Seven months, Celestia growled to herself. She dodged the looming tree and kept running. Seven months since I made myself alone. She hopped a fallen log, landing silently and swiftly on the mossy earth, only to continue at her breakneck pace. Seven months since Luna rebelled, and Celestia had needed to strike her down. Seven months, apparently, was how long she could suppress her emotions.
She broke from the treeline, and entered a snowbound clearing. All was still and pristine from the recent storms, and the chill air kept most creatures from wandering the woods to disturb the frozen crust. She slowed to a stalk now, each hoofstep precise and intentional. Every step was recorded carefully in the snow, a clear chain of events, steps, that lead to where she was now. But the path ahead was unmarked, barren, and unclear. She pushed forward, ruining the infinite possibilities and forcing the choice into the past, where it became just one more step behind her.
She finally stopped at her destination. She stood at the edge of a sheer cliff, the vantage point giving her a gorgeous view of the valley below. Her weight caused some of the snow to shift, and she watched it tumble into the abyss quietly. Her breath came out in regular huffs as she stared into the expanse. This is what she'd needed. Space. To be able to get away from others for once. She lay down, ignoring the cold on her belly, and she looked up to the sky. The lights that remained were a reminder of her failure as a leader, but more crushingly, as a person. She hadn't even had the strength to look at them since the attack. The moon. The stars, previously a single body that rivaled her sun in brightness. Now split, scattered across the sky, exploded. The heavens, where she'd once raised her banner of triumph over tyranny and cruelty, now stared at her with a gaze of burning shame. The moon's typically soft glow seemed harsh and judgmental.
It'd taken six months to hunt down Seren. The vicious he-god had caused a lot of damage in the meantime. She'd taken a lot of steps that she couldn't hide. Steps that she wished hadn't been necessary. She'd lost respect. She had lost her cool. She had lost the faith that the citizens of her kingdom once had in her. She'd lost faith in herself to do things right. She sunk her head into her forelegs, just trying to process the volatile cocktail of feelings in her chest. She was lonely, that she knew. She couldn't bring herself to speak to her advisers anymore, and when she'd tried months earlier, they couldn't truly help her. Luna had been the only one she could talk to. The only one who understood what life was like in Discord's reign. What it was like to live as long as their status as deities caused them to. What it was like to have the weight of the kingdom on your shoulders. A kingdom that was tearing itself apart in a confused anger, overwhelmed by the feeling that something was wrong, and trying to find some place to channel their fear. The obvious target was her, sadly. Celestia heaved with a whimper. She'd caused plenty of damage herself, trying to subdue Seren. She'd proven herself unstable and potentially dangerous. Was she really any better than him, simply because she won? And now she had even begun to doubt that what she done had been right. Seren and Luna had thought her weak, because she was unwilling to strike first, to stop an invasion before it began. Now the enemy was at the border, ready to strike, simply waiting for an opportune moment. The citizens knew it was coming. They wanted to do something, to fight back, but she couldn't find the strength to even consider the strategies necessary to defend the land. She either had to pull herself out of this funk, or else abdicate, for the good of the people.
Celestia felt her emotions rising into her throat, choking her. Everything had been so clear when there was an obvious enemy. When she and Luna had been fighting Discord, they had set aside their differences for the greater good. When she had to defend herself against Luna, she knew she was doing the right, though difficult thing. When she had to hunt Seren, she was doing it for the safety of her subjects. But now the trail ran cold. She felt worn out emotionally and she was exhausted intellectually. That was why she'd come here. She still shook her head in a combination of shame and disbelief. She'd hurriedly excused herself from a meeting with her few remaining loyalists. As the threat of a griffon invasion grew, so did tensions, and the shock of seeing her final support pillars trembling was simply too much for her to handle. She couldn't hear their angry and frightened voices any longer, and so she'd run. And run. And ran. Until she couldn't run any more.
She glanced over the cliff. How easy it would be for her to hurl herself over its edge, to fall, and to simply not open her wings. Immortality didn't extend to those who willingly gave it away. All of it would come to a quick and final end. She wouldn't have to face it anymore, the fear of the future and the pain of the past, nor the shame of the present. It would all simply...
