Someone touched her. Only a slight twitch betrayed that Twilight had felt anything at all. She didn’t want to be touched, didn’t want to be reminded that the world was still out there, so she curled in and shut it all out. Even her own thoughts. For once in her life, her incessant internal monologue was stilled.
Bait hesitated. He felt terrible about bothering her, but he couldn’t help it. He wanted to run, to get away from all these frightening new ponies and Princesses and whatever the others were and hide somewhere dark and close and safe. It didn’t matter that they’d said they weren’t going to hurt him. Twilight could help. She could make sense of this. But she was gone right now. Maybe forever. Falling in the rivers did things like that to people. She’d spit the water out, but still. But he couldn’t just leave her here, all alone. She was all he had. In the end, he set himself down just beside her. He lay his head across one leg and hoped no one would notice him there.
Twilight twitched again when something small and skittery crawled over her flank and settled down on her side. Maybe some part of her guessed who that was, but she didn’t want to deal with it, so she didn’t.
Unbeknownst to Twilight, Celestia was looking down at her, caught in a desperate dilemma of how to save her from this. Guilt tore at her. She should have seen this coming! It should have been her, caught by Sobek! Twilight might lose that leg, and Celestia couldn’t even get the girl to let somepony look at it! She danced from one hoof to another. Should she shake her out of it? Would that just make it worse?
She glanced away to see Luna, watching her.
“Come with me.”
She shook her head.
“Yes, Celestia. Come. This way.”
Luna clamped a wing over Celestia and pulled.
“No! I have to-she needs—”
“Our ponies will handle it for now. We must talk. Alone.”
Celestia struggled, but Luna noted that it wasn’t nearly as hard as she might have.
Things were both worse and better than she'd had expected. Twilight and Celestia were still alive, which was wonderful, but the one was catatonic, and the other coming to pieces. Celestia was no use to anypony as she was. Neither of the sisters were, really. They could fight, they could inspire and lead, but the Princesses of Equestria weren’t the best at such mundane tasks as first aid, or setting camp, or providing the simple, basic reassurance that everything was going to be fine and the world wasn’t going to collapse at any second. Often as not, they were the reason the world was about to collapse. Their ponies, however, excelled at such things, so Luna left them to it. It wouldn’t do to have the soldiers see Celestia like this, anyway. Bad for morale. And morale was tantamount in Tartarus.
Luna led her sister out of sight of their ponies and tossed up a quick spell of privacy around them.
“Alright,” she said.
“We don’t have time for this! She needs—”
Luna shook her head.
“She needs you, yes, but you can’t help her as you are. You must see to yourself first. Skies above, Sister, you’re falling apart! Talk to me.”
Celestia abandoned any semblance of composure with alarming speed. She latched onto Luna.
“She could have died! So many times! If she’d made one misstep! I, i-it’s, this is all my fault, Luna!”
Luna returned her embrace.
“I can assure you with all confidence that it is not, Celestia.”
“I didn’t even prepare her, Luna! I could have told her, but I didn’t! I keep getting it wrong! I go crazy when I should be calm, and I drop my guard when," Celestia swallowed, "when I should be there for her! I’m always doing the wrong thing a-and I nearly killed her myself once! And then...If I had just told her! I k-killed something, some gorehounds, in front of her. She ran from me, Luna! The way she looked at me! Like, like I was even worse than, than they were, I—”
Celestia was sobbing, rambling. It had been a long, long time since Luna had seen her in such a state. She stroked her sister’s back, stepping in, gently shushing her.
“I know that you have done all you could to help her.”
“It wasn’t eno—*sniff* enough!”
“It was, Celestia. Come now. You know that Tartarus doesn’t fight fair. It is clever, and devious, and patient. It doesn’t suffer from doubt. It doesn’t tire. And you’re only equine here. You can’t be vigilant forever. But you’ve done what you could. Twilight still lives. She will survive this, and she will be the stronger for it.”
They held each other in silence for a time, Luna providing a solid bit of bedrock on which Celestia could steady herself. Usually, it was Celestia playing this role. Big sister, and all that. But everypony needed help at some point. And if Luna knew Celestia, she was holding something back, letting the guilt of it eat her alive.
“Something gnaws at you. Speak, Celly.” The pet name always got results.
“You heard her, Luna. She’s giving up! You know what happens when…”
Luna cut her off with a sharp shake of her head.
“I won’t hear of it! She hasn’t surrendered! And she will not! She has fallen into herself for now, but she will survive this!”
Her sister wouldn’t look at her. Luna knew a moment of terrible apprehension. Had it truly been so terrible for them? She rejected it.
