Chapter 19

Farewells and New Beginnings

The sunlight of a new dawn cut through the chamber window of Luna's tower, shining warmly on the alicorn as she plodded in, weary from the great burden she bore. Her thoughts were ever on Celestia, who's duty she carried now, alone. Stumbling over to her bed, she began to cry as she fell wearily upon the cushions. It was too much for her to endure any longer, having lost everything she loved, being forced to let go of her dearest friend before her banishment, and now her sister…

"Why did this happen, Tia? Why?" She whimpered, clenching her teeth on the bedding as fresh tears dampened the blankets.

A knock sounded at her door. "Princess Luna? Are you ready for the ceremonies?" One of Luna's maidservants, an earth pony named Daisy Chain, asked her apprehensively.

"No, and we shall not be!" Luna summoned up her Royal Canterlot voice to drive the servant off, shaking the door on it's hinges. "We wish to remain alone, now leave us!"

The sound of trotting hooves could be heard down the hall, yet Luna felt no better for it. She stared at the door sadly, wishing for all the world that it would open, revealing her sister, who would chide her for yelling at her servants. She could almost hear Celestia walking regally in to see her. Luna closed her eyes, longing for that protective wing to wrap around her, for the soothing voice that would tell her everything would be okay.

But it wouldn't be okay now. Celestia was gone, and there was nopony to make things okay anymore. Nopony except her. "I still believe in you, little sister."

"What!" Luna exclaimed, looking about frantically for the source of the voice. All about her, the room was empty save for the finery and furnishing that was Luna's by right, yet something more filled the chamber, as if she were no longer alone. "Tia!"

"I'm here, Luna. I'm here. I brought a friend too." The strong, confident voice of Celestia was replaced with a masculine tone that grated softly, filling Luna's heart to bursting.

"Hello again, my Princess."

"Everbold..?" Luna whispered, glancing around worriedly, as if the voices would disappear if she moved. "It's really you, both of you!"

"Of course it is, silly." Celestia's voice teased, ringing with happiness.

"Oh joyous day! Tia, Everbold, I am so happy to hear from you both! So much has happened, and I need you both to come back and-" Luna was about to go further when a weight settled upon her soul, as if the room had suddenly grown heavier.

"I'm sorry, Luna, but we can't." Everbold answered gravely. "Even with the Dream Taker's power broken, we can not awaken."

"What? No, please tell me that isn't true! Celestia, it can't be true! I cant do this alone! Please sister, I still need help…" Luna felt her heart sinking again.

"Don't be afraid, Luna. We aren't gone, just sleeping. Within the dream we live, and will be here for you." Celestia replied.

"Though we are not there in body, our spirits remain. When you sleep, dream of us, and we will come." Everbold joined in, his voice almost carrying his kind smile to her.

"How do I hear you now, then? Don't I have to be dreaming?" Luna asked in confusion.

"Luna, you are dreaming." Celestia answered her cheerfully.

Luna sat up with a start, looking about her room yet again. It was lighter as the sun had traveled further up into the heavens, filling her chamber with the warmth of the day. She was still laid out upon her bed, which had been wrinkled up, one of the quilts thrown halfway across the room. With a heavy sigh, she rose and began setting her bed to order with the soft blue glow of her horn.

"Tia, I know you can hear me. I know you're there. It's just… saying goodbye to you today… and dealing with the traitor… I just don't know what to do. I've been gone for a thousand years, and most ponies still think I'm some kind of monster. How will I rule Equestria without you?" Luna glanced up from her bed making half hoping that Celestia would respond again, giving her the answers she needed, but no reply came.

"You'd probably tell me that I need to be strong, and that you didn't know what to do when you first started either. I always looked up to you to know what to do, and you never let me down because they… Equestria needed you. Now I need to do what you always did. I can take confidence that I can still speak to you, that you're still with me." Raising her head, Luna swallowed her apprehension. "Rest now, my sister. I will watch over our realm until your return, even if it takes a thousand years. I love you."

With the commitment built upon her heart, Princess Luna walked out of her chambers, her head held high in the bright morning light.

The grounds outside of Canterlot Palace were packed with countless ponies of the elite, mingled with travelers who had come from every part of Equestria for the day's ceremonies and declarations. Twilight Sparkle stared nervously out at the vast number of ponies. Everything would change today.

She glanced back into the dressing room, where the other girls were getting ready for the presentation. Rarity was fussily applying makeup at the vanity. Applejack and Rainbow Dash were chatting up stories about their fights and speculating about what medals they might be awarded. Pinkie was… swinging from a ceiling fan by some stretchy socks… and was Fluttershy nervously peeking her head into the window, her eyes growing wide at the sight of the crowd.

Shaking her head, Twilight turned back, only to run her nose into that of Boldheart, who smiled cheekily at her. The lavender unicorn's cheeks went flush as she returned his grin. "Oh, Boldheart, what are you doing here?"

The gelded unicorn was armored in new steel plates, complete with his sword, which hung at his side. He rolled his head curiously at a glimpse of Pinkie Pie flying across the room, streaming socks flailing behind her. "I was…" He paused as a crash resounded. Twilight winced, doing her best not to look back. "…just coming to see how you all were doing."

