The Bright Side of the Moon

by Crescent Minor

4. A Walk Inside

The alarm cast its blinding light, and Luna protected her eyes. The room was filled with quite un-princess-like cursing and threats to the unicorn who’d invented that wretched thing. Shielding herself from its malicious flashing with one hoof, Luna managed to shut the alarm off. Rubbing the blinding after-image out of her eyes, she sighed heavily.
“There has got to be something better ...” she mumbled. Lights and appliances in Equestria typically weren’t made with the nocturnal in mind, and she couldn’t very well ask the thestrals of her guard for advice; they were woken by the barracks alarm bell.
Well, she didn’t have time to think about it now. She’d set the blasted orb to go off early tonight, allowing her time to take a necessary precaution for the evening.
The princess got to her hooves and lit her horn. She readied her dreamdiving spell in gentle increments. It wasn’t necessary to use the full spell for this and cross over; no, this would only require that she could touch the other realm. When a small, circular rip opened in the air, revealing the shimmering depths of the dream realm beyond, Luna paused. That was far enough. She prepared a different spell, one of numbness and forgetfulness, and sent it through the hole. The cyan energy rippled outward, on its way to touch every corner of the dreamscape. Satisfied, she released the diving spell and allowed the rip in reality to seal itself. What she’d administered could be described as ‘dream anesthetic’, something that may not prevent her little ponies from having nightmares, but wouldn’t allow them to remember feeling the fear and pain when they awoke. It had to be used sparingly, as it was no substitute for properly handling and dispelling the terrors, but it could protect them from suffering any serious mental damage when she wasn’t on-duty.
And tonight, she couldn’t be. It had been days since she’d thought of trying to study her own dreamscape, and now she’d finally made an opportunity to go through with it. Luna hurried through the moonrise, even through the starpainting; maybe there would be another astronomy error tonight, but she couldn’t care about that now. Every spare minute was needed for her investigation. When the bare minimum of the night sky was rendered, she trotted straight back to her quarters, planning on skipping her meal. Celestia, knowing of her plan, wouldn’t miss her at breakfast.
Luna shut her bedroom door behind her, and locked it. She took a deep breath, steadying herself for the task ahead. She couldn’t in good conscience overuse that anesthetic spell, which meant that it would be at least a few weeks before she could clear another whole evening for introspection. Her mental investigation must be methodical and efficient, for this time could not be wasted.
She summoned her dreamdiving spell once more, forcing its power to build rapidly. The bead of light sped down her horn, but instead of casting it off when it reached the point, Luna pulled it inward, back to its source. Her body went numb, her vision darkened completely, until …
… she opened her eyes inside the dream realm, standing on the imaginary floor. She looked around at her construct, seeing that everything was just as she’d left it. The colours were comfortingly cool and constantly blending into slightly different shades of purple and blue. Despite the ever-evolving hues, the structure of the walls and floor was solid; the circular room looked not unlike an ornate foyer, with one wide curving hallway leading off. With a wave of her hoof, she brought up the map.
A detailed layout of her construct appeared in the air before her. Tiny points of light represented each separately contained element, strung together with connecting paths. The many individual lines and dots would be confusing at first, until one noticed that the overall pattern was a spiral, built around a wide main hallway; for as she’d once explained to Discord, it was always a hallway. The points along the outer edge of the spiral were pale, less important, but grew brighter and closer together the further in they went, culminating in a hooful of brilliant lights holding the center. Having just entered, Luna stood at the tail end of the spiral. She looked down the main hallway with its gentle curve, twisting away into the elements she’d come to examine … and turned from it to a side-room, a tiny, pale point barely visible on the map, at the very edge. This was a very recent addition, and it needed but a moment of her attention before she could do what she came here for.
Its doorway was covered by a thick, black curtain, something to separate it from her mind at large. Luna nosed the fabric aside, and placed her hooves carefully as she entered the shrouded alcove. It wasn’t as though the inhabitant could hear the sounds, but it still seemed appropriate to be as silent as possible. She came up against a second door, though to call it such was misleading; this was a solid, metal wall, locked with a bar as thick around as her barrel. It hadn’t functioned as an openable door since its creation, and the plan was that it never would. She put one hoof to the slotted peephole, and reluctantly slid the heavy piece out.
Through the tiny window, there it was, sealed in a clear crystal orb. The Tantabus was formless in its comatose state, a puddle of glittering smoke at the bottom of the sphere. As she watched, it was undulating just slightly, in and out, like the breath of a sleeping animal. The creature, made of raw magic as it was, could not be unmade once it was made. Nor could they risk it being extracted from the dreamscape and held somewhere on the material plane. Outside, anything could happen, any rockslide or abandoned guard post or deliberate meddling by evil creatures could release this living nightmare into the world. But inside Luna’s mind, it could be kept thusly: still alive, but inert, unaware, and interred in this vault.
Forever, if she could manage it.
Luna’s eyes creased with sympathy, knowing that her monster had no understanding of what had happened to it, nor what it had done to deserve this imprisonment. It had only ever followed her orders. Luna had been everything to it: she’d brought it to life, given it its purpose, housed it, and been the one to hunt it down and lock it away in the end. It was only fair to visit whenever she was on the inside, no matter how pressed for time she was, and take a moment to remember what she was responsible for.
Her duty done, she emerged from the prison cell back into her mind proper, and started her walk down the hallway.