Celestia rested her head again. She'd never jump, of course. To a certain extent, she hated herself for that fact. It simply meant there wasn't an out. It meant that no matter how hard things got, no matter how much more blame she lumped on herself, she had to carry on. No matter how weak she got, she had to find some way to push through. She stood, and began walking the way she came. Her advisers would be missing her, of course, and she hated to hurt the few friends she had left. As she walked, she became tangled in a circuitous loop of thought, the same possible solutions coming up only to be countered by the familiar fears of failure. At this point, her heart wasn't even in it. She'd heard it all from herself too many times to truly care. It was just a distraction, a half-hearted promise that by working at the problem, she'd be able to solve it.
She tripped on a root and was ripped out of her thoughts. She smacked her head against the pine as she fell, the dull pain pulsing through her head. She stumbled back up, cursing quietly, eyesight swimming. It hurt too much to stand, so instead she sat on the frozen ground, where she began crying in earnest. She wasn't sad. Nor angry. Just tired. Everything hurt, inside and out, and she was alone. Nobody would see the tears. And if they did, let them. They were real, and this was how she felt. If the truth was inconvenient or scary, it was still the truth. A truth she'd been avoiding for a long time now.
She sat like that for ten minutes, but had stopped crying after the first five or so. She simply sat there, mentally exhausted, feeling the frigid air freeze the tear streaks on her face. She considered getting up, but thought better of it. Instead she laid down, this time on her back, looking up through the dark trees to the moon above.
All at once, a surge of determination gripped her. Celestia jumped to her hooves and began making her way back towards the castle, using her magic to wipe away her frozen tears. Crying had helped, but it was time to move on. There was a time and a place, and for now, her place was leading her people to a brighter morning. Oh, she was still sad. But she was done with letting her bitterness control her.
She expertly weaved her way through the forest. She'd come to know its paths well over these last few months as she'd spent less and less time in the castle. Furthermore, she'd conveniently left a trail for herself to follow. All she had to do was follow the steps that had led her here.
There was a flash of light to her left. Celestia turned her head naturally, and saw the still-glowing black steps. A staircase in the forest. She shook her head and continued walking. It wasn't the first time she'd seen them. In fact, the stairs had appeared almost every time she'd come to walk in the Everfree. But she'd never looked longer than was necessary. She kept walking.
She'd only gone a few steps before a shadowy, equinoid form materialized in front of her, leaving a trailing wisp of smoke behind. She shrunk back, “Why do you show your face now, after so long?” she asked.
The creature simply stood there, waving gently in the still air. For some reason, it chose to hold its peace. Celestia stood, unsure of what to do. It had never confronted her before. This thing was powerful, extremely powerful, she knew. But it was bound by law. It wouldn't do anything unreasonable as long as she kept her distance. After a minute or so of staring, considering, the devil glanced over at the stairs that led up to his altar. At last he spoke, in a whisper in her mind.
You fascinate us. How have you managed to resist temptation for so long?
It looked back at Celestia, its flaming eyes trailing in the movement. Seven months, it said, is a long time to endure anything, let alone anything as hard as total spiritual solitude.
Celestia purposefully turned away. The devil took flight and followed, its legs dissipating into smoke as he trailed along as a half-formed creature. We've tried to come in contact many times already, but for some reason, you've ignored our invitation. The devil paused and looked at her for a response, but she continued staring forwards. He shrugged and continued. Why be a martyr, Celestia? You've given so much already. You may be immortal, but you're not invincible.
The unlikely couple turned several corners in the path, now getting a good deal away from the devil's stairs, and consequentially, his altar. The minutes passed in silence, leaving Celestia to her thoughts. For his part, the devil had snapped a branch from one of the trees and was dragging it alongside them telekinetically, whimsically darting it left and right to send up sprays of powdery snow.
Eventually they reached the edge of the Everfree. Celestia looked out over the capitol of her small kingdom. The distant castle was still in disarray after the fight with Seren, with only cosmetic repairs having been accomplished before the winter had set in. Tarps covered holes where the arcane blasts of that fight had ripped through the stone to make their escape. The township and the surrounding countryside were empty; all the citizens were inside of their homes to fight off the cold, or had left months ago to seek shelter elsewhere. It was still; the two of them were the only life that could be seen, except for a few distant candles at the windows. The devil walked past Celestia and into the open, glowing field, neck craned to look at the stars.
Do you remember what the sky was like, Celestia? Before you created the sun, and Luna, the moon?
Celestia stayed at the forest's edge. “It was entirely empty. Pitch black. Terrifying.”