“Celestia.” Luna took her sister's face in both hooves. “She has not surrendered.”
Celestia sniffled, but finally met Luna’s hardening gaze. She nodded, a bit.
“Say it, Celestia. I want to hear the words.”
Timidly at first, but gaining confidence as she went, Celestia said the words. “She has not surrendered.”
“She is frightened. She is hurt. But your student is strong. You have made certain of that. We will see her home. I am here now, and together, we will never let Tartarus work its will on her. Do you believe me, Sister? Tell me you do.”
Celestia sniffled again, but was standing taller. Ears up, back straight. “Yes. Yes, you’re right. Thank you, Luna.”
Luna only nodded. She hadn’t let Celestia go.
“You were separated?”
Celestia nodded, looking away again. Luna guided her back.
“How long has she been here?”
“Several days, I think. She wouldn’t tell me much, but it’s been bad. As you can see.”
“Indeed. But no matter. We will see this through.”
“Yes.” Celestia nodded, eyes firm again. “We will.”
“There’s the Celestia I know. Oh! And speaking of that, I brought you a gift! This should help you get back on your hooves.”
Luna reached into one of the many folds of her ever shifting robe. She threw it back with no small amount of drama, drawing out a tip of sharp, glittering metal. It took several pulls to get the whole thing out. Neither sister commented on this. Luna just did things like that sometimes.
When she'd finally gotten it all out, Luna thrust the enormous blade into the ground with great satisfaction.
“Do you like it?”
Celestia rushed to it. Her sword. She came to her eagerly, all several hundred pounds of her taking flight without the slightest hint of effort.
The word came out as a sigh. Celestia stroked the flat of one blade with her cheek, a flood of relief surging visibly through her at being reunited with this little part of herself. The sword positively glowed with affection. Luna gave the two of them a moment together.
“I tried to get Aegis to come as well, but you know how he is.”
“Yes. Thank you, Luna. Thank you.”
“Are you ready to return?”
“Yes.” She shook herself out a bit. “May I ask one thing, before we go?”
“Why in all the horrible Hells did you bring more ponies into this!?”
“Hah!” barked Luna. “You’re one to talk. Who’s the boy?”
The Princesses were clearly bickering as they strode back to the others, but their words seemed somehow pleasant, despite their heat.
“They volunteered, Celestia! ‘Tis a compliment to you that they would do so regardless of the risk. And I knew I would need extra eyes, besides.”
“That’s flagrantly irresponsible, Luna! Pony’s lives are at stake here!”
“Indeed! Yours! And Twilight’s! And so I told them! Should I have insulted our guard by insisting they were incapable?”
“That’s not what I was saying at all!”
The guards shared a collective look. It passed between pegasus and nyxie alike, unhindered by such trivialities as race. This had the sound of an old, well-worn argument. It was kind of reassuring, actually. Which, of course, was the entire point.
Twilight heard noises around her. The quiet shuffling of ponies moving around, chatting amongst themselves. She didn’t listen. The only sense she paid any attention too just now was something she didn’t have a word for. It wasn’t sight, but she kept trying to think of it that way. Maybe just because that was one she knew best. It was more like the vague sensations of her magic. Pseudo-touch and not-quite-smell. She knew there were ponies around her. And, strangely, she knew they were close. Not to her, not in terms of distance (though they were that too), but emotionally close. They shared a bond. New, in some cases, but still clear and strong. One, separate from the rest, was linked directly to her. Timid, but more resilient than it seemed. Another, similar, but less afraid, was also there, bound to her. She didn’t understand how she knew these things. She tried to ignore them.
A pony lay down beside her at some point, at her back, big and warm and close. She laid a wing over her, and Twilight ignored that too.
This one had a bond with her too, far deeper than the others. And much more confusing.
Twilight didn’t want to think about this. She pushed it away.
Somepony else lay down near Twilight’s head, cool where the other was warm, but just as pleasant. She spoke in a calm voice to the rest. Twilight didn’t hear the words. Just the sound. This one was bound to her as well, and to the rest, but in a way Twilight couldn’t figure out. Some of the others replied in turn. She wished they’d all just stop, but slowly, gradually, the things outside worked their way in.
The problem was that ponies were natural cuddlers. Put twenty of them in an open field and they’d all immediately gravitate to a single point. Herding instinct was strongest in foals, but it never really went away, and it brought with it a simple, subconscious comfort in the closeness of others. It was so deeply ingrained that the others didn’t even have to be a pony. A wight would do, for instance, or even a friendly spider. And a pair of Princesses, well, what could make a girl feel safer than that? And, of course, there was Twilight’s own curiosity to contend with. That one was friggin’ relentless.
