Celestia stiffly approached the doors to the throne room, Twilight sticking close to her mentor’s side. The pair had agreed that moping wouldn’t mend the day’s grievous mistakes, and opted to gather and formulate a plan. As the doors opened, Celestia’s eyes widened in surprise; Luna was already there, staring out the north-facing windows. She glanced towards Celestia and gave a curt nod. “Shall we decide on a course of action, then?” She asked softly.
Celestia blinked in confusion at Luna’s surprisingly civil demeanor; she’d spent the past hour practically welcoming a well-deserved hatred. “Y-Yes, we should…” She muttered; she turned to Twilight. “Twilight, why don’t you bring your friends here?”
Twilight glanced between Celestia and Luna before nodding. “Right.”
“See if Joel is willing to come, too,” Luna said, not looking away from the window. “Though I… doubt he will.”
Twilight’s gaze lingered on Luna for a moment, then she turned and hurried out of the throne room, the doors closing behind her. Celestia remained where she stood for a few long moments, unable to look at Luna. Finally, with a pained sigh, Celestia approached and stood beside her, gazing out the windows.
A minute passed in complete silence; Celestia couldn’t tell if Luna was having an equally hard time finding the right words, or if she was simply giving Celestia the chance to speak first. Either way, the silence was agony…
“I’m unsure of where I stand right now,” Luna finally said. “On the one hoof, I completely understand your motives—you’ve never made a harsh decision out of any form of malice. You perceived Joel to be a threat to us, and you weren’t willing to take any chances… I can name a few times where inaction wasn’t the best course to take.” She turned her head ever so slightly towards Celestia. “You would never seek to harm that which you hold dear, there is no question.”
Softening me up before the blow, Luna? Celestia thought sadly. She simply gave a soft nod.
“On the other hoof…” Luna continued. “You let your fear guide your actions, when logic dictated you stop and truly see what was happening. I told you that Joel wasn’t a monster—I’d told you from the beginning that his efforts to befriend us were genuine… Yet you held such a strong prejudice against him, you were quick to lay the blame on him for any misfortune that he had a tie to, even when he’d worked to resolve it. And because of that prejudice, you didn’t see Sombra manipulating you until it was too late… though, to be fair, I wonder if anypony could have—it was a reasonable belief that he was long gone, and therefore wouldn’t be responsible for the attacks.”
Luna finally turned to look at Celestia. “But in the end, you led me to share in your misguided beliefs, and ultimately made me hurt the one I love…” She stopped herself when her voice had started to raise slightly. “...I should have had more faith in him… I should have simply refused to help you, or simply made the two of you meet and discuss what was happening, yet this past month has been a fairly ludicrous series of… what I’ve heard to be called, ‘shoulda, coulda, wouldas’, hasn’t it?” She gave a hollow laugh as she returned her gaze to the window. “As it stands, I’ve hurt Joel in a way that I doubt he may recover from… I’ve lost his trust, and I’m all the poorer for it…”
Celestia watched sadly, fighting her instinctive, big-sisterly urge to hug Luna, to tell her that everything would be alright.
“Having said all that…” Luna said, her voice quavering. “I’m unsure of how to feel at this point… I could feel bitter at you, curse your name, hate you with every fiber of my being… yet we both know the result of that. I could tell you I forgive you, yet that would be lying to both of us…” She turned to face Celestia again. “I guess all I can say is… is that you hurt me, Tia… However inadvertently, you hurt me... but I’m willing to let you make up for it… so long as you do the same for Joel, because out of all of us, his pain may run deeper than you or I can fathom.”
Celestia’s calm visage had been fragile enough on her way to the throne room, yet now it was melting away like ice in the break of spring. She fell to her haunches and sobbed. “I’m sorry…” She whispered. “Luna, I’m so… so sorry…”
Luna sat down, leaned forward and hugged Celestia, her tears breaking through as well.
I wish I could believe that it will be this easy with Joel… She thought.
