This is a pseudo-sequel to Off The Edge Of The Map
Massive props to melionos, Kaorin, Isrozzis, CrayolaBrony, and Foxfire for their livereading services!
Massive thanks to Valcron for the title image! See the full size here!
“So do you think Scar will be nice? Rainbow Dash seemed to think he was a jerk.”
Twilight glanced back over her shoulder at the dragon riding on her back and gave him a reassuring smile. “Oh Spike, I’m sure it will be fine. Princess Celestia wanted us to meet him, and she knows what she’s doing.”
They had already said their farewells back in Ponyville, as a trip had been in the offing. Pack, Celestia’s letter had said, but pack light. So the saddlebags on her back were not as weighty as they might have been. Her hooves tapped against the marble tiles of the palace floor, and a single guard shadowed them, his own steps soundless despite the armor he wore.
The reason for that guard was the set of dragons that had been inhabiting Canterlot for the past two weeks. Twilight had seen one perched on the observatory, looming like an enormous bird of prey. The malevolent shape had given her enough pause, even knowing she was perfectly safe, that she had to wonder anew how Fluttershy had made it through Draconia.
The answer was almost certainly Rainbow Dash, and Twilight felt that she really could use that brash confidence once the guard opened the door into the throne room. The large, lithe, and dangerous-looking form of the king of dragons lounged in the audience hall, taking up most of it. “He doesn’t look like a king,” Spike whispered in her ear. “Where’s his crown?”
“Spike!” Twilight hissed, though she had to agree that Scar didn’t look particularly regal. In fact, he most seemed like an oversized cat, stretched arrogantly across the floor. The hideously rippled scar and sightless eye faced in their direction, giving him a particularly sinister air.
“Miss Twilight Sparkle and Mister Spike,” the guard announced. “Your Highness, Your Majesty.”
“Thank you, Captain.” Celestia gave the pegasus a smile of genuine warmth. “You may go now.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” The captain bowed and backed out, but not without a look of misgiving at the hulking draconic form occupying the hall. Scar twisted his neck to watch them, his good eye fixing on Twilight and her passenger.
“So this,” he rumbled, his voice deep and resonant, vibrating the marble under her hooves, “is your protégé.”
“And yours too, in a way,” the alicorn replied, which made the unicorn blink. “Twilight, Spike, I’d like you to meet Scar.”
Twilight Sparkle stepped forward with as much court dignity as she could muster and gave the dragon a brief genuflection, dipping her head respectfully. Spike, fortunately, had the presence of mind to slip off her back and offer Scar a bow. “Pleased to meet you, Your Majesty.”
“Err, yeah, me too!” Spike added hastily afterward. The king of dragons lifted an eyeridge at them, a smile playing at the corners of his muzzle.
“Really? Or are you just saying to be polite?”
“Um...” The question took Twilight by surprise. She cast a quick, beseeching glance at Celestia, who only gave her the sink-or-swim look she reserved for the occasions she set her student a particularly interesting task. “Well, I’m certainly interested to meet you. I haven’t met a dragon other than Spike who was willing to talk much.”
“Honest enough.” He waved a paw in her direction. “Call me Scar. I get enough of ‘Your Highness’ from my actual subjects.” His good eye narrowed as he gave Spike a long look. “And how about you, young one?”
“Oh! I, uh...” Spike gripped his tail in both hands nervously. “I dunno! Am I supposed to be?”
“Probably not,” Scar said dryly. “Where’s your sister?” He added, switching his attention abruptly to Celestia and leaving the smaller dragon nonplussed.
“She’ll be along.” The princess was undisturbed by the dragon’s regard. “Twilight, I’m sending Luna to Draconia for a while to continue diplomatic negotiations. We have quite a bit to work through after thousands of years without contact. I would like you to go along, because I expect this will be quite enlightening. And I want to you to take care of my sister.” The last was added with a faint and impish smile. Twilight had to reply with a smile of her own.
“Oh, of course, Princess!” The unicorn wasn’t particularly surprised. She hadn’t seen Luna since her appearance at Nightmare Night, and was looking forward more to renewing her acquaintance with the younger princess than the trip to Draconia. The description of the land given by Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy had painted it as less than inviting, and she hoped that by now Luna gotten more used to the modern world.
“And you, Spike. I hadn’t expected it to happen this early, but this will be a good opportunity to meet other dragons - and your natural parents.”
“Really?” Spike looked at her, his eyes wide in a mingled mixture of hope and anticipation and anxiety.
“Well, I could hardly deny you the opportunity now that it has arisen, could I?”
“Especially not since I insisted.” Scar grinned, wide and toothy.
“There is that too,” Celestia admitted calmly. “But for the moment this is only a visit.” She gave Scar a look of open challenge, and the dragon waved his claws in acquiescence.
Twilight felt herself relax from a tension she hadn’t been aware of. Spike was such a fixture in her life that the unicorn had never considered the dragon might stay behind on such a trip, and hearing Celestia deny the possibility before it was even raised gave her a peace of mind she hadn’t even been looking for.
“So,” she said brightly. “When are we leaving, then?”
“As soon as Luna gets here,” Celestia told her. “And as soon as Scar finishes preparing your transportation.”
“Hint taken.” Scar snorted and got to his feet, the dragon almost completely filling the audience hall, and Twilight wondered how he was going to get out. And how he had gotten in, for that matter.
The question was answered as smoke curled from the dragon’s nostrils, covering his muzzle with unnatural speed. The dragon’s shape twisted and curled into a roil of grey, cascading suddenly over her. For the brief moment that Twilight was engulfed by his vaporous form, she could hear in the distance the primal roars of dragons and a chanting in a tongue unknown to her.
The unicorn yelped, taking a useless step backward, and then Scar was gone, flowing through the halls and out into the open air beyond.
“He’s always like that,” Celestia observed, beckoning Twilight forward. The unicorn obeyed, though not without a backward glance at the vanished dragon. Spike trailed behind her, looking thoughtful.
“Always like what? Crazy?” Her voice held more than an edge of exasperation. Alone with the princess, she didn’t feel she was required to be so polite.
“It’s mostly an act,” Celesta replied, amused. “Mostly.”
Twilight reached the base of the throne’s dais and looked up at the alicorn. “So...what did you mean earlier when you said I was Scar’s protégé too?”
“Oh, I wasn’t talking about you.” Celestia smiled her small, mysterious smile. “I was referring to Spike.”
Luna watched through the part in the curtains to the rear of Celestia’s throne. She wanted to like Twilight; Celestia chose her students with care, and groomed them with equal exactitude. From what her sister had told her and the little she’d seen of the unicorn, Twilight Sparkle seemed a pleasant enough pony.
Whenever the alicorn saw her, however, she could only think of the crushing power of the Elements of Harmony and the pitiless glowing white of Twilight’s eyes. Even after the brief respite of Nightmare Night, she had a hard time thinking of the unicorn as a mere pony. Something deep within her quailed at the thought of meeting her simultaneous destroyer and rescuer again, while at the corners of her mind the dark emotions that had first birthed Nightmare Moon stirred languidly.
The alicorn locked that all away with practiced skill, schooling her face into a cheerful smile as she walked into the conversation. Her crystalline shoes tapped softly against the marble, drawing the attention of the three in the throne room. “You’ll have to ask Scar,” Celestia was saying. “It’s his story to tell. There you are, Luna.” The princess turned her head to give her sister a brief, searching look.
“Just running a little late.” Luna returned the look, giving nothing away, and turned to Twilight. The unicorn bowed her head deeply, as did the small dragon next to her, and the dark alicorn’s smile grew a shade more genuine. For Twilight to be paying her respect seemed in some small way ironic.
“It’s good to meet you again, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna lied. “I wasn’t expecting to travel with you, until today.”
“I wasn’t expecting to be traveling at all until today, Princess,” Twilight replied. “But now I’m excited!” She continued cheerily. “I get to go to Draconia with you and see you in action. I have a dozen books on diplomacy and it still seems arcane.”
“It’s not that bad, really.” The alicorn heard herself laugh, high and sweet. “But it’s not particularly exciting, either.”
“It doesn’t have to be exciting, just interesting.” The unicorn rolled her eyes. “Between Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie, I get enough excitement on a daily basis.” Twilight’s smile of fond reminisce removed any barb that the complaint might have held.
The dark princess felt the claws of a desperate jealousy scrabbling at the back of her mask, and she quashed it ruthlessly. “Sometimes it’s not even that.”
“Oh, I’m sure it will be if you’re negotiating with Scar,” Twilight said, blithely unaware of Luna’s discomfort. “But, don’t you know him? From before?” Now the unicorn looked uncertain, as she confronted the idea of a pony with thousands of years of memory.
Celestia rescued them from the incubating mutual awkwardness. “I was the one who handled communication with him. In many ways he was one of my students. But I cannot spare the time to take a trip to Draconia, so Luna is going in my stead.”
“It’s time I started to get involved in the world again,” Luna added, echoing what Celestia had told her when the trip was proposed. In truth she had no desire for any sort of involvement, let alone spending weeks with Twilight as her only companion. But, even after everything, she still loved her sister and hadn’t even thought of turning down Celestia’s request.
“Oh, of course.” Twilight’s expression flickered from confused to understanding to tentative. “I thought I would have seen you earlier, though.” The unicorn paused, searching for some way to delicately ask the question.
“It takes a while to catch up from missing a thousand years.” Luna was using Celestia’s words again, and she hated it. There had been no coaching or prodding from the older alicorn, only earnest conversation. The sun princess genuinely had no wish to control her younger sister, but Luna felt helpless to avoid falling into her orbit.
The alicorn abruptly decided she was ready to leave. “Is everything ready to go, ‘Tia?” She turned to her sister, though the question was mostly rhetorical. This particular excursion had been decided on days ago, and she’d spent enough time discussing the dreary details of treaties and trade agreements for the staff to prepare a dozen trips.
“It will be once Scar finishes arranging transport,” Celestia replied, descending from her dais. “But before you go, I think you’ll need these.” The alicorn’s horn shone briefly and two shapes appeared in a flicker of light. The two steel medallions, each with a dragon’s-head crest and suspended from a fine chain, floated toward them.
The white glow surrounding them shifted to purple, light for Twilight and dusky for Luna as the two ponies took the amulets. The unicorn put hers on and looked down at it, beaming. “So does this make me an official diplomat?”
Spike hopped onto Twilight’s back, leaning forward to inspect the medallion himself. “Awesome!” The small dragon exclaimed. “This means I get like, an ultra-comfy room and all the gems I can eat, right?”
“Oh, Spike.” Twilight giggled, and Luna looked down at her own medallion. It was no magically cheering talisman for her. It simply rested unassumingly against her pectoral, promising nothing, and the moon princess stifled a sigh.
“Well,” she said instead, giving the unicorn a smile. “Let’s see what Scar has brewed up for us.”
The three of them walked out of the throne room, hoofsteps echoing from the vaulted marble, two pegasus guards appearing from nowhere to escort them. There was still, Luna thought, some hostility and wariness in those eyes, despite Celestia’s patient explanations and subsequent strict instructions. It seemed odd that it was Twilight, who’d had far and away the closest contact with Nightmare Moon, who cherished no animosity at all.
Of course, it was Twilight who had shattered Nightmare Moon, too. Twilight and her friends, Luna had to remind herself, though the other faces were, like so many things, blurred in her memory. Her mind shivered away from the raw edges of those particular depths, and she focused ahead instead as they stepped out into the courtyard.
For a moment, Twilight thought the dragons had stolen a piece of Cloudsdale. A nine-sided pedestal hung in the air, wreathed in cloud and tugging impatiently at a heavy chain attached to the steel pectoral of one of Scar’s guards. It wasn’t until she saw the runes, carved deep into the surface and shimmering faintly with entrained magic, that she realized it was not of pony origin.
“Do you like it?” Scar’s voice rumbled in her ear. The unicorn squealed with surprise and jumped, whirling around to face the enormous dragon who had somehow snuck up behind her. Spike, taken equally off guard, windmilled and toppled off his perch on her back.
“Don’t do that!” She scolded, forgetting propriety for a moment. She glared briefly at the single silver eye, half-noticing that neither Celestia nor Luna looked particularly surprised. “It’s not nearly as funny as you think.”
“And it’s just rude.” Spike agreed, picking himself up from the floor. “Especially since I get hurt.”
The larger dragon gave them a grin, full of teeth and smoke. “But am I at fault for scaring you, or are you for not paying close enough attention, hmm?” Scar flowed past them, reaching up to effortlessly haul the pedestal down to ground level. “Your chariot awaits,” he told them with a flourish of his paw.
The interior was half-cloud, half-stone, and fully furnished with cushions, tables, and chests. The latter bore Luna’s crescent moon insignia; the royal’s alternative to saddlebags. While the construct was comfortable enough for a pegasus or an alicorn, for a unicorn it was dangerous. She opened her mouth to point this out, then noticed Scar watching her intently. “...right.”
Twilight cast her mind back, closing her eyes and concentrating briefly. Her horn glowed, and ephemeral bands swirled into existence around her hooves. They snapped inward suddenly, vanishing with a pulsed glow of power.
“What - “ Spike began, then flinched as an identical magical construct enveloped all four paws. Twilight opened her eyes and looked around happily at the ponies and dragons watching her.
“It’s the spell I looked up a while ago, to let the rest of us ponies walk on clouds. Well, and Spike.” She grinned fondly back at the small dragon, who was rubbing his paws together and looking at them carefully. “So now I won’t fall off!” She smiled broadly at Luna. “That’s kind of important, I think.”
Luna giggled softly. “‘Tia would have a fit if I lost you halfway there.” The alicorn flicked her wings, sailing the short distance from the ground to the lip of their conveyance. “Come on up!” She called to Twilight.
The unicorn grinned, and the world flickered around her as she transported herself and Spike to the pedestal in a flash of light. Luna seemed to flinch slightly as Twilight appeared beside the moon princess, but she ascribed it to her imagination as Luna immediately smiled cheerily and waved a hoof around the furnished interior.
“Welcome aboard!” Luna gave Twilight a half-bow, and then braced herself on the cloud to peer over the side at her sister, still standing on the marble tile. The unicorn joined her, looking down at Celestia.
The sun princess tilted her head back, looking up at the two with a small smile. “Be careful, both of you.”
“I’m sure we’ll be fine.” Luna waved a hoof airily. “What’s there to worry about?”
“Yeah!” Twilight added. “This’ll be fun!”
“Class-y!” Spike hopped off Twilight’s back to dive onto one of the cushions, sinking halfway into the richly padded bulk. “I could get used to this.”
“Don’t get too used to it,” Twilight said dryly. “It’s back to the library with us once we’re done.”
“Well until then I’m going to enjoy it.” Spike stretched out on the cushion and closed his eyes. Twilight shook her head at him fondly and looked back to Celestia.
“Good bye, princess! We’ll see you soon.”
“Bye, sis!” Luna added from beside her. “Don’t work too hard while I’m gone.”
Scar released the chain, sending them upward again. The floor was remarkably stable underhoof, the platform refusing to bob and sway. Twilight suspected there was more magic involved than simply making it float; she hoped she’d get a chance to study it during their journey.
Celestia waved to them as they drew away from the castle, Scar’s detail taking to the air with the heavy noise of wings. They rose higher and higher, the wind whistling around the pedestal, but the air within the border of the clouds remained still. Twilight watched Canterlot recede below them, then turned to Luna. “So...”
“Yes?” The princess walked across the cloudy floor, prodding at one of the cushions and looking at Twilight attentively. The purple unicorn felt suddenly awkward, fumbling for a topic to engage the alicorn.
“So, um, how are you finding Equestria these days?” Twilight winced as the words came out of her mouth. She didn’t want to constantly bring up Luna’s thousand years of exile, but it was hard to think of a conversational gambit that didn’t refer to it obliquely.
A flicker of some unidentifiable emotion passed over the alicorn’s face, and then Luna gave her a smile, stretching out on the unoccupied cushion. Spike was already snoring blissfully on his. “Celestia’s kept it up pretty well. I was meaning to get out earlier, but I’ve been buried in history books and period literature.”
“Oh!” Twilight brightened. Books were a subject on which she could hold forth for hours. “Who have you been reading? Whinny the Elder, Herocoltus?”
“More recent than that,” Luna laughed. “Actually I just finished A History of Ponyville,” she told Twilight. “I was curious after hearing Tia talk about it.”
“Oh, yes.” Twilight nodded. “Earth pony settlements are so fascinating. It’s amazing how much they can get done without magic. My first Winter Wrap-Up was incredible, actually.” The unicorn smiled, remembering. “It was an experience not using magic for once, but I don’t think I could go without all the time. After all, it is my special talent.” She giggled softly.
“You didn’t mind only using your hooves?” Luna tilted her head curiously, and Twilight shook her head.
“Not really, not with the way it was a group effort. Besides, there are other unicorns in Ponyville, and if they could do it, so could I.”
“Maybe next Winter Wrap-Up I can join you,” the princess said thoughtfully.
“I’m sure Dash would love that,” Twilight said cheerfully. “But the mayor would probably throw a shoe. Ponyville has had enough issues wrapping up properly without having to perform in front of royalty.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Luna sighed, and the unicorn felt a twinge of sympathy for her downcast look. She knew what it was to feel out of place.
“If you want to join in, just show up!” Twilight encouraged. “You’re a princess, you can do whatever you want.”
“Actually, royalty means you have fewer freedoms than the average citizen.” Scar’s rumble intruded on them, the big dragon poking his head into the bubble of still air surrounding their conveyance. “It is a duty that you eat, sleep, and breathe your entire life.”
This time they were both startled, the ponies looking upward at the dragon flying above them. “Eavesdropping isn’t very polite,” Twilight scolded.
“Not particularly, no,” Scar replied with equanimity before continuing with the topic at hoof. “King and queens - and princes and princesses - are constrained by necessity to do things they would rather not. It is not our personal preferences that govern our lives, but the good of our subjects and our lands.”
“You don’t seem to sacrifice much to duty,” Luna said, half-accusingly. “You seem to do whatever you want.”
“I’m not quite as capricious as I may seem.” The dragon gave them a toothy smile. “And I’ve developed a certain flair over the years, it’s true. But ruling dragons isn’t the same as ruling ponies, so it should be expected I don’t act much like Celestia.”
“That reminds me,” Twilight interposed. “Celestia said something about Spike being your protégé...but he’s been here ever since he was an egg. I don’t think he’s had any contact with you at all.”
“Not as such, no,” Scar conceded. “But I am the reason his egg was in Equestria in the first place. But if your friends had not come through when they did, he would have been the lever to stage my coup, when he came of age. As it is, he can lead a less political life.”
“That seems awfully cold-blooded,” Twilight said, then smiled wryly at her inadvertent joke. “I’m glad Spike doesn’t have that weighing on him,” she continued, looking over at the snoozing dragon. “He’s still only a baby.” The dragon had been her companion ever since she was a filly, and she had difficulty thinking of him as a political tool.
“But why did you have to take over in the first place?” Twilight asked, then flushed briefly. “I mean, was the other king not doing a good job or what?”
“The pony princesses rule together,” Scar answered obliquely. “Sun and moon, in harmony. At least, they’re supposed to.” He cast a brief glance at Luna, who ducked her head in embarrassment. “Dragons are not the same.” The dragon tapped the ouroboros pendant hanging around his neck.
“The dragon brothers rule in sequence. One rises to power, full of vigor and new ideas. Eventually, he grows fat and lazy and complacent, and his brother topples him, and he uses his exile to think and learn and plot and become worthy of rule once more.” He grinned toothily. “It is harmony of a sort, between the two of us. It is balance. Nothing is meant to truly stand alone.”
Twilight felt fundamentally uncomfortable, talking to Scar, in precisely the way she thought she would feel with Luna. Speaking with the princess was like a conversation with an ordinary pony. Any conversation with Scar, on the other hoof, seemed to hold a myriad of sharp edges just out of sight.
So she was relieved when he finally withdrew from the conversation, great wings flapping as he flew ahead of them. From the vantage point of the cushions, the ground wasn’t visible, but the clouds sped briskly by in testament to their speed. Spike woke up again later in their trip, leaning over the side to watch trees, hills, and mountains roll by.
“I’ve never been this far from Canterlot or Ponyville,” he remarked. “D’ya think it will be that different in Draconia?”
“Well, it’ll be colder at least.” Twilight smiled. “Even colder than winter usually is, I expect.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Spike shook his head. “I mean, if I talk about living in a big tree will my p-parents understand?” The small dragon tripped over the word, looking anxious.
“Oh Spike,” the unicorn said reassuringly. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. Draconia might be different but not that different.”
“It used to be very like northern Equestria,” Luna put in. “Long and long ago. I have to wonder how it’s changed.”
“There, you see?” Twilight beamed, trying to ignore the chill that went down her spine every time one of the princesses casually walked through the millennia. “You don’t have to worry. I’m sure they’ll be just like us.”
The reassurance was for her as well as for Spike. Her conversation with the princess had remained confined to their comparative views of the history of Ponyville, rather than their actual mission. From what she’d seen so far, Twilight was more than willing to leave dealing with dragons up to Luna.
From what Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy had related, Twilight expected the trip to take several days. But either they were moving faster than she thought, or there were subtle magics being worked, for the sun hadn’t gotten near the horizon when whitecapped mountains hove into view.
Flying shapes hovered about the mountains, not the familiar pegasi of Equestria but rather glinting scaled figures, going about their own mysterious business. “Is that Eyrie Draconis?” Twilight propped herself up on the edge of their strange chariot, and Luna joined her.
“It looks like it,” the princess agreed with her. “But I’ve never been myself.”
Buildings were scattered over a series of broad plateaus, the city rising vertically from the snow-dusted valley below. Water ran through each section of the city, cascading downward in a series of falls, while glowing lava oozed sluggishly through a series of matching canals from the smoking volcano the city was built on.
Scar’s form dived ahead of them, and Spike’s arms windmilled as they dropped downward rapidly. Twilight couldn’t help but squeak at the abrupt fall, but Luna seemed unaffected, merely ruffling her wings and peering downward. The horizon spun madly, and then was abruptly still as they landed.
The unicorn groaned. “All this way it was fine and they had to do that at the end.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” Luna giggled, hopping lightly down from the cloud. Twilight shook her head to clear the vertigo, and brought herself and Spike down next to the princess with a flash of light.
“It was too,” she whispered to Luna.
Aside from Scar and the dragon guards, there were only two other dragons on the flat landing area in front of the palace. One looked to be made of hammered bronze, each scale bearing the distinctive rippled pattern, her form sleek with metallic fins on her head and tail. The other seemed to be carved out of obsidian - Twilight would swear she could spot toolmarks - his hide glossy black and hinting at a translucence that never quite manifested. He was decorated in wicked-looking spines forming a crest at the back of his head and running down his back.
Those two were both looking at the same individual, ignoring their ruler, the guards, the princess, and her companion. Spike stared back, wide-eyed. “May I introduce your parents,” Scar said quietly, “Lady Embersky and Lord Chasm.”
Luna watched as the unicorn followed her dragon companion. Spike’s legs wobbled as he took his first hesitant steps forward toward the pair. Throughout her long life, that was one particular fear she’d never had to face. And yet, there was something in the dragon’s movement that reminded her of herself when she’d opened her eyes to see Celestia looming over her.
She had to look away. The sound of voices washed over her, a lilting trumpet and earthshaking rumble of draconic voices, Spike’s stammering reply. Twilight’s responses, her words thin and thready in comparison with the power of Embersky and Chasm. It was a family meeting that she had no part in.
Instead she turned to study the architecture, trying to distract herself from snippets of words being passed around behind her. The stone was old, older than the mountain itself, as she looked at it. There were runes, once etched deep into the weathered rock face and now barely visible.
It was a puzzle that she told herself to concentrate on, but something interrupted her.
“It hurts, doesn’t it?” The words were whispered in her ear, and she whirled to see Scar’s blind eye staring whitely at her.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She looked back at that eye, though it couldn’t possibly see her. It was, in fact, aimed slightly off to her left and above her, which was somehow even more disconcerting.
“You’re older than I am,” Scar said dryly, the words accompanied by a curl of smoke leaking from the side of the dragon’s muzzle. “You should know better than to try and dissemble like that.”
“You were born old,” Luna muttered to him.
“And you were born young,” Scar countered. “You should treasure that, princess.”
“Celestia might play your games,” Luna sighed. “But I don’t have to, even if I am a diplomat. You are the Lord of Air and Fire, and I am the bringer of the moon. Why do you act like this? Playing?”
Scar ignored her. “I see how lonely you are. Where your choices have brought you. You can’t even stand to watch, princess.”
She didn’t answer. She couldn’t. There was nothing he said that she could find voice to protest, but at the same time she didn’t know what he was trying to accomplish. She could feel his talons tugging at her mask, and the princess took a deep breath to steady herself. “What do you want, Scar?”
“It’s what you want.” The corner of his muzzle curled upward in a smile. It was not a pleasant expression. “If you could take it all back, right from the very beginning, would you?”
It was an unfair question. Luna’s jaw ached as she pressed her muzzle tightly shut. Celestia had never asked her anything like it, even right after her return. After a great length of time she finally answered in a small voice. “You can’t change the past.”
“Good for you.” Scar’s head lifted to reveal Twilight trotting toward them, alone.
Luna looked a question at her and the unicorn smiled briefly. Her face was a welter of emotions, relief and fear and anxiety, and it was obvious that Twilight had no need of the type of mask Luna wore. “Spike’s going to spend some time with his parents,” she told the princess.
It took a moment for her to reassemble herself enough to reply properly. “That sounds like a wonderful idea. He deserves some time alone with them. But where do we go?” She looked over at Scar and the dragon lord bowed.