She reached a door, next to a large, darkened window. On her map, this was one of the first, palest points. She willed the window to brighten, and looked in to newly revealed sight. Inside was an imaginary pony, an exact representation of Luna, gleefully pulling back on a pumpkin catapult. Within anypony’s mind, every element of their personality was given physical representation, often very close to the appearance of the pony themselves. Most others allowed all these representations to run amok in a crowd of emotionally disparate clones, but Luna kept her dreamscape to a higher standard of order. Therefore, every little building block of her personality was contained separately in their own area, behind their own door, and ordered by their relative dominance in her mind.
This silly apparition was obviously meant to be Playfulness. It released the catapult and crowed with excitement as the pumpkin soared off into the ether, and ran to chase after it beyond the sight of the window. Luna smiled affectionately, a little regretful that it had to be kept so far on the outskirts, so small a part of her mind. But then, a leader couldn’t allow such foolishness to define their personality overmuch. That was how it must be.
Moving on down the hall, she passed several of the less important elements. Suspiciousness watched her as she walked by with horn lowered, while Daydreamer sat on its own in the corner drawing little pictures on the walls, without taking any notice of its visitor. There were many smaller facets of her personality along this outer edge of the spiral, but most of them Luna strode right past, barely doing more than glancing in their windows; it was very unlikely that she’d find any answers in these smaller surface elements. It would only be worthwhile to take interest in those held deeper inside.
As she kept up her brisk trot, Luna started to notice something was keeping pace with her. Separate from the ethereal colours, a shadow flitted along the wall, just barely close enough that she could see it moving in the corner of her eye. Luna glanced back to see what it was. It only lingered for a moment before slipping away, but the shape had been sharply defined and very distinct, leaving no doubt; she’d know that silhouette anywhere.
Luna sighed. “I know you’re there.” No response. “Leave me be for once.”
She kept walking, and gritted her teeth to see the shadow keeping pace with her, just barely staying in her blind spot. She planted her hooves. “Oh, for – Come out, or depart for some faraway corner! I’ve no patience for this.” She looked all around the deceptively quiet hallway. “Well?”
Just under the background noise of this place, she thought she could hear that old cackling laugh, dripping with condescension. She flicked her ears. “Funny, is it? Very well, hide like a rat.” She resumed her trot. “A rat in a ridiculous helmet that couldn’t hold her ground for more than a day.”
Barely a hair in front of her, the beast finally appeared to Luna. Her utterly inequine face, draconic eyes glowing and fangs bared, was twisted with rage. The image couldn’t last for more than a second, and the threatening picture dissipated like smoke. Unfazed, Luna rolled her eyes. “There’s no point trying to frighten me. I’m not afraid of you.”
The creature would not be shaken off, and the following shadow soon returned, skulking along after her through her mind. Luna wasn’t concerned at its appearance; it was just a nagging memory, a remnant of things long past, and she’d long since realized that it might never go away. Annoyance notwithstanding, she would have to work around it as best she could.
She summoned her map, and saw she’d almost reached the second loop of her spiral with no hint of what she sought. How much further in could it possibly be? That disconnect with her identity had been around for quite some time, but surely it couldn’t be in her core personality traits?
She continued through, passing by many enclosures with little more than a glance their way. At this depth, most of what she saw were unhappy elements; Loneliness, Frustration, Despair, they all found their place around here. Passing over door after door, she delved deeper and deeper into her dreamscape. After some time, she checked the map, and was surprised to see the center was very near. Only one enclosure left, and that door couldn’t contain the identity problem because she knew what it was. She leaned to look down the hall at the darkened window.
“Suppose I’m wrong …” Highly unlikely, but it might not hurt too badly to be thorough. She approached the element in question and very slowly, she brought the light up to a carefully indistinct dimness.
The element inside was huddled in the corner, whimpering, and she was grateful that she’d kept the lights low; she’d been entirely correct about what lived here. She could hardly have been mistaken when it had encroached just outside her center for years. If she’d brought the light up to its full illumination, she would have had to see the many cuts and bite marks oozing blood in its blue fur. Most ponies’ Guilt element only went so far as to mumble self-deprecating words or knock its head on the walls, but her own was very hard on itself. At least, for this visit, it wasn’t doing any more than crying; she’d caught it doing far worse before.
Luna turned the lights off again, leaving it to its relative peace. To the inner sanctum, then; there was nowhere left to go but there.
Up ahead, there was a pale glow around the gently curving corner, and Luna broke into a canter. The small, round room that formed the core of her mind was lit with soft silver light, and the colours morphed rapidly all around her. Two elements, positioned side by side with windows bigger that her castle’s stained-glass, held the center as the very brightest and defining attributes of them all. As she entered the room, the shadow hung back at a safe distance, dropping its head and sulking. This was the one place it wouldn’t follow her, whether it refused or it was unable to. Its sullen growls went unacknowledged as she ventured further in.
These elements were no mystery to her. Both their lights came up as she approached, and the sight was welcome indeed.
On the left, the image in the window was of two ponies, heads bowed together and forehooves entwined. One was herself, the other her sister, and both were quietly content. Behind them, the sky turned endlessly: sun and moon and stars rose and fell, colouring the land beneath them every shade that light could produce, and their landscape waxed and waned as the light played across it, falling into winter and warming into spring. There wasn’t a single name for this one, because it represented such a great deal: the love between her and Celestia, the order they kept in the sky, and the land they took care of … all were inextricably tied together into a single element.
