She was at the train station the next morning, earlier than was necessary. One by one her friends arrived to see her off. Twilight was in a dark mood. Surveying their earnest faces as they wished her success, she felt...
She felt isolated.
Yes, that was it. As if the whitest and most well intentioned of lies had cast her out of the circle of friendship.
She pushed the silly thought away and put on a smile. Really, it wasn't a big deal, she told herself as they crowded round; it was just for a few days.
'Got yer some apples.' Applejack passed over a saddlebag bulging with scarlet fruit. 'I ain't sayin' that there Canterlot cuisine isn't fine in its own way. But sometimes you just get a hankerin' for plain old fashioned fare.'
'I got nothing but an awesome bro-hoof!' Rainbow Dash advanced, foreleg in the ready position.
'Ow.' Twilight waggled her traumatised limb. 'Rainbow, that bordered on the painful.'
'I brought you this, darling.' Rarity arranged a travelling cloak around Twilight's withers. 'Hm...' the white fashonista stepped back with an assessing frown. 'Is that really you? I could add some frills... maybe some brocade work...'
'Rarity, it's fine. It fits me like... well, like new horseshoes.'
'As well it might.' Rarity's answering was self-satisfied. 'I have everyone's measurements committed to memory.'
Pinkie Pie appeared in front of Twilight, bouncing up and down on legs which seemed elasticated. Pinkie's grin widened.
Twilight's off to Canterlot
To do some stud-y-ing
'Cos she will never be content
'Till she knows ev-ry-thing!
Confetti exploded in the air above Twilight's head. Pinkie produced a party horn and blew a long, piercing note.
Twilight shuffled her hooves. 'Thanks, Pinkie. You, um... you're absolutely sure you're not mad about the party?'
Pinkie gave her a look of perfect guileless bewilderment. 'Why, what happened at the party?'
'Pinkie, you are spoiling my attempts to apologise.'
'Apologise for what?'
Spike gave Twilight a rueful look. 'I wish you'd let me come with you, Twi. Who's going to keep you supplied with ink and scrolls and quills and tea and remind you to take a break...' he ticked the points off on clawed fingers.
'Spike, we discussed this at some length. I need somepony in charge of the library. Someone I can trust. Who better than my number one assistant.' Not to mention, she didn't want him finding out what she was up to. He swelled with pride, as she had known he would. Her conscience squirmed.
'Um,' said Fluttershy. 'Twilight, is everything OK?'
'But of course!' Twilight gave them all a gleaming, brittle smile. 'Why shouldn't it be? I'm just off to Canterlot to do some research for entirely innocent purposes. Nothing sinister about that at all. Nuh-uh. Oh my gosh, look at the time. Got to rush, girls.' She galloped off up the platform, leaving the others staring at each other.
Applejack frowned. 'Now what the hay was that all about?'
Spike shrugged and circled a finger near his temple.
The train got underway. Twilight's mood lightened. There was something about travelling which always lifted her spirits. Maybe it was the anticipation of new things even if, in this case, it was the well-known sights of Canterlot made unfamiliar through absence.
The engine puffed away up front. Equestria's green and pleasant fields raced past. Twilight gazed out of the window and dreamed. Off to Canterlot, once more! Off to wander at will in the Royal Archive. To poke through dusty old books in pursuit of ancient mysteries. To see Celestia again. To deceive her mentor and benefactor.
Twilight's mood spiralled downwards like a pegasus with a gammy wing. She huddled on her bench seat as darkness seeped in the corners of the carriage. Why did she have to be this way – ever at the mercy of her own thoughts? Why did she have to make such a big deal out of things?
It would have been nice to be calm and steady like Applejack. Or pathologically self-confident like Rainbow Dash. Or clinically insane like Pinkie Pie. But no – poor Twilight had to suffer through these mental events. She curled up even more, like a turtle drawing into its shell.
The guard came knocking at the carriage door. Get it together – she had to get it together. Hand over the ticket and act normal. Don't let him suspect anything! He punched her ticket and went away, and she was left alone with her thoughts.
The train pulled into Canterlot Main Station and she was able to occupy herself with the mechanical business of getting her luggage together. Fully laden, she trudged up the familiar road which led to the castle. The white ramparts, the sparkling fountains in the emerald lawns, the flags waving in the golden afternoon towered above her but she was in no state to appreciate any of it.