“If you’ll follow me.” He flowed past them, ignoring the waiting guards, and the ponies trotted to keep up. Behind them, servitors moved to unload their baggage. They outdistanced their luggage though, keeping up with Scar’s swift pace.
“What’s the rush?” Twilight asked, her hooves clattering along the stone. “We’re not all dragon-sized, you know.” Luna caught her glance; the larger alicorn wasn’t having to expend quite as much effort.
“It is rude to make us rush,” Luna agreed. “Slow down, Scar.”
The dragon stopped abruptly, and Twilight skidded into his side. Luna managed a more graceful halt, but still gave Scar a glare. The dragon smiled unrepentantly and pointed to a door. “No need,” he said. “We’re here.”
Luna blinked. The door was - and this was the most surprising thing - pony-sized. Not exactly pony sized, but it was certainly not built for dragons.
“Oh!” Twilight exclaimed. “Did you make this for us?”
“No, it’s been here for some time.” Scar inclined his head to them. “Go on in.”
Luna looked at him suspiciously, then pushed the door open. She took two steps in, and stopped. The entire room was clad in silver, shining and untarnished, the walls covered in symbols. “Wow,” the unicorn commented, stepping in behind the princess. “What is all this?”
“I don’t know,” Luna replied. “I can’t read it.” She should have been able to. The princess had learned nearly every language in existence throughout her long life, but so much of her knowledge had been bound up in Nightmare Moon. It was impossible to tell what she’d lost in that single instant of defeat.
“Kalāma banû pāna, mušḫuššu,” Scar murmured from outside the door.
“What?” The princess blinked back at him, startled. Something about that language tickled the back of her brain.
“Would you like to know why all this here?”
“Sure!” Twilight grinned. “I’d love to know where this came from.”
“No, wait!” Luna whirled on Twilight, but it was too late. The inscriptions on the walls blazed into life, the light bouncing off the polished silver. She turned again to run to the door, but there was no door there, just glowing symbols hanging in the air. And yet for an instant she saw Scar’s blind eye watching her, his expression ineffably sad.
“What’s going on?” Twilight backed away from the walls, into the center of the room, her horn glowing in defensive reflex.
“It’s answering you,” Luna said quietly as colors swirled behind the growing light. Fragments of knowledge swirled in her head, an inchoate mass that refused to accrete into a solid conclusion. Fear sent its icy talons through her, a sensation that a goddess did not often feel.
“Answering me? How can it be answering me? I didn’t ask it a question!” Twilight’s voice rose in shrill panic as she looked around wildly. Luna joined her in the middle of the room as the glow washed the walls away.
“It’s answering me, too,” the princess added in a whisper. The walls vanished in a final flare, and a wave of heat rolled over them. The sun stood high in the sky, hammering down mercilessly, flashing bright off endless ripples of white sand stretching in all directions from the circle of worn stone underhoof.
“Where...where are we?” Twilight looked around, dazed. Luna felt only a cold certainty that Scar and Celestia had colluded to send her here, the chill competing with the heat of their new surroundings. She didn’t understand Twilight’s role, but the princess knew that nothing had really changed, and it was exile again.
“Where my choices have brought me,” she whispered.
Twilight was thoroughly lost, and not just geographically. She had no idea how they’d gotten where they were, or what Luna was talking about. But her mind was keen and she was already chewing on the problem. She squinted at the sun’s position in the sky and looked around. “All right, the change in the sun’s angle puts us about two thousand miles to the east and one thousand south. That puts us...” The unicorn frowned. “That’s not right. That’s the middle of the ocean.”
She turned to Luna, the unicorn already starting to sweat under the relentless glare of daylight desert, and was shocked to see her companion crumpled on the stone. “Princess!” Twilight rushed to Luna’s side, stopping when she saw the tears leaking from the alicorn’s closed eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong?” Luna’s voice held such sharp bitterness that Twilight took an involuntary step back. “Only that I am exiled again. That it wasn’t enough that my power be shattered, that my very purpose be ripped from me. That I am found wanting no matter how hard I try!” Her voice had thickened, taking on a lilt from the ancient past. “That after all this time, they only want me to be gone!”
The last three words came out in a deeper register than Luna’s normal voice, something different than her magically augmented royal speech, turning the air between them brittle. Twilight knew that voice all too well, but had never expected to hear it from Luna’s muzzle. There was a moment of silence, the quiet made only deeper by the distant sussuration of sand. “...Luna?” The unicorn asked at last, hesitantly.
There was another, longer pause, and the alicorn heaved a sigh. “Yes, I am.” The princess got to her feet again. “Though that doesn’t seem to help much.”
“I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think,” Twilight said with forced cheer, already sweating uncomfortably under the merciless sun. “It must have been an accident. I mean, you said it was reacting to me, so it’s probably my fault.” She gave a nervous laugh. “And you’re the goddess of the moon, so you can just...goddess us back, right?”
“...what?” Twilight blinked at Luna
“I can’t.” Luna said quietly, looking away from the unicorn, her ears folded back against her head.. “All of me that was the goddess was bound up in Nightmare Moon. Now that she’s gone, that is too. I’m just a unicorn with wings.”
Twilight stared. The ground seemed to shift under her hooves, as if the revelation had physical force, knocking her back a step. “But you...then I...” Her words came out less than coherent as her mind balked at all the implications carried in the simple statement. Then she threw her hooves around the princess. “I’m so sorry!”
Luna stood still, rigid with surprise, until Twilight let her go and stepped back awkwardly. “Um,” said the unicorn with a slight flush. “I mean, I didn’t know -”
“No,” Luna interrupted her. “You were right. Nightmare Moon would have destroyed everything.” The alicorn turned away, looking out over the blinding white dunes. “You should just leave. This isn’t your place.”
“Leave?” Twilight laughed hysterically, waving a foreleg around at the endless waste that surrounded them. “What? And go where? We’re in the middle of the desert and it’s so hot I can’t even think - hang on.” She frowned briefly, her horn glowing, and a saddle-borne parasol popped into existence both on her back and on Luna’s. “There, that’s better.”
The alicorn looked startled. “What are you doing?”
“Luna,” Twilight said earnestly. “You’re wrong, it’s not true that ponies don’t want you. I’m not sure what happened to bring us here, but we’ve got to get out, and I’m not leaving you behind. Celestia said to take care of you.”
“She what?” Luna had the same absent, bemused tone that Twilight had stammered in earlier, as if it were her world that was being rocked.
“Come on, princess.” Twilight stepped down the worn steps of the stone dais, prodding at the sand with a hoof. “We need to get moving and find water and shelter. Could you fly up and see if there’s anything nearby?”
For a a few long moments, Luna looked uncertain, then slowly shook her head. “Twilight, I’m not -”
She interrupted herself with a squeal as Twilight’s horn glowed, launching the alicorn high into the air. The unicorn felt mortified to mishandle the princess in such a way, but it was far too hot to stand around arguing with her. Especially since she had to be wrong.
“Well?” She called up, and Luna glared down at her.
“Don’t ever do that to me again.”
“Do you see anything from there, though?”
Luna sighed and stretched her wings, the parasol popping off and fluttering downward before dissolving in a fizzle of purple as the magicked construction returned its power to the unicorn. Twilight winced slightly; they’d have to rely on the contents of her saddlebags and what she could make with her magic. No food or drink made with magic would be nourishing, and trying to make too much from nothing would being tiring. With any luck Luna would be able to spot some sort of landmark from up there.
She watched the dark speck of the alicorn spiral overhead, and hoped. At length, Luna dropped back down to the ground, looking somewhat wilted. “There’s a dark smudge over there, but it’s miles away. I might be able to fly there if it weren’t for his heat,” she continued sadly. “And you’d never make it walking.”
“Then we won’t walk. Or fly. Exactly which direction is it in?”
Luna looked at her, clearly questioning her sanity, but pointed with a hoof. “There.”
“All right. Hang on.” Twilight’s horn glowed as she concentrated, enveloping the two of them in a sphere of violet light. A line of light shot forth from it, vanishing over the horizon, and there was a sudden staccato booming. The sand shifted past them in fits and starts, an inconstant strobe as the white dunes reflected the sun.
Twilight squinted ahead of her, sweating as she concentrated hard on the teleports. The sand flowed like water under her hooves, and she had to fight to maintain her balance on the constantly-shifting ground. She couldn’t spare a look for Luna, having to focus all her attention forward, but she caught glimpses of a dark coat out of the corner of her vision and knew the princess was at least being drawn along.
It was impossible to tell how long the journey lasted. It wasn’t long, but the constant ebb and flow of magic, and the rapidly shifting surroundings, destroyed all sense of time and distance. All Twilight knew was that it felt like wading through hock-deep mud, and the crushing, merciless heat battering down past the parasol didn’t help either. The air seared her lungs as she panted, and she nearly missed the moment that the looming tor came into view.
A vast mount of blood-red rock sprouted suddenly from the monochrome surroundings, an incongruous presence in the desert. A few more seconds and a series of pops followed, and Twilight barely stopped before she smashed them into the steep crimson slopes. Her vision swam as she looked at the stone, and beside her Luna groaned wretchedly and spat bile.
“Don’t,” she said weakly, “ever do that again.”
“Yeah...” Twilight replied, her voice coming out faint and far away, even to herself. “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.” The world tilted oddly and she found herself flat on her back. For a moment it felt nice to lie down, but then the heat of the white sand penetrated her coat, and she shot upright again. “Ouch!”
Luna snorted softly and began walking along the perimeter of the rise, toward where a thin sliver of shadow cast a dark patch on the sand. Twilight trotted to keep up, fine grains spraying behind as she matched pace with the larger pony, and sighed with relief as the sun’s glare finally vanished behind the mass of stolid stone. “Do you know where we are? I’ve been trying to figure it out but this doesn’t match any map I know of.”
The alicorn didn’t reply, and Twilight looked over at her. “Princess Luna?”
The darker pony whirled abruptly, tears standing in her eyes. “I don’t care! Don’t you understand? It. Doesn’t. Matter.”
Twilight took a step back. “What’s wrong, princess? You weren’t like this before, and you know we weren’t abandoned here on purpose...”
“I was acting, before. If I looked the slightest bit upset, ponies would avoid me and whisper behind my back. Now, there aren’t any others. Except you.” Luna blinked tears from her eyes, the wetness vanishing instantly into the parched sand below. “I’m stuck with the pony that destroyed me. You...you..” She sputtered wordlessly. “I hate you!” The princess turned and fled, showering Twilight in grains of hot quartzite.
Twilight watched her go, feeling like her stomach had dropped out and fallen clear through the sand. Being stranded in the desert was bad enough, but it hadn’t hit her like Luna’s words. It was only now, as she watched the princess vanish behind a crag of rock, that she felt truly lost. “What do I do now?” She asked plaintively of the empty air.
It was too bright. It was too hot. At least in the shade the sand no longer scorched her hooves, but the unending white sparkled with a dazzling brightness that forced her to squint. It was as miserable a place as she could remember, and Luna had a long memory. The last tattered fragments of her godhead did little to soothe her parched throat, but she gathered them about her anyway.
The hollow feeling was a welcome companion, something to be embraced for its familiarity. She was by now used to being alone, even if not stranded in a desert beneath an empty blue sky. And yet there was something odd about it, something that rattled around in the back of her mind. Luna followed the line of rock until what was bothering her decided to present itself.
The sand crunched under her hooves as the shadow cast by the ruddy stone lengthened, and finally it edged around into view. It wasn’t like Celestia. Luna knew her sister, and knew that she would do anything to safeguard Equestia. But she was far from cruel, and Twilight’s presence in this exile was unexplainable. And, she thought, stumbling over a rock camouflaged under a thin layer of sand, the place was far too harsh.
But the idea that this was some other accident, that the universe had cast her out again by blind chance was such a bitter dose that she couldn’t accept it. Scar’s last look did nothing to help the proposition; she knew he had to be involved, but the dragon hadn’t seemed happy about it.
As her mind mulled over bleak possibilities, her hooves carried her up a narrow defile that wound around the rock face. With a start, Luna realized that she could sense darkness nearby, some tiny slice of the night preserved against the uncaring light. She lifted her head, looking around, and picked her way up the side of the narrow gorge.
Luna stepped into the cave with a sigh of relief. Here, the air was cool and soothing, and her ears pricked as the faint burble of running water came from the deeper reaches of the shelter. Gloom was no impediment to her vision, and she followed the sound until she could smell the sharp clean of spring water and damp moss.
The foal of some hidden brook or distant artesian well issued forth from the side of the cave, frothing briefly over a pebbled scape of moss-covered stone to land in a shallow pool. Luna bent gratefully to drink, and the water was cold and sweet. The crawl of gray-green moss promised a more comfortable place for repose than bare rock or sand, and the princess almost thought it was actually a nice little place.
Guilt stopped her. She wasn’t the only pony who was hot, parched, and tired. Somewhere in the desert Twilight Sparkle was just as stranded as she was, and Luna had abandoned her. Even if she could find Twilight again, what could she possibly say? They hadn’t exactly parted on the best of terms.
“Good job, Luna,” she muttered aloud, her voice echoing back from the walls of the cave, thin and thready. She dropped down on the moss with a sigh, scrubbing at her muzzle. Time slipped. Over the endless days,weeks, years, and centuries, she’d learned how not to pay attention and only dabble her hooves in time’s flow. Since her return, ‘Tia had helped center her, helped her plant all four legs in the current. But sometimes she found it passing her by.
She became aware night was falling. The alicorn shook her head, a gesture of half-negation, half-frustration, and rose to walk outside. The oppressive heat of the day had turned into an equally bitter chill blowing off the lifeless sands. The blue was turning toward purple, and Luna shivered as she looked out over the desert. She might not be able to raise the moon anymore, but she could at least watch.
There was a soft tapping of hooves from behind her, and a thermal blanket draped itself over her. She turned and stared as Twilight Sparkle stepped up to join her at the lip of the defile. The purple unicorn didn’t seem any worse for the wear. She wasn’t wearing a parasol any longer, and her saddlebags bulged despite their contents - Twilight’s cold weather gear - being spread out over Twilight and Luna. “...I don’t understand,” Luna said at last.
“Just a modification of the finder spell Rarity taught me,” Twilight said happily, a flash of purple rippling over her horn. “Works for greenery, water, and apparently princesses.” Then she sobered. “I know you don’t like me, but until we get out of this we’ll have to stay together.”
“I don’t understand why you came back.”
“Oh.” It was Twilight’s turn for surprise. “I couldn’t just leave you. I mean, it’s not...I just...I couldn’t. Besides.” Now her expression took on a glint, a sharp-edged determination that Luna had last seen through different eyes. “Celestia told me to take care of you.”
The alicorn had to physically restrain herself from stepping away from Twilight. That was not a tone she cared to be on the wrong end of again. Silence lingered for a moment, then Luna tenatively floated a reply. “I didn’t mean it.”
“What?” Twilight blinked at her.
“I don’t hate you.”
There was another round of silence, and Luna sighed. “I am - I was - Nightmare Moon. That was my choice. It was a bad choice, but it was still mine. And you saved me, so I owe you everything. But you also destroyed me, Twilight. Shattered me. When I have nightmares, they’re about you.”
This time it was Twilight who looked away. The unicorn scuffed at the rock with a forehoof, embarrassed. “I’m not that bad a pony, I swear.” She looked up again, her eyes wide and earnest. “Princess, I don’t have anything against you. I’m just an ordinary unicorn. Even if - even if we can’t be friends, we can still get along until we get out of this.”
Luna shook her head slowly. “It’s not something we can simply walk out of. We haven’t just lost a path, we were sent here. By Scar or Celestia or something else.” She gestured out at the desolation. “It’s an oubliette.”
“Place of forgetting?” Twilight frowned. “It’s just a desert.”
“It’s nowhere. It’s a very specific nowhere. Where we arrived was built, built in the middle of the desert.” Luna looked up at the sky. “We’re stuck.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s not that bad.” Twilight’s laugh was uncertain. “Once the stars come out we can figure out exactly where we are and from there it shouldn’t be any trouble to figure things out.”
The alicorn felt a smile form unbidden. “If I know anything, I know the stars.”
“That’s the spirit!” Twilight smiled back and turned to look at the horizon, where the moon would be rising. The sky turned to match Twilight’s coloration, then Luna’s, turning to black at the far horizon for a moment before the silver coin of the moon rose over the dunes.
Slowly, slowly, it crept upward, and the two of them stared as the moon sailed, alone, through the dark vault overhead.
“My sky.” Twilight heard Luna’s words come out pained and breathless, as if she’d been stabbed in the heart. “Where is my sky?”
The unicorn didn’t have an answer. She was staring upward at the traitorous sky, only now feeling cast adrift. “I don’t know, princess,” she said at last. “I...don’t see how it’s possible.”
“My sky...” Luna repeated a third time, then bowed her head and sobbed. Twilight could only awkwardly pat her shoulder through two layers of blanket and stare helplessly upward. It was a long, long night, but the princess finally cried herself out and slept, just before dawn. In the silence the there was a high and distant crooning as the white sand dunes sang in the wind.
It was a strange, exotic sound, and it lulled her into a semi-slumber where she rode the sound through a bleak and endless empty landscape. The half-dream ended when she abruptly realized she could hear words in that song, and she bolted upright, blinking.
The voice was coming nearer, thin and dry yet still tuneful, cradling each word of that unknown language. A claw scraped on stone and a reptilian figure hauled itself into view. It must have been bulky at some point, and bigger than a pony, but now the scarred hide clung loose on sinewy limbs, six of them, and the tail ended abruptly at half its natural length. Its scales were a faded, burnt umber, and around the serpentine head was tied an incongruous white cloth, covering its eyes.
It sang, hauling itself the rest of the way out of the narrow gorge, and headed directly for the ponies. Twilight heard somepony scream, and only until after it stopped did she realize it was her. Luna scrambled to her hooves beside her, and the reptile halted. “Ai, kenin otimo uika?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand you.” Twilight replied, already trying to remember a translation spell. The effort proved to be unnecessary as it gave a wheezy laugh, and spoke in accented but understandable words.
“Ai, my apologies. I get so few visitors.” It chuckled again, though she didn’t know what was amusing about that. “What brings you to bestow your presence on an old, blind basilisk?”
Luna stepped in, preempting any reply Twilight might have made. “I am Princess Luna, and this is Twilight Sparkle,” she told the reptile in a cool, clear voice. “And who might you be?”
The basilisk bowed deeply, abasing itself before them. “Forgive me, I am not supplied for royalty. What I have is, of course, yours. I am called Tozómuc.”
“Your hospitality is appreciated, Tozómuc, but we do not intend to stay long. I merely have some questions for you.” Twilight stared at Luna as the alicorn’s voice slid into something resembling silk-clad steel. This wasn’t the Luna who had been helplessly weeping only a few hours ago, and the pony had to wonder how literally Luna had meant it when she said she’d been shattered.
“What,” Luna demanded, “happened to the stars?”
“Ai, I cannot tell you, oh dread sovereign.” The basilisk said sadly. “I have not seen the sky in a long, long time. I cannot remember what it looked like.”
That was frightening. That casual admission would have been sweeping destruction to Twilight’s world, but the basilisk seemed more upset by his inability to answer the question than his inability to see the sky. Twilight saw Luna’s muzzle tighten and the princess inclined her head in a tight nod; a useless gesture, but an instinctive one. “Very well,” she said. “Then I ask, where are we?”
Tozómuc tilted his head. “Ai...” He said in a slow, careful voice. “Then I dare ask, you have not come to pass judgement?”
“Judgement?” Twilight blurted, unable to help it. Luna twitched, a movement half arrested, and the scaled head swiveled in the paler pony’s direction. There was a shadow of something hungry in that motion, and despite the fact that Tozómuc was pressed flat against the ground, Twilight took a step back.
“I obey,” the basilisk sighed in a voice like the wind rustling dead leaves, “the onus of justice gladly. Even happily. But an old, blind basilisk can hope, ever hope, for mercy.”
“What are you talking about?” Twilight stared at the reptile as the first hot breath of wind came in from the rising sun.
“Twilight.” Luna said quietly. The unicorn looked over at her and Luna shook her head. “Let me.” It was almost pleading. Twilight put her hoof to her muzzle and gestured for Luna to go ahead.
“Tozómuc,” Luna said. “Where are we?”
“My desert,” he replied with inexpressible weariness. “Where I walked, long ago, and turned people and cities and fields and forests to sand and dust. The dust has long since blown away, but the sand remains.”
Twilight Sparkle gasped. The princess closed her eyes briefly, giving a convulsive shiver before she addressed the basilisk again. “Then, Tozómuc, tell me how we can leave your desert.”
“Ai, I can lead the way, if you would but grant me one moment to drink and another to regain my strength.”
“Of course.” Luna stepped aside, and the basilisk lumbered toward the cave. As he passed by, Twilight could hear his bones creak. Once he passed inside, the smaller pony turned to stare at Luna.
“But...he’s a murderer! He admitted it!” Twilight didn’t understand what Luna was doing at all. All she wanted to do was to get as far away from Tozómuc as possible.
“...that could have been me,” Luna said in a trembling voice. She dropped her head, looking as frightened as Twilight had ever seen. All in a flash, Twilight understood. Understood the bright mirror that the basilisk held for Luna and the ultimate end of Nightmare Moon’s eternal darkness. An eternity alone in a dark desolation created by her own hooves.
“But it’s not, princess.” Twilight took a step toward her. “You could never be like that.”
“Then you don’t know me.” Luna’s eyes flashed and she took a breath. “I wanted to, Twilight. I wanted to so badly. To just crush everything.”
“I think we all have days like that,” Twilight said with a nervous giggle. The sad princess was bad enough, but this Luna frightened her badly. Even if she understood, at least in part, where Luna was coming from, it didn’t help her with how to react to it. There were no books she could consult, and magic was useless in this. She chose her words carefully.
“We all get angry, princess. Well all make mistakes and say or do things we don’t mean. But that doesn’t make you a bad pony, and I don’t think you’re a monster, like him.”
“Maybe not...” Luna took a deep breath and lifted her head back up, looking down at Twilight. “I don’t think he’s a monster anymore either, though,” she said at last. “You heard him speak.”
“It’s possible,” Twilight said grudgingly. “And a basilisk’s power is in his eyes, so I guess he’s not really a threat. But still, he creeps me out.”
“You gave me a second chance,” Luna argued. “Why not him?”
Twilight blinked, and turned to look out over the desert. The sun reflected off the red stone, staining the white sand bloody crimson. She waved a hoof at it. “This. This is why. You’ve never done anything like this.”
Luna followed her look, then straightened up, seeming somehow reassured. “You’re right,” she said, her voice regaining some strength. “I just felt - feel - a kinship to him. One monster to another.”
“You’re not,” Twilight insisted. “You’re Princess Luna.”
The edges of the alicorn’s muzzle curled upward in a small smile, and the scrape of claw on stone came from behind them. They turned to see Tozómuc emerge from the cave, laden with stone jugs that sloshed as he moved. “Hraah,” he said, head bowed. “On your order, I will lead you to the edge of this desert, great ladies.”
“Lead the way, Tozómuc,” said the princess Luna.
They straggled back down the rock face, onto sand that was already starting to warm. Twilight remade her parasols, shading both her and Luna from the rising heat, and looked forward at their guide. She would rather not have to talk to him too much, but she couldn’t be rude. “...would you like an umbrella, Tozómuc?”
The basilisk laughed his dead-leaves laugh. “Ai, the lady is too kind to a condemned criminal. Too kind. My thanks, but the sun and I have reached an understanding. It shines, and I am hot. Without that, I would not know day from night.”
“Right.” Twilight shared a glance with Luna, then opened her saddlebag, horn glowing as she lifted out some plump orange-striped fruits. She passed one across to the princess, who took it as they trekked across the trackless sands. “Something to eat, then, maybe?”
“I could not accept -” The basilisk began, but Luna cut in.
“You won’t be able to show us across the desert if you collapse from hunger, Tozómuc. Do I have to make that an order?”
The reptile wheezed a laugh. “That is not necessary, oh princess. Your point is taken.” He came to a halt and turned, and Twilight floated yet another fruit over to touch his paw. The reptile plucked it from the air, and the unicorn winced as something buzzed oddly where his flesh touched her magic. “My deepest thanks.”
He turned and started off ahead, moving on five legs through the sand. They started off again, the two ponies stepping in the broad shapeless footprints of the basilisk. “That odd reaction to my magic,” Twilight ventured hesitantly. Tozómuc still disturbed her, but curiosity was a strong force. “Do you know what it was?”
“Ai, part of my sentence, I believe.”
“Sentence, judgement, criminal - what court sentenced you?” Luna asked, finally putting words to questions that had been rattling around in the back of Twilight’s mind.
“The highest court, oh great lady,” Tozómuc replied. “The gods themselves. The great mover of the sun sentenced me, broke my power, and bound me here.”
Twilight gaped. He could only be describing one pony, but Celestia had never mentioned anything like this in her stories. Beside her, she heard Luna’s intake of breath. But the princess’ tone remained cool and even. “Bound you here why? What was your sentence?”
“To understand.” The basilisk sighed. “That is all she said.”
“Typical,” Luna muttered. “Just typical of her.”
“Hraah...forgive me, dread sovereign,” the basilisk ventured in its dust-dry voice. “But do you know the goddess of the sun?”
“Of course,” Luna replied absently. “I’m her sister.”
Their procession stopped as the reptile flung himself flat on the sand, covering his muzzle with his forepaws. “Forgive me, oh great goddess of the moon, I did not know.”
