“If you must know, lost one, it began with a question, and not with an exclamation. That which was once singular desired truth, and so it became many. In this quest for knowledge, the one broke itself down into many parts, each ringing with a different sound, repeated into the bowels of oblivion like a chorus. The song was born, and it was neither a sob nor a laugh; that would come later, for it hadn’t yet realized that once the barrier was shattered, everything would break and break forever.”
I panted, eyes darting left and right across the darkness. I heard the voice; I knew the voice. It had been whispered into my ears all my life, even before I was born. I just didn't realize it until then, until I was in that place. The beat of my heart gave meter to the words, giving them meaning and comprehension that I couldn't afford until that very second, submerged within the darkness.
“Someday, the shattered pieces will become so small, that they will lack the breath to share with each other the answer that they have so disparately learned. Then, in the great dark silence of the universe's tragic end, the many will become the one once more.”
A gasp escaped my lips. Petrified, I stared as Creation unfolded before me. The swirling lines of a labyrinthine forest melted through the obsidian veil. Tree trunks formed around the scene, glorious and ancient. I saw an emerald glade stretching before me, awash in twilight. Leaves fell from the branches above, scattering across the tranquil scene. In the centermost halo of pale light, a beautiful equine figure reclined on a bed of soft earth. Her coat glittered with the aura of a billion tiny constellations. An ethereal mane of indigo shades rippled in a magic wind. The twilight caught a sheen of sweat on her neck, and it was then that I realized that she was convulsing in agony.
“She too was a part of the song, the same song that created the universe, that painted it with both joy and sorrow. For all of her power, for all her ambition and will to create, she was yet to realize that for every song of exultation there needed to be a funeral dirge. Who could have blamed her? She was carrying out the will of the music, for the music was her. Up until that moment, she wrote ballads only for herself. It never occurred to her that she would win an audience among the dead.”
With a shriek that could pierce the heavens, the Matriarch raised her muzzle toward the air. A holy sound came from her, bombastic and full of purpose. The trees shook and the grass billowed in cyclonic currents. Far above, the stars quivered as the entire universe buckled in anticipation of the immortal songstress' symphony. And yet, as the minutes, hours, days, years, and eons rolled by, she thrashed and quivered upon her side, her rear legs spreading and bending with each wave of pain that soared through her.
She wasn't alone. A distraught alicorn stood at her side, pacing about her front and back end, tilting her horn forward and casting spell after spell to alleviate the Matriarch's labor pains. With a pale expression of fright, young Celestia hovered at her mother's side, powerless to make the birth transpire any smoother.
“Up until that time, lost one, she had performed her duties towards one singular purpose: to seed life. But the very reason she existed in the first place was because purpose was no longer singular. For the sake of understanding the one, the music had unraveled itself to become the many. She was an immortal, incapable of grasping the truth that the one sought. The music held a greater divinity than her. She was its unfortunate vessel, a prism through which light was bent to pierce the furthest reaches of this new and bleak universe. Between light and darkness, there had to be a barrier. Between day and night, there had to be twilight.”
The Matriarch suffered a final spasm. Her face streamed with tears. Celestia knelt down beside her to perform the delivery, but what came out of the Matriarch was as silent and still as stone. A pale light rippled across Creation as the music broke into dissonant sounds, grating and off-key. Then, with the grace of an endless sigh, the fractured song echoed into oblivion. A throng of leaves fell from above while the trunks of the nearby trees withered and dried up. The grass turned to brown, wilted stalks, and the soil beneath morphed into dry, caked stone.
Celestia's eyes moistened as she looked helplessly at her mother.
The Matriarch cradled the limp foal she had just given birth to, curling up into her own mane to hide the moisture in her face. The stars in her coat dimmed and a great shadow fell over the poisoned glade.
“And so it was that I was born, and with me came death. All things that began would also have to end. As she had her purpose, and my sister had hers, this was mine: to be lost. Even before I had a consciousness to think, I knew and understood the chords of my song. I was to become the governess of the universe's forsaken things. The only audience I could afford was an audience without the ability to feel, without the ability to regret, and consequently, without the ability to remember.”
The blackness spread before me again. I saw the Matriarch standing on a cliff overlooking a primordial landscape bathed in moonless night. Celestia stood several paces away, hanging her head in mourning. The Matriarch was heaving. Her pained eyes gazed down at the infant pony lying beneath her. The unmoving foal lay cradled in a bed of flowers, its tiny mane braided, its fragile wings folded like violet petals.
A sharp jolt ran through the Matriarch's body. Collapsing on all four limbs, she leaned over and nuzzled her foal's body dearly. As convulsing sobs overtook her, hot streaks of light pulsed overhead. The sky was warping, tearing at the celestial fabric, and the very constellations above were exploding with distant flashes of phenomenally hot fury.
Celestia saw this and gasped. Panicked, she galloped towards her mother. But as soon as she reached the Matriarch's side, the omnipotent entity's wings were already spread. Her mouth opened, wailing, and the landscape fell to pieces below them from the outburst of one, unfiltered chord.
“But my mother could remember. And, what was more, she could suffer. Her feelings were the brushstrokes upon this universe. She only built what she cherished. She never made a part of creation unless it was a part of her. The song had empowered her since infancy, but it had never equipped her for loss.
“Such is the consequence for seeking answers without knowing them; in the act of discovery, the destruction of things is the baptism through which truth manifests itself. For my mother, though, that destruction was all encompassing. To give up a piece of herself to death was incomprehensible. There was no scale to her sorrow, no definition for the pain and anguish she was just beginning to experience.
“The agony of losing a foal was unbearable, and so long as she remembered what she had lost, she would not have the power to continue breaking the song down, much less maintaining the Creation that she had already imparted. The song was doomed to buckle, and all of reality would collapse in on itself, giving way to eternal chaos.”
Before me, the shards of the world hung in haphazard disarray. Chunks of landscape floated in a swirling nether. The song of Creation was fractured, and its unstable energy manifested itself in cyclonic torrents of liquid and bright flashes of lightning. Through sheer will, Celestia and her mother held the sundered pieces of reality together. Evidently, though, this was not enough.
The Matriarch hung in a perpetual slump. Her face was frozen in a grimace, and her tears were unceasing. Before her, the foal hovered in her immaculate cradle, frozen in the same deathly stillness that brought her to the corporeal realm.
Floating over, Celestia nuzzled her mother, sharing in her tears. She whispered several dear words to the Matriarch as the shattered world spun faster and faster around them. Soon, the Matriarch's eyes were glowing with bright power and determination. She spread her wings, frowning as she summoned the strength for what would come next.
Celestia read her mother's expression. She too spread her wings, and in holy synchronization both alicorns raised their faces to the heavens and opened their mouths. The universe froze in place, lurched, and spun in reverse. Stars were reborn; constellations were restructured. Under the orchestration of a brand new melody, another piece of the song was broken loose. It took form, bringing structure to the chaos while the Firmaments solidified into being, creating an impermeable barrier around that one solitary pocket of the cosmos.
“There was only one solution, one key to the dilemma. The quest for truth and harmony was far too important to allow for such a bleak and fruitless end. There was a universe to be made, and a cornucopia of life yet to be sculpted. To see to the blossoming and stability of Creation, the Matriarch had to go past the first case of Destruction.
“They had to have a funeral, and, consequently, they had to perform a burial. However, the foal was not to be buried just beyond sight. She was not to be buried simply beyond time and space. This was to be a burial beyond recognition, beyond knowledge, beyond remembrance. The only things that are truly buried, after all, are those which are forgotten, for that which remains to live must seek opportunity in the future without being anchored to the tragedies of the past.
“This was the case with the Matriarch. My mother had eternity at her disposal; she could not spend forever both distributing the song and mourning the first dead soul, not when it destabilized her power to such a degree. She loved me dearly, and yet she had to move on. She was an ancient piece of the singular song, simple in structure yet divine in purpose. The nature of Celestia, my sister, was smaller and a far more complex piece of the song, somepony who innately understood that existence was a matter of dealing with loss and learning to adapt from it. My mother, however, had always been incapable of this function. The true nature of a Creator was to be repetitive; it's Creation itself that had to learn, a burden that fell upon the mortals who would populate her harmonic realm.”
In the middle of a broad chunk of floating earth, I watched as pieces of the Firmaments flew together, morphing into a large metallic sarcophagus. Multiple runed spheres—ten in total, one for each elegy—slid into place, layer upon layer, with porous sections of metal showing through the concentric circles. In the center of this hollow structure was a soft bed of feathers from the wings of the two alicorns. The foal's body was lain upon this, and the Matriarch leaned down to nuzzle her one last time. After a final sob, the Matriarch turned around. Celestia accompanied her as the two forlornly trotted away from the tomb.
