkles of an outline—an Alicorn shape, though far smaller. It seemed to be overlapping with the princess, its mane covering hers. Its eyes were frightful, and it had sharp fangs.

It dissolved a second later. “Your request is great,” the Nightmare said. “The price will be equally great. Will you pay it?”

Luna didn’t hesitate. “I will.”

Iron Quill woke from the nightmare—but in some ways, he never could. His wings were still tight skin against his sides, his eyes well suited for the gloom at the center of the moon. If it wasn’t for his adaptation, he might be dead now. But he wouldn’t be thanking the Nightmare for it.

“Master,” the voice spoke again, quiet and nervous. It was Watershed, one of his supply ponies. Despite his new appointment, despite a week of life these ponies couldn’t have expected and certainly didn’t deserve, they’d given him no additional resources. Not one set of hooves to help him.

He groaned, then sat up in his folding cot. “What is it, Watershed?”

The voice that answered was terrified. “Uh… it’s her. She’s waiting for you in the command tent.”

Iron Quill rolled out of bed instantly. His own tent wasn’t that different from any of the others tucked away in the center of the Moon, although it was lit with unicorn glowstone instead of candlelight. He removed his cloak from a hook, then lifted the crown from beside it and settled it on his head. There was no time for personal grooming—their princess was not a patient mare.

He didn’t gallop so much as fly to the command tent, though at least there wasn’t far to go. The torches outside burned low, but still they provided blinding light for his sensitive eyes and ears. Penumbra fell into step beside him as he pushed through the doorway, as though she’d been beside him every moment. It doesn’t matter how quick and stealthy you are. I would’ve felt you in my bed.

Sure enough, Nightmare Moon stood beside his great table, looking down at the ledgers and maps with a quizzical, disinterested eye. She had something with her, a bundle of dark cloth that filled the tent with a strange scent. What was it, and why did its outline repulse him so much?

“Lord Commander,” she said. “You kept me waiting. I don’t like to be kept waiting.”

He nodded awkwardly—it was the only thing he could do. An argument with the Princess of Nightmares had only one ending. “Apologies, Princess.”

“You’re sleeping in the middle of the night?” She raised an eyebrow. “I’ve had many an inattentive Lord Commander, but I expected better of you.”

“I… I wasn’t aware.” He looked down. So far he knew, he wasn’t the only one having difficulty with natural rhythms since arriving on the Moon. But just because it was happening to others didn’t mean he could use it as an excuse himself. “Apologies again, Princess.”

“Is that all you do? Bursts of brilliance, punctuated with long hibernations of failure?”

He shrugged. In her eyes, he saw fires reflected, and thousands of empty eyes watching him. “Yes, Princess. I told you I was a poor choice for this post.”

“And yet…” She circled around him, glancing briefly out the open tent window. “Your competitors are building war fortifications in a cave. They work their stallions raw preparing for a battle we certainly won’t be fighting here. The realities of your failings are not as convincing as the impression.”

He said nothing, voice down. “How may I serve you, this… night, Princess?”

“Not me,” she said, gesturing at the bundle she’d left on his table. “Do you know what that is?”

He walked over, dreading every step. He was right to dread—inside the wrapped bundle was a foal.

Its eyes were open and staring in death, strangely bloodshot. Its lips were blue, and its little horn stumpy and uneven as all foals were. Yet there was no blood on the bundle, or other signs of trauma. Nightmare Moon hadn’t brought the dead infant for any dark purpose. Then why…

“You saved my army for me once, Iron Quill. They would be dead in the sand above our heads, and you acted. Another threat approaches, one subtler and more sinister. It takes the young first, then the weak. In time it will take you all, and once again I will be left to madness on this dead rock. I require you to solve it for me.”

Iron Quill reached out with one wing, gently closing the baby’s eyes before covering its face with the cloth. Then he turned back to face his princess. “With respect—Princess Nightmare Moon, you are wiser than I, stronger, and you have the power of an Alicorn. Why risk so many lives on a pony with so many failures?”

“Because… I don’t know,” she said honestly. “I don’t know how to solve it, just like I didn’t know how to save these ponies. You discovered this lava tube, you sealed it and kept my army safe here. If it had been left to my wisdom, the only loyal ponies left to me in all the world would be dead. You gave me a miracle, Iron Quill. I need another one.”

He nodded slowly, settling down in his chair. “Do you mind if I…” He looked back at the body, shivering once. Nightmare Moon shrugged, ambivalent. So he stomped one hoof, waiting until a soldier emerged from outside. “Guardsman, take this child.” He pointed. “Return them to their mother for a proper burial.”

“I took her from the camp followers,” Nightmare Moon whispered. “Near the cavern’s highest point. You’ll find the mother with the whores and dancers there.”

The soldier saluted, lifting the bundle with great reluctance. Soon he slipped back out of the tent, leaving the two of them alone again.

“What killed that child, Princess?”

“Suffocation,” she answered. “It is… difficult to explain to you. Equestria lacks the very concepts that would make these ideas understandable. You know now that the air you’re breathing is a precious resource. Protecting it is one reason this cavern made for such an opportune solution.”

He nodded. “I do now, Princess. Thanks to your teaching.”

“Now you will learn further. The air is not a single substance, that can sustain life forever. It contains three components of relevance: nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. Do you know of them?”

He shook his head.

“Of course you don’t. You’re a child of ignorance—this state cannot continue. So listen and hear. Most of the air we—”

“Excuse me!” A voice called from outside the tent, a voice that Quill instantly recognized. The guards would let Sylvan Shade pass without request, since they knew the importance of his help. He was part of the reason they were alive. “Excuse me, but I can’t help but overhear subjects of relevance being discussed in…” He trailed off, ears flattening and tail tucking as he saw the ponies inside. He gulped, retreating a step. “Forgive me, Princess—”

A faint glow gripped him around the neck, dragging him up to the table and slamming him against it. He fell limply, bleeding faintly from where it had cut into his side.

“Do you know this oaf, Iron Quill? Is there any reason I shouldn’t kill him for interrupting us?” The glow around his neck tightened, and he gasped, clawing weakly at it with his hooves. Whatever he was trying to say was completely lost in that desperation.

“Yes!” Quill exclaimed. “Oaf he might be, but this is my alchemist, Sylvan Shade. He assisted in finding this home for us. I’m sure I’ll be unable to solve this next crisis without him.”

“That is a shame.” Nightmare Moon sounded reluctant. She watched Sylvan struggle, smiling with satisfaction at his kicking and hacking.

Then the glow vanished, and he slumped limply against the table. Whatever thanks he might’ve wanted to offer were lost completely in his coughing. “I suppose we can leave him here to listen. Whether he knows these things already or not, soon everypony must if we wish to survive.”

She returned to her casual sitting position, disinterested in the pony who had nearly suffocated at her hooves.

“Aside from the nitrogen you’re breathing, one part in five is oxygen. This is the gas absolutely required for life—without it, you will all die.”

“And it’s depleting,” Quill supplied. “Without replenishment from… wherever oxygen comes from in Equestria.”

“No.” It wasn’t the princess who answered, but Sylvan Shade. “We use it slower than you think. A pony trapped in a tight space will suffocate not because their oxygen runs out, but because they’re poisoned by everything else.”

How he managed to say that—or anything, for that matter—after nearly suffocating, Quill had no idea. But Nightmare Moon seemed pleased. “That’s correct. Avoiding the technical details you do not understand, it isn’t the absence of oxygen that is our first fear, but that final substance, carbon dioxide. Ponies produce it just by being alive, but they aren’t the only ones. All animals exhale it, as well as every flame.

“To survive, we must find a way to remove it from the air around us, and replace the slowly draining supply of oxygen.”

Iron Quill scratched down everything she’d said on a scrap of paper. “How long do we have, Princess?”

“To solve the first problem? Days. I don’t have the sensors, but that newborn suffocated. I have heard many of my soldiers complaining of headaches, stomach sickness, nausea. This is the result of heavy exertion in our depleting air. These effects will spread to all of you in time, slowing your thoughts, impairing your judgement. The weak will continue to die, and movement itself will be difficult. At the present rate, I give you two days until you’re too impaired to act. Two more before you perish, in agony.”

“You mentioned fires,” Quill said. “We should order them all extinguished at once, and all construction halted. Ponies should be ordered to rest in the dark—this will extend our time, will it not?”

Nightmare Moon only shrugged. “Do whatever you think is necessary. I can tell you only what we cannot do. I know no spells to simply remove the poison from the air, or to acquire more air from the planet to replace what we spend. Celestia’s banishment is… so far… unbreakable. I will continue to attempt to break it anyway. If I am successful, then I may be able to return us, solving this problem for you.”

She rose, turning her back on them. “But I do not anticipate success in time, Lord Commander. If I’m right, you will be dead a thousand times over before I can return us. Give me my miracle.”

“I will,” he promised, without knowing or even suspecting how he would. “Somehow.”

The princess stalked away, letting the tent swish closed behind her.

“I had no idea our ruler was such a… delightful mare,” Sylvan croaked, rolling onto his back and looking up at the ceiling of the tent. “Save the world twice in one week? Does she think you’re an Alicorn too?”

“Thankfully not,” Iron Quill muttered. “Or she’d probably try to kill me first.”

Chapter 6: Fiery Stone

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Iron Quill deflated visibly as the last of the messengers finally left his chamber behind. He slouched into his chair, tossing the Lord Commander's crown angrily to the table in front of him. "I’m not sure what the point of this damn thing is if nobody is going to bucking follow my orders. I save their lives days ago, and suddenly I'm not worth listening to now?"

Sylvan Shade was gone now, off to retrieve his equipment and "some friends" from Moonshadow's camp. But since he hadn't yet returned, Quill was alone with Penumbra and his angry thoughts. "You should be pleased. In a way, they're seeing the world further ahead than you are."