The castle guards let her through with a nod and a familiar word. Once more she stood within the walls of the supreme palace in all Equestria. She stood quite alone, shuffling her hooves in the cool expanse of the entrance hall. There was unpacking and settling in to do but she postponed them. Inside her was a need, almost a compulsion, to get to work.
She took the well remembered route via back ways and service corridors. Polished marble gave way to plain dressed granite. Crystal lamps were supplanted by iron lanterns. Twilight Sparkle turned the final corner and walked through a simple stone archway.
Words surrounded her.
There were books on every side of her. They were shoved into shelves, stacked in teetering piles, clinging to revolving stands. And beyond them were more and yet more shelves, stretching away into cool dusty silence.
The Royal Archive! Historian's heaven, researcher's playground. What could one say? It was... unique. The best and most complete historical source anywhere in Equestria. Twilight walked forwards. Her clopping hooves barely disturbed the hush. Slanting sunbeams from small high windows crossed her path. Part of the archive's charm lay in the way everything was mixed up together. No less than three separate classification systems had been imposed over the centuries. Needless to say they disagreed with each other. It made finding anything a chore. But if you went looking for a book you were sure to find another even more interesting. And as everypony knew, serendipity was the researcher's best friend.
Twilight snagged a volume off a shelf. It was the dimensions of a brick and almost as stiff. Greedily she scanned the crinkly pages. A receipt book from the mid 14th century. How amazing, to glimpse the lives of pony folk from so long ago.
But Twilight was here on business, not pleasure. With regret she replaced the volume on the shelf. The first thing to do was establish a study plan. And that depended on Luna getting her into the forbidden section...
'Twilight Sparkle,' said a voice behind her.
Twilight uttered a small scream and turned round. She gazed up at the white-gold presence towering over her.
'My apologies.' Princess Celestia lowered her head so that her magenta gaze was level with Twilight's. 'I never meant to startle my favourite student.'
'Not at all! It was my fault for, er, not anticipating you'd appear out of nowhere.' Twilight offered a nervous grin.
Celestia cocked her head, interested-like. 'You are doing some research for Luna, or so I understand.'
Alarm bells rang in Twilight's brain. Keep calm now. Just repeat the cover story you arranged with Luna. 'It's... er... historical. Luna wants to catch up with everything that happened while she was away. She asked me to prepare a historical précis. Here, I can show you if you're interested...' she fumbled with her saddlebags, trying to drag out the plan she'd prepared and making a complete mess of it.
Spare nibs and envelopes spilled over the floor. Celestia didn't appear to notice. 'I was expecting you to come see me when you arrived.'
'Just eager to get started, I guess.'
'Twilight Sparkle, what have I told you about spending time away from books?'
Twilight's smile grew sickly. 'Yes. Erm. Sorry?'
'Is something wrong?'
Celestia was close now. So close that Twilight could feel the warmth of her and hear the tiniest whispering sounds of her floating mane. All at once she remembered; as a filly, leaning against Celestia's side, feeling safe and warm and loved, knowing nothing in the world could hurt her.
Tell her, tell her, tell her everything.
And yet, a voice in the night was crying and lost and alone and she'd promised. 'No.' Twilight looked away. 'Nothing's wrong.'
The warmth withdrew as the Princess raised her head. She nodded, apparently satisfied. Then she wandered away amongst the stacks. Twilight's gaze followed the royal flank as it gracefully paced along the shelves, shedding its subtle light, the reflected radiance of the imperishable sun. From where Twilight was standing she had an uninterrupted view of the imperial buttocks, adorned with the shining disks of the solar cutie mark.
Celestia paused with a considering look. 'Time was, I had read every volume here. And I knew where they all were. Nowadays, of course...' she let the sentence trail off.
Her mentor was in a rare confessional mood. Twilight was conscious only of the desire to keep her talking. But what about? Books... that was safe ground. 'Do you... have any favourites?'
'I like receipt books.'
Twilight's jaw dropped.
Celestia looked over her shoulder. 'You look surprised.'
Surprise didn't cover it. Mortified paranoia was more accurate. Why had Celestia said that? Was she a mind reader? Or perhaps she had been here all along... watching... observing her student...
'Well you shouldn't be.' The mildest of frowns appeared on the royal forehead. 'Receipt books remind me of times gone by. They reconnect me with the ponies I used to know.'
