Contrary to what her subjects would likely expect, Princess Celestia was not a ‘morning pony’. Perhaps she would have been, had she not the dubious honour of raising the sun each and every dawn, but as it was she would always be woken by her maid while it was still dark outside, and she would always demand five more minutes of sleep before allowing herself to be wrenched out of bed by duty.
All this achieved was her maid rousing her five minutes earlier than she would have done otherwise.
She hated how she looked in the mornings, too – her mane so bedraggled, its usual shiny lustre replaced by a dull and matted mess, her eyes rimmed with dark rings. Celestia would feel better after she’d cleaned up a little, but it was still only a thin veneer of contentment to wear as she trotted through the castle.
A well-practised routine by now, and Celestia prided herself on her performance, on each and every warm smile and nod to the guards and other ponies she would pass along the way. She may not have been a morning pony, but she could damn well act like one.
In some ways, Celestia envied Luna for that. For starters, Luna always got to wake up while it was light outside, and surely that would have made a great difference, morning pony or otherwise. Still, she could never begrudge her sister for much, and though it had been years since Luna’s return to Equestria it was nothing when compared to the vast gulf of time that Luna’s banishment had encompassed.
And so the smile that Celestia wore on the long walk would always be real by the time she arrived at her sister’s chambers.
As always, she found Luna on her balcony, peering intently into the ornate telescope that seemed to occupy so much of her time of late.
“Anything interesting?” Celestia asked, and Luna jumped wildly enough at the sound of Celestia’s voice that she ended up smacking into the eyepiece with a very uncouth yelp of surprise and pain.
“We have told you before, Tia, do not sneak up on us,” Luna muttered once she’d recovered, gingerly pressing a hoof to her eyelid and wincing.
“Sneak? I didn’t need to sneak, Luna. You’re always so engrossed in that telescope that I make you jump every time.”
Sheepishly, Luna straightened her mane, and then shook away the embarrassment and drew herself up to her full height. “Only because you are so quiet.” Her eyes narrowed. “One would be forgiven for believing you do it on purpose.”
“Me? Sneak up on you intentionally? Perish the thought.”
Luna’s withering glare bounced against Celestia’s kind but stoic countenance, a silent battle of wits and determination. In the end it was Luna who broke first, as always, her obvious suspicion making way for a wide grin.
“I am glad you haven’t lost your sense of humour,” she said.
“Not for one moment,” Celestia replied. “Now, if all is well I can relieve you of your duties.”
Luna hesitated. “Yes, of course.”
“All is well, isn’t it?”
She knew it wasn’t before Luna even answered. Had known for weeks, in fact. Luna was too fidgety, too nervous and on edge. Her eyes darted left and right, but kept returning to the pale orb hanging in the sky as if simply looking away was some great task, her gaze magnetized to the moon.
Even if Celestia wasn’t Luna’s sister, even if she hadn’t had millennia to learn and understand her subtle tells, she would have known something was wrong. Very wrong. In fact, Celestia couldn’t remember the last time she’d ever seen Luna this perturbed, not even when she had been on the cusp of becoming Nightmare Moon. Back then, Luna had been angry, and frustrated, and indignant.
But not like this.
Now, Luna’s eyes were wide, flitting up to the moon again as she chewed at her lip. This time, Luna was anxious. Scared. There were very few things in this world that could actually scare her sister, Celestia knew, and that alone sent a little shiver of trepidation down her spine.
“No,” Luna admitted. “Things are not well. There is something we must discuss. Soon, and in private.”
“Very well,” said Celestia. “There’s still time before I must raise the sun. We can sit out here if you’d like – I’ll have tea brought to us.”
Luna nodded, hesitantly, and as far as Celestia could tell the thought did absolutely nothing to improve her mood.
Luna’s teacup rattled against its saucer as she tried to place it gently back down. Her hooves shaking, the clink of crockery so loud in the final moments before dawn as pale moonlight bathed the balcony.
She’d shown no eagerness to leap into whatever it was she had to say, and Celestia knew better than to push the matter. Better that she organise her thoughts, that she was ready. And when Luna took a deep breath to steel herself, Celestia knew it was time.
“It began with my banishment,” Luna began.