It made you feel alone, didn't it? There wasn't anything out there, certainly nothing concerned with the well-being of this world, let alone your personal life.
“Mmm.” Celestia murmured, remembering.
So why light it up? Why illuminate the void?
“So others wouldn't feel the same as I had.” She began forward, drawing next to the creature.
To give them something to look up to?
“To give them something to warm their faces and their hearts.”
With time, the world grew dependent on the warmth you gave it. We remember when the trees and the children grew in a world lit only by their own light. Haven't the people of this world only become weaker because of your kindness?
Celestia shook her head. “I don't think so. Perhaps on an individual level, but when we consider the whole, how much further have we come? We now have civilization. A kingdom. Cities, roads, and waterways. When we were focused on ourselves and nothing more, we couldn't think about the future. We couldn't think of what might come after us. Because that would be admitting that we were mortal, and that our lives amounted to very little in the grand scheme of things.” She looked up at the moon for the third time that night. “Luna taught me what it was like to care for somepony else. Heh,” she chuckled, “What an irony that I found immortality by forgetting about my own life.”
It's often like that. The devil looked her in the eyes. Well, I suppose it's time for us to get going. It's been a pleasure speaking with you. He began to walk away.
Celestia stood still, raising her hoof slightly before setting it back down again. “Wait, weren't you going to press me into an agreement with you?”
No, we knew you wouldn't accept my terms, and I'm not one to force others. No fun, and we learn very little.
“Well... must you leave so soon, then?”
What, you enjoy our company? You do realize we're the one who corrupted your sister, which lead directly to your current troubles.
“I don't trust you, devil, and I will find it hard to ever forgive you, but... you're the only one who has any sort of clue of what it's like to be me. Maybe it's fine that neither of us will get anything out of the other. Maybe we can just talk.”
Fair enough. We're in no rush. What would you like to talk about?
“What keeps you going through life? From what I know, you're even older than I. You say we, but you're alone. How do you stay sane, focused?”
I've learned a few things in my years, usually through my mistakes. Sanity? Hah. There's been more than one occasion where it's slipped from me. Isolation tends to do that to you. So I learned the first step to eternal life: never be alone. You see me as alone, but I am not; I keep the memories of those I have met, both my enemies and my dearest friends, close to my soul at all times. I am nothing more than the seed at the core, but my growth has been through my dealings with others. I am who I am because of the people I've met. The devil crouched and began tracing something into the snow with his stick; Celestia peered over his shoulder.
“Is that the night sky?”
It is. What do you notice about it?
“Nothing out of the ordinary. There's stars, a moon, and... oh?”
“That doesn't make sense. That would require another Alicorn, wouldn't it?”
Not quite. Your world is surprisingly unique, Celestia. Remember what we spoke about earlier, about the empty sky?
“The world during Discord's reign?”
Hmm, yes. Equestria, before it was even called that, was drowned into shadow. The Chaos worm devoured all that offended him. There were no lights in the heavens to guide the paths of the mortals below. Each was guided by their own light, but the confidence and faith that powered their glory could falter, and sometimes even vanish. But this was a unique trial. The devil pointed up to the sky. The thing is, Celestia, when we first arrived to this world all those millennia ago, the sky was not empty. You did not create something that was never there. You brought something back that was missing.
Celestia glanced up. “How is that even possible? I was told there had never been anything up there.”
It served Discord's purposes to have you believe darkness, not light, is what defines the world. He kept generations of ponies and griffons alike swallowed in fear, each afraid that to shine too bright would bring his unwanted attention.
“It did, though.”
It did. But by overcoming that fear of yours, with your sister, you were able to put an end to his world of pain and betrayal. And you began a new era of order.
“A short-lived one.”
Every revolution has its hiccups. What I'm trying to say, Celestia, is that you have a future. You see, Celestia, there are other lights out there, other worlds, each with their own sun and many with their moons, and almost universally they believe they're the only world with enough intellect to feel pain. Some are terrified by the revelation that they're not alone. But here's the thing. They're not alone. You're not alone. Yes, the other lights are distant, and at times, it seems like they're not even there. You might have even been told they're not. You might be swallowed up by the darkness and your vision might be completely consumed by the void, and you will see NOTHING that can save you. Your inner glory will begin to fade, and your light will grow dimmer, but you cannot give in, Celestia.
