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How long had it been since that fateful time, when the enormity of their crimes had been brought down upon them? Their mortal companions might give their reckoning in years, but years were but a pitiful attempt at making sense of what was beyond comprehension. After all, years were just a way of counting how many times a certain number of days had elapsed. And nobody had come up with a count that they could all agree upon. Some favored a calendar based around patterns of the sun, typically counting the days between either the longest or shortest days of the cycle. Alternatively, they might be creative and make a marker which is only lit with the first rays of sunshine on a certain date of the cycle. Others favored a calendar based around patterns of the moon. The moon phases were regular, occurring in approximately twenty-eight day cycles, save for the infrequent double long full or new moon. But this was not an accurate system. It would always slip out of synch with the planet. Yet others used even more imprecise counts for time. A few based their calendar around meteor showers, first frosts, annual floods, or even animal breeding seasons. Nevertheless, all of it was woefully inadequate for expressing the enormity of time for those convicted of crimes most heinous.
Princess Celestia sighed and looked up into a bright, clear, cold, blustery spring morning. The sun was partially obscured by a miasma of smoke from a dragon in one of the high mountain caves. She liked the spring. It seemed as if the world, her world, was coming back to life after its annual winter flirtations with death had ended. How many springs had she seen now? To a mortal mind possessed by a mere pony, it would have been unimaginable. Yes, they could abstract and try to reason their way around it, but they ultimately would never be able to truly comprehend such a great length of time in perfect detail like the alicorns did. They could only comprehend the time elapsed as some sort of impossibly gargantuan abstraction, which they would inevitably mentally categorize as being just a very long, indefinite length of time.
In the morning mingling between night and day, Princess Luna came to her sister’s side. The white alicorn appeared lost in thought, even as a smile tugged at her lips. Luna knew what was going through her head. It was the matter of their duty to Equestria and the matter of eons elapsed, the present moment, and eons still to go. Luna was commonly thought by the Equestrians as being the younger sister of the two. After all, it made sense in a manner that they could understand. They, being mortal ponies, would naturally assume that the larger of the two alicorn sisters was the elder sibling. After all, they were but of mortal flesh and bone, growing physically larger as their strength rapidly climaxed for but a few short years once they had reached their mature forms. They would then wither away gradually over time, until all that was left could barely move. They all inevitably died. All of their awareness, consciousness, personalities, and memories, wiped out in one fell swoop, forever, to never rise again. Death was the only concept alien to the two immortal alicorn sisters that the mortal ponies grasped. All of nature, including the planet itself, instinctively understood death as the final, irreversible, inevitable cessation of everything. But they themselves could never even begin to fathom what one’s final moments would be like, knowing that it was all about to come to a screeching halt. Nor could they understand the idea of unaware eternity after life. They didn’t like it. That was the crux of their duty.
Luna was the first to speak. “Sister, are you thinking about our condemnation?” Neither of them really needed to use the primitive concept of communication spoken language. It was a practice they had adopted so as to better interact with the ponies.
Celestia replied, “Yes, Luna, I am.”
“Why are you always so meditative on early spring mornings. Can you not stop thinking about what is past us?”
“I’m not thinking about that right now. We’ve talked about this before.” Her tone of voice implied something closer to ‘go away’.
The dark satin ears perked up. “So then, what’s troubling you?” Luna honestly did not expect to hear Celestia saying that she wasn’t brooding over the past.
“It’s death.” As if on cue, the sun was obscured behind a dark cloud. There was an uncharacteristically uncomfortable silence between the two.
“It’s not our place to ponder it.” Luna had always been the more businesslike of the two. Being princess of the moon with the ancillary role as sovereign of the night had given her a form of detachment that her counterpart ended.
“We should care, given that we are the rulers of this land and have been for more than a thousand years, and will be for many more years to come,” Celestia answered her like she would have done for one of those inquisitive mortal ponies. They never directly gave their ages or the duration of their rule. It was better that way.
Luna shook her mane a little more vigorously than necessary. “Please don’t talk to me like a mortal pony.”
“I’m sorry, Luna. I am always like this early in spring…” They were standing on a hill overlooking a great valley which nestled Ponyville within its embrace. Canterlot was visible far off in the distance on the far side, nearly invisible over the horizon, unless one had exceptional senses.