He raised an eyebrow. "They're planning for a military defense of a cave on the Moon. Explain to me how that's seeing further ahead."

"Simple," Penumbra stalked around him, brushing past him with a wing. She'd removed the wrapping from around her face, as she seemed to always do when the two of them were alone. Quill couldn't blame her—she didn't have the monastery anymore, and there were so few of her kind left. He'd get lonely too in her position. "You're seeing only as far as the battle for our immediate survival. They're looking to what comes after, in the continued struggle for position within the army. They have an eye on taking your crown."

Quill growled under his breath, a string of profanities he didn't dare speak louder. "The princess told them I was right about the last disaster. What witness is better than their own princess?"

She stopped on the far side of the table, looking down at the camp's new map. They'd had to make substantial adjustments to make it fit in the long and thin cave, but they'd done it. "You're a bigger fool than you appear if you think this army is won by witnesses and achievements. How long have you been serving our princess?"

Cinereous Gale's shoulders tensed, and suddenly the dagger on his belt felt like it was pressing him into the chair. "A while."

She waved a dismissive wing. "Then think about what you saw. Nightmare Moon doesn't convince her ponies that she's right, she commands their will and delivers death to those who oppose her. These generals prospered under that system. To really earn their respect, you'll have to prove you can work within their system. What punishment have you exacted for defiance?"

Only his silence answered. He rose from his chair, shoving past her and opening the ledger and showing her. "See this?"

She stared down, expression blank. "Words."

You can't read? But he wasn't going to insult a pony who was helping him. He couldn't let the past distort in his mind until he forgot the advantages he had. Luna's soldiers, even the Voidseekers, wouldn't be classically trained. "I have twelve soldiers. Not twelve battalions, not twelve platoons. Twelve."

He tensed again, seeing back through time through the screams and a flaming sword. "They're good stallions, legionnaire trained. But those generals have thousands of raping, barbarian louts. What am I supposed to do to discipline a general whose troops could destroy us in moments?"

Penumbra moved so fast Quill couldn't see her as anything more than a blur. A dagger sunk straight through his ledger, right down to the hilt. "You have the power of life and death, Lord Commander. Those who defy your will spit in the face of our princess. I will kill them for you."

"Absolutely not." He turned his back on her in disgust, returning to the table. "If I ever kill anyone, they'll be on their feet. And they'll be armed."

"Lord Commander!" Sylvan Shade's voice came in through the tent outside, eager. "Tell your guards to let us in! I brought friends!"

I could use those right about now. "Send them in!" he called, settling back into the head of the table as dignified as he could.

Penumbra wrapped her face again, though he could still see her disapproving eyes. "Noble," she whispered harshly. "Your enemies won't be."

Quill couldn't meet her eyes—she was right, of course. It was a series of little miracles that he was still alive, with as many stupid mistakes as he'd made. In another life, you should've been the one fighting Luna's army. You'd be a hero right now, instead of trapped up here.

Sylvan came in first, pulling a familiar cart of laboratory equipment. He wasn't alone this time—a gaggle of ponies followed him, half a dozen in all. Quill knew instantly why the guards had been skeptical of letting them back in—these ponies didn't belong to any of the companies. They were camp followers.

Bells jingled around the hem of the unicorn's cloak, in a cheap imitation of Star Swirl's hat. Exaggerated nighttime shapes were sewn into her dark robe. The others were similar—the sort of ponies that another general would’ve left out on the lunar surface to die. Quill hadn't, but now he wondered.

Celestia temper my judgement. "Friends!" Sylvan said enthusiastically. "This is Cozen the Sorceress of Greenheart. And this is Smokey and Freefall." Quill stopped listening as he introduced the others, his eyes glazing over a little. If there was one consolation here, it was that half of these were unicorns, a rare resource in the camp. I wasn't allotted any by the army, so I had to requisition them from camp followers. They're going to whisper about this.

"I'm glad," Quill said, and wasn't sure he fooled anyone. "Forgive my curiosity, but… we don't have much time. Why was it necessary to bring them here?"

Sylvan winced slightly, then took one of the nearby chairs, gesturing for the others to sit as well. Most of them didn't, bunching up near one wall.

Only Cozen was brave enough to join them at the table. "That depends on whether you want to die or not," she said, voice flat. "I don't see you coming up with a solution in your command tent."

His eyebrows went up—there were generals who would kill her for language like that. Can even the mummers tell that I'm too spineless for that? "I'm used to managing resources," he said. "But I don't know how to budget what I can't see. Do you have a solution for us?"

Sylvan Shade rested one hoof on her shoulder, silencing her. "We did discuss some options on the way. Our feelings on the utility of each were not universal, however.”

Cozan levitated something off the back of the cart, settling it down on the table between them.

Quill stared intently at the contraption, searching for some clue as to what it could be.

“This pot here, with the black stuff around the rim, this is a… it’s trapped lightning.”

He tensed, pulling the pot suddenly closer. He could see a little glass from inside, and sure enough, there it was. The Maker’s Mark of Skyforge, and the swirling blue lightning inside. In days long gone, Luna’s soldiers had an endless supply of Skyforge weapons, and could dismantle any fortress with them.

“I thought we had requisitioned every surviving storm cell,” he said, raising his voice just a little. “I happen to know there are precisely sixty-two of these in existence. How many do you have?”

Cozen rolled her eyes, yanking it away from him with her magic. “You can’t be serious, Lord Commander. I have a solution for you, and you’re suggesting that what matters is that we held material from confiscation. Everypony does. If my shows aren’t entertaining, ponies don’t come. I don’t eat. I starve, your troops get bored and don’t fight well, etcetera, etcetera…”

Cozen was lucky it was Quill in charge, and not Permafrost. With him, this would be the end of the conversation. “Right. I suppose you could tell me about these changes you’ve made. I’ve never seen the jars opened again after lightning is trapped inside. I assume there is a reason they use different metals as well.”

Her eyebrows went up. “Our Lord Commander knows something other than how to murder ponies with an army? You didn’t say so, Sylvan.”

“Our Lord Commander deserves more respect,” he said. “You’d be dead without him, Cozen. Please.”

She deflated, settling back into her seat. “I apologize if I’m somewhat… sharp. I haven’t felt myself in the last few days. I think it’s the cave. I’m not a bat like you. Sometimes it feels the walls are closing in…”

“You’re not at fault,” Quill urged. “But that isn’t why. You’re being poisoned. I don’t know how much Sylvan explained. In healthy ponies, mental effects are first. Changes in mood, difficulty concentrating, disorientation… it’s a reminder we are running out of time. Quickly, so if you wouldn’t mind getting along with the rest of this.”

He leaned in close, inspecting the machine she had built. There was a large glass vessel, split down the middle with a metal plate. Thin metal string ran from the lightning into either side of the glass vessel, where large upside-down jars had been waxed into place.

“Sylvan and I assembled this. I provided the, uh… energy. And he provided the expertise.”

Sylvan nodded eagerly, relaxing only when it was clear that Iron Quill wouldn’t be attacking his friend for her contraband. So he shuffled around in his cart, and emerged with a scroll in his mouth. He deposited it on the table between them.

“I’ll assume you don’t know alchemy and be quick. There are six elements—air, fire, water, earth, life, death. Everything in the world is made of some combination of these, and thus, transformed from one to another.

“It’s easiest to transform along the edge of the wheel. If we’re running out of air, to make more we need to transform fire or water. Given what the princess said about flames, and your orders… water seemed the wiser choice.” He pointed with a hoof. “Look closely at the wire, you’ll see. Bubbles of air forming as the water is transformed, lifting into these two containers. There’s only… one minor difficulty with the reaction, which I’m sure I’ll perfect in time.”

“You’re wasting time…” Cozen muttered, sitting down with a thump and looking away. “But go on, keep wasting it.”

“Difficulty… how?” Quill inspected the mechanism again. “Your lightning is depleted too quickly to make this sustainable. Or… perhaps we lack the heat to melt enough ice to keep this up. Is that it?”

“No, you’re… taking it too far already.” Sylvan Shade pushed over a dead candle from the side of the table. They used glowstone now, held in a mesh bag overhead. Candles were brighter, but Quill followed his own orders. “May I light this?” At Quill’s nod, he just pushed it towards Cozen.

“May she do all the work,” she muttered darkly. “Sylvan, we should’ve showed him my solution first. Yours is the second thing we need. Please, Lord Commander. The flaws with this solution can be worked out later. You need to know how we will solve the sooner problem. It is the poison that matters, not the lack of air. Is this not so?”

“It is,” he admitted. “Very well. You know how to remove the poison our princess called carbon dioxide from the air. How is it done?”

“Well…” Sylvan Shade pushed the mechanism away, settling the chart in front of Quill. “In principle it is easy. It is known that poison is composed of fire and death. Our unique flavor of it involves a little air as well, to keep it invisible before us. We need a more exacting transfiguration—into earth, as this is closest to death and fire. To water, if the air is more dominant.”

“He’s leaving out the important part.” Cozen flung back the large sheet on the back of her cart, exposing several wicker baskets. She settled each of them on the table, making Quill’s face twitch slightly as dirt fell onto the records and ledgers…

But Cozen either didn’t notice or didn’t care. “We’re not transmuting the principle elements anymore, but compounds. This requires a salt—the symbol at the center of the chart. We need to find a salt that is the precise inverse of the ratios of fire, air, and death. More importantly, we need a salt we can find here in this Harmony-forsaken place. These are our choices.”

There were a dozen baskets here, each one with different minerals inside. None of them seemed to contain the white powder used in preserving foods, but Quill didn’t question. “So do it then. Find the right salt, transform the poison into earth. Let’s get started.”

