La Salle D'Argent, The Halls of the Dead, Canterhorn Mountain
Argent stared at Celestia, a welter of emotions washing over her. The captain knew her sovereign well enough to know that she didn’t do anything without good reason. Moreover, as a soldier, Argent understood the need for secrecy. She’d served a stint in the REF’s Special Operations Regiment, a unit not dissimilar to the Rangers, and most of what they did was not a matter of public record. Many operatives had performed heroic acts that, in a normal unit, would have earned them the highest honors. But what recognition they might have deserved was sacrificed, for the good of the country. It had never sat well with Argent, especially not when many of those soldiers had made the ultimate sacrifice, but she did not argue the point. After all, she and her comrades joined willingly, knowing full well they would live and perhaps die in secret. There were things too dangerous to be common knowledge; it was the lot of the soldier to bear those things in silence, so that nopony else had to.
Even so, thought Argent, the War of the Shades was a long time ago, and it was public knowledge at the time, so what possible reason could she have had for concealing it? How could she have concealed it? It’s not the place of a soldier to question her sovereign, but she did beg the question in the first place by bringing it up. Does she want me to ask? If not, why bother?
“Request permission to speak freely, Princess,” she said before she had time to talk herself out of it.
Celestia dipped her head indulgently. “Granted.”
Argent took a deep breath. “With respect, Princess, what exactly happened? Why did you bury the records?”
“A fair question,” replied Celestia. “But before I answer, remind me – did I ever tell you what I did when Luna fell into Darkness?”
The query was eye-wateringly blunt, and Argent could see the raw pain in Celestia’s gaze at the mention of Nightmare Moon. The captain swallowed. She may be ageless, our Celestia, but sometimes I think her heart is as mortal as mine. “No, Princess, you never told me.”
Celestia smiled sadly. “In point of fact, I did very little. There were few witnesses to our battle, and none who saw exactly how it began or ended. Those who were privy to the identity of Nightmare Moon were ordered not to speak of it, and to the public I simply said that Luna had fallen in battle with a pony who had given herself over to wicked power and been driven mad.” Celestia glanced into the distance and shook her head. “A true enough statement, I suppose, though hardly the full story. Still, it served its purpose. Ponies were reluctant to trouble me for details in my grief, so Luna remained a hero, albeit one who never received her due.” Argent thought she heard a catch in the princess’s voice as she said this, but Celestia moved on too fast for her to be certain.
“For the good of Luna and, more importantly, for the good of the country, I maintained the cloak of secrecy over the true events of Nightmare Night for one thousand years. In that time, Nightmare Moon fell into myth, and the Elements of Harmony with her. This was deliberate, as it allowed me to search for worthy Bearers quietly. The Elements must choose their Bearers, after all, and friendship must be willing for it to be genuine. A parade of aspiring heroes would have achieved nothing, and, worse, may have driven any true candidates away. Then, when Nightmare Moon did return, there would have been no Elements to face her.” Celestia regarded Argent with a look of regal surety. “It was a grave risk I took, but I felt it was necessary, and history has since vindicated my actions.”
“I would say so, Princess,” agreed Argent.
The white alicorn gave a brief smile, then heaved a regretful sigh. “All the same, there were… unintended consequences. Luna had never been properly recognized for her devotion to Equestria. When the country was young and the wars more frequent, she was respected as a military leader, but her mysterious nature and often stoic demeanor intimidated many.”
Argent nodded, but refrained from adding anything. I somehow don’t think it would be politic to mention that a mare who can read your dreams, wield shadows, and generally comes across as either intensely grim or frightfully passionate isn’t going to win as many devotees as the living ponification of the archetypal Mother of the Nation.
Not knowing Argent’s mind, Celestia continued, “After Luna’s disappearance, the country had to change its government and society to adapt to the new status quo. You know enough of your history to be familiar with the upheaval, so I won’t bore you with the details, but when the dust settled I was even more firmly cemented as the princess in the eyes of my ponies…” her eyes closed, and the invisible breeze that rippled through her mane wilted, “… and my dear sister faded into obscurity. As many of the old archives were lost, she became more and more an academic curiosity, eventually remembered only by period historians, avid students of the Founding Era, and those few who happened to come across the knowledge. My sister was forgotten.” The alicorn’s voice dropped to a whisper, “Exactly the thing she had feared.”
It doesn’t take a doctorate in psychology to tell how that makes her feel. Argent’s heart bled. “I’m so sorry, Your Highness.”
“Thank you, Argent.” Celestia smiled slightly. “You should know it has brought me great pleasure over the years to know that your family remembered enough of its history to keep memory of Luna’s existance, even if they knew little else.” With a bitter chuckle, she added, “It certainly helped alleviate the pain I felt every time one of those crackpots claimed Luna was a purely mythical figure, or that she was a composite character of several of my generals.”
Argent couldn’t quite suppress a scornful giggle. “I wish I’d been there to see their faces when Luna reappeared in the flesh.”
Celestia smiled more genuinely. “Believe it or not, some still insist the historical Luna is a fabrication.”