Luna knew what was really troubling her sister. It was something they had never discussed and truthfully, Luna was afraid of what might transpire should the wounds ever be examined. “Do you still miss her?” Luna ventured.
Celestia paused briefly before answering, “Truly.” She looked Luna directly in the eye.
“But it’s ancient history now. Surely you’ve gotten over it.”
“And you have?” Those words and that stare were unmistakably venemous.
“I think so.” Luna scuffed the ground with her hoof.
Celestia looked skeptically at her sister. Her aura softened. “It’s been such a long time since my daughter died here with me on this very spot.”
“Exactly two centuries to the day,” replied Luna.
That wasn’t the right thing to say. The white sister’s demeanor hardened again. “Two hundred years is a long time for pain. But it never really leaves us. Tell me, Luna, have you really gotten over the death of your consort?” Luna saw the flash of anger in Celestia.
The dark sister broke eye contact with the light sister. “Yes- I mean, not really…” She trailed off, her gaze catching on a dandelion.
“You’ve only lost your consort. You must have truly loved each other, or as best as a subject can love a sovereign.” Celestia had kept her emotions bottled up for far too long. Now she was venting all of her pain, loneliness and frustration onto Luna. There was nothing to do but let the ugly scene unfold. “You can’t understand my grief because you have never closely known the ponies like I have! Nor have you ever truly given yourself to them. You’ve always held back; kept your distance- evaded them. You want ponies to love your night and admire you, but never the opposite!”
“Celestia, that’s not true! Why are you saying these terrible things?”
Celestia briefly went slack before snapping at Luna. “Because I’m in pain and nopony cares!”
Luna was caught off guard. “I too endure torments, Celestia; it’s our fate.” She was genuinely frightened of what her sister might do given her state.
“I know that! It’s why we’re here- to receive punishment for our crimes. We were sentenced to watch over all life on this world from its inception until its demise.”
“They cursed us to never age or die, but we have to preside over mortal creation here. How long has it already been, and how much longer still?
“For a very long time, Luna,” said Celestia. “We’ve barely started. Already, three hundred and forty-three generations have passed, but there are still more than a million to come. We did not show the respect due to life. Now we see these amazing creatures struggle each day to hang on just a little longer, only to always succumb despite their most valiant efforts.”
Luna nodded. “That’s our due punishment, and we must never forget this lesson. You and I love every pony, sister. We know all their names, families, stories, and hearts, but we can never truly be with them. Death always takes them.” Luna said this bitterly. Celestia’s anger seemed to have exhausted itself, although the root cause had yet to be dealt with.
“I’m sorry, Luna,” said Celestia. “I shouldn’t have lashed out at you. She wouldn’t have wanted that.” She hugged her sister. Luna returned the hug wholeheartedly.
“I forgive you,” replied Luna. “Twilight Sparkle was a dear friend of mine.”
Tears started to flow from the elder’s eyes. “A true friend and a better daughter than any mare could ask for. As she lay dying, Twilight taught me that life without love is worthless.” Celestia gave a great, heaving sob. “I just want her back!”
Luna could do nothing but pat Celestia on the back. “As do I. As I wish to see my Pipsqueak again. He was great stallion and a true friend to the end.” They were both feeling thoroughly miserable by this point.
“Luna, I know how you feel about Pip. I miss Squall.”
“You mean Prescu? Was he your consort?”
“We have long fancied him as such. Why did you love him; what made him so special?”
Celestia smiled genuinely for the first time in decades as she recalled the stallion, long-departed, but not forgotten. She even blushed a little, which was something extraordinary, considering her rather uninhibited approach to sexuality. “I was drawn to his good heart. He was kind, gentle, honest, and seemed a little too innocent. After nothing but nobles, courtiers, and social climbers trying to win me over or get favours, Squall was too decent a stallion to refuse.” Celestia chucked. “Well, I did have to make the first moves. He had a heart of gold.” There was a pause. “Luna, what drew you to Pip?”
Luna heard several elements in her sister’s story that had rung true with Pipsqueak as well. It took her a few moments for her to begin while she composed herself and broke her hug with Celestia. “Pip was a very good pony. He was kind, thoughtful, and always an optimist. We were friends ever since my first Nightmare Night, which I nearly ruined in a fit of rage. We were friends for many years until he had reached adulthood and I took him for my own. It wasn’t until that I met him that I felt joy again betide my heart for the first time in more than a thousand years. I remember his last day. He faced premature death from a terminal illness. Rather than let him waste away in hospital, I smuggled him out and took him north. Pip often said that he wanted to see the auroras with me. He died in our embrace under the northern lights.” Unlike Celestia, Luna maintained her composure. They watched the sun climb higher together.
