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Rain lashes against the window and violent winds stir the sky to a boiling cauldron of storm clouds. In thick sheets the water washes down the panes, obscuring the rest of world. No feeble starlight passes through the clouds this night, and even inside Canterlot, ponies hear the whistle of the zephyr snaking around the parapets and towers.
A flash of white lightning casts the shadows of seven ponies against the walls. They stand in a loose circle, centered on the eighth pony lying under the covers of a grand four post bed. Seven ponies blink at the flash. The eighth remains motionless.
Those gathered gulp at the strike, and at the sound of close thunder. Even the stout walls of mighty Canterlot fail to calm their nerves. The light on the walls flickers as the fire within the grey stone hearth flares. A gust robs the air from the room to feed the flames, yet all the warmth of the fire flies out the chimney, leaving only a chill draft within the walls.
As the crackle of thunder dies out, Princess Celestia clears her throat.
“The pegasi have outdone themselves this time. I am afraid I must have a rather stern chat with the master of weather ponies afterwards.” Her smile is only half-formed; she is unable to put her heart into it. It draws a smile from some of the ponies, but not all, and some rather half-heartedly. Celestia continues on with what she must say, her smile lost.
“Everypony here knows their responsibilities?” The six ponies nod. “Very good.” She turns to the purple pony close by her side. “Twilight, I have absolute faith in you. Remember that I cannot help you directly, but I can be your guide. Take care.” Twilight nods, her eyes staring back unblinking. Her jaw is set, ready for action. Celestia inhales as the moment of truth arrives. “Let’s begin.” She looks at Twilight one final time. Twilight cannot help but be touched by the love she sees in her mentor's eyes.
A moment later the room blurs, swirling into a mix of color and light. The bed becomes the ceiling; the grand wooden beams the floor. Paintings on the wall turn as their images are distorted into shapes devoid of meaning. A point of light from a burning candle is a bright circle on a dark grey background. It feels like falling, in a strange way, falling into a whirlpool of black and red. Or is that just the color of the bedspread? Twilight can’t tell anymore. In a flash it all goes dark.
Outwardly, there is a slight purple light from Celestia’s horn, and Twilight slumps to the side as though she fainted. All eyes are on her. Fluttershy and Rarity gasp. But Applejack, quick as a whip, throws herself against Twilight as she begins to fall and props her up again, albeit unsteadily, on her hooves. The ponies look towards the Princess, some with ears down in doubt, others up and focused in keen attention for the slightest sign. Celestia lets out her breath and opens her eyes.
“It worked.” She says, almost toneless. “Applejack, hold her up if she can’t stand on her own.” The tan earth pony bobs her head in response, standing close beside her friend.
“You can count on me!”
“Rarity, stay close to Twilight. Lend your magic if need be, as we practiced. Everypony else, try to rest. There is no telling how long this may take. We will take shifts on who is standing if need be.”
The circle breaks as the ponies attend to their tasks, standing at the end of the bed, supporting Twilight, or taking seats on oversized chairs and cushions. Celestia softly steps to the side of the four- poster. She stretches out a foreleg to the sleeping pony. Very gently, she lays her hoof upon the black mare’s cheek. There is no response. Celestia leans her head so close to the pony’s ear that they are almost touching. As her hoof strokes the dark pony’s starlight mane, she whispers, “We will save you, sister. Can you hear me? I won’t lose you again!” Celestia hugs her sister, pressing their cheeks together while Celestia half stands, half lays on the bed. It is an undignified posture for a Princess, but the tears on her cheek betray any pretension of regal dignity. The other ponies avert their eyes from the scene, looking to each other instead. Rarity closes her eyes tightly. There is nothing they can do but hope, both for Princess Luna and for Twilight Sparkle.
In Ponyville, the skies were cloudy, but near Canterlot they appeared downright threatening. Daylight began to fade, and the land cloaked itself in a dark shadow. Still, the six ponies were glad to see the towers of the castle grow closer as their journey neared its end. It rained off and on during the ride up, but those inside stayed dry thanks to a spell that normally shielded the Princesses. On this occasion it served just as well for them. Unfortunately the pegasi pulling the carriage had no such protection, and one could only imagine what they felt as they forged through the chill wind and rain. Nevertheless, they had not faltered.
On the way, the friends tried to guess what demanded their sudden trip to Canterlot. “Dragons! That’s it! I betcha it’s dragons.” Rainbow insisted.
“D—d…dragons?” Fluttershy shrunk down in her seat as though she meant to hide away.