“Rise, Tozómuc. You have done nothing that I could find fault with.” Even if Luna felt some sort of kinship with the basilisk, Twilight thought, she was remaining distant enough. She was suddenly, intensely glad that the princess never talked to her that way, disturbing though Luna’s confessions could be.
“My goddess is most kind,” the reptile murmured, rising to his feet, but still keeping his head bowed. “Most kind.”
“I’m just me.” Luna shook her head. “Tozómuc, I am merely passing through. Please, let us continue.”
“Of course, my goddess.” The reptile raised his head to the sun, then turned and began to head back over the dunes. On the downslope, Twilight had to step around a smooth spike of ruddy stone peering out of the drifts. It wasn’t until the crest of the next dune that she saw it was far from a singular outcrop.
Red rock pillars stretched out in a vast field before them, some almost entirely buried in the sand, some standing tall above. For a moment the unicorn thought they were a natural formation, but then she saw they were covered with symbols and rough striations where something had hewn them from the living earth.
“What is all this?” Twilight blurted, forgetting for a moment that the basilisk couldn’t see what she was referring to.
He knew anyway. “Ai...” The rustling of dead leaves. “It is my remembrance.”
“I think,” Luna said, looking out over the obelisks, “that you should tell me what you’ve been doing in the desert all this time.”
“Hraah.” The basilisk’s wordless expression seemed entirely inadequate to the task of explaining the endless expanse of carved monuments. The reptile stopped briefly by one of the standing stones, reaching out until his paw encountered the surface. Twilight swallowed as she saw his claws matched perfectly the marks scoring the surface.
“In the beginning I was angry. I raged from one end of the desert to the other, but one cannot injure sand.” The basilisk began moving again, but slower, as if the memories were a physical weight upon his back. The ponies watched him somberly from under the shade of their parasols.
“I was a long, long time alone. There was nothing to do but think. When the anger burned itself out, ai, something else was waiting to fill that void. Shame? Remorse? I do not know. It took me far too long, but at least I realized how much I had destroyed, and how I could never, ever undo what I had done.”
“I began to carve out what I remembered. Each person, each place, each name. Everything. In the beginning, it was so others could know. But now...” He stopped at another stele, reaching up to run his claws over the writing on its face, and Twilight wondered how many times he must have made the journey to know everything so well even when blind. “Hraah, I no longer recall most of this. And there is so much I have forgotten, so much that I did not record, so much that is gone forever.”
The shadows of the monuments painted stripes across the sand, growing shorter as the sun rose and the heat washed over them. They seemed taller in the bright morning sun, their color more intense, like freshly shed blood. “They remind me, now, why I am here. Why I cannot leave this desert. What I have done, and what I must remember.”
Silence reigned after that. They walked onward, Twilight keeping her brow wet with the water she and Tozómuc carried. Luna didn’t seem to be as affected by the heat as she, but they both were sweating under the gaze of the sun. The rows of monoliths went on and on, hour after hour and mile after mile, and by the time Luna called a halt at midday, Twilight found tears running from her eyes.
She didn’t know who she was crying for. For Tozómuc’s victims, somewhere in the sand beneath her hooves. For the basilisk himself, and the endless weight of grief and guilt and responsibility he carried. Or maybe both, combined to create some enormous well of tragedy.
She jumped as a hoof touched her shoulder, and looked over at Luna. “I understand,” the princess told her softly.
“What?” She blinked her vision clear.
“The weight. The expanse of time and experience that immortals have. Good or bad or even indifferent, it...it hurts. But I admit, it is not often spread out like this.” She looked around them at the pillars rising from the sand.
Twilight nodded, squinting up at the sun, and her horn glowed as she brought a shelter into existence for them. The blankets were spread to protect them from the still-hot sand, and they had a small luncheon in the middle of the desert. It was not a joyful picnic, not with the incarnated memories of a dead land stretching to the horizon, but it was better than trying to march in the stifling heat. Tozómuc seemed content to simply wait in silence a short distance from the impromptu pavilion, describing symbols in the sand with his claw, then wiping them away and starting over.
“How do you deal with it?” The unicorn asked eventually. “I mean, it never seems to bother Princess Celestia.”
“‘Tia, I think, is the best of us,” Luna said distantly, and without even a hint of bitterness. “I don’t know how she does it. Myself...I don’t remember so much. Not since I came back,” she added broodingly. “Just fragments, here and there.”
“...right.” Twilight said awkwardly. Every other statement from Luna seemed to hold a reference to the events surrounding Nightmare Moon, and she felt more guilty about it each time it was brought up. The fact that Luna agreed that what she’d done was right only made it worse.
A few other desultory attempts at conversation fell flat, trailing off into vagueness, and after a while Twilight left the princess alone to whatever thoughts had her so occupied. All the shadows but the one under their awning vanished as the sun reached midday, then began to reach in the other direction.
“Maybe we should get going again,” Twilight suggested at last, and Luna blinked, then nodded.
“Yes, we should. Tozómuc, lead on.”
“Ai, as you command, great goddess.” The reptile’s bulk shifted as he got to his feet, half the water jugs he’d been hauling emptied between the three of them. They started off again among the standing stones, walking amid the sentinels of a dead land.
The air rippled with the heat, turning even the nearest dunes into dreamlike mirages, the ground nearly scorching Twilight’s hooves. She breathed shallowly through her nose, nostils dry and sore, sweating and wondering if they shouldn’t have waited until night to travel. Surely the cold would have been easier to deal with than the heat.
But as the sun sank down toward the west, green glimmered on the horizon, a break from the unrelieved red and white of Tozómuc’s desert. Twilight squinted at the shimmering color. “Is that the edge of the desert?” She immediately snorted as she realized she’d again asked someone who was blind about something she could only see.
Again, though, the basilisk knew what she was talking about. “Hrrah...only a few thousand more steps until the sands end.”
“Not long,” Luna said quietly, and Twilight had to fight the urge to dash toward their destination. It was still only a blurred promise, hovering tantalizingly at the edge of vision. Yet step by step it came nearer, resolving not into scrub or grassland, but a lush forest with an unnaturally sharp edge.
When they drew close enough to distinguish individual blades of grass, Twilight did run ahead, leaping over the interface between sand and earth and landing in the cool grass. The unicorn gave a long sigh of relief, the climate under the tall, spreading trees instantly more pleasant.
The other two followed not long after, but while Luna stepped onto the grass, Tozómuc stopped short. “Ai, this is where we part.” The basilisk gave his rustling sigh. “I cannot leave the desert. Good journeying to you, oh great ladies.”
Luna’s head rose, and her voice was no longer distant. “Wait, Tozómuc.”
The basilisk stilled, his head cocked slightly to one side, waiting.
“You have been here so long. You have learned what is right and what is wrong. You have done everything in your power to address your debt, and you have admitted that you could never fully pay it. I think that you have reached the understanding my sister sentenced you to.”
Tozomuc pressed himself flat against the ground. “You are merciful, oh great goddess,” he whispered.
“You’re letting him go?” The unicorn stared at Luna.
“I am ending his sentence,” the princess replied softly. “It’s not the same thing.”
“What do you mean?” Twilight blinked, looking from alicorn to basilisk.
“Dust,” Tozómuc whispered. “And sand. I have been here far longer than any mortal should.”
“So you...so he...” Twilight was speechless.
Luna bowed her head, a brief glow of dark purple limning her horn. “Tozómuc,” she said. “You’re free.”
A spark kindled between the basilisk’s eyes, a glow that spread to suffuse his entire body in a single blink. He raised his head, as if he could actually see them, and his muzzle curled upward in a smile before his body crumbled into a pile of white sand. A dark plume rose into the air, hovering only briefly before blowing away in the wind.
Luna stared at the mound of sand, with the water jugs and harness and that strip of cloth lying atop it, and wasn’t sure what to feel. She was vaguely aware of somepony talking, words buzzing in the back of her mind, but it wasn’t until Twilight leaned into her field of view that the princess remembered herself. “I’m sorry, Twilight. I was just...thinking.”
“Are you all right, Princess?” Her companion looked worried, and Luna opened her mouth to reassure the unicorn, only to stop.
“I don’t know,” she said at last, honestly, lifting the cloth strip from the sand and watching it twist in the breeze. “I’m not sure I wanted to do that, but I know I didn’t want to leave him, either.”
Twilight’s face twisted in uncertainty, but finally she spoke, her voice firm. “I think you did the right thing.”
“You do?” Luna looked up, surprised, her ears pricked forward at the smaller pony. She’d been half expecting Twilight to condemn her, assuming she’d speak to Luna at all after that.
“Well.” Now Twilight sounded less certain. “I don’t know, but I don’t think I could have made a choice.” She turned to look at the cloth strip as well.
“Oh.” Luna was far from reassured. She frowned at the white cloth, unwilling the drop it, but not comfortable with keeping it. Finally she settled for tying it around the branch of a nearby tree, and that seemed somehow appropriate. “I suppose we should go.”
“Go where?” Twilight swiveled her head to look at the forest front. “We’re still lost, aren’t we?”
“Anywhere. Away from here.” There was a taught hollowness at the base of her throat, as if a laugh or a cry or a scream or all three at once wanted to escape, and the presence of the desert, the scent of hot sand, only made it worse.
“Um, all right. We still don’t know where we are...” Twilight glanced around, found nothing remarkable to aim for in any direction, and pointed directly ahead into the forest. “That way, I guess.”
Luna followed her companion into the trees, the canopy dense enough that the underbrush was sparse and scattered. The desert vanished behind them, as did the sun as they stepped through the faux dusk cast by the dense tangle of leaves and branches above them. It was quiet here too, but not the dead, dry, dessicated silence of the desert. Leaves rustled, birds chirped in the distance, insects buzzed.
Ahead of her, Twilight muttered something and summoned a compass into existence, frowned at it and shook it, the casing bobbing in the air, and stopped. “You’ve got to be kidding,” she complained, and showed the instrument to Luna.
The needle spun languorously in a slow circle, refusing to point in any direction in particular. Twilight rapped it with a hoof and sighed. “No stars, no magnetic field..it’s just not possible. It’s Celestia’s sun and your moon...” Twilight smiled wryly. “Celestia did say there were things that couldn’t be explained in the world. I guess this is one of them.”
“I thought,” Luna muttered, “when Tozómuc appeared that I was wrong about this being exile. But now I’m unsure again.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Princess!” Twilight Sparkle smiled at her reassuringly. “I know we’re lost, but that’s all. And honestly I’ve always wanted to go on an adventure.” The unicorn flushed briefly. “I know that’s kind of foalish, but I’ve read so many books about them.”
Luna couldn’t help but smile back at the unicorn’s eager and honest excitement, welcome respite that they were from the darker emotions that seemed to plague her wherever she went. “Well I think you might be getting your wish. I don’t recognize anything. Trees, plants, birds...”
“Me either!” Twilight said happily. “Just think, we could be the first ponies here for hundreds of years!”
“You’re not worried about being able to get back?”
The unicorn’s face fell, and Luna felt a spasm of guilt for reminding Twilight of that particular piece of their plight, and wished she could unsay it. But worry transformed into determination as the smaller pony looked up at her. “Yeah. I don’t know what we’re going to do, or where we could possibly be. But until I can figure that out, I’d rather enjoy this.” She waved a hoof around at their surroundings, brilliant green with slashes of sunlight shining through gaps in the canopy. “We can’t spend all our time worrying, right?”
“No,” Luna replied, not entirely certain she was agreeing, “I suppose we can’t.” She looked around, inhaling the rich scent of deep soil and growing plants, and inexplicably felt a small bit more cheerful.
“So what do we do now?” Twilight asked, and Luna blinked at her, startled.
“I don’t know...I’ve never...” She gestured helplessly. “I’m not good at leading. Ruling.”
“But you did fine with Tozómuc,” the unicorn protested. “You were very...princessy!”
“That was different,” Luna protested. “That was...” She trailed off, searching for words. The basilisk had seemed to be a decision already made, rather than a subject, someone she had a burden of responsibility to. But she couldn’t think of any way to explain that to Twilight. “It was different,” she repeated awkwardly.
The unicorn giggled. “I suppose it was different at that.” She sobered instantly though, as the topic of the basilisk was by far not a happy one. “Anyway. We might as well keep going.”
“Yes,” Luna agreed, grateful to drop the topic. “Maybe find somewhere for tonight.” The dimness was not solely due to the canopy, the sun sliding inexorably closer to the horizon. After the day’s exertions and the near sleeplessness of the past night, the alicorn was exhausted.
“Right. Fresh water, then.” The unicorn’s horn lit, a beam sweeping out from it and around before finally settling on a direction tangent to their original path. “My copy of Sugarsnap's Seventeen Simple Survival Suggestions says that a source of fresh water is the most important resource when you’re living off the land,” Twilight said conversationally. “If I’d known I’d be in the wood I’d have gone through that checklist, but as it is, all I have is cold weather blankets and scarves and a canteen.”
Luna gave the smaller pony a sideways glance, half-amused and half-bemused. “Do you have a book for everything?”
“Almost!” Twilight flashed her a broad grin. “I live in a library, you know. And Spike -” She broke off abruptly. After a moment she resumed, more subdued. “Spike always helps me sort through them and we read them together. I think pretty much everything is interesting, so I have books on...well, everything.”
“So what do you find interesting?” The unicorn added the question after a short pause, taking Luna by surprise. It wasn’t a question she was often asked. Never asked, in fact, except by ‘Tia on rare occasions.
“I...” Luna frowned, following Twilight who was in turn following the seeking spell glowing from her horn. “I love my moon and my stars, my sky. Even if they aren’t really mine anymore. But interests, hobbies...? Who would I share them with, even if I had time?”
“But,” Twilight protested, “isn’t there anypony at Canterlot? And what about Princess Celestia?”
“Everypony at the palace treats me like a princess,” Luna sighed. “And ‘Tia tries, but she has so much to do.”
“Oh, don’t I know it.” Twilight rolled her eyes. “Hours and hours at the Gala and I barely got three words in.”
Luna startled herself with a brief chuckle, nodding agreement with the unicorn’s complaint. “That’s Canterlot. Endless amounts of business.”
“I don’t know what they do all day, it doesn’t seem like it would be that hard to organize...” Twilight peered ahead, the seeking spell revealing things to her that were blocked from Luna’s sight by tree trunks and sprays of leaves. “Oh, I can see water!”
She bounded ahead again, and the princess had to work to keep up, only now being able to distinguish the hiss and burble of running water from the sound of wind-stirred leaves. They broke through abruptly into a small clearing, the trees bordering a pool of blue water at a respectful distance. A stream cast ripples across its surface, disturbing the reflection of the sky above. Small, star-shaped blue flowers grew along the banks, casting a heady floral scent through the glade.
“This is great!” Twilight said gleefully, peering around the flat sward. “Oh, I bet Fluttershy would love this.”
“Fluttershy?” Luna repeated, following in the unicorn’s hoofsteps. The soft, lush grass looked inviting after all the rock and sand.
“One of my friends. Um.” Twilight cast a glance back at the princess. “A yellow pegasus, with a butterfly cutie mark?”
Luna closed her eyes, recalling a single moment in time seared into her memory forever. “Ah,” she said faintly. “The Element of Kindness.”
“Er, right.” Twilight gave her a nervous smile. “Anyway, we can just set up here for tonight.” It wasn’t quite late; the shadows were lengthening but the blue dome of the sky hadn’t begun to darken. But if Twilight was as tired as Luna was, there was little point in going further.
“That sounds like a good idea,” Luna agreed. “And we can decide what we should do.”
Twilight removed her saddlebags, dropping them onto the grass and emptying them of their supplies. The cold-weather gear, superfluous in the near-tropical forest, canteen, and slightly battered fruits and gourds. She began to spread out the blankets, but Luna stepped forward.
“Let me take care of that.” Luna was only too well aware that Twilight had been doing most of the work, and she certainly didn’t need more reasons to feel useless. She might not be able to raise the moon and the stars, but she could certainly spread a blanket.
“Oh, okay.” The smaller pony picked up the canteen instead, trotting over to the pool to fill it up. Luna watched her go, smoothing the blankets over the grass. There seemed to be some deep irony that she was stranded with the single pony that could intimidate her. She was still musing on this as Twilight stepped up to the shore. The unicorn dipped the canteen in the water, and the soft bank of the pool crumbled under her weight, and she squealed as she toppled head over hooves into the water.
“Twilight!” Luna rushed over to the pool just as the unicorn popped back to the surface, spluttering and laughing.
“I’m okay, Princess.” The unicorn grinned at her, treading water, her mane plastered haphazardly against her neck.. “Actually this is really nice. You should try it.”
Luna found herself smiling back, and she revised her earlier thoughts. It wasn’t just that Twilight intimidated her, it was that the unicorn was completely blind to the vast gulf of royalty and history that separated Luna from other ponies. And being blind to it, she stepped across it without effort.
“Don’t call me princess,” Luna said abruptly.
“What?” A flash of bewilderment crossed Twilight’s face.
“Just Luna. Please.”
The smaller pony flushed briefly. “Um. If you’re sure.”
“A princess without her kingdom is not much of a princess.” She removed her tiara, inspecting it briefly before setting it aside on the blankets. “And there doesn’t seem to be much need for formality out here.”
“No, I suppose there isn’t,” Twilight giggled. “This is the exact opposite of what we’re supposed to be doing. No officials or meetings or diplomats here.”
“I think I prefer this,” Luna murmured, shucking her chausses and peytral and medallion and placing them next to her tiara. “All right, I’m coming in.”
Twilight paddled away from the shore and Luna took a bracing breath of air before jumping into the pool. The water closed over her head, and there was a moment of close darkness and stillness that stirred something in the dusty recesses of her soul. Some memory of long ago, a half-forgotten dream from an untroubled age. Then the need for breath drove her to the surface and she emerged back into the world.
Swimming was a luxury she hadn’t indulged in for centuries. It wasn’t that Canterlot or, previously, the Royal Palace had been lacking in pools, but she’d never thought to seek them out. Splashing and paddling around that small pool with Twilight was the most carefree time she’d had in memory, and she wondered at what she’d been denying herself.
By the time the deepening evening turned the water black, she was more thoroughly exhausted than she thought possible, but it wasn’t the taut, miserable exhaustion that she was used to. They hauled themselves out to dry in the warm evening air, and Luna was nodding off almost as soon as she stretched herself out on her blanket. She may have preferred the night, but this once she was happy enough to close her eyes and sleep through it.
Luna opened her eyes and found herself alone, bright morning sun sending dappled shadows across the grass. She scrambled to her feet, panic fluttering in her breast, and looked around wildly. Everything was still there but the saddlebags and the unicorn. “Twilight!” She shouted, and got a faint and indistinct reply from somewhere in the forest.
The alicorn picked her way through the underbrush toward the sound of that voice, and nearly ran into Twilight headed the other way. “Good morning, p-, um, Luna,” the smaller pony said cheerfully. “I was just foraging for supplies. You can never have too much!” Then she frowned thoughtfully. “Well I suppose if you were trying to carry so much food that you couldn’t move it’d be too much but other than that...”
There was a faint vibration through the ground, and Luna looked around. “Did you hear something?”
“Hmm?” Twilight cocked her head, her ears twitching back and forth as she listened. “I just hear us.”
“All right.” There was still something else present in the forest, and it made Luna uneasy. Whatever ephemeral mood she’d managed to capture last night had vanished like a pricked bubble. The chains of the past weighed on her again, though, she dared to hope, somewhat less heavily.
Back at camp, she donned again the trappings of her station, even if she was, as she’d told Twilight, not much of a princess there. The saddlebags were even more overstuffed than before once they finished repacking, exotic roots and the tip of a blanket bulging past the buckles.
“Well, without a compass there’s not much navigation to do, but by the position of the sun we were headed southeast.” Twilight squinted upward and waved toward the far side of the clearing. “That way, generally.”
“Let me see if there’s anything nearby.” Luna didn’t actually fly too often, not with the palace guard to ferry her about, but here she had a good excuse. The alicorn spread her wings and leapt into the air. The clearing dropped away below as she ascended into the cloudless sky, and a panoply of green spread out below her.
Mountains defined the far horizon, tall and capped in white, startlingly clear in the morning light. Small spots of blue flashed shyly from beneath the forest canopy where other pools and lakes dotted the landscape. And not far away, there was a bare circle of stone with something gleaming, shining in the sun.
Birds escaped from the trees, milling about, disturbed by a sound more felt than heard, flat, sharp, and without an echo. Luna dived. Her landing was rough and unpracticed, and Twilight rushed over her before she’d gotten properly settled. “I heard that!” The unicorn was looking as disturbed as she felt. “What was it?”
“I really don’t know.” Luna shook her head. “But I saw something over there.” She nodded in the same direction Twilight had indicated earlier. “I couldn’t tell what it was from up that high, just some bright shining thing on the ground, but I can’t imagine it’s not connected.”
“Well.” Twilight suddenly flashed her cheerful, eager smile. “We should go see what it is, then!”
“I suppose we should.” Luna’s smile was not as spontaneous as Twilight’s, but it at least came easier than usual.
They made their way as best they could through the trackless forest, relying on the slow-moving sun and dead reckoning. Luna was about to take to the air again to find out how far off-course they’d swerved when the treeline suddenly stopped.
The clearing held an enormous stone circle flush with the ground, the surface smooth as still water. It was absolutely empty, clean of forest detritus, muddy smears or animal tracks, with only one thing at the exact center. A tall grandfather clock of glass and crystal stood with a faint blue glow flickering deep within its gears, and the pendulum swung far, far slower than it had any right to.
“Well, that’s not creepy at all,” Twilight said dryly. “Do you know what this is, Luna?”
“I have no idea,” the alicorn replied, mystified. The desert at least had made sense. This was thoroughly out of place in the middle of a forest, but it didn’t seem to care about that, the gears turning impossibly behind a transparent facade.
“Well, how about we find out?” The unicorn took one step forward, onto the stone, looking back at the larger pony. Luna followed, somewhat reluctant but trusting more in Twilight’s judgement than her own. Their hooves rang sharply on the bare stone, but after a half dozen paces they stopped.
The clock wasn’t getting any closer. Luna turned with a frown and saw that the forest was further away, as if the further they got, the larger the stone circle became. “Twilight,” she said urgently, and the unicorn followed her gaze.
“...oh.” Twilight turned to regard the treacherous border. “Maybe this wasn’t a good idea after all.”
“You could say that!” Luna took a few steps toward the forest, then stopped when she saw that wasn’t working either. She whirled and saw that Twilight was now three paces away, and walking without any apparent effect. They were stuck.
Twilight stopped and frowned, frustrated, then brightened again. “I have an idea.”
Her horn flashed and she vanished, reappearing next to the alicorn in defiance of whatever strange rules of motion governed the area around the clock. Twilight gave Luna a brilliant smile. “It worked!”
That smile eased the incipient panic that had been building, and Luna replied to it with one of her own. “Now we can get out of here.”
“Definitely,” Twilight agreed with feeling, and there was another flash of light.
What appeared around them was not the forest. There was glass above them, glass below them, and a glass hallway stretching to the limit of vision in each direction. Through the transparent walls could be seen only more of the same, the transparent panes only visible by their edges. A diffuse sun shone overhead, diffracted by thousands of crystalline angles and illuminating a labyrinth stretching miles in all directions.
Twilight frowned, wondering if somehow her teleportation spell, which had worked flawlessly so many times, had somehow brought them much further than intended. She met Luna’s eyes, the princess looking as bewildered as she, and reached out a hoof to rap at the glass. A vibration traveled through it, and she stepped back immediately, hoping she hadn’t provoked anything. Instead there came a noise, soft but penetrating, and Twilight knew that she hadn’t gone far wrong with her spell.
“Where are we?” Luna had the faintest edge of panic in her voice, and Twilight had to admit it wasn’t unwarranted, or that she didn’t share it. But she also wondered at the enormity of the construct, a creation larger than Canterlot, and how it could have come about.
“I think we’re...inside the clock,” Twilight guessed. “Or whatever that stone really was.” She cocked an ear, hearing the faint clicking of gears from far away. “That doesn’t help much, I know, but it’s a start.”
“Well, how do we get out?” Luna pressed her hooves against the glass, peering through the pane at the clockwork maze beyond. There was another shuddering vibration and something in the far distance moved, angles changing and shifting.
“I’m not sure, and I’d rather not teleport if I don’t know what’s out there.” Twilight waved her hoof at the near-invisible surroundings. “But we got in, so there has to be an exit. I wonder...” She closed her eyes, focusing on the concept of a way out and feeding it into the seeking spell. The magic trembled and wavered, flicking in a wildly uncertain halo before fixing uncertainly pointing at the wall and downward.
“It worked!” The unicorn grinned gleefully, looking back at Luna, and was heartened to see the alicorn smile back. “Let’s go.”
They clattered along the glass, accompanied by the inconstant trembling and clicking of the surrounding mechanism. Twilight kept a close eye on the wavering seeker spell, which was twitching uncertainly, as if the exit were shifting about. Which it might very well be, she thought, given the place they were in.
“Where could this have come from?” She wondered aloud, glancing sideways and up at her larger companion. “Is it something that ponies could have made? Or dragons?”
“Well it’s pony sized...” Luna shook her head. “No, I would remember something like this, even after all I’ve been through.” She looked thoughtful for a moment, and sad, a shadow passing over her face. “Unless this was built sometime in the past thousand years...“
“Nothing in the histories hints at anything like this.” Twilight looked around at the untold immensity stretching away in all directions. “It just seems...impossible.”
There was a sudden draft of wind, and the floor shifted. Twilight screamed. Luna screamed. The ponies tumbled downward, but only for a moment. The unicorn found herself askew in another glass corridor, with Luna visible in similar disarray on the other side of a trio of glass walls. They stared at each other for a moment across the uncrossable distance, and then the corridors began to move.