Celestia’s mouth opened, reflexively, but Luna was quick to interrupt.
“Spare your apologies, Tia, I know. This isn’t what you think, and I’ve told you we bear no ill will over my incarceration. We left you little other recourse.”
Celestia acquiesced and remained silent, waiting for Luna to find her thread again.
“A thousand years is a long time,” Luna said, almost wistfully. “A millennium alone with my thoughts. Mine, and Nightmare Moon’s. Angry thoughts. Hateful thoughts. An aeon spent locked in my own head with nothing but thoughts of vengeance sustaining me. It’s the sort of thing that gets to you, after a while. The solitude, the anger. I began to have conversations with myself, usually about the things I planned to do to you and all of Equestria when I returned. Conversations filled with malice, conversations that went to places I am not proud of.”
“For someone who doesn’t want my apologies, you’re not making this easy,” said Celestia, frowning. Luna probably wasn’t worsening Celestia’s guilt intentionally, but she was doing a very good job of it regardless – that insistent, gnawing pit of regret in her stomach growing ever deeper as Luna detailed her plight.
“That’s not my intention,” Luna insisted. “But I need you to understand. I was aware I was slowly starting to lose my mind, if I hadn’t done so already. Some part of me was, at least; the part of me that wasn’t Nightmare and fury, the part of me still self-aware enough to regret my actions. But you need to understand that I could tell my grip on reality was slipping ever so surely through my hooves. Otherwise, it would make little sense that when I first saw the pony on the moon I didn’t believe it was real.”
Whatever Celestia had been expecting Luna to say, it wasn’t that. “Another pony,” she said, bluntly. “On the moon.”
Luna smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. Didn’t reach anywhere, stretched painfully thin, so forced, so out of place amongst her obvious fear. “And yet there they were.”
Luna drew her hoof through the dust, slashing viciously across the line and its neighbours already there, teeth gritted in a snarl of frustration.
Every single one meticulously recorded, drawn in the dust. A sea of tally marks stretching out before her in a vast swath of lines. More symbolic than anything; a visual representation of how far she’d come. Luna didn’t really need the tally, she was keeping count in her head just fine.
For the 149,375th time, Luna cursed her sister with every foul word she could think of, every cruel insult, screaming them heavenward, some part of her hoping that Celestia had devised a way to keep an eye on her so she could hear every vitriolic word that spewed forth from Luna’s mouth, each and every one full of poison and disgust and contempt.
Unlikely – even Celestia would have struggled with something like that – but just in case… Just in case she could, Luna made sure to shout loud enough that Celestia would have no choice but to hear her fury, and then she spat into the dust and ground it beneath her hoof, imagining the dirt was Celestia’s face instead.
Oh, how sweet her inevitable revenge would feel. It was the only thing keeping her going, the only thing that had allowed Luna to survive half a millennium without losing her mind completely.
At all. Without losing it at all.
This was all a perfectly reasonable response to a perfectly unreasonable situation. The scrawled tally was just a counter, one that she didn’t even really need. Nothing mad about that, nothing mad about 149,375 lines in the dirt. At least, she was fairly certain that was how many there were. She hadn’t double-checked, it wasn’t worth it, but she knew that was how many days it had been regardless because she’d counted each and every one. Had lived each and every one, although calling this living felt like some awful joke.
This wasn’t even existing. 149,375 days of not existing, of grey dust and endless stars and a beautiful orb of blue so far above her that by all rights should have been hers, was supposed to be hers. It was Celestia that should have been confined to this hellish oblivion, although true oblivion would have been an improvement over this waiting. The moon, so empty and desolate, only Luna and 149,375 tally marks she’d left upon the surface, a number so big and so prominent that it had become essentially meaningless.
Perhaps when she returned to Equestria, Luna would give Celestia the same treatment and cast her into the sun. See how she liked it.
The image of Celestia screaming as she plummeted into that obliterating heat, as her skin melted and she burned forever, forever in agony, forever writhing in pain, was enough to bring a smile to Luna’s face. Yes, she liked that idea. Some kind of spell to preserve her consciousness, even her body, or at least enough to make it slow. Celestia didn’t deserve quick. Celestia hadn’t given Luna quick, after all. She’d given Luna slow, and torturous, and alone so very alone oh goddess what Luna would have given just to talk to someone, anyone.