And on the right, the frame was dominated by roiling shadows; their endless motion tricked the eyes into seeing all manner of monstrous creatures, though the images would melt within seconds into the teeming mass. At the bottom of this looming darkness, a spherical magic shield kept a small safe haven from what threatened outside, and she held the center of it. Ponies were inside with her, some clinging to her for comfort, others keeping watch, and their details were in constant flux. They were pegasi, unicorn, earth pony, thestral, they were foals and they were grown. Children might need her guidance more than others, but all Equestrians were under her protection, and she shone light for them in the darkest times.
Luna let out a long sigh, relief unexpectedly washing through her. These things, the guiding elements of who she was, these would always be here. The shadow might follow her, the most painful elements might creep ever inward, but the core of her mental structure was solid, stable, and her best qualities held their rightful places.
Minutes passed as she looked on at the affirming pictures. “You haven’t all night …” she reminded herself. Even delicate and emotionally vulnerable tasks had deadlines; she couldn’t spare the time to stand here quite literally lost in thought. Swallowing that tremor of feeling, she brought up the map with a brusque motion and muttered “Where am I looking next?”
Where was there left to look? She’d walked the whole length of the spiral, and hadn’t seen or felt anything that could be the root of what she was looking for. Uncertain, she leaned in, scrutinizing the map as closely as she could – and noticed something. Every point near the centre was appropriately bright, but there was one point, so dim that her eyes slid right over it, that the map placed just outside this very room, closer even than Guilt.
“That’s curious,” she mused, “I don’t remember seeing anything there …” But she got to her hooves and, with some reluctance, walked back out of the inner sanctum. The nuisance of a shadow greeted her with a half-hearted snarl, and fell into step just behind her.
After walking a few paces, expecting to see a door, Luna paused. She’d walked far enough to stand at the place indicated on the map, but there didn’t appear to be a door or window. She should be facing the element she’d missed. Instead, she was facing a blank wall. Well, no surprise then that she’d walked right by this place the first time, but how could this be? Luna scowled at her map, then back at the offending empty space. “You cannot tell me I’m wrong, I built you,” she grumbled at the wall.
As she stared at the wall in stymied frustration, the colour patterns encountered something that warped them, a distortion marking out an edge like textured glass. Luna started, and walked up to the wall. She set her hoof against it and ran the point along until she reached that distortion, finding a nearly-invisible ridge in the smooth surface. Feeling along the ridge, it made a perfect straight rectangle, exactly as though there was a door here that had been wallpapered over.
She set her teeth, feathers ruffling slightly. Hidden doors in the dreamscape were uncommon and cause for concern. In her experience, they often represented a harmful repression, like a traumatic memory locked away or a pattern of thought that the pony was unaware of.
Luna turned to her pursuing shadow. “Is this one of yours?”
It, expectedly, declined to answer in favor of pacing back and forth with pretensions of being threatening. Shaking her head, she turned back to the hidden door. She could burn the paper away; it would take a little effort, but she’d exposed hidden doors before. However, she knew to be very cautious; this might be anything, a hidden element, a forgotten memory, another dream-creature, and there was a good chance she wouldn’t like what she found inside. Doors only ever hid themselves for pressing reasons, and whatever reasons this one had for being under the wallpaper, they might’ve only mattered to some earlier time, but they could just as easily still matter now.
Luna lit her horn, and began applying her magic to the thin layer covering the edge of the door. The moment her light touched it, she felt a shiver of trepidation. The feeling only grew stronger as the beam ran up the edge, leaving a strip of revealed wood in its wake. She began taking steadying breaths as she continued despite the growing want to leave it alone; nervousness was only a natural reaction to exhuming something in her mental landscape, and it was no excuse to walk away now.
Finally, the door was exposed in full, an old and splintered thing, and her heart was pounding despite her best efforts to remain calm. There was no window that she could detect, so her only available method was to feel what it concealed. Mindful that whatever it held, it could not damage her, Luna steadied an outstretched hoof and lightly touched the cracked wood.
That nameless feeling rose up inside her, that tight pain below her lungs and the bewildered sadness that came with it. It was sharper and more uncomfortable than she could remember, sharp enough that there was a deeper layer to this awful feeling: she had the distinct, disturbing sense that her own skin didn’t belong on her body, like she was wearing a costume.
Her hoof came off the door just as fast as she’d placed it. “Alright … we’ve found what we seek. Finally.” It was held closed with a rusted, rotten lock that looked like it might break at the slightest pressure, but had obviously not been so much as touched in a long time. She pressed down on the handle, popping the rickety door ajar. “What could possibly make this one emotion important enough to bury?”
The door creaked open further, letting soft, steady light into the hall. She peered around the edge, and saw her foalhood bedroom; though the castle no longer stood in the present, this memory preserved it perfectly. Stepping cautiously, she moved past the door, and saw a small blue pony, another projection, sitting on the stone floor facing away. Their tiny horn held a ball of light over the book spread out in front of them. Horn light took more effort than candlelight, but she’d never gotten used to the way the latter tended to flicker.
The projection was a child, with no wings or cutie mark, coming from a time long before her ascension. Luna circled around, studying it for some detail that might tell her just what she’d come upon, and froze when she saw its face.
It was not a filly, it was a colt. Every other detail was as it should be: that was her soft cornflower mane, her black-speckled rump, her aura colour. But the eyes, the shape of its face, made it unmistakably a little boy.
“ … Hmm.” She furrowed her brow in concentration, studying the child as he kept reading quietly. “… Well, this is unexpected. What are you doing in here, my young colt?”