For a while, the two reminisced about ponies long gone. Only one old friend could be said to still be with them, although all they saw of him was huge clouds of black smoke. The memories were bittersweet, featuring many moments of great happiness before the inevitable bitter sorrow of death. But the pain of losing the old was tempered by the joy of gaining the new. If only each pony didn’t take a piece of their hearts with them when they left for good... However, these great memories didn’t fix the problem faced by the sisters. As they had long known, memories were a terrible substitute for the real thing. Love never died, but it still didn’t stop the horrible feeling of having a gaping hole where their hearts ought to have been. The worst torment was a punishment inventively designed to fit the crimes of those who had thought that power was more important than life. They hated this great irony the most of all. They were all-powerful rulers over the mightiest nation in a beautiful world. The world could not function without them. They were strong in body, sharp in mind, and potent in magic. However, they were unable to save the ponies they loved from dying, doomed to always remember and mourn their passing. And it tortured them. They had been bestowed with both perfect memories and endless capacity for sentimentality. The result was that they could never really heal from harsh emotional blows like the loss of friends and lovers. They both had perfect memories of dear ponies from millennia ago; from before they had been forced to seize power in order to protect their dear little ponies.
It was Celestia who broke the silence. “Luna, do you think that while nothing lasts forever, what we lose always comes back to us in some way?” Her voice suddenly was uncharacteristically hopeful.
Luna blinked. “I cannot honestly say, Celestia. Nopony has yet returned to us from the Well of Souls. Nevertheless, I feel like we’ve already known some ponies before we’ve met them.”
“I know the feeling. It reminds me of something that Twilight once told me. A pony always has a special connection to her friends, maybe even before she’s met them.” Luna pricked up her ears. The friendship reports were something that she had occasionally perused, but she never really gave them anything more than a passing skim once every few years. In the centuries since their creation, they had been modified into the bases for various service organizations, codes of ethics, and philosophical arguments.
The text started to flash through Luna’s mind’s eye and she imagined the voice of Twilight Sparkle reading them aloud to her. It had been one of the first that had been created and was one of the first that she had read. At the time, the princess did not yet have many friends due to recent return from banishment. Back then, the words had made her feel even more horribly lonely, but now they made her feel strangely comforted. It was as if there was suddenly a bright comet streaking across her night.
“Could it be,” wondered Luna. “That every pony who leaves does eventually come back to us?”
“I don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me. Things seem to go in cycles. That’s not all. On the night that Twilight died, I saw a new star in the sky. After each element bearer dies, I see a new star in the sky.” Luna’s feeling of hope immediately died. Celestia was deluding herself.
Luna cut her off. “I know, sister. I’m sorry, but I honored each of them by giving them an eternal memorial in the sky, forever bound together in the heavens. The Orbis Amicitarum, I call it.” Orbis Amicitarum meant The Circle of Friends in the language of the Ancient Equestrian Empire, which had occupied maybe a good quarter of Equestria at its peak. Orbis Amicitia, the orb friendship, was the name by which it was commonly known to ponies.
Celestia froze. Luna feared another explosion of wrath fueled by grief and crushed hope, but that was not what came. Instead, what came was something entirely unexpected. “I had expected better of you, Luna.” Her voice made Luna shiver and turned the dew into frost.
Luna had lost control of the conversation again. “Please, Sister, forgive us! I only wished to give them a fitting memorial!”
“And you never told me? You know me better than that. You know how I am the eternal optimist and how deeply I miss those long lost!”
“And you think that I don’t? Look at thyself; you’re a wreck!”
“Have you no heart?” Celestia shot back with surprising venom.
“Have you lost thyself to grief?” Luna countered. Celestia was behaving defensively. To most observers, it would have seemed like the best course of action would be to apologize and clear the area posthaste.
A second wave, one of fiery heat, emanated from Celestia’s form. “Shut up!” The white alicorn turned her back to the midnight alicorn. Grass smoked and browned. Not to be deterred, the dark one headed the light one off.
“Did you forget that I, princess of the night, am also the queen of dreams? I know what haunts you every night when you fall into slumber.”
