Interlude Two: Secrets and Shadows
Luna did not much care for how well her voice echoed across the Ponyville Shelter's Royal Hall as she entered. The room was so silent...so cold. It was not what the younger Princess was used to when in Celestia's presence. She had hoped things might have improved while she had been gone, but no. There her sister sat, as she had when Luna had left. Still with her back to the door, still with her gaze fixed on the pitch-black sky outside the stain-glass windows. "Still not speaking to me," an irritated thought briefly passed through Luna's mind before she spoke again, "I...I'm back from speaking with the Royal Guards."
No answer was given.
"They say the town's repairs are going well, if slowly," Luna pressed on, "and Cadance has sent word that the Crystal Empire is also safe."
Luna's wings twitched, her ears flattening. For a moment, her eyes briefly glanced back to the door, but she shook her head at that. No more putting this off. She knew exactly what troubled her sister, and she knew what she had to say. Closing her eyes, letting out a low, relaxed sigh, she looked back up at Celestia and spoke, this time with the steel tone of Royalty, "Celestia...there is something I have to tell you."
Though the older alicorn still did not speak, she at last turned to face her fellow Princess, and Luna almost wished she had kept looking at the window; in all the years they had ruled together, she had never seen Celestia's eyes so weary. There was something almost like a smile on her face, but it was so small. So frail. It was like looking at a completely different Pony. "It...it is about what that griffon was talking about earlier," Luna said shakily, "Something she said...."
Celestia's expression did not change, but her eyes were now locked with Luna's. There was silence between the two for a moment; the younger sister opened her mouth, but found no further words coming out. Gently biting her lip, she could only continue to hold Celestia's gaze, and even dimmed as they were she could feel those violet eyes piercing through her. With a soft grunt, she flicked her head downwards, closing her eyes and collecting her breath. Another silent moment passed before the Moon Princess' wings slowly spread, her head lifting back up and her eyes opening again. "This 'Tirek'...the one she said spoke to her in her mind...," the tremble was plain in her voice even as she fought to keep it steady, "I...I believe I heard his voice too. One thousand years ago...I believe it was that voice which first led me down the path toward becoming Nightmare Moon."
The last of Celestia's tenuous smile faded immediately, and Luna, wings giving a single little beat, leaned forward just as quickly. "This is good news, 'Tia!" she said, "It means we do know something about this enemy after all. It means I could use this knowledge to find a way to help Twilight Sparkle in her mission!"
It was Celestia's turn to close her eyes and turn her gaze to the floor, and again silence fell over them both. Luna gently scuffed the floor as the moments seemed to drag on, a gentle gulp running down her throat as she waited...waited...waited for the Sun Princess to respond. With each second that passed, the Moon Princess could hear the words she truly wanted to say clearer and clearer in her mind. "I know this must be...surprising...for you to learn. And I am truly sorry I have kept it hidden from you all these years; until today, I did not fully realize it myself. But now that it is out in the open, I must act. For myself as much as for Equestria...I must put this evil to rest, once and for all."
She opened her mouth to say those very things aloud, but Celestia spoke first. "I am sorry, Luna, but I cannot allow that."
Celestia's head was still bowed, her face hidden behind that flowing prismatic mane. Luna drew back a little, brows knitted. "Sister...?" she whispered.
There was a shaking of her head, but the Sun Princess did not look back up. Instead, her wings slowly opened up, dwarfing her sister in their shadow. "I know this is not easy for you," she said, her voice at its usual even keel but with an unmistakable edge, "hiding here when there is an enemy you wish to fight. But nothing has changed since Twilight left; we must keep our focus here, on the ponies who most need it."
Something about that phrase..."the ponies who most need it"...caused the feathers on Luna's wings to stand on end, but she instead said, calmly if shakily, "S-surely it at least deserves investigation...?"
A strong beat of those pure-white wings accompanied Celestia's reply. "This is not up for discussion, sister."
There was another surge of tension in Luna's feathers, her tail slapping the ground a bit more forcefully than she might have intended. Yet her next breath came out soft and long, and her muscles relaxed as she joined Celestia in looking at the floor. "I know...I know how much this is hurting you, 'Tia," she whispered. "It hurts me too. That's why I have to do this. Because now I know, I'm the only one who can. Please...please give me this chance."