“Fluttershy dear, don’t you recall the last dragon we ran across? He wasn’t so bad after all.” Rarity reminded her.
“Sure… you’re probably right… silly me…” Fluttershy said, though she still had a frown on her face.
Pinkie Pie coyly suggested that the Princesses wanted to throw a surprise party for the six, “With a big cake! And banners and…” She quickly placed her hoof over her mouth as though she were afraid she had ruined the surprise.
But Applejack had calmed her, in a manner. “Pinkie Pie, Ah ain’t so sure about that.” She pointed towards the sky. “Them clouds don’t make for the best party kinda weather do they?” Her words calmed one pony, and disquieted the other five. “But hay, the weather’s nothing! So long as we stick together we’ll be just fine!”
That comment spurred guilt for Twilight Sparkle, as there was one of their usual number that they had left behind. It had been a fairly ordinary day in Ponyville. She thought the weather a little dreary perhaps, but nothing too worrisome. Spike had just left, complaining as he stepped out the door that his scales would get wet, to pick up a new book for Twilight. Twilight reminded him to keep the book safe from the rain, and then he was off. Five minutes later there was loud knock from the library door. She opened it to find two large, winged ponies, outfitted with the armor of the royal pegasi.
“Miss Sparkle, sorry to bother you, but well...” The lead pegasus looked to the second, who shrugged apathetically. “Ah… we’re here to take you to Canterlot. Princess Celestia’s orders.”
“What? Now? Well of course if Celestia needs me… but what about my friends? Can they come too?” Twilight asked.
“Actually,” the pegasus said, “Our orders are to escort all the Elements to Canterlot, so if you look right over there…” He gestured with hoof. Twilight leaned around and saw the carriage full of her friends. Pinkie waved energetically. “We’ve already got everypony, but we’re a little behind schedule… so pack anything essential and we’ll be off.”
“Wait, we have to find Spike, too. He’s ummm…. useful! And he’s my assistant so…” Twilight tried to give the pegasus her sweetest possible smile, but he didn’t budge. The hard look in his eyes already gave her the answer.
“Look, our orders are to be back by nightfall. We’ve got time to make up. I’m sorry, but we have to go right now.” There was no arguing with him. Inside Twilight knew that Spike would be fine for a few days, but how he would take to being left in such a manner was another question.
Twilight said nothing much once in the carriage. She alone knew Princess Celestia well enough to know that something dire would have to happen to require the immediate presence of the Elements at Canterlot. She didn’t like leaving Spike behind, but she had to trust that the Princess would not ask it of her on a whim.
The pegasi circled the castle of Canterlot as they made their descent towards the plaza in the outer courtyard. To see Canterlot from the air was a privilege few non-pegasi enjoyed. Its towering spires and thick walls were a breathtaking sight,
Rain-slicked stones rose up to meet the carriage as they swooped in for a landing. With a jolt, the pegasi touched down, a spray of water quickly following their steps. The gallop slowed to a trot, then to a canter, and finally they brought the carriage to a halt a short distance from the entrance to the great hall of Canterlot. Each pony disembarked, careful of their footing on the slippery ground. Fluttershy inched over to the nearest pegasus, eyes focused on her hooves.
“Thanks…I’m… um… thanks.” The armored pegasus tilted his head, one eyebrow raised, his breath visible in the dense air. Fluttershy had already begun to back away when he finally nodded to her. She turned with the hint of a smile on her lips.
Twin doors of heavy oak swung open and out stepped Princess Celestia, surrounded by a radiant bubble of magic that deflected the rain with the slightest ripple of its transparent surface.
“Come here my friends. Follow me inside and take a seat by the fire. Warm yourselves and dry your manes.” To the pegasi she suggested that they get some rest and a warm meal, which just happened to be ready for them in the castle guard quarters. Their faces brightened with gratitude.
The six ponies followed the Princess into the grand hall. Twilight walked in first, followed line astern by her friends. The guard ponies closed the doors behind them. There was indeed a fire burning in the great stone hearth, and they were all glad to warm up after the flight. White and black cushions in equal numbers awaited the ponies. Each pillow felt like lying upon a cloud, basking in the warmth of the sun. But the peaceful respite was only temporary. Once everypony found a place, Celestia spoke up.