“Luna!” Twilight yelled, scrambling to her feet and pressing her hooves against the glass as the alicorn’s figure receded. She could see the faint outlines of an enormous armature, bearing Luna away from her, and the pony’s muzzle shaping her name, and then she was gone in the infinite angles of the vast and vitreous maze.
Twilight pounded fruitlessly on the transparent walls of her prison, worried far more about the princess than about herself. Oh, it was true that Twilight had all the supplies, food and water, but Twilight had come to the conclusion that loneliness was far worse for the alicorn than any physical deprivation. And she could think of no way to help or reach or even contact Luna, not while the walls sped past at dizzying speed, nearly transparent gears spinning madly as they bore her along.
All at once, the motion stopped, the walls fell away, and she was standing in a broad open space that had absolutely nothing to distinguish it from anything else in the construct. The unicorn took a few paces away from where she’d arrived, just to be safe, and sat down to think. She really, really wished she had her books, her library. Twilight always felt more comfortable somewhere there was the smell of old paper and cloth, with the knowledge of ages close enough to touch.
But it was a vain wish, and Twilight finally followed through on the only idea she had. The seeking spell had worked on Luna before, and there was no reason it wouldn’t again. Twilight’s horn flared briefly, a searchlight oscillating around her, but to no avail. “All right,” the unicorn muttered to herself, closing her eyes and drawing on the deep well of power that dwelled within. The light surrounding her scintillated brilliantly, then suddenly steadied. “Aha!”
Twilight opened her eyes and grinned, an expression that slipped away as she saw the spell didn’t point in one direction, but two.
The spell fluctuated wildly, the twin guides wavering like windblown smoke before settling again. “Oh,” Twilight said in a voice of wary fascination. “That can’t be good.”
The shifting floor broke her out of her reverie as half the vault she was in vanished upward. Twilight took a few steps back, even though the change wasn’t anywhere near her. “All right, Twilight Sparkle, think.” Even if she was only talking to herself, speaking aloud made her feel less adrift. “If it’s a clock, all the gears will go in circles. Or spheres, I guess.” She grinned briefly. “So if I get to the center, I won’t have to worry about getting shifted around.”
She wasn’t sure if that would help much, but one of the possible-Lunas was in the right direction, from what she could tell of the movements along the periphery of the room. The unicorn began trotting in that direction, hooves clattering loudly against the clear fundament.
As she reached the far wall, it folded down, a soft whirring and clicking heralding another shift in the mechanism, and she was suddenly in a long hall. Glass shifted like the most complex origami in the world as the clock realigned itself, some sort of silvered reflection gleaming briefly in the direction of her spell.
“Well, I’d call that a sign.” The unicorn grinned briefly and picked up her pace, cantering along the featureless passageway. Trillions of gears whirred about her, visible only by their edges where they interlocked, a constantly shifting cutout of massive machinery. Twilight ran though the center of it all, her hope rising as one of the two points of the seeker spell vanished, leaving only the single destination ahead of her.
Then the floor bucked like a wounded animal, throwing her from her feet and sending her skidding along the corridor. Somewhere far away, a flywheel screamed in agony, going up and up past the range of hearing before shattering with an angry roar. Twilight stared upward in horror as a hairline crack cut a jagged path through the ceiling. “Oh, no.” She breathed.
Twilight found herself running without any clear memory of getting to her feet. The glass trembled and shuddered, gears groaning and screeching as they slipped. Something enormous and fast moving whizzed by close overhead, the concussion like a slap from a giant’s hand, making her stumble along the wildly careening floor. Somewhere far above there was a growing darkness, a shadow blotting out the sun.
Now she was frightened. The world itself was falling apart around her, shuddering and shivering and crying out in pain. She ran, and wasn’t entirely certain where she was running to. Something fell, crashing through the path in front of her and leaving a ragged gap. She had no time to stop, so she jumped, hanging for a small eternity over a bottomless abyss, remembering back to a similar leap of faith and wishing she had Pinkie’s effortless nonchalance.
She landed on the other side, breathless and stumbling, trembling with adrenaline as she ran on, tortured gears screaming behind her. The darkness was getting closer. She risked a look back, and saw the frayed edges of night engulfing the path behind her, stars shining through the onrushing nightmare.
Ahead of her the silvered glow was brighter, and Twilight fairly flew along the glasswork shaft, gasping for air as she ran toward what she hoped was the princess and some sort of safety. It seemed an impossibly long distance away, and the more she ran the further away it got. But then, suddenly, she was through, and she saw that her seeker spell hadn’t led her to Luna. It had led her to the moon.
Twilight stared, transfixed, at the immense orb hanging in the center of an unimaginably large escapement wheel. “But...that’s impossible,” she protested to nobody in particular. It was becoming a litany for her, an automatic reaction that she didn’t really mean.
The scale was so large that any ability to judge size broke down. The features were the same as the celestial body that she viewed through her telescope at nights, but she couldn’t imagine how it could be here, inside this place. But as she looked around at the vast dome enclosing, the endless clockwork stretching outward, she had a deep intuition that it, despite all logic, was Luna’s moon.
The floor trembled underhoof, the destruction outside muted in the chamber, as if it could defy Armageddon by its sheer scope. Twilight walked toward the sight, entranced, as her seeking spell unraveled in a fizz of purple energy, and realized hers was not the only magic in the chamber. There was something threaded through the floor, twining its way up the teeth of the escapement and outward.
It was, most strangely, a familiar magic, a spell that she’d encountered somewhere before. Even with the approaching destruction, she couldn’t help but indulge her curiosity. She dipped her own power into the swift flow below her, and was staggered as images assaulted her - the night sky, the moon rising, comets...suddenly she understood.
She didn’t understand everything, she didn’t understand how it worked or how the moon could be there when it sailed across the sky every night. But she did understand that it held the largest memory spell in history. And she understood why.
Hoofsteps sounded behind her, and Twilight whirled, a greeting ready for the princess, but instead she simply stared. Out of the starry cloud walked a tall alicorn with a jet-black coat and the cosmos itself for her mane and tail. She was clad in cold blue armor and her eyes were narrowed to icy slits. Nightmare Moon.
“Well,” she said, her rich, throaty voice cold and precise. “I had always wondered how sister dear managed to raise the moon.” It was no mere illusion this time, no trick. It was the dark goddess returned once again.
“L-Luna!” Twilight stammered out, refusing to call her by a name best left forgotten. “What are you doing?”
“Why Twilight, I thought that would be obvious.” Nightmare Moon’s voice dripped insincere sweetness as she walked slowly and deliberately toward the unicorn. “I am destroying this...obscenity.”
“Wait, you can’t!” Twilight pleaded with her. “It’s for you! Listen to me -”
“NO!” Power flared outward from the alicorn with that shouted word, threatening to shatter the great wheels that encircled the room, and in desperation Twilight cast her own spell. She’d never tried combat magic, but there had been more than one book on it in her library. A sphere of purple energy enclosed them, sizzling and humming as Nightmare Moon’s anger spent itself on the shield. Twilight smiled triumphantly, and then staggered backward as the alicorn shattered her spell with a casual pulse of energy from the ebony horn.
“So, you would set yourself against me, would you?” Nightmare Moon glared icily down at her. “We have been here before.”
“Luna, stop. Listen to me.” Twilight stepped forward, hooves striking firmly against the ground, her voice sharp and determined while she hoped desperately she could reach whatever part of the princess was still reasonable. She hoped, and felt guilty for it, that Luna had been telling the truth about being afraid of her.
A tense silence stretched out between them. The Nightmare’s horn glimmered with barely restrained magic, her mane and tail blowing in an unfelt wind as the clockwork shuddered and groaned around them, the muffled echoes of destruction still sounding in the distance. Finally the alicorn tapped a hoof softly against the ground. “Why?”
“Because it’s not just a device to, to move the moon.” Twilight told her. “I don’t know how, but it’s been remembering.
“Remembering what?” Her voice, sharp and dangerous, cracked like a whip.
“The night!” Twilight shouted at her, frustrated. “It’s been remembering the night for you, Luna!”
Nightmare Moon’s eyes widened briefly in surprise, then narrowed again. “I don’t believe you,” she said, flatly. But Twilight thought she detected an edge of uncertainty, however faint.
“The memory spell runs through the floor. All you have to do is access it,” Twilight urged. “Trust me.”
“Trust you?” The alicorn threw back her head and laughed, to the sound of distance thunder. “Oh, no, I know better than that, don’t I Twilight? After all, you brought us here, didn’t you?”
The accusation rocked her backward. “It wasn’t on purpose!” Twilight protested. “It just happened!”
“Just happened to bring us to a place between realities, where a machine the size of a planet drives my moon through the heavens. No. I deny it.” Each word sliced the air with winter-sharp bitterness, and Nightmare Moon lowered her head aggressively. “This was all your doing!” Storm clouds built behind her, lightning flashing and thunder growling.
“I don’t have any idea how we got here.” Twilight took a step forward, holding the alicorn’s eyes. “I’m just as lost as you are. Fighting each other won’t help.” Another step. She had to get close enough to touch Nightmare Moon if she wanted to trigger the memory spell lying latent in the great machine. It was the only thing she could think of to reach Luna, without the Elements here to help her.
“You have never,” the goddess said darkly, “been as lost as me.” She pawed the ground impatiently with a forehoof, the tip of her horn glimmering. “Now stand aside.”
Twilight was as close to Nightmare Moon as she was likely to get. The unicorn took a breath, gathering herself up, and leapt. She saw, too late, that she wouldn’t make it. That she would fall just short, and there would certainly be no second chance. But then something gave her that second chance.
Nightmare Moon flinched. Her head reared back and the glow disappeared from her horn, granting Twilight the scattered fragments of a second necessary to close the distance and invoke the memory spell. The alicorn’s eyes widened as the very walls seemed to take a breath, and then the spell took hold.
Twilight was knocked off her hooves by the force of the released magic, sent sprawling and sliding along the glass floor. Colors and shapes flickered in the air around Nightmare Moon as the power surged out of the mechanism, painting stars and the palette of night in the air from the unleashed force of unrestrained memory.
The goddess threw her head back and screamed. The sound twisted at Twilight’s heart, because there was so much of Luna in it. She watched helplessly from the floor as a thousand years of night poured into Nightmare Moon, black lightnings crackling and arcing against the floor, the stars shining out from under that black coat.
Twilight rushed over as Luna fell to the floor, the dark persona of Nightmare Moon dissipating in a fizz of indigo magic. “Luna! Are you all right?”
The alicorn stirred, looking up at Twilight, and burst into hoarse, wracking sobs. “How can you stand me?” She choked out between gasps for air. “I can’t stand me!”
“Oh, Luna...” Twilight said helplessly, cradling the alicorn’s head as the princess shook with agonized sorrow. “It’s okay,” she soothed. “You’re okay.”
“No,” Luna replied in muffled disagreement. “I’m not okay.” She took a deep, shuddering breath and pulled away from the unicorn. Twilight looked up as Luna rose on wobbly legs, then stood up herself. They looked at each other in a moment of drained quiet, even the great escapement’s mechanical sounds muffled.
“I still don’t understand,” Luna said at last, quietly. “I don’t understand why you keep forgiving me.”
“I - “ Twilight stopped, aware of a strange, nervous tension deep in her gut. It was not an easy question to answer, and she would never be able to forgive herself the consequences if she answered it wrong. “...because you keep trying, Luna,” she said at last. “Because you don’t want to be that way. Because I know at heart you aren’t Nightmare Moon.”
“I wish I could believe that,” Luna said softly, turning away to stare wistfully at the moon rotating slowly in its place. Twilight stepped beside her, putting a comforting foreleg over the alicorn’s shoulders, and Luna leaned in against her, eyes closed. Twilight cast a glance back over her shoulder, where the mechanism was repairing itself, new glass planes replacing old, spinning gear and armatures out of nothingness.
“So,” she said after a small space of time, “how do we get back to the forest?”
“Oh,” Luna replied vaguely. “We never really left. We’re just a tiny bit displaced.” Her horn glimmered briefly and a hole appeared in the air, spreading to engulf them, the enormous machine fading. The escapement tripped one last time, holding the moon until Luna was ready to take it up again.
Continued in Apotheosis, Part 2
Continued from Apotheosis, Part 1
Cold rain sluiced down from a black night sky as the last glimmers of the other reality vanished, instantly soaking them to the bone. Twilight squealed in surprise, but Luna was too exhausted to react. Fragments of images still whirled in her head, a jumbled chaos of memory that made it hard to think.
Some part of her was eased by that largesse, no matter how painful the acquisition might have been, as if a piece of her soul had been returned to her. But that was only one small candle against a far larger darkness. She had sworn never to lose control again, to never take up the mantle of Nightmare Moon again. But she had been frightened and angry and alone, and it hadn’t taken all that much time for her to make that same choice again. That only confirmed what a narrow precipice she walked, and yet...
And yet. She was herself again, in one piece, the remnants of a goddess’ power and knowledge fading but not this time ripped from her. An improvement, withal. Twilight was saying something to her, the words lost in the hiss of the rain and the muddle of her own thoughts, but the tone was not recriminating or frightened or angry. Heedless of the cold, Luna closed her eyes and savored that.
She was forcibly stirred from her reverie as a hoof poked her in the ribs and Twilight shouted in her ear. “We need to find shelter!” Lightning flared nearby, scattering bright splinters of light from the heavy rain and reflecting sullenly from the low clouds above. Thunder snarled close on its heels, rattling her teeth.
It was enough to jar her into motion. She followed after Twilight, her hooves squelching in mud, the only illumination the inconstant strobe of lightning and the glimmer of the unicorn’s horn. But the darkness had never been an obstacle for Luna, and when she saw the straight-sided silhouette of a building she steered them that way.
It was merely a few rough slabs of stone, without windows or a proper door, the roof angled and ill-fitting. But it was safer than a tree and drier than an open field and, most importantly, empty. It wasn’t until Twilight pulled out the blankets that Luna felt the cold, shivering as she huddled into the cloth and wishing for something heavier.
“Luna...” Twilight said eventually, in a thoughtful tone. “I thought you said you weren’t a goddess anymore. I thought Nightmare Moon was gone.”
She winced, feeling the sharp knives of anxiety. There was no way to avoid it. The alicorn looked down at her muddy hooves instead of at Twilight as she spoke. “Nightmare Moon will never be gone. She is me. She’s me making bad decisions. She’s me choosing to hurt and destroy. I’m damaged, Twilight. I put so much of myself into being that person that I’ve lost my way in my own mind.”
She added into the silence, quietly. “I’m sorry. For what I said to you.” She didn’t say she didn’t mean it, because it would have been treading too close to a lie. She didn’t believe it now, but when she had accused Twilight of treachery she had meant every word.
“I...” Twilight trailed off and Luna risked a look over at the unicorn. The smaller pony was looking at her, and smiled a small smile when she caught Luna’s eyes. “I understand, Luna,” she said at last. “I could almost believe it myself. This is really my fault, so I -”
“Don’t,” Luna pleaded. “Don’t say it.” She felt bad enough about the confrontation between herself and Twilight without having to deal with an apology.
“Um. Okay.” Twilight said uncertainly, and looked away. Thunder grumbled and rain hissed, and Luna huddled deeper into her blanket with an obscure sense of shame. “I still don’t have any idea where we are.”
“Oh.” Luna’s head jerked up with an aftershock of knowledge left over from her brief time as empowered goddess. “I think I do.”
“What?” Exasperation leaked in to Twilight’s voice. “Why didn’t you say something before?”
“I didn’t know before!” She couldn’t completely suppress the hysterical edge to her words. “It’s something I remember because of...” She shook her head helplessly, at a loss at how to recapitulate the time spent as Nightmare Moon.
“...oh,” said Twilight in a very different tone. Water dripped from the crude roof. Rain fell, lightning flashed, thunder growled. “And?” She prompted when Luna didn’t elaborate further.
Luna tapped her hooves against the ground, trying to think of how to push the concept out in words. “The world itself,” she said at last. “Dreams. Remembers. Hopes. Fears. When a continent sinks beneath the waves, it is not truly lost. When a city is being built, the idea exists before the bricks are laid. If such a thing as the soul of a world exists, that is it.”
“So this isn’t real?” Twilight sounded skeptical, and Luna could hardly blame her. Ephemera didn’t usually create a populated landscape with a sun and a moon and a sky.
“Oh, it’s real. This is the...page upon which Equestria is printed. The primeval conception of the land itself. But it’s not Equestria, and it’s not a place for ponies.”
“Yet here we are.” Twilight looked upward, where the endless drumming of the rain sounded against the stone.
“Here we are,” Luna agreed. “And I really don’t know why.”
“Well you know,” Twilight replied, “I think I’m glad we are.”
Luna blinked, astonished, and Twilight gave her a small, embarrassed smile. “I know it hasn’t exactly been fun, but...we’ve accomplished things. Or you have, Luna. You freed Tozómuc and you got all that memory back. That wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t come here.”
“I...suppose.” The larger pony admitted grudgingly. Twilight’s point of view baffled Luna, for whom the most looming issue was her relapse. But that didn’t seem to register at all in the unicorn’s worldview. It was astoundingly optimistic and criminally naive. And it was glorious.
Twilight’s unconcern seemed to make the problem diminish, somehow. Luna was distantly astounded; she didn’t know that one’s troubles could shrink like that. But it was only a transient phenomenon. Twilight’s next words brought worry crashing down again.
“Still, we don’t know how to get back. Unless you could...?”
Luna shivered. “No, Twilight. Don’t ask. Just...don’t. Please.”
“Okay.” The unicorn looked glum for a moment before brightening up again. “Well, we’ll just have to find something else. Maybe something like what brought us here. Or maybe we can find a city being built.” She giggled softly. “And just step out of the fireplace like in a foal’s story.”
Luna gave Twilight a small smile in return, but it faded quickly. She couldn’t share Twilight’s optimism, even if the unicorn’s presence seemed to abrogate her despair. She had some intuition of the vast gulf separating them from everything they knew, but she didn’t have the heart - or the words - to try and convince Twilight of it.
The storm blustered and blew for hours, wind flinging itself fruitlessly against the walls of their shelter, but finally light began to filter through the dense clouds. Shades of grey edged into existence inside the crude building, painting the two of them in a dark monotone. Then a break in the clouds let the sun shine through, directly through the open entrance and into their eyes.
“Ack!” Twilight laughed, holding her hoof up to shade her eyes. “That just seems to fit with the rest of this day, doesn’t it?” She stood up, folding her blanket, her hair and mane alternately frizzed and flattened. Luna imagined she didn’t look much better, but at least they were dry. “Let’s see where we are.” They stepped out together, and stared.
It was an exceedingly ugly place. Grey rocks jutted out of dark mud the color of dried blood, a bleak broken landscape that seemed drained of color. The remnants of the storm scudded away behind them, parting around an enormous spire of stone. It wasn’t just an outcrop; sharp lines spiraled up from the base, giving it the appearance of a unicorn’s horn embedded in the ground.
It took a blink for Luna to resolve it into walls, cut into the natural fortress and running up and up. And at the very top something moved, flickering and rippling, though what exactly it could be was impossible to say from this distance. There was something about it that made Luna uneasy, though it was an elusive feeling, hiding at the back of her mind.
“We must have gone a long way inside that...clock thing,” Twilight commented, taking a few steps toward. “There’s no forest anywhere.” She glanced back at Luna with a smile. “But it looks like we’re somewhere interesting. What is that?”
“I have no idea.” Luna shook her head, kicking at a rain-damp rock. It squelched as it shifted in the mud. “It’s as if it were carved like that though, and all this is what’s left over.”
“But who could have done that? You said this wasn’t a place for ponies.” Twilight was starting to pick her way toward the base of the spire, and Luna followed.
“There are many other things in the world besides ponies,” the alicorn replied darkly. “We should be careful.”
“I’m sure it’s fine. And who knows, we might run into somepony who could help us.” Twilight stopped to shake caked mud off one of her hooves. “Though I admit this isn’t exactly the most welcoming place I’ve ever seen. Doesn’t anything grow here?”
“It doesn’t look like it.” Luna was astounded that they hadn’t injured themselves stumbling around in the dark and the storm. The ground underfoot was exactly the wrong mix of rocky and muddy, making it difficult and treacherous, and sharp stone edges scraped against her chausses more than once. After only a few seconds of the struggle she took to wing, still trying to make out what was atop the spire, and below her purple flared as Twilight teleported ahead.
Where wall met ground, there was an opening that was more ragged hole than proper arch, but the ramp inside was glass-smooth. Luna hopped down from the wall as Twilight stepped through onto the ramp. “It’s a bit of a climb. I could fly up to see what it is,” the alicorn offered.
“We should probably stay together.” Twilight said. She was probably thinking of the last time they had gotten separated. “We’re not in that much a hurry.”
Luna nodded agreement and the two of them began the walk. The ramp walls defined a narrow slice of sky, and were themselves plain and unadorned. There was really nothing interesting about the path other than the fact it existed. The wind whistled mournfully through the narrow slot of stone, whipping at her mane and making her squint.
Her sense of unease grew, as if there were some half-remembered familiarity about the place. As they climbed, debris began to appear on the ramp, pieces of metal strewn haphazardly along the stone. Then chunks embedded in the walls, covered in verdigris and the faded remnants of some sort of symbol.
Then around the curve of the wall appeared a much larger slice of metal, leaning at a drunken angle between the two walls, leaving a small passage. Twilight bounded ahead, examining the strange detritus. “You can actually see the writing on this one!” She squinted at it. “I can’t read it though. It’s just the same set of symbols carved over and over.”
Luna stepped up next to her, the vague uncertainty crystallizing into real fear. “I can,” she said, her voice flat and drained of emotion.
The alicorn closed her eyes and whispered. “The wind is hungry.”
“What does that mean?” The smaller pony frowned at the metal, tracing the writing with a hoof. “Some kind of riddle?”
“It means we have to get out of here. Right now.” Luna stepped back, looking around wildly. She didn’t see what she was afraid of, but that was no comfort. It was only a matter of time.
“What? Why?” Twilight cocked her head questioningly at the alicorn, but obediently began trotting after her back down the ramp. “Do you know what that means?”
“Celestia isn’t the only one who dealt with monsters,” Luna told her, shards of memory coming together, building the story for her even as she told it for Twilight. “And not all things can be killed. But I thought they were gone forever.”
“Thought what were gone forever?” The unicorn had a justifiably impatient edge to her question. Luna opened her mouth to answer, and then skidded to a halt. Twilight nearly ran into her as she followed the larger pony’s example.
“That.” Luna pointed a hoof at a sunlit patch of wall, where a diamond-shaped shadow danced and twisted, even though there was nothing to cast it. She lowered her voice. “Twilight, can you teleport us away from here? Back to that rock hut, maybe?”
“I’m not sure, it gets a bit iffy if I can’t see it,” Twilight said dubiously. “But I can try. And then you can tell me why you’re afraid of a little shadow.”
“I’ll tell you what I can remember,” Luna promised. “Just go!”
The unicorn watched as Twilight closed her eyes, and a brief glimmer surrounded them...and a gust of wind tore the burgeoning magic to shreds. The unicorn squeaked and stared around. “What was that?”
“Wind shadows,” Luna growled. “Come on.”
“I still don’t know what you mean!” Twilight complained, cantering along behind. She might have been confused, but she was hardly protesting their goal.
“Even after Discord, the world was full of harmful and destructive things. Some of them ‘Tia dealt with...some of them I did. This was something I sealed away long ago...there’s nothing living around here because they ate it all.”
“But what are they?” Twilight sounded nervous, as well she should be. Luna stopped again. The sun was shining full on the ground now, and a half-dozen sourceless geometric shadows drifted lazily across the stone.
“Brothers of the biting wind and the scouring wind. They are the hungry wind, and they would consume everything if they could. The shadows are the only way you can see them, cast by whatever twisted them at the beginning of time.” Luna’s voice was low and harsh, and she stared at the harmless-looking but extraordinarily dangerous line of moving shapes on the ground.
Twilight stepped up next to her, speaking quietly. “Then...how do we avoid them? Or fight them?”
Luna shook her head. She had a fragile chain of memory, but the entirety of her knowledge was buried deep in the inaccessible part of her psyche. None of what she knew was good. “They are the wind,” she said at last. “You can probably counter them with stillness, but not forever.”
Twilight nodded and frowned, pacing a short line behind Luna as she thought. “Oh, I wish I had my books,” she complained aloud. “All right, let’s try this.” The unicorn’s horn flared, a sphere spreading outward from the tip, a slow wavefront that left behind a faint purple haze. As it passed Luna, sound faded and muted, the light dimming and turning red. From inside, she couldn’t see how far the spell extended, but it was only a second or two later that Twilight’s mouth moved.
“Okay, let’s go.” The unicorn’s words arrived a heartbeat later, distant and faded. The two ponies began walking forward again, though it was more like trying to move through water than through air. There was no sound of hoofsteps at all, and they walked in an unnatural silence.
It wasn’t enough. Luna saw something flash through the air between them, carving a tunnel through the spell. Then another, and another, and the spell collapsed, the tattered fragments of magic snapped up by swirls of malevolent air, shadows swirling wildly on the rock around them. Then one of those shadows flitted over Twilight’s back, and the unicorn screamed as a bloody track appeared across the path it had taken, a strip of flesh neatly excised with a gust of wind.
“Stop!” Luna shouted, hard and commanding enough to surprise even her as she stepped in front of the wounded unicorn, even though that was no real protection against what they faced. “You know who I am,” she told the empty air. “What are you doing?”