“What?!” exclaimed Argent. “B-but how?! Why?! What?! They can’t possibly—”
“Oh, it’s quite simple, Argent,” deadpanned Celestia. “The historical Luna is either wholesale fabrication or else a composite character, and the modern one is simply a mare I granted wings as a means of using the legend to gain power or choose an heir or some such thing.” The diarch shrugged. “That or I sculpted her from stardust and breathed life into her, much as I did with the Bearers. Honestly,” she teased, “I’m surprised you didn’t guess.”
“I- I…” stammered the captain. “I have no words.”
“That’s probably for the best,” chortled Celestia. Then, more soberly, she resumed the narrative, “Watching my sister fade from memory and knowledge was distressing in ways I can’t properly express, not even to her. Not to any creature who has not felt the long years as I have. Yet, in the end, the pain was worthwhile, for the Elements found their Bearers and my sister was returned.” Turning her head to regard the Three Companions, she grimly declared, “The matter of your ancestor and his comrades is a different story.”
Shaking her head regretfully, Celestia looked back to Argent. “My motivations were essentially the same, of course: the protection of Equestria from evil. In that respect, my decisions make sense. The Shades were not like the Windigos – Fell spirits of hate and misery. Nor were they like the griffons or the minotaurs – invaders who came seeking conquest and spoils.” The princess stepped forward, drawing closer to Argent, and the captain felt the warmth of Celestia’s ambient power wash over her. Usually she keeps her magic more muted than this. Which means she’s either letting her guard down… or she doesn’t realize she’s doing it. Either way, it was an unsettling realization.
“No,” continued Celestia, “the Shades were neither creatures of darkness nor marauding despoilers. At their start, they were Equestrian citizens.” One ear flicked casually. “Commoners, for the most part, but a few soldiers and gentleponies as well. Ponies like Raven, or Twilight, or you. Ordinary ponies as you might find anywhere in Equestria. Ordinary ponies who made one, simple mistake.”
Celestia’s eyes narrowed, and brought her head down to Argent’s level. “They became curious. Curious about things nopony should ever seek to know. And in their pursuit of knowledge, so seemingly innocent at first, they travelled down a path that would lead to a village called Rose-upon-Ford. A peaceful village of fathers and mothers and foals.” Fire blazed in Celestia’s eyes, and the ambient warmth turned harsh. Argent felt sweat break out on her forehead. “Do you know how many survivors there were at Rose-upon-Ford, Argent?”
The captain’s voice was small, “No, Princess.”
Argent could taste the flare in magic on the back of her teeth as Celestia’s mane flashed with the harsh light of the burning sun. “Not. One.”
More than the raw, furious power before her, that declaration stole Argent’s breath away. “Merciful heavens,” she whispered.
“The evils the Shades committed are unspeakable, Captain,” hissed the princess, “and I will not sully the tombs of those who defeated them by speaking of them here, but what they wrought in the shadows was Dark beyond my wildest nightmares.” For a painful moment, the fire in Celestia’s eyes blazed with righteous fury.
Then the flames receded, Celestia straightened back up, and her mane returned to its normal state. “There are few monsters I have faced over the years that sparked true fear in my heart, but I freely admit to you that the Shades frightened me. They frightened me as few things ever have. That the pursuit of knowledge and power could take souls to such a place…” she shuddered, “all these years later, it still chills me to the bone. It became clear to us that not even a shred of such a cancerous ideology may be allowed to remain, lest it return. We had to bury their sins along with them.” The princess nodded in grim satisfaction. “And so we did. We burned their tracts, destroyed their halls, annihilated any hint of their curses and spells, so that even if somepony wanted to follow the path of the Shades, they would have no guides to lead them.”
Argent set her jaw. “I would have done the same in your position, Princess. Such evil is not defeated by half measures.”
To her surprise, Celestia’s face fell into pained regret. “But they were half measures, Argent. Half measures because, in our determination, my determination, to wipe out any memory of their evil, a simple lesson was forgotten…”
Centuries seemed to flash in Celestia’s eyes as she asked, “How can one be vigilant against an evil one doesn’t know exists?”
The answer, Argent knew, was simple. You can’t.
“The danger of the Shades was forgotten, along with the heroism of those who defeated them.” Celestia heaved an old sigh. “I had never wanted the sacrifices of my brave soldiers to be lost to obscurity, but my decision to expunge so much had that effect anyway.” The princess bowed her head. “And now I pay the price for it. The heroes are forgotten, and the Shades return. The irony of failure is bitter indeed.” With that, she fell silent.
Argent stood mute, unwilling to speak even if she knew what to say. What could anypony possibly say? Who else knows the burden of age as she does? Only the Author of Life can truly understand her pain.
The princess maintained her silence, as though awaiting judgment.
And yet, she bears it. She bears it because somepony has to; somepony always has to. Nopony can be perfect, but we all must strive. She’s striven for more than a thousand years. When mortals suffer so many failures, how many must she have suffered?
Still, Celestia did not speak.
Heaven knows I’ve failed many times in my short life, and that ponies have died for those failures. I have no right to judge her.
“Princess,” she began aloud. Celestia did not stir, and Argent took a deep breath, steeling herself for what she was about to say. “Do you remember when I was awarded the Distinguished Service Heart for the Battle of Gusty’s March?”