Naturally, the boy did not respond, unaware projection of a time past that he was, just kept reading his book. Luna stepped back and sat down, momentarily stymied and unsure what to think. This, she had no plan for.
Before her, the little colt gave a little disapproving sigh, and knocked his hoof on the floor. “No, no, Silver Blade, you have to make sure the wolfpony is really dead!” he scolded to the prose in a raspy little voice. “Never walk away without looking. Tch, I’d make a better warrior than you.”
Silver Blade … “Oh, I haven’t heard that name in a good few ages.” She’d once been enamoured with a series of stories, one of the very first mass-produced series ever run off the then-new advent of the printing press. In truth they’d been junk, quickly manufactured and badly written, but as a child she’d adored the idea of the strong, chivalrous stallion, Silver Blade, standing between the common pony and whatever monsters awaited in the dark of night.
Setting aside the one obvious difference, this looked like an otherwise accurately depicted memory. But she couldn’t be sure exactly what she’d found yet; the projection was male, but why? The other elements had been quite easily understood and named, but this one, possibly from being so recently unearthed, was more reserved and obtuse.
She prodded at the dreamscape, asking it to give up further evidence.
The scenery around her stirred, colours swirling and shapes blurring uncertainly, before coming to rest in a new place altogether. They were in a memory outdoors, a courtyard, surrounded by precisely sculpted walls of shrubbery. It was an undecorated field, the only feature a small, clear pond. Dozens of fillies and colts, almost all unicorns, huddled in several small, insular groups, loosely gravitating toward similar age and sex. The scene was vaguely familiar to Luna, more from later knowledge than actual recollection. Noble families of the young Equestrian nation had all the work of founding a country to do, leaving most with no time to look after their foals. Though it had been a new idea to the unicorns, the custom of ‘day care’ had to be adopted from the earth ponies out of necessity. Among those noble families had been her own.
“Hey! Hey, you there, the purple one!”
Luna turned to an area several feet from the pond, in the shade of one wall. There was the colt who so looked like her, trying to break into one of the little cliques. The lavender foal he called to was deep in a horn joust with another colt, glowing horns set point-to-point, both trying to knock the other over with only their magic. Neither boy looked to be gaining any ground, sweating and gnashing their teeth. Not getting a response, he prodded the purple foal’s flank with one hoof. “I said, hey!”
“Time out!” he called, and his opponent relented. He whirled on the little blue colt. “What?”
“Can I joust with you guys?”
The other colts exchanged glances, and the purple boy looked uncomfortable. “Uh … I ‘unno … fillies are better at that, I think …”
He huffed in frustration. “We are not, you always say that!”
Luna blinked in slight surprise; the scene was playing out exactly as it had happened, without any acknowledgement of her altered gender. He lit his horn and dropped his head at the other boy, insisting “Just one round!”
The lavender foal glared at him. “I don’t want to play with you, go away!”
The other foals stood there awkwardly, waiting for him to leave. He let his horn dim, lowering his ears angrily. “Fine, be that way!” he yelled, and stomped off. He settled some distance from them, hunched over and fuming, as the sounds of their game started back up.
“Oh, Iridium? Could you hold on a second?” came a gentle voice from a nearby group of older girls. A very familiar white filly approached him and sat in the grass by his side. “Hey, Lulu.”
He mumbled “Hi, Tia.”
“I heard you yell at that colt. What’d he do?”
“They won’t let me play with them. Again.”
Young Celestia rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry about them, Lulu, colts are jerks. Why do you even want to play with them?”
He shrugged. “They just … I dunno. I want to joust.”
“Well, you don’t need them for that.” Celestia got to her hooves and lit her horn. “Let’s go!”
He sprang upright, instantly forgetting his dejection, and returned his sister’s gesture. “Okay, now!” he yelled, and their auras met in an electric clash. The telekinetic force between them was a tiny fraction of what they’d one day muster, but it was enough to force their hooves into the dirt as they braced themselves. In less than a minute, Celestia was shaking, lowering her stance into an increasingly defensive position. Her little brother was already smirking, ready for his quick victory – when she lashed out with one hoof and kicked a foreleg out from under him, sending his horn beam wildly into the sky. She took her moment and gave him a magical shove, knocking him to the ground.
He let out pained cry when his shoulder broke his fall, and Luna could hear something very strange about the returning echo: it wasn’t his raspy little boy voice, it was her voice. But, not quite. It hit her ear wrong, made her grit her teeth like a chalkboard scratch. The colt bit his lip, looking embarrassed; could he hear the unsettling undercurrent, too?
Celestia laughed at him, not hearing anything wrong. “I gotcha!”
He glowered up at her, and shot back “You cheated!”
“No, I won.”
“You gotta fight fair or it doesn’t count!”
She gave him a cocky smile, and retorted “Says who? The filly who lost?”
He scrambled upright and launched himself at her. “See how … you like it …!” he growled, wrapping one leg around her neck and trying to pull her down. They staggered back and forth, shoving and grappling. A few foals turned to watch as their wrestling went to the ground, losing ferocity as they both started laughing.
“Aren’t they, y’know, the chosen ones or something like that?” somepony wondered aloud.
Eventually, once it looked like her brother was getting the upper hoof in pinning her down, Celestia held up her hooves, gesturing to stall him. “Okay … okay, time out!”
“Aww, c’mon!”
“What, Lulu? I need water.”
He rolled his eyes at her, but followed her to the pond.