Someone started grooming her mane. The old-fashioned way, with lips and tongue and teeth. It felt nice, and Twilight couldn’t bring herself to make whoever was doing it stop. The sounds of her little herd carried on, wrapping her in the pleasant illusion of safety in numbers. She tried to keep apart from it all, but there was really only so much she could do.
Her breath, sharp and frenzied, started to slow. Her taut muscles relaxed. The tight little circle she’d locked herself into gradually began to open. She might even have slept a little.
Time passed, though Twilight didn’t much notice. Her senses, the normal ones, came back slowly, sounds and smells and feelings trickling in and regaining focus at their own unhurried pace. Most of that was fine, but there was something coming in that she’d really rather not deal with right now. She shifted slightly and it got worse.
One particular noise came from just before her. A voice. It was soft and cool. Soothing. She heard someone respond, and recognized Bait’s quiet tones.
The cool voice spoke again. One of Twilight’s ears angled toward it on reflex.
“I'll try,” said Bait. “Um, Twilight?”
“This lady wanted to ask if you were awake so she could look at your leg.”
Twilight tried to turn away, but every little movement hurt. It hurt more, and more, and maddeningly more until, finally…
Twilight’s eyes blinked open. She raised her head, the wing that had covered it folding back into place. She looked blearily around.
As Twilight said the words, that little trickle of unpleasantness from before burst up in a geyser of real pain.
Twilight tried to run from it, as if she could simply move away from what hurt her. A wing wrapped around her as a familiar voice spoke. It was steady, calm, and mercilessly firm.
“Shhh. Alright, take it easy, Twilight. Don’t try to move.”
“Pr’ncess!? How did…”
Twilight looked down. Her leg was a mess of dried blood and torn skin and Goddess it hurt! How had she slept through this!? She thought she should panic, but her feelings were all slow and confused, so she just stared at it.
“Just stay still, Twilight. And, please be careful with your sword. It’s really quite sharp.”
The memory of what had happened in the water and after it and of everything else oozed unwelcomely in. But she didn’t remember any swords.
Her eyes followed Celestia’s, and Twilight finally saw what they had been talking about. She just stared at it for what felt like a long time.
Someone cleared her throat.
Twilight’s eyes slid to the speaker. The point of the ‘sword’ did too. Luna. She smiled.
“We can talk about that in a moment,” she said, gesturing to the pointed thing. “But for now, Twilight Sparkle, this is Sidewinder, and her assistant, Brevity. I’d like to have her take a look at your leg, if you don’t mind.”
“What? Uh, sure.”
Twilight handed her leg over in something of a daze, sure she was still dreaming. The next few moments cured her of that.
“Does this hurt you much, M’lady?” Sidewinder took her leg and slowly straightened it out.
Twilight fought not to scream as her was leg stretched, but all she said was “Yes.” The sword, which Celestia seemed to think was hers, snapped its point toward the nyxie. A flood of information came as the blade considered her. Distance from here to there, the speed with which it could cross it, estimated hardness of her skin and muscle. The best places to stab or cut her to make her stop—
Twilight pulled hard away from the thought. Then wing holding her tightened.
“It’s alright. It won’t do anything you don’t want it to, Twilight.” The voice came from just behind her. Celestia. “You just need to be careful.”
“What is it?” Twilight asked.
“It’s your sword, dear,” said Luna. Twilight vaguely remembered that she had said that before.
Twilight knew what they were. She’d seen several in museums. A sword was a weapon, a slim, sharp bit of metal. They were a relic from back in the days when ponies had still made war. Only unicorns and the fine control their magic gave them could wield the things, and even then, it was tricky. Sharp, thin objects were slippery to magic, so the better made swords had a rounded hilt on one end for easier gripping. Pegasi had used something similar called a lance that they’d rigged up to specially made saddles, but they were clumsy things, suited mostly for formation fighting or formalized duels. Not nearly versatile enough to handle one-to-one combat. Earth ponies hadn’t bothered with weapons at all, having discovered to the great chagrin of the other tribes that their greater size, backed up with a bit of armor-plating, was weapon enough. Or so she’d heard. Before she’d come here, Twilight had had trouble believing any of that stuff was even real.
Was that really what this was? A sword?
“Why is it..?” Twilight couldn’t think of a way to finish the thought, so she just left it.
“It’s, well, it’s a means of expression, I suppose. Of what you are, Twilight.” Celestia again. “Of your will.”
“It is the weapon you will wield from this day forward. Greater than any other, forged from your very soul!” proclaimed Luna, with grand drama. Rather more casually, she added “It’s lovely. Does it have a name yet?”
