Soft hoofsteps echoed down the magnificent hall. Sunlight, almost painfully bright, streamed into the stained glass windows and through the topaz riddled ceiling. Celestia walked on his right, her face placid and her gaze set straight ahead. Luna, whose presence he could now feel acutely, did the same on his other side. Neither spoke, his breathing wheezed through his ears. Do immortals need to breathe? All he could hear was the soft click of their hooves on the mosaic floor.
What just happened back there? The Princesses told him that there would be a presentation to the High Court, not a ceremony. Then again, they never said what that presentation would entail. He flicked his tail, small shivers running down his back. His skin felt too tight, like a woolen sweater had dried on him after being soaked in cold water. The small tingles and resulting goosebumps reminded him of the sensations he felt right after being transmogrified into a pony. Everything was too sharp, too clear. He could feel the magic that emanated from the alicorns next to him again, like a soft breeze.
“It was not what you expected,” Luna stated, her face grim and her voice flat as they reached the end of the hall. “You feel we have taken advantage of you, even tricked you.” The trio turned him down another hall, one of its sides a colonnade open to the outside air.
Cereal frowned at the tile floor. What should he say? Oh yes, Princess. I feel like a toy with no choice but to do as you make me. Or should he go against her? Oh no, Princess. I don’t feel that way at all. I’m very happy to be your subject. He was sure they would hear the lie in whatever he tried to say.
“Perhaps,” Celestia mused, “we could explain what you are feeling now.” With an alabaster wing she touched him lightly at the nape of his neck. A shiver ran down his spine once again. “The Onus has been satisfied. You are a part of us now. Do the colors not shine brighter? Can you feel the Spectra?” He lifted his head, turning to glance at his surroundings again.
Maybe that was what he saw. There was more color to everything, as if he spent the previous week living in a washed out version of Equestria. In his tutoring sessions with Twilight, she had mentioned the role Spectra played in magic. It was like a huge river; Spectra was the water and the leylines were the banks and bed. The breeze that he felt--and yet did not--was that the flow of Spectra?
“You feel tight, compressed, like your skin is too small for you. Don’t worry, the sensation will pass soon. This is caused by the bond we created.” Celestia again furled her wing. “You are tied more strongly to Equestria now than any pony has been for a very, very long time.” She smiled down at him.
He could feel in that smile undertones of maternal warmth combined with a sense of great age. The more he listened to her, the younger and more insignificant he felt. How could she know so much about him? Did this bond allow them to hear his thoughts?
“No, I cannot read your mind, Cereal,” she laughed, a delicate chime.
He jumped at her comment, hearing his own thoughts spoken aloud.
Luna chuckled. “What my sister should say is that we have not gained insight into what you think. We have been given special gifts as rulers of this land. Celestia has the gift of Clairvoyance and I hold the gift of Discernment.”
“Together, we can determine what is best for the many who rely on us to guide them,” Celestia said, almost as if she were completing Luna’s thought. “We cannot see the future, such a thing is not possible. But we can feel the currents of time around us and so we can make more informed decisions.”
“We felt the need to test you, Cereal Velocity.” Luna lowered her head to look into his eyes. “To measure the depth of your commitment. The ceremony we performed is ancient and requires that the one to undertake it be unaware of its existence. Even in the face of the unknown, you persevered. You showed to us your true character. Yours is a noble soul; one that would brave untold consequences to help his friends. And see how you have been rewarded.” A midnight wing brushed against his flank.
He looked back. He stopped. He stared. His cutie mark had changed. Instead of the horseshoe on its side, one end longer than the other, it was standing on the bend. Inside the horseshoe were five stars, another three hanging above as if they were about to fall in. “That’s not my cutie mark,” he breathed.
Celestia chuckled. “Nopony knows their destiny, Cereal. A cutie mark is tied who a pony is and what they could be, but you have not yet discovered who you are.”
Cereal shook his head then tried to get a closer look at it, turning in a circle as he did so. “This... this isn’t my cutie mark. I had one before. It was there, I saw it...”