The colt dipped his face for a few swallows, and lifted his muzzle from the water, relaxing for a moment to watch the ripples settle. When the water was placid, the reflection that took shape below him was somewhat unsettling, and Luna leaned over the water to be sure what she was seeing. It showed the little boy as a filly, the first time since entering that she’d seen a perfectly accurate image of her childhood self. But like his voice, there was something wrong. There seemed to be a sheen, an obscuring glow that had nothing to do with the water, making the fine details of the little foal’s face and body hard to see. If she looked away from it, she knew she wouldn’t remember what it looked like. She glanced at him, and saw a very familiar expression of pensive sadness.
A stir of motion, and Celestia’s clear, bright image joined his clouded one. She saw his face, and frowned in concern. “You okay?”
He started. “Huh? Oh, yeah, I’m okay.”
“Alright then, go!”
With that, the young filly tackled her brother, knocking him away from the water and effectively ending his reverie. As their grappling started up again, Luna kept studying him. It shouldn’t, but watching these old memories play out with this one twist felt so familiar that it almost seemed she had simply misremembered them all these years. It may technically be true that she’d always been a filly, and yet she recognized this colt. She might have pictured him every day like an imaginary friend, theorized constantly about how he might look or sound, wishing he were real.
Luna set her teeth, and reached for long-overdue objectivity. To hold herself at hoof’s length and examine this situation, she could safely assume that this colt was a sort of unconscious self-image. At some point in her early youth, she must have subliminally thought of herself as male, and hadn’t let go of it for years. What remained, then, would be a repressed memory of that idea. She had entirely forgotten that she used to feel this way and why, but that old memory lingered, still causing her some distress. She would have to rifle through these recollections and see when they ended to find out how long she’d held this mistaken identity. “Keep going …” she requested, and the dreamscape began to run into the next memory.
When the scene reformed, she was back in her bedroom some years on; a few furnishings moved, a few foals’ toys exchanged for practice weapons, the mirror right where it always was. She saw the colt and Celestia sitting on the bed together, looking much closer to adulthood than before; they were starting to take on their mature colours, though their hair still obeyed gravity. The atmosphere of this room was heavy and quiet, all the levity of the previous snippet drained away. Celestia’s attention was on him, but he was staring at the floor with a blank expression.
“It’s … it’s really not that big of deal, Lulu,” Celestia offered, attempting to break the silence.
He only grunted in return.
“Seriously. I know it’s a little weird right now, but it’ll feel normal soon. Promise. And I’ve been handling it for a couple of years now, so if you need any advice –”
He gave another groan, this one considerably more pained, and covered his face with both hooves. Luna began to recognize this moment, and cringed in advance; this was one childhood embarrassment she could’ve gone the rest of her existence without reliving, and it was all the more awkward with her stand-in being male. It was sheer determination to explore this element that kept her from skipping ahead.
He began to attempt forming words, muffled by his hooves. “… I hate this …”
“Oh, it’s not that bad.” Celestia scoffed; politeness and respect were things she’d acquired with age, and quite sorely lacked at this early time.
“Everypony in the bucking class must’ve noticed …”
His sister’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Wait … didn’t you notice before the end of the day?”
He dropped his hooves from his face, revealing a very uncomfortable expression. “Um, I … yeah, I realized there was … something, uh, going on.”
“Why didn’t you come home, then? They would’ve let you leave; they probably have that happen all the time.”
“I-I don’t know … I guess I didn’t think it was really, um, that.”
Celestia looked even more confused. “What else could you think it was? It’s called heat for a reason.”
He flinched at the word, and yelled “Oh, stars, Celestia, I don’t know! It just seems kind of … soon, I guess.”
“Not really, Lulu,” she said, shaking her head. “It wouldn’t even be soon if you’d gotten it three summers ago. You’re actually kind of late on this.”
He glared at her and hung his head. “Ugh, whatever ...”
As silence fell between the siblings and stretched on for several strained minutes, Luna looked around the room for something else to focus on. She noticed the mirror, and wondered if his reflection was still warped. She adjusted her position until the two of them were captured in its frame.
It wasn’t the same; shockingly, the filly in the mirror was even more unsettlingly rendered than before. The filter over her image was thicker, not just obscuring the details but covering them in a sort of sickening glow. It hit the eyes like she was looking at something disgusting.
But setting that aside, the mirror showed this moment in her life as it had truly happened. That filly was miserable over something as banal and expected as her first estrus, and her older sister was justifiably mystified at her overreaction.
Concerned, Celestia tried to offer “Is it bothering you? You need an ice pack or something?”
“Please stop talking about it!” he cried, heedless of how his voice bounced off the walls back at him.
“What? What’s the matter?”
He crumpled inward, still not looking at her. “I just, I just … I don’t want to talk about it, alright?”
Celestia was only growing more worried. “Are you scared? It’s okay, little sister, you don’t have to be scared.” She reached over and put a hoof on his back.
He smacked it away the moment she made contact. “I’m not – I – don’t call me that! I’m not a baby! I’m not scared! Just leave me alone!”
Her sister drew back, hurt, but not angry. “Well … alright, if that’s what you want …”
He made no response. She got down off the bed and hesitantly started for the door. “Call me if you need me, okay? I mean it.”