"Just getting ready for the ceremony. Aheheheh." Twilight laughed nervously, shutting the door behind her as the other ponies rushed over to Pinkie's crash site. "It is good to see you again though. I trust you're feeling…" She paused, her eyes hovering up to the stump of his horn. He'd already told her it was okay several times, but she couldn't quite get over having inflicted the wound herself. "…better?"

"Seeing you again is all the medicine I need." He answered, sending a thrill up Twilight's body. She would have kissed him if it weren't for all of the ponies watching down in the grounds. "It sounds like I'll only be here temporarily, though. Captain Armor, um… that is… your brother, said something about a new assignment from Princess Luna herself. Apparently we're going on a prolonged mission, and he said he wasn't sure when it will be done."

"That's great." Twilight didn't feel like it was so great. She had felt so close to her new friend, and now he was going to be sent away. She put on a brave face, but her heart wasn't in it. Apparently he saw it too.

"I'm sorry, Twilight. I don't want to leave you, but it's my duty. It doesn't change how I feel about you though." Boldheart said, nuzzling her tenderly.

"I know." She answered. " I just wasn't ready to see you go so soon. It feels like even the time since the hospital was ages ago, and I don't want you to leave again."

"If I could stay, I would." He answered, smiling sadly. "We all have our responsibilities."

She nodded, finding to her surprise that tears were threatening to spill out of her eyes. She wanted to beg him not to go, to convince him to run away with her, or anything else. She couldn't bear to watch him leave again.

Twilight opened her mouth to speak, only to gasp as Boldheart drew up, hugging her tight. "I know, Twi. I know, but we can't." He whispered. "So let's just hold on to this moment a little longer."

The cheerful blair of trumpets echoed all through the palace grounds, announcing the arrival of Princess Luna. Walking through the beautiful marble arched doorway, the sole ruler of Equestria stepped up to the top of the red carpeted stairs, looking down upon her countless subjects standing below. The sea of expectant faces grew hushed as she cleared her throat. Summoning up her royal voice so that everypony could hear, she spoke.

"Greetings, my citizens, and to all of Equestria. If is my sad duty today to announce my sister's inability to remain your ruler. Two weeks ago, she was attacked within her tower by changelings under the command of a creature called the Dream Taker, and…" Luna choked up, fighting back tears. "…and her dreams were stolen. She now rests in the Crypt of Dreams with those who fell during the Dreamless War."

The crowd began whispering in hushed, urgent tones. Biting her lower lip, Luna let out a sigh before continuing. "Though Princess Celestia, my dear sister, is not truly dead, nor can she continue to guide us as she has for generations. Until we discover a way to break this curse, I will be assuming my sister's royal duties, and taking her place, much as she did for me. We will not give up on her, my subjects. We will find a way."

Luna was on the verge of tears as she nodded to Shining Armor, who stood off to her right. Seeing her pained expression, he stepped out before her, nodding a signal. The trumpets sounded again as everypony looked to the carpeted aisle that spread through the center of the crowd. Lined up side by side, Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, and Rarity walked, followed by a second column made up of Boldheart, the assassin, Sgt. Ramrod, and Spike. They made their way slowly by the cheering crowds as confetti dropped from above. Royal Guards on either side of the aisle saluted the brave ponies as they passed, coming to a stop at the stage before the now recovered Princess Luna.

"Today is not only a day for sadness, but joy as we recognized the heroism of these brave ponies. Each has endured hardship and trial in the name of protecting peace and harmony, be it facing the terrible odds of the enemy," Luna spoke, looking from left to right, taking in each one, "to giving more than anypony could ever ask in the name of protecting those they love. They have embodied true friendship, giving us hope in the face of cruelty and greed. Each one is a hero, and an example to us all."

Twilight looked over at Shining Armor, who was smiling proudly at her. He nodded his head to her, his eyes beaming. Rainbow Dash, who was attired in a dark blue military dress uniform, straightened herself up, puffing out her chest as she tried to contain her excitement. The assassin glanced about nervously, as if he were expecting somepony to attack him at any moment. He was so distracted, in fact, that it surprised him when Applejack's tail brushed his face, snapping his attention back to her. She smiled tenderly at him over her shoulder, calming the jumpy pony down a little.

"It is with great regret then, that I must ask more of each of you. You all deserve to rest from your trials, and if it weren't for the needs of Equestria, I would surely grant it. The changeling threat is not over, and I am inexperienced in many matters of state. Therefore, I ask you, Twilight Sparkle, to be my advisor. You stood by my sister, learned at her hoof, and grew under her wisdom. If you will, I would ask that you share this wisdom with me."

"I would be honored, your majesty." Twilight responded humbly, bowing before the Princess.

"Rainbow Dash, because of the seriousness of the attack on our borders, we can't afford to be so badly off guard. You will be transferred over to the border watch, where your new command will be responsible for finding possible threats before they enter Equestria. Can I trust you with this?"