“They crafted the 'Nocturne of the Firmaments' as a coffin—a sepulcher. The tomb's purpose was twofold: it was to serve as my resting place, and it was to be the buffer between Firmaments. If the pillar upon which the songs of Creation rested was forgotten, then it would be all the harder to destroy the roots of harmony. The world could continue to exist in peace and prosperity, not knowing what supported it into eternity, nor even having to know. I was to be the hidden melody behind all reality, the song of songs: Princess Aria, Goddess of Twilight. Even in death, I had a purpose. And, in some way, my mother and sister would always feel my presence, even if they would no longer be conscious of me. We were still a part of the same song; we had a bond that would be forever inseparable, even if forever invisible.”
The spheres closed shut behind them, covering the foal in darkness. The layers of the structure rotated, powered by the elegies spelled out in metallic runes. The world outside the structure dimmed, for the Firmaments beyond had closed the dimension off completely. Untainted by the dissonant piece of the song held within, the universe outside coalesced once more with order and balance. What was forgotten was forgotten. What could not be sung remained unsung.
But then, long after the alicorns had gone, and when there was a breath of silence between the elegies to afford contemplation, a pair of eyes opened up, brimming with bright violet tears.
“What they did not know, what the Matriarch and her daughter Celestia did not think to contemplate, was that a piece of the original song—no matter how dissonant, no mater how brittle—was as immortal as they were. They did not realize that even an alicorn born unto death is not fully dead. The song can be broken down, it can be shattered and muffled and rewritten, but it can never be silenced. The universe will never die; it will only spread thin, and some parts far more slowly than others.
“It was wise of them to bury me where they did; I had no role to play in the mortal plane. The dimension of light, warmth, and beauty was not for me, for I would only be a dissonant shard of the song there, powerless and lifeless. However, in the bed of chaos, something unexpected happened. I blossomed; I became animated. My new realm was a blank canvas, and I was the one and only imprint made there.
"You see, the Matriarch had sought to fashion for me a coffin. In a way, it was a mother's last gift, a cradle for her beloved infant. She did not anticipate the fact that it would become my prison.”
Crawling on bony legs, a tiny foalish figure hobbled out of the spheres and gazed lonesomely upon the chaos and fury. I watched as Princess Aria limped across the lengths of the floating platform. Between each flash of lightning, the scrawny alicorn grew taller, larger, and yet more and more haggard. Eons flew by, and her ribs remained pronounced while her knobby joints rattled with each trot. After a few more flashes of lightning, she spread forth featherless wings of exposed bone.
Her eyes strobed a hot violet, summoning lightning from the billowing sky. The sphere behind her lifted up, its many outer surfaces rotating over one another, animating with haunted purpose. Beneath the alicorn's frayed hooves, the earthen platform melted and reformed, turning to cold, immaculate steel. Dust rose from the far edges and linked together, transforming into rattling chains that stretched off towards the furthest reaches of the unsung realm. Distant chunks of earth became similar rotating platforms of metal, swimming in formation, manufacturing a grand industry in the ethereal heart of chaos.
“I made order out of my domain. What else was I to do? I was an infant, uneducated and full of curiosity. The only thing I knew was a melody, an undying tune in my head that told me to create structure and maintain equilibrium. I did not have the same universal resources as my mother, but I did have a song—albeit a tiny piece of it. My loneliness was my gift and my curse all at once. I was forgotten, and yet I had substance. The only soul who could answer for myself was myself, and over the course of thousands of years, I came to understand that there was purpose in purposelessness.”
Before Aria, dozens, hundreds, and eventually thousands of pony souls washed ashore onto the metal platforms. Through the years, she trotted up to each of them, nuzzling them, gazing curiously and unemotionally at their tears, their distraught faces. She leaned in and kissed them on the forehead in a desperate attempt to ease their confused and agonized thrashing motions. When that did little to solace them, she spread her wings and—with a strobe of her eyes—fastened them to the platforms by chains and shackles. At last, they were still. They sang her song in perfect cadence, and found peace within the ether.
“Throughout the ages, I found that souls came to me, ponies touched by the song, ponies who could not be protected by the lies of pacification that my mother had reinforced through the symphony she had made. They came here because something inside them had died, something had given in to despair, something had peered into the abyss and dragged the rest of them along. These were the lost ones, just like you. When the fractures in the firmaments aligned, and not even death or exile or suicide was a means of finding solace, these ponies found their way to me, to the unsung realm, for my mother's song erased all knowledge of them from the domain of the living.
“I knew this because, as abandoned as I was, I would always be a part of the same song that crafted the goddesses of the mortal dimension. I would know when the Nocturne had consumed another soul from the universe for the express sake of keeping my existence a secret. I would feel every time something struck the fabric of reality, only to end up here. Whenever something threatened—in even the least possibility—to expose my name to the Matriarch, that something would cease to be. For if some event or circumstance was to remind my mother of my death—and even of my rebirth—she would collapse under the weight of such knowledge and guilt, and the universe would collapse with her.
“I understood this, and I knew that it was my task to prevent this. It was a somber duty, but my life had already contained its fair share of abandonment. As my mother had her immortal will to perform, so I too had mine. I maintained the unsung realm, and I policed the souls who came here to rest. I did this even as I became aware of a younger sister born from the song. I did this even as the chaos took form and cherished me, and even when I had to banish him—my beloved—to a place where he would no longer impede my holy task. I continued, unwaveringly, even as I sensed my younger sister becoming corrupt in her own attempt to salvage me from the Nocturne.
“For as long as the universe shall last, I must remain loyal to the song, and not alter myself for the sake its fragments. The song can afford to be broken down—it has to be. This universe, however, must remain whole for the grand symphony to have an audience, for the quest for truth to continue into eternity.”
Just then, the scene before me went dark. The unsung realm and all its moaning populace dissolved into shadow. I gasped as I saw rotating runes blurring into focus above and around me. Through the grooves in the porous spheres, sources of cosmic light reemerged, casting an ethereal haze throughout the throne room's hollow domain. Standing across from me, stealing my breath away with a pair of glowing violet eyes, Princess Aria loomed. Her face was straight, her jaw set with emotionless lips. As thin and emaciated as the goddess was, I saw no blemish to her figure. She was truly beautiful in every pitiable sense of the term. I was lost between wanting to mourn her and worship her all at once.
Thankfully, she spoke before this shivering mortal could have said anything worthless. “My purpose for being and not being has made me wary of you all this time, lost one.” Her glowing eyes narrowed on my tiny figure. “The fact that you came here through means of discovering the song, the fact that you were saved by another lost soul in disguise, and the fact that you have made it to the threshhold of my very throne room are all very intriguing things, but they are not what have interested me about you, what have made me tell you all of this.” Her bony wings twitched as she said, “What interests me is that you have come here more than once, willingly, to seek something beyond the lengths of your own despair. If I would venture to guess, you are as loyal if not moreso to the song than I am.”
I was shuddering. I felt something cold and metallic in my hooves. Glancing down at my naked self, I found that I was hugging the Nightbringer. I took a heavy breath and looked up at Aria, trying not to sob from every second I was exposed to her somber, glowing eyes.
“Then m-maybe you'll realize that I am not here to destroy wh-what the Cosmic Matriarch has created,” I managed to say in a hoarse voice.
“No, but you come here to change,” she said. “And change is the most destructive thing to the mortal realm, so long as it is dictated by the essence of an omnipotent piece of the song unwilling to change—which, I'm afraid, is an eternal prospect.”
“If there's anything I wish to change, it's myself!” I exclaimed, my voice echoing off the rotating runes around us. “I don't want to illuminate the mind of the Matriarch to her sad loss! I don't want to drag you out of this place if you love it so much! I just want to become permanent again! I j-just want the song that empowers you to stop cursing me!”
“The cost for that is far too great,” she said coldly. There was no emotion on her face to be read, no suggestion of anger or sorrow or dread or amusement. She simply existed, as this realm existed. I realized very swiftly that I was talking into a living abyss. “You would wish to have a name that is remembered, to leave a legacy that can be written down. Inadvertently, though, your desires—if manifested—would lead to the revelation of my existence to the Matriarch, and the universe would cease to function because of it. Already, you have risked exposing me to both of my sisters, and the song had to erase the reality of it.”
“Yes! I know about the parasprites!” I said, growling slightly. “And when I spoke with Luna, I understood enough about you to ensure that she and anypony else didn't suffer from the truth! But me? I am not a goddess who's only capable of creating or stabilizing harmony!” I frowned and stood up straight as I shouted, “I am a mortal! It is my essence, my function to learn and grow from it! You said it yourself: the smaller and more diverse the songs, the more complex they are! I can live my life and not expose you!”
“There is only one way to do that,” she said.
I merely stared at her, breathing heavily in shivering anticipation.
She turned and waved her hoof towards the walls. “Become a member of my choir.” The spheres rotated into place, and through the porous metal we saw several hundred ponies shackled outside to a platform as it floated by. They all moaned in cadence to an eternal beat as the chords of the Nocturne repeated into infinity. “Join us in everlasting peace, in endless purpose here between the Firmaments.”
I gazed sickly at her. “But I wouldn't be free.”