Twilight was surprised, as she rounded the corner to the guest quarters, to see Rainbow Dash sitting in the hall, across from the door to Dread’s room. She’d suspected that at least some of her friends might be trying to make amends with the ‘human’, but Dash was probably the last pony she’d expect to see. Dash had her forelegs folded patiently, yet had a familiar look in her eye… the kind she got when she was trying to look disinterested in certain, current events.
Dash looked over to see Twilight approaching, and gave a soft smile. “Hey…”
Twilight smiled in return, though failed to keep her gaze from trailing towards Dread’s door. “I didn’t, uh…”
“Didn’t think I’d be here?” Dash asked plainly. She turned back towards the door and leaned her head back against the wall behind her. “The others are in there with him… He invited them in, though he was… pretty specific about it…” Twilight noticed a lack of bitterness in her voice.
She coughed. “Well, the Princesses, they… they asked that we meet them in the throne room, along with Dr-- Joel, I mean, if he wants to.”
Dash motioned towards the door. “You should probably knock, I’m not keen on having the door slammed in my face…”
“No, I just... wouldn’t put it past him at this point…” Dash gazed at the floor, guilt surfacing in her eyes. Unsure of how to proceed with her, Twilight approached the door and knocked.
I shut the door to my room as Pinkie, Fluttershy and Rarity entered; I immediately felt guilty for acting as though Dash hadn’t been there when I’d invited them in, but I felt I needed to acknowledge who my true friends were at this stage.
That line of thought was quickly glared down as I approached the foot of my bed, where the ponies had sat down alongside AJ. I sat down across from them, ensuring my makeshift toga would keep me covered.
Rarity, who seemed to have been struggling not to wince at my wardrobe, quickly leapt on the opportunity to touch on that subject. “I can throw something together for you to wear, darling…” She said softly; there was a tenderness in her voice that I, honestly, wouldn’t have expected from someone so… well, glamorous. “I’m certain the princesses will lend me what I’d need—they had me craft a dress for Princess Cadence’s wedding, after all…”
I nodded, appreciatively. “That would be great… Really, just basic coverings are all I need; something I won’t trip on every few steps.”
Rarity smiled. My gaze trailed towards the others, and I sighed. “Alright, look… When I… well, snapped, back there, I made it sound like I held a grievance with everypony…”
“We know you didn’t mean that…” Fluttershy said.
“And I’d be lyin’ if I said I didn’t find a certain enjoyment in ya puttin’ Rainbow in her place…” Applejack said.
“However… vulgar it may have been…” Rarity said out the corner of her mouth.
I was about to make a joke regarding a swear jar when there was an explosion, barely three feet from my right. I yelled as my hands flew to my face, offering little protection against the shrapnel that…
...That was made of multicolored paper. Come to think of it, the ‘explosion’ had been little more than a fairly loud ‘pop’, like you’d get from a party popper--
I lowered my hands and gazed, dumbfounded, at the brightly colored cannon—the same one I’d seen on the night of the griffon attack—sitting in front of where Pinkie had been sitting, a little smoke still drifting from its barrel. Pinkie was standing behind the cannon, a wide smile on her face that failed to hide the look of panic and desperation in her eyes.
Before I could even fathom where the hell the cannon had come from, Pinkie cried out, “Surprise!!”
I stared blankly at Pinkie as she suddenly produced a slice of cake on a paper plate, bolted around her cannon and offered it to me. I didn’t take it, too baffled to respond. “Pinkie, what are you…”
“I-It’s your party!” Pinkie said quickly, pressing the cake closer to me. “I would’ve thrown it sooner, Joel, I really would have, but those meanie gryphons ruined my stockpile of decorations when they were looking for my Element, so I had to work extra hours at Sugarcube Corner to work on replacing it all, but then I had to throw more parties in the meantime, and with each one I couldn’t help but think, ‘I’m throwing this party before Dread’s’—this was back when you were calling yourself Dread—’so what if he thinks I didn’t prioritize his party after all he did for us?!’ So I had to keep working to afford to throw you the bestest party imaginable, but then we were called here today and when I found out what had happened to you I realized you needed this party, right now, cause nothing cheers up a Saddy Sadderpants better than a party, but the best I could do on such short notice was the standard Party Cannon party, and I-I… I…”
Over the approximate ten seconds it had taken Pinkie to explain herself, her cheerful air had started giving way. Tears welled in her eyes, and she began hyperventilating, though her grin stubbornly remained.