Twilight was more confused than ever. This was like being in a maze deep underground, groping along with failing magic. In desperation she searched her paltry stock of conversational gambits. 'Was there... anypony special?' Twilight winced. What an absolutely stupid thing to say.
'They were all special to me, Twilight Sparkle.' A typically Celestian answer; and a signal that confession time was over. Twilight hung her head.
Celestia raised an eyebrow. 'You yourself love books.'
On safe ground, once more. Twilight nodded, a little too emphatically. 'Oh, yes. I really, really do. Love books, that is.'
'I wonder if you love them as much as you think you do. Let me see, now.' The Princess closed her eyes and swept her horn back and forth in a searching manner. 'It should be around here if I recall correctly, and I invariably do. Ah, yes. Here we are.' The tip of Celestia's horn glowed. There was a low rumbling and a patter of displaced grit. Before Twilight's astonished gaze, two sections of bookshelves slid slowly apart. A small alcove was revealed behind them. Resting in the alcove...
Twilight Sparkle voiced a Fluttershy-like squeak of dismay. Because resting in the alcove was the mummified corpse of a unicorn. It had been placed upright, braced on withered forelimbs, so that Twilight had an unwilling view of the desiccated face. The eyes had long since shrivelled and fallen in, so that nightmarish pits of blackness seemed to stare at her. The lips had dried and shrunk, revealing bared and brownish buck teeth. A robe of some kind had been draped over the deceased forequarters, now devoured by time, so that it resembled rotted corpse-rags.
A musty smell entered her nostrils. She took a step backwards.
Celestia however was gazing at the repellent object with the fondest of smiles. 'Dear old Ivory Towers. He loved the archive so much he desired his mortal remains be interred within it. A request I saw no reason to deny. What do you think of that?'
I think I want you to close it up, thought Twilight. Even though it was just an old dead body and could hurt no-one.
'I call it a real love of books.' Celestia nodded in obscure satisfaction.
'What's it like,' blurted Twilight.
Celestia gave her a sharp look. 'What is what like?'
Twilight squirmed under the royal gaze. 'You know. Living forever.'
'I have not, and I will not, live forever.'
'That wasn't what I meant.'
'Then what was?'
Twilight stood rooted to the ground, lost for words as the Princess turned the full force of her stare on her. 'To live a thousand years, Twilight Sparkle? Was that your question? To endure the passage of the decades and the centuries, to see the future stretching away into an endless waste of grey nothing?' Celestia's voice had grown cold and distant. Twilight felt an icy fist grip her heart. With a might effort she tore her gaze away and dropped her head, touching her horn to the floor in supplication.
'Please forgive me. I didn't mean any harm.'
'Twilight, look at me.' The command was soft as it was irresistible. 'I might feel that way – if I was merely very, very old. But I am not. My sister and I – we are immortal. We walk in eternity. Time can never touch us. A single instant or a thousand years, they are one and the same to us. Do you know what keeps us tied to the cycles of the world?'
Twilight shook her head dumbly.
'It is you, Twilight Sparkle.'
Twilight's lower lip trembled but no words came out.
'You, and others like you. You mortal ponies have your brief moments on the stage of the world. You receive the plaudits or the derision of the audience and then time swallows you up. And yet, you burn so fiercely, with such a constant light.' Celestia smiled and it was like she was raising the sun for a perfect day. 'You are amazing- indomitable. And that is why I cherish all of you. Each and everypony.' Celestia nudged her pearly muzzle against Twilight's own. The royal scent, akin to fresh baked bread, washed over her and Twilight felt a hot shivery flush go right through her.
'Now... you have work to do, I believe.' The Sun Princess turned and trotted away, tail swishing behind her as if absolutely nothing had happened. Twilight followed, or attempted, on legs which felt like jelly.
Celestia paused at the archway. 'Come see me before you leave.' And just like that, she was gone. Twilight tottered towards the nearest chair, missed and settled for the floor. Her tongue hung out as she panted lungfuls of dusty air.
She did it to me again. She's just so... overwhelming.
Princess Luna emerged from the shadows.
Twilight leaped to her feet. 'Luna! How long have you been there?'
'Long enough.' Luna reared up and rubbed her hooves together in glee. 'Twilight, we've done it. We've got away with it!'
