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The universe skipped a beat, and Rainbow Dash found herself in silent darkness. She blinked and shook her head with vigor. The slight but audible swish of her mane reassured the pegasus that she had not been struck deaf; she sighed, releasing breath that she hadn’t realized she was holding.
“Hey!” A shrill voice rang out, shattering the heavy atmosphere, “Where’d the party go? And who put out the lights!?”
Dash smiled at Pinkie Pie’s outburst.
Light sprang into being, radiating from Luna’s glowing horn.
The pegasus squinted as her eyes adjusted, and she tried to take in her surroundings, unnerved by the sudden change in scenery. Her friends stood just where they had in the barn, but everything else, from the other ponies to the structure itself, was gone.
In its place stood black trees as far as Rainbow Dash could see. The rainbow-maned mare strained her eyes, fighting to keep the gnarled trunks from blending together into a single dark mass. The dividing lines between them seemed to warp and twist in the edges of her vision; she was almost able to convince herself that it was only her mind playing tricks on her. No starlight was able to pierce the canopy, and it was impossible to tell where the leaves ended and the branches began. Even the bare dirt beneath her hooves was a featureless black.
“Sorry for the sudden trip,” Luna said, “But the matter is, after all, urgent.” The princess turned to address the rainbow-maned pegasus, “Were you able to learn where your friend was taken?”
“Uh, sorta,” Rainbow Dash replied, rubbing the back of her head with a hoof, “It’s kinda near where a river meets a lake. Or maybe a sea. The one who told me can be sorta hard to understand.”
The alicorn’s mouth twisted. “There? I suspected as much.” Her eyes closed, and for a moment the light in her horn flickered out. When it returned, she spoke again, “Follow me. The cave is this way.” With that, she turned and began to weave her way between the unnatural trunks.
One by one, the others followed, Applejack springing forward to walk beside the princess while Pinkie Pie bounced along behind them. Rarity glowered at their dismal surroundings, but the twitching of her tail and lack of her characteristic whining betrayed the extent of her disquiet. The weatherpony turned to check on the last member of their group.
Fluttershy had collapsed into a cowering, motionless ball of fraidypony. Of course. Dash rolled her eyes. “You know, she’s the only source of light out here. If you don’t come with us, you’ll be alone in the dark.”
The yellow pegasus sprang into motion with a squeak, catching up with the princess more quickly than Rainbow Dash would have thought possible.
The weatherpony chuckled to herself and flapped her wings, effortlessly circling around to float ahead of her friends.
“...Been here before, but not since long before my exile,” Luna explained to Applejack, who stared at the princess in rapt attention. “Still, my sister and I have always known that one of our old creations is what makes this forest so wild. We just thought he was more or less harmless, aside from the monsters.”
The farmer snorted. “I’d’a thought monsters would be at least a bit of what goes inta judgin’ harmlessness.”
Rainbow Dash waved a dismissive hoof. “Nothin’ I can’t handle.”
Luna ignored the pegasus. “They don’t often leave the forest. Besides, there are some good things that came from the forest thousands of years ago, new crops and new animals that get along well outside. Most don’t even know of their questionable origin,” She said before adding with a wry smile, “Admittedly, I can’t say for certain whether anything new has come from here in the last thousand years.”
With that, Applejack and the princess launched into a discussion of specific plants and seasons and crop rotations. Their words rapidly became indistinguishable from a toneless drone to Dash’s ears and her mind began to wander. Her body soon followed.
The weatherpony flew out into the forest, circling in search of anything different from the unchanging backdrop of black trees. She kept Luna’s light in the corner of her eye, never getting too far before returning. Just before she lost all illumination, the mare heard something. A faint but constant noise, achingly familiar. Then, she placed it.
“Hey everypony! I hear water over here,” Rainbow Dash shouted, waving a hoof to catch their attention.
As the other ponies rushed toward her, Dash pressed ahead, and with just a few flaps of her wings, she cleared the treeline. The pegasus landed, her hooves pressing into the coarse sand of the riverbank. After the darkness of the forest, the moonlight seemed almost blinding. Rushing water flashed as rapids reflected the illumination. She turned and walked along the shore, following the current downstream, and as soon as she looked up, she saw it.