“Well…” Sylvan winced, suddenly avoiding his eyes. “We’re working on it, but there are some…”

“We can’t transform something we don’t have,” Cozen said, voice flat. “Yes, I know it’s in the air. But what we’re breathing now is… small amounts, yes? A wisp and a breath, or else we’d be dead already. How are we supposed to experiment with the proper reagents? We need something more. We need the poison itself, in its strength.”

“Which we don’t know how to get,” Sylvan finished for her. “If we did, we would already have the solution to this problem. Producing the poison in a form other than air would mean we could bury it, or hide it away from ponies. We can’t.”

Iron Quill rose to his hooves, turning away. “I’ll get it for you. Take whatever resources you need—I’ll be sure to authorize Silver Needle to give you anything you require. We have less than two days, so work quickly.”

“Uh…” But he didn’t even stay long enough to hear their response. He slipped out of the tent. By the time he’d passed his orders on to Silver Needle, he felt Penumbra slip in beside him. She thought she was clever and that he hadn’t noticed, but…

“Well? How’d I handle that?”

She didn’t show any shock, or any sign she was impressed. “You want praise from me for basic competence?”

He winced, but didn’t argue. Maybe Voidseekers and assassins just weren’t capable of being friendly. Unfortunately for him, he needed her to be just now. “I need your help on something, Penumbra. No, not killing.”

“Then I can’t imagine why you would need my help. We seek the void, Quill. That’s all I’m good at.”

Now who’s lying? “Aminon is still alive, isn’t he? I saw him the day we arrived, and never since.”

“Yes,” she answered, voice flat. “It’s forbidden to share our missions with outsiders, even the Lord Commander. I have been allotted to you, Aminon has not.”

He rolled his eyes. “I know, I know. I’m not… look, we’ve known each other a long time. He—” sold out our monastery to the rebellion, sacrificing hundreds of lives. “Knew me before he was a Voidseeker. Before he founded your order. I know his skills—he’s a master of all poisons, all forms of death. I need to speak with him. Can you arrange it for me?”

Penumbra looked him over for a long moment, eyes lingering on his crown, and the lump of the dagger emerging from his robe. “I can, for a price. I want you to burn that awful robe and wear some armor.”

“The Lord Commander has forbidden fires until the current difficulty is resolved,” he said, smiling faintly. “But I can promise to burn it two days from now.”

She groaned, then stuck out one hoof. “Then by stars, it is sworn. Let them punish ruthlessly all that break their oaths.”

Iron Quill snapped his hoof back, eyes going wide. Those weren’t just oaths, that was the magic of the Voidseekers. It was the kind of magic used to bind informants to truth and spies to dedication to their cause even through torture. Why use it on him now?

“Find a place so dark even your bat eyes cannot see,” Penumbra said, grinning smugly at him. “By the time you do, Aminon will find you.” She took off, flying up into the massive vaulted space. There were fewer fires burning now—though still plenty of watchmen’s torches and pointless lighting in the tents of camp dignitaries in distant sections. The Lord Commander had been disobeyed, again.

But just now he wasn’t looking for a solution to all that.

He walked past them all, past the edge of the enormous center of the cave where he took the Moon’s hollow core to be. Then past it, to one of the thinner tube-like caves that met their own. Its sides were hard and vaguely metallic, unpleasant against his hooves. Perfect place not to find anypony.

After only a short distance and a single slight twist, the last of the camp’s light was gone. But Quill was not recently transformed, and so he understood how to use his other senses, clicking and listening carefully for the responses. He slowed in his walk, listening to the return echo of the floor in front of him.

How far should he go?

He’d been walking for what felt like hours before he finally noticed another behind him. Aminon’s touch on the stone was so light that he didn’t hear it at all. But he didn’t need to—he felt the weight. The universe worked a little worse when this pony was around. He might not be a unicorn anymore, but that hadn’t stopped his magic. I don’t need to experiment to find out what alchemical compound he is. He’s all death.

“Lord Commander,” Aminon said, open mockery in his voice. “I’ve been told you wished to speak with me. A long time since we did that, old friend.”

He shuddered with disgust, spinning slowly around. There was only blackness there—total and complete, like a physical force against his eyes. But he could still feel Aminon there, without his ears or eyes. “Our friendship ended a long time ago, Aminon,” he said. “But we are allies, and I require your alliance now. The army of our princess will be destroyed without it.”

“I am always pleased to serve her,” Aminon said. “But I make no oath to you that I will obey your instructions, should I find them lacking. Whatever words you whisper to me, she will hear.”

And every demon still desperate enough to think you will grant it power. “I need a poison,” he said flatly, before this could slip back into an old argument. “A very specific poison, in order for my alchemists to remove it from the air around us and stop the army from dying.”

“All the army won’t die…” Aminon muttered, advancing slowly towards him. Quill held completely still in the silence, wincing as the other pony advanced. He had no way of knowing if this ancient enemy was coming to slit his throat, or just to listen more closely. He hadn’t brought a glowstone or a torch. “The Voidseekers will live on, far beyond all those who were too cowardly to make our vows. When you are ashes, Cinereous Gale, my service will go on. If you suffocate here beside all the others… my service will go on. I will return beside my princess to take her rightful vengeance on the Sun Tyrant and put out her star.”

Quill shuddered again in open disgust. You’re a madman, Aminon. She meant that the rule of the night would be eternal, not that she wanted to stop the sun from rising. You shouldn’t swear so many oaths to spirits. But he couldn’t say any of what he felt when he wanted help. “So you aren’t going to help? I’d reconsider, Aminon. Who do you want digging latrines? Who do you want moving boxes and cleaning camp? You? Or your peons? You might be eager to sacrifice their lives… but it would be better to preserve us. You don’t want my job.”

He laughed, taking a step back. “True enough, old friend. Your, uh… wisdom is as poignant as ever. You want poison, and I will grant you poison. The Nightmare is always near me, always listening. Watch.”

He lifted into the air on strangely skeletal bat wings. “Nightmare, hear the voice of your loyal servant!”

Quill felt it bubbling up in his chest—the revulsion he always felt, the fury. This being was the reason that Princess Luna was gone, it was the reason they’d been banished here. And some small part of it was in him, too.

I am always beside. This world will be ours in time. In the air between them, something appeared. It wasn’t light, somehow the opposite, casting reverse-shadows of greater gloom that bent the wrong way.

“Yes.” Aminon landed again, eyes focused on the dark patch. “We require the terrible poison that is killing those who haven’t yet sworn your promise. Enough of it to preserve their lives, long enough to make your choice correctly.”

It is not a poison only that you ask—like all things, you ask for only one link in the chain. What leaves your mouths flows again into the leaves of your grain, feeding your armies. What is poison to you is critical to them. There are no dreams without Nightmares.

“Will you grant it to us?”

The darkness before them deepened. A pair of faint red dots appeared in it, like the eyes of an unseen Alicorn. The already-chilly cave rapidly got worse—his breath was blowing out in front of him, though he couldn’t see it to confirm. A fierce wind blew from behind, lifting his fur and that of his companion.

An object formed in that darkness, a growing mountain of… ice? Its shape was outlined by the terrible parody of light, much larger than a pony and still growing. It towered until it blocked half the cavern.

From the lungs and cells of every animal, condensed before you to ice. Fumble with it in your ignorance, if you can. Die if you must. The demon vanished a second later, leaving the two of them alone. Iron Quill’s nausea settled back to tolerable, joined by a faint shivering focused on the mass of not-ice before him.

“There you are,” Aminon said. “The Nightmare grants your request, and so our conversation is concluded. Use it, or die, as you prefer. I think we both know what I prefer.”

He took off silently, vanishing into the darkness. Iron Quill could not see him go, but he could feel the moment where there was no longer something terrible beside him, and that was enough to relax.

Cautiously, he leaned forward, feeling for the massive block of poison. He found it, touching it with the soft frog of one hoof.

He pulled back sharply, wincing at the feeling. It was cold, but hot at the same time! How could cold burn? He searched around the cavern for a moment, until he found a stone, then chipped at the block of poison. He removed his robes, and used them to catch the biggest chunk of poison he could. That went into his saddlebags, and finally he could make his way back to camp. With luck, it would be enough.

Iron Quill deposited his dangerous cargo on the conference room table, jostling the strange mechanism these ponies were testing. He couldn’t begin to guess at how it worked—tubes and pipes all waxed together, leading from tiny containers to heat crystal and the lightning.

“This is it,” he said, nodding towards the robe. Here in the glowstone’s faint light, the bundle seemed to fizz slightly, a thick fog that dropped down off the table instead of rising around it. “The poison in the air.” He unwrapped the bundle with the edge of a hoof, careful not to burn himself this time. He opened the robe, revealing a chunk of strange ice, chalky white. There wasn’t a drop of water around it, just the strange fog rising from it, now released to pour off the table and onto the ground around them.

“You converted it to earth,” Sylvan Shade muttered, nudging the edge of it with a hoof. He winced, pulling it back. “Buck, and fire! Solid fire.”

Cozen levitated a chunk off the mass, depositing it in a wire mesh container. “I don’t suppose you can repeat this process and solve the problem for us?”

“Sadly no.” He shook his head. “Nightmare gave it to me.” Even as he said it, the glowstones faded just a little, and the tent got darker. It was whispered by many creatures that one ought not speak its name—Quill ignored those rumors. But maybe he shouldn’t have. “If the spirit could be persuaded into saving our lives, we wouldn’t need to go to all this effort to save ourselves.”

His ponies both nodded, looking back to the sample. “It doesn’t seem to want to be earth very much, does it? It’s transforming back to air before our eyes. I’ve never seen passive transmutation this fast.”