I quickly, gently, took the offered slice of cake and took a bite; it felt weird—yet also good—to eat normally again, especially with something this damn good. I smiled and quickly took several more bites, watching as Pinkie’s expression slowly brightened.
It didn’t last; while she wasn’t crying, she was clearly disheartened. Her mane sunk, she fell to her haunches and lowered her head. “It’s not enough, is it…”
“Pinkie, I’m fine with whatever you want to throw together…” I began.
“It’s not the party…” Pinkie said. “You were so nice, and yet…”
“Like I said,” I replied firmly, setting the plate on the floor. “You girls did nothing wrong. I was angry before, there’s no denying that, but I can safely say that I’m not without friends here.” I laid a hand on Pinkie’s shoulder. “I would’ve known that, with or without a party.”
Pinkie’s mouth curved into a trembling smile. She suddenly lunged forward and hugged me tight, her mane regaining its ‘natural’ shape with a soft ‘poof’. As I hugged her back, I suddenly felt something being placed on my head, secured by an elastic string that stretched beneath my chin. Frowning, I reached up and felt the pointy party hat that had been placed on my head.
I found some wry amusement at Twilight’s confused gaze when I opened the door and she saw my party hat and the confetti that was covering my impromptu robe. I noticed Dash was still there, facing down the hall in an effort to avoid eye contact; it didn’t keep me from seeing the look of sadness in her eyes.
“Hey,” I said evenly. While Twilight hadn’t actually acted against me, or at least continued to display distrust in the way Dash had, I was still wary of her; I had the impression that, had Twilight been in on anything Celestia may have planned, she would have aided her mentor without a moment’s thought. As such, I found her in something of a grey area, between where Applejack, Rarity, Pinkie and Fluttershy stood, and where Dash and the Princesses stood.
“The Princesses want to meet us in the throne room,” Twilight said.
“‘Us’ as in you girls, or…?” I asked.
“That’s… really up to you, I suppose…” Twilight said, rubbing a foreleg awkwardly.
As Applejack and the others quietly stepped around me and out into the hall, I considered simply declining and remaining in my room; I didn’t think I was ready to face Celestia and… and Luna, yet.
Then I remembered… I still held some of the blame behind this mess. Whether it was from my actions, inactions or my simply being here, I still had a responsibility to help clean it up, however I could.
No matter what happened, this was my home.
And I still had friends here.
I took off the hat and sighed. “Let’s go, then.”
The nine of us gathered in the throne room a few minutes later. As we entered, I endeavored to keep my gaze fixed on the long red carpet leading up to the twin thrones, and not on the two princesses that stood before them. Despite my best efforts, however, I couldn’t keep from glancing, if only for a moment, at Luna. She was also keeping her gaze from me, almost pretending I wasn’t even there; I wondered if I preferred that. Celestia, however, held a faint look of misery, tears matting down the fur on her muzzle, and her mane hanging low and mournfully around her head.
Despite her grim demeanor, she seemed ready to get to business. “We received this missive from the Crystal Empire just moments ago,” Celestia said, levitating a slightly crumpled scroll before everyone present. “Sombra has made his move, and we’ve been unable to contact the Empire. We don’t know how long it will be before he can enact whatever plans he has for the rest of Equestria.”