Perplexed, the diarch looked up. “Of course,” she said. “As I recall, you attempted to turn it down because you felt responsible for leading your ponies into an ambush.”
“Yes,” said Argent, a familiar pain tugging at her heart. “My decision to take the platoon into Gusty’s March cost six ponies their lives. I felt I deserved a court martial, not a medal.”
Celestia smiled comfortingly. “I reminded you that leading your platoon into the town had made tactical sense based on the limited information you had, and that, thanks to your leadership, you not only survived the ambush, but won the battle.”
The captain nodded. “Do you recall what else you said?”
Cocking an eyebrow, the princess continued, “I told you that mistakes are inevitable, but that all we can do is strive to be better and learn from them when we fall short. That this is what makes a pony great.”
“Yes, Princess,” said Argent. She did not add anything else, but stared pointedly at her sovereign.
Based on the alicorn’s wry smile, the implicit message was received. Celestia let out a rueful chuckle, then surprised the captain by leaning in for an equine hug, resting her chin on Argent’s withers and bringing up a foreleg to brush an elbow against her shoulder. It was a surprising gesture, but a moving one, and one she returned after a moment’s shock. When they separated, Celestia’s smile was both fond and thoughtful. “You are a wise and insightful pony, Dame L’Argent. I’m certain you and Martel would have gotten on famously.”
“Thank you, Your Highness,” flushed the unicorn.
Celestia lit her horn, and the battered tome from before drifted into view. The princess shut her eyes, and the gleam of her horn intensified. Soon the book flashed with light and spun, pages zipping from within to collect in two new shining orbs, both too bright for Argent to look at directly. When the glare receded, three books now hovered in the air, the new ones looking to be mint-condition copies of the original.
“This is a firsthoof account of the War of the Shades,” explained Celestia, “written by Marshal Martel himself.” The original tome drifted down to Argent, and she reverently took it in her magic. It was not a large book, yet it felt like one in her grasp. “As the heir to his legacy, it is yours by right.”
Argent gasped. “Princess, I- I can’t take this! It’s ancient! Irreplaceable! It belongs in a museum, not—”
“It belongs to the heir of House L’Argent,” declared Celestia, her voice weighty with authority, “and it shall stay with her.”
The captain made to protest, but one look at the princess made it clear that would be futile. Having no other choice, Argent bowed. “Thank you, Your Highness.”
Celestia’s gaze turned motherly. “Thank you, my little pony.” The princess’s horn gleamed again, and Argent could feel the gathering power of a teleportation spell that would take the princess through the heavy anti-teleportation wards of the castle. “I’ve taken enough of your time, my friend, and shall leave you to visit your father.” The captain was forced to step back as golden energy swirled around Celestia. “Read that book when you are able,” commanded Celestia. “You deserve to know how a noble pony lived, and how he loved the ponies for whom he died.”
There was a brilliant flash of light, and she was gone, leaving Argent alone with the book. The soldier ran a hoof over the cover, letting the tactile sense of the tome’s age shape her thoughts. What long odds that you survived, and what mad Providence to bring you to us now. Feeling the gaze of another upon her, she looked up to see the noble visage of Argent Martel, marble eyes tilted down as though to see what she would do. Words sprang unbidden to her lips. “What horrors you must have seen, that even Celestia should remain so shaken by them.” The statue was unmoved. “Though I suppose if we don’t stop these Shades now, I’ll find out, won’t I, Lord High Marshal?” The marble did not answer, but then, it hardly needed to. Sitting on the cold stone floor, Argent directed her eyes heavenward. “Sorry, Dad. I’ll visit you later. You understand, I’m sure.” With that, she opened the book and read.
Jacques woke from a mercifully dreamless sleep. He straightened in the plush chair he’d dozed in, cracking his neck and sighing with pleasure at the release of tension. Glancing at the wall clock, he saw that his internal timepiece had woken him in time for Lauds at dawn, five o’clock as the ponies reckoned. As it was still several hours before training was to begin, Fritters was sound asleep, so buried under a tangled mess of covers that it looked like he’d made himself a nest.
The friar stroked his beard thoughtfully. I cannot properly sing a hymn even at a whisper with Krucjata in the room, and I seem to recall the threat of being thrown in the lake if I wake anyone. I’ll just have to slip out. He winced at his mental choice of words. I’ll just have to step out, he corrected. Rising as quietly as he could, he took up his sword and crept for the door.
He’d not gone three feet before Fritters snorted and roused behind him. “Eh? Co słychać?” demanded the pony, his muddled voice suggesting he wasn’t properly awake. Jacques winced, freezing in place and turning his head to watch the bed. The covers shifted as the pony within fought his way to the surface. Eventually, a hooded opening appeared in the mass of tangled fabric and swung to face the friar, a bloodshot icy blue eye peering from the darkness. “Wyjaśnisz, Friar,” grated the eye.
Jacques didn’t speak Polish, but in that moment he didn’t need to. “I’m just sli— stepping outside for morning prayer, my friend,” he assured the stallion, “not running off. Don’t trouble yourself.”