Before everything, before her rebellion, Luna had considered herself a very private pony. She never sought out company, and would often snap at any of her courtiers who disturbed her unduly while she was working, buried under sheaves of important and incredibly dull governing documents, trade agreements, peace treaties.
It was only now, after 400 years of solitude, that Luna realised how much she missed hearing other ponies’ voices.
This is pitiful. Nightmare Moon, the most powerful creature alive, and you’re feeling sorry for yourself?
It was pitiful. She had no objection to that, no answer to her own reprimand. Nothing but surrender.
Luna dropped down into the dust, staring up at Equestria and wondering how she would ever survive the next hundred thousand tally marks. How she would ever last up here, so separated from everything, everyone. So alone.
Her thoughts slowly began to drift, her eyes closing without really being conscious of it, and then her imagination began to wind away as it always did on the cusp of sleep, ideas and images swirling together in nonsensical and illogical ways. Images of her sister cackling in triumph as she consigned Luna to banishment, of Equestria burning, of legions of ponies bowing in deference to their rightful Princess beneath a black, star-dusted sky.
But just before sleep wrapped its quiet embrace around her, something jolted her awake. Her eyes snapped open, and at first she wasn’t entirely sure what had broken the spell and pulled her upwards.
But something was wrong, terribly so, she was sure of it. In that primal way of knowing, breathing hard and adrenaline coursing through her veins so hard she could feel it, and Luna still didn’t really know what had happened to put her on edge. Why she felt so deeply scared.
Nightmare Moon never felt scared. Not when she’d confronted her sister, not when she’d realised her mistake in underestimating the elements and that Celestia was going to win, not even when she’d found herself here and understood the awful truth of her confinement and solitude. Nightmare Moon just felt angry.
But here, now, she was scared. And she didn’t even know why.
Something had woken her, dragged her from the edges of sleep and flooded her with fear. A shadow, falling over her eyes, that slight change in light impossible in a place like this. A whisper of air, brushing against her fur, equally impossible – no wind here, no air at all, only magic keeping her in place.
What, then? Those ideas had planted themselves so firmly into her mind and she could envisage nothing else. She swore she’d felt it, seen it. Swore that something had been here, something had stood over her as she lay in the dust, something had watched her falling asleep. Nothing could possibly be here, and yet Luna was sure something was. Knew something was.
She scanned the wasteland of the moon’s surface, but of course there was nothing to see. Nothing but her, and the desolate moon, and her sea of tally marks.
Luna froze, strangling the scream that tried to drag itself up from her throat.
Her tally marks. Her rock in this cold place, her totem. Her proof that time continued to pass, that she was moving ever closer to her escape.
Something had walked right over the top of them, trampling through without care or compassion. Deep hoofprints in the dust obliterating the marks beneath. Impossible hoofprints, with no one to make them.
Hoofprints that ended right next to where Luna had been lying.
Celestia raised an eyebrow as she took another sip of tea. Warm and sweet, just as she liked it. “Hoofprints?” she asked.
“You don’t believe me,” said Luna. It wasn’t a question, and there was no hurt in her voice. It was simply a fact, left to float between them.
“I didn’t say that.”
“You never do.”
Celestia gave her sister a sympathetic smile. “You must admit, it sounds a little far fetched. None save the bearer of the elements would have the magic to cast the sealing spell I placed on Nightmare Moon, and until very recently, I was their only wielder. I can assure you, I did no such thing.”
“I know,” said Luna. “If you had done, this wouldn’t be much of a mystery, would it?”
“Luna, you know I love you,” said Celestia, trying not to let her exasperation through, “and I believe you, but hoofprints alone do not mean there was somepony else up there with you. Perhaps they were your own? The mind has a penchant for playing tricks, especially when left to its own devices for so long.”
Luna was gazing up at the moon again, although she kept giving Celestia a sidelong glance, as if to make sure she was still there, still listening. To see how she was taking it.
“I know how it sounds, Tia. Why do you think I waited so long to speak of this?”