Sidewinder, meanwhile, very professionally ignored all of this. She poured water over Twilight’s leg, rinsing it clean to get a better survey of the damage.
“She,” said Twilight, wincing as Sidewinder worked. “Insight.” She stopped and blinked, surprised that the answer had come so easily. Surprised it had been there at all.
“Hah! How perfect! Sharp, incisive, straight to the point. She suits you well.”
Sidewinder poured something else over her leg, something that bubbled as it hit the broken skin. She scrubbed lightly at the wounds, cleaning them further. It hurt a great deal.
Twilight looked again at the object of this discussion, but harder this time. Anything to keep herself from thinking about whatever horrible thing Sidewinder was doing with her leg.
She beheld a long blade of mauve crystal. It turned toward her, then angled to one side, so that she might see it better. She watched, mouth falling slightly open as it moved. She wasn’t holding it up. No aura of magic kept the blade aloft. It spun for her, just as she thought to have it do so. It danced in the air, sailing through some complex pattern Twilight had been half-imagining. It did exactly what she wanted, as if it knew her thoughts. No. That wasn’t right. It was her thoughts. Part of them, anyway.
She could swear the sword was preening for her, just a bit.
“What does she want? And, why, I mean..?”
It wasn’t just a blade, actually. It was a star, six pointed. The blade of it was just a point that extended further than the rest. There was a second star, smaller, branching out from within the first, making the sword twelve-pointed in all. The smaller star was a clean, pale white. And there were five more, similar, but smaller, whirling slowly around it the two big ones. Her cutie mark…
“Oh, I think you’ll find her wants are simple enough,” said Luna. “But feel free to ask her.”
Twilight did so. The answers came even as she asked. What Insight seemed to want was to cut things. To exercise her purpose. To be useful. She kept feeding Twilight information. Ranges, velocities, estimations of threat and projected odds that she could handle them. Not thoughts, exactly, and not in simple numbers. Just…knowledge. It was like having a personal secretary in her mind, one with a very specific field of interest. The constant stream of data wasn’t invasive or overwhelming, though, because Insight wasn’t exactly a separate being. She was just Twilight, albeit with a different understanding of the world. Her will, like Celestia had said. Or, a form of that will, anyway. Luna had called her a weapon, but…
“But worry on all that later. This is a wonderful moment for you, Twilight!” exclaimed Luna. “We all birth our own swords eventually, but to have yours come to you so soon! I am so proud of you! May I?”
Twilight wasn’t quite sure what Luna was asking, but before she could give an answer, the Moon Princess reached out to touch Insight with a bit of magic, trying to hold her. Twilight honestly wasn’t sure which of them, Insight or herself, recoiled from it, but the blade whipped and spun, severing the spell, literally cutting the magic to pieces.
But…but magic isn’t a physical thing. You can’t just cut a spell!
Insight seemed immensely pleased at having surprised Twilight so.
“Hah! I guess not! Feisty little thing, isn’t she?” Luna craned her neck forward, admiring this young new sword. “But here! Where are my manners? Allow me to introduce Thousand Gleaming Shards in the Darkest of Nights!”
Luna turned away and struck a regal pose, spreading her wings to full splendor. The dozens of blades that were Thousand Gleaming…uh, the sword-with-the-very-long-name presented themselves in flamboyant display.
Twilight stared at the array of fantastical knives. Calling that wonder of metal and magic a ‘sword’ seemed almost an insult. It was nothing like the bits of scrap Twilight had seen in those dusty old museums. There were so many, and no two were quite the same. They drifted in silence, floating without effort to line up over the primary feathers of Luna’s wings. They almost looked like feathers themselves, graceful and thin and flowing, but Twilight knew without trying them that they were unbreakable, and lethally sharp. Still, something in her wanted to touch them, if only to prove they were real. She couldn’t seem to get an accurate count of them. Maybe, like her mistress, the weapon was beyond such simple categorization. Insight couldn’t get a count on her either, and there seemed to be a bit of friction between the two swords that Twilight didn’t understand. Insight clarified: The two had clashed earlier. Insight now knew she couldn’t cut Shard, and that didn’t sit well with her. And one more thing. She had been trounced in that fight.
Also, Thousand Gleaming Shards in the Darkest of Nights struck her as a bit of a snot.
“You may think of her simply as Shard, though,” said Luna with a grin, admiring Twilight’s admiration.
“Oh. Sure. Um. Birth?”
“Quite so!” Luna collapsed her little show and turned back to face Twilight. “They’re borne of what we are, so that’s how we say it. Don’t think too hard about it. Celestia!” She poked the other with a hoof. “Show her yours!”