When the door shut behind her, the colt had nopony to be angry with, and all his misery came to the surface. He rapidly started shaking, his sobs echoing in the stone room. In her line of duty, Luna met so many children faced with fear and pain that they weren’t able to process. She looked on one now, every bit of his body language conveying his deep sense of helplessness. No matter what he’d claimed, the foal was terrified. Luna almost went to calm him, before she remembered he wasn’t really there. He was just a projection of an old memory.
A memory that she hadn’t fully examined until now; the years since had dulled and trivialized it in her head such that it came as a surprise how terrible this felt. If asked only an hour before, she would’ve said that this step into adulthood had been awkward for her, but no worse than for any other pony. She’d been wrong. And whatever the exact nature of this male image, the focus it placed on this meant it was to blame for that misery. Looking at it through this lens, it almost made sense; no filly ought to be on the edge of an emotional meltdown in this situation, but if she had some hidden delusion that she was a boy, then certainly estrus would trigger this sort of response.
Luna nudged the dreamscape along, uncovering the next moment this element made noteworthy.
He was lying on his bed, alone, a couple of years older and past his ascension, wings tucked in tightly at his sides. Most of the stars in his mane had developed at this stage; she would’ve placed him close to adulthood. If his flank were bare, she knew she would’ve seen her cutie mark, but he wore loose-fitting clothing that covered up his hindquarters. There’d been a time during puberty that the customary nudity was intolerable for her; though Celestia told her she was worrying too much, she’d been unbearably self-conscious back then. By his troubled expression, even hiding his body couldn’t entirely soothe the feeling.
After a long time spent quietly brooding, he stirred. He pressed his muzzle into his fetlock, nuzzling the soft skin just under his hoof. The colt took a sizable tuft of fur between his teeth. Luna realized what he was about to do and flinched pre-emptively a second before he yanked his head back, ripping out the thick chunk of fur at the root. His whole body quivered with the aftershock, wings partially splayed from the jolt. Breathing unsteadily, he spat out the piece of torn fur, and lowered his muzzle to his fetlock to bite down once more. Luna quickly ordered “Stop.”
The playback froze, plunging this world into utter stillness, and she pressed one hoof to face. She’d forgotten that particular habit had started this early. Before she’d gone to all the trouble of creating an entirely new lifeform out of pure magic and arming it with her darkest memory, there had been far simpler ways of causing herself pain.
Pushing the dreamscape forward to the next moment barely changed the scene at all; it was much the same, showing her that miserable young stallion biting his fur out, or kicking the wall, or cursing to himself. On a good day, he was merely lying quietly, eyes shut, pretending that he had no body; the dreamscape took on a muted, dark ambience at those times.
Luna shook her head. She could make the safe assumption that the rest of her teenage years would be more of the same. “Let us skip forward …” she requested of her surroundings. They obediently melted and swirled around her, rushing past memories by leaps and bounds.
When the blur of passing time had solidified, Luna couldn’t be sure exactly when it had dropped her, but she had some idea. Around her was the auditorium of the Castle of the Two Sisters, and she was standing on the far left of the stage. That put her at least centuries ahead, some time past the assumption of their reign over Equestria. She’d finally reached the era she was known as ‘Princess’.
"CITIZENS OF EQUESTRIA!” She heard her own voice ring out through the acoustically tuned room. She’d come into one of the many hours spent practicing her public speaking, it seemed. Luna turned toward center stage – and stared in shock.
That stallion was still there. They were so many years on past foalhood, and he hadn’t faded yet. As she gaped, he drew a deep breath and projected his voice as much as he could muster. As it rang off the domed walls, it was very close to the powerful and steady sound she now had, but that upsetting edge hadn’t gone away.
“WE WELCOME YOU TO OUR CASTLE, AND TO THIS GREAT FEAST THAT YOU MIGHT FIND COMFORT IN THIS COLD NIGHT! WE … bucked that up, ponyfeathers, ponyfeathers …” As he dropped his volume to normal, cursing, it was almost a relief not hear the tainted returning echo, even if it meant returning to the male voice.
Hoofsteps came from behind them, and they turned to see Celestia entering the stage. “Greetings, sister.”
She approached, smiling at him. “The Royal Everfree Voice is coming along very well. You sound even better than last year.”
“Hmm,” he grunted, disbelieving. “Do you think so?”
“Yes, of course. It’s very authoritative. A bit on the intimidating side for my taste, maybe, but you always were a little … forceful.”
He smiled, agreeing “Indeed … but I don’t think it’s strong enough.”
Celestia laughed. “If it were stronger, I’d worry for your subject’s ears!”
“No, it … I can hear it echoing off the walls, and I don’t like it. It just doesn’t sound good. Can’t you hear that? Maybe it’s too high.”
“It’s not high at all. I think it’s quite rich.”
He shook his head. “I can get it deeper. I want it deeper.”
“Alright … but you really don’t need to. I’d say you’re ready to open the festivities already.”
“It’s my Winter Moon celebration! And this year, the speech will be to my satisfaction.” He glared out at the walls of the auditorium. “I’ll be ready when I don’t sound so … wrong.”
Celestia shrugged. “Okay, Lulu … I just came to inform you that the staff have finished preparing dinner.”
“Alright … a few minutes more.”
Celestia departed as he started running the lines of his speech again. Through the painful edge, Luna could hear him straining to lower his pitch ever further, seeking some deeper place in his chest to resonate. He certainly managed to deepen it; it was booming, impressive sound … but he couldn’t manage to find a tone that hit his ears well. Because, as Luna finally realized, it was unmistakably a mare speaking no matter how strong it was.
