The soft sound of a piano, overlaid with the low scratching drone of the needle on his gramophone, echoes softly through the spacious study of Nocturne. The melody is one of his favorites, a soothing sonata that had been a gift to him on his fifteenth birthday, and he often plays it when he is stressed and in need of comfort.
And tonight, he needs all the comfort he can get.
Sipping slowly from the warm cup of herbal tea held aloft in his amber magic, Nocturne studies his reflection in the large window behind his desk. The amber glow of the other present he had received on his sixteenth birthday, though faded by time and marred by scars, fills him with a sense of pride, of wonder. Even back then, when his town had shunned him and his family had thrown him out, he had not believed these markings to be a curse.
At least until tonight.
Sighing as he levitates his teacup to rest upon his stout wooden desk, Nocturne rubs a hoof over his eyes, displacing his glasses in the process. Tonight, beneath the beautifully luminescent moon, his and the gifts of all who dwelled with him on his estate, would be a curse. If only he had been more vigilant, less complacent, his children would not be in danger now.
The soft sound of a hoof against the frame of his study’s door brings him back to the present, his hoof lowering as he fixes his glasses once more in front of his likewise amber eyes. Turning, he puts on his warmest fatherly smile he can muster, and looks at the figure hesitantly standing in the doorway.
“Father?” the young mare, well not quite so young as she is in her mid twenties, whispers softly. “You’ve been in here all night, the others are asking after you.”
Holding his bright smile, though he almost does not reach his eyes, Nocturne turns off the music and scoots his chair into his desk. “Moonlight, my dear child, please come closer.” At his request, the young mare comes into the room, Nocturne looking her over to burn her image into his mind.
Tall, but not gangly, Moonlight Sonata, his adoptive daughter, walks with a grace and poise that belies her Prench ancestry. Her white coat reflects the moonlight streaming through the window behind the desk, accented by the rich blue of the glowing runes covering her body. She is, perhaps, the sole reason he has lasted as long as he has.
“Father, the others are worried,” Moonlight continues as she steps up to the desk, the bright white of her coat reflecting the moonlight beyond the tall windows even as the dark blue light of the runes that cover her mix with Nocturne’s own amber. “The Light Ones will be here at sunrise, and many seek your guidance.”
“They are worried about leaving the only home they have ever known,” Nocturne sighs as he slouches a bit in his seat. “I understand their fear, but I can do nothing to ease it.”
“And why not?” Moonlight asks, her soft voice raising slightly as worry sets in. “Father, please, they need their Mentor.” Making her way around the desk, Moonlight’s eyes shine with barely suppressed worry. “Goddesses know, we would be nothing without your guidance. No group of Darkness Ponies can survive without their Mentor, without somepony of wisdom to help keep them on the right path.”
“Yes,” Nocturne agrees slowly, his tone growing weary, “I cannot leave you all without your leader, such would be wrong in the eyes of the Goddesses.” He reaches out, gently resting a hoof against his daughter’s face. Looking beyond his daughter, he pulls a book from a nearby bookcase, his amber magic wrapping around it in a gentle and almost reverent fashion. “Thus, it falls to you, my dear daughter.” He levitates the book over to them as he reaches forward and gently picks up Moonlight’s hoof, where he then places the book.
Looking down at the book with a mixture of sadness, and shock, Moonlight’s mouth works to find the proper words for what her father is saying, what he is suggesting. Nocturne does not blame her, held within that journal is the combined legacy of not only himself, but all other Darkness Ponies before him, before her, who had tried to make sense of the world they had been born into, and the powers they had been gifted with.
In short, he was not placing within her hooves a gift, nor a curse, but a responsibility that far outweighed anything she had shouldered in her life before.
“Father… I,” Moonlight starts, her voice distant, “I can’t, y-you should keep this, you’ll need it to lead us.”
“My time has passed,” Nocturne replies softly with a sigh. “I would never make the journey to where you need to go. And even if I could, I would only slow you down.”
Putting the book on the desk, Moonlight rushes forward and wraps her her arms around Nocturne, burying her face in his shoulder. In turn, Nocturne wraps his own arms around her, drawing her close and resting his face on top of her head. Softly, she cries into his shoulder, and he simply holds onto her to lend strength to her, and to draw strength from her in turn for what will eventually need to be done. Eventually, though, the tears subside, and Moonlight releases her father from her grip as he kisses her atop the head as she sniffles.
“The others are in good hooves,” Nocturne whispers, running a hoof through Moonlight’s dusty blue mane. “I would trust nopony else, but you, daughter. I have trained you, and guided you, to fill my place should such as this night ever come to pass.” He releases her from his arms, and sits back. “I just wish we had more time, that this night did not end with the violence that looms distantly on the horizon.”
“I will try to do you proud,” Moonlight whispers back as she wipes away the tears still clouding her eyes. “But if you are not coming with us, are you just going to sit here until the end? Are you going to simply lay down and die?”