Twilight and Celestia caught each other’s eyes. Celestia smiled, but it seemed strained. She looked a little bashful actually, though Twilight couldn’t guess why. Was it supposed to be embarrassing, showing off your sword? Luna didn’t seem to think so. Was Celestia afraid Twilight wouldn’t be impressed?
“This is Hyperia.”
Twilight’s mouth just about fell open. The thing was huge. Where Shard held a delicate, deadly grace, Hyperia exuded nothing but solid, invincible might. She had almost no ornamentation at all, expressing her beauty instead through an elegant simplicity of design. She was a blade, nothing more. In her center was a small bit of handle of the same golden metal as everything else Celestia wore. A few inches of guard ran up the sides of the blade from there, but other than that, Hyperia was all gleaming steel and shining blade. Pure, glorious function. She was massive, taller than Celestia herself, several hoof-spans across at her widest, and though she might be a blade, nothing more, she was certainly nothing less either. She looked like she could cleave a mountain in two.
The weapon wafted through the air as if nothing in the world could hope to oppose her. She acknowledged Insight with a simple, respectful tilt. Twilight could swear she felt Insight blush.
Luna smirked at Twilight's open-mouthed awe, rolling her eyes a bit. She muttered something under her breath. Twilight couldn't be certain, but she thought it might have been
Whether she referred to Celestia or Twilight or Hyperia herself was not immediately apparent.
Insight, for her part, hovered close to Twilight, perhaps feeling a bit inadequate and overwhelmed by these beings that were so clearly greater than herself. Twilight knew how that went.
“Princess? This may feel a bit strange.” It was Sidewinder.
“What? Oh, sure.”
There was a series of high-pitched chittering sounds, and a slight, odd pain shot up Twilight’s leg. She cringed, but, to her relief, the not-exactly-awkward-but-certainly-confusing moment between the swords had ended in favor of this new interaction.
“What was that?”
“Sorry, Your Majesty. I just had to sonar your leg a little. I apologize if I hurt you.”
Oh, right. Nyxies did that. It was how they could fly at night. Twilight hadn’t ever considered the use of sonic perception in medicine, but she did now. Insight picked it up easily. With a slight ringing note, she resonated, and Twilight briefly heard her own insides. It was bizarre. But that could be useful for all kinds of things. She could search for irregularities in a patient’s physiology, or learn the unseen features of a structure…or vibrate at just the right frequency to blast armor and bone into dust...
“It’s,” Twilight swallowed, “fine.”
“What did you find?” asked Celestia.
Sidewinder looked at Luna before she answered. The Princess nodded.
“It’s broken, M’lady. In two places." She pointed to just below Twilight’s knee."Here." She then pointed to somewhere above Twilight's ankle. “And here. It’s…” she looked to Luna again, and the Princess gestured her forward. “It’s bad, Princess. We need to get you to a real doctor. I can get you a splint for now, but—”
Twilight looked down at her leg. The skin was split and swollen. There were big, ugly divots there, but still. It didn’t look that bad.
Insight disillusioned her, filling her head with a remorseless flood of information she didn’t want to have. There was no malice in the sword’s actions, she was just doing what she was meant to do. She provided knowledge, and knowledge itself could never be evil. But it could darn sure be unpleasant. Twilight shut her eyes tight against the tears that fought to be free. She asked a question she already knew the answer to.
“Am I going to be lame?”
“No! No, Princess. I’m just a medic, but I don’t think so. But we need to get you to a doctor, a unicorn that can do real surgery. For now, we’ll have to settle for a splint. Wit! get me some gauze, and—“
Sidewinder was lying. She didn’t know it, but Insight did. All the signs were there. The bone was splintered at both points. Splintering was one of the worst kinds of break, and Twilight had two of them. It wouldn’t heal right, even if they did somehow get her to a hospital right now and put her under the care of some genius surgeon. She’d never be what she’d been before. It would hurt for the rest of her life. If she even lived at all…
“Use the panacea we brought,” said Luna. “The whole supply, if you must, and bandage her leg. We shall handle the rest.”
Twilight had thought she’d hit the bottom already, that things couldn’t get worse, but somehow the thought of a lifelong injury made all of this feel real in a way nothing else had. She tried to be realistic. Losing a leg wasn’t so bad, right? She had three more. And she wasn’t really even losing it. Sure, she’d have a limp from now on, but…unless it got infected, which it almost certainly had, now that she’d held off any sort of treatment for so long…
But anyway! A little pain was better than being dead, right? She’d been so sure she was dying before, more than once, and she’d come through all that, right? This was a step up, really.