“We’re almost in the modern era. How is a mistaken identity lasting so long?” Luna wondered aloud, starting to get frustrated. “Confound this element … surely we’ll come to the end of it soon.” Luna shoved the dreamscape along through time, aiming roughly for something after Discord’s downfall; perhaps that was a late enough date to sort this out.
The scene reformed around her in stunning contrast to the last. Throngs of ponies, multitudes of ponies, pressed around her; if they weren’t made of thought rather than matter and incapable of touching her, it would feel claustrophobic. They were outside in the Everfree Castle courtyard, open to the night sky. The sounds of their cries were so joyous and the air so heavy with the smells of sweat and fresh cider, she must’ve come into a party. Some distance away through the press of bodies, a tiny yellow mare hopped up onto a rickety picnic table. She yelled over the commotion “The beast is in stone!”
The answering call was deafening, the relief and gratitude palpable in the air. “THE BEAST IS IN STONE!”
Luna blinked. “Ah, so when I tried for after Discord’s downfall, this element happened to have something to say about the night immediately following his imprisonment …” she mumbled.
“Make way! Make way, my good mare, I had a hoof in that petrification, you know!” A deep voice came, its diction muddied just slightly, and Luna cringed. Surely not …
The starry-maned stallion stepped up on the table, to the adulation of the crowd around him. “Milady, if I may have the pedestal?” he asked of the yellow mare, who was blushing deeply and didn’t appear capable of speaking. Instead, she simply retreated into the crowd. He chuckled, took a deep draught from a tankard he held in his aura, and began to project his voice out to his gleeful audience.
“Hear me, my fellow ponies, you will know peace and order! Gravity shall only pull down, the ground shall be solid, and my sister and I will ensure that day and night can be relied upon once more! For Discord has fallen!” The answering echo of his voice didn’t carry the same pain as before; it was worn out and shouted hoarse, deepened from fatigue and spirit until it barely clashed with his masculine appearance at all. Along with the freely flowing cider, that was probably why this very public speech lacked her customary stiffness.
“Let us make merry through the dusk until the dawn, until the stars themselves must join in our revels!” A veneer of formal word choice remained despite his obvious inebriation: ‘revels’ wasn’t a term she ever heard anymore, but the word ‘fun’ hadn’t even entered the Equestrian language at this point in history. The stallion took another swig from his tankard and insisted over the assenting cheers, “We can command them to do this, good citizens, we do not jest! These stars are ours!” He lit his horn and forced every star in the sky to flash brilliantly, momentarily casting the ground below in light almost as bright as day. The uproar of laughter and cheering from the assembled crowd was gloriously loud, and though he rubbed his eyes from the glare, he was obviously proud of his address.
He hopped down from the table, receiving many affectionate calls as he made his way toward Celestia, watching from the archery range. She raised an eyebrow at him as he came close.
“Dear sister, do you think you may be showing off?”
The taboo word took the edge off the stallion’s joy, and his answering look was a bit pointed. “Perhaps. What of it?”
“No need for defensiveness; only a joke.”
He looked to the rack of throwing spears, down to the standing target two dozen strides away, and his smile was restored. “I shall show off if I please. Stand and see this!” He readied a spear in his aura, and raised his voice for attention. “Let us suppose, my little ponies, that this target is the Great Beast’s hideous, buck-fanged snout!” Hundreds of eyes turned to watch, and Celestia put a hoof to her muzzle, laughing, as he reared and loosed the spear.
“Ha ha!” He crowed, victorious, when his weapon thudded into the target reasonably close to centre. Answering whoops came from all over the party.
Celestia interjected. “If we suppose that, then you’ve merely chipped his horn.”
Ponies close enough to hear her murmured excitedly, anticipating his response. He whirled on her, his hooves spaced a little wider for balance. “Oh? Let us see you, dear sister, best me!”
Celestia moved to put her tankard down, only for her brother to give her a playful shove that nearly spilled it. “Oh no, I made that shot after I drank; if it is to be fair, you drink.”
With a smile, the solar princess complied, draining the entire thing in three swallows. She gagged slightly, but managed to retort “And I shall actually hit his face!” She was still grimacing as she lifted the other spear in her golden aura, yet it flew across the range like a bolt of lightning and hit the dead centre with a shuddering impact, to the even louder cheers of their guests. Celestia looked back at the stunned colt with a smirk.
“Ah … well … it’s yet to go to your head …”
She gave him a playful shove of her own, nearly toppling him, and laughed as his wings shot out to keep his balance. “Not so for you, my baby sister!”
He and Luna both grimaced; maybe it was the public place, but that one hurt the ears a little more sharply. “Must you call me this on the eve of our victory?” he pleaded.
Clearly thinking it was nothing more than mild embarrassment, Celestia rolled her eyes at him. “Yes, I must. You’ll always be that to me, Lulu, no matter what horrors we face together. You know that.”
He looked away, his merriment tempered. “I do …”
Luna frowned as he turned from his sister to mingle with the surrounding mortals. Looking up at the imaginary sky, she wondered when she might find the end of this confusion. For a mere foalhood phase, it was lasting a worryingly long time. What might draw a line under this?
“Oh …” There was one thing that had shocked her mental landscape, one turning point sharper than any other. As Celestia put it, a day when every aspect was altered against her will. That would almost certainly be the end of this.