She gazed stonily my way. “No, you wouldn't. Freedom means anguish. Freedom means chaos and turbulence. Freedom means danger and destruction. This realm is not a place for freedom, but a sanctum for tortured souls for whom death is no solace. The fate of the universe, after all, is to fall victim to endless cold. Here, my little ponies do not have to wait for eternity to run its course.”
I swallowed deeply and said, “So is that why you banished Discord? If a creature like him couldn't stomach this realm, then you truly are buried here.”
Her facial features shifted for the first time since she spoke to me. Her bony wings flexed and rested at her side as she trotted slowly about the circular throne room. “I knew that I smelled the scent of my beloved on you,” she said. “At first, I wanted to think that it was a fragmented thought, a shadow of the past, something that crossed my mind because you were the first soul in eons to play my song without wanting to be consumed by it.”
“Yes, I did meet with Discord,” I said in a low voice. I shivered as she shuffled closer towards me. “He loves you very dearly, Aria. He loves you more than all his powers can convey.”
“Then it is as I thought,” she said in a neutral tone. She came to a stop before me, her sheer presence spilling frost into my blood. Vapors billowed endlessly from her mouth and nostrils as she murmured, “His ambition was too great. He saw in me a sliver of the Matriarch's song. It exposed him to a piece of Creation. It was the first time that such a being of chaos caught a glimpse of structure, and though he would never admit it, I suspect he greatly envied it. From then on, there was no hope for him in this realm. So long as he was here, he would not know peace, not like my choir members. He couldn't live with the purpose of this sanctum, and so he would forever be an aberration, a foil to my divine duties.”
“And you sent him away?!” I exclaimed. “Aria, you may think you're just as straight-forward and eternally bound to purpose as your mother, but I sense a different truth! I heard it in Discord's words when he spoke woefully about you! I see it in your lonesome gait and twitching wings! The thought of your beloved sends a spark through your undead body! You loved him, didn't you?” I seethed through clenched teeth as I fought the urge to shiver. “You loved him, and you didn't think you were capable of such change and intimacy and feeling! You didn't send him away to protect the song! If nothing else, you only risked exposing yourself by sending him to the mortal realm! I think the real reason you sent him away was because you fear change as much as I desire it! You've been afraid of that your whole life, that your whole legacy of protecting your mother's damnable Nocturne is a lie!”
“But it is a lie,” she said coolly. “A necessary lie. My beloved could not understand this, and my song wasn't enough to silence his desire to expose me. So I sent him to where the combined music of my sisters could do what I was incapable of doing.”
“But they couldn't, Aria,” I said. “Not forever! Discord broke free! In fact, the only reason the song ever banished him to stone and protected your secret was because he allowed himself to—” I stopped in mid-speech. My eyes widened and a deep breath escaped me. “It was me...” I fell back on my haunches, clutching the Nightbringer tightly. “I... sent him away in the end,” I stammered. I felt a deep pit forming in my stomach. “I changed him, and he exposed himself to the Elements of Harmony. I made Discord remember you, and then his own hopelessness put him in permanent stasis.”
Her nostrils flared as she stared down at me. “Now do you understand why it is that I am astounded by your loyalty to the song?”
I gnashed my teeth. I ran a hoof over my face and whimpered, “You... you used m-me, didn't you?”
“To master you as you are now, I would have to be capable of feeling, lost one,” she said. “Until you become one of my choir, I cannot pretend to be in charge of you. It was your desire to save the stability of the universe that allowed you to survive my beloved. It was your wish to preserve my younger sister's place in the song that made you expose her to just the Requiem alone. Now, you believe it is your desire for freedom that brings you here. It is my duty to tell you that you have only earned peace. A pony who has made it to my inner sanctum by her own will deserves no less.”
Sniffling, I glanced up at her. My lips quivered as I said,“How many have made it to your throneroom here before me?”
My heart sank. A painful wince flashed through my features. “In so many eons... in so many thousands upon thousands of years... I am the only one to have mastered the Nocturne and arrived here?”
“All others exposed to my song have found rest in chains, the necessary fetters of forgetfulness.” The spheres around us rotated, and beams of ethereal light bled through the rune-laced hole, projecting floating images of constellations and stars and solar systems. “Throughout the cosmos, as my mother spreads the song of creation, countless Equestrian civilizations have sprouted up, and each of them continuously donate me the souls of those who are lost, those who cannot find their way home, those who cannot afford joy or hope or companionship. When they give into despair, when they are exposed to the Nocturne through the osmotic wounds in their heart, they come to my domain, and any permanent memory of them in the mortal realm is erased, as it should be.”
“And... you keep track of th-them?”
“Each and every one,” she said solemnly, her hoof waving across the projections as they flickered to show countless pony faces, all melancholic or deadpan. “Exiled youths, estranged lovers, lethargic victims of war, famine, or cruelty. The pain of existence stretches them to the breaking point. Pits form in their souls, crevices that are deeper and darker than the abyss between Firmaments. That is the deep layer through which the Nocturne lingers. The symphony speaks to them, and many of them answer the call of my mother's song. They become my kindred spirits, and I give them the solace that they could not achieve in life.”
“Did you ever once think of helping them achieve contentment on their own?” I asked, stuck between a frown and a grimace. “Did you ever think that maybe you were robbing them of something by bringing them here?”
“Lost one, by coming here they established that they had nothing left to be robbed of.”
She gazed at me sideways as she waved her hoof, producing a planetoid with a sun and moon. The projection flew into the middle of a continent and focused on a very familiar village with a very familiar town hall in the center.
“Even your own home, for all of its warmth and prosperity, is no stranger to donating souls to my choir.”
Several strange faces flickered before us.
“A rambunctious white pegasus. An elegant unicorn's husband. A farm mare's infant foal. A master teleporter.”
She pulled her hoof back, and the images stretched out to show a vast array of equine shapes, all frozen in sorrowful expressions.
“All of them once lived happy and industrious lives, until they became cognizant of the unsung realm, and of the essence of loss that my mother tried ages ago to bury. Consequently, they had to be buried themselves. When the time came, they did not have the desire to fight that which was not only natural, but blissful, and all shreds of evidence to suggest that they had ever walked the earth were eliminated from their planes of origin.”
“Dear goddess...” I murmured, gazing up at her with moistening eyes. “All this time, I-I thought I was the only one in town...” I felt my heart beating with each horrific bit of contemplation: each day that I walked the lengths of town, there were ghosts trotting the same streets as me, living and breathing the same air as me, and the fact that we simply forgot such meetings—like ships barely missing each other in the fog—made me sick to the stomach. “Aria, how... h-how many lost souls are there besides mine?”
“There is no number.”
I shuddered. I squatted down on my stomach and gazed numbly into the floor. There was no stopping my trembles at this point. “If I-I had known... if I had any idea... I w-would have tr-tried saving them as well...” I clenched my eyes shut and stifled a sob. “Alabaster, it's too much. It's all t-too much...”
“It was never your place to save them,” she said. “It was never your place to save yourself. All lost ones arrive here in the realm, some sooner than others. The fact that you are the only one to show up with such self-awareness is of no consequence. Sooner than later, you will join the choir.”
I let a few more tears squeeze out of my eyes before taking a huge breath, standing up on shaking legs, and frowning up at her. “I will do no such thing...”
Her retort was a cold, mechanical thing. “I am as powerless as you are to change this.”
“No, you are only one song,” I said, snarling. I telekinetically raised the Nightbringer. “But I am several!”
She glanced once at the holy instrument, then looked unemotionally at me. “There is nothing you or I can—”
“Some songs, I have discovered!” I continued to shout. I no longer feared the violet glow of her eyes; I no longer feared anything. “But most, I have written! The most beautiful and eloquent song is the melody of my life! Other ponies have felt it, whether they knew it or not! Unlike your mother's song, I filled them with hope! I distilled joy and meaning into their lives! I filled the void in ponies' souls that the Nocturne eagerly pilfers from! You're damn right I'm willing to change! The quest for truth doesn't happen through sheer repetition alone! You have to suffer in order to understand what true bliss is, in order to learn how to learn in the first place! I'm sorry that your mother could never understand that, Aria. I'm sorry that in her selfishness and simple-mindedness, the Creator of all things banished you to this heartless place! But it is not for me! And if you're not willing to climb your pitiful way out, then that's fine! Just don't stand in my way!”
“Lost one, you do not understand the consequences of that which you seek—”
“Play the duet with me!” I shouted, raising the Nightbringer even higher so that it caught the light coming from the runes surrounding us. A golden glitter bathed the throne room in a warm kaleidoscope, like a sunrise in the heart of darkness. “You know what this is, and you know your place! Answer your mother's and sister's song!”
She simply stared at me.
Seething, I boldly strummed the onyx strings with my magic, producing the first few notes of “Desolation's Duet.” Once more, I hissed, “Play it with me. Let us sing the song together. Then, if you so wish, you can become nothing. As for me, I must see the dawn at the end of the Nocturne.”