But it would never stop, would it? This would hurt her forever. Maybe it would be best if she just…
She was trying. She really was. But it wasn’t working. Those dark thoughts just kept sneaking in, and Twilight couldn’t seem to find the resolve to face them anymore. She couldn’t remember why she’d fought so hard, those other times. Why keep struggling, when maimed was all it got her? How was she supposed to fight a whole world?
“Don’t bother,” she heard herself say.
“Beg pardon, Twilght?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
There was a long pause. Perhaps looks were shared, Twilight didn’t see. She was staring at her ruined leg, at the watered-down blood on the ground, at the new streams of it that oozed from her wounds. There was no color more vivid, Twilight thought, than the crimson of one’s own life, flowing away.
“Twilight. Look at me.”
When she didn’t react, Twilight felt a hoof at her chin. It lifted her face up, forced her eyes to meet the wall of violet intensity that was Celestia’s gaze.
“We are going to make it, Twilight.”
Her voice was solid, unwavering. It should have been reassuring. Any other day and it would have filled Twilight to the brim with confidence. But something was wrong this time. Everything was wrong…
“You are going to be alright! Do you hear me!?”
Twilight said nothing. Something in Celestia’s face crumbled. She felt bad about it. She didn’t want her to be upset, but she didn’t know what to say, or why she even should. It seemed almost a cruelty, for them to even try to make her carry on. What good was more pain? Why not just stop?
A bell tolled in the distance. A soft, wailing moan carried through the air. All heads turned toward it. But not Twilight’s, and not Celestia’s.
“No,” said Celestia. Her eyes, her face, her whole countenance, were squeezed shut, as if she could push it away by sheer force of will. Hyperia took to the air, agitated. Celestia’s voice shook with something terrible. “Not now!”
“Troops! Form a line alongside me! Kneel, and be respectful, as you would for a funeral procession. No harm will come to you, but do not take anything that is offered! Am I understood!?” Acknowledgments sounded to Luna’s bellowed commands. More softly, she said, “Be at peace, Sister. There is nothing to fear.”
Celestia gathered herself with a visible effort. She drew Twilight to the side of the road, taking a seat there. She looked afraid. She looked angry. Maybe somewhere between the two. Her words came out terse, but softened quickly.
“It’s going to be alright, Twilight. The Procession can be disturbing, but it is as Luna said. Be respectful, take nothing that is offered, and you’ll be fine. Understand?”
“Twilight Sparkle is a grown mare, Celestia. She can take care of herself. And besides,” Luna positioned herself to Twilight’s other flank. She caught her eye, winked at her, nudged her with one wing. “She won’t want what he offers anyway. She has far too much waiting for her at home to give up now.”
“Yes. Of course! You’re right, Luna. She has so many wonderful friends to reunite with, after all,” said Celestia, picking up a thread Twilight couldn’t see. She looked slowly from one Princess to the other.
“Her family will certainly wonder where she’s been,” continued Luna. “And every good mare leaves a trail of lovers. Terrible shame, to never see those again.”
“I, uh, yes. And what would the library do without her?”
What were they doing?
Before anypony could say more, a thick fog rolled over the line of ponies and their Princesses. It blanketed everything in a veil of cool blue-white. It wasn’t but a few seconds before Twilight could barely see across the road. The bell from before tolled again, rich and hollow in the mist. The sounds of a plaintive, sobbing wail crept into the misty air. Not a scream. There was no fear in it. Only mourning.
Something small and bony worked its way in next to her, between her and Celestia. But not really between. He was an addition.
Twilight looked down. Bait looked up, afraid. She put a wing over him, wishing she knew what to say. Her eyes turned back to the fog.
The first Twilight saw of the Procession was a single pony, ghostly and ethereal. A pegasus. She trod slowly, wings over her eyes. Though a trail of tears leaked from a face unseen, there was no great drama to her. She didn’t howl into the darkness, or bemoan her fate, or any other such thing. Just cried, quiet and profound. She was followed by more. A pair of earth ponies, their manes falling over their eyes, a steady stream of tears dripping from their stained hair as they went. A trio followed them, this one holding a member of each tribe. One, the unicorn, held his head up high, but he, too, cried. They all did.
More followed. Tens of them. Dozens. Maybe hundreds. Many grieved, as the first had. They cried, or wailed in that haunting way, or just walked, silent, caught up in their own world. They weren’t all ponies. More and more, the race of the mourners varied. Griffons trod the road alongside cattle and minotaurs and monsters and other creatures Twilight didn’t even have names for. Not all of the walkers mourned, at least not in the way Twilight knew. Some merely stared, looking nowhere but ahead. A few actually smiled, seeing nothing as they wandered forward in a sort of mindless peace Twilight found herself intensely jealous of. A very tiny few of them looked at her, watching her as she watched them. Their eyes held nothing at all. No pain. No fear. Only acceptance of the world around them. She couldn’t meet such a gaze for long, and she didn’t know why.