The eye glared balefully back at him, then disappeared beneath the mound of bedding with a perfunctory, “Wysiadać. Idę spać,” which sounded just as unintelligible as everything else he’d said, but which Jacques interpreted to mean he had permission (or perhaps a command) to leave. Tiptoeing, the friar slipped out of the room and headed for the staircase.
In the past days, he’d learned which floorboards creaked louder than the others, and so managed to slip into the kitchen without incident. Before leaving the house, he found a piece of scratch paper and a pencil and wrote a note explaining where he was in case some pony other than Fritters was the first up. Marvelous invention, this ‘tape,’ he mused as he affixed the note to the door before departing.
A short walk brought him to the orchard, and he walked amongst the trees, far enough from the house to have some privacy, but close enough that he wouldn’t be hard to find if ponies came looking. Breathing deeply of the cool morning air, colder yet in the shadow of the trees, he prayed the Lauds.
He was just finishing the final prayers when he noticed a patch of shadows that looked denser than the others. Putting a hand to the hilt of his sword, he slowed his pace and took a guarded stance, examining the patch through narrowed eyes. As he stared, the shadows ceased to be those of foliage and became the silhouette of a living creature, tall and equine, standing beneath the bows of a great apple tree. “Step forth and be recognized,” he commanded, his voice ringing in the morning stillness.
“Stay your blade, good sir knight,” replied the figure, her voice elegant and regal. She emerged from the shadows, revealing herself to be a dark-coated mare with ethereal blue mane, a horn, and wings. Meeting his guarded gaze levelly, she favored him with a slight smile. “I am a friend.”
Under the circumstances, Jacques felt a certain justified suspicion when the mare first appeared, but now that he could plainly see her those fears dissipated. If this is who I believe it to be, and it most assuredly is, then I may trust her.
The pony’s bearing was royal, in the manner of those lords and ladies who were noble in character as well as in title. She carried herself with a confidence that was graceful, not pretentious. There was great warmth in her teal eyes, as well as command, power, and something… else. A sadness and pain Jacques knew all too well. Though her shoulders were unbowed by any physical weight, the priest could see she carried a heavy burden. One I can readily guess at, he mused.
The mare’s aquiline features were familiar, and not just because he’d met her sister. No, I have the distinct impression I’ve seen this mare before. His hand relaxed. As in a dream. Releasing the grip on his sword, he gave a courteous bow. “Princess Luna, I presume?”
“You presume aright, Friar Jacques,” the diarch replied. “I am pleased to finally meet you. My sister has told me much of your noble character, beginning with how your first act in this world was to offer your life in defense of three of our littlest subjects.” She dipped her head respectfully. “You have my gratitude.”
Jacques flushed and glanced away in discomfort. “You praise me too much, Your Highness. The victory was God’s. I only did what I pray any man would do.”
Luna raised an eyebrow and quirked an amused smile. “Indeed? Well, if all men of your world are like you then it’s a pity more were not sent.”
An image of Philip IV flashed in Jacques’ mind, and a familiar pain tugged at his heart. “Not all,” he murmured.
The princess tilted her head at his comment, but didn’t press the matter. “I must beg your forgiveness for lurking,” she said, changing topics. “I did not wish to intrude on your meditation. And,” the mare added with a smirk, “I must confess that I wanted to see if you could see through my illusion.”
“So it was magic,” replied the Friar, his brow furrowing. Magic that cloaked you in darkness. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but… “A bending of shadows it seemed,” he ventured carefully. Luna nodded, and Jacques raised an eyebrow. “Forgive me if I speak out of turn, Princess, but I had thought the magic of shadows was the art of the Enemy.”
“A fair concern,” acknowledged Luna, “and, regrettably, one that is legitimate as often as not.” Her horn lit, and a ghostly image appeared in the air, showing what appeared to be a tapestry telling of the world’s creation, with light streaming down from the heavens upon the ponies who danced below. “When the Author of Life brought our world into being and bestowed on us the gift of magic, shadowmancy was but one of many schools of magic, a means of controlling a normal element of nature, no morally different from the control of fire or earth or the weather. In its proper form, that remains true. However,” she continued with a sigh as the tapestry morphed, revealing Darker things lurking amongst the ponies, “corruption swiftly set in. When the Fell Spirits forsook Harmony and embraced damnation, shadowmancy was the first art to be afflicted with their taint.” The mare shook her head in disgust. “Likely they thought to hide their wickedness from the heavens, but it is best not to dwell on such vile creatures.” The image shifted again, showing shadowy tendrils reaching out from the Darkness to ensnare the unsuspecting ponies. “Whatever their motivations, they perverted the school of shadowmancy in its infancy, seeding foul and unholy incantations in amongst the natural practice and twisting heaven knows how many souls in the process.” Just as the Dark monsters were about to overtake the image, Luna dismissed it. “So prevalent was their bastardization of the school that shadowmancy came to be associated with the Fell, to the point that many texts actually refer to them as ‘Shadows.’”
Jacques stroked his beard. “A great tragedy,” he declared, “yet plainly one that is not all-encompassing, as you yourself seem to use shadowmancy without taint.” At least, I would hope that is what I bore witness to.