She stared at me, still as a statue, her wing-stalks framing her like a horrific emblem.
I stared back, keeping my shivers to a minimum. I remained silent; I was not about to plead.
Eventually, the goddess moved. Her horn glowed, and from every wall of the throne room, pieces of the runes lifted off and coalesced in the air before her. I watched as a metallic flute instrument formed in her telekinetic grip. She locked her eyes with me. She was waiting.
My heart leapt ahead of me. I followed it through my leylines, and the strings of the Nightbringer resonated as if on their own. I broke into the central melody, and soon I was not alone. Princess Aria lived up to her nameless name, turning the song into something beautiful with her immaculate flute. The lulling rhythm was as haunting as it was divine, like an ancient lullaby meant to usher a deceased foal into a realm beyond death.
I thought of Alabaster and Luna discovering this melody, dredging it from the black depths of the primordial cold. I thought of Octavia, Melodia, J.R. Bard, and Vinyl Scratch: none of them could have had the capacity to imagine how beautiful the actual duet would be in the company of time's forgotten Princess, or where the tune would take me. The lights beyond the spherical throne room swam through warm yellows and golds, matching the brilliance of the Nightbringer as it was accompanied by the silver shine of the flute in Aria's possession.
I heard voices beyond the domain; the rattling of chains ceased for the first time in eternity as moans turned into euphoric exultation. The unsung realm was having its first ever intermission, and I was in the spotlight, sharing the glory with the living embodiment of all that was forsaken. I thought of all of the ponies' lives that I had touched like this, just wishing to be harmonic, just desiring to spread the joy and rhythm of life. If I couldn't reach the lost souls of the unsung realm, I knew I could live with it. I had a future to earn, a second chance at existing. I could deal with loss, I could meditate upon failure, and I could serve to help others deal with such frailties as well.
I thought that I would be terrified at sharing the same room with Aria. I thought that her immense power and divinity would intimidate me. But as the Duet played through, and the alicorn endeavored to match the melody that I was leading, it occurred to me that not even a goddess could shake my countenance.
A truth had come to me, an epiphany that I had been discovering my entire life: that the will to do good was older than the holy songs themselves. Maybe this was what the singular consciousness desired when it broke into the many, but fate would have it that the Matriarch blinded herself to such lessons worth learning. Perhaps, then, it was my goal to bring that lesson to the world. If that was the one thing about me that could be remembered, then maybe it was worth all these months of lonesome hell.
So engrossed was I in the moment, that when it ended, I was the only one still playing. I opened my eyes, blinking the tears away, and gazed towards Aria.
The flute had already dissolved. In a reverent bow, she shuffled sideways. Behind her, a series of glowing violet lines solidified in the shape of a pedestal. At the very top of this, an unfurled scroll rested, bearing an ancient music sheet.
“Is...” I leaned my head forward, sweating profusely from the sight of the elusive song. “Is that...?”
“The final elegy of the Nocturne awaits,” Aria said. “You bear the Nightbringer, lost one. You have earned it.”
I gulped. On numb hooves, I trotted briskly over to the pedestal. My eyes darted over the bars, reveling in the notes, twitching upon sight of the final chord at the end of the sheet. “Dawn's Advent” was long. It was epic. It was melancholic and triumphant all at once. My soul rose and fell with invisible crests through my feeble mind as I simply imagined it.
“Go and see the dawn.” The Princess spoke in a calm, almost whispery voice from behind me. “However, the dawn cannot see you.”
I swallowed a lump down my throat as I rested my forelimbs on the edges of the pedestal. The notes began blurring as tears found their way into my eyes. “What happens next?” I asked, trembling. “What awaits me once I have played 'Dawn's Advent?'”
“You will enter the realm of the living,” she said. “You will be outside the reach of the Nocturne, and you will no longer be subject to my power.”
“Yes...” With quivering lips, I turned and looked back at her. “But at least you know what will happen once I am there, don't you? Please. T-tell me...”
She stared at me solidly. “Nopony who has knowledge of me and the unsung realm can enter my mother's domain and retain that knowledge. The Matriarch's power and omnipotence dominates the mortal plane. It is because of her power, and not mine, that things become lost and forgotten. You are the first and only mortal pony to have performed the entire Nocturne in full. To that end, once you have performed ‘Dawn's Advent,’ you will no longer be the same soul that brought herself to such a place to begin with.”
“You mean...” I paused, my eyes trailing the shadows of the place. With a shudder, my gaze found its way to her glowing eyes once more. “You mean that all of my memories—?”
“To no longer be a lost one, you must lose that which flung you into the abyss to begin with. There are two types of mortals in my mother's universe: those who know, but are forgotten, and those who know not, but stand to forget. This is the result of the dichotomy that was born with me. The universe cannot afford to share both, or else the Matriarch would collapse from the forbidden revelation, and all of reality along with it.”
I turned and looked once more at the music sheet. “I... I don't want to destroy all of reality...”
“Once you enter the realm in which you were born, it will no longer be a matter of choice,” Aria said. “The dominance of the Matriarch's song will rob that power from you, but at least you will be permanent; you will be remembered.” At last, her hooves shuffled as she pivoted to face me more evenly. “As you can see, my little pony, freedom comes at a price, as does peace of mind.”
My eyes fell to the cold, metallic floor of the throneroom. “Either live forever forgotten, with only myself to remember all that I've learned...” I gulped. “Or lose all that I have gained, and enjoy the bliss of warmth and companionship...”
“As long as you possess the song”—she pointed at the Nightbringer—“and have access to 'Dawn's Advent,' it is not within my power to stop you, nor is it my place to make the decision for you. What you have now is choice: the power to change or unchange everything about yourself. It is not something that goddesses can relish; I doubt they ever will.”
I gave her a sharp glance, and for once it was something of pity. I swiftly broke out of that stupor with a murmuring voice, “I only wonder if I have the capacity to become what I am again...” I felt a cold chill running through me. I clenched my eyes shut as I thought of Twilight, Moondancer, Morning Dew, Snips, Nebulous, and dozens more. “If I do this, if I free myself at the cost of all I've learned—about the Matriarch and about myself—what chance have I to grow into what I've become? Will I change from what I once was? Or will I remain a shallow, aloof, and blissfully ignorant unicorn?”
She didn't answer; she had no answer.
I sighed and ran a hoof through my mane. “There... th-there has to be another way.” I gulped. “There has to be!” I looked back at her. “I promise I won't tell a single soul about the unsung realm! About you! About the Matriarch!”
“That is simply not possible...”
“At least take away only my memories of you and this place and your beloved and—”
“It is within my power to take away any memories you desire,” she said. Her hoof pointed at the music sheet. “But once you play that tune and embrace the dawn, you are beyond my reach. As I said before, nopony has made it to where you have. It's quite possible that even I would forget you.” Her violet eyes narrowed. “The Matriarch's power is that encompassing, and she affords no exceptions to the divine rule that forged this place. If that was not the case, would so many lost souls still be here, making up my choir?”
“Then...” I glanced at the pedestal, muttering in a low tone, “Then it's quite possible that ponies have made it this far, and you just don't remember them.” I bit my lip before stammering forth, “What kind of an existence do we live in, that so many glorious and wholesome victories stand to be forgotten on the very crest of triumph? How many souls trot the landscapes of the universe, having gained so much, only to lose it all in a desperate move to preserve the idea of the self?”
“It is not my place to know,” she said. “I only have the capacity to see that which chooses to be lost.”
I looked at her, and I felt the muscles in my muzzle tensing. “I do not choose loss.”
She bowed her horn ever so slightly. “Then perhaps you already know what you must do.”
I gazed at the sheet. I was shivering so much that the notes were wavering out of place. I was just a few chords away from freedom, from warmth, from seeing my Mom and Dad, from hearing Twilight shout my name with a smile, from having Moondancer hug me, from being able to go home and sleep in a bed that belonged to me.
“It's too much to throw away,” I said. I felt a haunting chill, as if the words spoken weren't mine, but instead those uttered by countless shadows that may or may not have been occupying this same space as me, that may or may not have performed the same Duet as I had, that may or may not have been making the exact same choice that I was about to make. “I've come so far. It's worth the risk,” I murmured, feeling a tear trickle down my cheek. “Who's to know that I won't rediscover myself again, that I won't make the same discoveries and epiphanies, that I won't grow into a mare who's truly wholesome and altruistic?”
Aria was silent.
I sniffled, took a deep breath, and held the Nightbringer in front of me. “I've done enough thinking, enough philosophizing, enough talking and incessant rambling. I owe it to myself, I owe it to Alabaster, and I owe it to my loved ones to do this, so that I may have all those loved ones again.” I smiled, if only briefly, and positioned my hooves to pluck the first strings that matched the notes on the music sheet. “I'm ready to greet the dawn.”
The alicorn still said nothing, which was what ultimately alarmed me, making me turn around and glance at her.