One, an earth pony, stopped before Celestia. Her lips moved, but Twilight heard nothing. Celestia nodded, saying something in return. Twilight couldn’t hear it. Celestia looked close to tears, but the ghostly pony smiled, said something more, then walked on. Luna had a few stop before her as well, but all in a silence Twilight couldn’t penetrate. She didn’t ask about it.
Twilight couldn’t say how long she sat there watching before the master of this strange ceremony finally arrived. Like so many things in Tartarus, it could have been forever, or no time at all.
He was a magnificent specimen of a stallion. Tall, powerfully muscled, with a coat as glossy and black as night, poised with a regal bearing. He wore an elaborate suit of ceremonial armor, as ancient as it was magnificent. It covered him from chest to shin in dark metal, yet left his great wings free. Only one thing held him from perfection: He had no head.
So. The headless horse was real. That was a real thing. Parts of Twilight were deeply offended by this.
A group of ponies followed him. Six of them, there were, two from each tribe. Each was black as the void, yet they gleamed in the light of the fog. They, too, were headless. They pulled a great carriage, its wheels grinding slowly over the dust of the road. Upon it rested a grand, austere stone coffin. Twilight knew somepony lay within, but she couldn’t quite see whom. It was important. She knew it was. But she didn’t dare crane her neck to look, not yet. Instead, she turned back to the leader of the Procession.
He came to a slow stop just before Twilight, turning to face her. Such as he could, with no head. The pallbearers stopped with him, staring straight ahead. Thick plumes of fog poured out of the Headless Horse’s open neck, obscuring what lay within. Twilight decided that was probably for the best, until she realized she was breathing that stuff in.
“Princess Celestia,” he intoned, bowing slightly, spilling more fog. “And Princess Luna.” He bowed again. His voice resonated through the murk. “It is a pleasure, as always.”
Oh, wait. He did have a head. It was fixed to his saddle by a hook. Its eyes watched them with all the calm of the grave.
“Dullahan,” acknowledged Celestia. She seemed like she was about to say more, but the black, headless horse stepped in.
“I don’t believe I’ve met you, m’lady. May I have your name?” He turned his body slightly, so that his disembodied head could look at Twilight only. He had a horn. He was an alicorn.
“Twilight Sparkle,” she said, unthinking.
“Ahh. I thank you. ‘Tis a rare thing indeed to meet a new Princess. I offer you my condolences for having fallen into Tartarus. How has It been treating you, if I might ask?”
“Dullahan, stop this!” The mist-lit world ignited as Celestia shoved her way between them. “There is nothing for you here, just move on!”
There was a long silence. Twilight thought the fog might be growing thicker.
“I fear that is not true, Celestia."
“She is not yours to take!”
“I take nothing that is not given freely. And now, I am afraid I must send you elsewhere, that I and Princess Twilight might speak in peace.”
“What!? Don’t you d—“
A wave of fog rolled over Celestia, and then, with only an indignant flare of radiance, she was gone. Everypony was gone. It was just Twilight and Dullahan now.
“I apologize, Princess. Lady Celestia does not appreciate my work, but I thought that you might.”
Twilight said nothing at first. She called out though, in her own mind, and Insight answered. She was here, and that was a comfort. Dullahan’s eyes took in the sword, but he seemed unconcerned. The procession carried on around them, creatures without number walking slowly onward, sobbing or wailing or grieving in silence.
“So. What’s your work, then?”
“Before I answer, I would ask again. How has Tartarus treated you, m’lady?”
Twilight looked down at her leg. She wrapped her tail around herself.
“It’s been awful.”
Neither one said anything more for a long time. Twilight didn’t think they had to. It had been a simple exchange, but she’d felt genuine sympathy in Dullahan. He understood.
“I wish I could say your suffering was unique,” he said, echoing. “But I am afraid it is all too common here.”
“Yeah, I caught that.”
Another long stretch of nothing.
“What is it that you want, Dullahan?”
“That is what I would offer you, Twilight Sparkle. You have had a good life. I see that in you. But recent times have, perhaps, shown you how fragile that happiness can be. You have been shaken to the very fiber of your being. You have seen that your experience may be the exception, rather the rule upon which you have based your view of the world. Am I correct?”
Twilight pulled tighter into herself.
“It is not your fault that life is this way, Twilight Sparkle. To change such things is beyond even the greatest of us.”
Even now, she tried.
“That’s not true. Princess Celestia and Luna did it. They made Equestria better.”