Celestia's wings slowly folded down back to her side. "Luna, I..." her voice came out thinly. She stopped herself short, taking a moment; the younger alicorn could hear the gentlest of coughs. "I wish," the Sun Princess started again, and this time that air of edge and calm mixed together had returned, "I could give you what you want...that I could make you happy this time. But you must remain here. I...I fear having you away from me...."
The minute she heard that, Luna's every inch went rigid. Her head flew back up, as did her ears, eyes wide and mouth agape. "Fear?!?" she hissed.
As if that word had physically slapped her, Celestia suddenly rose to her feet, gaze finally finding Luna's own. "S-sister...!" she gasped, "Please, forgive me, I-I mispoke...!"
Luna's teeth clenched. "Did you?" she growled lowly. She did not miss the wetness beginning to cloud her vision, but she chose to ignore it. "Even after all this time...even after everything I've done to help..." It all made sense then; raising the Moon without her permission, forcing her to stay behind when the Crysytal Empire reappeared, ordering her to remain in Canterlot when Twilight's letter had arrived, "...you still don't trust me!"
Only a heartbeat later, Celestia was off her throne, but each step forward for her was another one back for her sister, whose head kept shaking as if in disbelief. "Luna, please...!" the white alicorn cried, but it was too late.
Luna's body had already begun disappearing into whiteness. The last thing Celestia could see clearly before the entire room was also consumed in that bright light was her sister's face. Brows tightly furrowed and jaw clenched, but tears lining her eyes.
One moment and a loudly-popping, brilliant flash later, Celestia was the only alicorn left in the throne room.
She heard the doors creak open, but her eyes remained fixed on the spot where Luna had once been. "Your Majesty?" a voice called to her, sounding as if it were a million miles away. "Princess? Princess!"
It was right in front of her now, that voice. Blinking a bit, Celestia saw one of her guards standing before her, a look of clear worry on her face. "We heard a loud noise outside. Is everything alright?" the guard asked.
The Sun Princess opened her mouth briefly, only to close it again along with her eyes. When they opened, she had managed to revive her weary smile. "Everything is fine," she said, "My sister is simply...struggling with the tensions of our situation."
She turned from the guard, walking toward her throne. "It would mean a great deal to me," she called back, "if you could have some guards see if they could find her. I must wait here for Philomena to return with important news, but I would like to make sure she is alright."
The guard nodded. "At once, your majesty."
Celestia did not bother turning back to see her leave. Instead, as soon as she heard the doors close, she let out a long and ragged breath, her ears pinning back as her wings slumped to the floor. She could feel herself begin to tremble, but she stamped her hoof to the floor immediately. "No!" she told herself, "You cannot falter now. Don't let it show. They need you...Luna, Twilight, all of your little ponies need you to be strong."
Despite herself, however, she could not keep two little words from leaving her lips. "If only...."
"If only you had that strength."
The Princess' eyes went wide at that unfamiliar voice, ears and wings rising immediately. "Who...?" she shouted, whipping her head from side to side.
She saw no one, however. After several more moments, she did not hear anything else, either. She remained tense for a few moments more, however, letting her eyes slowly scan the room inch by inch until she was satisfied there was no one else around. Her wings remained wide and at the ready, but eventually she let herself resume gazing through the window. Gazing, and thinking.
So she sat, alone, in the dark and silent room.
Luna did not know exactly what location she would see as the last light of her spell began to fade. "Away from my sister" had been the only thought she had managed to put into it when she had teleported. She thus took a step back when she saw herself faced with a wall of black clouds, wings and ears both going tense. Soon after, however, she felt the unmistakable breeze of a cool night caress her body, and she felt her wings relax back along her sides. "Yes..." she thought, "this will do. Out here...in the night...it feels so much better...."