'I can't do this.' The words burst from Twilight's very heart. 'I can't go on lying to her. I'm sorry, Luna.' She paced in a tight, anguished circle. 'I'll tell her everything. Yes, that's what I'll do.' She raised her pleading gaze to Luna. 'I have no choice.'
'No-one's forcing you to do anything.' At that moment the Princess of the Moon seemed very lost and alone. But it was the way she sounded which gave Twilight pause; defeated, and friendless.
She sighed and hung her head. 'Forget I just said that. Let's just get this over and done with, shall we?'
'You mean you won't tell?'
'I won't tell.' I made a promise.
'Thank you, Twilight.' Luna, restored to full dignity, nodded. 'This means so much to me. You just might be the saving of me.'
'Regard the patterns on the floor.' Luna's voice spoke close to Twilight's ear.
'What, the little suns?'
'The little suns. Just so. Observe how they they repeat.' Twilight looked. The stylised solar emblems on the floor had probably once been a vibrant shade of terracotta but time had long since worn them to a muted russet.
There was something odd about them. Something about their spacing. It appeared regular yet at the same time it clearly wasn't. Twilight frowned.
'Walk forwards the distance of three suns. Then stop and make a quarter turn to the right. Walk forwards again...' guided by Luna's instructions she wended her way across the archive floor until the Princess told her to stop and look up.
She was somewhere else.
It was a dingy grotto, almost a cave for books. The cramped main chamber, shaped like an igloo, had smaller nooks and corners leading off it. Crazy time-worn old books were piled everywhere. Twilight looked behind her. She could see, through the door of the igloo, as it were, the hushed expanse of the main archive.
Luna appeared beside her. 'Invisible and inaccessible – unless you walk the path. All thanks to a subtle spell of misdirection – the kind of thing the ancients delighted in. what do you think?'
Twilight's eyes, as they peered shiftily about, perceived great numbers of a particular kind of book. A kind she as a librarian knew well. Her heart sank.
Luna was watching her closely. 'Is there something wrong?'
'Look at these, Luna.' Twilight waved a hoof. 'That one right there has fake bat wings stuck on it. That one is decorated in pony skulls. And this one down here... was it really necessary to stick glass eyes on a book?'
'I'm sorry. I don't understand what you're saying.'
'I'm saying we're likely to find that most of these are... well...' Twilight wobbled her head from side to side. 'Fakey-wakey,' as Pinkie might say. Maybe this was Ivory Tower's idea of a joke.'
Luna looked hurt. 'When I first came here, this place had power.'
'That was a thousand years ago, minimum. A lot can happen to an archive over the centuries.'
Luna was silent.
'Might as well get started.' Twilight shuffled forwards, trying not to trample on the odd loose page adrift on the floor.
'You don't think much of this place, do you,' said Luna in a flat voice.
Totally failing to pick up on the change in the Princess's tone, Twilight pulled out a plain looking volume. Dust puffed everywhere as she levered the heavy covers open. 'I'm not hopeful, to be honest.'
'There is no point to this, then.'
'I wouldn't go that far. Oh, what's this?' Twilight scanned the ancient pages, scrawled all over with cramped minuscules and spidery diagrams. After a while she realised that Luna had said something. 'I'm sorry, what was that?'
The Princess was watching her with an earnest expression. 'I said, do you need any help?'
'Luna, you are not even supposed to be in here.'
'I know that. I just thought... maybe...'
Twilight was about to say no thank you, I work best alone, when she stopped and thought about it. Luna was a powerful spellcaster in her own right – more powerful than Twilight herself. And she could do things no mere unicorn ever could. 'Thank you – I may well take you up on that offer.' Luna's expression softened. 'But in the meantime I need to work out what we have here. And that means...'
'That means you would prefer to be left on your own. Well and good.' Luna stepped backwards and disappeared.
That night Twilight retired to her former tower room. She sat at her old desk, scratching away in her commonplace book.
Achievements to date. Twilight wrote in a cipher of her own devising. Identification of various issues concerning manipulation & control of Element of Darkness. Much hearsay amongst middle period sages. Woolly thinking and supposition. Twilight frowned and underlined the last four words.
Suggestion in the writing of Mirage the Mystic that the Dark (hereafter understood as the Infection or Possessing Force which transformed PL into NM) is cyclical in nature. Fated to return to trouble the lives of ponykind. Twilight shivered and put the pen down. She glanced around the room which had been her home for so long. How unfamiliar it seemed now. And without Spike around, how empty.