“It is possible, but not common,” supplied Luna. “Shadowmancy is a difficult school of magic in its own right, made doubly so by the dangers that dog it. Whether by overt Dark Magic or tiny and insidious suggestions of wickedness, so many evils have permeated the study that finding safe texts and trustworthy tutors is difficult at best. Even when taught properly, there is always the danger that students may become so caught up in their studies that they push forward without proper direction or spiritual preparedness, and find themselves fascinated with things nopony should know. It may not even be shadowmancy itself which opens the gate to sin; it may simply be one’s own weakness.” With a deep sigh, the princess looked away. “I know that better than most,” she added quietly.
Her admission earned a raised eyebrow from Jacques. I have no doubt of that, he thought, but I find it remarkable that you’d admit as much to a stranger. Sensing that she had more to say, he did not presume to interrupt. Instead, the old priest kept his features open and without judgment, waiting for her to speak again.
His supposition proved correct. “I had thought myself a wise pony,” she began, “gifted in lore and magic, with a heart made noble by the obligations of rule and a soul made strong in fighting evil. I had the privilege of learning pure, untainted shadowmancy in my youth, and the Mantle of the Moon granted me a special affinity for it. I faced ponies who’d fallen under the taint of the Fell Shadows – Sombra, the Court of Terrors, the Shades.” She shook her head, her features lined with regret. “I thought I was strong enough to resist the taint of Dark Magic, to delve into the filth and remain clean.” Her gaze, heavy with self-recrimination, drifted back to Jacques. “I was wrong.”
The pair stared in silence for a time, each seeming to measure the other. Jacques could see the rawness of her pain, held back by a visage of stoicism and regality that would likely fool most anyone. But the confessor had looked into the eyes of too many penitent souls to be tricked by a mask. He could see her reluctance, too, and her surprise – verging on disbelief – that she’d allowed herself such vulnerability with him. Yet if she spoke so readily to me, perhaps there is a reason for it. “If I may ask, Princess,” he probed gently, “how were you wrong?”
Luna’s eyes narrowed, shifting slightly as she considered whether or not to answer. In the end, her desire to speak won out. “Pride,” she admitted. “Pride and jealousy. An old and potent combination. I was angry that my sister was so much more beloved than me. After all, I’d sacrificed just as much for Equestria as she had, fought and bled just as hard, and yet she was always the golden sister, the first princess, and I could not seem to escape her shadow.” The lunar mare looked out over Jacques’ shoulder into the distant past and chuckled humorlessly. “In that shadow, a seed of Darkness grew… and festered.”
“Emotions affect magic, Friar,” she continued more clinically, “as I’m sure Twilight has told you. Even without the deliberate practice of Dark Magic, when those emotions are tainted with evil, with hate or lust or envy, twisted things will follow. And, when great and powerful magics are at play, the results may be,” her tone dropped, “maddening.”
Jacques felt the scars on his shoulders itch – the ones scoured there by molten silver. He was all too familiar with the madness power could wreak upon the mind.
The alicorn let out a weary sigh. “I wanted my sister’s power,” she stated, her gaze drifting upwards as she gave a shudder of remembrance. “Oh, how I craved it. Yearned for it. Lusted for it.” Tightly, she shut her eyes. “I sought to take a power that was not mine to have. To take it, I nurtured an inner Darkness.” She paused a moment, swallowing audibly. “It warped me, consumed me. It even took a name of its own…”
“Nightmare Moon,” murmured Jacques in the silence.
“Yes,” she whispered. “A name not born of the ‘multiple personality disorder’ the doctors speak of, nor as an affectation of a sound yet wicked mind, but of insanity and vice. I was captive in my own body, enslaved by my basest desires, at the mercy of my sins.” Her eyes snapped open, filled with anguish and desperate emotion. “All vices chain us, Friar, as you well know, but the chains I crafted for myself that dread day were so total that I—” a sob threatened to escape her lips, and she strangled it off, taking rest of the sentence with it.
The priest waited, and, after a deep breath, Luna resumed, her voice made even by an iron will, “Captive in my own body, I attempted to lay waste to that which I had sworn to protect… and to that which I loved.” Her tone turned biting, “I ought to have been slain for my treachery, but…” gentler words replaced her bite, “…instead the Elements banished me into a great slumber in the moon, so that my madness may be made dormant while enough of my mind remained to heal. When I returned, the Elements freed me from the taint of the Darkness. I could finally see the truth of what I have done, and weep for it.” She shook her head, her eyes unfocused and her voice soft, as though unbelieving of the mercy she’d received. “Many long days I spent in the company of chaplains, ensuring that the taint was gone. Yet, for all my sins… I am now restored as Princess of Equestria. My kingdom has accepted me. My sister… my sister has forgiven me.” She let out a shaky breath, unspent grief caught in her throat.
But have you forgiven yourself? Or have you clung instead to your torments? The priest knew the answer without asking. He waited until he was certain she had no more to say before giving counsel, “You have received mercy, and yet you are troubled by this. Why?”
Luna’s gaze snapped away from him, and she bitterly exclaimed, “It is a mercy I do not deserve!”
Jacques let out a low chuckle, drawing her attention back to him. “My dear sister, none of us deserve mercy. That is why it is such a great gift.” Luna frowned, unconvinced, but Jacques had expected that. “Princess, was it not your sister and your people whom you wronged? If that is the case, then is it not their choice whether or not to forgive you?”