Something rested on Quill’s shoulder suddenly, and he looked up. There was Penumbra, her leg gentle but unyielding. When she spoke, it was with two voices overlapping. Sylvan Shade and Cozen stopped to stare. Quill felt his breath start to fog out in front of him again, just as it had when the spirit last spoke. “I could save you, Gale. My offer is there for every pony in this army. Only your persistent refusal guarantees your death.”

Penumbra let go a second later, shaking her head as though she’d just bumped into something. She wobbled a little, then caught herself on his shoulder. “Did I miss…”

“No.” Iron Quill didn’t push her away. “Whatever this is, finish it quickly. We don’t have much more time.”

Chapter 7: Lunar Company

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Iron Quill dreamed of distant Equestria that night, of campaigns fought and won and prices paid to forbidden things. When he did wake, it was to another harsh knock on the tent outside, and the nervous face of Chain Mail appearing inside. “It’s your, uh… circus performers?”

“My what?” he asked, not even getting the words out his mouth before several of the ponies forced their way in.

Cozen was at their head, with Sylvan Shade in the rear looking extremely uncomfortable to be there. Cozen levitated two containers with her—a glass vial, and one of the mineral baskets.

“I hope you have a good reason to be…” He yawned, then uncovered his glowstone from the wall.

“Yes.” Cozen levitated his camp table over, brushing his belongings onto the floor and depositing both baskets there. She held up the glass vial. “We did it. Conversion of poison to earth. We can save this army.”

Iron Quill leaned down, taking the tiny vial in one wing and inspecting it. Chunks of chalky rock were inside, faintly tinged green. They didn’t smoke or hiss, and actually the vial was slightly warm to the touch. “In that case, I’m no longer upset you interrupted me. By all means, enact your solution. Save our lives.”

“Well…” Sylvan shoved his way through to the front. “Apologies, Lord Commander. Cozen here didn’t mention some fairly important caveats. I was hoping we would have more time to perfect the reaction. A little more time can often prove the key to a better conversion.”

“A little more time we lack,” Cozen said, annoyed. “This is the best we’ll get.”

Iron Quill turned away from them both, walking to his mirror. He lowered his face briefly down into the washbasin, then dried with the cloth hanging there. Finally he turned around. “Can we do it or can’t we?”

Sylvan opened a worn bit of parchment, holding it out to him. Quill skimmed it as quickly as he could, though it was entirely alchemical in nature and that was beyond his study. During his retirement Quill had mastered much of economics and planning, not so much physical philosophy.

“Very interesting,” he said. “Now make it make sense.”

Sylvan passed the scroll to one of his assistants. “Any conversion from one element to another involves balance, yes? You can’t create or destroy, only transform. We experimented with various salts available to us, and settled on that one.”

Cozen helpfully lifted the edge of the basket, exposing the mineral inside. Crushed greenish powder, with larger bits of rock jumbled in around the dust. “Olivine. It was one of the minerals I found while we were above. All it needs is one of the fundamental alchemical spells, Acceleratus, to speed the transformation.”

Sylvan glared sidelong at her. “A basic unicorn spell, and many stones-weight of salt that we can’t find inside the moon. Broken to powder, in a shallow pool with as much exposure to the air as possible. Do that, and we can capture our poison, transforming it to harmless earth.”

“There’s tons of it up there,” Cozen muttered, gesturing up with a flick of her horn. “All we have to do is go back with a few carts and collect it. That can’t be too hard.”

“Depends on our princess.” Iron Quill turned for the door. “Do you know how to do enough of this to remove all the poison from the air?”

“It’s not a question of enough,” Sylvan said. “The salt eventually loses its savor and we’re forced to replace it. The stone created can be carried off. For every pound of salt, we will remove a pound of poison from the air. Unfortunately we don’t know exactly how much the army produces… but we can always just keep replacing the salt, if we can keep gathering it.”

“Prepare to begin,” he said, taking a large unpowdered chunk of the salt in his wing and turning to leave. “I’ll find a way to gather it.”

“We’ll need more than just my magic!” Cozen called after him. “I don’t know how many unicorns it will take, but the spell can be… exhausting. More than me.”

He stopped. Iron Quill already knew how much success he would have attempting to recruit the camp wizards from each of the other companies. He’d fought and lost that battle once already. “Are there unicorns skilled enough among the camp followers?”

“You mean the whores and dancers and worse?” Penumbra asked. Quill hadn’t even realized she was here, yet she appeared from the shadows at the edge of the tent. For all he knew, she’d been standing there watching him sleep since the first moment.

He could sense the wave of hostility rising from these new ponies—they were camp followers too, even if they came from the more respectful class of performers.

Iron Quill nodded. “They are exactly who I mean. There are sixteen unicorns among all the army, and none of them have reported to me. What about the camp followers?”

His guests huddled for a moment, whispering to each other in hushed tones. Sylvan too was excluded here—he had been a member of a camp before, if shunned and ignored in his position.

Eventually they looked up. “They’ll want pay,” said a tiny earth pony, the smallest pony Quill had ever seen. Definitely a circus performer. “Not just scraps off the army floors.”

“And a real space!” Somepony else added. A pegasus pony with only one wing, and a nasty scar running from their eye all the way to where their wing should’ve been. “There is so much cave, but we are kept to the top by the icy door, so our ‘stink’ will not come down and offend you.”

Cozen cleared her throat. “I haven’t done a census, and we don’t have official records like yours. But I know of a hundred unicorns at least who are old enough. But you can’t have them unless you take our families as well. We can’t leave them up there to starve while we grow fat in the luxury of the camp.”

An idea struck Iron Quill then, as insane as the alchemical conversion of poison to earth. Quill didn’t have an army, only a handful of trusted officers from another life. He didn’t have unicorns. But what he did have was all the food, and all the gold.

“Chain Mail!” Quill called, turning away from her.

He appeared in the entrance a second later, saluting. “Lord Commander.”

“Instruct Silver Needle to allocate a full company allotment bordering us and… Permafrost. Tell her to use everypony she can find to build a perimeter and assist the ponies in establishing an orderly presence here.”

“The… ponies?” Chain Mail looked confused. “Which ponies, sir? Every company is already here.”

“Not quite,” he said. “As Lord Commander, I hereby create, uh… Lunar Company. Number… 13, composed of the population of merchants and camp followers.” He turned slightly to Cozen, watching her expression. “I will serve as their commanding officer. Every working mare or stallion will receive a legionnaire’s wage, effective immediately.”

Chain Mail stumbled back a little, utterly bewildered. “Lord Commander, are you quite… are you quite certain those are your orders?”

“Absolutely certain,” he said. “Oh, and tell her to prepare a dozen carts as well, with ponies to pull them. Take them from among the new company, and be ready to depart within the hour.” He nodded towards the open doorway. “That will be all.”

Chain Mail saluted, then hurried off.

“You’ll have a dagger in you by daylight,” Penumbra said, turning away from him in disgust. “Which captain do you think will do it? Tallow? No, I think Permafrost. He’s been waiting for an excuse to challenge your right to rule by combat.”

“Let him,” Quill said, and for the first time he meant it. “I’m going to save these ponies’ lives, or bucking die trying. I don’t much care which it is at this point.”

He stopped Cozen with a wing before she could leave, forcing her to meet his eyes. There were tears running down her face, and she obviously didn’t want him to see. While her companions cheered, she tried to stay strong.

“Do you understand what this means, Cozen?” He didn’t wait for her confirmation. “There won’t be any more battles, but you’ll still be soldiers. Our days of fighting in Equestria might be done, but our new enemy is even more ruthless. Outside of this hollow space, the moon is trying to kill us. Even if we win today, it won’t be the last battle we fight.”

“I know…” was all she could say. Her voice melted into tears, and she kept wiping them with one leg. But he could still see.

“One more thing.” He pulled her back. “I don’t require training or birth from you, as the other companies do. But I will still expect you to act like soldiers. Anypony who walks into this camp leaves their whoring and cavorting at the picket line. Are we clear?”

She sniffed, nodding again. Cozen was out the tent seconds later, along with all her companions. Only Sylvan remained, watching them go. “Are you certain that wasn’t a bit… premature?” he asked. “I admire your determination, but… does the salvation of our army have to come at such a price? Their kind let… in here?”

“There was a time I could’ve had ten thousand brave stallions at my command. Those years are long over. We have to win this war with the army we have.” Iron Quill turned his back on him too. “Get to work. If you’ll excuse me, I have to speak to my armorer.”

By the time Iron Quill stepped out of the armory, he no longer dressed like a monk. The enchanted armor worn by the dead Stalwart Shield weighed heavily on his shoulders, even though the entire set had been tailored to him and fit perfectly. He knew well what terrible things had been done wearing this armor, in the name of his princess.

The armor was entirely black, overlapping scales of metal with a few larger plates along the chest. There was no helmet anymore—it had been so badly mangled with poor Stalwart’s head that it couldn’t be salvaged. The blacksmiths had better things to do than fix armor he no longer needed. He still wore the crown, settled high on his head as a reminder to everypony who might see to question him.

As he marched through camp, he passed a steady wave of ponies moving the other way—not soldiers of good breeding and discipline marching in a line, but a crowd of disorganized peasants and worse—mostly mares, along with the lowest and worst members of the army. But in some ways, there’re the most innocent of any of us. They didn’t agree to serve the Nightmare Queen. We did.

Even Quill had a choice, back then. He could’ve died.

“You think dressing up is going to stop this, you’re wrong,” Penumbra said, falling into step beside him as they approached the princess’s throne room. Well, “room” and “throne” were currently both a little subjective. It was a large tent with a round front, lit by huge torches and with the largest chair anyone in camp could find as the throne. Even from a distance, Quill could hear the voices inside—captains’ voices, no doubt complaining about him. But they weren’t yet to the entrance, so he wouldn’t be visible quite yet. “Do you think the princess will kill you, or them?”