Rainbow Dash knew immediately that the spire before her was their goal. It was too perfect not to be. The rocky crag dominated the shore, blocking her view of the lake that marked the end of the river’s flow. It was too small to be a mountain, too steep to be a hill, and too violent to be natural.
Even to the pegasus’ untrained eye, some of the surfaces were clearly carved. Any overall structure, however, had been deliberately disfigured. Large chunks were missing, seemingly broken off. Other sections had melted, freezing forever into wavy lines that were unmistakably those of flowing liquid. The only broken-off piece that she could see in the moonlight was a spike the length of a dozen ponies that stuck out of the sand of the beach. It was carved with a spiral.
Dash moved forward to examine the broken megalith. In the near face, at ground level, a jagged gap opened into darkness. The mare’s brow creased as she chewed her lip. The space looked downright claustrophobic, no room for good flying. No good for fighting. She contemplated that fact, and she did so intently enough that when she heard a voice, she nearly jumped out of her skin.
“Do we have to --Oh, sorry Dash. Do we have to...,” Fluttershy gulped. “Go inside?”
“I don’t like it any more than you do, Fluttershy, dear. There’s probably all sorts of nasty cobwebs and slime and creatures in there.” Rarity shuddered. “Still, we owe it to our friend.”
“It’s just like y’said it was, Luna,” Applejack remarked.
The alicorn nodded. “I fear it may have changed greatly inside; it’s been over five thousand years since I entered. The surroundings are certainly different.”
Rainbow Dash flew to the entrance and peered in, straining to see past where the slightly sloping tunnel disappeared into darkness. “Well,” she whispered to herself, “no turning back now.”
* * *
The passage twisted and turned, often looping back around to pass under itself, but never branched. As the ponies descended, the walls and floor of the cave grew steadily smoother, appearing less and less natural. Eventually, the path became a perfect rectangular hall before leveling off, and soon the ponies made the final turn, revealing their goal. Luna’s eyebrows rose; her companions gaped in awe.
The cave opened up into an enormous room. Harsh white light illuminated the space, though no source was visible. Row after row of bookshelves, each tall enough to dwarf any building in Ponyville, receded into the distance. Racks of scrolls lined the walls. Every surface, every corner, every shelf was filled. Books had been turned sideways and shoved above the neatly placed volumes to take advantage of extra shelf space. Papers had been stuffed into cracks and gaps and any place where there was even a hint of space. Dry parchment cracked as Luna stepped forward; the floor was covered with loose pages. On a nearby shelf, she could see that somepony had written on the spines of the books, the script continuing from one to another as though together they formed a single page. High above, where only the alicorn’s vision could discern it, the ceiling was covered with dense writing carved into the very stone.
Just past the entrance, a small pool of clear water sat in a raised basin, and beyond that was a table covered in scrolls, inkwells, stacks of books, and one familiar traveler’s bag. In front of the table, there was a large chair, and upon the chair sat Twilight Sparkle.
The unicorn turned to look at her friends as they began to take hesitant steps into the vast library, spreading out as they craned their necks to take in the spectacle. She coughed pointedly, and the other mares turned their attention to her, each looking a bit sheepish, with the exception of Pinkie Pie. The earth pony merely turned her slack-jawed stare from the shelves to Twilight.
“Girls!” The librarian hissed quietly, “What are you doing here?” She shot a nasty look at Luna before adding, “With her?”
Rainbow Dash stepped forward, looking quite proud of herself, and shouted, “Twilight! We’re here to-”
The purple mare raised a hoof to her lips and overpowered the weatherpony’s words with an emphatic “Shhhh!” She frowned and whispered, “Keep your voice down. We’re in a library.”
The pegasus blinked at Twilight, then turned and blinked at Applejack as confusion grew more plain on her face. The farmer just shrugged. Dash looked back to the unicorn and spoke in a low voice, “We’re here to rescue you.”
Twilight Sparkle tilted her head. “Rescue me?”