“Just because it is their choice doesn’t make it the right one,” she countered.
“And clinging to old pain is?” he challenged. “How much energy do you waste carrying around an old sin? Energy that could be better spent doing good with your life? Would it not be a nobler penance to devote your time to the pursuit of virtue, rather than lingering over an evil which has already been expunged?”
Luna rubbed one foreleg with the other, looking in that moment more like a vulnerable young woman than an immortal ruler. “It is not so simple,” she protested.
“Isn’t it?” he demanded. “How is carrying a crime of which you have been absolved meant to make amends for anything? Who but you holds this sword poised above your neck? Now that the scales have been balanced, who benefits from your unsurety, your anguish… other than the Enemy himself?” A spark of uncertainty flashed in her eyes, and Jacques smiled inwardly, recognizing he’d scored a hit. “If your unforgiveness continues to burden you, robbing you of true, holy peace and happiness, is that not a diabolical craft? Can you honestly tell me that your unwillingness to release the past has not kept you from full reconciliation with those you love?”
The princess winced, but said nothing in response. Jacques allowed his voice to grow stern. “Hearken to me, Highness. It is the work of the deceiver to twist facts into lies. The truth is that the God who made both you and I knows all our sins, even better than we know them ourselves, and He has forgiven us anyway. More, He has bid us forgive each other. If He has decided we are worthy,” he shrugged, “who are we to gainsay Him? To do so is the height of ingratitude. Further, it is the height of arrogance.”
The princess recoiled, outrage flashing across her features. “Arrogance?!”
“Arrogance,” echoed the friar mildly. “Though it is an arrogance all we meager creatures of earth share at some level, for Pride is the first bitter fruit of the Fall.” Luna’s mouth opened and shut as she tried to form some response, but none was forthcoming. Jacques merely smiled, knowing what questions he had to ask. “Tell me something, you who have walked the centuries and remained yet young.” He waited until she met his gaze before asking, “Can you claim that your self-loathing is greater than a sister’s love? Is it true that memories of past sins are of greater importance than the good you might do if you let them go? Do you presume to know more than the One who spoke the very world into being?” Not giving her time to object or look away, he pressed on, “Were you there for the songs of creation, that you might know your vices are grander than the power of Love? In your movement of the moon in the sky, have you learned all the movements of the heart? Do you claim to hold a greater wisdom than the One who breathed life into you?” Her eyes widened as his gaze bore into her. “Tell me truthfully, sister Luna, can you claim this?”
Humbly, huskily, the alicorn whispered, “No.”
A gentle smile graced his lips, and Jacques took a slow step towards her. “Then stop acting as though you can. You have been forgiven,” he promised, taking another step. “Have the humility and love to accept it. I do not say this because it will be easy,” A light laugh escaped his lips. “God knows it isn’t.” He drew closer yet. “Still, we must strive.’
Luna retreated a pace, tears in her eyes and she tore her gaze away from his. “I can’t forget the past!” she cried. “I won’t!”
Jacques halted where he was. “I’m not asking you to forget,” he clarified calmly. “I’m asking you to forgive.” The princess stood in silence, refusing to look at him. The friar sighed. He could guess the pain she carried, both that of which she’d told him, and that which she held so close that she thought no one else could see. The hurt which was whispered to him in his heart. God has granted me insights many times, instincts which have never led me astray. How I wish that this is not what they showed me in this moment. Oh, daughter, he grieved, how you have hurt yourself.
“How long have you tortured yourself?” he asked quietly.
Luna’s eyes flashed with shock, outrage, even fear. “How…” she gasped, “how could you possibly know that?!”
The friar watched her levelly. “I am an old confessor, sister Luna, and no stranger to torture.” He traced the scars on his arm. “Those inflicted upon us,” his hand covered his heart, “and those we inflict upon ourselves. How long?” he repeated.
For a moment, Jacques feared that the princess might fly off, or perhaps strike him. Fear and fury warred in her movements as wings flared and limbs shook, fight and flight both seeking to be unleashed. Then her shoulders sagged, her wings drooped, and even her mane seemed to lose its luster. She hung her head, tears rolling down her face. In a voice barely audible, she breathed, “Three years.”
Three years, Jacques thought with sorrow. Three years of silent grief. Stepping slowly so as not to alarm her, he moved to stand before her. His voice was low and kind, “Three years is far too long to carry such unforgiveness in your heart.” He reached up to gently cup her chin in one hand, wiping her tears away with a gnarled thumb. “Dry your tears, Daughter of God. Let your weeping turn to dancing.”
Fresh tears welled in her eyes and she leaned into his hand, nuzzling his calloused grasp. Carefully, so as not to disturb her, the old priest fell to one knee, and the princess bent forward, resting her chin on his shoulder and crying softly into his ear as he stroked her neck.
After a few moments, her weeping faded, replaced by an even breathing. Jacques waited, intending to give her the first word.
When she spoke, however, it was not what he expected. “I have heard your anguish while you sleep, Friar Jacques,” she rasped. He blinked in surprise at the remark, and she pulled back from the embrace. “You have asked me many questions, so now I ask one of you.” She regarded him levelly through eyes still wet from catharsis. “How can a man who has suffered such cruelty be so kind to someone he has only just met?”