“My dear child,” Nocturne replies, smiling widely. “Of all the years you have known me, have been my daughter, when have I ever surrendered?” He gestures for her to help him down from the chair, which she does eagerly, and then walks over towards a large locked door along one wall in his study. “No, I will buy you all time to get as far away from here as you can, though as you know it will mean my death.” He opens the door with a flourish of his magic, and trots in with his head held high. “Such will be my last gift to you all of you,” he pauses before a suit of polished armor. “To my children.”
Looking at the armor herself, Moonlight sighs wearily, and gently nuzzle’s her father’s neck. “Then we won’t squander it,” she whispers, “you’ll come down and see everypony before we leave, right?”
“I will,” Nocturne promises as his magic comes to life around his horn before wrapping around his armor. “I’ll need to say my goodbyes.”
Nodding one final time, Moonlight turns and walks from the room.
Now alone, Nocturne takes one final deep breath, and puts his armor on.
He puts on his under-armour first, which is comprised of a collection of padded garment that covers him from his flank, up over his back and barrel, and ends just short of his head. The padding is mostly to act as a barrier between his body and the heavier parts of the armor, as chain and plate tends to rub fur and skin raw if left directly against the skin. Once he has the straps secured, he moves to the next layer, which is a heavy coat of small interlocking chains and a leather.
Taking a moment to get used to the weight of even this small amount of armour, Nocturne rolls his shoulders and flexes his legs, wincing at the loud pops and creaks that issue from his old body.
“Not as young as I used to be,” he sighs, his magic enveloping arguably the heaviest, and most important part of his armour.
Lifting the heavy polished steel of his final layer of armour, Nocturne straps on the leg-guards, followed by the bulky plate that covers his entire back down to his tail. Finally, with one last flourish of his magic, he picks up his great helm, and hovers it at eye level.
“Time for one final fight,” Nocturne whispers, turning the helm around, slides it over his horn, and settles it onto his head. He then turns to the only other object in the room beside his armour; a large sword nearly as long as he is. Pulling it from it’s resting place, he runs a hoof along the hilt, the feeling of the masterfully shaped blue steel sending a shiver up his spine as memories surface of the dark days he had lived through.
Levitating it to his side, he secures the straps attached to the pitch-black scabbard, the familiar weight of his oldest and most trusted companion filling him with resolve. Turning, he walks from the room, his armoured hoofsteps echoing as he progresses into his study, and then into the hallway beyond.
Once into the hallway he makes his way swiftly towards the grand staircase at the front of the large manor building, and towards the hardest part of the night.
The entry hall for his manor house is spacious, perhaps the size of a ballroom in the distant Canterlot Castle, with a beautifully crafted gold and silver chandelier bejeweled with thousands of glass beads to reflect and multiply the light of the many candles adorning it. The grand staircase, which sits opposite the large doors to the manor, is a structure of carved hardwood from a distant land. It had been a gift to Nocturne, a boon from a grateful Princess for fighting in a war now too far distant to be accurately remembered.
Tonight, the hall and the staircase are full of ponies rushing about as they pack for what shall arguably be the hardest journey of their life. Foals, and even some of the younger adults, sit wide-eyed, a few even crying, as the gravity of the situation slowly sinks in. The reality of them having to leave their home, that some of them may not make it, hanging heavily in the air. Those who are able to shake the feeling off are going about their tasks with an almost zealous fervor, the action of packing helping to keep their own emotions at bay.
All activity, however, stops when Nocturne’s armoured hoof impacts the first step at the very top of the stair. All eyes turn to the old stallion, a hush falling over the room so quickly that for a moment Nocturne fears he has gone deaf. However, after a moment, a pony next to him bows his head and whispers.
Smiling softly beneath his helmet, he inclines his own head, his voice echoing from within. “Clear Night.” He reaches out with an armoured hoof, resting it on the stallion’s shoulder. “Goodbye, my grandson.” He lowers the hoof as Night starts sniffling, and starts down the stairs. With each pony he passes, he says their name, and tells them goodbye. Before long, far too short a time in Nocturne’s opinion, he is at the bottom of the staircase and making his way through the crowd at the bottom of the stairs.
The crowd parts before him, many of the ponies bowing and whispering his name like those on the stairs. As with Moonlight, he considers many, if not all of those present his children. Be they orphans who had been rescued from the persecution of superstitious townsfolk, or foals born to those under his vigilant watch; all were his children here, and all are loved equally. For them, he would give his last full measure of devotion, his last breath, to see them safe.
Stopping at the far end of the crowd, near the large double doors, Nocturne finds Moonlight sitting near the doors, a small dark blue foal practically glued to her side. Smiling warmly, he crosses towards his daughter, pulling his helmet off as he does.
“Everypony looks ready to go,” Nocturne remarks, looking over his shoulder for a moment before turning his gaze towards Moonlight and the foal. “Or, almost ready.”
“Do we really have to go, pappy?” the foal, a unicorn colt, asks.