I squinted. Aria was staring at me, waiting, patient and still as a stone. All this time, I felt that I had done enough to shun her, to defy her, and yet she was putting up no resistance? Wasn't what I was about to do an insult to her essence, a slap in the face of all she stood for?
I glanced at the chords of “Dawn's Advent.” I looked at the final chord, how lonesomely it hung towards the end of the sheet, like a dagger to the throat. With a scrape of my hooves, I turned and frowned at Aria.
“What aren’t you telling me?”
“The final elegy is yours,” she said in a dull drone. “Perform it.”
“You're hiding something from me!” I snapped at her, snarling. “What is it?”
“All that deserves to be hidden remains here in my realm,” she remarked, taciturn. “You do not desire to be here. Please, go—”
“You just confirmed that everything I've learned will be undone!” I stood before her, leaning up and shouting, “You said that because of the Matriarch's power, all of my memories will dissolve into nothingness!”
“If that is your choice, then it is yours to make—”
“But what is freedom?!” My brow was furrowed, stained with sweat as I realized the enormity of it all just as I was speaking it. “What is peace of mind?! What is the cost of it all?! Discord knew it! Do you?”
“What will happen to all the ponies whose lives I have touched?!” I finally shrieked. “What will become of all the things I have done in Ponyville?!”
She gazed at me, emotionless as ever. When she spoke, it sounded like a eulogy was being read. “The Matriarch's power does not extend over memories alone. She is the creator of all things, the distributor of the holy song that governs all reality. Both time and space bow to her will.” Her violet eyes glowed brighter as she said, “When you finish the Nocturne, when you enter the realm of the living, it will be as though you were never cursed to begin with. History itself must bend to prevent any knowledge of my existence from entering the universe, and the only way for that to happen is for you to not have been exposed to the Nocturne in the first place.”
“Not have been exposed...?” I leaned back from her, nearly breathless. I blinked, the coldness returning to my limbs like my first lonely night in Ponyville. “I-I will never have met Nightmare Moon. I will never have built my cabin. I will never have talked to Twilight about the spells...”
She stared at me, watching silently as the knowledge imparted took root in my consciousness.
I fell back on my haunches, breathing sharper and sharper as my eyes twitched from the pounding waves of understanding. “I will... n-never have heard the elegies in my head. I will never have built that cellar, or experimented with the Nocturne, or bought sound stones.” I gulped and squinted into the shadows. “I will never have talked to Rarity about her career, or bought the flute for Derpy's foal, or talked Caramel into staying with Wind Whistler.” My teeth chattered and my ears drooped over my head. “I would never have saved Scootaloo from dying in the wilderness.” I bit my lip before breathily producing, “Morning Dew and Rumble... Snips and Windsong... the Mayor and Scarlet Breeze...”
Just then, a shriek exploded out of my lips like a gunshot. I fell back, gripping my mouth with a pair of hooves as my eyes widened like twitching saucers.
“Mmmm...!” I panted, shuddered, and whimpered forth, “D-Discord!” I shook all over. “Oh sweet Celestia...”
I hugged myself. I clenched my teeth and hissed loudly. The tears undammed, I turned and tried looking up at her. A violet shadow loomed beyond reach of my hiccuping sobs.
“If... if I-I'm never c-cursed to begin with, wh-what happens to D-Discord...?”
Aria's head bowed. Very slowly, she uttered, “Fueled by his rage over being banished, without any lost soul to remind him of the reasons for his exile, the wrath of my beloved will outweigh his sorrow. He will never allow himself to be overcome by the songs of the mortal realm. He will wreak destruction and misery wherever he goes; not even my sisters can hold him back. His reign would not last forever, but undoubtedly for many eons. He would shape several worlds in his image until time itself makes him lethargic once more, and he gives in to the ennui that brought him there to begin with.”
I clenched my eyes shut halfway through hearing this. I felt like I was frozen solid. I reached for the sleeves of a hoodie that wasn't there, so I tore at my coat and mane instead.
“How...” I hyperventilated; I heaved. “H-how could you let me go... how c-could you let me free myself, knowing what it would undo, knowing that it would bring an end to so many good ponies' lives whom I have touched? How could you willfully accept your b-beloved going on an endless rampage of chaos and d-destruction?!”
“What I do for the sake of the universe, I do here... by remaining here,” Aria said. “My beloved's wrath is enormously powerful, but even it doesn't compare to the sheer annihilation of all reality that would occur if the truth of my existence was presented to the Cosmic Matriarch.” Her eyes closed gently, but it was too late for her to woo me with a meager shadow of an emotion. “What happens to the mortal souls on the other side of the Firmaments is of no concern to me, so long as the Firmaments remain in place for them to hold onto, alive or not.”
I hugged myself, rocking in place as I felt the throne room collapsing around me. “I can't... I-I can't...”
“It is as I said when you first arrived here, lost one,” Aria softly said. “You still stand to experience bliss, to know peace, so long as you forsake the Dawn and become a member of my choir.” With a strong breath, she uttered, “Sing my song and become nothing. All will be as it must be.”
By that point, I was inconsolable. I shook so hard that I couldn't hold the Nightbringer anymore. So I didn't bother. With a sharp inhale, I threw my forelimbs forward, flinging the holy instrument against the floor. The unbreakable strings clattered with all sorts of dissonant chords, but that wasn't the end of my instrumental. I followed it with a massive bellowing noise, tilting my skull towards the zenith of the unsung realm and screaming for as long as my lungs could carry such torment. I yelled and howled like I had never shouted before, writhing my hooves into the air before pounding them into the metal floor where I collapsed, lost between moaning sobs and gut-ripping hyperventilation. Simply lost...
All the while, Aria stood unmoving. Not even a single bone stalk of her wings twitched from my undulating cries. I may just as well have been shouting into the abyss instead of a goddess incarnate.
My mind had been rendered a labyrinth, and every turn of the maze revealed darker and darker shadows. Not even my tears could clear the grime of hopelessness away. Several minutes had passed, during which I had curled into a fetal position, sobbing pitifully in the middle of the floor. When my eyes finally opened, the first thing I saw was an ancient bed of threadbare feathers.
I imagined what it must have been like to first awake there, in the pit of all nothingness, with nothing to rely on but one's own will and resilience. It occurred to me that Aria was always alone, and yet she was never alone. We were all born there, in the cradle of darkness, every one of us, and there comes a point when we must return, when the rules of the universe buckle against our will, and all that's left is the duty, the melody in our heads, the song that needs to be sung.
“Though the consequences either way are negligible, the choice is still yours,” Aria said. It felt like it had been hours since she last spoke. I heard her skeletal limbs pacing around me as she walked the circumference of the throne room. “So long as you are lost, I can give you peace. However, once you have performed 'Dawn's Advent,' you will be free, but that freedom will have a price. The price may matter to you, but so long as the universe's structure is at stake, it is not my place to deny you that freedom, regardless of what my beloved may or may not do as a consequence of it.”
“I... I c-can't decide,” I whimpered, sniffling. “I can't even th-think...” I looked up at her, my mane disheveled and my face a mess. “Please. I... I need t-time. I'm mortal, and mortals need t-time...” I hid my face in my hooves once more. “Mmmmff... oh goddess... oh goddess please...”
“I am the consumer of memories. There are very few things that I can give,” she murmured. “Time is one of them, though I doubt it will be of much use to you, lost one. The song has consumed enough of your mind and spirit; the mortal realm should be alien to you at this point. Surely you've noticed this. Luna wasn't the only one who required 'Twilight's Requiem' to reach me.”
I panted evenly, drying my face as I reached out and clutched the Nightbringer like a crutch. I stammered, “How long... d-do I have left to live beyond the Firmaments?”
“It is not a question of the length you have left to live,” Aria explained. “But, rather, the extent to which you have to remember. Life, after all, is the sum of one's memories, and you have very few to choose from now, even fewer if I let you return to stay in the mortal realm for much longer.” She turned towards the pedestal, and a violet glow encompassed the parchment upon which “Dawn's Advent” was inscribed. “You've brought the piece of my mother's song, lost one. You've performed 'Desolation's Duet.' The final elegy awaits you and you alone.” She looked emotionlessly down at me. “All you need to do is play the Nocturne through, from the first elegy to the penultimate instrumental, and you will return here to my presence. If you still have the soundness of mind then to make a decision, I will accept your choice either way.”
I nodded, bowing my head as I hugged the Nightbringer under a fresh quiver of sobs. “For wh-what it's worth, Princess, I th-thank you...”
She leaned down until she was staring me in the face. “We both know what it is worth.” And then her eyes strobed with violet energy...
And I was back.
When the first flake of snow fell onto the grass outside my cabin, I was waiting for it. I don't know how many hours, days, weeks I spent there, staring out the window, watching the world turn gray as winter descended upon the lengths of Ponyville. Those moments had no substance to them, and without substance, there was no need for memories.
I vaguely recall a schedule of sorts. Everything revolved around feeding Al, filling his dishes twice a day, and lingering beneath the shadows in between. I may or may not have fed myself.