The air replied.
world’s trembles the
heart under of incarnated
the weight goddess.
The voice was thin, wavery, and toneless, sinister from its very lack of emotion, the source constantly moving as it spoke.
things her and shall
are to on we
Luna’s eyes narrowed. Though it was true that she could no longer wield that power, it still existed in some way. The idea that unconstrained, uncontrolled divinity was warping this place seemed altogether too probable. And it was, again, entirely her fault. The alicorn pushed the jumbled welter of thoughts and emotions aside as best she could, focusing on what she could possibly do in the here and now. “I won’t let you do that,” she said flatly, though she had no idea how she could stop them. She couldn’t simply summon up Nightmare Moon, not in the frame of mind she was in, and that would only start an uncontrollable avalanche that could not end well.
You have abandoned
cannot you your
stop us power.
all to do
we have is
“Isn’t there anything we can do?” Twilight whispered from behind her, and Luna glanced back at her.
“We can leave.” Luna didn’t know how much bluff that was. She had bested the hungry wind before, and so far they hadn’t attacked her. But they also didn’t seem afraid of her. She took a step and that thready, emotionless voice spoke again.
If consume slowly.
you will the unicorn
leave we so
Twilight whimpered, and Luna was intensely aware of the coppery smell of blood carried on the air. As a princess, she knew she should resist any sort of pressure, any sort of coercion. As Luna, she couldn’t even begin to think of allowing Twilight to be hurt. And she was far more Luna than she was a princess. “Leave her alone,” she whispered. “Let her go.”
“Luna,” Twilight’s voice came from behind her. “You can’t.”
She turned to face the unicorn, tears standing in her eyes. “I can’t stand to see you hurt.” Her voice shook as she voiced thoughts she hadn’t allowed herself to consider. “Not you, Twilight. Not -” She shook her head. “Run away. Far from here. You’re smart, Twilight, you can find your way home without me.”
“But - “
“Please. Go.” She stared into Twilight’s wide purple eyes until the unicorn finally nodded softly. Luna watched as the other pony took a few steps down the ramp, then turned and spread her wings. She flew upward, toward the peak of the spire, unable to watch Twilight Sparkle leave, geometric shadows fluttering around her.
Twilight stopped when she could see no more shadows and the wind was still. The unicorn knew she couldn’t leave Luna behind. She didn’t even want to leave Luna alone with the hungry wind, a stinging and bleeding back an insistent reminder of what they were and what they could do. She winced and cast a small spell to curb the bleeding and ease the pain - she wasn’t practiced enough with more thorough healing spells to have faith in their efficacy.
“Think, Twilight,” she muttered. “You can figure out some way to fix this. Checklist, what do we know?” She didn’t have the physical version, and in that moment she missed Spike terribly. Hopefully he was enjoying himself with his parents, and that he wasn’t too worried about her.
That wasn’t helping. “Checklist checklist checklist,” she repeated. What did she know? One: That it was made of wind. Two: That it cast a shadow. Three: That Luna somehow trapped it a very long time ago. Four: That it ate everything, even magic, and left only rock and mud. Five: That the only assets she had were two blankets, some food and water, two scarfs, her mind and her magic.
She stamped her hoof in frustration, the sound ringing off the stone surrounding her. There had to be some way, some thing that could fight them. She glared around at nothing in particular, seeing only more stone. Rock. Her eyes widened.
“You have got to be completely insane, Twilight Sparkle.” It was an utterly untenable idea. She didn’t have any of the spells she needed; she’d have to invent them from scratch. And yet she had to try. She didn’t know what to make of Luna’s parting words - not yet - but for herself, she knew she couldn’t obey those instructions. She was going after Luna.
But she was going to do it right. She couldn’t be absolutely certain she was actually alone, though she suspected that if she weren’t, there’d be more than one strip of hide missing. She took a breath, and this time the glimmer along her horn was faint, spreading out to wrap around her body in tight interweaving strips. Her vision blurred and turned monochrome, wavering as if it were seen through muddled water.
If it were working, from the outside she would be nearly invisible, inaudible, a phantom very much like the things she was hunting. It seemed particularly apropos, and from the manuals of war that she had read, a sound strategy. She began to canter back up the ramp, making no noise and casting no shadow.
The spire was barely short of a mountain. She passed more metal debris as she ascended, the remnants of some construct from Luna’s first imprisonment of the terrible things. Now that she knew what to look for, every piece of degraded metal had the phrase punched into its surface, over and over again. The wind is hungry.
She shook her head, pushing that to the back of her mind as she focused on the magic she would need. Her hooves carried her through the simple curve of the spiral ramp while she bent her intellect on the task of inventing spells without the aid of quill or paper. The monochrome world slipped by as she ghosted upward.
The sun rose higher in the sky, shadows shifting, the lines cast by the sharp walls shrinking as it neared midday. She was panting as she neared the top of the spire; even though she was used to walking it had been a long uphill climb, and at speed. What had been blurred motion from the ground was visible now: the remains of a metal tower, twisted and bent where it had burst from the inside, loose pieces swirling constantly in a powerful eldritch wind. A hungry wind.
She hardly dared to breathe as she crept closer. The bright light of the sun illuminated only a single figure, but many shadows. Luna rested at the base of the tower, her head bowed in utter despondency, her mane fluttering in fitful bursts. She seemed whole, but the shadow she cast was surrounded by a flickering swarm. Feeding.
Twilight felt sick. It was all she could do to keep from rushing over to the forlorn pony, instead proceeding step by slow step, spell at the ready. She felt incredibly conspicuous, creeping across the open space, near to bursting with unreleased magic. Sweat beaded on her brow as she expected a dive by some drifting wraith.
But she made it to within a few feet of Luna unaccosted. She couldn’t get nearer without stepping into the invisible maelstrom whirling about the alicorn, joined, by evidence of the shadows, to the frenzied whirl above. She couldn’t possibly warn the pony what was about to happen. Twilight inhaled, slowly, deeply, and then released the spell.
Her disguise blasted apart as hurricane winds exploded outward from her, cracking the stone under her hooves and seizing building-sized chunks of metal in its grasp. The only thing spared was Luna, who was abruptly stripped of shadows as the wind was forced to bend however temporarily to a greater gale. The alicorn’s head jerked up, staring at Twilight, an expression of bottomless surprise and hope flashing across her muzzle. “Luna!” The unicorn called to her.
Luna bounded forward, joining Twilight in the still heart of the magic storm as it went out and out, shrieking against the stone spire. “What are you doing!?” Luna hissed incredulously, looking out at the debris hurtling through the air. Twilight couldn’t reply, gritting her teeth as she poured more and more power into the spell, drawing on the well of energy deep within her. The vortex extended down the sides of the mountain, hissing and growling, a cacophony that became flat and emotionless words.
will you we
consume will eat
She couldn’t reply to that either. All her focus was reserved for the magic she was handling, spinning out of her core and away to power the wind. Below her, the rock began to shift, great jagged cracks running down the sides of the spire. The immense tornado tightened around the rock face, faster and faster.
But she could feel the strands of power that drove the wind being severed, eaten by the creatures she was trying to constrain. She poured more and more of herself into the spell, but things began to fray. The rock shifted under the two ponies, and another magical thread snapped, sending a stray puff of wind across Luna’s shoulders. The alicorn cried out as a bloody track appeared across her coat, a piece of mane cut out with surgical precision.
With that cry, something within Twilight Sparkle shifted subtly. Her mind seemed to expand, and her eyes blazed white as everything became so very simple, simple. Her original plan of simply trapping the wind inside the mountain would not work; it would still retain the strength to break out. But stone was still a worthy answer to the problem.
She looked out, past the roiling blaze of the goddess beside her, a dark illumination like fire seen through water, to the ugly, swarming shapes of the hungry wind. She gathered them in, gathered them in, the sound of wind reaching a hellish pitch as it was crushed against the rock. But that noise was nothing compared to the sound of tortured rock as she stomped her hoof, and the mountain burst asunder.
“Twilight...” Luna breathed, eyes wide and frightened. “Not again.” But the words were distant, distant, and energy crackled around them as Twilight’s attention flew further outward. They stood, suspended on nothing, pieces of mountain larger than houses whirling by. Far below an enormous pit yawned where the roots of the mountain had been torn from the earth.
Then the tempo changed, and the unicorn’s muzzle curled upward in a fey smile as a red glow suffused the unnatural storm. It cast a shifting light over the ponies, fighting with the white blaze of power at the tip of Twilight’s horn. The first breath of heat stole into their safe, still space, and flames burst into brief life here and there amid the chaos as the sharp edges of shattered stone softened, softened.
Droplets of molten rock whipped around the vortex, shimmering orange-red as Twilight forced more and more heat into the chaotic debris. Lightning flared far below them, coruscating uncontrollably, the accompanying thunder lost in the bedlam. And Twilight smiled, smiled as she struck out at the remaining dregs of the spire, balancing the two of them atop a wind-churned pillar of magma.
Twilight’s hooves waved like a conductor’s as she forced the dark essence of the hungry wind to mix with the molten rock, pulling the vortex in tighter, tighter. The heat rippling the air blurred the view from their magic-laced bubble, but Twilight saw everything, everything.
The unicorn’s smile widened to show teeth. The wind was now the motion of stone rather than the motion of air, a naked volcano rising from the landscape with blinding white magic erupting from the top. “I can,” she whispered, she whispered, and brought her head down sharply.
Magic crackled and hissed as the lava was chilled instantly to black obsidian, a wave running down the pillar as whirls and vortices were stilled permanently and the wind was silenced. Volcanic glass crackled and popped as it was forced into being, the heat being pushed down further and further. As the tower joined the ground, the heat was cast out, cast out, into the field of mud beyond.
It exploded. The roar was indescribable, even through the protective bubble of Twilight’s magic, and nothing large enough to be considered debris remained as steam and dust billowed into the air, blocking the sun, blocking the sun. Darkness fell, and the only illumination was the crackling flare of Twilight’s magic.
Her power surged in exultation, her mind expanding outward, expanding outward. Luna’s divine night seemed to stay with her, always present no matter how far she went, visible from deep within the earth and high up in the air. The magic that held them both suspended crackled and spat, the sphere expanding as the glow from Twilight’s eyes grew brighter.
A whisper came from somewhere far away, far away. Twilight paid no attention, straining further and further outward, the power within her burning so bright, so bright. And then there was a soft touch on her muzzle, and from her eyes of flesh and blood the unicorn saw a terrified, worried face. “Twilight,” it said. “Stop.” The unicorn stared at that face, knowing it was familiar, knowing it was important. And then she remembered. “Please,” Luna said, and Twilight let the bright spark go.
She fell down and down, through all the layers of perception, slamming back into her own skin at the moment the spell that kept them aloft vanished. The two ponies dropped several feet to the newly-made obsidian peak, and Twilight slumped to the ground, unutterably weary. Luna crouched down next to her. “Twilight? Are you...?”
“S’me,” the unicorn slurred with a tiny smile. “Thanks.”
“Thanks?” Luna laughed with a manic hysteria, then coughed on the dry, hot air whipping up from the devastated landscape below. “I have to thank you. You came back for me. You didn’t leave me.”
“‘Course not,” Twilight mumbled, squinting at Luna through the spots dancing in front of her eyes. “I’ll never leave you.”
She didn’t understand why the alicorn suddenly burst into tears, smiling and bending down to nuzzle her. “Oh, Twilight.” She shook her head, and the unicorn blinked up at her muzzily.
“What’d I say?”
The larger pony looked suddenly shy. “I...I’ll tell you later.” Luna stood up again, looking at the ominously dark cloud looming above them. “We need to leave before that all comes back down. There isn’t any shelter around here anymore.”
“Why not?” Twilight asked it automatically, then the memories caught up with her. “...oh. Right.” She wobbled to her hooves, taking one unsteady step before Luna moved to support her.
“There isn’t a way down,” Luna said quietly as they peered over the edge. It was a long, steep cliff of pure obsidian, reaching down into an enormous crater that surrounded the newly-made pillar. The alicorn gave Twilight a sideways smile. “I’ll have to carry you, but it’s been a very long time since I tried that.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine.” Twilight felt blurred and unfocused, as if she couldn’t quite wake up.
Luna bent and hoisted the unicorn over her shoulders, and Twilight held on tight as they left the ground. The larger pony stretched her wings, soaring high on the thermals rising from the crater below. Twilight stared down at the blasted, dessicated landscape, and felt half-guilty, half-proud that she had managed to do that.
The edge of the cloud’s shadow cut a distinct line across the bleak mud plain some distance beyond the crater’s rim. Luna’s wings worked as she made for that goal, and above them the pyrocumulus growled ominously. They emerged back out into the sun, and a flash of green on the horizon signaled the end of the blood-colored desolation.
But Luna was already dropping altitude, out of practice in bearing more than her own weight, and she landed some distance from the beginning of a more lush plain than the one they were leaving. Twilight looked back, and shivered at the ominous black obelisk that stood shadowed under an unnatural cloud. “It looks evil,” she said at last.
Luna shared it her look. “It may be,” she said softly. “But it’s not your evil. You’ve wrought a better prison for them than I had ever thought of.”
Twilight ducked her head in embarrassment. “It just came to mind after I saw they’d left all the stone. Though...the melting thing didn’t occur to me until after -” She stopped and waved a hoof vaguely. “Well, it seemed the right thing to do. Now, it kind of frightens me.”
“Fully half the things you do terrify me, Twilight.” Luna gave her a wry smile. “But the other half of the time you make me into a better pony than I could pretend to dream.”
The unicorn flushed, not certain how to respond to that flattery, and Luna added something more in a thoughtful tone. “In that, you make a better goddess than I do.”
“But...I’m not - I could never be a goddess!” The very idea felt absurd to her. There was only Celestia and Luna, and any concept of replacing them with a mere mortal made no sense at all. “Besides, you’re just...out of practice, is all.”
Luna giggled. “That’s the most understated truth I’ve ever heard.”
Twilight grinned back. For the moments that she could pull Luna out of her depression, and when she wasn’t being Nightmare Moon, the alicorn shone quite brightly. She hoped she would see more of that, and less of the suffering that seemed to plague Luna. “Maybe you need to study? I could help you. I’m good with that.” It was a weak joke, but a joke nonetheless.
“It’s an idea, at that,” Luna smiled. “Lesson one: how to wear a tiara properly.”
They slogged the rest of their way to the beginning of the grass, and Twilight heaved a sigh of relief as they finally reached a surface that was kinder to her hooves and legs than stone or mud. They were both filthy from the knees down, but Twilight felt recovered enough to cast a basic cleaning spell. It didn’t feel nearly as cleansing as a proper bath, but it at least kept their coats unmatted and Luna’s chausses shining.
A rolling, rippling savanna stretched out ahead of them, dotted here and there in the distance with oddly flat-topped trees. It seemed deserted of even the smallest fauna, but after the spectacle that she’d put on, Twilight wasn’t surprised. In fact, despite the boundless perception she’d had, she hadn’t even thought to look. It gave her a flash of insight into how difficult Luna’s and Celestia’s duties had to be, if their godhead was anything like what she’d experienced.
“Do you think what the winds said is true?” She asked after a time. “That you’re changing this place just by being here?”
“It may be.” Luna looked up at the clear blue sky. “Though I expect you’ve changed the place more than me...” She gave Twilight a brief smile. “It’s possible. I really can’t tell.”
“I saw it,” Twilight confessed. “Before. I could see your goddess...ness.”
“Really?” Luna stopped short and gave her a startled look. “So it’s actually still there.”
“Oh, yes.” Twilight nodded. “And it’s...beautiful, actually.” She opened her muzzle to say something more, then shut it tightly as her ears caught up with her mouth.
“Is it now?” The alicorn smiled shyly at Twilight. “What does it look like? There aren’t any mirrors that reflect godstuff.”
“It’s...all darkness and light mixed together, constantly moving.” Twilight strained to remember that otherworldly perception, which didn’t quite fit into a merely mortal mind. “Like...a nebula, if you could see one up close.” She would have offered to use the memory spell again, but she could barely hold on to the images; even now, she could remember the impressions more than the event.
“That...does seem appropriate.” Luna nodded and glanced skyward for a moment. “‘Tia is all shining light, it hurts to look at her sometimes. And you...” The larger pony glanced sideways at Twilight. “I’ve seen you channeling the Elements of Harmony, but with what you can do without it, I wonder how much of it was the Elements, and how much was you.”
“The Elements didn’t feel like that, though.” Twilight protested. “It was focused. It wasn’t just me, either, it was all my friends.”
“Somehow I keep forgetting that. I can remember how they all look, but...” She shook her head. “I’m just not in the habit of thinking of friends.”
“Well you should start!” Twilight half-scolded her. “I know all my friends would love to spend time with you when we get back.” She paused at that for a moment, remembering when Celestia had sent her to Ponyville with the express purpose of making friends. Now she was trying to do the same to somepony else.
“I’m...willing to try.” Luna sounded hesitant, and Twilight felt slightly guilty. She didn’t want to force Luna into a pretense of cheerfulness, especially since Luna was starting to discover the genuine article.
“In your own time,” the unicorn temporized. “I’m sure we’ll be buried in work when we get back.”
The plain remained deserted as the afternoon rolled on toward evening, and Twilight stopped at an acacia-ringed pool of water. The obsidian spire was still visible in the distance, surrounded now by a dark and angry haze. The unicorn would have preferred to be out of sight of that monument before stopping, but she was exhausted. “I need to rest,” she told her companion. “It’s been a long day.”
“Of course.” Luna halted and looked back at the black obelisk as well. “It has been pretty eventful for you. I think I’ll stay up a little bit though. I want to see the moon.”
The unicorn drowsed beside her as Luna watched the first silver arc edge over the horizon. She had almost gotten used to sleeping by night rather than by day, if nothing else than to avoid being confronted with a legacy she could no longer touch. The starless sky and the distant orb of the moon still hurt, but it was a more remote pain.
It was a strange day for her. She had failed to properly carry out her duties, the responsibility trusted to her as a goddess, or else the hungry wind would not have remained even in the secret soul of the world. And yet, it had been taken care of anyway. It was the first time in a very long, long time that anyone had helped her with her burden. It was the first time that it had occurred to her that she didn’t have to do things alone.
Celestia was always so poised, so confident, and Luna had never managed to quite reach that same point. But perhaps she didn’t need to. It was an oddly freeing thought, that she didn’t have to try and do everything herself. Of course, prior to Twilight she had never encountered anypony who could begin to appreciate what a goddess could do, and what they had to do. But she had never looked, either.
It was on this meditation that she watched the moon rise, watched it bathe the landscape in soft silver light. But slowly, inevitably, the doubts crept in again. If Twilight, as a unicorn, no matter how special, could do what she could not, what role was left for her? She stared upward and had to wonder why the moon needed a goddess.
Luna woke to the sound of bells. They rang out, slow and sweet, tolling the morning hour. She lifted her head and looked around, confused and wondering. The oasis that they’d chosen was the same yet not the same; the grass was greener, the water was clearer, the trees were slightly different. But the trees were in the same places, the subtle rolls of the ground hadn’t altered. It was if a new place had been sculpted atop the old.
She met Twilight’s eye as the unicorn blinked sleepily. “I heard it too,” she said in reply to the unasked question. “What’s going on?” She looked around, taking in the same changes Luna had. “Oh, wow. I guess that answers that. Things are being shaped around us. Well, you.”
“It...seems so.” Luna far from happy about that. She knew better than anyone what a snarl of emotions her divinity was tangled in, and if it was affecting the fabric of this reality unchecked, it bade ill for the safety of their journey. The last tones of the bells lingered and faded in the air, and she got to her feet.
“So let’s go see what that is!” Twilight was her usual cheerful self. The unicorn began packing their campsite again, and Luna helped with only half her attention. There was again the sense of odd familiarity, something she couldn’t quite place about that sound. She could only hope it wasn’t another terror from a past she couldn’t remember.
“Let’s just be careful,” the alicorn said. “There’s no telling what it could be.”
“Careful. Check.” Twilight grinned briefly and looked around. “I think it was coming from this direction.”
The two ponies moved forward carefully, past a screen of low trees and tangled underbrush. The trees became thicker, forming a wall on either side, and the underbrush cleared. Ahead, the trees formed an arch, framing the green passageway, and Luna shared a glance with Twilight before they stepped through.
It was a palace, all white stone and gold spires, gleaming in the sun. It was the palace, surrounded by brilliant green and gleaming against the blue vault of the sky. Luna stared, open-mouthed and unblinking, at a place that hadn’t existed for a thousand years.
“What is this place?” Twilight asked, her voice hushed in deference to Luna’s awe.
“You’ve seen it before,” Luna replied without looking away from the enormous complex. “But not like this. The palace of the pony sisters. My home.”
“But...you live in Canterlot.”
“I live there now. But I grew up here.” Luna started forward, and Twilight tagged along behind. A broad stairway beckoned, pristine alabaster and gold rail leading to an exquisitely carved door. The wood shimmered with an amaranthine glow in the sunshine, untouched by time.
“So this is a...memory of the one in Equestria?” Twilight’s hooves sounded on the stone behind her, and Luna ran a hoof over the deep engravings in the door.
“Or the original,” Luna mused. “The first bastion of order, built so deeply that its foundation rested in something more fundamental than bedrock.”
“So who built it?” The unicorn stepped up next to her, surveying the architecture with an appreciative eye. “It’s beautiful.”
“Why, thank you.” The larger pony smiled, a faint hint of her sister’s impishness dancing in her eyes. “‘Tia and I made it, at the very beginning. When we were but foals.”
“What?” Twilight blinked at her, looking back and forth between her and the door.
“I’m sure that you built a fort for yourself when you were small.” Luna cocked her head at the unicorn.
Twilight flushed. “Well, yes,” she muttered. “But it was made out of books.”
“When a pair of goddesses makes a fortress to be safe in, it is rather more substantial.” Luna chuckled softly and pushed the door open. “Welcome to my home.”
Bright light streamed in through crystalline windows, the rich scent of wood and silk welcoming them into an enormous, well-furnished hall. Chairs and divans were scattered along the walls, with tapestries hanging above them. Columned arches supported supported gaily colored pendants, and at the very far end was a dais containing the largest orrery Twilight had ever seen.
Luna walked inside, hoofsteps deadened by a strip of carpet stretching the length of the hall, and inhaled deeply, breathing the heady perfume of memory. There were things she had forgotten, in the mess and muddle of life, pieces of an earlier age that were just now coming back to her. “‘Tia and I used to play here,” she told Twilight softly, making her way down the long hall toward the orrery. “We would pretend at moving the sun and the moon.”
Her horn flickered, and the sphere of the moon moved along its track, rotating silently, the cratered surface reproduced perfectly on the model. Twilight joined her, looking at the enormous device. “It’s hard for me to imagine either of you being that small,” she confessed. “You both seem, well, eternal.”
Luna opened her mouth to reply, but stopped as distant laughter sounded. Intermittent hoofsteps sounded from a nearby hall, and echoing voices. A side door slammed, and the two ponies watched, speechless, as a pair of alicorn foals dashed across the floor. The goddess of the moon stared as a younger version of herself gamboled across the carpet, followed by a similarly aged Celestia.
“I’m going to get you!” The Celestia foal called, and the matching Luna squealed, wriggling underneath the orrery. Celestia followed, voice echoing tinnily as she stuck her head under the metal base. “Mwahaha!”
“Eeeee, no!” The alicorn foal leapt up onto the polished brass mechanism, tiny wings working to make the jump, hooves scrabbling as she went from one orb to another.
“Aha, you’re on my sun!” Young Celestia frowned in concentration, her horn gleaming, and the orb of the sun swung through on its track. The young Luna squeaked and lost her balance, hooves flailing as she plummeted down to land on top of her sister, the two of them sprawling in a giggling heap.
“Is that - are you - ?” Twilight sounded as surprised as Luna felt.
“These are just memories. I think.” The alicorn watched her childhood self scamper off again, smiling softly.
“Well, you two were adorable.” Twilight grinned, and it was Luna’s turn to blush.
“Be that as it may,” the alicorn coughed. “I wonder why we’re seeing them.”
“Well, there doesn’t seem to be any magic around here...” Twilight turned in a slow circle, horn rippling with faint power. “But it doesn’t seem like things are magic here, anyway. They just are.”
“Well, at least only my dignity is in danger,” Luna muttered, shaking her head. “Still, I’d like to follow them. I...don’t really recall much from this early on.” In fact she didn’t recall much at all, relative to the endless centuries she had experienced, but more and more had been leaking through over their journey. These were the first memories she truly welcomed, holding a simple joy that she’d nearly forgotten.
“And you can give me the tour while we’re here,” Twilight agreed. “Celestia never talked much about the past, let alone something like this.” She waved a hoof at the finery. “And I don’t recall many books about it either.”
“We’ll see what I can recall.” Luna led the way through the side door, the carpeted stone winding upward along the perimeter of a tower. Through the windows could be seen the gold and green of the grounds, along with flashes of blue from cheerfully babbling fountains.
“There’s a terrace up there,” she told Twilight, “where we could watch the sky.” She glanced over at the unicorn. “You can imagine how important that was. At Canterlot we have a balcony.” Luna looked upward, along the winding ramp. “It’s nice, but I think I preferred the terrace.”
“Well, where you grew up is always a little bit special.” Twilight said softly. “I mostly grew up in the palace, and now I live in a library tree, but I feel nostalgic whenever I think of my parents’ home.”
Luna nodded, voices echoing from above as they climbed toward the roof. Another door stood at the top of the spiral, inlaid with a sun and a moon, and it unlocked with an audible click as the goddess of the moon touched her own symbol. She pushed the door open, spilling illumination into a starry night.
