When Luna finished her story, Celestia was quiet for a very long time. To her sister’s credit, Luna didn’t push, didn’t ask for opinion or validation. She simply drank her tea and watched Celestia carefully and waited. Her voice had been cracking a little towards the end, and she was probably grateful for the respite. Celestia, meanwhile, was searching for words of her own. None of them seemed right, none of them seemed to have enough weight and earnestness to match Luna’s tale.
“You told me those scars were from the Element’s magic,” were the ones she settled on, and while they definitely weren’t the right ones they were the only ones she could find, the slight indignation in them a far better twinge than the fear and dread and guilt that would have steeped anything else she could have said. Because of course she’d noticed the scars, twisting silver beneath her sister’s fur. Mostly hidden, only noticeable up close, only the sort of thing a sister would see.
“I did say that,” Luna agreed. “It was a lie.”
“You could have told me. You should have told me.”
“I know. But I didn’t, and the longer I kept it hidden the harder it became to speak of. I began to question my own memory, my own sanity, and the thought that you may dismiss it out of hoof was both agonising and heartbreaking. I couldn’t bear that.”
That was something Celestia could sympathise with all too well. “So why now?”
Luna’s eyes flicked to the telescope again, and Celestia doubted she even knew she was doing it. Still, it was all the answer she needed.
“You saw it again, didn’t you?”
Luna nodded solemnly. “At first I thought it was just a smudge on the lens. Years spent searching for that blur, that ripple, so sure it would return, and yet when it actually did I was so terrified that I lied to myself that it was something else, something innocent and mundane. But of course it wasn’t. It was a blur.”
“And then a pony.”
“And then a pony,” Luna echoed. “And still I didn’t tell you, not until I had no other choice. Not until…” Luna struggled with the words, the ones she’d been leading up to all along, choking on them as she tried to let them go. “He’s here,” she whispered. “One day it vanished from the edges of my telescope and for a while I thought it was gone. Foolish, in retrospect. It crossed the ocean of stars and then I started seeing it, just flashes at the corners of my eyes, and no one else seemed to notice. In the gardens, then the castle itself, hidden amongst the crowd during our royal audiences. And now?”
Luna cast her eyes up to the moon again, but now Celestia saw the little sidelong glance that accompanied that motion, had accompanied it all along.
“Now, if I take great care to keep you at the edge of my vision I can see him standing behind you. He’s been there the whole time.”
The fur on the back of Celestia’s neck prickled, and she turned her head and for just a moment she thought she did see a pony there, standing wreathed in the last shadows before dawn. But then nothing, and no matter how hard she tried to emulate Luna and keep the darkness in her periphery there was nothing there. Maybe just a trick of her imagination, Luna’s story getting to her.
“You can’t see it, can you?” Luna asked, her voice filled with terrible resignation.
“The guards didn’t, either. I swore them to secrecy after, but I could tell they thought my mind had finally slipped, that all the years on the moon had cracked it.”
Luna snorted derisively. “Spare me your pity, sister, it does not suit you. I don’t want or need your sympathy, and I did not tell you all this for condolences.”
Celestia sighed and looked up at the still-dark sky. Dawn was already late. “Then what do you want?” she asked.
Luna’s gaze hardened, replacing her fear with stoic resolve. “A battle plan.”
“You would have us fight it?”
“Fight it? Tia, this thing devoured an entire planet. We would stand no chance, even with the elements by our side. No, we have to find a way to seal it, to lock it away in that graveyard it calls home. Plug up the gaps, where the walls are thin, and stop it leaking through.”
“What you’re suggesting will take time.” Celestia glanced nervously over her shoulder again. Nothing. “Time we may not have, given everything you’ve told me about our uninvited guest.”
“It’s the only thing we can do,” said Luna. “I don’t know why this thing chose me-”
Another pang of guilt in Celestia’s stomach.
“-but there’s no other option. Believe me, I’ve tried everything else, every spell I can think of. We have to find out where and how this thing is getting through, and stop it. Cut it off.”
“And the shadow following you?”
Luna shrugged. “I assume it will die if it gets separated. With any luck, we’ll discover how to do that before it manages to drag me through another circle.”
“Don’t joke about that.”
“It wasn’t a joke. This thing is patient enough to wait centuries for me before returning; it won’t stop, it won’t give up, and so our only option left is to beat it to the punch. Here and now.”