Celestia scoffed quietly, looking at the ground. “It's easy enough to tell someone like me to be positive when you're on the outside of the struggle. It's another thing entirely to get the energy to do so when you've already exhausted all of your reserves.”
Thael shrugged. I'm not telling you anything miraculous or revelatory. I'm not even telling you to be positive or to keep your head up or anything like that. The struggles you feel are real, and to attempt to diminish them is to do you a disservice. You hurt so much because these trials are meant for you. Somebody else might be able to handle them better, sure, but can they handle their own? The answer is likely barely. Very few overcome their demons with trumpets and fanfare. Almost all do so exhaustedly and only after they've unified their actions with their feelings. I'm simply telling you that you cannot give in, Celestia, because the moment you do, THAT is when you've lost. Until then, every failure, every tripup, every tear and especially every moment alone is simply a step amongst thousands of steps that leads to victory. It is only in the second that you stop trying that they only lead to stasis or decay.
A blue-furred cloak with a white trim materialized around his body. It's cold, and I should probably leave before I go against my promise to not corrupt you. As I said, Celestia, you fascinate me. If I were to intervene any more directly than I already have, I would be destroying something beautiful. I think... I think I shall be going away for a while. Perhaps a long while. I have a lot to think about, as I think you do.
Celestia sighed. “It's probably for the best. For both of us.” She considered the strange creature before her. “Why must you be so cruel? You would be a welcome adviser if you weren't typically bent on destroying lives.”
I don't apologize for what I do, Celestia. Nor for what I've done, though at times what I've have done is made mistakes.
“Why not apologize? Why bring others to the point of desperation? You seem so sure of something that seems so cruel.”
I am selfish. My craft keeps me sane, and it helps me learn about my own limits. I do what I do because of a decision I made a very, very long time ago, and I'm seeing it through to the end. When times get tough, as they always, always will, I sit back and remember the first time they got tough for me, and that I could've chosen to give in and be done with it all. But I saw all the steps that had brought me to where I was, and I saw the possible steps in my future that might get me to where I wanted to be, and that if I gave in then, that those steps would never be taken. That every ounce of pain, heartache, rage, fury, joy, despair, and hope would all be for nothing if I let go of my life. Every sacrifice others had made for me, every sacrifice I had made for myself would all be consumed by the void. Have there been times where I've wanted to give up, destroy myself? Sure. Many. Have there been times when I have wanted to help someone unconditionally because I believe they've earned it? Often. Celestia, I genuinely want to help you now. But I learned long, long ago that the best way to help others is to help them help themselves. By being a risky yet attractive means of success, I either teach those I work with self-control or self-motivation. When Luna returns, I can promise you she'll likely never take the easy-yet-foolish path again. Is it kind? Of course not. But is it in the end, good? I believe so.
Celestia seemed startled. “Wait, Luna is going to return?”
The devil chuckled. Of course she will. She'll have help from Seren, of course. She is swallowed up by darkness and her sight has been robbed from her, but she refuses to give in. You and she and Seren are blessed with the curse of immortality; as long as you have hope, nothing can keep you down forever. She's fueled by her love for freedom, justice, and Seren, each of which kept her safe in her trying times. And he by his hope for justice through revenge, his unacknowledged admiration for your personal resolve, and his vision of a world where can simply live in peace without feeling judged. They'll come back, and they'll certainly confront you for your choices. You, on the other hoof? What are you motivated by?
Thael turned and tightened his cloak's ties. I could guess, but until you know it for yourself, I would be wrong. He waved a hoof over his shoulder. Farewell, Celestia. I look forward to speaking with you again, eventually. Don't give in. Make those choices count. Make those steps yours.
He stepped through a warping rift, and with snap, the rift shut, leaving Celestia alone once more. She looked back at the forest, where a flash of light and eventual, distant boom told her the devil had removed his altar permanently. Or, at least as he'd said, for a while.
Celestia walked back to the castle, passing homes and farms with worried ponies she was accountable for. She nodded as she stepped past the guards that were under her command. She entered her castle, in all of its mostly ruined beauty, and finally made her way into her bedroom. Yes, she had a lot to think about. Whether or not the devil could be trusted, his words rang true. She didn't have all the answers, but she had tools and a vision. She glanced out of her window at the distant mountain. It stood so proudly above its surroundings, unchallenged in its authority. And yet here she was, hiding with her kingdom in the darkness of the forest while the griffons lurked on the borders.