She dropped her head and stared straight into Celestia’s eyes, and there wasn’t even the slightest hint of joviality there, none of the familiar hint of life and playfulness that usually graced Luna’s expression. Nothing but sincerity.
“But those were not my hoofprints,” she said, firmly. “And there is more story to tell.”
For the hundredth time, Luna lowered her hoof over the imprint in the dust, as if this time it would somehow be different, as if this time it would somehow make sense.
Smaller. The hoofprints were smaller than hers.
She hated that they were smaller. Bigger, she could have found some way to justify – her own size would be simpler still. But smaller had no explanation. Smaller didn’t make any sense.
Luna had thought long and hard about it (as though she had anything else to do) and concluded there were only two options. The first: exile had stolen enough of her sanity that she’d created fake hoofsteps and then somehow forgotten she’d done so. The second: somepony was on the moon with her.
Neither of those were particularly appealing.
She was fairly certain it wasn’t the former. She didn’t think she’d reached the point where she would do something like that, not yet, and then to forget it so completely would be further into insanity still. No, in the face of two options the simplest was most likely, no matter how unnerving it may have been.
There was another pony here. One that had found her sleeping, one that crept up on her and vanished as soon as she stirred.
That would have been bad enough, concerning enough, but then there was the other thing. The thing she’d tried not to think about once Luna had worked up the courage to believe it was another pony after all.
The hoofsteps led straight up to where she lay, but there was no trail leading away. If something had been there, if somepony had been watching her, they had disappeared into thin air. Or whatever passed for air in this place, whatever magic kept her locked away here.
A unicorn, perhaps, teleporting away, although Luna had heard no magic. She wasn’t even sure if it was possible to teleport up here, not if they were held by the same spell that bound Luna. But that was another thought she would prefer to ignore if she could. Better it was a unicorn, better that they could teleport. That was an answer, at least, and a much better one than anything else it could have been.
It all left Luna with one purpose: find the pony. Demand an answer, discover their purpose here. Perhaps Celestia had sent an assassin to finish the job. Perhaps it was a loyal subject, come to save her somehow. Perhaps, perhaps. She could hypothesise forever, but standing around gained Luna nothing. No, Nightmare Moon was not going to wait around for a would-be assassin to find her asleep again. Nightmare Moon was not going to be scared.
She was going to track down this pony, and if they were an assassin then they were going to pay oh so dearly for daring to come here. Luna may have been trapped, but she was far from powerless. And if they weren’t an assassin, well, they would have to be very convincing.
There wasn’t much of a choice when it came to direction. No real landmarks to speak of, despite Luna’s familiarity with each and every nearby crater and mountain. The obvious choice was to follow the only trail given to her – to trace the line of hoofprints back to the source, wherever that may have been. Whatever that may have been. Perhaps it would lead her to the pony’s den, or hideaway, or… something. It was her only lead, regardless, and better than doing nothing. Better than waiting for them to come back.
And so, with all that and more spinning through her mind, Luna set off across the desolate moon, following the trail of hoofprints that stretched off into the distance.
She took her time. There was no rush. No wind to cover the trail, nowhere to hide. And, she noted, the hoofprints’ creator had taken their time, too. Their distribution was even, measured. The indentations perfect and unscuffed. The pony had walked so calmly, so surely, no hint of hurry or concern in those tracks. Similar to her own that she left behind, a fresh trail aligned perfectly beside the others, the only differences her larger hooves and slightly longer gait.
She wondered, not for the first time, how the pony’s path had been so direct. There was no deviation, no turning as it saw her and changed direction. This pony had marched in a perfectly straight line and still managed to end up right beside Luna as she drifted towards sleep.
And no matter how long she followed it for, it didn’t turn. The hours began to scroll past, and still the trail continued in its sure, unwavering way, and no matter how far Luna walked there was no end in sight. Even as her shadow started to stretch away from her, even as the moon began to be drenched in night, the trail continued, the faintest glimmer of reflected starlight in the divots guiding her way.
How far had they walked? Perhaps Luna had been wrong, perhaps she hadn’t been this pony’s target after all, perhaps this was all some big misunderstanding. This pony had just happened upon her sleeping, and there was no great mystery, no conspiracy, no plot.