Celestia didn’t like it, but she had to admit Luna had a point. How else were they to battle something only Luna could see? Something so indefatigable, something intangible? And the dark rings around Luna’s eyes suggested that her sister had spent more than one night mulling this over, staring into the darkness and watching for shadows. More obvious now than ever, Luna swaying ever so slightly where she sat, her head threatening to droop no matter how stubbornly she held it high.
“How long have you been awake?” Celestia asked.
A pause. “Three days,” Luna admitted. “Or was it four?”
“You should get some rest.”
Celestia set her cup down with a sharp clink, and the mere sound had Luna flatten her ears to her head. “No, you aren’t. You’ll be no use if you’re on the verge of passing out, and we have time before the Elements and others arrive.”
For a moment, Luna looked as though she was about to protest, but then she sighed in resignation. “You’re right, I know. I will retire for now, then, and we will discuss strategy once I am rested and our friends are here.”
Luna stepped over to the doorway, but hesitated, casting a quick glance back over her shoulder. “And thank you, Tia. For believing me.”
This time the guilt was so great that it threatened to burst free, for Celestia to tell Luna everything, admit the secret she had held for so long, but something stopped her. Time. Fear. Habit.
And so instead she just smiled weakly and tried to seem reassuring, and it was only later that Celestia would mark it as one of her last and greatest regrets.
Luna disappeared through the doorway, only to be replaced immediately by an agitated guard, his awkward shuffling from hoof to hoof making the moonlight catch and gleam off every facet of his overly polished armour.
“My princess,” he said, bowing so low that she knew he was going to say something to upset her. “I am obligated to inform you that dawn is now twenty minutes overdue, and the populace will be getting anxious.”
All these years after the end of the Nightmare, and still Equestria was prepared to fly into a full-blown panic if dawn was just a little late. Celestia missed the old days, when she and Luna could be haphazard about it and not a soul would question their authority or judgement, even if it was only because Celestia had wanted to sleep in.
“Thank you, sergeant, I am aware,” she said, icily. “I will raise the sun, as I have managed to do so every day.” Her gaze softened a little. “Oh, and before you take your leave, I would have the guard outside my sister’s chambers doubled.”
The guard’s eyes widened. “Are we expecting trouble?”
She sighed. The royal guard had definitely slipped since the days of Captain Armour. His replacement was competent, of course, but no one had ever matched Shining’s discipline in matters both military and etiquette. She found herself wishing he was here now; they could have used him, and Cadance, too. Perhaps she should send a missive to the Crystal Empire as well.
“Would I give an order like that if I thought everything was going to be fine?” she asked, giving him the most withering glare she could muster.
“Er, of course not. My apologies, Princess, I’ll see to the reassignments myself.”
The guard hesitated, and Celestia rolled her eyes.
“That will be all.”
“Of course, Princess!”
With a smart salute, the sergeant marched back out through the doorway and at last left Celestia alone to digest everything Luna had said. The gnawing guilt refused to wane, and as she stared up at the moon above her, glowing so brightly amongst the stars, a single thought permeated through the spiralling others. Crystal clear, rising up through the tide of memories and imagination.
You should have told her.
There was a circle in Celestia’s room.
This was, by all accounts, unusual.
It glowed at the edges, bright white burning around a pitch dark centre, the faintest hum of energy emanating so quietly that she could almost pass it off as her imagination. Her first instinct was to call someone for help, her parents maybe, or at least the guards stationed outside, but something stopped her.
She was a big filly, now, after all. A proper Princess, and Princesses were supposed to take care of things like this all on their own. Her father had told her as much, and while he probably hadn’t been talking about magical glowing circles, Celestia thought it was as good a time as any to show how grown up she’d become.
That the circle was magical she had no doubt, although her initial attempts to attune to it with her own magic bore no fruit, unable even to discover the type of spell that had brought it here. She could sense the magic there, but it didn’t answer her, almost like it was speaking a different language, like it didn’t understand what her magic was asking it. Something new, then. Something different. Something alien.
Celestia’s smile widened. This mystery had grown ten times more exciting.
Her excitement only grew further as she paced around the circle, examining it, and discovered that not only was it flat but so utterly thin that it couldn’t even be seen from the sides, as if something had been cut in two then pressed together so tight that the gap was completely invisible.
Where had that thought come from, she wondered? A cut, a gouge. She wasn’t sure how she knew, but something deep down told her she was right, that this was some kind of cut. Perhaps that was a Princess’ intuition. She knew Princesses were supposed to have that, even if her mother kept telling her otherwise, but how else could she have always known the moment Celestia tried to keep a secret from her? Princesses must have had some magical way of knowing these things, and she suspected that her own was starting to come through at last.