Rainbow dash spoke slowly, as though trying to explain something obvious, “Yeah, y’know, rescue you from Ever Free.” The others had all converged around Twilight’s chair, though they still took opportunities to study their surroundings with expressions that ranged from wonder to fear.
The unicorn scratched her head with a hoof. “Why?”
The weatherpony’s jaw dropped.
“Land’s sakes, Rainbow, didn’t ya say she was kidnapped?” Applejack asked.
“I left a note...,” Twilight said, trailing off as she noted that the others were ignoring her.
“He’s a big evil ancient unicorn pegasus thingy!” Rainbow Dash insisted as she frowned at the farmer, “Of course he kidnapped her. He’s probably got her all mind-controlled. He can do that sort of thing”
Fluttershy whimpered quietly.
Applejack snorted. “And how do you know that, Dash?”
“Zecora said so.”
“If you look at Zecora and cross your eyes just right,” Pinkie Pie asserted, “You can totally see a boat!”
“She’s done right by us, but that don’t mean she’s right ‘bout everythin’, sugar cube,” Applejack said.
“Yeah, but--,” Rainbow Dash began.
A booming, masculine voice rang out from among the forest of shelves, cutting the pegasus off. “Ah, guests! How grand. I wondered what that commotion was.”
Seven mares turned toward the source of the voice, and watched as Ever Free approached, walking swiftly down the central aisle of the library. Fluttershy hid her face behind her hooves and Rarity uttered a cry of disgust as the extent of the alicorn’s self-inflicted deformity became visible. Pinkie Pie twitched as one of her muscles spasmed. Rainbow Dash set her jaw and crouched, her wings tense as she prepared to launch herself forward. Twilight, Applejack, and Luna merely watched the stallion’s progress.
The scarlet pony came to a stop when he reached the clear area around the scrying pool. He looked at each mare in turn, his features tightening as his eyes settled on Luna. A momentary frown was quickly replaced by an exaggerated smile as he spoke. “The bearers of the Elements of Harmony! What an honor. You may not know me, but I know you. Have you come to visit Twilight?”
“We’ve come to rescue her!” Rainbow Dash shouted, “Let her go or else.”
Ever Free tilted his head as he blinked in exaggerated confusion. “Rescue her? From me? That is certainly not necessary. She’s free to leave at any time she pleases.” He turned toward the unicorn in question. “Are you done with your reading, Twilight Sparkle?”
The librarian glared pointedly at her rainbow-maned friend as she answered, “Not even close. I’ll be sticking around, if you don’t mind.”
“I do hope that settles the matter,” the stallion said.
“Nuh-uh,” Pinkie Pie asserted, “How do we know you didn’t do some magic brain-controlly thing on Twilight to turn her book-obsessed. Well, more book-obsessed than before. Or something...,” She trailed off.
Ever Free snorted. “Even if I could use ‘brain-controlly’ magic, I wouldn’t stoop to such a thing. Your friend is no more ‘book-obsessed’ than she ever was. Not that a literary streak is a bad thing.” He gestured with a wing, pointing to the seemingly endless line of shelves behind him. “I’m certainly a fan of the medium.”
“An’ how do we know you’re not lyin’?” Applejack asked.
“He’s not. His magic has not touched Twilight’s mind.” Luna stated.
The farmer nodded, satisfied. Her friends’ reassured smiles and sighs of relief echoed the sentiment.
The unicorn herself merely rolled her eyes.
The scarred stallion bared his teeth, his lip twitching into a snarl as he spoke, “So of course you trust her and not me. She is your beloved princess, after all. Why should it matter that she’s not one of us? Never mind the crimes she’s committed against ponykind. Forget the fact that her lies of omission are the greatest deception in the history of our people. You are young yet; perhaps you will learn your lesson in time.” He paused for a moment, meeting the eyes of each of the bearers in turn. Finally, he looked to the other alicorn and took a step toward her, shouting, “And you! I don’t need you to back me up. You disgust me. I don’t want any of your sort of help. I had hoped to save our discussion for a more private moment, but I simply cannot wait any longer. I may be letting my emotions get the best of me, but we will have words and we will have them now. I know that there is nothing that I can do to compel you. I know that compared to yours, my magic is nothing.”