I do remember lying in my cot, staring at the beams of my self-built cabin, counting the seconds limping by until I forgot that I had started counting to begin with. The only way I had to truly measure time was from the increasing frequency with which Al padded up to curl by my side. I petted him on each occasion, feeling his purs, his ticklish whiskers. He nuzzled me back, but I wouldn't budge. The fireplace remained unlit. The only warmth was from Al's fur, or the occasional smattering of sunlight through the fogged windows.
And then there was the snow. I gazed out as the green landscape around me turned white, like a clean slate. With a single blink, it was a year ago, and I was stumbling to learn the “Darkness Sonata.” The cabin was half-finished, and I huddled inside my tent, trembling under the dim light of a glowing horn as I scribbled obscure music notes onto a piece of parchment in my lap. Another blink, and I was trotting through Canterlot with Moondancer, laughing and celebrating the end of the semester with several other mares my age. Blinking again, I was opening a present on Hearth's Warming as my parents watched. The xylophone glinted in the bright lights of the tree. It was the first time I remember having tears of joy and not because of pain or sorrow.
I suddenly realized that every winter was the same. The seasons repeated not because of faithful pegasi weather deliverers, but because time was mundane and needed a pattern to spice it up. Otherwise, there would be no substance. And without substance, cursed or uncursed, we ponies would have nothing worth remembering.
I tried thinking of the souls who were most special to me. I tried thinking of Mom, Dad, Morning Dew, Moondancer, and Twilight. I pondered whether their substance would be enough for me to go on, or if it would truly be a tragedy to let the essence of who and what they were dwindle from my consciousness. For days on end, I dared myself not to play the Requiem. I allowed my mind to reach the utter depths of desolation, that dark abyss through which I could hear the Nocturne whistling to me like a sharp, windy breeze through obsidian rock crevices.
I discovered that the only pain of remembrance was the need for remembrance. In that light, coming up to the surface of my self-awareness, Princess Aria's gift did not seem like such a horrible thing. Accepting her offer would be like returning to a natural state. After all, who would exist after all of the universe's warmth had burned out? Who would possibly hold the consciousness and wealth of knowledge to contain history's enormity of successes and failures? By then, the song will have broken into so many separate pieces that the singular source's desire for knowledge will become impossible by sheer entropy. By becoming many, that which was one doomed itself to intellectual oblivion.
Perhaps, then, that was the truth that the one had so desired?
I couldn't bring myself to hate the Matriarch. I couldn't bring myself to hate anyone or anything. Like Aria, everything was coming together, and it simply took the structure of everything around me falling apart. In the end, there was nothing worth feeling sad about, nothing worth celebrating nor regretting. Life was a downhill slalom, and as I gazed at the snow and its white baptism of all things alive and dying, I began to know my place in the grand descent.
But I was not about to make my decision based on my place alone...
I filled Al's dish up to the brim. It was a precautionary measure. There was no telling how long I'd be gone after stepping out the door. Nevertheless, in one single breath, I grabbed my hoodie and my lyre and rushed out of the cabin and into the light.
“All aboard! Express trip to Canterlot!” the conductor shouted as he marched down the depot's platform.
The locomotive engine before the long and colorful train glowed in the snowy kiss of winter. Steam billowed in hot jets as ponies rushed over with their luggage and climbed inside. Among them, a colorful group of young mares filed into the middlemost car.
“Brrr!” Applejack managed. “It's chilly enough to freeze one of Granny Smith's moles off!”
“Way to say what we're all thinking, Captain Obvious!” Rainbow Dash snapped, shoving the farm filly inside. “Now hop to it! How can I expect to play Commander Hurricane when my feathers are frozen solid?!”
“Oooh! Frozen Hurricanesicles!” Pinkie Pie chirped as she bounced in after the two. “That reminds me! Are we gonna stop by the pegasus district along the way to Canterlot Castle? They bake the best Hearth's Warming treats!”
“Ungh! Heaven forbid!” Rarity exclaimed, clad in a jacket and shawl, lugging along three bulging suitcases in her telekinetic glow. “This weather is dreary enough without having to suffer it from the rooftops of Canterlot’s most elevated neighborhood! Let us simply make our way to the Castle and play our parts!”
“Wait, Rarity,” Fluttershy remarked, pausing behind her.
“Fluttershy, we've been over this, dear!” Rarity tugged and tugged at her suitcases, forcefully squeezing them into the train car. “Cheerilee has been kind enough to take care of your animals. You've said 'farewell' to Angel five times already. Isn't that enough? Now quickly hop aboard this infernal train before it takes off without you!”
“No, not that.” Fluttershy gazed around, trembling. “Where's Twilight?”
“Tarnation! She's right!” Applejack stuck her head out a window of the car. “She ain't inside here either!”
Rainbow Dash appeared in the window next to her. “Where in the hay is she?! We can't wait forever!”
“Oh, Twilight!” Rarity called around, looking both ways across the depot. “Yoohoo! Where have you gone off to, darling?”
“Stop shouting, girls!” Twilight exclaimed through a hissing breath. “I'm... right here...” She struggled to drag one large saddlebag too bulging with items for her to carry on her dainty back. “Ughh... Just give me a minute!”
“Sugarcube, we ain't got a minute! Now move yer flank!”
“Honestly, Twilight,” Rarity spoke with an amused grin. “You're the most powerful magician this side of Equestria, and you can't lift a single saddlebag with your horn?”
“That's just it! These are tomes of special enchantment! They can't be lifted easily by telekinesis!” Twilight exclaimed, her legs straining as she tugged harder and harder on the bags. “When I found out that I was to perform the role of Clover the Clever in the Canterlot Hearth's Warming play, I decided that it was best to play the part to my full potential! So here I have all the books on... nngh... Pre-Equestrian sorcery that I could find!”
“Twilight, Celestia's not expecting you to perform all sorts of flashy magic on stage!” Rainbow Dash said with a roll of her ruby eyes. “Besides, if she did, I would have volunteered from the get go!”
“You say that like this isn't gonna be fun, Dashie!” Pinkie Pie bounced in the windowframe along with her. “I can't wait to play my part! They said I can even eat the hat once the curtain falls! Eeeheehee!”
“Ungh...” Rainbow Dash face-hoofed.
“Uhm, Rarity?” Fluttershy spoke to her friend. “It is very cold. Can I go inside now?”
“Oh, by all means, Fluttershy.” Rarity gave her space to crawl on board the train car. She turned and called out to Twilight. “Abandon a few of those books or ask a local workhoof to help you! Whatever it takes to get here swiftly! The train will be moving soon!” She ducked inside.
“But... I-I need... all of these...” Twilight clenched her eyes shut and grit her teeth as she pulled and pulled on the strap. “Nnnngh—Gaaah!” She lost her grip and fell back on her haunches. Twilight sat up, seeing stars. “Ugggh... Good thing Hearth's Warming only comes once a year.”
Just then, a dolly rolled in towards her on green-glowing wheels. With an emerald wave of magic, the hulking saddlebag inched its way up onto the cart until it rested evenly on the gliding platform.
Twilight blinked. “Huh...” She smiled. “Now why didn't I think of that?” She accepted the hoof that was given to her and stood back up. “Thank you very much, Miss...” She looked at me and her smile faded.
Moist eyes reflected her image as I took a deep breath and said, “Lyra. Lyra Heartstrings. But you will n-not remember me. You won't even remember th-this conversation. Just like with everypony else I've ever met, everything I d-do or say will be forgotten.” I gulped, sniffled, and spoke in a whisper, “But I am not asking you t-to remember...”
Her mouth hung open in confusion. Steam jetted out from the train behind her, shaking her countenance. With a fitful stammer, she said, “I... I-I don't understand. Have we—?”
“I'm not asking you to remember the afternoon we first m-met on Alabaster Street, or the days we spent running through the neighborhoods of Canterlot, or the nights we enjoyed slumber p-parties with Moondancer, playing games as Celestia, Luna, and Starswirl the Bearded.” I smiled painfully, adoring the innocence in her violet eyes—a color that had filled the niche in my life as it had filled an unknowing hole in Celestia's. For me, there would only ever be one Princess of Twilight, and I gazed at her as I said, “I do not ask you t-to remember the letters that you wrote to me from your room in the Royal Palace, or the stories you gave of all the wonderful feats of magic that you learned. I do not ask that you recall every sob or l-laugh or angry word you ever uttered in my presence, or the forelimbs that embraced you when you just needed to be heard, to be held, to be cherished.”
I slid the cart towards her, took a few steps, and spoke in a tender whisper that only the two of us could hear.
“I simply ask, Twilight Sparkle, if... if you are h-happy with the way things are.” I shuddered, sniffled the tears away, and spoke, “Are you happy with the nature of the world, with the function of the universe, with your life as it has come to pass?”