“I’d assume his plans involve the Crystal Heart,” Luna said. “A thousand years ago, the effects of his use of it were felt all over Equestria; I shudder to imagine what he may accomplish should he… infuse it, with Dread’s essence.”
“Then we should go up there!” Twilight asserted. “The sooner we go, the less time Sombra has to prepare!”
“That’s what I’m talking about!” Dash said encouragingly, giving Twilight a friendly bump on the shoulder.
Celestia’s eyes fell on the Elements of Harmony. “...If the Elements can be used on the Crystal Heart, that may give us an edge against Sombra—maybe even destroy him, or at least leave him incapacitated while I can perform the same spell I used to part Joel from the mass…” She mused.
“Don’t forget fire,” I mumbled. Celestia cast a surprised look at me, but quickly recovered, nodding.
“Y-yes, the mass reacts harshly to fire,” she explained. “It… hardens, and is evidently… painful… for the host…”
Fluttershy’s eyes flashed with concern as she looked over to me as she clued into how exactly Celestia had separated me from the mass. I gave a small shake of my head, nothing to add.
Twilight also noticed something Celestia had said. “Wait, ‘while you perform the same spell’? You mean you’re coming with us?”
Celestia gave a weak smile. “I think I’ve left enough world-saving burdens in your hooves, dear student.”
“The fault lies with us for causing such havoc,” Luna said, resolute. “It would be remiss of us to sit idly by while you risk your lives, yet again, to protect our land.”
“Chariots are being prepared to take us to the Frozen North,” Celestia explained. “They will land us as close to the Empire as they dare, and we will approach on hoof.”
“What about Discord?” Fluttershy asked. “I’m sure he’d be willing to help.” Dash gave a small, if rather reluctant nod; Discord’s lack of commitment to reality could be a great asset.
Celestia, however, shook her head. “I cannot risk whatever may happen should Discord fall under the sway of the Nightmare. Discord is powerful, certainly, but he is far from invincible; if he should become blinded with fear, I shudder to think what havoc he may wreak under Sombra’s control.”
“Then it’s up to us,” Twilight said, resolutely.
“When do we leave?” I asked.
Celestia and Luna’s silence quickly clued me in; I really shouldn’t have been surprised. “Oh, come on…” I said weakly.
“No offense, sugarcube…” Applejack said gently. “But I don’t think you’d be nearly as good to have at our flanks, without that fancy ash of yours.”
“But…” I was too tired to really come up with a fitting argument. I could only imagine us running around this ‘Crystal Empire’, with their efforts split between combatting Sombra and keeping me out of trouble; and my time as an MHA taught me that keeping civilians safe while combatting a larger threat was not fun.
Yet it was the idea of letting them risk life and limb to clean up my own mess that left me uneasy.
“Look, there’s gotta be something…” I tried.
“Joel…” Celestia said tenderly. “I understand. And I… I thank you, for your concern…” Her gaze fell to the floor. “Something you’ve given us for far longer than I realized…” She composed herself and looked me in the eyes again. “But the danger is simply too great.”
I noted a tone in Celestia’s voice that contrasted heavily with the attitude she’d had towards me from the beginning. I remembered the night of the griffon attack, when she refused to allow me to head to Ponyville to help—seemingly out of fear that I’d make things worse for her subjects.
Now, though… this was genuine concern. There was no apprehension or suspicion, just legitimate worry for my well-being.
The kind she’d show towards one of her own subjects.
I was so taken aback that I failed to argue any further. Celestia took my silence as an acquiescence and turned to the others. “Make whatever preparations necessary, everypony.” The Bearers all sprang into salutes, then started departing from the throne room; Applejack gave me a comforting bump and smile as she passed. I watched them depart, mainly so I could keep my back turned to Luna.
When she didn’t speak or approach me, I decided she was just giving me my space for the time being. I allowed some gratitude for that, and left the throne room.
It was almost as though he’d never left, Sombra mused, as he sat upon his throne.