Luna closed her eyes and perked her ears as she let the tirade wash over her.
“I loathe the fact that I am powerless before you,” Ever Free continued, “And that the only course available to me is to appeal to any good within your nature. I’m not sure there is any. Still, if you have any feeling of remorse for your deeds, any sense of obligation to your creations, then spare me this infinitesimal fraction of your eternity. I would have you answer for your crimes. Even a monster as cruel and destructive as you should maintain at least that much dignity.”
A chorus of objections sounded from the five native residents of Ponyville. Rarity’s shout of, “You can’t speak to the princess that way!” Rang out above the rest.
Ever Free stomped a hoof, its impact echoing in the cavernous library. His eyes widened with rage as he ranted, “Be silent! You have no right to lecture me. You have not earned it. You have not seen what I have seen. You have not done what I have done. You have not lost what I have lost. All your experience is not the tiniest sliver compared to mine. I have forgotten a hundred times as many years as any of you could hope to live! All that you think is truth, I know to be lies. All that you think is knowledge, I know to be falsehood. All that you think is wisdom, I know to be folly. You are children, and you will be silent when adults are speaking. If you can’t behave, then I will be forced to ask you to leave.” His tone was threatening in a way that the words were not, and his eyes gleamed feverishly.
The mortal ponies fell quiet, but as they watched the master of the forest, the accusations in their eyes spoke volumes.
Luna voice, utterly calm, broke the tense silence. “Was it really necessary to be so harsh?”
“The truth is often harsh, princess,” Ever Free replied, scowling as he spat the title like an insult.
The dark alicorn snorted and stated wryly, “On that, I grant, we are in agreement.” She sighed. “Even so, five thousand years ago you knew what delicacy was, and kindness. I never expected to hear such words from you.”
“Oh, you think you know me? How, with my cutie mark gone and my face scarred beyond recognition?” The stallion grimaced, twisting his visage further. “Bluffing, Luna? How very distasteful.”
“I don’t need to bluff. Aside from my sister and I, you are the only alicorn capable of creating this forest,” Luna said. She smiled. “It helps that you’re still living in the same library. Do you think that my sister and I are foals?”
Ever Free shrugged, his expression softening into a sheepish smile. “Nothing wagered, nothing gained. I did not know that I lived here before my self-imposed exile.” His eyes narrowed. “If your words are true, that is.”
“They are. In any case, I certainly don’t need to recognize you to know who you are. Or should I say ‘were’?” The alicorn shook her head and sighed. “You are not the stallion you should be. I remember the pony you once were; he would not approve of what you have become.”
“Then you have me at a disadvantage, as you well know,” The stallion replied, “I cannot remember the pony I once was. I only know that I am the pony he made me. He decided what to remember and what to forget. He wrote down only what he knew was worth keeping. He studied those things that were worth remembering. He left behind the parts of himself that were weak, or pitiful, or inferior. This is who he chose to be - who I chose to be. This is what I made of myself!” Ever Free spread his wings wide, throwing forward his chest and raising his chin. He grinned with pride, the expression twisted by the scars on his face. “And it. Is. Glorious.”
A hint of sorrow entered Luna’s voice. “Are you so proud of your wounds? Why do you treasure your past self’s pain?”
“Pain is weakness leaving the body,” the other alicorn spat. He lowered his wings, wincing as he tucked them tight to his sides.
“There has never been weakness in my body,” The princess of the night said, “Yet I have felt agony beyond measure.”
The stallion snorted. “I’m not sure you understand the term. Besides, the rules have always been different for your kind. Weighted in your favor. Do not expect me to pity you because your form is eternally perfect.”
Luna looked to the ground as she murmured, “Our rules are not as different, I think, as you expect.”
“Then why have you never been called to account for crimes that would see a mortal banished or worse?” Ever Free asked.
“I was banished!” The princess insisted. “Or have you not been paying attention for the last thousand years?”