"Of course, Princess! It would be my honor!" Ranibow bowed as well.

Taking in the rest of the girls as she swept her gaze over them, Luna addressed Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Rarity. "My subjects have long needed the attention of my sister, who is no longer here to care for them. While I am learning the crafts of state, I would ask each of you to aid me in ruling Equestria by visiting the towns and cities, acting as my ear and my voice when I can not be there. Will you aid me in this?"

"Of course, your highness." Rarity replied as she and the others bowed.

"Ah reckon travelin' about'll be fun!" Applejack chuckled.

"Oh, you bet it will be! Just imagine all of the new ponies I'll get to meet!" Pinkie bubbled.

"We'd be happy to." Fluttershy whispered.

Smiling at their dedication, Luna nodded. "Thank you, all of you. I know this is a formal occasion, but I feel lucky to have such good friends."

The girls stepped aside, allowing the second rank to step forward. Boldheart felt his chest pounding as he bowed before the Princess with the others.

"Rise, all of you." Luna said, stumbling slightly on her words. "Each of you has shown great courage, and even greater compassion in the events that nearly brought Equestria to ruin. I have heard tales of your bravery, duty, honor, and sacrifice, how you each gave your all for the sake of those you loved. I would ask you then, to continue this duty, with the same dedication you've already shown."

Boldheart looked up in confusion, and seeing everypony else staring up at Princess Luna, he knew he'd heard right. The Princess continued to speak. "From this day forward, I name you the Shields of Harmony. It will be your duty to watch over my advisor and envoys as they carry out their royal duties, and protect them with your lives, just as I was long ago." She tapped each one's shoulders with her horn. "Rise, Shields of Harmony, and join your friends."

Cheers erupted as the crowd whooped joyously for the newly formed Shields as they stepped aside to join the girls on either side of the Princess. Twilight nearly burst at the announcement, snuggling her nose against the stunned Boldheart's neck. "You didn't tell me the assignment would keep you so close to home."

"Heh heh, I guess I failed to mention that." Boldheart responded, blushing at the playful unicorn's behavior.

"Hey, you all know what this calls for!" Pinkie blurted out, her face beaming. "A party!"

A lone set of hooves plodded wearily down a lonely, winding path as a single stallion made his way from the home he'd betrayed. Banishment, the word was a bitter salve to the exiled Thundercloud. He'd never imagined he'd be sent from home, never to return. Visions of glory had faded away, only to be replaced by deep, unrelenting resentment. How could Princess Luna, who had once known the pain of exile afflict the very same punishment! It was unfair! It wasn't right! He deserved better, yet here he was, atoning for his crimes with only the dusty woodland path to keep him company.

Snuffing angrily, the pegasus continued on his way, daring not to use his still aching wings. It was all that Dream Taker's fault! He had betrayed Thundercloud, humiliating him and stealing away his one chance at victory! Even the thought of the whispering devil brought a terrible pain throbbing back to life in the former Guard pony's head.

He shook it to clear his mind, then stared off down the path with a long sigh. His dark, lonely road was still ahead.

High atop one of the great rounded black towers of Midnight Castle, the old, withered form of Magus the Dream Taker stepped out into the sunlight as the day settled. It had been the first time in ages that he'd emerged from the stronghold, and his eyes were still unaccustomed to the brightness of the outdoors. Walking up, he settled his forehooves upon the battlements, staring out across the dark waters of the Lake of Stars as he thought. Birds twittered their last calls before fluttering off to their nests, and the water lapped at the ancient stones that held the mighty fortress aloft over the midnight blue lake as the glowing flecks of light began to twinkle deep within it's unimagined depths.

"I was careless." He finally whispered, squinting at the departing sun. "Even with all of the power I had taken, the blood of Everbold stands firm. Do the fates themselves conspire against me? Shall I never know true victory?"

He became silent again, watching the last of the golden rays disappear beyond the lake's borders. He had dealt with Queen Chrysalis too soon, and it had cost him quite dearly. Without any more control over the meandering hordes of changelings, he'd watched helplessly as the ravenous little creatures had abandoned the fortress and gone their own ways, leaving Magus without his army. Worse, when Boldheart's horn was severed, everything was ripped away from him. He'd felt with exquisite pain the tearing of his spirit, along with his sinister magic and the stolen powers of Celestia, ripping free of his grasp. He'd barely survived the rending, and had been forced to drag himself along in agony to escape the chambers deep below to where he could be free of the pain. He was almost ready to despair when a lone thought glimmered like a spark within his thoughts.

"My vengeance may be in tatters, but I can still succeed." He reminded himself, his expression growing softer even as the wheels in his mind began turning. "Ah, but my greatest power is still here, isn't it? All the magic in the world means nothing without the cunning to use it, and the right victim. Even now, the young Princess Luna is surely thinking her realm safe, not knowing that an even greater foe is poised to strike at her heart! I will have my revenge, Celestia. Soon, all of ponykind will fall, and the world with it! Hahahahaha!" Mad laughter began pouring out of his throat, echoing through the ancient black fortress.