“Then why don’t you help me and give me pleasant dreams to make me happy?”
“Why don’t you make it always lovely and summer?”
Celestia stamped her hoof to the ground. “That’s not how it works!”
Luna refused to accept her answer. “You’re evading the question.”
“There’s nothing to compare!” Her multicolored mane vibrated agitatedly, like a collection of pastel snakes.
“Well then, answer us why you insist upon having seasons and different weather.” Luna was probably the greatest debater in all Equestria and Celestia knew it.
“That doesn’t matter.” It was a pathetic attempt at a dodge.
Luna didn’t even bother with delivering a rebuttal. “You know the truth. Tell us.”
Celestia attempted to placate her sister with a dismissive snort. “I change the weather and seasons out of necessity.”
“And why is it necessary?” Demanded Luna. Celestia decided to just go along with what Luna wanted her to say. It was pointless to resist. She gave a huff.
Celestia was still quite angry at Luna, and it showed in the terse delivery and the implied hostility of her answer. “Because summer is dry and cannot be sustained. Because autumn is a state of change between life and death. Because winter is like a cold nap. Because spring is an explosion of life.”
Luna chose this moment to make her point. “Please, listen to me, Sister. I give various dreams because they are necessary. I would personally love if I could give only happy dreams to everypony every singly night. However, just as you have different seasons which perform different vital functions in the cycle of life, I give different kinds of dreams which are all equally important for minds to maintain their balance. I give visions of joy and inspiration to those who are directionless in life, and to those who are suffering great pain. I bestow incomprehensible dreams of catharsis upon those who have need of being able to understand what is happening to them and their friends. I grant peaceful sleep to ponies who are doing well without concern. Lastly, I unleash nightmares on ponies who are troubled from without or within, but they do not confront their problems.” These last words trailed off with a steely edge.
This was beginning to make sense to Celestia, who felt the anger wash from her system, only to be replaced with a flood of remorse for hurting her sister not only once, but twice on the same day when all she was trying to do was help her. Maybe if she hadn’t tried to run away and hide her feelings, then maybe things wouldn’t have gotten so out of hand. There was a great pause. Not even the usual birdsong could be heard. The world seemed to stand still except for the gentle motion of the princesses’ manes and the gentle swirling of black smoke from a cave.
“Forgive me, Luna. Are you giving me dreams of grief because you are trying to help me?”
“Is it because you’re trying to tell me something which you can’t say normally?”
“In a manner... I have respected your privacy, so I have never engineered an exact dream of yours, not have I ever observed what occurs in your dreams. Tell us, what do you see?”
Celestia began with a deep breath. It wasn’t easy for her to talk about them. “It always begins right here. I’m with Twilight Sparkle as she’s dying. The sun is almost done setting and I can feel her heartbeat fading away. I feel Twilight move, so I look down at her. She seems so sad. In a whisper, she tells me “I don’t wanna go.”” Celestia stopped, overcome by grief. Luna did not intervene. Celestia continued after she wiped away steams of tears from her muzzle. “I try to comfort her and tell her that it’s all okay and that she should just enjoy our final moments together. But it never works. She always pleads with me to stay. She cries, “I don’t want to you to stop being my mama!” I can’t do anything. She always dies, crying and screaming that she doesn’t want to go and that she wants me to save her.” Celestia had to take some time to regain her composure. Noisy sobs echoed through the landscape. “Afterwards, I always return to the palace and seek comfort in sleep. But when I shut my eyes in the dream, I always see a great dark gulf bridged by a stone causeway with her on the other side. I run to her, but she always draws further away, pleading with me, “Mom, help me!” and “Please, don’t leave me alone in this place!” Suddenly, I seem to close the distance between us and I almost have her again, but suddenly, the stone gives way and I try to fly over to her. But then, something hits me on the head and I plummet until I wake up, sobbing uncontrollably and crying out for Twilight Sparkle to be alive and with me again- to climb out from the Well of Souls.”
Luna embraced her sister and they cried long together while Luna did her best to make sense of Celestia’s dream. She used her most soothing yet serious voice. “Dear sister, you have yet to accept what has happened. Twilight Sparkle is dead and likely experiences nothing at all anymore. You are unable to let go of the past and move on. I know and understand how it still hurts, and our hearts will always ache. I am healed from when Pip died. Thanks to him, I’ve been able to do more than just take care of the night and oversee the dreams of ponies. He taught me that a life lived alone without joy, companionship, hope, and adventure is not a life. Rather, ‘tis a twisted mockery of one.”