An acrid smell burned the back of her nose, and she wrinkled her muzzle in distaste. Chemicals. That kind of strange smell that seemed to push out everything else, filling her senses but simultaneously emptying them of anything as well. Clean, but entirely so. Was that the circle, too? It must have been.
Curiouser and curiouser.
Celestia listened intently, trying to focus on the hum, deep and reverberating, but there was nothing else to be heard. She had to try, though. Exhaust every option before interacting. That was prudent, which Celestia knew was another word for sensible, which was something Princesses had to be all the time. Always.
And yet something about the circle beckoned her onwards, made her lift up a small hoof and reach out, gently pressing against it. It felt smooth, cool. Glass beneath her hoof. And then she felt it depress a little, felt her hoof start to sink into it and she snapped it back as if it had bitten her.
Her eyes widened as the edges of the dark circle began to fade away, leaving only the bright ring as the rest crumpled in on itself and disappeared. Had she done that? Was touching it a mistake? Should she have been more prudent?
Being a Princess was already far more difficult than everypony had made it out to be.
The last of the darkness disintegrated, tiny black motes flitting through the air and then they too were gone, only the now-empty white ring still remaining, still floating. Celestia peered through the circle, and frowned in confusion.
Her room lay on the other side, except it wasn’t hers. It seemed the same at first glance – the same layout, the same large windows lining one wall, the same ornate pillars of marble. But the marble of these pillars was dark, almost black compared the pearlescent ones they should have been, and outside the windows was nothing but a misty, grey fog. She turned back to her room, her real room, and looked out at the bright sunshine, and then back through the ring.
This mystery was rapidly spiralling out of control. Perhaps she wasn’t a big enough filly for this after all, perhaps she really should go and find her parents; they would know what to do. They always knew what to do. And if it hadn’t been for the slight noise catching her attention Celestia probably would have done just that.
Muttering, mumbling. Soft and high pitched. A foal. A filly, just like her. Celestried tried to crane her head around to see who was speaking, but the angle was impossible. So close, but just out of sight.
A little more, a little more…
Leaning almost through the circle now, and when Celestia felt herself falling it was too late to stop it, nothing to catch and hold onto, and so she tumbled forwards straight through the circle, and the world spun sickeningly before she landed on the other side with a soft thump and a wince. Far softer than she was expecting, far softer than it had any right to be, and it was only now that Celestia was sprawled on the other side that she noticed the floor was covered in an inch-thick layer of fine, grey dust.
Somehow the other foal hadn’t heard her unceremonious entrance, facing the other direction, staring down at something as she carried on murmuring, and now Celestia could finally see who that voice belonged to.
The first thing she noticed was that this filly was an alicorn, just like her. About the same age too, from the looks of it, although perhaps a little younger. Or maybe she was just small. Her coat was a deep, midnight blue, and her short and wispy mane was full of sparkling stars.
“Hello?” Celestia ventured, still keeping her distance just in case.
The other foal let out a yelp of surprise, sending something skittering across the floor as she practically threw it in her shock before rounding on Celestia with a deep scowl. “You made me jump.”
“Oh. Um… sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
The filly continued to glower at Celestia, her eyes filled with accusatory suspicion. “Who are you?” she demanded. “How did you get in here? Did you come from outside?”
Celestia tried to stand firm under the barrage of questions. “My name’s Celestia,” she said. “I’m a princess. And I came through the circle.” She gestured at the glow behind her to emphasise the point, and the other filly’s eyes widened.
“What is that?”
“I don’t know,” Celestia replied. “It just showed up in my room.”
The filly stared at the circle in dumbfounded awe, the ring reflecting in her pupils, a glowing white circle amidst jet black.
“What’s your name?” Celestia asked.
“Luna,” the filly replied, after a moment’s hesitation. “I’m a princess too.”
“Oh, I’ve never met a princess my age before! Your room is just like mine, too, but a different colour. And…” Celestia’s excitement faded a little as she looked at the layer of dust that had stuck fast to her coat when she tumbled into it. “What is this stuff?”
“It’s ash,” Luna said, quietly.
The filly’s frown deepened. “Haven’t you seen it before? I mean, just look outside. It’s everywhere.”