Luna stared, glancing between the bright sunlight spilling into the tower ramp and the moonlight cast across the terrace floor.
“I guess it’s more than just people that are memories,” Twilight said, sticking her head out past the threshold and looking around. “It’s cold out here,” she said, surprised, her breath steaming.
“It’s winter,” Luna said slowly, as recognition dawned. “Look.” She pointed a hoof at two ponies standing on the terrace. It was herself again, next to her sister as always, but here Celestia was eclipsed by the splendor of Luna’s aspect.
Her mane fell in a waterfall of stars, the moon on her flank glowed with an inner light, and her coat seemed to hold the very depth of night itself. Luna had decidedly mixed feelings about seeing herself that way, painted with a glory she could no longer conjure, but she stepped forward anyway.
“The Winter Moon Festival,” she commented to Twilight in an undertone, making her way to the rail next to the younger version of herself. The grounds around the palace were sprinkled with lights, like a mirror of the sky above, hundreds of small bonfires to warm the ponies gathered for the celebration. The fires threw faint illumination over tables and awnings, chairs and divans scattered over the field. “This used to be my time.”
“What happened?” The unicorn asked, looking over at the past alicorns, who in turn watched their subjects.
“I - “ Luna began, and was interrupted by her younger self.
“Our Loyal Subjects!” The voice from the past boomed, and Luna winced slightly at her own memories from using that particular effect. “We Hope You Have Been Enjoying The Festivities!” Cheering and hoof-stomps came from the assembled crowd. “Good! Look To The Skies, Our Subjects! The Main Event Is About To Begin!”
“It was a meteor shower last year,” Celestia murmured to the young Luna. “What did you have in mind for this time?”
“See those comets?” She waved a hoof upward, where a pair of wispy-tailed streaks rode in the sky.
“You wouldn’t.” Celestia sounded gravely amused, and Luna grinned in synchronization with her memory-self.
“I would. But first...” The young Luna’s horn glowed softly, and from the horizon came the shifting, hued curtains of an aurora. They rippled across the sky, painting the black between the stars with a palette of colors.
“I didn’t know you could do that,” Twilight said softly, and Luna tore her gaze away from the heavens.
“I’d nearly forgotten myself.” Luna shook her head, wondering how she could have let something like this slip away. The show wasn’t over, either. Above them, the twin comets began to spiral around each other, drawing closer. They danced down, down, until they suddenly hit the atmosphere and ignited. The fiery bolides met the aurora and exploded with a tremendous roar, providing a kind of natural firework display.
The clouds of debris grew and fuzzed into haze, reflecting the light of the aurora, muting it into shifting pastels. The haze transmuted to snow, falling from a nearly clear sky as the water from the comets froze again in the chill upper atmosphere, shining and reflecting both the moonlight and the auroral glow.
“That’s amazing,” Twilight Sparkle said, and Luna felt a warm glow of pride.
“One of my best years,” she admitted. “I had to start those comets going two decades earlier. The pegasi spent three days cleaning up all the clouds I ended up making, but it was worth it I think.”
“Definitely,” Twilight agreed emphatically, and Luna lifted her head to the sky. It was hard to believe that she’d forgotten what she loved to do, over the years. She knew it had been a long, slow decline, more her fault than anypony’s, but this reminded her what heights she could aspire to.
“Celestia didn’t revive the moon festival because she didn’t want to usurp my place in it,” she told the unicorn. “She wanted me to hold the first new celebration for it, when I got back. She always had faith, even that long ago.” She turned to Twilight. “And so do you. I -” Luna faltered for a moment, her mind unsure as to what her mouth was about to say. “...thank you.”
“Of course, Luna!” Twilight gave the alicorn a smile. “I may not be the most perfect judge of character but it’s obvious to me you aren’t evil or anything.” She laid a reassuring hoof on Luna’s shoulder. “Just a little hurt.”
“Less than I was, I think.” Luna smiled at the snow. “I wonder what else...or when else...is here.” With one last look she started to cross the terrace, headed toward the spires and windowed halls beyond.
After a moment Twilight’s hoofsteps sounded as she hurried after the princess. “I wish we could stay here and watch this, even if it is cold.” Luna glanced back thoughtfully at Twilight’s wheedling tone.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to get separated. I suppose there isn’t any real hurry.”
“Yay!” Twilight grinned gleefully, and pulled the thermal blankets from her saddlebags. “I’m getting a lot more use from these than I thought. Good thing I’m so organized.”
“It really is.” Luna chuckled softly, settling in next to the unicorn to watch the echoes of herself from millennia past.
Twilight had seen glimpses of the whole and healthy Luna before, but this was the first time she’d had an unobstructed view. And it wasn’t just the memory, either. Her Luna was more relaxed and confident, more centered than before. She had to wonder if the alicorn even realized it.
She glanced sideways at the Luna she knew, then at the memory who stood by the rail. They were strange mirrors. They both had pride in common, but it seemed there was little else. The real alicorn seemed darker but humbler, smaller but more solid. She was, perhaps selfishly, glad that she had the older Luna. It would have been difficult to call the goddess in the memory anything but ‘Princess.’
Once the snow stopped falling, the aurora rolled away, moonlight and starlight playing over the pristine white coat of snow surrounding the revelers. The bells tolled midnight in long, slow rolls of sound, and the night - and winter - faded. The night sky turned back to day, a late afternoon, long shadows stretching across the terrace.
“Aww.” Twilight was a little disappointed, even if the main show had been over. “Well, I suppose we should go see what else is around here.”
“Next time I’m sure you’ll have the whole night,” Luna offered, an odd expression crossing her face as she realized exactly what she had said. But the alicorn didn’t correct herself.
“I’d like that.” If Luna was determined there would be a next time, despite the impossibility, Twilight wasn’t going to gainsay her. She took a moment to pack the blankets back in her now well-used saddlebags, and the two ponies resumed their interrupted journey across the terrace.
“There’s a banquet hall through here,” Luna told her, heading for another detailed door. “I think some days we didn’t even get off the top floor.”
“There are some days I don’t leave my balcony,” Twilight observed. “I can more than believe that.”
Luna giggled. “I probably should tell you to get out more, but I’m one to talk.” There was another soft click as Luna touched the door, and it swung open to reveal a long table and more enormous windows. Even though there was no food set out, the smell of fresh-baked bread seemed to linger in the air.
“This is a very odd place.” The unicorn couldn’t help stating the obvious. The patchwork of memories made for a disjointed experience, and she had to wonder if they’d be able to tell if something - or somepony - were real, rather than simply a shadow of the past.
“I must confess it never did all this when I lived here.” Luna waved a hoof around. “Though maybe I should be surprised it didn’t. It was fairly saturated with magic for a very long time.”
“But magic is a very specific process,” Twilight protested. “It doesn’t just produce random results, especially not this targeted, all by itself.”
“Well, not normally, no.” Luna agreed. “But the slightest thought of a goddess might well be made manifest somewhere that is saturated with power, just waiting for somepony to shape it. It would not be unlike a unicorn’s own inner power.”
“Wow, a unicorn palace.” The unicorn grinned. “Almost as good as a book fort.”
Luna laughed softly, reaching for the far door of the banquet hall, but the door opened before she could touch it. Twilight blinked as another memory-Luna came into the dining room, this one looking much younger, barely past the filly stage. The appropriate Celestia followed her.
“I’m not sure...oh.” Luna said, and Twilight looked inquiringly at the alicorn. “This must have been just before we went off to...deal with Discord. See the necklaces?”
Indeed, each of the two were wearing a necklace with three gems strung on it; three moons for Luna and three suns for Celestia. They looked nothing like the Elements of Harmony in Twilight’s time, but that was hardly surprising. The unicorn couldn’t help but feel a slight chill, thinking of her own confrontation with the chaos god.
“I’m...I’m a little scared, ‘Tia.” The filly Luna looked up at the sun goddess, touching a nervous hoof to her necklace.
“Me too, sis.” The small Celestia lowered her head to give her Luna an affectionate nuzzle. “But we’ll be all right. He can’t do anything to us if we don’t let him.”
“Right.” The small Luna lifted her head, looking determined. “And we have the Elements of Harmony, too.”
“Indeed.” Celesta smiled down at her sister. “As long as we’re friends, we’ll be able to face anything.”
“We’ll always be friends, ‘Tia!” The filly Luna beamed. “We won’t have to worry about that.”
Twilight heard a soft intake of breath from the older Luna, but instead of looking pained, the alicorn merely appeared wistful. “Luna?” She asked softly.
“It’s amazing what you forget, and what you remember,” Luna replied. “It’s been a long time since I had any sort of...perspective.”
“Are we ready?” The memory of Celestia gave the younger Luna a hug, and the filly nodded.
“I wish I could tell them that everything works out.” Twilight watched the two young goddesses walk the length of the banquet hall.
“We can never know that at the time, though.” Luna said softly. “We can only hope it is so.”
“I suppose.” Twilight watched the pair walk out the far door. “It’s easy to forget how long ago this was,” she added after a moment. “It seems so real.” She turned to the larger pony. “Where did the Elements of Harmony come from, Luna?”
The alicorn shook her head. “You’d have to ask ‘Tia about that. What we’re seeing is coming back to me, along with a few other fragments, but most of my past is still a bit hazy.”
Twilight nodded. She had a strange, tangled feeling of guilt and responsibility for that, even if it was not strictly her fault. But perhaps it was for the best, given how many years of bad memories the goddess would have.
The bells began to toll again, and Twilight waited, counting. The hours it kept seemed to be those of the memory, not of the outside world, so there was no sense paying too much attention. But each roll of sound was commanding, sending faint vibrations through the floor under her hooves.
The tenth toll hung in the air, and light faded from the dining hall. The setting sun cast ruddy outlines of the windows on the far wall, picking out motes of dust floating in the air. Twilight lifted a hoof as the sun suddenly shone in her eyes. “So...what time is it actually?”
“Hmm. I’m going to assume late; we did spend some time watching the Moon Festival.” Luna stepped up to the window. “But it seems we’ll have actual lodgings for the night, for once.”
“True!” Twilight was looking forward to that. An actual bed and bath would be so very welcome, even if the surroundings were a little strange. But Luna didn’t seem worried by anything the palace might hold, and she was willing to trust the alicorn’s instincts. Everything Luna had been reluctant about so far had held some danger.
“Well, then, this way.” Luna resumed her interrupted tour. Twilight marvelled at the size and richness of the halls and rooms they passed, easily rivaling Canterlot in terms of grandeur. But then, Canterlot hadn’t been built from nothing but divine will and imagination.
At the end of a broad hall were two doors across from each other, one emblazoned with the symbol of the sun, and one with the symbol of the moon. Between the two was a small balcony, facing south to judge by the sun, and a faint breeze ruffled the hanging curtains. A voice floated to them from the balcony, a young voice. “You can do it, Luna!”
The two ponies exchanged glances and walked forward toward the balcony. They peered through the curtains at yet another alicorn pair, this one very young, barely older than the foals who had played on the orrery. The small Luna flapped her tiny wings vigorously, hovering over the balcony as her horn glowed, while Celestia stood below, her neck arched and tense.
A silver sliver appeared on the horizon, and then slowly, surely, the moon rose. The Luna foal faltered and fluttered back down to the balcony, where Celestia steadied her. “I did it, ‘Tia! I did it! It’s my moon!”
“I told you that you could do it.” The alicorn put a wing over her sister, and Luna craned her neck upward.
“It’s not as bright as your sun,” the night goddess said, sounding disappointed.
“I suppose not...but it doesn’t have to be the only thing in the night sky.”
“Oooh!” The young Luna jumped up again, looking excited. Her horn glowed and spat sparks that circled upward, framing the moon with four stars. The small goddess looked at them with the critical eye only the young could muster. “Maybe I’ll do more later.”
“Is that...?” Twilight barely dared to ask the question.
“The first time I raised the moon,” the older Luna confirmed. “Oh, I was so excited. I probably should have been more excited, but even then I thought I’d burst.” She smiled at her younger self, who had her forehooves propped on the balcony rail. “I think I kept it night for almost a week.”
Twilight giggled. “I can see myself doing that too. I remember the first time I used my magic. It was just for books, but I read until I was stiff.”
“Well, this wasn’t the first time I used magic...” Luna looked out at the cool silver orb hanging in the sky. “But it was certainly something special.”
“I’ll say.” Twilight agreed. “I’d love to see you put up the rest of the stars.”
“Ah, but I don’t think we would have time for that.” The moon goddess chuckled. “It was certainly not all done in one night.”
“Not even a week-long night?” Twilight teased her, and Luna laughed.
“No, not even then.” The goddess waved her hoof at the two small alicorns on the balcony. “Celestia wouldn’t help me with it, but eventually I realized it was because it was my night, and she didn’t want to encroach on my prerogatives.”
“And a gorgeous night it is, too,” Twilight told Luna, and was rewarded with a shy smile from the alicorn. She dared to continue, if hesitantly. “I have a telescope, you know. I’ve spent so many nights up watching the sky, and it really is beyond words. It’s...awe-inspiring, even frightening, to think that you did all that.”
“Thank you,” Luna said, and there was more warmth in her voice than Twilight would have expected. “And not just for the compliment. You’ve gifted me not just a second or third or fourth choice, but the ability to appreciate and take advantage of it.”
Twilight blinked at this unexpected confession. “I, um, you’re welcome!” She smiled hesitantly. “But really, I haven’t done anything special.”
Luna chuckled and shook her head. “It may seem that way to you, but you’re special to me.”
The unicorn wasn’t sure how to respond to that, kicking awkwardly at the floor with a forehoof. Silence hung between them for a time, broken only by small, subtle noises from the memory lingering on the balcony. Somewhere the bells began to toll, and the four stars outside faded away, leaving only the moon and an empty palace.
“Well, I suppose we should find our beds, and hope there’s nobody in them.” Luna looked away from her contemplation of her celestial charge and nodded agreement.
“Well, you can use Celestia’s rooms.” The alicorn chuckled softly. “I don’t think she’d object.”
“I suppose not.” Twilight tentatively pushed at the sun-sigiled door that was next to the balcony, and it swung under her hoof. Moonlight dappled a scattering of blankets and furniture, cast in monochrome by the night. She glanced back at Luna, who was entering her own room. “Good night, Luna.”
“Good night, Twilight.” Luna smiled, and the door closed.
What woke the unicorn was the tolling of the palace bells in the distance. She blinked at the bright light reflecting from a soft palette of color, a bright spread that reminded her of nothing so much as Celestia’s mane. There were tapestries on the walls, soft carpets underhoof, a closet and of course the bed, but it was rather spartan otherwise for a royal bedroom.
It might have been simply a consequence of the palace’s pristine status, memories aside, but the Celestia Twilight knew lacked the abundance of keepsakes an immortal might be expected to have. Twilight could nearly believe that a younger sun princess would have foregone decoration entirely. It was strange to not even see books, though, and she shook her head at an odd sense of disorientation before she made her way to the door.
“Luna?” Twilight poked her head into the hallway, an ear cocked to hear any further memories that might be occurring. When no such event presented itself, she crossed over to knock on the moon-engraved door. It swung open under her hoof, showing her an empty room.
It was a far different room than the one in which she’d spent the night. It wasn’t just the color scheme; paintings hung on the walls, oils and watercolors of a dozen different scenes and as many ponies. A faded portrait of the royal sisters, looking young and cheerful, stood on a small table, an ‘L’ scribbled in the corner as the artist’s signature.
Twilight couldn’t help but to step inside. She walked slowly along the row of hanging pictures, where she could see the individual brushstrokes and the same initial on each one. These could be, she realized, the first paintings to ever exist. Even if they weren’t, the artwork represented the mortal strivings of the goddess in a way that any number of words could not.
She abruptly felt that she had intruded too far into something very private. She gave the room one last glanced and backed out, closing the door behind her. Luna had to be somewhere nearby. The empty halls seemed larger and colder without somepony to guide her, the carpets and tapestries absorbing all noise and turning it into a noiseless crypt.
The unicorn found herself moving faster, cantering through the broad, sun-soaked silence as she hunted for any sign of Luna. She found no sign of Luna or of memories until she stumbled across the ancient audience hall. Voices leaked through a delicate stone filigree, a blurred slice of a pair of thrones visible through the decorative screening.
Twilight followed that wall until she found a door, pushing her way into what seemed to be a private audience. Or rather, the end of one. Two pairs of guards escorted two groups of ponies away from the dual throne, revealing her Luna on the far side of the room.
Luna gave her a small wave, and Twilight trotted across to her. “I’m sorry I didn’t wait for you,” the alicorn said, “but I was following a memory.”
“Oh, that’s quite all right!” The smaller pony was relieved to see Luna; she’d been half-panicked from the idea of getting lost in different pasts. “What’s going on?”
“There was a time - a long time - when Celestia and I ruled together. Actually together; it wasn’t a division of duties, it was cooperation.”
“You are so much better at empathic solutions.” Twilight jumped at Celestia’s voice, but it was only the memory of the alicorn sitting on the throne. “I suppose,” the sun goddess continued dryly, “I shouldn’t expect everypony would see things my way.”
“Oh, ‘Tia,” said the matching Princess Luna fondly. “If everypony saw things your way, they wouldn’t need to come to us to resolve their problems.”
Celestia laughed, soft and musical. “And how boring a kingdom we would have then. I shan’t complain so long as it’s both of us. I don’t think I could do it by myself.”
The petitioners and the guards disappeared out the far door, and the palace bells tolled as the memory faded, leaving the ponies a large, empty hall. Twilight looked over at Luna, who was staring thoughtfully at the vacant thrones. “Should we look for more memories?”
“No...” Luna said slowly, then repeated it. “No. I think I’ve seen all I need to.This was my past, but you can’t stay in the past forever. It’s time to move on.” The alicorn turned to face Twilight. “My past has been coming back, in bits and pieces, and there are other powers in this place that could help us. There is one in particular that we have had a key to all this time.”
“What?” Twilight stared at Luna. “You’re joking.”
“Alas, no.” Luna shook her head. “Those dragon medallions, you still have them in the saddlebags?”
“Of course.” Twilight opened the flap of one of the bags, various scavenged vegetables and a folded blanket floating out as she rummaged for them, finally levitating them into the air. “Here.”
The larger pony placed one around her neck, and Twilight followed suit. Luna’s horn glowed, and thin threads of magic wrapped themselves around the discs. It was a spell that didn’t hold much power, but it was extraordinarily complex, reminding Twilight that Luna had been casting spells for longer than unicorns had existed.
“So what does that do?” Twilight studied the spell as best she could. She didn’t dare try to tease any of it apart for fear that it would do some damage to the metal it was enmeshed in.
“It should lead us to it. And it to us.” The alicorn turned and began walking toward the exit of the audience hall.
“Lead us to what?” Twilight trotted after her, frowning down at the pendant hanging around her neck.
“Do you remember Scar’s seal of office? That was not merely a symbol. Celestia is the sun, I am the moon. The dragon lords are the ouroborus. And we’re going to find it.”
Concluded in Apotheosis, Part 3
Continued from Apotheosis, Part 2
The medallion tugged gently at the chain around Luna’s neck as she stepped out of the massive front doors of the palace. Twilight followed, putting a hoof to the piece of jewelry hanging around her own neck. “I can feel that,” the unicorn remarked, sounding pleased.
“Good.” Luna shared the sentiment. For the first time, she felt that she was truly contributing to their journey. They were also finally on track, rather than drifting aimlessly. Even with unconstrained divine presence warping everything around them, they had a path to follow.
The spell led them out of the palace grounds, into a green and tree-spotted wild. There was just a hint of a bite in the air, like the first faltering breaths of spring. A few puffs of white cloud rode in the sky, and Luna excused herself to spread her wings and soar upward. She landed on one of the drifting clouds, studying the land spread out beneath her.
The horizon was far too close. Her muscles tensed as she considered the sharp line where sky met ground. It was as if the whole world were shrinking around them - a real possibility, given the nature of the reality they were in. She could only hope that they would be able to leave before she did any permanent damage to Equestria’s soul.
There was no sign of the ouroborus, though in truth she didn’t know what to look for. The experiences and information she’d lost floated like a vast galactic puzzle, with the occasional infalling piece adding to the picture she knew. The thread of knowledge she’d followed was frustratingly incomplete, fraying before it reached its goal.
In fact, there was no fauna at all. Twilight was the only thing that didn’t move with the wind, the unicorn looking upward from far below. Luna wondered idly if her unleashed godhead was focusing the world not around her, but around Twilight, following Luna’s own emotions. The palace had helped steady her, but it had also convinced her that she could not return to the same existence that she’d left.
She already knew what lay down that road, whether it took ten years or ten thousand. She needed somepony to balance her properly, to keep her sane and make her whole. She needed Twilight. But that was a selfish desire; even if she could find the words, Luna didn’t want to express it to the unicorn and so destroy what rapport they had.
She dropped back down to the ground, hooves whispering on the grass. “I don’t see anything,” she reported to Twilight. “But I don’t think that means too much. I suspect distances are rather uncertain.”
“Well, I’m used to walking by now,” Twilight gave her a wry smile. “Another day or so isn’t going to hurt.”
“I suppose not.” Luna walked in silence for a time, reflecting on something that had only just occurred to her. “I know how close you are to your friends,” she said. “I’m surprised you haven’t been more worried about them.”
“I was worried,” Twilight admitted. “Mostly about Spike. Well, worried about him worrying about me.” The unicorn looked down at her guiding medallion. “But I was thinking about it, and I think you were right that we were sent here. So I’m sure Spike’s parents are taking care of him, and Scar’s told him what’s going on, and my other friends aren’t expecting me back for a week. Week-ish.
“So I’m hoping that this gets resolved long before anyone has to worry. Spike could be sending letters to Celestia, since I’m sure she’s worried about you, but I don’t think there’s a need to alarm anyone else yet.” Luna lifted her eybrows at this small speech. She knew Twilight was intelligent; she hadn’t anticipated that type of analysis from her.
“That’s rather...far-sighted of you.” The alicorn looked sideways at her companion. “Though given that you’re ‘Tia’s student I shouldn’t be surprised. She plans ahead with a vengeance.”
“Well, I’m still worried.” Twilight gave her a nervous smile. “I just know I really shouldn’t be worried.”
“I certainly hope not. With any luck at all we’ll be out of here in a day or so.” The alicorn hesitated briefly. “And when we are out, what are you planning to do?”
“I hadn’t thought much of it.” Twilight blinked. “Go back to my library, I suppose. I could write a book about this, though.” The unicorn grinned suddenly. “I’ve read so many, but I’ve never written any. That would be fun!” Her eyes focused on something distant as her mind worked. “Of course I should really begin with an introduction to this underlying world if I want to do it properly. Maybe you could help with that?”
“I’d be glad to.” Luna smiled, but she wasn’t feeling particularly cheerful. She wasn’t sure what answer she was hoping for, but an offer of coauthorship was particularly far from it. The medallion around her neck twitched and tugged, leading them a direct line toward the sun.
The chill disappeared as they day wore onward, the terrain growing rougher and rockier. The sound of water came faintly from somewhere ahead, growing louder until they reached the lip of an enormous depression. It was a circle cut perfectly into the rock, over the lip of which spilled a half-dozen streams. They tumbled downward to swirl slowly in a slowly flowing moat that surrounded an island. The island itself was bare except for a familiar-looking stone pedestal, twin to the one they’d first arrived on.
The medallion wanted to go downward. Luna exchanged glances with Twilight and spread her wings, gliding across the water and onto the bare stone. A flash of light announced Twilight’s arrival next to her, the two ponies looking around at the oasis. The unicorn looked around doubtfully, turning in a circle as she studied it. “I don’t see anything.”
“Hold a moment...” There was something odd about the rock walls surrounding them, some strange texture that didn’t seem to fit. Before she could puzzle it out, the deep rumbling of shifting stone turned them both to face one part of the high wall. And as one, the two ponies stepped backwards from the enormous eye that opened there, a serpentine pupil fixing on them. Rock fell away from steely scales, splashing into the moat and revealing that the entire clearing was created by and encircled with steely coils.
.you do not belong here.
The ouroborus could not speak, of course. Its jaws were forever fixed on its own tail in the eternal cycle of the immortal beast. But the words manifested anyway, incarnated into physical force by the simple will of a god. Its eye watched them, framed between two narrow curtains of water.
Luna refused to be intimidated. The god was certainly impressive, but the alicorn reminded herself that she was an equal. A superior, even. As she had told Scar, she was even older than the dragons, and even if she couldn’t match power for power she could demand respect.
“We didn’t intend to be here. Yet, here we are.” It came out more challenging than she’d actually meant, but she couldn’t recall the words after they were free. The eye regarded her, the pupil twitching as it focused.
.the moon unchained.
.the night unrestrained.
.this is not your realm.
.what do you intend.
Each set of words was flung down like a gauntlet. Beside her, she saw Twilight flinch back from the ringing impact of the god’s challenge. Luna couldn’t blame her; even though the words were not sound, they were still too loud.
“All we intend,” she told it crisply. “Is to return to Equestria. I know that you can perform that task for us.”
.a boon is asked.
.a question waits.
.why it is needed.
“I can’t do it,” Luna admitted freely. She was not proud of it, but there was no point in hiding it either. “I can’t reach my power.”
There was a stirring of scales, the ground shaking, disturbed ripples running across the water as the god shifted ever so slightly. A tiny spark of light flashed briefly in the depths of the eye and Luna felt shaken, flensed from the brief wash of power.
.you are broken.
.the pieces return.
.the pattern is changed.
.complete and incomplete.