She gazed at me, at this crazed and disheveled stranger who had barely eaten anything in weeks and hadn't bathed for twice as long. She stared at the bags under my eyes, the wrinkles in my coat, and the tears that were desperate to squeeze forth into the frosty air. Twilight Sparkle looked beyond all of that, and to my joy, she saw something that neither I or Aria were capable of grasping anymore, and her words set my heart on fire.
“I... I have found a new home here in Ponyville. I have found a place to raise Spike like the sweet young dragon he was meant to be. There is a correspondence that I'm fortunate enough to maintain with Celestia on a regular basis. I am the Princess' faithful protege, and yet I'm allowed the freedom to live where I please. With her blessing, I've become not only this town's chief librarian, but its magical guardian as well. I've saved Ponyville from an ursa minor, Equestria from Nightmare Moon, and the whole world from Discord. And I...”
Steam blew again. Several female voices shouted from a car just a few paces behind her.
Twilight Sparkle chuckled. She ran a hoof through her beautiful mane and whispered forth, “I have friends. After such a long, lonely life, I... I have such dear friends—ponies who will stick by my side no matter what, ponies who adore me with a love that...” She choked on her words, hiding her gaze in the folds of her bulging saddlebag below her. “A l-love that only asks that I exist, that I be who I am, that I live up to my potential.” She gulped and raised her face to smile at me. Her eyes were watering. “After all the craziness, after all the silly adventures and stressful debacles, I... am happy.” Sniffling, she chuckled and smiled even wider. “I truly am. I'm the happiest I've been all my life.”
I exhaled sharply and smiled. Two tears trickled down my face. “Then that is all that matters,” I said in a shaking voice, my lips trembling. “That is all that will ever matter.”
She tilted her head to the side, her mouth agape in concern and curiosity all at once.
“All aboard! Last call for Canterlot!” the conductor shouted beyond her. It was followed by the angry and skittish shrieks of several of her friends.
“Miss Heartstrings... was it? Uhm...” she fidgeted, leaning limply on the cart as she fumbled for words. “I just don't understand. Are you... Are you going to Canterlot? Was there something you wanted to—?”
“I can't go with you,” I said. “I must remain here.”
“But. But s-some of the things you said. There's... there's something about you...” She winced, squinting at me. “I feel as though there's more to know...”
“Do me a favor,” I said. I leaned forward and clasped her forelimbs with mine. “Hold onto that feeling. Make it your substance, make it the warmth of your heart, the beacon of your life. Survive on it and it alone, and you need not remember anything else.”
The steam engine of the locomotive was chugging to life. Everything was moving away; everything was always moving away from me.
She looked at our hooves, then up at my face. “I gotta go. I'm performing as Clover the Clever at Canterlot's Hearth's Warming pageant.”
“I know,” I said, nodding with a soft smile. “And I'm proud of you, Twilight.” I brushed hooves with her one last time, and gently let her go. “Make it a good show.”
“One that's worth remembering,” she said, trotting away with the dolly in tow. She mounted the train and heaved the bag of books on board. She was so encumbered with this task that I doubt she took notice of a tiny golden lyre that had been slipped inside her saddlebag. By the time I could no longer register the heavy beats of my heart, she was flashing me one last smile. “We should talk when I get back! Will you be staying in Ponyville for a while, Miss Heartstrings?”
I waved back. In a ghostly voice, I nodded and said, “I'll be here.”
The train was already moving. Her happy face faded in the gray snowfall as it carried her away, as it carried Moondancer away, as the threads of life took everything away but my breath, receding vaporously into the cold miasma like yesterday's clouds. I sat there on the station's platform, enshrouded in shivers, trying to comprehend a life spent on the horizon of crumbled dreams, realizing that I had lived the only portion of my existence that mattered there.
When I next blinked, I was leagues away, trotting along the edge of town. I looked around me. Snow had fallen over every rooftop in Ponyville. Winter had captured a frozen snapshot of the town, an image, a memory that should have been melting, and yet lingered in pristine glory before me. There was nopony in the streets, nopony but me. It was far too cold to live outside, and so I did, lurching forward as though invisible fetters were chained to my every limb. I didn't look behind me, because I knew without glancing that my hoofprints would only disappear, that the snapshot would only be perfect so long as I didn't mar it, so long as I didn't expect myself to.
Smoke rose from every chimney. The smell of burnt logs and crackling fireplaces lit my nose. Every soul with the right to live was escaping the cold, defiant against the frigid extremities of the universe that sought to drown them. They had loved ones; they had legacies to fulfill and memories to make.
I had myself.
I trudged past Town Hall, past the ghostly echoes of a wedding reception and a mad pony's ramblings. I shuffled past Sugarcube Corner, parting the waves of several mares giggling and two friends splitting up under indignant shouts. I saw the Carousel Boutique off in the blurry distance, and my eyelashes shook loose a dozen beautiful dresses while my ears rang with a chaotician's mournful testimony. For several minutes, I paused in the middle of the frost-covered town. Several bonfires were lit here. A drunken stallion was beaten here. Scootaloo was rescued and Granite Shuffle played chess and a tiny orange tabby found its way home between these buildings.
There, in the center of the town, where it was warmest, an alicorn valkyrie of the night had once landed and bestowed upon a trembling unicorn her gift. It wasn't until right then that I received it.
I marched away from the last shred of warmth. I trotted past the buildings, past the smoldering chimneys, into the park where I scaled a series of hilltops overlooking Ponyville. I heard my father's breath in the whistling wind, and I imagined him painting a picture as gorgeous as this. I wondered if he would spend the rest of his years painting snapshots of the world, forever missing the beauty he had once had, no longer able to fill that hole that sat snugly within frame: a hole shaped like me.
And then, as swiftly as I thought that, I realized that he would never find something that would replace me; he would only find something better. It was his life now, as my mother had her own life, as Twilight and Moondancer had lives to live, as did Morning Dew and Ambrosia. I had done my part, invisibly or not, and the substance of existence—the memories that were worth making—were now up to them.
A single pony can touch so many lives, but it is up to those lives to touch so many more.
And what was my life? I sat down on the hilltop and absorbed myself in it, for I had discovered it. It was not in the past, nor was it in the future. It was frozen in time, encased in frost, its contours outlined by the powdery lengths of snow coming into shape before me. Everything froze, as everything had always been frozen, and I discovered my purpose, my existence.
It was a moment, that moment, that speck of frost hovering above me, that golden ray of light locked within the grip of several leafless branches. Everything was now, my thoughts, my breath, my will to cry and my will not to cry. I chose both, and tears came out anyway, and they felt like something I faintly remembered: a little foal grasping her xylophone on the morning of another Hearth's Warming several blinks before then. And my tears fell because I realized that the memory was artificial, a shadow of something long gone, as all memories of all things are temporary and weathered, turning stale with time like bread, losing their flavor and tricking ponies into thinking that they can relive that which is dull and dead, when in fact we should all be grasping what I grasped, the moment, the one real piece of time that we only have once and will forever mourn once it's passed.
I chose not to mourn. I chose not to regret. I cried instead with joy, a joy that had no words, a joy that only comes to a pony who's realized she's slept through a pitiful dream all her life, and can now finally awake to her own righteousness. And I was righteous. I was so very righteous. With numb forelimbs, I fumbled with my hoodie until I peeled the damn thing off and exposed myself to that righteousness. I flung the stone-gray article off the hilltop. It landed somewhere beyond view, buried in snow, buried in oblivion. Aria slept in her grave, but I was prepared to dance upon mine. I spread my limbs and reveled in the cold that so long had been a curse to me. Exultation required no memory, no pretense, no craving for hope beyond the shadows of one's sight. But it did take courage, for a life lived in the absence of recollection is the bravest life of all; it's the mark of a pony who knows that she has never even bothered with living until that very moment found her.
I knew who I was, not what I once was, nor what I would ever be. What I knew, what I felt, and what I had—that moment—was something that the Matriarch's Nocturne could never take away, no matter how omnipotent or powerful. That moment was mine, and it would forever be the substance of my soul. Everything afterward would simply be a shadow, and I was more than willing to trot into endless night. Darkness itself was just a reminder of what I could never lose.
The final chords of the “Threnody of Night” played. A metal platform of the unsung realm materialized around me. I inhaled the air of the undead, opening my eyes to the lightning flashes and tempests beyond.
In the center and above me, Aria's throneroom hovered. It did not soar away, nor did it launch electricity towards my figure. As a matter of fact, it began a slow descent, and already I could sense the violet form of the Princess of Twilight taking flight to meet me.
I exhaled, hugging the Nightbringer to my naked chest. As I waited, I heard a woeful moan to my left, followed by the rattling of chains. I looked over lethargically.
A shackled pony was crawling out of a rusted hole. Animated by some animalistic instinct, she lurched towards me. Heavy cuffs covered the ends of her hooves, and a metal plate was wrapped around her eyes and muzzle, muffling her panting breaths. I could see the flutter of a few threadbare feathers; she must have been a pegasus when she was alive, when she wasn't lost, when she flew through the warm air of an unknown world countless eons ago.