The rest of the scene around her soon became clear: she stood upon the rooftop of Ponyville's town hall, just above a gaping hole in its side. To her surprise, there were a few ponies still wandering around the streets below; an air of restlessness hung over them, true, but in every gentle sigh, every pair of closed eyes, the Moon Princess could tell. The cool night was giving them some comfort too. And despite everything else, that gave her a little smile. It went away just as quickly, however, as she turned her eyes back to where she had come from. Celestia's castle-like shelter still loomed over everything else in the town, and Luna could feel her feathers bristling again at the sight of it. "Very well, sister..." she thought, "If you refuse to trust me, then I will follow your student's example and deal with this on my own."
Which, she knew, begged the question of what, exactly, she was going to do. Her ears drooped a little as she realized she had, in fact, been counting on Celestia to help leverage a solution out of their newfound knowledge about Tirek and this "other world" the black clouds were connected to. "Still," she reminded herself with a gentle stomp of her hooves, "whatever the answer may be, I won't find it just standing up here all night."
She thus glided down to the streets below, landing gently and beginning to walk toward the library. "It's as good a place to start looking as any," she thought, holding her head up high, "Perhaps it was there that Twilight Sparkle figured out her own way through."
That was when she heard it. Clank clank clank. The tell-tale rattle of something metal, and it was drawing close to her! "Guards?" she thought, ears going sharp and trying to follow where the noise was coming from, "Come to bring me back to my sister...?"
As she swiveled around, horn already beginning to glow, she found herself greeted by something else altogether: a small blur of white, brown, and gray leaping right at her, with a joyful cry of "PRINCESS LUNA!!!"
The Moon Princess stumbled back as she suddenly found her neck wrapped in two tightly-hugging hooves, blinking repeatedly but letting the magic she had built up dissipate. After a moment, she felt the grip around her loosen, and her tackler dropped down in front of her. Immediately, Luna's face lit up with a smile. There, with a cooking pot on his head and little frying pans wrapped around each leg, was a bright-faced little colt, white with brown spots, looking up at the alicorn with wide eyes and an even wider smile of his own. "Sir Pipsqueak of the Royal Moon Knights, at your service!" he said, bowing his head with a dramatic sweep of his forehoof.
Despite the laughter threatening to burst out of her, the Princess met his bow with one of her own. "Well met, o gallant knight," she replied, "'Tis a pleasure and an honor to see you again."
The foal gave a giddy little chuckle at that, causing his "armor" to rattle about, but he quickly regained his composure, clearing his throat before bowing again. "I'm glad I could see you too, Princess," he said, "I tried t'catch up with you when you first got here, but there were so many other ponies around...!"
"'Tis fine, brave Sir Pip," Luna said, placing a gentle hoof on Pip's shoulder, "we are glad simply to see you at all."
His smile faded a bit at her touch, and for a moment Luna's ears drooped. That, however, was when Pip leaned in against the alicorn's hoof, nestling it softly. "I knew you'd come," he whispered, "I just knew...."
Slowly, Luna gave a flap of her wings, bathing the foal in the cool air of the night. "Your faith...touches me, Sir Pip," she whispered, "We only wish we could have done more...but you are safe now."
She slid down onto her knees, meeting Pip eye to eye. "And we promise," she said, whisper giving way to a whiff of the Royal Canterlot Voice, "we promise...it shall remain that way."
There it was...Luna felt her ears rise with Pip's returning smile. The colt then gave her hoof one last nuzzle before slipping back and striking a salute that set his "helmet" off with a clang. "That's why I'm here, Princess!" he said, "As your very own Moon Knight, I wanna help you protect our fellow ponies!"
Luna quirked a brow at that. "Thine offer is appreciated," she said, rising back up to her full height, "but 'tis best we get thee back to the shelter instead. Thine parents are doubtless wondering about thine whereabouts...."
"You need not worry for his parents' relief," a new voice suddenly spoke up, "We told them where he was going when we took our leave."
Trotting up behind Pip was another familiar figure, though it took Luna a moment more to recognize her: a zebra, garbed in a light-brown robe and wearing a multitude of pouches and saddlesacks. "Ah yes...we remember thee," the alicorn said, bowing her head briefly at the newcomer, "Zecora, correct?"
The medicine-maker nodded. "That name, and the honor to greet you, is mine," she replied, "But as I said, worry not, Pip's parents know he is fine."