And as Celestia looked out the window she could feel a low sinking sensation in her chest. Luna was right – it wasn’t a mist after all, but a swirling sea of ash, whipped up by the wind into a dense haze, occasional flurries of flakes whipping past. Thick enough that Celestia couldn’t see anything else, none of what would have been Canterlot’s buildings, none of the gardens down below, nothing.
“What happened to this place?”
Luna stared down at the floor, her face warped in wretched despair. “I don’t know. Everything went dark, and then my parents told me to wait here, that they were going to go fix it. And then the ash started to fall.”
“How long ago was that?”
Luna kept staring at the floor, and now Celestia noticed a sea of lines scraped into the ash. Tally marks.
“I don’t remember,” Luna said, a slight edge to her voice. “But I don’t think they’re coming back anymore.”
Celestia dragged her eyes from the mist – ash, she reminded herself – outside, and they fell upon the thing Luna had cast away earlier when Celestia made her jump. A small, carved wooden pony. She picked it up, turning it gently back and forth in her hooves. The carving was rough and rudimentary, but it was still unmistakable as a pony. An alicorn, even, both a small stubby horn on its head and carved lines to represent folded wings on the totem’s barrel.
“My Mom made it for me,” Luna said, startling Celestia enough that she almost dropped the figurine in surprise. “Before the ash.”
The murmuring all made a lot of sense, now. She’d thought Luna had just been talking to herself, and in a way she had been, but as Celestia looked around the otherwise entirely desolate room she realised Luna had just been playing. All alone. She passed the figurine back, and Luna took it gratefully and clutched it tight to her chest.
“You’ve just been here by yourself?” Celestia asked.
Luna nodded, but then cast a nervous glance towards the window. “Mostly alone,” she said.
Luna motioned to the glass, and the grey nothing behind it. “There’s something out there,” she whispered, as if the mere mention would bring it running. “Something big. I see it sometimes, but only a shadow. A dark shape. And then it’ll be gone and I’ll wonder if I just imagined it.” She hesitated. “Until I see it again.”
Luna’s words sent an icy chill down Celestia’s spine, and the already oppressive fog of ash seemed to somehow press tighter against the windows, constricting around the castle, trying to force them out like a breath from crushed lungs.
She tried not to look outside, something deep down screaming at her that it was a bad idea, that if she couldn’t or wouldn’t see it then it couldn’t see her, and as long as she looked anywhere but the windows she would be okay. Everything would be okay.
But of course she looked anyway.
Nothing. Nothing but whirling, spiralling grey, stretching out as far as she could see, the only thing she could see. An entire landscape gone, replaced by emptiness and grey and ash.
And then she did see it. In the gloom, in the grey, a vast darkness shifting. The mist made it hard to judge size, and surely it was just an illusion because it couldn’t be as big as she imagined it to be, like an entire continent shifting. So far away, and yet all-encompassing. Big enough that the entire window wasn’t enough to see the edges of the shape, vast enough that it permeated through that otherwise impenetrable mist. And, as quickly as it had appeared, stillness again.
Celestia didn’t think it had moved out of sight, if it even could, rather it had just stopped. Dead still. Just a slight movement, wide enough that perhaps it was the entire world spinning instead and maybe she just couldn’t tell the difference, and then motionless once again.
She couldn’t shake the sneaking suspicion that she had somehow caused it to move, that the very act of staring out the window had gotten its attention and interest. Stupid, of course, and princesses were too smart to believe in silly superstition like that, but it didn’t stop all the fur on the back of her neck from raising on its end, didn’t stop her from quickly snapping her gaze away before she could see it move again.
“You saw it too, didn’t you?” Luna asked, clutching the wooden figure even closer.
“Maybe. It was hard to tell.”
“I… I think that’s the thing that did all this,” Luna said, her voice cracking a little. “I don’t know how, or why, but it did. It got everypony. Even my… Even…” Luna couldn’t bring herself to say the words, and instead she just hugged the wooden pony and buried her head in her wings and Celestia pretended not to hear the heartbroken little sniffles that filtered through the feathers.
“I’m sorry,” Celestia said, her words sounding as hollow as she felt.
“It’s okay.” Luna sniffed, rubbing her eyes dry. “Mom told me princesses are supposed to be brave. I don’t know if it matters anymore, but I always feel like I’m letting her down when I cry.”
“I think it’s okay to cry sometimes,” Celestia said. “Sometimes I think that’s more brave.”