Please. Have you forgotten where you are? Have you forgotten what this place is, or the strength of magic required just to keep you here?
No, she hadn’t forgotten, and Luna didn’t believe in coincidences. So no matter how improbable the trail became, no matter how far it stretched onwards, ever onwards, not faltering or fading or stopping, Luna knew it was here for her. She didn’t know why, or how she knew, but she was sure of it.
But even Nightmare Moon couldn’t walk forever. The trail showed no signs of stopping or slowing, and she hadn’t slept. The nights here lasted for days on Equestria, and it would always break her eventually. And yet, Luna didn’t want to stop. Didn’t want to curl up and sleep no matter how much her eyelids began to droop, how much her hooves started to drag and her head sagged downwards, too heavy to keep up. Sleep meant they might come back, and more than anything Luna was afraid that she might wake up to even more hoofprints.
Or perhaps it would be more than hoofprints this time; perhaps she would wake to find the pony looming over her, its intentions unknown and unspeakable.
Good. Let them come. Let us tear them apart.
Or perhaps she would never wake up at all.
But then she stumbled and toppled into the dust, and couldn’t bring herself to stand again. She had to stop, no matter how much she hated it. Luna stared out over the dark horizon until exhaustion finally took her, and if she squinted she thought she could make out the silhouette of a pony standing ahead of her, waiting. But it must have been a trick of what little light was left, because when she opened her eyes fully it would be gone. Just her imagination. Paranoia.
And she repeated that mantra until sleep took her.
Celestia wasn’t sure when her tea had gotten cold, and when she went to take a sip and made this discovery she wrinkled her muzzle in distaste before throwing the rest of it out. Her sister had fallen very quiet, the story winding into silence as Luna stared up at the stars. She’d barely looked at Celestia this whole time, and Celestia couldn’t help but wonder if it was something as simple as reminiscing or if there was something else to it, some other reason Luna couldn’t look her in the eye.
“And were there hoofprints?” Celestia asked. “When you awoke, were there new ones?”
“There were not,” Luna said, after a moment’s pause. “Only the ones from before, still there. I wasn’t entirely sure they would be.”
“You thought they might have vanished?”
“I thought perhaps they might have been a dream. A false memory. But that was wishful thinking at best. Did you know that I never dreamed once while I was up there?”
Celestia lifted the teapot and poured herself another cup, watching the steam swirl slowly through the cool dawn air. “I didn’t, no.”
“I wonder if it was part of the sealing spell, separating me from my domain. Sleep always used to be so reassuring, so comforting, drifting effortlessly through imagination. But up there, on the moon?” Luna’s expression darkened. “It was just black. Empty.”
Another long silence as Celestia tried to bite back the apology she was so desperate to give and Luna stared wistfully into space.
“And what about the trail of hoofprints?” Celestia asked. “I assume you kept following them.”
“And did you ever find the source?”
“In a fashion,” Luna said, “although it took a lot longer than I had hoped.”
“I’m sure it was nothing compared to a millennium.” Celestia dropped a sugar cube into her cup, lifted the golden teaspoon and began to stir, the bright clink of metal against china ringing through the air.
“No, but it was still several months before I found the end.”
The teaspoon stopped clinking. “I’m sorry, did you say months?”
“But that’s… And they never stopped? Never deviated? Surely this pony must have paused for a rest?”
“If they did, their hooves continued on without them,” said Luna, with a mirthless smile. “Of course, I didn’t have the same stamina or dogged stubbornness, but I would follow those tracks until my hooves gave out beneath me and I could walk no more, and the journey still took months.” Luna’s smile was gone. “I know, because I was still counting.”
Luna’s hooves traipsed across the dust, the slight crunch underhoof all too familiar, the trail she left behind her stretching out of sight into the distance. A trail of slightly dragging hooves, leaving scuffs and broken lines in the grey in stark contrast to the perfect, pristine hoofprints they accompanied beside them. They’d never faltered, not once, not over all the days Luna had spent following them, as sure and consistent as when she had first set out.
Luna wasn’t sure if that made her feel better or worse. She had long since abandoned the idea that this thing was really a pony. No pony could march for months on end with no rest, its steps still as equally measured and precise as the moment it set off as when it found Luna, months later. No pony could have marched in such a straight line and still stumbled across her, not in the vast wasteland of the moon.