She needed to make things right. She'd messed up for long enough. She had to make a new name for herself, for her kingdom, to strip away all the filth that tarnished its name. If she was going to lead these people, she was going to lead them like she had when she'd founded the kingdom. As a beacon of light in a world of darkness, as a hope for the future, not the fallible pony she was, which, though honest, certainly was only a detriment to the well-being of those under her.
She sighed and flopped face-first onto her bed. Why did it have to be like this? Why did she have to be alone? Well, no, she wasn't alone, as the devil had pointed out. There were others who struggled like her, just with their own trials. She'd had enough time to consider Luna's motives now, and she could see why things had gone like they had. It was sad yet understandable that they had been at odds.
Why was there light? Why was there dark? Disparity only caused pain. How much better would the world be if there wasn't imminent warfare. If there wasn't betrayal, if there wasn't death. Discord had tried to make a world of darkness. Why couldn't there be a world of light?
Celestia sat up. That was it. If Discord had swallowed the lights of the heavens, why couldn't she make the heavens all the brighter? If Luna was going to return, shouldn't she return to a world of peace, one that thrived in her absence and would only do better with her help upon her return? Perhaps Luna could forgive her for her actions if she could found the kingdom they had dreamed of making toghether, rather than the one they had left behind.
She began to pace. It was possible, but how to get the kingdom to agree? Her reputation was shaky as it was, to say nothing of the fact that attempting to face an invasion with pacifism would only make it worse. Perhaps... perhaps it was time to be the leader by doing what she knew what was right, regardless of who agreed with her. But no, the griffons wouldn't listen to a peace talk. It would only excite them. A peace talk was as good as surrender.
Celestia growled. She needed space. She needed to separate herself and her kingdom from outside threats until they dealt with the inward ones. Separation... She looked into her mirror. Every time she saw her reflection, it startled her. It looked so much prettier than she felt. It had always seemed more regal than she could ever pretend to be, and yet, this is what other ponies saw of her. How much nicer it would be to simply enter that mirror world, and be that Celestia. Why couldn't she, she wondered. Why not just enter a world of pure light, to escape the dark?
As she stewed in her room, pacing, everything slowly came together. Her power as an Alicorn came from her holding to the attribute of Mercy. Luna's from Justice, and Seren's from Vengeance. Attributes had inherent power; ideas defined by society and civilization were not only metaphysical constructs, but could be directly accessed as a means of channeling magic through sheer will. What if... what if they were even more than that? What if like the Sun and the Moon, what the ponies called Mercy wasn't something new, but a recreation of something that was already there?
She holed up in her room for the next three days, much to the worry of her advisers and her kingdom alike. At last, she emerged, a scroll as long as she was dragging behind her. There was a sort of delighted madness in her eye. “I've figured it out,” she announced to the castle staff. “I am going to start a new kingdom. A new order of mercy. There won't be any pain where there isn't sickness. There won't be any war where there isn't greed. There won't be any sadness where there isn't death.”
“Your Highness, we've received word that the griffon warbands have begun their march inland; we need to send our forces immediately if we want to-”
“Oh, let them come!” she laughed, “Soon they won't even remember why they're here. Follow me!”
The confused servants, soldiers, and advisers followed her into her circular bedroom. Everything had been pushed aside except for a single oblong mirror, which had been enchanted to stand freely in the center of the room. The entire floor was inscribed with strange, unreadable runes, all channels leading directly to the mirror. One of the guards stepped forward. “Celestia, what is this? Are you alright?”
“I will be soon enough,” she said, standing next to the mirror. “Remember the fable of Pandora's box? I am about to shut the lid,” she said.
She stood in the center of the runes, each onlooker wanting to interrupt her, to stop whatever was about to happen, but finding themselves unable to do so.
Celestia beamed. “Behold, the ultimate mercy.” She activated the runes, wisps of light darting along the trails of arcane dust she'd meticulously crafted. The light began to travel upward in wisps, at first, until they grew to spears and then columns of radiant glory. The roof began to disintegrate, leaving the view of the sun directly above completely unblocked. As the light began to be unbearable, Celestia tilted her head back and looked into the face of her creation, only her immortal eyes capable of viewing the center of the blazing sphere. At last, her heart relaxed its heavy hold, and for the first time in half a year...
[Commissioned by RisingComet]