“For the sake of saving time, we will forgo any needless formalities, as I’m sure you are all wondering why you are here.” Celestia took a breath and spoke quite slowly, albeit with typical regal grace. “Three days ago my sister mentioned to me that she felt a little tired after her night’s work raising the moon. I thought nothing of it at first. When the time for the next night arrived, Luna was nowhere to be found. I thought at first she might have left Canterlot, but in fact she was still abed. She… I… could barely wake her. She couldn’t raise the moon. That night I told the weather ponies to cloud the sky, so nopony would panic over the missing moon.”
The six looked at each other. Pinkie Pie tilted her head side to side. Twilight blinked twice.
“But Princess, you raised the sun and moon alone for a thousand years…” ventured Twilight.
“Indeed. However, after my sister returned, we made a mutual vow to never use such unilateral magic without the other’s permission. To solidify our pact, we have constructed a magical ward that prevents me from sending my magic towards the moon, and she cannot affect the sun."
“Does that mean that as long as your sister is… um… sick, there will be no moon?” Rainbow Dash asked, a concerned expression on her face. “Night flying without moonlight is pretty tough.”
“Well, in truth the moon still exists, but we cannot see it. I imagine the ponies of the antipodes are considerably disquieted by the moon standing still in their sky. To answer your real question, I have already begun using a portion of my available magic to unravel the ward. I imagine if my sister were in a position to say something about it, she would agree that it is for the best.” Celestia’s voice betrayed her. Twilight heard the undertone of sadness.
Celestia resumed after a pause. “My sister’s condition only grew worse. I have not been able to wake her since that last time I spoke to her. She will not wake by any means, physical or magical. Although I cannot use my magic to find the cause of her condition directly, I do sense that she is tired. Very tired, verging on total exhaustion.” Celestia had begun to pace back and forth with long strides. “I have thought a great deal on this matter, and throughout all my years I have known only one force which might cause such exhaustion.” She fixed her eyes on Twilight. “Twilight, dear, you are familiar with the effort it takes to craft a spell that permanently affects the world around you?”
Twilight thought about it a moment. “Yes, and if I recall correctly, you advised against permanent enchanting. That was after I made my books to float along behind me so I didn’t need to focus my magic on them.” Twilight said. She cherished the memories of her days studying in Canterlot. Celestia helped her understand magic. Not just in the sense that she could perform it. Rather, she understood its complexities and fundamentals, thanks to her mentor's lessons.
“Good, you still remember. When I used my magic to pull the books away, what happened?” Celestia prompted.
“It drew more magic to try to go back to equilibrium…” Twilight looked to the floor, deep in thought. “…and the more you pulled the more magic it drew!” Her gaze snapped back to Celestia. “Do you think that's what’s going on?” She asked as the pieces began to click into place in her head.
“In short, yes. I’m afraid not everypony is a unicorn though. We should explain.”
“Ah don’t really understand Princess. Is it some kind of spell?” Applejack asked, confused by the talk of special magic. In fact, most of Twilight’s friends sported a somewhat quizzical expression, except Rarity, who spoke up to try to explain the situation to Applejack.
“Well, dear, imagine I made a dress and I wanted to prevent it from ever becoming dirty. It is possible for a unicorn to craft such a spell—oh how I would love to! However, while possible, it is not advisable because it draws from the crafter’s magic to keep the dress clean. So if some careless foal were to, say, accidentally drop that dress into a mud puddle, it would draw magic to keep itself clean.”
“Huh. Ah don’t know about keeping clothes clean, but I can see how that would be mighty useful!” Applejack said.
“Yeah, just imagine the possibilities!” Pinkie Pie added.
“Why of course, it would be lovely” Rarity said. “But it would be a terrible mistake.”
“Why is that?” Dash asked.
“Well imagine no one ever picked up that dress.” Twilight answered. “Imagine they just left it there. It would continually use the caster's magic to keep itself clean.”
“Yes indeed, how dreadful! As you know, magic is not my greatest talent—Fabulosity, on the other hoof!---“ She preened for a moment. “Erm…so anyways, I do not enchant my creations with such spells. I just could not possibly hope to keep them going for long.”
“Magic comes from within. It is closely tied to the life force of the caster. To maintain a spell too long can greatly tire a pony- or worse. I fear Luna has created such a spell.” Celestia explained.
“But Princess, it is not too difficult to break the spell. If Luna is in trouble, why didn’t she just break the spell?” Twilight asked, getting to the core of the issue.
“I’m afraid she doesn’t know she cast the spell to begin with.” Celestia answered. “That is why I have asked you all to Canterlot. I need your help or I fear my sister won't survive.”