Luna wasn’t certain if that was observation or prophecy. She had never been one for divination, but there was no telling what other gods could do. The alicorn refused to be diverted too far from the goal though. “Yes, I know what’s wrong with me. But that’s my affair. Can you send us back?”
.to do what you ask.
.one might open a door in water.
.push a mountain through.
.neither quiescent nor controlled.
.you are an ocean untamed.
.asking to pass through a keyhole.
Luna’s heart sank. If she understood correctly, the very fact that she was regaining her past self was what barred the god from granting her an exit. She looked over at the unicorn next to her and took a breath. “What about Twilight? Can you get her out?”
“What?” Twilight protested. “I’m not leaving if you’re not!”
“It’s not fair to you that I keep you here,” Luna argued. “I couldn’t separate you from your friends.”
The look on Twilight’s face immediately made the alicorn wish she could take it back. But the stunned, heartsick expression turned into one of determination. “No. We’re staying together. I am not leaving you.”
.the nascent power.
.indeed can pass.
.yet will not pass.
.separation is condemnation.
.she is part of the pattern.
“What?” Twilight frowned at the serpentine pupil, and it swiveled ever so slightly to study her in response. “What are you talking about?”
.the unbound moon.
.binds itself to you.
.you alter the pattern.
.the goddess requires you.
.you are completion.
Luna felt suddenly sick, her mouth dry as Twilight stared first at the god’s unblinking eye, and then at her. Of all the ways the subject could have been broached, Luna hadn’t anticipated this one. A tense, brittle silence stretched between them, into which Luna finally floated a tentative apology. “I...I’m sorry, Twilight.”
“Sorry for what?” The unicorn demanded plaintively. “I don’t understand.”
“I...” Of all the things Luna had done, as goddess, princess, or pony, this was far and away the most difficult. She marshalled her thoughts and took a breath. “Twilight, I told you before that you made me into a better pony than I thought possible. It’s not just that. When I’m with you I don’t have to be a ruler, or a goddess, or worry about how I seem. You’ve seen me at my worst and you’re still here.” The alicorn blinked away tears that she hadn’t realized were there.
“I told you that you scared me, but you keep me honest, honest to myself and to you.” She struggled for the words to express what she felt. “Without you I would have given up the first moment we were here, but because of you I’m actually happy, actually feeling alive. I don’t know what this is,” she told a stunned-looking Twilight, “but you said you wouldn’t leave me. I ask you...don’t leave me.” She swallowed, speaking more softly. “And not just here and now,” Luna begged, “but for as long as the moon rises and the sun sets. Stay with me. Please.”
Twilight stared at Luna, her world shaken to its very foundations. Thoughts and emotions whirled chaotically within her, refusing to coalesce into anything coherent. She was aware of little else but Luna’s pleading face and the thunderbolt of revelation that crackled deep in her bones.
Her study of friendship had made relationships somewhat less of a mystery than they had been before, but this was far more than friendship and in deep and uncharted waters. She enjoyed her time traveling with the alicorn, true, but this was such a radical redefinition that she didn’t know how to begin thinking about it.
But she knew, looking at the alicorn’s expression, that an unthinking response would be
more than just a mistake, it would be devastation. And with that sudden understanding, she realized that was the only truth she could possibly express. “I...I never expected anything like this. I never started to think...I mean, I’m just a unicorn.”
.approached the liminality.
.mundanity is illusive.
The god’s words unbalanced her, unexpected as they were, sending her staggering a step or two sideways. The content of the sudden and unwanted theopneusty had made her nearly forget about its source. She turned to face the god, half-grateful for the interruption.
“That wasn’t just me, that was my friends and the Elements of Harmony.” She frowned at the eye. “Why does everyone forget about the others?”
.harmony does not empower.
.friends are part of the soul.
.none walk alone.
.attribute to you what is true.
.let deeds speak for your worth.
Twilight took a moment to study that one. The god seemed to be getting more elliptical as time went on, but at least part of it was plain enough.
“It doesn’t matter to me what you’ve done or haven’t done,” Luna put in softly. “Or that you’re ‘just’ a unicorn. Everything I ask springs from the time I’ve spent with you.”
“Right.” The unicorn closed her eyes briefly, clearing her mind of the obfuscation that had swirled in around the central issue. She wished that the two of them weren’t under the gaze of an enigmatic god, that they could have some privacy to discuss things. But then, left alone, the subject may never have come up at all.
“Luna.” She said at last, with the taut, tense sensation she had before a test or testing a new spell. “I am no goddess, who can commit for eternity, and I am not well versed in anything beyond friendship - and I’m still learning that! But I do like you and enjoy being with you. They say to start as you mean to go on; so - I am not the sun or the moon, but yes, Luna, I will stay with you and see what may come.”
The alicorn smiled, an expression of joy tempered by profound relief. Twilight had never thought to engender such an emotion in any pony, let alone the Princess Luna. It was as unexpected as the rest, and yet from her newly granted perspective it seemed entirely natural.
“That is all anyone, even a goddess, has a right to ask.” Luna took a pair of steps forward, closing the gap between them. She looked down at the smaller pony, foreleg half-raised and wings half-spread. “Thank you.”
Twilight hesitated, then leaned in against the alicorn, giving her a small and tentative nuzzle while those great dark wings swept around in an odd half-embrace. Luna’s head rested against hers, and the unicorn briefly closed her eyes. It was a new experience for her, for all the hugs bestowed upon her by friends, whether mutual or not. There was something different to it, and the studious part of her wondered how long it would take to figure this out, given how complicated simple friendship could be.
Then they parted, and she saw in Luna’s eyes the same confused, uncertain, awkward interest that she was sure were reflected in her own, and the two of them abruptly broke into laughter. It was more a laughter of relief and emotional release than anything else, but there was happiness as well.
.the pattern weaves closer.
.the heart of magic and the goddess.
.futures remain uncertain.
.present is assured.
Twilight flinched and turned to the watching god, blushing bright red as she realized they’d had a witness to what should have been a private moment. It didn’t seem reasonable to be able to ignore a god, but perhaps it was more forgivable when it was in favor of a goddess. Luna was flushed almost as dark as she was, but she lifted her head challengingly. “I suppose,” she said, “that I should thank you. Though the help you’ve given was not the help I anticipated.”
.the world must turn.
.the cycle is nature.
.boon or bane.
.only necessity is granted.
“Are all gods like this?” Twilight muttered to Luna in an undertone. “Fey and half-incomprehensible? Other than you and Celestia of course.”
“Most gods are restricted to rather odd angles of reality,” the alicorn replied with dry amusement. “And the ouroborus is odder than most. I think we can forgive it whatever...circumlocutions it decides to take.”
“I suppose,” Twilight said, realizing there was a new undertone of casual familiarity to their conversation. The realignment of her world - and Luna’s - wasn’t restricted to a single moment, it seemed. “But we don’t have the way out we thought we would. Not that what happened instead was bad!” She added the last in hasty afterthought, not meaning to impugn their newfound intimacy. Luna grinned understanding, and Twilight let out a breath of relief.
The particular phrasing the god had used struck the sparks of an idea in her mind, and Twilight turned again to face the expressionless eye. “You said you only helped with what was necessary, but we certainly still need a way out. For the world to turn properly, Luna has to be part of it, and not here. Especially not with what her simple presence is doing to this place.”
.a hole in the world.
.relic of past enmity.
Twilight exchanged glances with Luna. That did not sound like a particularly promising option, but how much worse could the danger be than the demons they’d already run into? “I think we should try it, Luna. Unless...maybe you could get us out now?”
The alicorn shook her head regretfully. “I’m feeling better, it’s true. More whole than ever.” She smiled at Twilight, who felt a thrill from her role in that small and happy expression. “But I am far from the mantle I’m supposed to bear.”
Luna took a breath and addressed the ouroborus. “We’ll accept the risk. Where can we find this passage?”
.world grows smaller.
.a beginning and ending.
.the line is drawn.
The god shifted, again shaking the ground with even the slightest stirring. A single drop of blood oozed from between those massive jaws, leaving no trail on the steely scales. It fell soundlessly into the clear moat surrounding their island, and the water instantly turned a bright shimmering silver, frothing oddly where the waterfalls fed the pool.
“What? No!” Twilight took a step back in revulsion. Things had taken a strange turn for the macabre, and way out or not, she didn’t want any part of it. “That’s disgusting!”
Luna nodded agreement, moving closer to Twilight. “What are you playing at?” She narrowed her eyes at the ouroborus. “The blood of a god is a strange and potent thing. I have only just found Twilight. She is precious to me, and I will not have her turned into one of your pawns.”
.all is knowledge.
.nothing is control.
.the way is barred.
.only the divine may pass.
The unicorn was nearly distracted by Luna’s last statement, but forced her mind back to the incarnated words. “Wait, so this way out she can’t use because she is a god, and that way out I can’t use because I’m not one?” Twilight scowled at the eye. “That seems awfully suspicious.”
.Sun and Moon.
.Earth and Air.
.Fire and Water.
.Mortal and Divine.
.unto all things a balance.
“I don’t see what drinking that has to do with any of that, though.” The ouroborus had seemed so reasonable initially, but she should have realized that anything to do with Scar would be difficult.
.mortal appears divine.
.divine acts as mortal.
.necessity and balance.
“It cannot actually act capriciously,” Luna said thoughtfully. “Which isn’t the same as being helpful. And because of its nature, it can only offer options that in some way have a balance. There are probably easier paths out, but it can’t help us find them.”
That made sense as far as it went. The nature of divine beings hadn’t been one of her areas of study, but she’d add it to her list as soon as they got back. Even without all the rules spelled out for her, Twilight had some grasp of the rules the ouroborus adhered to. None of which explained the quicksilver pool. “And the blood?” She prompted.
“I think it’s offering to lend you a cloak of divine nature. If there is some barrier to mortals that we must pass, it would grant that much at least. Whether it is more or not, I’m not certain. Knowledge can be a dangerous gift.” Luna looked worried, and Twilight gave her a reassuring nuzzle.
“If there’s anything I know how to handle, it’s knowledge. If this is what’s needed to get us back, fine. But do I really have to drink that?”
The alicorn smiled affectionately at her. “A swallow only, if you’re sure. That little, and it should fade soon enough if it’s a gift, given freely.” She turned to give the eye a glare. “Next time I’ll make sure to ask for a less visceral method of giving it.”
“If this is their god, it’s no wonder the dragons act like they do,” Twilight grumbled. “All right, here goes.” She took a step to the edge of the pool, bracing herself and bending down to take a tiny mouthful. Surprisingly, it tasted like nothing more than pure, clear spring water, but the mystical effects didn’t take long to manifest.
Images flashed through her head, strange memories and visions, none of them lasting long enough for her to form more than a vague impression of their content. Dragons, ponies, beings of shadow and light, of smoke and fire, of measureless oceans and indecipherable patterns cut into snow-covered glaciers. A weight seemed to settle over her, draping her from ear to hoof, and she was surprised to see that there wasn’t an accompanying outward sign of the god’s gift.
“Are you all right?” Luna was at her side instantly, watching her closely, and Twilight gave the larger pony a reassuring smile.
“I’m fine. I can feel an...aura, but that’s all it is.” Twilight glanced around, not surprised to see that the water had returned to its normal state. But she also saw something else. “Wait...I think I can see where we’re supposed to go, too.” There was a silver flash on the horizon, as if she were seeing the moon through a tiny crack, only visible when faced directly. It was filtered, she was sure, through her borrowed aura, rather than being a true landmark.
“That had better be all it is,” Luna said ominously. “Still, you have helped. So again, thank you.” She inclined her head to the enormous serpentine eye.
.what was needed was given.
.neither choice nor virtue.
.gratitude is unnecessary.
“Long-winded way to say ‘you’re welcome,’ isn’t it?” Twilight muttered to Luna under her breath. She realized she was being too critical of the ouroborus, and it was mostly her still-lingering embarrassment driving her to comment, so she closed her muzzle on any further sardonicisms.
“You have my thanks too,” she said instead, imitating Luna’s gesture of respect. She lifted her head back up to look at the eye, glimpsing through her temporary shroud a vast abyss of time and experience invisible to mortal eyes. She shuddered, looking away from that precipice, and was gratified to see it wasn’t mirrored in Luna.
She didn’t know how the goddess avoided that intellectual distance if she did indeed predate the dragons. Or maybe she hadn’t entirely, and that was one of the components of her incarnation as Nightmare Moon. Now, though, those eyes were warm and despite the aeons Twilight knew they’d experienced, still young.
“What?” Luna cocked her head at Twilight, and the unicorn shook her head with a smile.
“Nothing. I’ll explain it later.” She preferred to wait until they were out from under the unblinking gaze of the dragon’s god before she broached so private a subject. They’d almost certainly have enough time to discuss it on their way.
“Is there anything else?” She asked the ouroborus, ready enough to bid the god farewell. If nothing else, the voiceless words were starting to give her a headache.
.path is set.
.pattern is decided.
.only your choices remain.
With that last, enigmatic statement the god closed its eye, dismissing them.
“I guess it’s time to go.” Luna’s voice held a touch of whimsy. “You’ll have to lead the way.”
“Right.” Twilight nodded firmly, eager to be on their way. “I’ll meet you up there.” Her horn flashed softly, the light subdued beneath the heavy mystical layering that surrounded her, and she appeared on the ground overlooking the god’s den. Luna was already in the air, the alicorn touching down lightly next to her a moment later.
“So which way is it?” Luna tilted her head at Twilight, and the unicorn turned until she caught the silver flash again.
“There.” She pointed toward the horizon, and they started off together. Twilight kept closer to the alicorn than she had previously in their journey, and Luna responded with a smile and by putting her wing over the unicorn. It was somewhat tentative and awkward, that embrace, as if Luna had only seen it and never practiced it, but it was genuine nonetheless.
Twilight felt a brief stab of regret that she couldn’t return the gesture before realizing how irrational a wish for wings was. Instead she gave the larger pony a brief nuzzle and gave voice to the thought she’d had earlier. “When I looked at the ouroborus, it was almost...alien, because it had seen and done so much, been alive so long. But you aren’t that way.”
“Well.” The alicorn looked thoughtful, considering the question implicit in Twilight’s observation. “Part of it may spring from the fact that I live - or lived - among our subjects. Of the world, not apart from it. But even then, sometimes the weight is so heavy...” She shook her head. “I suppose it is mostly because I am a god of ponies and it is a god of dragons. They live long enough that ages of experience are part of their nature, so of course that is part of their god.”
Twilight nodded, her mind skipping to Spike. He didn’t seem at all alien to her - not like Scar, at least - but he was also quite young, and raised among ponies. There was no telling what he would be like after hundreds of pony lifetimes. Of her lifetimes. The unicorn shook off any contemplation of her own mortality; she had no wish to ruin her mood.
“I thought that given how many gods I’ve been meeting, it might be a good idea to learn about them.” Twilight grinned at Luna. “It will probably be pretty important for the future.”
Luna giggled. “I suppose it will be at that.”
It was a companionable walk through a pleasant countryside. The sun was bright on the lush grass, and the landscape seemed to get greener as they trekked through open fields. Twilight kept the glinting silver beacon in view, but she couldn’t tell if it was getting any closer.
The sun tracked slowly through the sky while the land slowly changed around them. It was obvious it was still suffering the effects of Luna’s presence, because upon cresting a ridge a forest that had not been visible earlier suddenly stretched out before them. With it, the silver glimmer flashed into a broad swath. Twilight shook her head, squinting to see through her borrowed cloak, and Luna made a soft, surprised noise. They had arrived.
Luna couldn’t help but stare. The forest had been caged. Scintillating shards were driven into the ground, describing a fence of sun-bright crystal. Solid beams of light crossed between the upright stands, creating a luminous barrier. It curved off out of sight in both directions, encircling the entire grove.
She recognized her sister’s handiwork, of course. She just didn’t know why Celestia had felt the need to imprison that particular stand of trees, but it did not bode well if that was their way out. And it was their way out, she was certain: she might not entirely trust the ouroborus, but she knew it told only the truth.
“What is this?” Twilight’s voice came from beside her, slightly wavery behind the invisible layers of power that surrounded her.
“It is a divine wall. It looks like it was made in haste, and I can’t tell if it’s meant to keep things in or keep things out.” Luna shook her head. “And we’ll have to pass through it.”
They started down toward the nearest point of the bright barrier, which loomed large and blinding as they drew close. Luna eyed the shining arcs of light, which seemed more like bars than beams. “We’ll go together,” she told the unicorn. “I’d rather not cross at all, but maybe my presence will help protect you.”
“I could try and teleport across,” Twilight offered, but Luna shook her head.
“If I know Celestia, the barrier isn’t just physical. That would be more dangerous than simply walking through, and the ouroborus provided you with a gift of power just for that purpose.”
The unicorn nodded, and they stepped up to the front of the barrier together. “On three,” Luna said. “One, two...”
The light guttered briefly as they leapt through. Luna felt nothing, but there was an odd shivery scraping noise from Twilight. The borrowed cloak was briefly visible as it steamed and shriveled and evaporated in the light, sacrificing itself to protect the mortal beneath, and then they were through.
Twilight wobbled on her hooves, and Luna moved to support her, holding her up with a foreleg until the unicorn smiled up at her. “I’m all right, Luna. That was just...weird.”
“Good.” The alicorn was somewhat surprised at how quickly she’d started to worry about the other pony - but then, it had been a long while since she had reason to worry about somepony else. After those moments of recovery, they looked around to see what the other side was like.
The forest was strange and sinister, the trees bare and twisted but for patches of too-dark leaves, the ground dry and parched but for sprays of glossy thorn. There was something wrong there, but what exactly it was Luna couldn’t tell. But they were committed; Twilight couldn’t go back through the barrier, and there was nothing in the world that Luna would allow to separate her from the unicorn.
“That’s odd...” Twilight said. “There’s something familiar about this.”
“You’re right,” Luna agreed, realizing it only in that moment. It was the same strange half-nostalgia that had tickled the back of her mind more than once during their journey, and she knew there was some piece of her past there. And by the look of the surroundings, it wasn’t a pleasant one. “I’m not sure what it is though.”
“I guess we’ll find out soon enough.” Twilight looked more determined than Luna felt, but she had to agree. The only way was forward. They began to make their way into the forest, directly away from the barrier and roughly towards where the center should be. Luna gave the thorns a wide berth, wary of the dark tips on the long, wicked-looking barbs.
The leaves rustled overhead, and it took some time for Luna to realize why the noise bothered her. She stopped suddenly. “Twilight...there’s no wind.”
“What? Oh.” The unicorn’s eyes widened as she suddenly understood what Luna meant, and she looked around with a new uncertainty at their surroundings. Every noise seemed more sinister in the light of that revelation, and Luna determined to stay as far away from the trees as they could, as well.
The forest seemed completely trackless, an unquiet sameness in every direction. The only real landmark was the steadily receding light of the border wall. Luna felt more uneasy the deeper they went, as if there were something watching them. And that might very well be the case, given the eldritch independence of flora that surrounded them.
Even as the last hint of the luminous wall faded, a new radiance stained the brown and green of the aberrant forest. It was not natural; it was a strange and impossible inverted spectrum, leaching the color from everything it touched even as it illuminated. “That...can’t be good,” Twilight said, peering ahead at the colorless shadows.
“I didn’t think we expected anything good,” Luna answered dryly. “But I have to admit that this is a surprise.”
“What is that?” Twilight sounded bewildered, and Luna couldn’t blame her. It rather hurt the eyes to look at; not because it was bright, but because it was wrong. At least, wrong to her eyes. Luna had to admit that it was possible that it was normal in this place, however unlikely.
“I have never seen anything like it.” She could make that admission with no qualms at all. It didn’t even spark the uneasy near-memory as the rest of the forest. “But I expect that’s where we’re going.”
“Of course.” The unicorn’s wry tone matched her own, and they took a moment to grin at each other in recognition of their shared skepticism.
“Well, let’s go see what it is.” Luna started forward again, and they wound their way through the trees toward the source of that strange light. The noises from the trees and the bushes became louder, as if an immaterial wind were blowing outward from the origin of the strange brightness.
It could not have been better calculated to create an eerie and disturbing walk, but Luna was relieved to see that her own coat and mane - and Twilight’s - escaped the bleaching effect that the trees and plants suffered. But that only made them stand out more, two spots of color in an otherwise grey-washed world. The monochromatic un-color made it seem as if they were in an empty land, even with the surrounding trees.
They broke into a sharply-defined clearing, where the light of the sun competed weakly with the anti-light that permeated the depths of the forest. The floor of the clearing was bare of grass or thorns or any distinguishing feature, and it was impossible to tell whether it was stone or dirt. And at the precise center was a hole in the world.
It wasn’t in the ground or in the air. Rather, it seemed to be scrawled roughly on top of reality, touching nothing, a ragged-edged bite that led to nowhere. “I hope we don’t have to go through that,” Twilight muttered.
“No...” Luna said. “That is not a way out. It seems more like a way in from some place we were never meant to see.”
“A way in...for what?”
“A way in for me.” A new voice entered the conversation, coming from ahead of them, and behind, from all around. It was a whispery, tuneless sort of a voice, dispassionate but not emotionless, and the very ground seemed to stir as it spoke.
After a blink, Luna saw it wasn’t the ground, but the unearthly radiance, sliding off the leaves and grass and trees and flying inward toward the tear in the world. As one, the two ponies stepped back from the light streaming under their hooves and whirling around that terrible fissure.
It coalesced into a vague form, an outline that held only the merest suggestion of a pony’s silhouette. “Well, hello,” it drawled. “It’s been a long time.” Holes that could have passed for eyes appeared in the mass of impossible light, looking directly at her.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who are you?” Luna had to admit the thing was frightening. It was hard to look at, too, the edges of the shape barely defined and difficult to focus on.
“Why, you don’t remember me? Hmm, perhaps not.” The apparition’s tone swayed up and down, turning its words into a sort of crooning singsong. “I’ll give you a hint. I arrived here a tad over one thousand years ago, thanks to you, Nightmare Moon.”
That was a shock. Luna just stared for a moment, unable to connect the strange being with anything she’d ever seen or done as the Princess Luna or as Nightmare Moon. Then Twilight made a noise of understanding from next to her. “The Everfree Forest! It’s the same feeling here, that’s what I recognized.”
“And who are you, hmm? Little god-touched mortal, treading where you should not.” The being’s attention shifted to the unicorn, and the fear Luna felt twisted within her. She knew without doubt that under the thing’s scrutiny was not a safe place to be.
“I’m Twilight Sparkle,” the unicorn declared defiantly. “And you never answered Luna. Who are you?”
“I am.” It laughed softly. “If you wish to call me the Everfree Forest, after that little patch that’s grown around my prison here, I suppose it will serve.”
“And what do I have to do with this?” Luna asked, trying to distract it from Twilight. She had a growing suspicion she already knew the answer, though, and she didn’t like it.
“Two goddesses striving against each other with all their power? And then one slips, just a little bit. But a little bit of infinity is quite enough to drive a hole straight through to elsewhere. Elsewhen. Elsewhat.” The ill-defined outline seemed to almost dance as it spoke. “Perhaps now you recall?”
Luna felt hollow. The memories weren’t clear, and probably never would be, but she remembered enough to know that there was some part of that conflict that had devastated the palace and the surrounding countryside. It seemed terribly possible that something like this could have been birthed in that cataclysm. She took a deep breath and faced what her duty had to be. “Well, that means you are my responsibility.”
“Oh, am I now? If that is the case, then you are my birthright.” The spirit flickered forward, appearing closer without any real sense of movement. “A god of darkness and night to lead me out of this sunlit prison into the world I have inherited.”
“What?” Luna stared, then shook her head. She could see how the spirit could think that if all it knew was Nightmare Moon. But she was no longer that person. “No. You cannot leave here. You don’t belong here in the first place.”
“My, how disappointing. I would have hoped that someone willing to destroy pieces of reality would be interested in seeing what I can do.” The god of Everfree Forest swayed back and forth in time to its singsong words. “But then, perhaps all I need is you here. After all, you are hardly using all that power, are you? I can just reach out...”
“No!” Both of them protested at the same time. Luna gave Twilight a quick, beseeching glance, not wanting her to draw any more attention than necessary. Intellectually, she knew that Twilight was perhaps better equipped to deal with this being than she; whatever source of power the unicorn drew on when her eyes flashed white was obviously vast beyond measure. But power alone was a fragile defense, assuming Twilight could even draw upon it at need.
And the godling was decidedly dangerous, if Celestia had felt the need to imprison it so. The painful non-color of its form and the twisted nature of the land where it laired was argument enough for her even without that. Luna planted her hooves firmly and raised her head. “I am no longer the individual that opened that way, no longer a creature of spite and destruction. I am not here today to complete what I started all those years ago, but to reverse it.”
Of course, she had no idea how she was going to do that. But she was committed to taking up again the duties that she had laid aside, and she couldn’t turn away from the first one that came her way simply because it was difficult. “I give you a chance. Leave, now, go back through your hole to where you belong.”
“I don’t think I shall,” it crooned. “I don’t think you have the ability to dictate to me. What a small, sad god you are. To have abandoned your power, your privilege, and then still seek to control.” It swayed closer, the un-color flickering. “Well, what you have cast off, I shall take.”
“Leave her alone!” Twilight shouted. Luna blinked as the unicorn appeared in front of her, horn glowing, and cast forth a shimmering shield, surrounding them with a protective field.
“Oh, little mortal. You should never involve yourself in the dealings of gods. It can only end in despair.” With that last word, the godling’s outline flashed, and molten lightning crashed into Twilight’s shield, and through it. It slammed forward in an unstoppable rush, swarming along the power projected by the unicorn and arcing into her horn. The shield vanished like a popped bubble, and Twilight gave a high, piercing cry as she glowed briefly from within, a cry that was cut off suddenly by a sharp detonation.