“I think Nightmare Moon is wiser than she is proud,” Iron Quill whispered. There were more Voidseekers here, lingering without tents or rations or even cots to sleep on. So far as he knew, they didn’t need to eat, didn’t sleep… didn’t do anything besides serving their queen. “Only Aminon knows her better than I do.”

Penumbra rolled her eyes. “And yet you were the master of the treasury, and not her army. Why is that?”

“Because I refused to kill for her,” he whispered, so quiet he wasn’t even sure Penumbra had heard. “But up here, I’m not killing for Nightmare Moon. I’m killing for them.” He gestured vaguely at the armory with one wing—even his wings were armored, with an enchanted chain so thin he could still fly in it, if he had to.

A ring of soldiers blocked the entrance—not Voidseekers, but Permafrost’s personal guard. They all wore purple plumes on their helmets and white uniforms. As Quill approached, they stepped together in a single wave, forming a perfectly coordinated shield wall. “None may pass,” a stallion said, voice gruff. “Permafrost is not finished conversing with the princess.”

He could see past them, or at least over their heads, thanks to the increased height his armor gave him. Quill cleared his throat. “I am the Lord Commander of the Lunar Army. I order you to move, now.

They held still, a few glaring and some others rolling their eyes. “Our orders are not to move,” the stallion said.

“Tell your captain the Lord Commander is here. Tell him that if you aren’t out of my way, he’s going to lose his bodyguards.” He nodded slightly to Penumbra, raising his voice just a little. “If this stallion isn’t gone in thirty seconds, kill him.”

Penumbra stiffened, eyes wide with surprise. Then she dropped back, vanishing with a burst of darkness.

“I suggest you speak to your commander now,” Quill said again. “I will not be prevented from fulfilling my duties. Not by you, and not by anypony else.”

“Steelshod, Replace R-7!” He stepped back, and the wall closed around his empty place. A few soldiers shifted, glowering at him with their spears ready.

Cinereous Gale took a few steps back, as though they were casual movements he intended to make anyway. In reality, he was getting out of range of a single spear-thrust, though he was still plenty close enough for them to try and kill him if they wanted to. He could see crossbows on several of their backs, and those would be harder to avoid if they attacked him.

Don’t be a fool, Quill. You haven’t fought for years. You aren’t fighting through this now.

A few seconds later and the soldier returned, expression dark. “Captain Permafrost says that I’m not to permit you through.”

“By my count, you have ten seconds, son,” Quill said. He reached down with a wing, drawing the Lord Commander’s sword. The torches lining the entrance went out, and a chill spread between them. They were suddenly in darkness, with only the faint glow from within the throne room visible past them. The sword itself wasn’t metal, but solid darkness. “It would be a shame to see good stallions like you die for this.”

“You’re a scholar!” a pony called near the edge of the shield, raising his voice a little. “Stop strutting around in that and go back to count grain.”

Iron Quill didn’t move. “Five seconds,” he said. “The lives of every pony in this cave are mine to protect. Move.”

The captain hesitated a moment longer, glowering at him. Then he broke. “Gate formation on R-6… pace!”

The line of soldiers split open down the middle, with spears and shields pointed in at him.

Penumbra glided down beside him, tossing her dagger from her mouth and back into its sheath. “Good timing, kid.”

Iron Quill shoved his way through, sliding the sword back into its sheath. He stormed into the tent, pushing past the flaps. There were three captains in here, Permafrost and White Tallow and Moonshadow, all conversing with Nightmare Moon beside her throne. She listened with a tone of exceptional boredom, though his arrival was enough that she finally looked up.

The captains shared a confused glance, with Permafrost in particular tensing. “You shouldn’t be in here,” he said flatly, interrupting what his companion was saying about the outrage of bringing “drunkards and whores” into the camp.

“I don’t believe that’s for you to say, Permafrost,” he said, marching up to the throne. “Princess permitting, I believe your conversation is over. There are matters of consequence to discuss. You may leave.”

Nightmare Moon sat back on her throne, nodding slightly to him. But she didn’t move otherwise—didn’t so much as twitch. She wasn’t going to make this easy.

Permafrost actually laughed. “You’re lucky I didn’t tell Captain Tallow to gut you, Quill. Crawl back into your ledgers. The princess will soon be done with this farce.”

Quill glanced to the side, meeting Penumbra’s eyes through her slit. She shook her head, just a little. The message was clear enough. She couldn’t help him, not against captains. They answered to the princess herself, not like their soldiers.

Quill didn’t move. “If I do that, your soldiers will be choking on their vomit by tomorrow. I’d happily leave and let reality prove it—but there are good mares and stallions who don’t deserve to suffer because their leader is a fool.” He raised his voice just a little. “Princess, I have a solution. But I’ll need your help to enact it.”

Nightmare Moon met his eyes. “My help, or the night workers’? Don’t you think my service demands a little dignity?”

“If you thought we wouldn’t notice, or that we would ignore it… you were wrong,” Tallow said. “You can’t throw everything of history and dignity into the midden heap and expect us to allow it.”

Quill ignored him. “Princess, there were a hundred unicorns of magical strength among the camp followers. Their service in the bedroom is done—their magic will keep this army alive.”

“He can say it about anything, Princess,” Permafrost said. “It is simple for a captain to say that what they do is ‘for the army,’ that we will be destroyed if we don’t follow their brilliant plan. It is precisely that kind of thinking that got us here in the first place. We can’t take your revenge with an army of cowards and fools.”

The princess remained silent, watching him for his response. Finally Quill sighed, drawing the sword in a single quick motion. “I wanted to avoid this, Permafrost. Your camp keeps good order, and your stallions love you. But if the choice is your life, or all of theirs, then… here we are. If you want this crown, come and take it.”

Permafrost’s toothy smile stretched from one side of his face to the other. “You will regret that invitation, old man.” He glanced to each of his companions in turn. “You heard him, yes? Witnessed by these captains and our princess herself. My challenge is invited. I wish no rebellion against her majesty’s order.”

Then he laughed again. “You think because you can wear a better pony’s armor and hold their sword that you can be him? All the army will see the rule of scholars come to an end. Now.”

“No.” Nightmare Moon’s voice was suddenly harsh, commanding. “I wish for it to be an event. You three, go and inform the troops. Inform the rest of the army as well. Establish an arena. Iron Quill, how much time do you require?”

“Two more days,” he said. “As you warned.”

“Two days, then,” Nightmare Moon said. “It has been a long time since I’ve seen an event like that. Where are your grand promises about swords, Quill?”

“In Equestria,” he muttered, defeated.

“You hear my command,” Nightmare Moon said. “Now, take your stallions and go. Do as I have ordered.”

They bowed, meeting his eyes for a few last gleeful looks.

“I did try to protect him, Princess,” Penumbra said. “But I can’t protect him from himself.”

Nightmare Moon rose from her throne, shaking out her massive feathered wings. “Those foals live on a rim of melting ice and refuse to see it. Quill’s real test is not a duel, it is seeing that there is anypony alive to watch. What have you found?”

He explained as quickly as he could, showing the alchemical diagrams he had copied from Sylvan Shade’s original sketch. “That’s why I need those unicorns—” he finished, a few minutes later. “The conversion must go more quickly. There is a spell for that, one they can cast on a body of water…”

Nightmare Moon sat back, staring up at the stony ceiling. “I see no reason this should work,” she eventually said. “Alchemy as you know it is a mockery, a hearsay passage of truth from one ear to another until only the form of knowledge remains, and not the realities that underpin it. This solution should not work.”

“It will,” he said, confident. “Please, Princess. I ask so little from you, and the alternative is death. I don’t want to see any more dead children.”

She rose to her hooves, fixing him with her furious, slitted eyes. “What is it you want from me?”

“The salt we require is a green mineral from the surface. There is much of it there, but we need to gather a supply. I’ve prepared laborers to make the trip. I need your spell to protect them while they work, and bring them home. As you cast when we arrived here.”

“The green mineral,” she repeated. “That can somehow fix carbon from the air we breathe into… carbonite rock, I assume. I can’t imagine why that would work, but I’m no chemist. We must use the tools at our disposal.”

She stopped beside him, lowering her voice to a dangerous whisper. “Penumbra, I have new commands for you. If this plan fails… make sure no one kills Iron Quill here, even himself. I want him to watch in agony as the army dies.”

Penumbra nodded once. “It will be done, Princess.”

“I will meet your laborers at the exit,” she went on, as though she hadn’t just threatened him. “And Gale—I require strength from those who serve. Even if you succeed, I will not save you from the death you have invited. You asked for a duel, and so you will have it.”

“I know.” He bowed, just as the others had. “If my life is what it costs for all of these, then I’ll pay. But… maybe I won’t have to. Maybe when Permafrost doesn’t suffocate, he’ll change his mind.”

Nightmare Moon only laughed as she walked away, leaving him and Penumbra alone in the tent.

Iron Quill was not with the ponies when they left to the surface, though not for any reason of fear. Nightmare Moon was going up there—if anything, the trip would be safer than remaining behind. But he couldn't take the risk that any of his rivals might decide that his absence would be a good time to raid his army. Let them see that he was still here, and Penumbra was still under his command. They might not be afraid of him, but they could fear her dagger in their back.

He watched as they returned, roughly two hours later. Laborers marched in, rolling their carts covered with a fresh layer of the surface's ever-present gray dust. Each cart was overflowing with stone, large boulders and small and ample green powder shoveled right off the moon's surface.

Nightmare Moon had not come back with them—probably she had gone straight to her throne room, to wait out the end somewhere she wouldn't be subject to the indignity of visiting Quill's camp.

There was no missing the mark of the “soldiers” he had recruited, with their loud singing and the stench of infrequent bathing they brought. He could see the grins of officers from other armies as they watched.

Let them mock—they would learn respect when they kept breathing.