She didn’t know what that left, however, and so perhaps it was worse after all.
Some small, still niggling part of her couldn’t shake the idea that this was all in her head somehow. In some ways, that had become a more reassuring thought. This was just a distraction that Luna had created for herself, something to while away the nights, an unsolvable mystery, an unending trek across the moon’s surface to keep her mind from spinning away in vengeance and tally marks. But then she would hover her hoof over the trail and they would be smaller and any comforting notion of this being her own doing was cast aside, replaced by the same deep unease that had driven her so relentlessly onwards, pushing her to keep following, matching the trail step for step, no matter how long it had taken.
No matter if she was beginning to wonder if it would ever end at all.
Perhaps this was another part of her banishment. Celestia had shown how cruel she could be, even in her attempts at kindness, and perhaps endless purgatory hadn’t been enough. Perhaps putting her through this brought Celestia some sick, twisted pleasure, seeing Luna mindlessly, stubbornly pressing onwards. Trying to impart some kind of lesson as the trail continued forever. It felt like forever, and maybe it had been.
But no, she’d been keeping count. A perfect count, the tally marks long since abandoned behind her but flawlessly maintained in her head, every night another notch, every day another march. It had been months, not forever, and though the days were blended into one and it was all just one hoof in front of the other trudging through the dust a perfect trail parallel lines the orb of Equestria staring down on her Luna silent the moon silent the horizon stretching out for eternity and still onwards, onwards, onwards, despite all that she had always managed to add one to her total. The actual number seemed less important now than the act of keeping it, though, reassuring herself that she was making progress and that today was separate from yesterday and tomorrow and last week and a month from now, because otherwise for all intents and purposes they were the same.
Every day, every waking hour spent marching towards that unreachable horizon that met and matched her every step, shrinking away just as quickly as she approached, stretching ever out of reach in pace with the trail she followed. Every moment the same, the soft crunch of her hooves a metronome, a drum beat, a heartbeat. Crunch crunch crunch crunch. Her destination unchanging, immutable, always the same, forever the same, always-
And then Luna saw it, and her heart began to sink even before she was really sure what she was looking at.
That can’t be it.
The perfect horizon, the unchangeable had changed, and she could see the flurry of activity that had disturbed the dust ahead of her, the trail leading to it like a map, as if to mark it with an exclamation point.
No no no no no.
Her march grew ever more unsteady, her hooves threatening to topple her over again, not from exhaustion but fear and panic. She stumbled forwards as if drunk, borne onwards out of habit and terrible need to know, to understand, to confirm her suspicions. The familiar, rhythmic crunching replaced by an awkward shuffle, as she dragged herself towards the last thing she’d expected to stumble upon, as the hoofsteps she’d been following somehow grew tenfold more ominous, more impossible.
That one even managed to break through her consciousness into reality, her voice cracked and dry and hoarse with disuse, barely more than a whisper of denial and horror. It couldn’t be. Anything but this.
She stopped shambling forwards and stared down at the dust. At the multitude of lines left in its surface, etched by hoof – her hoof – before she abandoned them months ago to chase hoofsteps. Hoofsteps that had somehow perfectly looped back onto themselves, the old and the new meeting seamlessly, not even the slightest break or misplaced step, although now Luna had no idea where one set was supposed to begin and where the other was supposed to end. Instead, it was a perfect trail that trampled right over her tally marks, stretching off into the distance where she knew it would continue until it ended up right back here. And now there was a second trail following beside them, too – her own.
Luna had walked around the entirety of the moon’s surface and ended up exactly where she started.
And, faced with the impossibility of it all, faced with the sheer weight of her walk, of all the wasted months resting on her shoulders, the idea that there were now two rings of hoofsteps next to each other circling the entire moon, and staring down at the sea of tally marks that remained undisturbed save for the hoofsteps cutting straight through the middle of them, Luna did the one thing she could think to do. The one thing she still had energy left to do.
She sank down into the dust, onto her back, and began to laugh. Far too loudly, and for far too long, until the tears were streaming down her face and she wasn’t sure where the laughter finished and the sobbing began.