Luna stared, the world reeling around her as Twilight Sparkle tumbled to a halt at her feet, battered, broken, bleeding, and still.
“No.” She whispered, and her voice came from a great distance, as if from someone else entirely.
“It is the consequence,” the spirit said dismissively, “of getting in the way.”
Luna’s head snapped up, her eyes narrow as she looked at the god. “You hurt her.” Anger gathered behind her like floodwaters behind a dam, bearing with it all the power she had been sundered from. But this wasn’t petty anger, or jealous anger, or selfish anger, that had poisoned her so. It was righteous anger, and it was strength. “You. Hurt. Her.” For the first time in a very long while, Luna embraced her power with one mind, one heart, and one purpose.
The moon blocked the sun, an instantaneous eclipse that brought the stillness at the heart of a storm. Even the godling’s unnatural luminescence was muted by the sheer glory of the goddess of night in her full and wrathful power. The crushing weight of her will pinned it in place, and it writhed in surprise. “You cannot!”
Luna’s muzzle curled upward in grim amusement at the unwitting reference the godling made to the last entity that had dared stand in their way. She gave it the only answer it deserved. “I can.”
Time slowed. Her coat blazed with an atramentous darkness as her shadow spread, devouring all the light, natural or unnatural. “You,” she said, her voice colder than the space between stars and harder than a planet made of diamond. “I condemn you. I strip you of your power, your past, and your destiny. But I have learned there is nothing to be gained from destruction, and so you will live...however much you may wish otherwise.”
She reached out, sharp as starlight, and cut the spirit’s godhead from its soul, paring away its power and unraveling its fate. Streamers of energy flew toward her, were inhaled and transmuted into something new and marvelous. She gently, almost reverently touched the hole pierced through the very world itself, and unmade it, the eerie glow of elsewhere fading forever.
The remains of the sundered godling raged helplessly as she molded a mortal shell around it, giving it the form of a clawed horse, milk-white of coat and black of eyes. “I condemn you,” she said again, “to life. You will tarry here until you understand.” With a small fraction of the power she’d taken from the godling, she bound its essence to the twisted forest it had created, imprisoning it more surely than Celestia ever had. “Now,” she hissed. “Run.” It bolted into the darkness, vanishing among the trees.
Now she turned her attention to the fallen unicorn, for whom less than a breath had passed. There was a spark of life there, but it was fading. She gathered up all the misused godhead she had stripped from the spirit, filtered through her essence and cast again into a precious dowry. Luna was not a goddess of healing, and this was far beyond her abilities. But while she might not be able to restore Twilight, she could still save her.
Gently, gently, she lifted the unicorn’s body up. Slowly, slowly, she leaned forward. And tenderly, tenderly, she pressed her muzzle against Twilight’s own in a soft kiss. And through that kiss, she breathed divinity.
Twilight walked along a path. She wasn’t sure how she had gotten there, she only knew she had to walk it. It was a pleasant enough path, surrounded by green, but there was something fundamentally right about it too. But ahead of her, standing in the path, was a door. It was a narrow door, standing open invitingly, and she paused momentarily at the threshold before she stepped through.
It shut behind her.
She stood at a fork in the path. One choice led to somewhere incredibly beautiful, bright and shining. The other path was long and winding and the end was impossible to see. But Luna stood there, waiting. Twilight made her choice, turned her back on the bright and shining future, and went to her dark goddess.
The world expanded outward. The seed that had nourished and been nourished by her power for so long grew and bloomed, washing through every fiber of her being, twining with something else flowing into her from the outside to create something new.
Light blazed in the darkness as Twilight’s eyes opened. An intense presence flowed outward from her soul, rendering her whole and more than whole. The unicorn’s mind whirled upward as her body illuminated the clearing, etching it as a chiaroscuro tableau. Then she flew back down into herself, looking into Luna’s eyes as they finally broke the kiss.
“Luna...” Twilight said wonderingly. “What...what has happened?”
“Well, that’s simple,” Luna said, tears standing in her eyes. “You refused to leave me.”
“Of course I did.” The unicorn laughed softly, intoxicated by the power and potential that blazed within her. It was more magic than she had ever handled, and yet it was no effort at all to keep it controlled. She knew with the merest flicker of a whim she could expand her perceptions outward, and even now there was something new about her vision. “But this.” She put a glowing hoof to her chest. “What is this?”
Luna’s expression sobered, and she pulled Twilight against her, resting her muzzle on the unicorn’s head. “You were dying, Twilight,” she said softly. “And nobody - not even I - could stop that. But I could give you a choice.”
Twilight leaned against the alicorn as the scattered fragments of memory returned to her, and she realized exactly what had happened. “There was already a seed of something very like godhood growing within you,” Luna continued, “but you lacked a god’s vast fate. The spirit has misused that,” her voice hardened. “And so I stripped it of that potential, and offered it to you. The possibility of the future. There was one instant, one single instant where your soul could open wide enough to accept the enormity of that gift. And you did. And I am so, so very glad.”
“So you kissed me back to life,” Twilight murmured, tilting her head to look up at the larger pony.
“Well, yes.” Luna said, a light flush coloring her muzzle.
“That isn’t fair,” the unicorn said in quiet voice, suddenly feeling very small despite the surging power she contained as the words tumbled from her mouth. “I didn’t get to enjoy it.”
Luna arched her neck, startled, and then laughed softly. Wordlessly, she lowered her head and pressed her muzzle against Twilight’s once again. The unicorn glowed even brighter that time.
Some while later, Twilight looked at the sky, where the moon still hung, blocking the light. Despite the utter darkness, she could see it clearly, just as she could see Luna’s power tamed and under control, shimmering beneath her skin. Twilight had managed to reduce her own luminosity, but she still flickered like a banked fire. “So you’re...” She gestured upward. “Able to raise the moon again now?”
“Yes, I am whole once more.” Luna inhaled deeply and let it out in a slow breath. “Which means we can go back now. Return to Equestria and...see what may come.”
“Draconia,” Twilight reminded her. “We were supposed to be involved in diplomacy before all this.”
The alicorn let out a breathy little laugh. “I’d forgotten, after all of what’s happened. If there were any doubt that I needed you...” She shook her head. “You could do this now, but I suppose I should demonstrate first. Watch.”
Twilight nodded, loosing her perception a bit, looking out on the layers that made up reality, an infinity of threads woven together to form the visible fundament. A tiny sliver of the power leashed within the alicorn reached out, sliding into the skein between worlds, and a silver glow appeared before them. It brightened as Luna found her way with easy assurance through all the world to the same chamber that had started them on their journey so long ago.
The glow flashed into a silver-rimmed opening as the alicorn connected two points of the skein, and together they walked through. Their hooves went from soft dirt to hard metal, tapping on the reflective surface of the runed room. Twilight could now see the astoundingly complex weave of magic that bound it together, giving it a small portion of the talent that Luna had just demonstrated.
Though her mundane eyes could not see through the stone and silver walls of the mountain, her new senses could, and she realized there was someone waiting for them on the other side of the door. Or rather, several someones, but only one she cared about. “Come on, Luna!” She cantered toward the door with the alicorn close behind, and it swung open without her being aware of doing anything but wishing for it to be so.
A shout came as the two ponies stepped into the immense hall. “Twilight!” A small dragon ran across the stone, leaving three much larger draconic forms behind.
“Spike!” The unicorn exclaimed as the dragonling flung his arms around her neck, and Twilight returned the hug tightly. “I missed you!”
“I was so worried, Twilight! And, uh...why are you glowing?”
The unicorn blinked and looked over at Luna for help. The alicorn chuckled softly and crouched down to be at a level with Spike. “She glows because she is a goddess newly born, and the universe itself echoes with that transfiguration.”
He looked back and forth between them, a baffled look on his face. “You...you’re joking, right?”
“No, she’s not joking,” Twilight said affectionately. “It’s a bit of a long story, but it’s true.”
“So I - then you - should I - “ Spike spluttered in confusion and Twilight laughed and hugged him again. “Oh Spike, don’t worry about it. I’m still Twilight Sparkle.”
“Yes ma’am,” the dragon said gratefully, glad enough to put that confusion aside. Twilight smiled at him and then looked up at the other dragons who had been waiting. Scar had a roiling aura of smoke and fire, she could now see, twisting off and away to elsewhere - to the ouroborus. Lady Embersky and Lord Chasm were nearly as impressive, bright and dark mingled together, two souls bound to each other.
“We had questioned the wisdom, the safety, the propriety of leaving our son in the hooves of a unicorn,” Lady Embersky said, in a voice like a silvered trumpet. “But you have shown that you are worthy.”
“It is not power that we respect,” Lord Chasm rumbled before Twilight could respond to that. “But in returning here, in this way, you have demonstrated the value of your abilities and choices.”
“Besides,” Lady Embersky added in a more whimsical tone, “Spike likes you.”
“Oh, um, thank you.” Twilight bobbed her head to them. She hadn’t been seeking their approval in what she’d done, but she supposed that was part of why she’d earned it. “And I’m rather fond of him, too.” She smiled down at Spike.
“Then we shall leave him in your care. Spike?” The dragonling looked at his mother as she spoke, and reluctantly let go of Twilight to cross over to her. They touched paws, Spike’s green nearly vanishing against the copper scales, and then he repeated the action with his father. There was, Twilight realized, far too much of a size difference for any more affectionate a gesture.
“We will be visiting,” Lord Chasm added, and they both swept out as Spike returned to his place at Twilight’s side. She watched them go with her other senses long after they’d gone out of sight, feeling that, goddess or not, that parting statement was ominous.
“That was...interesting,” Luna observed.
“Yes, it was,” Twilight agreed, then chuckled. “You’d think this whole goddess thing would make parents less intimidating, but it doesn’t.”
“Mothers are more fearsome than any god,” Luna confirmed. “Or,” she added with a frown as Scar made his way over to them, “any king.”
“Oh my,” the dragon murmured. “Have I lost my fearsome aura of invincibility?”
Luna narrowed her eyes at Scar, and her aura roiled briefly. “You,” she accused, “sent us there deliberately.”
“Alas, yes.” Scar sighed theatrically, then turned suddenly serious. “Before you impugn me for that, you might consider where you have ended up. You, whole and restored.” He turned to Twilight. “And you...I must admit this was unexpected.” His eyes danced with amusement as he essayed a bow. “Welcome to a very small club indeed.”
“Ah, thanks.” Twilight still couldn’t tell to what extent the dragon was being honest. “But why did you send us off to the heart of the world? Did you know what would happen?”
“Now for that,” Scar grinned, “I am not the best person to ask. Follow me.” The dragon vanished into smoke again, pouring along the hallway faster than a pony could trot. Twilight frowned briefly after him, then smiled to herself.
“Come on, Spike,” she said, lifting the dragon into place on her back, then she looked at Luna. “I’ll get this one.”
“Be my guest,” the alicorn smiled, stepping closer, and Twilight cast her senses over Scar’s trail, to where he waited at the landing circle outside. Her method of travel was unlike Luna’s threads or Scar’s smoke, as she simply reached out and moved them with a silk-smooth flash of light and the merest flicker of will.
Scar was not surprised to see them appear, merely nodding and looking out at the sunset. The two ponies stepped up next to him and followed his gaze. Twilight was aware of the cold, but she didn’t feel it as a chill she needed protection from. It didn’t seem to bother Luna either, though their breath steamed in the air. “Well?” Twilight prompted.
She was answered by a bright flash in the air, and Princess Celestia appeared out of the setting sun. Like Luna, her godhead was leashed and tightly controlled, but instead of a dark glory hers blazed brilliantly, to the point that Twilight was surprised that it didn’t cast shadows.
“‘Tia!” Luna exclaimed, and ran forward. Twilight followed close behind, and Celestia took each of them under a wing, giving them a hug and an affectionate nuzzle.
“My beloved sister. My most faithful student. I am so glad to see you both. And to see both of you well,” she added, giving Luna a meaningful look. The dark alicorn ducked her head in acknowledgement and Twilight looked up at Celestia.
“So, wait, does this mean you knew what was happening?” The unicorn looked up at her mentor, and Celestia sighed softly.
“Yes, this was all my idea.” The alicorn looked down at her sister. “I had hoped time would heal your wounds, but you had only gotten more isolated. It was even worse after Nightmare Night, because, as you said to me, a once-a-year bogeymare is no fit position for either goddess or princess.”
Celestia shook her head. “No, you had to find your own way back to who you were, and that couldn’t be done by my asking you to, or by staying in Canterlot or even Equestria. There was only one place where you might have the chance at that sort of healing. But I could not send you alone.”
She turned to face Twilight. “And I must apologize to you as well, Twilight Sparkle. I abused the trust you had in me, but I truly believed that you would be the best possible companion for my sister. It was selfish to risk you for my sister’s sake, but I could not repeat those past thousand years again.” The white alicorn looked back and forth between them. “I risked both of you, and while I am grateful to have you both back as individuals, I don’t know if after this I will have you back as friends.”
Twilight had to admit she felt a flash of anger, but only a flash. The honest melancholy in that voice made it clear that Celestia had not wanted to make the gamble she had settled on. “Of course you do, Princess!” She assured her teacher.
“Oh, ‘Tia.” Luna shook her head chidingly at her sister, and then laughed. “You haven’t changed, but as usual you were right. Don’t worry about it.”
“Thank you.” Celestia hugged them again, and then put a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “Now, you.” The unicorn met her eyes and they looked at each other, goddess to goddess. “You must tell me how this happened. I knew you had a very special talent, but this is far and beyond simply talent. Tell me everything that’s happened, from the beginning.”
They poured out their story as the sun sank slowly toward the horizon, and Celestia merely listened without comment. It wasn’t until they reached the incident with the ouroborus that they faltered, and Twilight and Luna looked at each other helplessly. Finally Twilight mumbled, “so Luna and I are...um...together.” She couldn’t bring herself to look up at Celestia.
“You...Luna...!” Spike stammered, and then wobbled and fell off Twilight’s back in a dead faint. She caught him before he hit the ground, grateful for the distraction, and settled him back in place with one of her now-worn blankets.
“I’m so happy for the both of you.” The two of them stared up at Celestia’s words.
“What?” It came as a chorus, and Celestia smiled softly.
“I had hoped that you would find someone, at least to be a friend,” she told Luna softly. “That you have found something more is a blessing. Though you still haven’t gotten to how Twilight became what she is now.”
“Um, right.” Luna quickly filled in the last of the story, blushing furiously as she told her part in Twilight’s transcendence. Celestia, mercifully, managed to keep her expression controlled and attentive throughout.
“Interesting,” she said, not passing any comment on the particular methodology Luna had used to revive Twilight. “I have never heard of anything like this happening before. But there is a first time for everything.”
“So...what kind of goddess am I?” Twilight asked. Celestia treated this as a serious question, and the unicorn could see her bright power flare as the sun goddess studied Twilight with all her senses.
“I’m not certain,” she admitted at least. “Perhaps you are the goddess of magic, or perhaps you are completely unbound. You have plenty of time to figure it out.”
“I suppose I do. Heh.” Twilight shook her head; immortality was too large a concept for her to contemplate yet, and she set it aside. “So...do I just go back to Ponyville then? I mean, with Luna and I...”
“It is up to you what to do. They are your own choices to make, but now that you are a goddess, your breadth of choice is quite a bit wider.”
Twilight turned to look at Luna, and the dark alicorn smiled at her. “I think I would rather live in your tree at Ponyville. Stepping to Canterlot for my royal duties is no longer an issue.”
“True enough,” Twilight giggled. After threading through realities, a mere jaunt from one city to another was hardly a problem at all.
“And now, dear sister...” Celestia nodded to the sky, where the sun was steadily sinking out of sight. “I believe you have something you need to do.”
“Yes,” the alicorn said firmly, stepping out to the edge of the landing area and looking at the opposite horizon. Twilight followed behind, standing behind her as the alicorn lifted her head and took a breath, her horn glowing softly.
The moon came up.
The rest of the sky remained empty, and Luna looked at it for a moment, then turned to the unicorn. “Twilight?” She said in an oddly shy voice. “Would you like to help me put up the stars?”
The smaller pony gently set Spike aside, still swaddled in blankets and stepped up next to Luna. The alicorn put a wing over her, and Twilight cuddled in next to her. “I’d love to.”
This concludes Apotheosis...but don’t miss the Epilogue!
Continued from Apotheosis, Part 3
Twilight grinned fondly as Pinkie sprang from unsubtle ambush the moment the tree door swung open. Even without her new senses telling her who was inside, she would have expected it from the pink pony.
That came from five throats, and the mad stampede of her friends faltered only due to the sight of Luna stepping in behind her. The alicorn smiled and waved a hoof at them. “Don’t mind me. I know you haven’t seen your friend for a while.”
The greetings were more restrained, but no less heartfelt. Twilight exchanged hugs and greetings, feeling an even deeper respect for her friends from the perspective her new godhood granted her. She could see deeper than was really comfortable, and how hard they worked to perform their everyday miracles was humbling even - or especially - to a goddess.
Eventually Rarity bobbed an abbreviated bow to Luna. “We didn’t expect to see you here, Princess. May I ask what brings you by?”
Luna gave the group a winning smile. “I’m moving in.”
There was a half-second of stunned silence before Pinkie Pie began bouncing happily. “Oooh we can have a welcoming party and for royalty! What should a royal party be like? Lots of crowns, that’s what, and Gummy would look great in a crown. I wonder where I can get bulk crowns.”
“Pinkie Pie,” Twilight said with amused exasperation. “Shh.” She let a flicker of power into her voice, and the earth pony looked surprised as her volume was abruptly squelched. Twilight looked around at her friends. “I - or rather, we - have a couple of announcements for you.”
“The first,” Luna said, drawing their attention, “is that Twilight and I -” The alicorn balked from finishing the sentence under the combined gaze of five relative strangers, and the unicorn took up the thread of conversation.
“We’re together. Fillyfriends. Whatever you want to call it. That’s why she’s moving in.” The silence was even more thunderous this time, and Luna spoke into it quietly.
“It’s not a secret, but I’d prefer it not be gossip, either.” The alicorn looked around at them. “A lot happened on that trip, so this isn’t as arbitrary as it may seem. Twilight?”
They’d discussed the best way to reveal the unicorn’s new status. Twilight had no doubt her friends would believe her, but sudden divinity was a difficult pill to swallow, even for them. They had finally decided on the direct approach. The unicorn freed the power and presence within her, and light blazed forth into the room.
It wasn’t silence now. There was a faint singing, humming noise that accompanied the coruscating brilliance radiating from the unicorn. Spike, knowing what to expect, had donned dark glasses. Twilight couldn’t begrudge him that; he was, after all, sitting on her back and closest to the conflagration. She let it blaze for a few seconds, and then pulled her godhead back into place.
“I’m not just a unicorn anymore,” she told them. “Like Luna said...a lot happened. I’m, um, technically a goddess now.” She gave them her best smile, though she saw poor Fluttershy was already terrified. The yellow pegasus clung close to Rainbow Dash, and Twilight’s eyes narrowed in sudden suspicion. The auras of those two were mingled, and Twilight wondered how many secrets were plain under the eyes of a god.
But it wasn’t her business, so Twilight ignored that particular revelation as Applejack spoke up. “So, uh, does this mean we’re supposed to bow now or something?”
“No!” The unicorn shook her head. “No, I still want to be your friend Twilight Sparkle. I know that things are different now, that this isn’t just a talent or a skill. You liked me for who I am, but who I am is not quite the same.” She looked around at the other five ponies.
“Not even Celestia is sure exactly what I am now. Things might be...somewhat strange from now on. I only hope that you can remain my friends, no matter how I’ve changed.”
The silence stretched on. Twilight shared a glance with Luna, knowing that it was this sort of reaction that had isolated the alicorn in the first place, and the other goddess didn’t have the benefit of already having fast friends.
The voice that finally broke the rising tension was soft and uncertain, but all the more significant because of that hesitancy. “You’ve always been a good friend to us, Twilight, no matter what we were like or what we did,” Fluttershy said. “And I don’t see why it should be any different now. Um...right?” She trailed off, looking at the others.
“Right!” Rainbow Dash agreed firmly from her place next to Fluttershy. “There’s no way I’m going to let a little thing like this change our friendship!”
Rarity shook herself, emerging from an open-mouthed reverie with a determined look on her face. “Absolutely, Rainbow Dash. Why, this just means we have another pony in our little circle.” She ducked her head to Luna again.
“I don’t know much about gods or royalty or any of that,” Applejack added. “But I’ve never done wrong by you in the past, and I don’t think I will now, either.”
Twilight looked at Pinkie Pie, not entirely certain what to expect from her oddball friend, but she wasn’t disappointed as the pink pony bounced and beamed hugely. “Wow! Can you do that ‘shh’ thing again? That was awesome! I was all talking like this!”
Twilight let out a relieved breath as her friends crowded in around her and Luna, her heart light within her. “You are all the best friends any pony could ask for,” she told them. “And now...” She waved a hoof at the cake, balloons, and other accouterments that had been forgotten after Luna had stepped through the door. “I think we have a party to get to.”
“Twilight! Luna! Message from Princess Celestia!” The two ponies looked up from where they were collaborating over a mass of papers, to be bound eventually into manuscript form. Twilight had gotten the accounts from Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash and had hopes of putting together the text at the same time she was detailing her own adventure.
Spike waved the bound parchment at them as he finished climbing the stairs. It was unusual for the mail to be addressed to both of them; Twilight’s role as student - now in both magic and divine - and Luna’s role as princess did not often coincide, so it had to be a personal message. “Thank you, Spike,” the unicorn said. “Let’s hear it!”
She could have read it directly without ever taking it from Spike’s claws, of course, but she’d found that she vastly preferred this way. Though she enjoyed being the goddess, she had to leave room for the pony.
“Of course.” Spike unrolled the parchment and cleared his throat. “Dear Luna and Twilight,” he said, emphasizing the missing titles. “I would like to come by this evening to discuss a personal matter with you. This isn’t an official visit - or official request - by any means. At your convenience. Signed, Celestia.”
“Do you know what this is about?” Twilight asked Luna, and the other mare shook her head.
“She didn’t say anything to me,” Luna said thoughtfully. “It must have just come up. I can’t imagine what it could be.”
“All right. Spike, a reply.”
“Yes’m!” The dragon held up readied quill and parchment.
“Dear...Celestia.” Twilight felt extremely strange omitting the title, but if the Princess had decided to be casual, it seemed that she should reply in kind. “Of course you can come by, any time you like. We’ll be waiting.” She looked over at Luna. “Anything to add?”
“If only there were a polite way to say ‘don’t keep us in suspense’ to her,” Luna said dryly. “I think she delights in this sort of thing. No, that sounds fine. Signed, Luna and Twilight.”
“Luna and Twilight,” Spike repeated, the scratch-scratch of the quill sounding before he rolled up the parchment and sent it on its way.
They only had to wait a scant hour before a flash of light, visible to all Twilight’s senses, announced the arrival of the sun goddess. “Celestia!” There was no question of formality in private. The two ponies went to greet the new arrival, exchanging embraces.
“So, what’s this all about, ‘Tia?” Luna asked finally, sitting back and cocking her head at her sister.
“I want to beg a favor,” Celestia said, looking from one to the other.
“Well, of course,” Twilight laughed. “Anything you want. What is it?”
The alicorn didn’t answer immediately. She turned to gaze out the window at the setting sun, looking pensive. “I am tired,” she said at last. “I have spent the last thousand years raising sun and moon and administering to matters of state because there was no pony else to do it. I do not complain; it was my duty.” The last word was said in sharp, ringing tones, as of struck steel.
“But now I can entrust the running of Equestria to you.” She nodded to Luna. “And while Luna may not be able to raise the sun, you can.” The alicorn looked at Twilight. “I want to take a vacation,” she concluded. “But I cannot simply drop those responsibilities onto you, especially if you aren’t ready for it.”
Twilight was astounded. It was difficult to imagine Celestia being susceptible to such a mundane affliction as being tired. But she had no quibble with the alicorn’s desire to take a break; she couldn’t remember a day when the princess hadn’t been busy morning to night, even and especially with the time she’d taken just for Twilight.
“Of course, ‘Tia,” Luna said, her voice gentle as it was only with Twilight and her sister. “I’d be glad to.”
“Yes.” Twilight nodded in agreement. “I’m sure between the two of us we can keep Equestria going for a week or so.”
“Besides,” Luna added, “if there’s any protocol I’ve forgotten, I’m sure Twilight has read about it somewhere.” She gave the unicorn a fond smile, and Twilight giggled.
“And perhaps it is not such a bad idea for the court to see the Princess and Princess-Consort working together,” Celestia mused aloud, drawing a shared, embarrassed look from the other two ponies.
“So, when were you planning on the vacation?” Luna asked.
“It will take at least a week for the machinery to work its way through,” Celestia told them. “In addition to whatever time you need to arrange yourself.”
“A week should be fine,” Twilight answered for both of them. She thought that would be enough time to square away things with her friends - though she suspected some, if not all of them would seize the excuse for an extended outing to Canterlot themselves.
“You already have it set up, don’t you?” Luna asked, half amused, and Celestia grinned like a foal caught with her hoof in the cookie jar.
“So, where exactly are you planning to go for vacation?” Twilight was glad to see Celestia back in a less serious mood. “I mean, it’s got to be special, right?”
The goddess smiled mysteriously. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll think of something.”
And this really, truly concludes Apotheosis. Thank you for reading! If you’ve want to leave a comment or otherwise get in touch with me, feel free to send something to [email protected], or use the EqD comment page :)