They broke apart and Celestia finally had her old spirit back. She said to Luna, “You know, when we were sentenced to be the immortal caretakers of a mortal race, they said that it wasn’t meant to be just a punishment. Rather, they said that it was meant to be a personal education in the value of life and it was to help us understand the natures of mortal beings.”
Luna replied, “I remember. It seems like so long ago. It was very long ago by the reckoning of our mortal ponies, but for us, this will be just a few minutes in our universal existences. We are here because we need to learn something. It’s more than just the value of life, or the ways of mortals.”
“True. I think we came here not to learn of life, but to understand it and death. Both of these things are incomprehensible to our kin. Most of them cannot comprehend scales smaller than stars, and time frames shorter than millions of years. Indeed, Luna, we are lucky that we can be present right here and right now.”
“Do you ever think,” asked Luna. “Perhaps, our ponies will one day be able to face our kin and join with us in eternity?”
“Maybe someday,” answered Celestia with a true, honest smile on her face. “But not for many generations. All of us still have much to learn and experience and teach. Maybe, we’ll be lucky enough to see the return of the dearly departed.” At her words, the sun finally overcame the clouds
Luna looked at her quizzically. “You know that it is impossible to revive the dead, and it’s forbidden for us to magically reanimate the dead, even if it is merely a puppet.” She puzzled for a moment over what she had heard and quickly comprehended it. “You’re talking about how everything goes in cycles, maybe even souls!” Luna didn’t believe in souls. Celestia did.
“Are you sure that souls really exist? Do you truly believe in such things, sister?”
“I’m positive. On the night that Twilight died, I was flying back to Canterlot when I felt six presences embrace me with warmth and told me that they’d be back soon.” Luna cocked her head.
“We too have felt such a thing on occasion, but never fancied them anything but the mind trying to comfort itself.”
Celestia had just one more thing she wanted to tell Luna. “Luna, surely you’ve seen how sometimes, the hearts of sleeping ponies are closed, even to you. I’ve had those dreams a few times, and every time it happens, a few elements remain consistent. I never notice your presence. I seem to be removed from normal flow of dreams, the dreams are always much more vivid than reality, and I only meet, see, and speak with ponies already dead; I never see living ponies.”
Luna took slightly longer than necessary to phrase her response. “Dreams are dreams, no matter what one may wish to the contrary,” she said, almost with a mournful inflection.
“I used to consider them just unusually vivid dreams too, until I realized that every time I had one after the death of an element bearer, I would see that bearer show in the dream. I only see dead ponies and ponies I don’t recognize as having lived in there. Thus, I’m convinced that I am really visiting with those inside the Well of Souls.”
Luna seemed intrigued by the arguments presented by her sister. Maybe there was some truth to her theory. “Do you ever see Pipsqueak?” She said it before she could stop herself. The princess gasped softly in surprise at not only her own question, but also at how she had been so candid and emotive when asking it.
Celestia briefly chuckled. “Only sometimes,” she admitted. “The last time I saw him, he told me, “I hope Luna’s doing well. I’m sorry that I had to leave early, but I had to go. I still love her. I’m okay; it’s actually not too bad here once you accept that you’re dead and that this is your home. It is possible to leave, but it takes a long time and they won’t let us in on the details. I’m trying to come back because I want to have more time in Equestria. Oh, and if you can, please tell Luna that the fun has been doubled ever since Pinkie Pie got here!”
Luna laughed. “That’s definitely, Pip- real or not, that’s him!” She had a bit of nostalgia in her voice. “We’ll see if this is true. Either way, I’m glad that we’ve finally been able to talk, Sister.”
“Me too, Luna. You know, it’s going to be a while until we can either confirm or deny anything about this. So in the meantime, let’s go. There’s a state breakfast with parliament in New Appleuzha.”
“Where Appleoosa used to be? Huzzah! First one there gets extra apple pie!” And so the two sisters returned to Canterlot with hearts somewhat mended, bodies hungry, and closure in knowing that their loved ones had brought meaning to their lives, and just maybe, they might one day be reunited. Until then, there was much to be done and time to be filled. And for the first time in more than a century, two columns of black smoke stopped issuing forth from the mountains. A sunny breeze scattered these final strands, creating a pure, golden, dawn.