Luna stopped his circle-turning with a hoof on his shoulder. He looked up at her to find her brow furrowed and her eyes studying him. “We could see no mark, Cereal. You, and the rest of your followers that we have seen are blank as newborn foals.” Celestia inhaled sharply, turning to the west, the direction they had come from. “What is it, sister?” Luna took her hoof from his shoulder and stepped toward Celestia.
Celestia gave a slight shake of her head and a flutter of her wings. “Time grows short. We must go to the Vaults.”
Luna raised an eyebrow at her. “But I thought the Archives would be sufficient to--”
“No,” Celestia whispered with another shake of her head. “We don’t have the time now. He needs to see.”
“We have not been to the Vaults in over a thousand years, sister.” Luna balked at the idea, lowering her head with a muelish expression.
“Too long. We should have entered them the day you returned. There is too much we don’t remember, too much has been lost.” Celestia drew herself up, the open and maternal Celestia melting into Celestia the Ruler.
“But...” Luna’s gaze flicked to Cereal, standing dumbfounded in the middle of the hall. “But he is not ready. He has only just experienced a Bonding, there is no telling what more exposure to--”
“He will be fine, Luna.” Celestia heaved a weary sigh. “I should have insisted on this sooner. I refrained only because I knew what reliving the past would do to you. But now... now we cannot delay for our comfort. He needs to see and we need to remember.”
Luna’s ears drooped as she realized there was no getting around the situation. Cereal glanced down the hallway, following Celestia’s gaze. There was nothing to see but more brilliant stone and ethereal light. Shadows moved down the halls, dappled and blue. With a furrowed brow he looked to the colonnade, dark storm clouds billowed to the east and overhead. They roiled and writhed, lightning flashing within and around them as they grew. A sinking dread filled him as he watched the clouds. More lightning flashed but not a single rumble of thunder reached his ears.
Celestia didn’t seem to register Luna’s apparent determination to resist her for she turned abruptly back to the hall and began trotting towards a smaller alcove. Luna pursed her lips as she watched the white alicorn. Finally she closed her eyes, muttering something unintelligible but fervent as she started to follow. Cereal had no choice but to trail after the dark princess, the eerie thunderless lightning freezing tiny scenes of the hall in white light.
The alcove led them to a smaller hall that ran deeper into the mountain on which the castle perched. Sconces of white flame lit the corridor as well as daylight. Carvings adorned the walls of smooth grey stone, some depicting abstract knots others of various plant life in relief. There was no discernible pattern to the carvings but they flowed effortlessly from one to the other. Several other corridors intersected at regular intervals. Celestia took them down several turns, following some well-practiced path. After the first few turns down identical hallways, Cereal was thoroughly lost. There were no windows and few distinguishing characteristics to the corridors, he would never be able to get out on his own.
The halls began to change; they became more plain with fewer carvings on the walls. The sconces ceased to be polished silver and devolved into dark wrought iron. The floors, once of marble tile, were now of natural stone. It had the feeling of abandonment, an emptiness gained over years. The air became stale the deeper they walked into the mountain; the musty scent of ancient dust kicked up by their hoofsteps.
Cereal glanced behind to find that the floor slanted downward by looking at the sconces on the wall. He turned back just in time to stop behind Luna. They had reached a circular chamber deep beneath the mountain. Great cauldrons on pedestals of onyx roared with red and green flame around the perimeter of the chamber and at the columns of a huge archway directly across from them. Celestia beckoned to him at the center of the chamber with a hoof and a raised wing.
“The Vaults,” she said as he and Luna joined her, “are just beyond this arch.” Her voice echoed softly in the massive chamber, setting off whispers that danced around his ears. “This is a special place where the leylines of Harmony’s flow converge and then branch again.”
Luna stood next to her sister, staring apprehensively at the arch and its imposing columns. “Immortality is not without its own curses and blessings.” Curses and blessings... curses and blessings, the chamber whsipered back.