"I couldn't sleep," Pip piped up, "so Ms. Zecora agreed t'take me on a walk through town t'calm me down."
Luna could not hold her giggle back this time. "We see thou hath picked up thine company's penchant for rhyme."
"Don't worry," Zecora said with a wink, "he doesn't do it all the time."
All three shared a laugh at that. Once it settled, however, Luna lowered her head towards Pip, gently nudging him towards Zecora. Even as the foal looked up at her with confusion in his eyes, the alicorn spoke. "Gallant Sir Pip, it hath done our heart a great deal of good to see thee again," she said, "but now...we must ask that thou return with Zecora to the shelter."
"But...why...?" he asked, immediately hopping back over the distance he had been pushed.
With a sharp spread of her wings and a quick lift of her head, the Princess turned her gaze upwards. Zecora and Pip followed, and found the slowly-swirling pools of black clouds above waiting for them. "Because," Luna said, "we hath learned that there is more to the Evil that hath harmed our Kingdom than we first thought. This knowledge grants unto us a special burden, for it tells us there is a unique connection that binds us with it, a connection we must learn more about in hopes that it might better our ability to fight this foe when it inevitably strikes again. When that time comes...when we confront this enemy on its own terms...we would rather thou be in a place of safety."
Pip blinked a few times. He looked to Zecora, who simply looked back at him with a calm face, before turning back to Luna, blinking a few times more. "Um...OK...?" he said haltingly, ears lowering a bit.
"Good," Luna replied with a nod, "Then fare thee well, to thee both."
She turned from them with a flap of her wings, legs beginning to crouch as she aimed herself toward the sky. "Twilight's library," she reminded herself, "For Pip."
Just as she crouched down to take off, however, a familiar clank-clank-clank rattled its way over to her side.
"But, um, as a Moon Knight," Pip said, voice going much deeper at that last phrase, only to pick up again immediately as he continued, "it's my sworn duty t'help the Moon Princess with all of her Princessly duties. Including...uh...whatever that was you just said."
The princess gave a light neigh, turning to the colt with a tight smile. Before she could speak, however, there came a hoof patting her back gently. "Perhaps this knight's words, you should heed," Zecora said, "before rushing off to do your deed."
Luna's eyes turned to Zecora, then to Pip, looking back at her with those bright eyes of his. Her tight smile turned to a frown as she sighed. Again she prepared to speak, but again she was interrupted, this time by the cool feel of metal against her chest. Pip, pressing his head against her. "It's like you taught me, princess," he said softly, "Scary stuff...it's not so bad when you're with friends."
He took a step back, but kept his eyes on hers. "Right?" he asked.
For a moment, Luna chewed her lip, her ears trembling just a bit. She looked back, to the towering spires of the castle shelter, and then closed her eyes. Slowly, the alicorn's wings drew back. As they did, one found its way around Pip's back, and the princess smiled again. "...right," she replied.
Pip smiled, leaning in to Luna's wing, before trotting in a small circle and saluting with such vigor that he nearly knocked his "helmet" off. "So!" he asked, loud enough to be heard over the clang, "What's the plan, Princess?"
"'Tis not much at the moment, we must confess," Luna replied, taking a moment to straighten her shoulders and haunch before continuing, "but before our encounter with thee, we were preparing to make our way to Twilight Sparkle's library."
Zecora rubbed her hoof against her chin, giving a brief little hum before saying, "Your line of thinking is correct, but there is a better solution, I suspect."
The zebra then reached into one of her pouches, from which she produced a small bottle half-full with a strange, soft-purple liquid. While Pip gave a gentle "Ooh..." at the sight, Luna had to take a step back, . "Eternia's Elixir...." she whispered.
"I see you recognize this potion," Zecora said softly, "and thus, what it can set in motion."
Luna slowly nodded, mouth slightly agape and eyes unblinking. "Princess...?" Pip piped up, nudging her gently.
The alicorn shook her head a bit, turning to her young knight. "We are fine, Sir Pip," she said, "Simply...surprised...that thine companion hath such a potion in her collection."