‘Sat’, of course, was a relative term; he simply hovered closely around it like the amorphous black cloud he was. With a gesture of his shaped foreleg, Sombra was able to see parts of his domain, no matter where he was. At the base of the palace, his newly ‘drafted’ guards stood at attention, bearing spears made of the darkened crystals of his own creation; they shuddered in neverending terror, as though each of them feared some unthinkable horror was standing directly behind them, ready to consume them at the first act of misbehavior.
Sombra had dubbed this sensation ‘oversight’; a fear state where the victim was allowed to remain lucid, so long as they remained compliant. Any defiance would simply let them fall into their darkest nightmares, lasting for however long Sombra chose.
It was rather delightful, he felt, how easily he’d become accustomed to the mass. The human, ‘Joel’, had been a mere mortal when he had bonded with it—a simple being of flesh and blood.
Sombra, however… Well, a thousand years ago he’d have hardly said he’d ‘transcended’ mortality—he wasn’t very fond of his shadow state, initially. But over time he’d grown to appreciate the benefits, and now, he found that the mass was a boon beyond even Sombra’s wildest dreams. His magic, and his affinity with crystals, melded seamlessly with the mass, allowing for him to expand his influence all throughout the Crystal Empire…
And, within a short time, all of Equestria.
As he’d expected, infusing the Crystal Heart with the Nightmare quickly bent the Empire to his knee. However, for the Heart to influence the entirety of Equestria, he would need to pour every ounce of magic he could muster into it, and Sombra had found himself somewhat weary once he’d reclaimed his throne.
He simply needed time; with the Crystal Ponies in a constant state of fear, he wouldn’t need to feed for very long.
And in that time, he expected, the Bearers would come, seeking to stop him again.
Sombra even found himself hoping they’d come; he licked his lips hungrily and smiled.
I flexed my shoulders, getting a feel for the clothing that Rarity had made for me. She’d only been working for twenty minutes, and yet she’d made me something quite comfortable.
I’d been heading back to my room when Rarity had quickly run up beside me, curtly instructing me to stand still while she took my measurements. Ten seconds later she thanked me and bolted off; twenty minutes later she’d come to me with a simple, yet surprisingly comfortable navy blue tunic and matching pants. No shoes, sadly, but I wasn’t exactly in a prime market for them, so I was in no place to complain.
“I just feel dreadful, giving you garments that, on a normal day I’d barely consider in the alpha state, darling…” Rarity said anxiously, clearly in a hurry to meet up with the others. “But, well, heh heh, you know…”
“This is actually perfect, Rarity…” I said. “Glad I can ditch the yoga robe.” I gave a meaningful kick to the blankets I’d dumped at my feet.
Rarity nodded. “Well… I suppose it’s time to go…”
“I’ll walk you there,” I offered, walking over and opening the door.
Luna was standing at the door, her raised hoof indicating she’d been about to knock.
“Oh, hi!” I said, startled, as I almost walked right into her. Circumstance quickly reared its ugly head, and the moment took an awkward turn.
Rarity seemed keen to escape the awkwardness, clearing her throat and slipping past us. “I’ll just… meet you there…” She said as she hurried down the hall and out of sight.
Luna paid no attention to Rarity, simply gazing sadly at me. “...May I come in?” She asked.
I half-expected to feel the urge to deny her, but then remembered my anger had already burnt out. “Sure. Come on in…”
I let her in, then closed the door and simply sat down with my back to it. Luna sat a short distance from me, a surprising control in her breathing.
“Joel…” She said, her voice barely above a whisper. “I won’t deny that Tia and I wronged you—that I wronged you. A day won’t go by where I don’t think of the pain I put you through, and just what I lost by betraying you in such a way.”
She scooched towards me a bit. “But knowing what we can face at the Empire, I just had to see you. I’m not here to weep, to beg for your forgiveness—stars know I wouldn’t deserve it…”
“Luna…” I said softly.