“I’m afraid so, little one,” Nocturne says with a soft smile. “But you’ll like your new home, it overlooks the sea.”
“Mama says you’re not coming with us,” the colt continues, looking up at Nocturne with scared eyes. “But you have to come with us, if you don’t who will read me stories?”
“No, I am not coming,” Nocturne says softly, coming closer and reaching down to gently nuzzle the colt’s head. “And your mother will read to you.”
“It won’t be the same,” The colt whispers, rearing up and wrapping his arms around Nocturne’s neck, shivering as he does. “Who will protect us from the bad ponies?”
“Your mother will protect you,” Nocturn supplies in a comforting tone as he picks the colt up and hugs him, the young pony shivering slightly against the cold metal of Nocturne’s armor. “And, you will have to protect her,” He leans back slightly, fixing the colt with a grandfatherly smile. “You have to be her knight now, since I won’t be there. Can I trust you to be your mother’s brave knight, Midnight?”
Nodding slowly, Midnight sniffles a little, “You can trust me, pappy…”
“Good,” Nocturne states with a sigh. The finality of the word makes his blood run cold, and he does his best to suppress a shiver. “I’ll wait here with you and your mother until you have to leave.” He smiles slightly, a twinkle in his amber eyes. “Perhaps, we have time for one more story?”
Nodding enthusiastically as his grandfather sets him down, Midnight once more goes to sit beside his mother. Both of them have their ears perked forward, and in fact a few others around them as well, showing that they’re listening intently to what Nocturne is about to say. And so, without hesitation, Nocturne tells a story.
His last story.
It is a tale of brave knights, of fierce battles, and of great deeds. However, unlike some of his other stories, told before the fireplace and on days when there was no looming threat, this one does not end happily. No, as he draws close to the end of the story, it becomes clear that the knight will sacrifice himself, to say all he holds dear. A few, though perhaps not Midnight, likely realize that this story is true, and that the ending that Nocturne is building towards is the one that he shall likely find in a few short hours. However, before the story draws to it’s close, Nocturne stops and looks at all assembled.
“How does it end?” Midnight asks slowly, eyes wide as he is still caught in the story’s embrace.
“I don’t know yet,” Nocturne replies with a weary smile. “You see, Midnight, the story I have told you is true. It is my story, and I do not know how it will end.” He shakes his head and gently taps his greathelm. “Not yet, at least. And it is not an ending I am eager to find out.”
“Oh... “ Midnight says softly, blinking and lowering his ears to his head. “But.. it’s a happy ending, right?”
“I’d like to think so,” Nocturne chuckles. “But, then, if it does end happily, I will tell you.” His smile then slips. “And if not… well then your mother will know how to end the story.”
At his words, silence descends over the room, all activity having stopped a while back as what little luggage needed to be loaded or packed had been stowed away, likely on carts outside, and everypony had settled in to listen to their elder tell the story. However, now that it had ended, everypony did not wish to speak, lest it finally be time to go.
However, time waits for nopony, and Nocturne above all knows time is not their ally this night.
Standing, and putting his helm back on his head he crosses the short distance to his daughter, and puts an armoured hoof on her shoulder.
“It’s time to go,” Nocturne declares, his voice echoing from within the helmet. “Lead them well, Moonlight, and go with my love.”
“As you wish, Father,” Moonlight replies softly, tears forming in her eyes. “Should you survive… there shall be a chair set aside for you in our home…” She pauses, her voice catching in her throat. “A-and should your story end here, may the Gods greet you with a hero’s reward.”
Nodding, Nocturne lowers his hoof and quickly turns and strides from the entry hall and into the night.
Going to the center of the courtyard, past all the wagons and carts piled high with the belongings of his friends and family, he sits and turns his gaze towards the heavens. The night sky is awash with beautiful twinkling stars and crowned with the luminescent glory of the full moon. Dimly, at the very edge of the sky to the east, the soft pink glow of the approaching pre-dawn stains the otherwise pristine canvas of the night sky, and Nocturne cannot help but feel as if the approaching light of the new day is a countdown towards his own inevitable end.
As he sits, the manor house quickly starts to empty, and soon the sound of voices and of the wheels on the carts fills the air, then quickly grows distant as the herd of ponies flee their home, leaving behind only an old knight to protect their retreat.
And so Nocturne waits, his eyes turned towards the sky as he watches the dawn wash away the beauty of the night, the soft tones of night replaced by the harsh and bright lights of day.
And with the light of the dawn, comes the sound of armoured hooves.
Standing as the sound draws close, Nocturne slowly draws his blade. The rasp of steel as his hoof-and-a-half sword is drawn fills the ages knight with a sense of purpose. He settles into the feeling of blissful unthinking, the calm of a swordmaster settling across his body like an old blanket.
Raising his sword, blade pointed towards the heavens, Nocturne smiles beneath his helm.
“I shall not pass quietly into the dawn,” Nocturne whispers.
And then, he charges.