Or, rather, fifteen minutes shy of ten o’clock. The ancient grandfather clock in Celestia’s study had yet to ring out the evening hour. Her day, as busy as it had been, would be a laughable nanosecond of mundanity compared to what her evening would surely bring.
As if on cue, a gentle rapping rung out from the other side of her study’s oak door.
“Twilight?” she asked. “Or Luna?”
“Twilight,” came her former student’s wary answer. “Can… am I good to come in?”
“No,” Celestia said. “Can you please wait a moment?”
Internally, Celestia chided herself. She should have been ready. There was no excuse for making Twilight wait, after all that the poor mare had already been through and all the fear she must have been carrying towards what would come. Although, the reason for her lack of preparation was clear to her nonetheless—she was still foolishly clinging to the impossible notion that there wasn’t anything to prepare for.
A lie. One of the white ones parents tell to children, and certainly not fit for the matters at hand.
With a flare of her magic, Celestia closed the blinds of her study, obscuring the last bits of hanging sunbeams projected from a stubbornly idle sun.
In the same quick burst of magic, Celestia also lit an elaborate network of meticulously arranged candles at various points of the study room. To anypony’s naked eye, the candles were placed at haphazard and random positions, like bright burning stars in the night sky, but Celestia had spent the better portion of her day ensuring the enchantments she had infused them with were precise, and she did not for a moment deny Luna’s assurance that they were indeed accurate.
Even if she had denied Luna’s offers to help further.
With the candles casting the study in their flickering red light, Celestia let out a long sigh. One final millisecond of denial, before she finally took on her own responsibility.
“You may enter now, Twilight.”
The door creaked softly—the door’s rusty hinges easily tripled the age of the young princess pushing it—and Twilight crept cautiously through the threshold.
Her eyes swept across the room, at the enchanted candles casting the room in a red glow and giving the air a metallic scent of venting magic.
“Haycraft’s Third Theorem,” Twilight mused passively, stepping into the room further with her eyes still locked on the candles and not Celestia. “As explained in Advanced Abstract Arcane Amalgamation, chapter three, page fourteen, paragraph six: ‘Dark Magic’s corrupting effects are enhanced and not diminished by healing influence of magical nature, including enchantments.’”
Celestia smiled despite herself. “As sharp as ever. Even now.”
“Moreso,” Twilight replied. “Dark Magic has its perks, it seems. I wish I’d known about that during exam season back in magic school. I’ve never felt so smart.”
Twilight had wanted it to be a joke, and so Celestia laughed. She did not find it humorous in the slightest, but her innocent, smiling chuckle would hardly be discovered as untruthful.
“How are you feeling, Twilight?” Celestia asked. She rose to her hooves, her eyes alight with concern and morbid curiosity.
“I snapped at Starlight again today,” Twilight confessed. “Badly. I felt terrible afterwards, and she said she forgave me… but the thing is, while I was shouting at her, I felt...”
Twilight let out a long breath and trailed off.
“The night you returned Luna to me...” Celestia said. “...She told me about how she felt, while she was Nightmare Moon. She told me how she enjoyed the hurt she caused me. And yet the moment she was freed and lucid again…” Celestia frowned. “She called it the ‘worst feeling anypony could ever have’, to know that one has hurt those close to them, and actually felt pleasured from doing so.”
“Sounds like me and Princess Luna should get together for coffee,” Twilight replied. “I totally understand what she means. Does she know about me?”
“Not the details,” Celestia said. “She knows something is wrong with you. She knows it is of dark magic influence. She does not know that it is because of the Elements of Harmony. Nor because of… her.”
Twilight Sparkle rose an eyebrow questioningly, but said nothing further. Both mares stood in silence, Twilight still hovering just beyond the door which was still opened wide while Celestia stood with her head hung low and her vision flooded by carpet lit flickering red.
When the old grandfather clock finally struck the hour, Celestia started in surprise, gasping audibly at the obtrusively merry ringing. She squeezed her eyes shut, and every striking of the hour sent fresh stabs of dread through her.
One, two, three...
“Celestia,” Twilight said, her firm voice drowning the tenth hour from Celestia’s mind. “You’re shaking.”
Celestia managed a confirming nod. “I’m afraid.”
“Don’t be,” Twilight said. “Everything is going to be fine. We’ve been through worse.”
Opening her eyes lethargically, Celestia forced a thin smile onto her face as she looked into Twilight’s own supporting grin. She supposed it should have been the opposite… she was the mentor, after all, and once long ago Twilight had been the eager filly clinging to her legs as some stern looking guard intruded upon their magic lessons.
Now, though, she felt like a defenseless little filly, although Celestia knew it bled not from inability but rather an unshakable terror at the prospect of having to turn her magic against Twilight.
Twilight took a step closer. She closed the door softly with her magic as she approached.