Jacques tilted his head in confusion. “Princess, what man of goodwill would do any less?”
Luna smiled. “You are a remarkable being, sir knight.”
The man couldn’t help but grin as he stood back up. “You’ll forgive me if I find that amusing coming from a magical pony who moves the moon on a whim.”
“Fair enough,” chuckled the mare, drying her tears with a wing. “And to think, I had come to offer you consolation for your nightmares.”
Shrugging, the priest replied, “There is no reason you still cannot.” He smirked. “Far be it from me to prevent you guarding me from dark forces assaulting me in my slumbers.”
Luna returned his smirk. “Then I suppose we shall consider this a means of expressing my gratitude.” Her expression turned grave. “What do you recall from last night?”
Now it was Jacques’ turn to look away. Taking a few paces to collect his thoughts, he addressed the princess without facing her. “An old enemy returned,” came the slow answer. “One long gone, with no chance of returning.” He snorted. “Not that my slumbering mind cared for that detail. In my nightmare, he followed me to this world, having killed the Brothers who cared for me, and, when he arrived here…” his fist clenched, “he brought his murderous blade with him.”
“Your new friends?” Luna asked, her voice suggesting she knew the answer.
“Yes,” he answered softly, emotion tugging at his throat.
Luna sighed. “Friar, I am truly sorry that I failed to protect you from such pain.”
Forcing a smile to his face, he turned to reassure her. “As I understand it, you woke Applejack to rouse me. I would call that protection. Worry not.” He hoped she did not hear the tightness in his voice.
The princess raised an eyebrow. “You are in my domain. It is duty, not worry. And, now that the enemy has revealed itself, I know what to guard against. So,” she bared her teeth in a smile that was shockingly predatory for an equine, “you may sleep better.”
“I believe you,” he replied. “Still, if you would be so kind, I’d like to know what it is you are guarding against.”
Luna’s lip curled in disgust, though it wasn’t directed against him. “A perversion of shadow magic. The dark entity which attacked you last night was an artificial construct, commonly called a ‘terrorsite’ or simply a ‘terror’ – animal in instinct and predatory in nature. It sows misery and pain amongst its victims in the Dream Realm and uses the suffering it causes to feed its master’s power.” Jacques blanched in horror. “While unable to break into your mind, its presence was enough to cause your mind to turn to grief and fear, and transform dreams into nightmares.”
‘Grief and fear.’ Well, I’ve carried much of that, he reflected grimly. The princess is not the only one who must learn to let go of the past.
“It also probes for information,” she continued, “though it must gain actual entry into the victim’s mind to learn much.” Luna made an approving noise with her throat. “Fortunately, your mental defenses are quite robust, and it didn’t learn much.”
Putting aside the disturbing knowledge that his mind had been violated, Jacques forced himself to focus on the strategic picture. “It didn’t learn ‘much’?” he echoed. “Do you know what it did learn?”
“Without interrogating the caster, which I would love to do, I can’t say for certain,” she answered, “but the most he or she could possibly have learned is that you are human and that your magic and willpower were sufficient to repulse the terrosite. Now, the good news is that any knowledge of your magic is limited to a vague sense of your power and the fact that you’re a Curatrix-user. Also, since almost nopony knows what a human is, your identity is safe for now.”
“And the bad news?”
Luna grimaced. “Ponyville is a small community, but it isn’t that small. Eventually, word of your presence will slip out. It may be some time, as Ponyvillians tend to keep quiet about the strange happenings around here.” As an aside she muttered, “Likely because they’re so commonplace as to be mundane.” In her normal tone she continued, “Even so, you won’t remain secret forever. If these new ‘Shades’, and we must assume this was their doing, hear tell of a previously unknown sapient creature, then it won’t take long for them to start asking questions.” She clicked her teeth, looking annoyed. “My sister has long had some subtle defenses in place around Ponyville, but I fear the time for subtlety will soon be passed. You and the Bearers must be ready for battle.”
“We are of one mind in this,” agreed Jacques. “Today begins their training,” he flexed one hand, “and continues mine.”
Luna’s close-lipped smile was martial. “Good. I am pleased to hear that. In fact,” her horn flared, and two books appeared from seemingly nowhere, floating over to him, “I may have something to assist with that.” He took the books and examined them. They were thick tomes, with heavy brown covers and metal clasps. The smaller of the two bore French script on the side. “The larger volume is a compendium of combat and investigation spells, including shadowmancy techniques. Actual shadowmancy techniques, of the sort it’s safe for prudent ponies to learn. Most are rather advanced spells, so I doubt that any but Twilight and possibly the one my sister calls the ‘Mad Konik’ could use them,” Jacques smirked at the moniker, “but they ought to provide an edge in combat. Perhaps more to the point, some of the techniques involve illusions and training dummies which simulate Dark Magic without actually being Dark Magic. Twilight should be familiar with the theory from her battle with Sombra’s traps. Should she learn them, it will make for safer practicing of Curatrix techniques than running madly into the Everfree Forest looking for trouble.”