Of course, much of the camp wasn't for the former night-ponies, reassigned as makeshift heroes. Most of the space was occupied with Cozen's contraptions, the ones that would somehow save all their lives. There were a dozen identical hollow troughs, dug right into the cave floor by aid of earth pony strength. Each was lined with simple unicorn markings, and lines for irrigation connected them all.

Sylvan Shade joined Iron Quill as he approached, standing to one side as everypony worked. "We're ready for the stone," he said. "And none too soon. The news is not good from elsewhere. I hear of ponies stricken with fever, foals bedridden. They might soon die if we are not successful."

"Where did we get all this water?" Iron Quill asked. "I've seen our supply, it doesn't run this deep."

"Melting," Cozen answered, appearing behind him with less grace than Penumbra ever had, but no less smugness. "We quarried it from the underside of the glacier. We're running out of oil, by the way."

You burned oil to melt ice. No wonder ponies are getting sick a day before we thought they would. “Lantern oil is the least of our concerns," he said. "We can dismantle our siege weapons if we need more. I don't think we're going to be lobbing those casks over castle walls anytime soon."

He watched from the side as Cozen directed her friends and colleagues from the edge of camp. They didn't act with anything like professional decorum; they lounged about and worked casually—but they worked. Soon each of the troughs was full of crushed green rock, broken by earth pony hooves. Unicorns surrounded the circle, and began to chant.

"This is how our lives continue?" Penumbra asked from beside him, quiet enough that none of the non-bats could hear. "Are you sure it will do anything at all? There's no point to any of this."

He retreated a step, standing beside her. "What would you suggest? That we all swear ourselves to Nightmare?"

She tensed, and the eyes that met his from within those wraps were far more intense than he'd seen from her so far. "Never. You should die. You in particular, Iron Quill. I don't want to hear your complaining if this fails."

But how would he even know if it succeeded? The unicorns stopped chanting after a few moments, leaving a faint glow surrounding the clearing and its many pools, bright enough to keep it lit without glowstones or torches. Iron Quill walked away from where Penumbra had waited, approaching the edge of the nearest pool. As he came, he had to shove his way through the laborers and unicorns, who either didn't see him at all, or didn't care. We'll have to work on that.

The water frothed and bubbled faintly, though he couldn't have said exactly what it was doing.

"We did it," Cozen declared, pointing down past his shoulder. "We used the olivine we had to set this up, and we'll need to quarry more. The magic empowering this conversion should run out about when the salt does."

"I guess now we wait," Sylvan said, staring down with them. "See what happens."

Quill laughed. "We can't do anymore here, but we aren't waiting." He turned to Cozen. "I told you the ponies you brought would have to start living like they're creatures of repute—that starts now. Assemble everypony on the parade ground, right now."

"No rest?" Cozen asked, exasperated. "We just… look at all that."

He lowered his voice. "I'm not going to have them running drills or anything. But we need to learn if they're capable of this life, and that starts now."

She shrugged. "Your funeral, Quill."

He blocked her path with a wing. "Your funeral, Lord Commander," he corrected. "We can't ask of others what we can't even manage ourselves."

"Lord Commander," she returned, turning away. "I'll call them. Sylvan, you can help. Get your rump over here."

So it was that Iron Quill's new "army" assembled beside the pools of shallow water and pale green salt, surrounded by a faint breeze. It blew in from all around, which meant that it didn't smell terribly pleasant.

From the edges of camp, Quill could see soldiers from other companies watching them, occasionally pointing to one another and laughing at what they saw. He did his best to ignore them. Even so, the ponies he had assembled weren't much better. They spoke to each other in casual tones, barely even looking up or listening.

There were more creatures here than he'd thought, the refuse that followed along behind this army and ate their scraps. But there just weren't the same kind of scraps to go around now that they'd been banished. It was time for them to learn to pull their weight—or die.

By inviting them here, I've inserted them into this conflict. If I fail, the army will not be kind to them. The whores would be the lucky ones.

"Ponies!" he called, lifting up into the air where they all could see him. His voice carried well, particularly in an enclosed space. He knew how to shout for a drill.

Around the edges of the camp, his actual soldiers were ready for battle at a moment's notice, with armor tight and weapons polished. There was a chance Permafrost wouldn't wait, and he intended to be ready for it. "I know many of you have worked hard to make this possible. But I suspect you don't know the importance of what you've just accomplished here.

"This strange spell you've built, this construction of alchemy—it will allow all the army to live on. It takes from the air a poison that was killing us, that would bring even the greatest officers of the highest birth low."

"No change for us!" somepony called from the back—he couldn’t see who. "That's where we always are. Lifting up our betters, and walking in your shit."

Agreement echoed through the mob, far more enthusiastic than any sound they'd made for him.

"That is how it used to be," Iron Quill called. "But those days are over. This strange world we've been banished to is far crueler than the one you left behind. Its winters will not take away the grass you eat, because there's no grass here at all. The waters aren't fouled by marching stallions ahead of you, because there's no water. There are no fresh mosses to make into your beds, no trading ships—only a void without beginning or end. Permafrost and those like him have mocked the idea of you contributing to our survival.

"I think differently. I think that every stallion and mare here is the equal of those who mock and mistreat you. Fate has been unkind to many of you—you've lost loved ones in the war, suffered terribly at the consequences of the Tyrant Princess, or ours. Not anymore. Those who stay in my camp will live different lives. I won't train you to fight a battle of swords and claws, but of iron and grain. You will be a greater army than any of theirs—there are no enemy armies to fight here, no fortifications to take, no villages to massacre. Only the void.”

He landed beside the alchemical troughs, feeling the slight breeze brushing past his mane. He could only hope that meant it was working. "Silver Needle, step forward."

She waited by the edge of the group, with her clipboard levitating beside her. From her exhaustion she had helped with the spell, even given all her other duties. But she came anyway, under the watchful eyes of peasants and whores.

"Tell then, Silver. Where were you when I found you?"

She squeaked faintly, balking under the pressure. But Silver Needle owed him much, and she wasn't going to turn and flee no matter how uncomfortable the situation. "I, uh… running messages to the front."

"And now what do you do?"

"I'm, uh…" She looked away. "Quartermaster Captain, sir."

"Right." He waved her off, and Silver scurried back to the edge of the crowd with the laborers. He let her go. "I saw a pony with potential, and I lifted her. I have seen potential in you—all of you. I see a world where ponies like you are respected leaders, not the ones soldiers use for their amusement. But to make that future happen, I need your help."

That was the cue to his plants among the crowd—laborers he'd suggested to cheer at just the right moment. They did, and soon their voices were joined by many others. It felt like the whole moon began to rumble, with little sprays of dust falling from around them. Their voices echoed, and he had no doubt that even the furthest companies would be hearing them.

Let them listen. He could only hope that he was telling these ponies the truth. "Silver Needle and her assistants will sort you according to your skills and experience. Some of you will be given weapons, others will be assisting with projects like the one behind me. But we will all work, until either we return to Equestria, or we no longer have to fear for our survival in this place."

Or the rest of the army murders us all.

Chapter 8: Conflict Resolution

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Iron Quill woke without his extremities buzzing and without a headache. He sat up, cleaned without interruption, then dressed in the underclothes he'd worn under his armor for half a lifetime.

He exited the tent, nodding once to Chain Mail beside it. "Excuse me," he said. "Chain Mail. Have there been… reports, since your watch began?"

"A few," he answered, saluting. "What do you wish to know, Lord Commander?"

"Have there been any more deaths? Children and foals among the camp followers would be the most likely candidates. I'm sure you would've heard about it from our, uh… our new recruits."

"No sir," Chain Mail answered. "No dead that I've heard of. Cozen has appointed ponies to change the salt in the toxin pool, and has begun storing what remains. The only other news that anypony speaks of is your, uh… your death tonight, sir."

"At the hooves of Permafrost," he finished. "The arena is finished, then?"

Chain Mail nodded. "You need not do it, sir. We know you can't fight. The other stallions and I would fight to the last."

"I know." He returned the salute. "But you're wrong. I do have to. Our princess hasn't ruled this army with reason and persuasion, she ruled it with blood. If I'm to take it for myself, I must do so with blood. It is that, or surrender to Permafrost, and depend on his mercies not to get everypony killed."

"Will he, sir?"

Quill nodded. "If he had worn this crown, you would've died a week ago. The others too." He walked away, leaving Chain Mail at his post. He grabbed a bowl of porridge from the mess tent, then wandered to the edge of camp where he heard the most noise.

Sure enough, an arena had gone up. It wasn't nearly as grand as anything in Harmony or Luna Bay, with their expansive pavilions and floor that could be flooded for naval battles. Permafrost’s soldiers might not understand the gravity of their situation, but they sure knew how to dig a hole. Benches ran around the arena three levels high, though some cheating had been involved. Stone was cut to form the lower seats and the arena floor, and that stone was used to form the higher seats, as well as a ring of seven pillars around the arena. Soldiers and camp attendants from all the other companies were already gathering there, along with food vendors from the camp followers. Music played, and ponies sang.

"They don't know to be grateful for their lives," Nightmare Moon said from behind him.

Quill jumped, but he didn't turn around. She would expect more dignity from him. Besides—he knew how to cope with surprises by now. This wasn't worse than anything else that had happened in the last two weeks.

Nightmare Moon wore only her regalia, and a somber expression. Where had this pony been during the campaign? We wouldn't have left such a bloody trail all the way to the capital with her leading us. "I have examined the air in ways you couldn't understand—your process worked. Even as we speak, the air we breathe is scrubbed of CO2. So long as our mineral supplies persist, my army survives. You have given me a second miracle, Lord Commander."