“Fair enough. But how did they accomplish this?”
Twilight didn’t speak, though she suspected she knew where he was going with this.
“They removed the elements they found unsavory. To make life in Equestria more palatable—“
“They made everything in Tartarus worse,” spat Twilight. “Yeah, fine, I get it. But why did you bring me here?”
“To offer you an alternative. An end to all this pain. A conclusion. And a chance to give your misery a greater meaning.” He strode to the carriage and lifted an ornate chalice from it, wrapping the cup in a shroud of magic.
“I don’t understand.”
He came to her, stopping some feet away, placing the goblet within easy reach.
“Very, very few who come to Tartarus escape. You have fought It, and fought well, but in the end, your resilience may lead to naught but greater torment. Your companions wish you the best, but they may lack your strength. Will you watch as they fall, throwing themselves away, thinking they help you? Will you cling to the tiny thread of hope their sacrifice grants you? Hope is a cruel addiction, Twilight Sparkle. It sneaks in at every turn, buoying you up only that you might be dragged down again. And there is always further to fall.” Dullahan let that sink in. “But you can let go of all that. Drink of this, and it will bring an end to all that has happened to you. You will be free of doubt, of responsibility, of expectation. Of all your terrible pain. You may join us, if you wish. Your tale will become an eternal inspiration, a monument to the tragedy of life and death. Or you may go your own way, as so many have before. But it will be by your own hoof, rather than according to the cruel vagaries of fate, or the machinations of Tartarus.”
“It’s death, Twilight. Surrender.”
She started, looking behind her. Luna?
“Peace, Dullahan. I am not my sister. I won’t interfere. I only wish to help her understand.”
Dullahan clearly had misgivings, but he bowed slightly and allowed the Moon Princess to remain.
“Death is one word for what I offer, yes. Surrender, though…no. I would call it acceptance.”
“I…” started Twilight. “What do you mean, an inspiration? A monument?”
“Join the procession. Walk with us, until the end of everything. All who see us are changed, one way or another. A vision of death can inspire a greater striving for life.” Twilight thought he might have almost smiled at that. “And many other things, besides. There is great satisfaction to be gained in playing the muse, rather than the hero.”
Twilight looked away from him, watching the endless Procession instead.
“They don’t seem very satisfied, Dullahan.”
“They’ve found peace in their sorrow,” said Luna. “Though it may not seem so at first glance. Once acknowledged, that feeling can be...” Luna closed her eyes, searching herself for the words. “Exquisite.” She watched the mourners, never looking away. Twilight turned to her, and saw something like longing in her eyes. “They have stories, Twilight. All of them. They’ll tell you, if you ask.”
Dullahan nodded his headless neck, but it was Luna who spoke.
“You could be so much here. Your story could light the fire that drives an entire generation. You could change a whole world! You have such heart, Twilight! But you must be willing to give up everything for it.” Luna’s eyes found her, and held her.
Twilight thought of her friends, back home. If she never came back, what would they do? They’d suffer, obviously. They’d wrack themselves with guilt, probably, never knowing what had happened, maybe even thinking it had somehow been their fault. But they’d move on, eventually. That was what ponies did. You couldn’t just sit there and cry forever. She thought of her family, of Mom and Dad and Shiny and Cadance. They’d do the same. It would hurt them terribly for a while, then they’d move on. And Celestia and Luna, too. This couldn’t be the first time they’d lost somepony. Celestia had said it herself. Everypony died around them. They’d live.
Twilight reached out, taking the chalice in her magic. She gazed into it. The liquid within was perfectly clear. It smelled of nothing. Of oblivion. Her oblivion.
She cut the chalice in two and let its poison spatter into the dirt. She didn’t even give herself time to worry over what Dullahan might do about it. Just turned and started hobbling away.
She heard a hollow laugh as she went. She was almost angry. Angry at him, for showing up at this one darned moment, when she was weak, and for having the gall to offer such a thing like it was some kind of favor. Angry at herself for even thinking of accepting it. And angry at him again for being right: this little 'vision' had inspired her, and it was infuriating!
“And what of you, little one?”
Twilight whipped around.
“Life has been terribly unfair to you, Bait, from the very beginning…”
Twilight was charging in before she even thought about it.
“You get away from him!”
How dare Dullahan talk to him! As if the kid didn’t have enough to worry about! But at her core, Twilight knew that she wasn’t really angry. She was afraid. Terribly afraid that Bait would say yes.
Because his life had been unfair.
And she’d taken him away from everything he’d ever known.
And all she’d done since then was put him in more danger.
And so she charged, and as the fog rolled in, pushing her away from him, she realized she might never have been more scared in her life.