“We have witnessed creation’s dawn and will likely live to see its doom.” See its doom... see its doom, the chamber parodied Celestia’s words with a dark reverberation.
“We could remember everything,” Luna breathed, “every moment, every hour... Time is a terrible burden to carry.” Burden to carry... burden to carry.
“The Vaults were built to house our memories. With the ability to forget afforded us, we could better understand mortality. But we always had the means to remember the lessons learned.” The lessons learned... the lessons learned.
“Cereal Velocity,” Luna called his attention to her, concern filling her eyes. “You may not understand everything you are about to see, but remember, they are only memories and cannot harm you.” Cannot harm you... cannot harm you.
Cereal looked again at the archway, it was filled with solid stone. There was no other way out of that chamber but the way they had come. They spoke of the Vaults as if there were somewhere yet to go. The whole situation made him uneasy. Anything that made a goddess balk would definitely turn him aside. Both alicorns stood before the arch, eyes closed. The atmosphere of the chamber became heavy, the fire of the iron cauldrons dampened and the walls of the chamber shimmered like obsidian. Cereal took a step back, the mood of the room infecting him with an urge to flee. Darkness enveloped the chamber with the sound of ripping cloth until all he could see was himself and the princesses. Together they stood in an endless void.
He blinked in the inky blackness. His breath passed silently into the void. “Where are we?” he asked, his voice sounded hollow, close, as if they stood in a tiny room.
“The beginning,” Celestia answered.
Sore. Cereal had never really understood that word. Until now. Everything hurt; he could even feel his hooves throb in time with his rapidly beating heart. He had no idea how long it had been since they entered that chamber with its dark cauldrons and whispering walls. It felt like an eternity. Images raced through his mind, burning like hot razors, cutting at him. Four alicorns at sunrise, standing around a burning tree. A land in turmoil, a hideous figure silhouetted by the light of both sun and moon. A shimmering sea, beautiful and endless, swallowing a single white ship. A pall of bitter shadows falling on a city of alabaster and gold. A tree whose branches were also its roots, reaching across an expanding gulf to a tree with red leaves stricken with sickness. A tattered gathering of men and women, kneeling to Celestia and showering Luna with roses.
Cereal fought down the urge to retch as the images coursed before him. Disjointed thoughts and feelings followed in the wake of each vision as he caught glimpses of a white room. He blinked. White? He blinked again. The visions faded and he saw, in detail, his new surroundings. He leaned against a smooth wall of grey veined marble. An archway of dark columns and blue-tinted stone had its feet on the wall beside him and stretched across the room to the other wall. He looked up at the rounded ceiling, perplexed, then down at the floor. Only, there was no floor. Luna sat on the wall below him, unnaturally sticking straight out into the space below his hooves. He looked up again, panic squeezing his chest, to find Celestia standing on the wall above him in total defiance of all physics.
She smiled... down, at him as if nothing were wrong. “A pleasure to have you with us again, Cereal.” She walked in between him and the archway.
Somehow, seeing her move sent the world into a violent lurch, threatening to make him sick. He wasn’t leaning against a wall; rather he lay on the smooth floor of the white chamber. His head felt like an anvil attached to his neck. His legs were rods of lead. He watched Celestia go to Luna who sat still staring at the archway, tears streaming down her face. Celestia wrapped a silent wing around her sister.
“How…” Luna whispered. “How couldst thou love me, Celestia?”
“Thou art my sister, Luna. I forgave thee long ago. Canst thou not forgive thyself?” Celestia’s words were soft but reverberated through the chamber with a core of iron.
Cereal felt like an intruder, if he could have he would have shut his ears and closed his eyes but the scene before him was enthralling. There he lay, vestiges of memories spanning thousands of years swirling in his head, and two beings as close to perfection as he could imagine wept.
“I know not if I can. I have done such terrible deeds; caused so much anguish… my guilt is a millstone around my neck.” Not once did Luna blink. She stared as if seeing the events play out before her.