He couldn't meet her eyes. "We aren't finished yet. There were two problems you spoke of, I remember. Oxygen must be replaced even as the poison is removed. But we already have a method for that. Sylvan and Cozen have a…"

Nightmare Moon's eyes grew suddenly harsh. "We will see if you live long enough to enact it. There is another obstacle before you, no less pressing than those two you have solved thus far. You cannot flee from this battle now."

"I never intended to flee," he whispered. "Permafrost is the best and most respected of any of the captains. When he falls, I will have his soldiers, and the other captains will know to obey.

"What about returning to Equestria, Princess? I know how badly you want your revenge. Why would you allow a duel that could kill one of your best surviving tacticians? You'll need Permafrost for your revenge, won't you?"

The Alicorn didn't respond right away, seeming to deflate a little at his words. She lowered her voice, quiet enough that only his oversized bat ears let him hear at all. "How much do you know about the Elements of Harmony?"

He matched her volume. "I know they were created by the missing Pillars of Equestria. Imbued artifacts, three you carried and three wielded by your—" He stopped abruptly at her harsh glare. "Three wielded by the Sun Tyrant."

"No more," she said. "I lost the use of them after… certain arrangements were made."

You mean they rejected your bargain with a demon. What a surprise.

"Celestia turned them against us. That is how we were banished so thoroughly. I have probed and prodded at the lock wrapped around the Moon, but so far it is impregnable. We can teleport anywhere on its surface we wish, but not back to Equestria."

"We could fly back."

Nightmare Moon threw her head back, laughing so loudly that creatures from the arena turned to stare, and laborers in his camp lowered their heads to cower before her. She kept going for almost a minute before she finally relaxed. "Iron Quill… if you survive tonight, please continue to make absurd suggestions in plain language. I haven't had cause to smile in long enough that… no, you know exactly how long."

He nodded. Maybe he should've been upset with her, but for a few moments, his princess actually seemed happy about something. That was worth a little mockery. "Are you going to explain what was so funny about that?"

"No," she said. "Know that it is impossible, Iron Quill. Not in the way that can be overcome by resourceful use of unicorns from outside the camp, either. Physical travel between Equestria and the Moon was not known even to Carcosa, in the days before the Fall. Do not waste your effort on rediscovering it here. Our only hope to see Equestria again is in my power. Are we clear?"

He nodded. There was no mistaking that confidence—it wasn't the tone of a pony who still harbored doubts in this, the Night Princess was absolute. "I understand, Princess. From where I stand, it seems there will be many more miracles before the ponies of this army can sleep soundly."

Nightmare Moon laughed again, though more subdued. "If you think you can. You may not be alive to worry about them tomorrow."

"I don't know," he admitted. "But if you'll excuse me, it isn't nightfall yet. There is still work for me to do."

Iron Quill left the princess where he had found her, returning to his camp and his “company” of recruits. But he wouldn't be mocking them, not after waking normally to a cave that was still breathing. There was a chance he wouldn't be when night came, and there were a few more arrangements he needed to make with his ponies first.

He called them all to his command tent, Silver Needle and Sylvan Shade and Cozen, along with a handful of the other ponies who had impressed him so far. No more captains, though Penumbra was there, along with Chain Mail to represent his old guard. Even among ponies who had trusted him for so long, he could see doubt and confusion. Silver's camp had been almost empty, and now…

"I know you don't know why you're here," Quill said. "Maybe not all of you. But we can't keep existing as several disparate units. We have to somehow build a single company out of… the wave of new recruits."

"A company," Chain Mail repeated. He glanced once towards Cozen, but clearly didn't care about her glares. "Each of us owes you a debt, Quill. Our old squads are dead, but that doesn't mean we agree with this."

"I know," he answered, cutting off Cozen before she could even begin. "But there's something each of you need to know. I want your oath to me that it doesn't leave this tent, are we clear? And before you answer…" He glanced to the side. "Penumbra, if anypony here breaks their oath, kill them."

Penumbra didn't have a seat at the table, but now she stepped up beside him, drawing a dagger from her belt and tossing it casually into the wood. A blade of solid darkness sunk deep, little wisps of shadow rising from around it. "As you command, Lord Commander."

He looked back up. "And now you know what you're promising. If I can't trust you, walk out."

A few of them did—two of the circus ponies, and a laborer whose name he didn't remember who had helped carve most of the air troughs. He waited for them to go before going around the circle, getting a promise from each pony in turn before he continued.

"I have spoken with our princess. I don't believe we will be returning anytime soon. I think it may take her more than one pony lifetime to break the spell trapping us here. We will never see Equestria again."

All the muttering and angry glances at the table stopped abruptly. Cozen stared down at her hooves, Chain Mail's face hardened, Sylvan began pacing back and forth behind his chair.

"Each of the other companies acts like this banishment is something temporary—Nightmare Moon doesn't think it is. I think our grandchildren will be the ones who return to Equestria to exact our revenge."

"So why bother?" Cozen asked, voice bleak. "Why are we even trying?"

"Do you want to die comfortably in your bed fifty years from now, or coughing up blood in the dirt?" Silver asked.

Silence returned, and Quill let it linger. Maybe now they would understand the gravity of their task. "If Permafrost wins tonight, your problems won't last long. He'll get everypony killed, and that will be that. But if I win, I need each of you to settle in. I know what it takes to keep an army supplied. Silver does too, I think she's learned tremendously well. Every option that was once open to us in Equestria is now closed. We can't negotiate with farmers, or rob them. We can't trade with Griffonstone or Mt. Aris's navy. There are no deer, yaks, or bison to supply us when Equestria cuts us off. We're alone. Everything this army needs must be found, made, or maintained on the moon. What does that mean?"

"Food?" Cozen suggested. "There's no salt in the world that can convert sand into rice."

"Actually, in theory—" Sylvan interrupted, but fell silent at Quill's glare. He nodded towards Silver again.

"We expected the Castle of the Two Sisters to resist our siege all the way to winter and beyond. With careful rationing, I believe we can last five months."

"It's just one execution to the next," Cozen whispered.

"No." Quill glared. "The size of the difficulties before us makes them appear monumental, but only when you see them all at once. Until we are stable, we will face each as they come. We now know how to remove poison. This is a good start, but it’s only the beginning. We must take that knowledge, and replace the good in what was taken. Our princess suggested we had longer for that. But we’ve already been here a week, so we can’t take it for granted that we have unlimited time.”

He turned towards Cozen and Sylvan again. “That model you built with lightning—I want one of those, large enough to produce air for all. Silver, furnish them with supplies as they require. Nothing is more important than breathing.”

“Maybe not yet,” Chain Mail whispered. “But Lord Commander, it’s getting colder. Do you feel it? The chill seeps in further every day. How cold is it up there?”

“When I was with the princess, I asked her that,” Cozen said. “She said that now that night has come at last, it is ‘colder than the peak of the tallest mountain, or the remotest depths of the ocean.’”

“We’re underground,” Quill said. “Maybe that will keep us warm enough until the sun returns. I don’t know. She said it would be two weeks of sun, followed by weeks of darkness. We need to be able to breathe to find out.” He gestured to one side. “Silver, add the heat to a running figure of potential dangers.”

She nodded, removing a scroll and quill and scribbling on them with her magic. “If I do, Lord Commander, I should add light as well. Our supply of glowstone is finite, and our oil is already running low. We used much of it to melt the ice.”

“Fine,” he said. “And add water to the list, while we’re at it. We will need a steady supply for the conversion to air anyway.”

“There may be a way to capture heat during the sun, and retain it when darkness comes,” Sylvan muttered. “Metals absorb it differently, and something could probably be done with glass and mirrors. The sand here would probably make good glass if we could find the right flux.”

“Later,” Quill said, raising his voice just a little. “I appreciate your enthusiasm, Sylvan. Just remember we need air first. For now… buck, what I wouldn’t give for a dragon.”

“Dracaris died at Sun River,” Chain Mail said quietly. “He isn’t here anymore, sir.”

“I know.” He stood straighter. “Go on then, you three. This army requires air. Give it to them.” He watched as they left—Sylvan eager to get started, Cozen’s expression still downcast. Silver was impossible to read. But she would follow his orders. All these ponies would, now that they understood what was at stake.

“What about us?” Chain Mail asked, as soon as the scientific ponies were gone. “We’re just soldiers, Lord Commander. There’s little my stallions can offer. We aren’t trained to understand… alchemy and magic.”

“I know. But your mission is just as important.” He glanced briefly out the open tent door. “I’ve given you an impossible task. There’s a reason none of these ponies were recruited. I’m sorry about that.”

“I’m sure you have a reason,” Chain Mail said, though his tone didn’t suggest he believed it.

“I do.” Quill leaned closer to him. “I had Silver Needle choose the strongest and most capable-looking from the recruits to assign to you. They aren’t going to be your cooks and support staff, you already have those. I want them trained.”

Chain Mail stiffened. “I got the list this morning. Two hundred fifty ponies in all, greener than the worst fifth-son of a landed mare you ever sent me.”

“They aren’t going to be fighting a siege,” Quill went on. “They don’t need to hold against the Solar Legion. I’m looking for police. This cave… the longer we’re stuck here without fighting, the more it transforms into a prison. There’s only so many times a soldier on half pay can go drinking and whoring before he wants to get back to killing.”

“You took away half the whores. I believe I saw some of their names on my roster,” Chain Mail muttered darkly.

“Precisely. These ponies are going to be a peacekeeping force. I want them trained to stop a mob, to fight unarmed ponies acting rough, or put down a soldier who has gone out of line. That’s what I need from them.”

“Sure,” Chain Mail said. “I was wrong to think we were better off than those alchemists and scholars. You want all of us spinning shit into gold.”

This time Iron Quill laughed along. “Unfortunately true,” he agreed. “And no less for me. I still need to defeat a stallion half my age after spending two decades without a sword in my hooves. With… the whole army watching.”