“Time does fly,” Ever Free said. He chuckled, a harsh, cruel sound that seemed to echo off the shelves. “But enough flippancy. You know what I mean. Or perhaps you don’t. Perhaps it all just blends together for you.” He sneered at the princess. “What is one life among millions you’ve ended before their time, after all?”
“I never forget the crimes I’ve committed,” Luna said.
“Then you should answer for them. You and that other all-powerful puppetmistress.” The stallion uttered an exclamation of disgust. “Are you aware of what she did to Twilight Sparkle? It’s no wonder the poor little unicorn wants nothing to do with Celestia.”
“Hey!” Twilight objected.
Ever Free held up a hoof in reassurance as his ever-present glower shifted momentarily into a lopsided grin. “No offense meant, it was merely wordplay.” His tone became hard as he addressed the other alicorn, “In any case, it’s not like Celestia wants anything to do with her. That much is abundantly clear. The ‘princess’ doesn’t give a damn about her protege.”
“My sister values all her students, perhaps more than even she understands, and she cares for this one above all others,” Luna insisted, an earnest energy driving her words, “There is nothing more precious to her.”
“Oh?” The stallion asked, drawing out the word, seeming to take great pleasure in it, “Then why are you here, and not her? Isn’t this her place? Isn’t this her misguided rescue attempt to make?”
Luna’s countenance did not shift, but a sliver of doubt entered her voice. “I cannot speak for her.”
“Of course not. Only for all the worthless pawns she created. Very well. If you cannot speak for her, then bring her here,” Ever Free said, gesturing toward the passage to the outside with a hoof, “Let her come and speak for herself. Let her try to convince Twilight Sparkle to return to exile in a backwater farming town. That’s what you came here for, is it not? Well Celestia clearly has more experience manipulating her dear student, so let the mistress show us how it’s done. I would love to see it!”
Luna stood still for a moment. She glanced from Ever Free to Twilight Sparkle, then closed her eyes and nodded. “Very well. I will try to convince her. I have only one request.”
The stallion’s eyebrows rose. “Oh? Setting conditions?”
The princess frowned at him. “It is to your advantage.” She walked slowly over to the basin of water and dipped a hoof in. Its clear surface clouded, then began to glow a brilliant white. “Come, everypony. You should watch.”
The ponies gathered around the edge of the pool, shielding their eyes from its glare however they could. Ever Free followed and stopped just behind the other alicorn. He craned his neck to look over her shoulder at the source of the light. An echoing crack sounded from the pool, and Fluttershy reared in fright at the unexpected noise.
Luna’s smiled and whispered, “Watch... and listen.”
And with that, she was gone.
In the center of the scrying pool, a shadowed spot appeared amidst the blinding brightness of metal and marble.
* * *
Light dazzled Luna, featureless white brilliance momentarily overloading her ability to perceive. With a blink, she adjusted. Features of the throne room began to appear in the washed-out void. The gaps between columns became visible almost immediately, but the faint glow of stars could not overcome the glare; the rectangles of black emptiness took away all sense of scale, giving the impression that the hall floated alone in empty space. Ice covered the floor and crawled up carvings in the marble. Fingers of frost spread web-like between silver stars in the ceiling. Groups of icicles hung like shining stalactites, their facets reflecting an overwhelming brilliance.
In the center of the room, the source of the radiance sat on her throne. Celestia’s outline wavered, fading as the distinction between the princess and her light blurred. Her mane had lost its color; it waved in the still air, a featureless white sheet. Only one of the alicorn’s features remained sharp: her eyes.
The princess of the night met the other mare’s gaze. Black pupils in the shape of vertical slits stared back, surrounded by blue irises as pale as death. Luna shuddered; her sister’s eyes held all the warmth of winter sun on freshly fallen snow.
Celestia’s voice rang out across the chamber, though she remained motionless, jaw clenched, lips still. “Good evening, Luna.”
“Sister,” the dark alicorn murmured in disbelief before raising her voice, “What is going on here?”
The reply came without emotion or urgency, utterly flat. “Nothing of import; court is out of session today. I am simply waiting for tomorrow’s session to begin.”