Cereal could vaguely recall those events, from what he saw in the Vault. It was like remembering a dream, or nightmare. Armies, resplendent in armor and beneath grand banners, clashed in battle at the foot of the mountain. Canterlot burned on its lofty perch. He couldn’t fathom a scene so alien to what he imagined of this world. A conflict so terrible as war, caused by the rift that had grown between the two goddess sisters, seemed impossible to believe.
“Nightmare Moon was not my sister. What she did against me she did also against you.” Celestia dried some of Luna’s tears with a foreleg.
Luna blinked and focused on her sister, new tears welling up in her eyes. “But I remember! I did those things, I destroyed so much and for what... For what?!” She stomped a hoof into the marble floor. The impact shook the chamber like a drum. “Canst thou not see? I allowed myself to be the very thing we were sent to destroy. I succumbed to the seductive song of power, just as Mudan did. Then all of Equestria paid for the folly of my pride. The blood of countless innocents staineth my hooves, not those of Nightmare Moon.” Luna dropped her gaze, unable to look into her sister’s eyes. “A dark princess I am indeed.”
Cereal attempted to rise, fighting valiantly against the hold gravity had on him. He managed to get a couple hooves under himself before his shaky legs dumped him again on the smooth floor. At the sound of his struggling, Luna seemed to regain some of her composure. She wiped at the tiny beads of tears on her face with a foreleg.
“We--I, am sorry you had to see that, Cereal Velocity.” She sniffled slightly, taking a shaky breath. Cereal could hear a marked difference in her voice, like it was somehow muted slightly. “Let me help you up.” An azure aura sprang to life around her horn as she summoned magic to levitate him from the floor. She gently brought him over to where she and Celestia sat, setting his hooves on the ground. As soon as the spell disappeared, he sat down with a thump.
Cereal smiled sheepishly at them. His weak smile died quickly as a final tear rolled down Luna’s face to join other drops on the marble floor. “Princess Luna,” he stood up on wobbly legs, “I’m sorry those things happened.” What was he trying to do? Console a goddess? He stubbornly pushed through those questions. “Earth seems like it’s always at war, somewhere. In my lifetime, I’ve seen several wars, even lost friends to it... but I try not to linger on what I’ve lost.” He felt like a fool. “I-I wish I could help.” What could he possibly say? He didn’t march thousands of ponies to their doom in battle. He didn’t raze Canterlot to the ground. He didn’t spend a thousand years exiled and alone in the cold darkness of the moon.
He felt his cheeks get hot as he listened to his own words. His childish attempt at lifting Luna’s spirits barely had the opportunity to echo softly away before he was swept up into a warm embrace. Luna enveloped him with her midnight wings, holding him close with her forelegs. He dared not breathe, he felt like his eyes were bulging from his skull.
“Oh my little pony,” she laughed, “you have already done much to help me.” She released him from her spellbinding hug and smiled at him.
Cereal was only slightly hyperventilating. “H-how did I h-h-help, Princess?” he huffed.
“You have given me a chance, you and the Bronies, to redeem myself, to satisfy the debt I incurred to Harmony.” She lifted a hoof and placed it over her heart.
Celestia shook her head. “Luna, I thought I had explained this to you. When I used the Elements of Harmony to banish Nightmare Moon, those thousand years were the payment for the destruction caused. The Onus does not hold you, sister.”
Luna lowered her hoof. “But those years exacted their price from you as well, Celestia. Once again, another pays the price for my mistake.” She gave her sister a quick nuzzle. “I feel that I must do this. For you, for them and for myself.”
Celestia smirked slightly, “Heh, there is such a thing as excessive piety.”
Luna huffed in mock affront. “This has nothing to do with piety, sister. It is a point of honor.”
Celestia ruffled Luna’s mane with a wing. “Well, I suppose one cannot be too honorable can she?”
Cereal couldn’t take it anymore, the room and its white walls made his skin itch and his hackles stand on end. The archway especially made him anxious. The air was too stale, their voices did not echo as they should have. It felt unnatural. His mind was frazzled from his experience in the dark Vault and now his emotions were being tugged this way and that by the princesses’ auras. The dark archway held his attention, it called to him. The missing echos seemed swallowed by the dark maw then regurgitated as a siren’s song both enticing and terrifying.