Twilight felt her breath ripped away, her vision suddenly fuzzy. Her mind reeled for a moment, focused on just one thought. Luna? Dying? She didn't know Princess Luna as well as she knew Celestia, but given what they had been through together Twilight saw her almost as a member of her own family. How would her mentor take the loss of her only sister? She told herself it wouldn't happen and tried to push that thought away.
“We will!” Applejack said with absolute determination.
Twilight nodded. “Anything for you and your sister.”
Celestia’s eyes rested upon her young student, filled with a distinct sadness. Twilight's intuition told her the Princess wanted to say something to her. This was a side of Celestia that Twilight hadn't seen before. Her eyes had spoken more than her words let on. Her lips parted as though there was more she wanted to say, but she held herself back. After a moment she simply inclined her head to Twilight and took a deep breath. She looked out to the gathered ponies.
“Thank you all. Allow me to explain my plan...”
After Celestia concluded, she quietly asked Twilight to follow her and turned down a hallway leading to another wing of the castle. Twilight hastened to follow. The other ponies had been told to get some rest and await special instructions from the Princess. Each had a room waiting, but everypony decided to stay together in the great hall by the roaring fire.
The sound of Celestia's and Twilight’s hooves echoed off the marble tile and exquisite walls of stone and intricate woodwork. They were the only ponies in sight. Everything else is quiet as the light slowly fades outside the windows of the palace. Beyond the walls, the clouds continue their deluge.
“I’m so sorry, my dear Twilight.” Celestia says, breaking the silence. Her voice sounds as though she intends to apologize for a grievous offense.
“None of this is your fault Princess!” Twilight responded, trying to cheer the Princess, and rather surprised that she would apologize for anything. Celestia had only ever been good to her.
“Isn’t it though?” She looked at Twilight with tired eyes, still walking at a measured pace. Then her gaze departed Twilight’s eyes to look back down the hall, at nothing in particular. “I am Princess Celestia, majestic and mighty. Everything devolves to me, to some degree. But that isn’t the worst.” Twilight noticed she spoke differently now that they were alone. “No, not that. It is selfishness. I ask too much of you,” She said, turning back to Twilight. “To hope to save a sister, I would risk all those who have been so loyal, so supportive.” She sighed. “I wonder if you can forgive me in the end.”
“I couldn’t imagine how…” Twilight started.
“I can.” Celestia cut her off. They had stopped at a white fountain under a vaulted ceiling. It was empty however, there was no water flowing over its terraces. “For the lives of hundreds of ponies I have lived, and I tell you now with all sincerity that eternity is a heavy burden to bear. When I send you within Luna’s mind, I cannot foresee what you will discover there. Should you see only one one-hundredth of Luna’s breadth of experience, you shall have surpassed the experience of any mortal pony who now lives. Even I cannot predict the effect on your young mind. I'm sorry, for my sister and I are not perfect. I would go in myself, but I must raise the sun. There is no one else who can. If I were somehow stuck in her mind for a long time, all of Equestria would go to ruin. That is why I've asked you. However, I give you this warning, for better or worse: My sister and I, we have loved, and we lost---always lost. After a time, one scarcely dares to hope that the lifetime of a friend lasts longer than the blink of an eye.” Celestia’s eyes were downcast, but her voice held an intensity Twilight rarely glimpsed. “I have set you upon this path. To lose your course could mean disaster. You must be stronger than you imagine you can be. Uncover the source of this spell, and return to me the one pony that I might keep in my heart without fear of loss.”
Twilight stayed silent. She found she didn’t know how to address the Princess. She never realized the depth of the connection between the sisters, perhaps because she never had one. Yet she knew Luna meant more than that to Celestia. They are siblings, yes, she thought, but to live so long a life… Twilight pondered the Princess’s words, not lightly said, that loomed over her thoughts. Is this the meaning of eternal life? She thought. To live until all days seem as one? Still, Twilight couldn’t believe it. For her, the world was only beginning to unfold, and the idea of a lifetime passing in a flash seems impossible.
Celestia continued after a weighty silence.
“I trust you with this so that you might prepare yourself for what comes next. You have this chance to say no. Once you go in, there is no easy way to turn back. Take a moment to think about it. I cannot force you to do as I ask, but I want you to understand that I ask it out of love. So, are you still willing to go through with the plan?"
"I suspected as much. Very well, stay still for just a moment.” Twilight did as she said and Celestia bent to touch her horn to Twilight’s. When they touched, Twilight’s magic flared and she stepped back almost involuntarily.
“Whoa…” Twilight gasped.