Without thinking, I turned and trotted lightly towards her.
Instantly, she flung herself at me, only to be held back by her chains pulling taut. She jerked on the length of them, ultimately falling down onto the platform and clawing ineffectually towards my body.
I knelt down in front of her, quiet as a falling leaf. I gazed intently at the pony, reaching a hoof towards her. As soon as my breaths mingled with the air about us, she twitched and flung her head up with a loud wail. The siren sound ended abruptly, and she fell limp, wheezing for breath. Perhaps it was confusion, perhaps it was some form of sentient thought, but she allowed me to bring my hoof closer. I made contact with her coat; it was colder than ice. My hoof brushed along a slender mildew stain across her face, where centuries of tears had repetitively run their course, and upon my gentle touch they repeated that streak. A muffled sound came from deep beneath the metal plate, it was too full of sobs to be a word.
Effortlessly, I leaned forward and swept the freezing soul into a hug. I felt her hooves trembling in my forelimbs, like a pariah in Ponyville had shivered for so long, led forward by hope, fed by the tender morsels of bittersweet dreams between the frigid vapors of reality. She didn't fight me; she didn't try to drag me into the depths of that abyss. She simply surrendered into my embrace, breathing evenly, a different kind a sobbing, a mournful breath that she could share without having to sing.
I stroked her icy back in gentle circles, warming her for as long as I could afford to. I was so engrossed in this that I didn't notice Aria's hoofsteps until I heard them scraping around me.
“She was a soldier on her world,” the undead alicorn said. “The only member of her unit to survive a terrible onslaught. She looked at all of her dear companions dead and dying around her, and she gave in to despair. Somewhere in that bleak moment, the Nocturne found her. She listened until she felt like singing, and it brought her here.” Aria knelt down beside us. “Most likely, her army had no surviving records of her ever being drafted. At the same time, her parents didn’t have to mourn the death of a child they never foaled.”
I nuzzled her one last time before laying her gently on the platform below me. “Does she ever dream?” I asked.
“Parts of her still do,” Aria said softly. “Which is why I suspect she hasn't murdered you for your warmth. But, when the chorus repeats itself, she loses more and more shreds of her past. Soon, the memory will be gone, as will the substance of herself.”
“That's something we depend too much on.”
“Memories,” I said, looking up at Aria as I held the Nightbringer in one hoof. With the other forelimb, I gently stroked the slumbering body of the shackled pony between us. “Did you love your mother because you chose to? Or was it something in the song that defined your life?”
“I would be lying if I called this a 'life,'” Aria remarked. “That said, it is still the closest thing to it, and I owe that to my mother, even if she did abandon me.”
I shook my head, exhaling. “Why are only the most precious lives the ones that are abandoned?”
“I don't intend to find out,” she said. She reached a bony hoof out and gently stroked the opposite shoulder of the pony beneath us. “I shall never abandon the lost ones that come here.”
“Princess Aria,” I murmured. She looked my way as I gazed off towards the tempests, fighting the words before they dripped out of me, “What you do here, what you commit yourself to, it is a very tragic thing.” I gulped. “But... but the way you put your heart and mind to it, the way you do that which you know it is your place to do...” A shuddering breath coursed through me. I forced myself to look up at her. “There is a certain righteousness to it, I think.”
She nodded with a deadpan face. “And what do you feel, lost one?”
“Not envy,” I said.
She took a few moments to contemplate that. If she formulated a reponse, I would never know. I watched as she stood up tall, her bony wings extending. “Have you decided, my little pony?” Her violet eyes narrowed. “Do you choose to perform ‘Dawn's Advent’ and enter the world of the living, or do you choose to join me and my choir in infinite bliss?”
I stared at her and boldly said, “I choose neither.”
For once, the goddess of the unsung realm blinked.
With a shuddering breath, I felt the metal contours of the Nightbringer for one last time before handing it over to her. “I relinquish the piece of the matriarch's song to you, the one integral key for anypony to pursue the 'Nocturne of the Firmaments' and enter this realm.”
She glanced down at my offering, but did nothing. I almost admired her restraint. She spoke, “And what of you, lost one?”
“I will go back to Ponyville,” I declared. “I will exist there as I always have.”
“But you will still be forgotten,” Aria said, her eyes narrowing. “What's more, the curse will consume your mind, your memories, and your aspirations as you live out your years in the shadow of the opportunity I am now granting you.”
“But I will live,” I said. I stretched the Nightbringer further out in my grasp for her to take. “I will be myself, not the unlearned soul that I once was, and most certainly not a blissfully ignorant puppet to your thankless task of preserving your mother's song.” I looked down to where I lovingly stroked the shackled pony's coat. “Discord will remain imprisoned, and Equestria will suffer neither chaos nor the collapse of reality. Everything will be as it should be.” I gulped and said, “For th-this is my righteous task.”
Not even the thunder of the tempests could break the silence that followed. Eventually, Aria bowed and took the Nightbringer from me. My hoof hung limply in the absence of it.
“Very well,” she remarked. “But so long as you stay as you are in the mortal realm, you still pose a risk to my mother's will, to the structure of reality that the song maintains—”
“I know,” I said, inhaling sharply. My eyes settled on the pegasus as I played gently with her pale ears. “And I also know that it won't be enough for you to take away my memories of this place, of what I’ve learned. I'm an ambitious soul, just like your beloved, and I will do whatever it takes to seek out the truth, as is the path of all things that live. If you're to grant me this request, Princess, if you're to give me the freedom that I desire, you must take something else from me.”
“And what is that, lost one?”
I swallowed hard. A tear streaked down my cheek as I gazed up at her. “I need you to t-take away my love of music.”
She gazed at me, her glowing eyes round with comprehension. She said, “Never before have I been given a request like this, and I suspect that I will never experience such a thing again.”
Sniffling, I leaned forward and whispered, “Live in the moment. In a universe where everything else is taken, we can at least afford that.”
“Agreed.” Aria tilted her head down, her horn glowing vibrantly towards my brow. My body twitched upon the end of all good things as she said, “You would have made a fine addition to the chorus here, a beauty that will not be forgotten in this realm.”
“It's okay,” I wheezed forth. I laughed and sobbed at once, exhaling my final song through a fractured smile. “I have a lousy singing voice anyways.”
Princess Aria's horn flashed, and the snow melted. I sat on the hilltop, gasping. A painting of Ponyville hovered in the wind beside me. I glanced into it, and Cheerilee's classroom laughed as I stood before a blackboard full of faded gibberish. I stammered incoherently, glancing down at my cutie mark. A golden blob melted into haze, like Morning Dew's fine coat as he raised a matching tulip before me. I tried to speak, but my voice was dissonant and off-key, and I was at a loss to understand why that was a bad thing. Scootaloo fell into my forelimbs without warning. I crawled us through the silent forest, and a cabin disassembled log by log before me. Caramel and Wind Whistler nuzzled by the bonfire, and some mad pony was shouting. I looked up, and a midnight alicorn flew high into the starlight. A black mark lit the moon, glinting through the window as I scooted my tiny self up to the Hearth's Warming Tree. I opened the gift while my parents watched, and through the violet smog a pair of roller skates appeared.
There were no tears.
“Ugh!” Moondancer groans from where she reclines on my bed with a storybook full of bright, colorful pictures. “Pegasi are so full of themselves! Why does everything they make have to be so annoying and loud?”
Twilight frowns up at her from the bedroom floor. “Don't make fun of them! It's their culture!”
“Well, their culture is stupid,” Moondancer says. “Have you even seen the way they dress up at pageants?! Heeheehee—It's like they're trying to go to war with the clouds!”
“Hey! Those armored uniforms are really spectacular! The pegasi have a long history of military tradition, after all!” Twilight glances towards me. “You should know this, Lyra! You wrote to a pegasus pen pal last year. Tell Moondancer what you learned!”
“Suuuure! Take Twilight's side!” Moondancer flips a page of the storybook and dangles her legs off the bed. “Starswirl was always Celestia's pet, not Luna's!”
“Uhhh...” I stammer, gazing numbly into the Wonderbolt nightlight hovering above my bed. “Pegasus... pen pal...”
“Did she teach you anything about the traditional 'Soaring Cirrus Symphony?'”
I turn and gaze directly at Twilight. I blink a few times and then scrunch my nose up.
"Why would I care about some stuffy old song?”
My face brightens as I lean over and speak.
“Wanna hear about some of the air stunts they performed during the Best Young Fliers' Competition?”
“I'd love to!” Twilight exclaims.
“Ooooh!” Moondancer drops her book and scoots off the bed. “Now this, I'd like to hear!”
“Oh, don't pretend you weren't having fun until just now!” Twilight exclaims.
“Yes, only now I'm having more fun!” Moondancer giggles and grins wide. “Tell us about the pegasus air stunts!”
“Ugh! Quit horsing around!”
“Girls, girls...” I chuckle, smiling warmly at the two. “Can’t we just enjoy this moment together?”