“Tell me, Cereal.” he jumped at the sound of Celestia’s voice.
“I don’t know what it’s saying!” He blurted out, taking a reflexive step back from the archway.
Celestia blinked, pursing her lips. “What is talking, Cereal?” Her words were even, conversational, but her eyes held suspicion.
His head swiveled between Celestia and the archway. “The arch, you can hear it right?” There was just too much happening. I’m just tired, yeah, tired. It’s been a long day, it’s all in my head...
“We do not hear it, Cereal. We were never human.” Luna said as she walked to the archway, standing by the column on the left.
Cereal turned his head and narrowed his eyes at the arch, “What does this thing have to do with humans?”
“Everything.” Celestia replied, also walking to the archway and standing by the column opposite Luna. “Humans built the Vaults for us, many centuries ago. As soon as Discord was dealt with, we once again were able to visit the humans of Earth. It was their special magic that made this place.” She swept her eyes sadly over the chamber.
“But... but we never had magic, did we?” Cereal’s voice sounded weak even as he tried to deny it.
“Our worlds were not so different at one time.” Luna said. “This Vault was made by some of your most powerful mages, for some purpose divined by your ancestors and never divulged to us. We cannot open it. But you can. Come closer.” She beckoned to him again, her wings outstretched.
Cereal approached on wobbly legs. As he got closer, the more excited the whispers became, and as they grew to a fever pitch, etchings appeared on the smooth stone, shimmering as if through a mirage. One in the middle caught his eye. It was larger than the others, one tall line with six slanted strokes on the left and five on the right. He stared at the strange symbol. Something was missing. He lifted a hoof, not knowing why. Unseen hands seemed to guide his hoof to the wall. It struck at the stem of the symbol then traced another line to the right of it.
The other carvings blazed to life with an inner fire. Cereal jumped back from the wall as the floor began to shake. Stone grating on stone sounded from the arch. A rift snaked down the middle of the stone encased by the columns, spidery cracks spreading outward to the edges. The etchings on the stone blazed brighter, their forms becoming incandescent as lava. Celestia and Luna backed away from the crumbling wall as dust filled the air.
So sudden as it began, the rumbling ceased and the dust cleared, letting them see into the dark chamber ahead. Cereal looked to the princesses on either side of him. Celestia squared her shoulders and marched towards the archway, Luna doing likewise. Cereal hurried after in their wake.
When his hoof passed the threshold of the arch, a great rushing of wind raced past them. The chamber suddenly filled with light. Great cauldrons on pedestals of onyx, identical to the ones he had seen in the first chamber, filled with blue flame. The chamber in which they stood was covered wall to wall, ceiling to floor in carvings like the ones Cereal had just seen come to life. In the center of the room, a single square block crouched, behind it stood a slab of weathered stone. Even though the standing stone was also covered in carvings of the same strange letters, he could still see bits of lichen and grey moss on its surface.
Luna pranced around the chamber, drinking in every sight. “Oh, this is wonderful!” she exclaimed. “What does it all mean, Cereal?” She turned to him expectantly.
Cereal looked at the strange symbols on the walls, walking over to her by the square slab of stone. The stone held a single large tome of aged leather, more of the letters were stamped into its cover. He shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said, tapping the cover of the book with a hoof. “But, I’m sure somepony may know. We brought a lot of historical records with us.”
“Unravelling the mysteries of this room will have to wait, I’m afraid.” Celestia levitated the book from its place, holding it before her. “We must return to the surface. Come, gather close.” She lifted her wings. Celestia’s golden magic encased them all as soon as he and Luna were under them. In a flash of brilliant light, they vanish.
The empty chamber seemed to heave a great sigh at the sudden loss. One by one, the cauldrons’ fires flickered to nothing. Where Luna once stood beside the standing stone, a single sapphire glowed in the dark. Waiting.