"Oh, OK!" Pip said. He rocked back and forth on his hooves a bit before slowly mumbling, "Um...what potion is that...?"
"A rare concoction which, when consumed under the right circumstances, can allow one to gaze into the past," Luna answered solmenly.
Sliding the potion back within its pouch, the zebra closed her eyes and scuffed the ground gently before answering. “When last I used this special brew, it had all it needed to make its power come through. One piece was the magic of an alicorn, which we still have with Princess Luna’s horn.”
Her eyes opened, and locked with Luna's. "But before, it was the light of Moon and Sun side by side that acted as the magic's guide. To see the memories that we want for sure, another element must be brought to the fore."
"We think we understand," Luna said, "The potion requires a catalyst...something related to the dark powers we wish to understand...so that the memories it shows us will be the ones we need."
Zecora nodded, but Pip tilted his head. "Where're we gonna find something like that...?" he asked.
There was a light chuckle before Zecora replied, "Not in the library of Twilight's tree, but in the forest of the Everfree."
Luna's wings stretched out a little, brows knitting. She looked at Zecora, and saw the zebra's eyes did not blink or waver. A look to Pip, meanwhile, found the foal's legs stretchinhg him up high, his face fixed in what passed for "serious" on a pony his age. So she too straightened her shoulders, brushed the ground with her tail, and nodded. "Very well," she said, "Lead the way, Zecora."
It was, Luna quickly realized, a familiar path. A cliff-side, shorn clean off...trees whose gnarled branches almost seemed like grabbing claws...a river that housed a sleeping sea serpent...this was the same path she had travelled along as Nightmare Moon to menace Twilight Sparkle and her friends. Yet her attempts to ponder that dark time were consistently interrupted by the gentle "ooh"s and "ahh"s that kept coming from her side. "We would ask what hath inspired such awe in thee, young Sir Pip," she finally muttered, looking down at the foal with a single raised brow.
His gaze, however, was facing straight upward, and rather than answer, he simply pointed his hoof in that same direction. It did not take long to see what had him so enraptured: stars. In all their sizes and hues, they dotted the clean, clear skies above the forest, each one seeming to glimmer even brighter than the next. It took Luna a moment to fully grasp that they were real; she had gotten so used to only blackness above over the last few hours. Once it truly clicked, however, the Moon Princess let out a gentle, sighing breath. "Ah, we should have guessed" she said, "Eternia's markers. They are quite beautiful...."
Pip's hoof lowered to the ground then and he wrinkled his nose a bit. "That's twice you've said that name, 'Eternia'..." he said, "Is that another Princess?"
"Not quite," Luna answered with the slightest laugh, "Though we suppose given the title's current meaning, one could argue she was the very first Princess...."
"Uh...OK...." Pip mumbled.
"What we mean is," Luna said, leaning her head down slightly toward the colt, "she was the first monarch to Ponykind. The Queen of an age all but forgotten..." Her voice trembled as she finished, "...and our mother."
Pip nearly leapt out of his pots and pans. "You had a mum?" he yelped.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, my little brother," Zecora piped up from ahead, "but don't all creatures have a mother?"
The foal scratched the back of his head. "Well...I guess..." he said, "But...I dunno...I just never thought of the Princesses having a mum...."
Zebra and alicorn alike shared a chuckle then, but Pip was undaunted. "What was she like...?" he asked softly.
Luna slowly stopped walking. Her eyes gently shifted, first to Pip, then to the ground, and at last back to the star-lit sky. "We...do not quite know how to answer that..." she whispered. "No words we know seem adequate to describe her..."
Zecora smiled, stopping her walk as well and turning to greet Luna with a familiar smile; looking at it, the alicorn briefly thought of her sister. "Come now, Luna, don't be shy. Please go on and give it a try," the zebra said.
The Princess licked her lips a bit, giving the ground a scuff and turning away from the waiting gazes of her companions. Her ears went flat, and she gave a little whinny. And then, after closing her eyes briefly, she looked back to Pip and Zecora. "She...she was like a star..." she said slowly and softly, "Nay...she was like all the stars, together. At heart, she burned brightly with passion and strength, but the light that shined from that heart was so gentle...so kind."