“Please, Joel…” Luna said. “I just… I just want to… thank you.”
I blinked. “For what?”
“Ever since I returned from my exile, I felt nothing but remorse and guilt for my past, and dread for my future,” Luna said. “I spent a thousand years alone, and even when I returned, I feared that my time as Nightmare Moon would ensure I stayed that way... That everypony would see me as a monster, the tyrant always scheming to seize the throne from Celestia and drown the world in eternal night… I feared I would eventually fall down that same path again, and prove them right.”
“Then you came. You helped me see past my failures, relieved me of my doubts and made me see that simply mourning the past was a poor way of moving on.” She reached out and laid a hoof on my shoulder. Her touch sent a familiar, welcoming warmth through my body that I suddenly realized I’d dearly been missing. “You helped me see that… our fears, they only control us when we let them. There should come a time when... you deny them that power.”
I stared at her silently, raising a hand and laying it on her hoof. Her eyes were glistening now; I quickly discovered that mine were as well.
There was a knock at the door. “Princess?” Came the voice of a guard. “Princess Celestia says it’s time.”
Luna sniffled, then lowered her hoof and stood up. “Before I go, I… have something for you.” Her horn lit up, and with a small flash, a petri dish appeared between us, levitating a foot off the ground.
Frowning, I gently took it; it appeared to be empty. When I gave it a slight tilt, however, I felt the vibrations of something rolling around inside. I held the dish close to my eyes, and was just barely able to see a small piece of metal.
“...The transmitter?” I breathed. “But…”
“You said it was attuned to your consciousness, right?” Luna said. “Well, I theorize that it parted itself from the mass after Celestia separated you from it. I thought if I found it, we could… extract whatever you may have in it that you couldn’t access without the mass.”
“How did you find it?” I asked, astounded.
Luna lit up her horn meaningfully. “A bit of magic can do in a couple minutes what it would take hours to do with a magnifying glass,” she said, giggling; I could tell she was relishing the chance to laugh.
I lowered the petri dish. “Thank you…” I said, earnestly.
Luna smiled, but it quickly faded; she doubted giving me a present would help patch things up. “I, uh…” She said, her voice quavering. “I should go.”
So this was it. Luna was leaving. I was staying.
The fact that Luna might not come back seemed to grab my attention with a soft ‘ahem’.
Panic struck me; for an instant, everything that had happened over the past twelve hours suddenly faded from memory. “Luna…” I said, standing up.
“Joel…” Luna said, closing her eyes and turning her head from me.
“No, Joel, I-I have to go…” Luna stammered.
For a brief instant, I felt like I was suddenly watching myself in third person; I suddenly reached out, pulled Luna’s face towards mine and kissed her. I quickly regained control, though hesitated to break the kiss. For a moment I wanted to ask myself what the hell I was doing, but the obvious answer kept me quiet.
Luna pulled back, her eyes wide in shock. She stammered as she tried to find her voice, before suddenly turning towards the door.
“Luna, wait--” I began, reaching towards her.
Luna gave a single, quiet sob before lighting her horn. A flash, and she was gone.
“Luna!!” I cried, spinning towards the door and swinging it open.
I would later marvel at how quickly I’d regained my grasp on running, given how I hauled ass down the halls, towards the courtyard where I figured Luna, Celestia and the Bearers would depart from. I sprinted down three separate staircases, three steps at a time, cursing the ludicrous size of the castle before I reached the courtyard. “LUNA!!”
I broke out to the courtyard. The chariots were gone. Looking up, I could see three of them in the distance. The one carrying Luna and Celestia was ahead of them; it seemed Luna had arrived, then quickly urged for a hasty departure.
I stared after them for a few moments.
Then I turned around and slowly walked back into the castle. I didn’t stare until they were out of sight, I didn’t keep running after them in a vained attempt to catch up, I didn’t fall to my knees and scream Luna’s name to the heavens. I just went back inside.
“Be careful…” I whispered.