“I’m ready, Princess Celestia.”
Celestia nodded again.
Then, her horn lit up. Twilight flinched, but only for a moment before realizing that Celestia was merely levitating a set of papers toward her.
“These...” Celestia said. “...Are official documents which state that you are to be legally absolved of each and every action that you conduct tonight, regardless of your present state of mind or power.”
Twilight rose an eyebrow. “You’re granting me temporary legal immunity in the middle of an internal dark magic sickness?”
“I am,” Celestia said. “I’m not saving you from the Elements of Harmony only to lose you to the throes of legal conduct.”
Taking the documents in her magical aura—a slightly greyer shade of purple than Celestia had grown to recognize—Twilight read them in a glance and telegraphed her distaste without subtlety.
“I’m not signing,” Twilight said, tearing the document down its middle. “I refuse. What I do tonight is still going to be me. I’m not taking any high road from any blame towards what I do.”
“Twilight, do you realize how difficult this makes things for me?” Celestia whispered. “You’ve given me yet another means by which I must fear losing you. But… it is your choice, and I will not attempt to dissuade you.”
“Good,” Twilight said simply. “Then let’s do this.”
Nodding sadly, Celestia’s horn began to glow.
No more delays. She’d delayed too long, and spent too long searching for a solution that did not involve solving anything. And yet she could not run from the truth: the only way out, truly, was through.
To finally free Twilight from Nightmare Moon’s lingering influence, she would have to let Nightmare Moon’s spirit claw her own way out.
She took one final glance at the discarded scrap of hope that Twilight had refused, and then cleared her throat before launching into the one bit of preparation she’d been looping in her mind for nearly a week.
Her horn sprung to life, but she had not yet given her magic any direction or purpose.
“Twilight… I am going to set the sun. When I do… we begin.”
“You mean, I stop… stop trying to keep it back?” Twilight asked.
“Yes,” Celestia said. “The Elements… you know how they work, I presume?”
“I think so,” Twilight nodded. “They’re… I guess they’re like a filter. They use the goodness of their bearers to help expose the goodness of those they are being used against.”
“However... there’s a catch. Since they are a filter, they need to dilute the… uh…” Twilight scratched an ear sheepishly. “They need to dilute the badness of their target through the magic flow of the central bearer.”
Celestia smiled despite herself. “And that central bearer is…?”
“Me. The Element of Magic used me as a dark-magic filter. So, in essence...” Twilight paused, as if just now noticing the extent of her and Celestia’s feat over the past week—they had devised a solution to a problem without either having the courage to acknowledge the problem itself.
“In essence,” Twilight began again. “...There’s a bit of Nightmare Moon inside me.”
“And now, we let it out.” Celestia took a step closer, her horn still alight. “When we do, the… emotions you felt—towards Starlight and the rest of your friends—they will resurface.
“Their intensity will increase with every hour that Nightmare Moon’s lingering magic flows through you. The process will take much of the night, and at the peak of its intensity it is likely you will be so far-gone from Nightmare Moon’s influence that you will be almost unrecognizable as Twilight Sparkle.
“And yet, you will always act as her and with her mind. The mare you will become tonight will be the mare you are without any restrictions of compassion, love, or friendship. As such, you are to be under my supervision for the entirety of the night.”
“I can’t imagine myself in better hooves,” Twilight assured, managing a confident grin.
“And I trust that, regardless of any magnitude of dark magic corruption, I will be safe around you.”
“We’re both putting our own lives in each other’s hooves,” Twilight said bluntly. “I’d bet there’s quite the friendship lesson there. Let’s end this, Princess. Together.”
Celestia smiled, and without further hesitation she finally guided the sun towards the horizon. The long-overdue darkness crept into the sky still obscured by the study’s thick curtains.
Twilight’s breathing increased in intensity almost immediately. A few candles flickered, but most remained burning against a great and unnatural cold creeping into the study.
“Definitely… definitely starting to feel something, Princess Celestia,” she breathed, and then coughed. Celestia dared not break eye contact with Twilight, even as Twilight began blinking rapidly as though there were sand in her eyes.
With every split-second that Twilight’s eyes were obscured, Celestia noticed subtle changes each time. Slight variations to Twilight’s widened pupils, a subtle tint of greyed discolouration flooding into her once snow-white scleras.
Quickly, Twilight squeezed them shut—as though she herself could see how odd they were gradually becoming. She winced in pain, and Celestia felt her own heart wrench as a few stray drops of liquid seeped from Twilight’s eyes—not the salty transparency of tears, but black as night, like Twilight was crying into a coffee filter.
Her horn sputtered with a few stray sparks of purple magic, and even it seemed to be darkening in colour already.
“We’ve made a mistake,” Twilight breathed. “Celestia, we’ve made a terrible mistake. I don’t want to do this.”