She gave a gentle breath then, half-smiling and shaking her head slowly. "Ah...but we cannot hope to capture her true nature..." she muttered. "In truth...we never could,"
The alicorn began to walk forward again, pausing as she approached Zecora, who stood, still smiling like Celestia would, before stepping out ahead of the Princess and walking onward herself. Pip, however, remained rooted to his spot, staring at where Luna had been before. "Come, Sir Pip," the Princess called back to him, "We still have a Quest to complete."
It took the colt another few seconds to respond, and when he did, it was with a slow step. "I think..." he said softly as he sidled up to Luna, "I think you did."
"Did...?" she muttered.
"Did...um...that thing you said," he answered, eyes flickering between her and the ground, "Y'know...tellin' us about your mum the right way."
"Why..." Luna asked, strongly at first, but gentler as she finished, "...why dost thou think this?"
The foal's eyes eventually settled on the ground, his steps growing a bit shakier with each word. "Well, 'cuz...when you said she was like a star 'n' everything...the way you said it..." He lowered his head, his "helmet" sinking a bit to cover the slow blush on his cheeks. "...It made me think...'bout my own mum."
It was enough to give Luna pause, her eyes opening just a little wider as they went to Pip. He was still doing his best to bury his head inside its would-be helmet, but the boyish smile was right there, and hard to miss. Patting the top of his cooking pot with a wing, the Princess gave a light little hum before saying, "We hope they were pleasant thoughts."
A warm laugh from up ahead caught both their attentions. She said nothing, but the gleam they spotted in Zecora's eyes as she looked back at them was hard to mistake even so. The next few minutes were spent in silence, all three travellers taking time along the way to continue admiring the stars. Eventually, however, something else began to creep into their vision. Mist, cold and curling. "Ah...the sign we see is plain and clear," Zecora said, "Our destination now draws near."
Even as she knew what was coming, it still gave Luna pause to see the aged spires and weathered stones peaking through the plumes of mist. "Our old castle...." she whispered.
"Whoooooooooa...." Pip gasped out excitedly, even as he cuddled a bit closer to his Princess.
The mist curled around the rickety wooden bridge that led to the castle, rendering the path across the canyon all but invisible, but Luna could only smirk. "If I may take the lead for a moment, Zecora?" she asked boldly.
"As you wish, your majesty," the zebra replied with a bow, "Please, step on ahead of me."
Luna did exactly that, opening her wings. "Keep thine distance, the both of you," she said. "We know well how to deal with this obstacle, but it requires some force."
Pip gave a salute, then tugged Zecora's tail until the zebra followed him a few paces back. "Ready when you are, Princess!" he called.
No sooner did the foal speak those words than Luna reared up onto her hind legs and beat her wings, once, twice, and thrice. The force it created was so great that her companions nearly fell over even despite their distance. The mists ahead, meanwhile, stood no chance; within mere seconds, they had been torn apart by the powerful wind and dispersed across the canyon. In their place stood, fully revealed, the ancient castle, still standing tall despite the many cracks and mossy patches that dotted their every inch. "That was amazing, Princess!" Pip said, hopping along until he was right in front of the alicorn.
"Our thanks, Sir Pip," Luna replied, "'Tis not the first time we had to deal with those mists...they had a tendency to creep around this castle when we lived here."
"So...this is your castle?" the colt asked.
"Aye," Luna replied lowly, her wings taking another few tentative little flaps as her ears folded back. "Mine...and Celestia's," she reminded herself.
She prodded the bridge's first plank carefully; finding it sturdy, she moved forward, and motioned for Pip and Zecora to do the same. With each step, however, she felt her heart quicken; the castle ahead began to loom ever larger, and she could hear the many memories inside of its walls calling out to her. A lump formed in her throat, but the Princess did her best to swallow it. Her steps came stiffly, however, and she said nothing as she and her companions left the bridge behind and crested the slight hill ahead, until at last they stood before the castle gate. Finally folding her wings back in, Luna looked to Zecora, brows furrowed. "Thou art...certain...this is where we need to be?" she asked.