“I wouldn’t trade with you,” Chain Mail said, rising with one final salute. “I’ll do my best, sir. I can’t promise your orders even can be followed. But I’ll tell you after we’ve already tried.” He left too, hurrying from the tent.

Leaving Quill alone with Penumbra. She made her way to the edge of the tent, twisting the flaps closed with a tight knot before removing the wraps from her face. “You know, there is a way you can win this fight. Something Permafrost won’t be expecting.”

Quill looked back to his table, and the ledgers there. Silver Needle had left him an inventory report, frighteningly empty in most respects. He pushed it aside. The realities on that page were not going to make this duel easier. “I know what you’ll suggest, Penumbra. I can’t.”

“You can,” she whispered, just beside him. All her cynicism and mockery were gone, all her skepticisms and disdain for him. “Princess Luna chose you for this. If you die with Permafrost’s sword in your gut, then the army will die with you. I don’t want to be alone with the princess for the rest of time.”

“You don’t want to…” He trailed off, shaking his head dismissively. There were secrets there, weight to her words that he’d never guessed at before. The Voidseekers had always been more forthright with the Lord Commander, he knew that. But he still felt like even hearing them was forbidden. Punishment could only be seconds away.

It didn’t come.

“I know the power Nightmare promises, Penumbra. But I know the price he asks.” His eyes glazed over, and he saw backward through the mist of time to better days. He saw the face of a princess who believed she was breaking the wheel that ground ponies down to dust. He didn’t think there was much left of that pony anymore.

“Isn’t that price worth paying?” She was in his face, shoving him away from the table. “I need you to live through this, Quill! You can’t make up for a life cooped up in monasteries, but you can get an edge. I know you’ve been through the Hvergelmir. Shouldn’t Nightmare Moon’s lord commander have Nightmare’s power too?”

He shook his head again, more reserved this time. Now he knew the expression he’d seen in those eyes—he’d been wrong to assume he’d never see a mare look at him that way again. He was old… but Penumbra was the oldest of the Voidseekers, wasn’t she? Her youth was part of the magic. “If I win tonight… I want you never to ask me to do this again.”

“WHY?” There was no way her voice wasn’t carrying through half the camp by now. “WHAT GOOD DOES DYING FOR YOUR DEAD RELIGION DO?!”

He met her eyes without blinking. The waves of darkness radiating up from her mane didn’t frighten him, even though he knew how easy it would be for her to kill him. Penumbra wasn’t just the oldest of the Voidseekers, she was the best of them too. “How much do you know about the last rebellion?”

His words had the desired effect. “What?” Penumbra retreated a step, the darkness from her mane fading and light blue returning. “What are you talking about?”

Quill sat down, wishing he had the armor to hide in. The Lord Commander’s diadem was little shield for him now. “Princess Luna wasn’t the first rebel in Equestria’s history. There was a city called Rockroost—an ancient Griffon colony.”

“This isn’t going to save you in the arena tomorrow,” Penumbra barked, voice harsh. “Permafrost doesn’t care about your knowledge of history. You can’t talk him out of killing you.”

He went on, ignoring her. “Princess Celestia sent her best negotiators to ease tensions and prevent a war. Among them were two ponies I knew… Pensive Gale, and Amaranth Gale, landed wife and heir of Cloudsdale. King Grover wasn’t impressed with their offer, and he had the diplomats… executed. Their bodies were hung on the city walls, as a warning to Equestria.”

Penumbra froze. Whatever rude thing she’d been about to say waited. Maybe she could sense the agony he felt.

“They’re waiting for me, in the Elysian fields,” Iron Quill went on. “But Nightmare’s oath includes a promise of service after your death. If they can wait for me… I can go to them.” He turned away from her, drying his face with a wing. He cleared his throat, straightened, and turned again.

“I’m sorry for what you’ve lost, Quill,” Penumbra whispered, resting one wing on his shoulder. “But superstition won’t bring them back. I’ve been through the Hvergelmir. There’s nothing on the other side of death but an endless oblivion. You aren’t being loyal to those ponies by dying for them and taking the whole army with you.”

“I won’t die today.” Quill turned his back on her, reaching the tent’s exit and untying the knot. “Before the duel, go to my historians. Ask them what happened after Rockroost killed our envoys. Ask them about Sun River.” He felt her pained eyes on his back as he left, along with the sniff of tears.

Apparently the stories were wrong about Voidseekers. They could feel after all.

Iron Quill heard the drums as he approached the arena, echoing through the camp and around him from all sides. Quill didn’t know where ponies could’ve gone to find zebra drums to beat for the occasion—but he shouldn’t have been surprised. It was an occasion, and all the Lunar Army had come to see.

Ponies hadn’t just packed every seat, but those without the honor to warrant one filled the land all around, occasionally flapping up to catch a glance at what was inside.

Quill met Chain Mail and his troops beside the far entrance, removing his borrowed helmet to get a better look at the cave past the torches and flames.

Penumbra didn’t come.

“I think they’re waiting for you in there, sir,” Chain Mail said. “Permafrost is already speaking.”

His voice didn’t carry as well through the crowd—he’d only ever been a captain before the battle killed his predecessor. But that wouldn’t matter if Quill never went inside. He might lose his chance to secure the troops before it even began.

“This is the cowardice we can expect from an army ruled by scholars and mares! Should we be surprised the one given the costume of a captain to wear would turn around and try to do the same to other ponies? When this is over, I will put this army back in order. Our new world is hostile, too much to afford waste!” And on, and on.

“They are.” Quill nodded to Chain Mail. “Clear a path. Let’s go.”

They walked into the arena, under the chorus of Permafrost’s promises of a better army under his rule. Ponies stomped and cheered—mostly from his half of the arena.

Then Quill passed through an opening in the arena seats, and got a good look at what was inside. Huge bonfires burned on the inside, made from the wood of broken siege engines. Permafrost stood in the center, his own helmet off. There was something strange about his mane, though Quill couldn’t immediately identify it.

His eyes were mostly for the princess, who sat at the highest level at the center of the arena. All around her were the Voidseekers, keeping the crowd well back. Penumbra was there in the lowest row, her face concealed in dark armor just like all the others. She didn’t even seem to be looking at him as he came into the arena.

His soldiers stopped at the edge of the circle, and Quill crossed the dusty ground alone. He passed the bonfire, wincing at the line of smoke rising from it. We need to melt ice to drink, and we waste fuel on this. Where does Permafrost plan on getting wood when he finishes burning what we brought?

He already knew the answer, of course. Permafrost hadn’t been stuck as a captain for no reason. If he’d known what supplying an army meant, he could’ve been a better officer.

“Here he is!” Permafrost yelled, his voice echoing from the ceiling high above. “Captain of whores and laborers! The captain of scrolls and quills! His method of rule is over.”

Ponies on the edge of the circle booed and hissed as Quill passed them. But he ignored them. Ignored them until he was beside Permafrost in the center of the circle. “Are you done?”

The other pony turned to face him, grinning wickedly. Why did his presence feel so… dark? Quill met his eyes for a second, then felt the twisting in his gut of dark magic fresh on the air. He watched the blurring at the edges of Permafrost’s mane.

His eyes went wide. Stars above. Penumbra thought Permafrost would never have guessed he would make this choice—but she’d been wrong. Permafrost beat him to it.

The other bat pony smiled at him. “I am finished.” He lowered his voice to a whisper, far below anything even the listening bats all around them could hear. “Have no fear for the army when you’re gone, Quill. I have a plan for preserving these ponies against the darkness here. There are a thousand others among the princess’s first who haven’t taken the oath yet. Far fewer than we would like to retake Equestria… but I’ve heard that the Voidseekers fight like ten stallions each.”

Quill finally looked away from him. “You shouldn’t have, Permafrost. The road you’re walking now… I’ve seen where it leads. You’ve seen where it leads. Look what happened to our princess… does she look happy to you?”

“And now the treason begins, Quill? Is that it?” He laughed, grinning wicked fangs at him. “I should thank you. You were the one who inspired me, turning your pet against my Indigo guard. I’ve replaced all of them with others who have taken the oath. A few years from now, they’ll all be Voidseekers. And you will be ashes.”

His face twisted, briefly contorting with pain. He spoke again, a chorus of two voices overlapping. “Long have you refused me, Gale. Surrender to me, and I will grant you your life in service.”

“It’s not mine to swear anymore,” he whispered, turning his back on the demon-possessed captain. He took off into the air, lifting the metal-banded horn from his belt and blowing it with four, short blasts. The Lord Commander’s horn shook the whole cavern, activating instincts drilled into every soldiers over months and years of practice.

It was so loud and unexpected that the army fell silent, shouting and booing and objections all stilled. Iron Quill landed, looking from one face to the next. These might be the last words he ever spoke. “Many of you don’t know the dangers we faced since the Tyrant banished us here. Instead of overcoming those enemies, Captain Permafrost would have those of you who can be transformed, and leave the others dead.

“I know you’re better than that, brothers and sisters. I see your flags—Trottingham company, Skyforge company, every other mare or stallion who believed that Equestria could be better. When this day ends, if I still live, I swear to keep the oaths made to you when you swore to the moon princess. I don’t ask for your souls, or even your lives. Only your trust.”

He landed. There was no applause, not even from his own section. His own laborers and inventory ponies watched with horror on their faces.

“Pointless,” Permafrost said into the silence. “You can promise them whatever you want, Quill. You’re just a scribe. Let this be a lesson to anypony after who thinks they weren’t born into their station.” He lifted his helmet from the dirt, donning it.

Iron Quill did the same, lowering the ill-fitting steel to his head and settling the visor into place.

“I have heard the petitions of my servants!” Nightmare Moon called, her voice echoing through the cavern. “Let the stars above us judge the rightness of their choices by the might of their hooves.”

From around the arena, the drums started to beat.