“Yes,” Celestia said. Can you hear me, Twilight? Twilight looked up curiously at Celestia, her mind slowly realizing that Celestia’s lips hadn’t moved when she spoke.
“Did you just…?” Twilight asked.
Yes. It is not permanent, but should last long enough for our purposes. I can communicate directly with your mind, even separated from your mortal form. It likely won’t be this easy once we start with the plan, but I should still be able to guide you to some degree. Twilight nodded. This would be a great spell to learn, Twilight thought for a moment.
“Good. I must go help the others in their tasks” Celestia said, turning back. “Remember above all one thought: you are Twilight Sparkle.” Then Celestia was off, down the long corridor, leaving Twilight standing alone before the empty fountain.
Twilight floats in the abyss. Everything is shapeless around her, a mist of varying hues swirling about. There is color, here, there. A pastel cloud shines like dust motes in a sunbeam. Everywhere else the darkness prevails, among other shades of grey shaped into snaking coils intertwined with the light. Twilight wonders if this is what it feels like to fly free among the stars. She tries to turn her body to see more of the scene, to find something to orient herself. In one sense, she is successful. Now she sees other patches of color illuminating the dark. However, when she tries to stretch a hoof to touch the nearest cloud, she realizes she has no hoof to speak of.
The darkness seems to close in, constricting its prey. Nothing could prepare her for the feeling of incorporeal existence. How can I have no body? How can I live? She thought. The shapes around her emit only the slightest emanation of light, rapidly fading from view. Soon it seems the darkness will be all that remains.
Twilight! a voice intones. Hear my voice! Let it be an anchor for your mind. Calm yourself. Breathe deep. Just breathe. Twilight--- Breathe! Twilight realized she hadn’t for a long time. She takes Celestia’s advice, breathing as if she had just surfaced after diving underwater. But Celestia’s words are true, she could do it, and darkness no longer threatens to overwhelm the light. She uses an old trick to calm herself: reciting in her mind the first simple spells she learned many years ago when she was just a filly. Slowly the fear and anxiety disappears, and she opens her eyes to the space around her once again.
That was too close for my liking, my dear. Nevertheless, you have made it through the first trial. Twilight reminds herself it was Celestia’s voice she heard. I'm within Luna’s mind… how odd to think… but no, she shakes that thought away. She has to keep focused on saving Luna.
Twilight, are you ready to begin? Celestia’s voice asks. On one hoof, yes, she is. On the other, no, she can’t imagine where to begin. The sights around her are just patterns, like a cloud in the sky. Where does one start? And how?
Celestia answers. I sense you are confused. Observe your surroundings. Navigating another pony’s mind is not an ability we are born with. We have no notion of what we see at first. Look for patterns. To touch the memories of… erm… my sister… you need only think. To attempt to move physically in this plane is redundant. I feel compelled to admit, even I have seldom attempted to visit the realm of memories. It has rarely been necessary. However, I know that you can succeed. Find the source of the spell and bring my sister back!
Right, Twilight thinks, I will observe, find patterns, and figure out this place!
Time passes, a strangely indeterminate amount of time, for there is no sun, moon, or stars to measure the passing of time. Twilight herself isn’t sure how long she watches before the patterns begin to show themselves. Realization dawns on her. The darkness that surrounds her no longer stifles her thoughts. She realizes that what she sees are memories, but they are not in logical order. Some patterns repeat themselves again and again, others only rarely. With this realization, she begins to move from pattern to pattern, trying to understand what each memory means. As a strange tingling sensation, she felt a pull upon her to reach out and touch the memories, now that she understood their true nature.
The thought tempts. It dances in her head. Curiosity is not only the bane of felines, in truth. Throughout her life, her quest for knowledge led her to explore dusty tomes, great libraries, and the minds of her elders. To imagine what might be contained within Luna’s memories… surely a repository of knowledge of the highest order. She reasons that she needs to find the spell that Celestia thought Luna had cast, and for that she must search through Luna’s memories. One must start somewhere after all!
Approaching what seems one of the most vivid patterns, one that occurs again and again around her, a flowing thread of crimson red interwoven with the deepest violet, she tries to sense what might be contained inside. The sense of “pull” increases exponentially as she edges nearer. If she had them, the hair on her forelegs would be standing charged with energy.
Doubts enter her mind about what she is to do. These thoughts tear through her concentration. I could have spent more time observing. Do I really understand? Where will this lead me? At the last moment she tries to pull away, but she is dragged into a maelstrom, swirling down to the depths of a memory of a time long gone by.
End Part 1