And for the first time since the two met, Luna truly smiled. Warm, and sincere. “Is there really no ash on your side of the circle?” she asked.
“None at all,” Celestia said. And then: “Do you want to see?”
Luna blinked in surprise, as if the very idea had never even occurred to her, but after a moment’s hesitation she nodded, and Celestia led her over to the circle. It seemed much less ominous from this side, and looking through at the bright light streaming in from her bedroom’s windows it almost seemed… welcoming.
“Does it hurt?” Luna asked, gripping the wooden pony tighter.
“It feels weird,” Celestia said. “Like the world is sliding out from underneath you. It makes you dizzy, but only for a moment, and then it’s okay again.”
Luna frowned as she considered this.
“It’s fine, see?” Celestia put her hoof through the circle, and it was only then that she really realised how much warmer it was on her side, back home. The sun, she decided. That’s probably all it was. “Do you want me to go first?”
“No, I can do it,” Luna said, still clutching the figurine even as her expression hardened with resolve. She muttered something under her breath as she stepped forwards, although Celestia only caught a single word.
And with that Luna climbed through to the other side.
She swayed a moment as she touched down, but quickly steadied herself, staring around Celestia’s room in awe. “Wow,” she breathed. “It’s so pretty here.” That warm smile back on her face, wider than ever, but then as she turned back to look through the circle Celestia watched it die.
“Don’t turn around,” Luna said, her voice suddenly so serious, so cold. So scared. “Whatever you do. Just look at me, okay?”
“What is it? What’s the matter?”
“Please,” Luna insisted, almost begging, “just look at me and don’t turn around no matter what you hear.”
Celestia blinked in confusion, and suddenly it seemed so difficult not to turn around, not to glance behind her at whatever Luna was looking at and urging her not to see, not to hear. But she didn’t hear anything, the world muted by the ash in the same way as snow, even her hoof falls so soft against the dust.
“Come through,” Luna said. “Don’t look back.”
When had it gotten so cold? Celestia shivered as she slowly tiptoed her way towards the circle, doing everything in her power not to look behind her no matter how much she wanted to, no matter how much she needed to know. And now she could hear it, the faintest of whispering, like wind through trees. A murmuring, quiet but somehow full of voices at the same time, as if an entire crowd was so far away that she could barely make it out.
Don’t turn around. Don’t look.
And she didn’t. She didn’t even though every step felt like only a millimetre of progress, even though the circle seemed so far away all of a sudden and she couldn’t bring herself to run, her hooves bricks, her body ice. The whispering grew, and she didn’t understand it – in no language she’d ever heard before – but she still knew what it meant. Could still hear the whirlwind of voices crying out so desperately, begging for help, begging to be saved.
Don’t turn around.
The voices loud enough now that her ears were starting to ring, Luna’s panic-stricken face staring wide-eyed at whatever was behind her, one hoof in front of the other as she tried not to let her rising fear get the better of her.
Celestia had changed her mind; she wasn’t ready to be a princess yet after all. She should have called for help, she shouldn’t have gone through the circle alone, and the weight of her mistakes seemed to be dragging her backwards. For every step she took it seemed like she grew two further away from the circle. And she could feel it, now, the icy chill that emanated out of the thing behind her, feel the whispering ruffle the fur on the back of her neck, feel eyes boring into her and she knew they were there even though she couldn’t see them.
Don’t turn around don’t turn around don’t turn around
And then, almost to her own surprise, she was through, and while in reality it had only been a few steps and a few seconds it had felt like a lifetime, and whatever had been behind her had been so fast. But as the world spun sickeningly again as she stepped through, it was reassuring rather than disconcerting, that oppressive weight that had wrapped around her relinquishing its grip as whatever was behind her faded away.
It couldn’t follow. She was safe.
Her hooves on solid marble again, and at last Celestia was able to spin around and stare back through the circle to find… nothing. The circle was beginning to shrink, and through it she saw Luna’s bedroom rapidly dwindling and there was nothing there. Except as she turned away to face Luna, looking as shaken as Celestia felt, for the briefest of moments before the circle vanished she thought she caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye. A mist, a shadow, slinking under the doorway and vanishing from sight just before the circle disappeared completely.
Luna and Celestia stared at each other, and there were no words, and none were needed. Luna stepped forwards and pulled Celestia into a tight hug as the wooden pony fell from her grip, and the afternoon sun warmed their wings as Celestia hugged her back and tried to get the echoing whispers out of her head.