Stepping ahead and putting her hoof to the door, the zebra nodded. "This place contains the key we seek," she said, "and nowhere else, for it is unique."
With a gentle swish of her tail, she continued, "However...I know what this place means to you. You don't have to enter, if you don't want to."
No sooner had Zecora spoken than Luna took a small step back with a twitch of her ears. "It's OK, Princess," Pip said, clanking his helmet in salute. "I'll stay by your side right here. We can enjoy the stars together 'til Ms. Zecora gets back."
"The stars...." The word echoed through Luna's mind, and though she could not tear her eyes off the door in front of her, she could still feel their light looking down on her. Reminding her.
"Nay, Sir Pip," she said, "We must enter. And we shall!"
With that, she surged forward, slamming her hoof right into the waiting door and throwing its gates back so fast it was a wonder they did not fly off their hinges. "I suppose, for a Princess, it only makes sense," Zecora chuckled, "You do know how to make an entrance."
"Let us find what we seek," Luna said curtly, cringing a little as she heard how loudly her voice echoed across the wide-open hallway, "and quickly."
With a nod, Zecora stepped ahead, trotting toward the stairwell on the other end of the hall. Luna and Pip followed close behind. "This place is amazing...!" the colt gasped, his eyes zipping to and fro. "Just look at those banners!"
Despite herself, Luna did just that...
...and saw how nicely the golden banner looked, fully hung and unfurled. "Done!" she called out with a giggle, giving the last nail holding it all up one last, strong strike with her hind leg. "How're you doin', 'Tia?"
She covered her snout with both hooves as she looked over and saw the answer: her sister, tongue stuck out, tail twitching, as the last corner of the blue banner slipped and slided around between her forehooves. "You suuuuuuuuuure you don't wanna use magic, sis?" Luna chortled.
"A bet's a bet, Luna," Celestia grunted, closing one eye as she squeezed the cloth tighter. "You got my banner up without magic, so now I have to get yours up without it too!"
The alicorn blinked the images away with a quick shake of her head. "You OK, Princess...?" Pip asked, nudging up against her.
"We are...fine, good knight. Simply...remembering..." she spoke aloud. "Remembering what we threw away...." her mind finished for her.
Reaching the top of the stairs, they came to a towering gateway, and Luna felt her heartbeat quickening again as she looked through it. The vine-covered columns...the cracked windows...the stone table and the broken throne. "I see..." she whispered as they entered the room. Then, a little louder, "We see. We know now what thou wishes to add to thy potion, Zecora."
"What? What is it?" Pip asked, hopping up a bit.
"I apologise for keeping you in suspense," the zebra said, bowing her head, "But I did not wish to make you even more tense."
"Make her tense how?" Pip yelped with another hop.
Luna placed her hoof on Zecora's shoulder. "We understand," she said. "Thine heart is true, Zecora, and we know this well. Thou hath no need to apologize to us."
"Apologize for what?!?" Pip yelled out, bouncing up and down between the two.
He found himself stopped in mid-air as a cloud of gentle-blue magic surrounded him. "Calm thyself, Sir Pip," Luna said, her horn alight, "'Tis unbecoming of a Knight to behave thusly."
"Oh...!" he gulped, drawing his legs in and tucking his head down. "...sorry."
The magic took him gently to the floor before dissipating. "Thou hath nothing to apologize for either," Luna said, striding past him toward the waiting throne room. "Both of ye hath done well to accompany us here, and we thank thee both."
Pip made to follow her, but found his tail held down by Zecora's hoof. When he looked back, he saw the zebra slowly shaking her head at him with a half-frown. Her gaze then turned to the Princess, who strode deeper and deeper into the room ahead. "I know you are trying to keep your heart steady," she said, "but Princess...please, tell me. Are you sure that you're ready?"
At first, Luna was silent. She simply kept walking toward the stone table that lay ahead, eyes on the floor.
Then, she saw them. Laying there in a crumpled heap, unmoved from where they had been left, the dark blue of their cracked metal gleaming in the starlight pouring in from the windows. The broken armor of Nightmare Moon.
"Yes," the Princess answered then. "Yes we are."