Luna raised a hoof, breaking off a coating of ice that had begun to spread upward from the floor. She frowned at it. “How are you going to hold court in here? All the petitioners would end up blind and frozen.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
The smaller sister stomped and a spiderweb of cracks spread from the point of impact. “Sister, I thought you were above this. Didn’t you learn from my example?”
A momentary hint of anger touched Celestia’s sourceless voice. “I am not Nightmare Moon.”
Luna snorted. “And yet you know exactly what I was talking about. Even you aren’t oblivious enough to fail to notice your own transformation.”
“I do what I must.”
The dark mare’s horn flashed, and the ice within a few steps her disappeared with a deafening hiss. “And what ‘must’ you do, sister? Give up? Give in to the worst parts of yourself? Turn into something twisted and destructive? No good can come from this. Suppress these urges. Your favored student needs your guidance now. Without it, she may lose her way forever. And, from what I see, you may lose yours.”
“Twilight Sparkle...,” Celestia paused. “Is nothing to me.”
The night princess took a step toward the throne, and the light of the hall dimmed nearly imperceptibly. “That’s the most blatant lie I’ve ever heard from you, sister. You told me about what you’ve done for her, the education and guidance. It seems a good bit more than nothing to my eye.”
“I accepted her into my school only because she was a potential Element of Magic.”
The ice retreated in the face of Luna’s advance, melting into puddles that disappeared in puffs of steam whenever the alicorn stepped into them. “And yet you adopted her as your personal student, when you could just as easily have watched her from afar.”
“I needed her close, to guide her progress.”
Drops of water began to fall from the ceiling. When one hit the smaller sister’s waving mane, it sizzled away in an instant. “And yet when living in Ponyville was the best thing for her welfare, you let her stay, knowing that she would grow more mature on her own, and possibly grow out of your control.”
“You are back. She has outlived her usefulness.”
The dripping became a light rain and trickling streams ran down the columns, following the curves in the stonework. “And yet the first full conversation we had, before we left Ponyville, was little more than you praising her. You spoke with almost glowing pride. I think it was very nearly the first genuine emotion I’d ever heard in your voice.” As the light’s intensity diminished further, the moon became visible through one of the gaps in the line of columns, no longer too strongly outshone to be seen.
“I was proud of my accomplishment in guiding her, as I would be in the design of any tool that had ably served its purpose.”
A sheet of ice dropped from the ceiling and shattered with a crash, but Luna spoke over the noise. “And yet you asked her to send you reports on friendship. Has she sent any? Have you read them?”
“She sent a few, before she stopped sending letters. I read them.”
“And?” Luna asked.
Celestia’s flat voice changed just a bit as she spoke. “They are much like the lessons I myself learned, five hundred years ago.” The other alicorn could not place the emotion the words carried. Amusement? Nostalgia? Pride?
Stars began to appear, slowly filling the space between the columns. “Why is it important that she learn those lessons?”
“It is not.” Celestia’s voice hardened. “She means nothing to me.”
Luna whispered, but her voice carried over the noise of the streams released by the melting ice. “Sister, think of the time we spent together. Think of the things we’ve accomplished together. Think of where you would still be without me. You owe me the truth. You can never harden your heart enough to deny that. Tell me: who are you trying to convince with these lies?” She continued to advance, step by slow step, toward her sister.
The princess was silent for a time. When she spoke she was as stationary as ever, but her cold detachment was gone. Resignation took its pace. “Myself.”
The dark alicorn nodded grimly. “What do you hope to accomplish?”
“I don’t want to care anymore.”
Luna sighed. “I have been in your place, sister. I have wanted to throw off the weight of my actions. I tried. I failed. The deeds I’ve done will never leave me. We must both bear our pain, sister. You ought to know that. What brought you to this desperation? What weighs so heavy upon you? Share your burden with me, sister; I can help you bear it.” She came to the base of the dais upon which the other alicorn’s throne rested. The dark mare put a hoof on the first step.