Jacques kept his expression neutral. Judging by Luna’s tone, she hadn’t heard about the incident last night, but, given her role in Equestria, he couldn’t be sure. “That would indeed be a desperate training regimen,” he replied blandly.
“The second book should be… even more educational,” declared the princess. Catching her flat tone, the friar glanced up with a raised eyebrow. “Just before I left, my sister approached me with a copy of a manuscript written by an old friend of ours – Lord High Marshal Argent Martel, Hero of Brackenridge, Right Hoof of the Diarchy,” her eyes narrowed, “and General of the Army of Retribution, formed to bring justice to the Shades.”
“Oh,” murmured Jacques, the book suddenly feeling heavier.
“Argent Martel was a precise and deliberate pony. He recorded all that happened up to his death at the conclusion of the war. His insights will prove invaluable to you, but,” she regarded him solemnly, “I would recommend that you read the book first yourself, then Twilight Sparkle, and that the two of you teach the others what you have learned. The soldiers may read it, but I would advise against anypony else reading that tome.”
An odd stipulation. “May I ask why?”
Luna pursed her lips. “Argent Martel wrote much of the tactics of the enemy – their strengths, their weaknesses, and even the effects of their spells. To each he recorded countermeasures both magical and mundane which had proven effective against them, all of which will be most valuable to you and the Bearers.” The princess’s jaw tightened. “He also recorded the enemy’s… depravities.”
The memory of the Bearers’ reactions to the prospect of killing sprang to mind, and his heart sank. “I see.”
“I’m sure you do.” Luna indicated the journal with the tip of her horn. “Twilight Sparkle’s gift for magic makes it necessary for her to read this, though you must be there to help her through it. The soldiers have seen such depravities before and, like you, shall bear their weight. The others, though, should be hardened to such things gradually, if possible.” She sighed and shook her head. “It is one thing to read of wickedness in a clinical fashion. Though still disturbing to sensible minds, it is at least insulated enough to be processed more at an intellectual level than an emotional one. To read of wickedness in its raw form however… well,” her elegant features turned sad, “I had hoped to spare the mares who saved me that pain, at least for a little longer. Perhaps forever if these modern ‘Shades’ can be destroyed before their corruption spreads.”
Jacques nodded gravely. “One can only hope.”
“One can.” The alicorn looked up at the sky, noting the height of the sun. “I must return to Canterlot soon, but before I go, I would like to discuss your dreams.”
“Very well,” he assented. “What of them?”
“As I said before, you were blessed with robust mental defenses. With your natural affinity for Curatrix Magic, your instinctive resistance to outside magic, and your own willpower, you needn’t fear an enemy entering your mind without permission.” She chuckled. “I am the Guardian of Dreams, and even I wouldn’t be able to break in without flaying your mind asunder, and possibly my own as well.”
Jacques winced. I’m sure she meant that to be reassuring, but it was not.
She carried on, unaware of his discomfort. “However, the same resilience that keeps out threats also keeps me from helping you against natural nightmares. I would like to request your permission to enter your mind and help you when your dreams turn frightful.”
The question took him off guard, more than anything else that morning. I’ve only barely gotten used to magic in general, let alone my own, and now she seeks leave to enter my thoughts? He massaged his temples with a hand. That is a bit much to take in right now. “Pray don’t take offense, Princess, but I am so new to the concept of your world’s magic that I find the prospect of anyone entering my mind,” he clicked his tongue, “daunting to say the least.”
“Understandable,” said the lunar mare, “but you should know that I have no intention of prying into personal matters. I only ask for access so that I may come to your aid if you call for it.”
Jacques let out a slow breath. “If I am under attack by the dark powers of the Enemy, then, by all means, I grant you permission to wield any holy power you have against them. But for those matters which are but human fears…” he bit his lip, “I would like some time to consider.”
Luna dipped her head once. “If that is your choice, I will abide by it.” Glancing once more at the sun, she said, “And now I must depart. It has been a genuine pleasure to meet you, Friar Jacques de Charette.” Her smile was tender; grateful. “You have given me… much to think about.”
He bowed in return. “The pleasure is mine, Your Highness. I wish you a safe return.” Thanking him, the princess turned to leave, but, before she could, a question sprang to his mind. “If I may ask, Princess,” she tilted her head to look back at him, “why did you choose to share your story with a stranger?”
The dark-coated mare’s eyes gleamed thoughtfully as she pondered his question. Then, with an odd smile, she answered, “A wise old traveler seemed to think you and I would get along.” Jacques cocked his head, confused by her cryptic answer. Before he could ask for clarity, she smiled more broadly and said, “Walk in Harmony, Friar Jacques.” Then she glanced over his shoulder as though she spied someone behind him. He twisted his head to look, but there was no one. Turning back to Luna, a question on his lips, he saw only trees and grass.
“Hm,” he grunted, scanning the trees and seeing no sign of her. “I hope she doesn’t make a habit of that.” Taking a moment to note the position of the sun, he guessed it to be about six in the morning by the ponies’ reckoning. Time to pray the Hour of Prime, I suppose. “Walk in Harmony, Princess Luna,” he said softly. Hefting the books in one hand, he resumed his pacing, murmuring the Divine Office under the rising sun.