She sighed, focussed her fatigued eyes on the page and wrote again: lesson for today: home is not a place, it's people. She frowned and crossed that last part out. Her mind was wandering. She had intended to outline a programme for tomorrow's day of study but clearly it was time to call it a night.
She blew the candle out, climbed into the no longer entirely familiar bed and waited. Almost immediately it came to her; the voice. You shielded me from her. Thank you, Twilight Sparkle.
Twilight sat bolt upright. 'All right. I've had just about enough of this. Who are you? And why are you speaking in my voice?'
I can't tell you. You'd hate me.
'Well you'd better. Because I'll go to Celestia. Believe me, I will.'
So. The word was a soft hiss of insinuation. Twilight Sparkle, you wish me to be revealed. I will need a portion of your power.
'Nuh-uh, don't think so,' said Twilight in a brittle sing-song.
Then you will never know. Are you not the least intrigued? Does your curiosity bump not itch?
'I'll find out about you in a book. Yep.' She nodded emphatically.
No book can contain what I am.
'Maybe not. But I'm not about to give any of my power to something I don't even know the name of.'
Then forever wonder.
'Fine.' Twilight hunched on the bed, scowling thunderously. Silence ensued. She glanced around the room. 'Hello?'
There was no answer.
'All right! All right. I'm doing it. Just the tiniest little bit, mind you. What do you want me to do?'
Merely manifest your magic. The tiniest little bit.
'All right, then. Here goes.' Twilight concentrated. The tip of her horn glowed. 'How was that?' There was no reply. 'Excuse me? Hello?' Silence answered her. 'Oh... what a frost.' She kicked the headboard, hard. 'I don't believe this.'
The next morning Twilight awoke from uneasy dreams. She rolled over to glance at the clock. The hands stood at 10:30.
She stared in disbelief. That simply wasn't possible. She always woke at 8 on the dot without even needing an alarm. She rolled out of bed, landing on the floor in a heap. Half the morning gone, already! Whole hours of study time, lost forever. She bolted her breakfast, hardly tasting the exquisite castle food, and headed out.
An air of oppression hung over the castle. The sunlight peering through the high windows seemed harsh and blinding. The shadows were dark and dense. As she trotted through the marble corridors commonplace sounds made her jump. Why did she feel so tired, why was her head filled with cobwebs and lint? Why was there a raw, sore feeling in her eyes?
Luna was already in the archive, horn pulsing gently as she leaved through a tome on magical theory. Her glance flicked disinterestedly over the pages. Clearly she was only pretending to read.
'Twilight, I was beginning to think you would never show.'
Twilight stopped dead. A black knot of annoyance tightened in her chest.
'Hmmm?' Luna looked up. Her sapphire glance was clear and lucid. 'Did you say something?'
'No... I didn't say anything.' Twilight offered an insincere smile. 'Let's get started, shall we?' Though why would she say that? Why we? Luna wasn't doing any of the work.
She trotted over to the bookstand where Concordance of the Sages was open at page 1005. It was her intention to cross reference the information in this invaluable tome with the illicit notes she'd taken yesterday.
She started to read, her muzzle close to the paper. Words, words, words had ever been her refuge in times of trouble. The crabbed old script slanted across the page. For some reason, today it was so hard to concentrate. Twilight let out a jaw-cracking yawn.
Luna looked up. 'A late night last night?'
'Something like that.' Twilight went back to reading, but the words weren't forming sentences she could understand. Her eyelids drooped...
She jerked upright with a start. Luna was staring at her with a lost, hurt expression.
'What's the matter, Luna? Did I do something wrong?'
'No... no.' Luna shook her head. 'It's only right that you be told. What you have to realise about my sister is...'
Your sister, thought Twilight. Woah there, what did I say?
'She does whatever is necessary to preserve the safety of the realm, no matter the cost. To her, or anyone else around her.'
But the Princess of the Moon was not listening. 'You know sometimes when you try to talk to someone, and you just can't?'
Not really, no, thought Twilight.
'You know sometimes when you try to say something and it just comes out all wrong?'
Can't say I do, thought Twilight.
'She... she sent me to the Moon.' Luna took a great shuddering breath. 'I know why she did it but even so... her little sister...' She whirled around and fled the archive. Beyond the arch her footfalls broke into a canter.