To direct the dreamscape there, Luna manipulated the flow of time much more carefully than any of her previous directions, finding an exact minute of an exact day. She selected the moment, and as it formed to her specifications she came to see him and Celestia standing on opposite sides of the throne room, dawn just having broken. He raised his voice and called to her from the balcony, the exact tone and delivery of his words forever familiar even despite their lower key and tainted echo.
“Did you really expect me to sit idly by while they all basked in your precious light?”
The words stirred an apprehensive shock to her extremities, ruffling her feathers. It was purely a learned reaction; she’d begun many sessions with the monster by reciting those words, and even months after they’d stopped, there was a physical expectation of pain to follow them. She set her teeth, and pressed onward. “Good, now …” She fixed her gaze on the floor. “Skip past the transformation.” Guilt automatically clawed its way up, the old unwanted habit, insisting that it was wrong to look away from the worst part. But she’d spent enough time, far more than enough time, dwelling on this awful day since her return. After experiencing this memory inside and out as many times as she had, for tonight there would be no harm nor shame in avoiding it. It was immediately afterward she wished to investigate.
When the dreamscape had reached an appropriate moment, she ordered it to freeze, then looked at the pony now in her place; a towering, ebon alicorn. “So, Nightmare, are you similarly affected?” she wondered aloud as she approached the creature for a closer look. “… oh. Oh, that’s interesting …”
There was Nightmare Moon, frozen in a tableau of an evil smile, and she was rendered true to life. Luna noticed in particular then just how feminine a pony Nightmare was: the thick lashes, the ornate armor, her voluptuous figure. Perhaps it was the contrast between this pony and the stallion she’d been looking at all night that brought this to her attention, but Luna saw now that Nightmare wasn’t simply a monster. She was an outright caricature of what a mare looked like, perhaps deliberately so.
“Hmm …” She considered it a moment longer, then prepared to shift the dreamscape again. The next time worth looking at would be quite far into the future indeed.
She allowed the dreamscape to coalesce into a deafeningly silent scene. It was the same castle as before, though it had weathered a millennium of erosion and encroaching nature. She spotted herself, a barely conscious, light blue pony on the floor, surrounded with broken bits of armor and dissipating remnants of dark energy. At that moment of return, suffering through the touch of the Elements, she’d felt so vulnerable and afraid that it had manifested in her appearance; her colours regressed to their soft childhood shades. It was a piteous sight, but at least she was surely in her proper form now, restored to reality.
Her ear turned as her sister’s soft voice came into hearing. “– into your heart. Now if only another will, as well.” Celestia approached, and the pony stirred, raising their head. Luna sucked in a shocked breath.
The stallion was still there. As he shrank in on himself with remorse, the observing princess shook her head, muttering. “What? No. This is too … it’s too close. It’s too soon. It’s not possible.” He ran into Celestia’s embrace, crying out an apology. “This is wrong, it must be – oh, no …”
A terrible thought occurred to her, and she all but threw the dreamscape ahead in time, instantly blurring the touching moment away, pushed to form the most recent moment it held. She had an awful suspicion, one that was all but a certainty now, but she needed to see for sure.
The scene that reformed was her bedroom just before dawn, and there stood a plain-looking pegasus mare, her most recent disguise. Blue aura enveloped her, and the illusion was quickly burned away, revealing beneath it … him. Luna took a step back, wishing there was some mistake she’d made, some reason that what she saw wasn’t what she saw. He went and sat in front of the mirror, and that frightening, tainted reflection appeared once again. Still subtly wrong and confusing, still plaguing him with questions after all those centuries.
She’d been wrong. This wasn’t childhood holdover, no relatively simple matter of a confusion long since passed that had left its mark. This element was alive in her mind even to this day, a persistent delusion. She was looking at the part of herself that believed, without reservation, that she was a stallion.
The realization was more than she could bear. “Let me out. Let me out!” she yelled at the dreamscape, forcing it to reform her exit, the rickety old door, inserted into a nearby imaginary wall. Luna ran for it and slammed it open, arriving back in the hallway. Without looking back, she kicked it closed.
A brighter blue shone from the wall behind her, and she turned to see something burning through the wallpaper. A window emerged from the glow, the element fully revealing itself at last. Through the window, she saw that little boy she’d first come upon, so young he lacked his mark. Taking a breath, she stepped closer to examine him. He turned, noticed her, and galloped to the glass, standing and pressing both forehooves against the barrier like he’d dive through it if he could. The thrill in his eyes just that she was looking back at him was only tempered by the fear that she would walk away. If nothing separated them, he would’ve grabbed her and never let her leave.
She held his gaze for a long moment. “Where did you come from?” she whispered to him. “What do you mean?”
He made no response, just kept her eye contact, staring as hard as he could like he could keep her from looking away.
“How do I fix you?”
He flinched and dropped his ears, his blue eyes welling with tears. Still, he wouldn’t back away from her.
“I’ll be back. I will find out more … and see about putting this right.” She broke off her dreamlink, the image of the dream world around her breaking up and dissolving just as the colt began to cry in earnest. The next sight that slowly came into focus was the floor of her bedroom some wingspans below, and the glow of her dreamdiving spell fading away. She settled to the floor, feeling the tingle of blood returning to her limbs as they took her weight. The sky outside her window was a dark, featureless grey, that brief time when the stars receded but the sun had not yet risen. She’d cut it close, by a mere fifteen minutes at most, before it would come time to help Celestia turn the sky. She had only that much time to gather herself and decide whether or not she could face dinner. The more she thought about that colt, the more frightening it seemed.
“Sweet moon, what is wrong with me?”