Celestia’s disembodied voice shook. “Regret, Luna. I manipulated the pony who believed in me most. She trusted me, and I used her. Logically, it seemed like the right thing to do. I needed you back. It wouldn’t hurt her. She would be better off. I know best, don’t I? Isn’t that right? It feels wrong. So wrong.” The words began to spill forth faster and faster as the ancient alicorn nearly babbled, “I have you back, and it should be good, I should feel justified, like it was a price worth paying, but I don’t. I just can’t stop thinking about how I could have told her everything, and maybe she would have failed you, but I wouldn’t have failed her. Twilight’s innocence could not have lasted forever, but I didn’t have to break it. But then I think about what you would be going through if I hadn’t set her on that course. And I think about how I would have felt about this before I learned how to feel for my creations.” The princess laughed, a short and bitter bark, and the room shook. “Why is it that you always cared for them, but it is only recently that I learned how? And why... why didn’t you warn me how much it hurts? How it can hurt this much to lose just one of them?” The white alicorn’s body still glowed in purest white, but her outline once again clearly defined. Hints of ghostly color began to creep back into the edges of her bone-white mane.
The night princess looked away from her sister. The hall was mostly dark, and the last of the ice was melting away, but the other mare’s eyes had not thawed; they yet held a piercing chill, and Luna could not face it any longer. “Why are we different? I don’t know. Why didn’t I warn you? Because I don’t think you could have understood. I don’t think it’s possible to understand suffering until you’ve felt it. But your pain... you know I can relate. To save the race of ponies from extinction, I sentenced every one of its members to death. Was it the right thing to do? I don’t know. Even if it was, it still haunts me. I feel guilt for having done it and I know I would feel guilt if I had stayed my hoof and refrained. Would they be better or worse off without me? Does it even matter? Perhaps neither option was wrong. Perhaps they are both unforgivable. Sister, I know what it’s like to feel so much and be sure of so little.”
The other princess responded in a voice twisted with self-deprecation, “Ah, grand, a problem that both of us can share.”
Luna climbed another step up the dais. “Not just us, sister. Everypony. I’ve watched them fail, and make mistakes, but so many of them keep going, never giving up. They feel the pain, but they don’t let it stop them. Even the six ponies who wield the Elements live with pain. I think that it has made them stronger, but I still know so little. I have not truly felt their suffering. Perhaps I never will. I don’t know whether or not to celebrate that fact. I do know that trying to ignore pain, in myself or in others, does not make it go away.”
For a moment, the hall was silent. Even the water paused in its flow.
“It was so much easier,” Celestia said, “when I didn’t care.” For the first time since Luna had come into the room, the white alicorn moved; she closed her eyes. “I don’t know why it matters so much to me. I don’t know if I can ever forgive myself. I don’t know if she’ll ever forgive me. I think that’s what hurts the most.”
The princess of the night leapt forward with a flap of her wings and wrapped her forehooves around her sister, hugging the other alicorn close. Luna’s grip slipped on a cold, hard surface, but after a heartbeat she felt the icy shell covering Celestia begin to crack, and then it was gone. She smiled as she felt her fellow princess return the hug. She whispered, “I felt the same for so long, and I’ve only just realized that what’s done is done. If you’ve wronged somepony, there’s nothing you can do to change that fact. All you can do is try to be the best pony you can to them, and work to make up for what you’ve done, even if that’s impossible. Even if it still hurts. We both may be beyond redemption, but there’s always hope. You may still be able to reconcile with your most faithful student. Ponies can be strange and wonderful, and there are some that will forgive the unforgivable just to see you smile.”
Celestia spoke, her mouth finally moving to form the sounds. “Perhaps you’re right, Luna. At the very least, I can try. I owe Twilight that much. There was a report earlier that her life was in danger. Is she safe?”
“Yes, sister,” Luna replied as she broke the long embrace, “But she has been convinced to turn against you by one of the remaining alicorns. The one that rules over the forest around our old home, in fact.”
The regent of the day nodded. Her countenance was still hard, but it no longer looked cruel, and her eyes were warm again. “Then let us go. My students need me.”
The alicorns disappeared, and the throne room was left dark and silent in the warm air of a gentle summer night.