“I know, Twilight,” Celestia said. “But we must. You either lose yourself for this one night, or risk losing yourself for the rest of your life.”
“I’m scared, Celestia. I’m so scared.”
“Then hold onto your fear,” Celestia said. “It is the only part of you Nightmare Moon will not try to take away.”
“We should’ve gotten Luna to help with this,” Twilight said. “N… no offense.”
In so tense a situation, Celestia decided a polite chuckle might serve as a beacon of light to Twilight’s gradually degrading mind. “None taken, Twilight. You’re quite correct; she is certainly more qualified.”
Instead of the returning chuckle Celestia had been hoping for, Twilight lapsed into silence. She kept her eyes squeezed shut, as though there were some gruesome sight before her she did not wish to bear witness to.
Her breathing was a frantic and fearful rhythm that filled the silence of Celestia’s study until Celestia could not bear to hear it any longer.
It was quite obvious that Nightmare Moon’s dark magic had already began flooding over Twilight. The flickering arcane candles had deepened in hue, from red to a seemingly impossible green, and finally to a murky blue, and the scent of their furiously working enchantments hung heavy in the study’s humid summer-night air.
The few that had been snuffed out, Celestia relit with a flare of her horn. With more than a dozen sapping away at Nightmare Moon’s flowing magic, she knew she could afford to lose a few and still not worry, but she saw no reason not to grant herself the extra luxury.
Besides, they had only just begun. Celestia knew that keeping all of the arcane candles burning would become a task as the night went on. To lose all of them did not mean losing Twilight, but it did mean losing any progress in pulling the dark magic from Twilight’s mana pools.
After the candles were relit, Celestia moved to the window and gently eased the curtains apart with a raised hoof. Her sun had only recently fallen below the horizon, but it had done so considerably late, and Luna’s night sky had already taken over the last of her loitering sunset, replacing it with pitch black in record time.
She gazed out at the rising moon for several seconds, before turning back to Twilight, who was still breathing uneasily with evident fear.
Celestia crossed the study once more until she was beside Twilight. The younger alicorn shirked in surprise as Celestia’s wing rested onto her back, but she quickly relaxed as she recognized the familiar embrace of her oldest friend and second mother as Celestia pulled Twilight in closer. Leaning into the wing, Twilight continued her unsteady breathing without speaking a word.
Celestia let out a long breath herself. Even if it was a fleeting recluse as the dark magic storm only promised to increase as the night continued on, Celestia was swept with an inexpressible urge to lay waste to Twilight’s fear at what was to come. She knew it was technically a mere delay of the inevitable, but if they were going to ride out the dark magic storm together, she figured they might as well cling onto their friendship for as long as they could manage before Nightmare Moon’s lingering influence tore the last shreds of it away.
“Talk, Twilight,” Celestia said. A soothing, motherly command, but a command all the same. “Talk to me. And keep talking.”
“About… about what?” Twilight’s eyes abruptly flickered open—her scelaras now more black than white—and she broke a little from Celestia’s embrace to gaze at her questioningly.
“About anything that you wish. Tell me about your day. Tell me about a recent book you enjoyed. Tell me what you and your friends have been up to.”
“I… I…” Twilight gulped. “M… me, Applejack, and Starlight helped Fluttershy rebuild a beaver dam.”
“Ah, that sounds wonderful.”
“Yeah,” Twilight said simply. Her voice grew low, hushed. “That’s… that’s when I snapped at Starlight. For no reason, really. She was just getting on my nerves all day and I didn’t even know why. I felt so… angry.”
“Twilight,” Celestia said sternly. “When I asked you to talk, the implication was that you would calm down by doing so. I feel as though retreading your fear and regret is rather counterproductive to that cause.”
“I’m just so scared of losing them.” Twilight detached from Celestia completely, gently pushing the princess away. “What… what if tonight changes me for good? What if I keep on finding pleasure in making them feel inadequate?”
“Then they would understand, and do everything in their power to help restore you to your proper state of mind,” Celestia replied. “You’ve already proven that your friends are stronger than Nightmare Moon. I see no reason why you would not be able to prove so again.”
“But we don’t have the Elements! And they wouldn’t have me! If I transformed into some insane tyrant, how would anypony be able to change me back? And what about… what about you?! I might hurt you tonight, or worse… and if I don’t, and I become some evil madmare, then you would be forced to… to…”
Twilight could not seem to speak the conclusion, but Celestia was no fool as to not see it as clear as day herself. Without the Elements of Harmony nor a completed link to the Rainbow Power, the prospect of stopping a destructive Twilight was one that flooded Celestia with horror. Not for herself, but for what she would have to live with for the rest of her life.
When she considered her emotions after Luna’s fall, Celestia had a hard time convincing herself she could handle another crippling loss—this time without anypony besides herself to blame and without a glimmer of light to drive her forwards.
“Oh Celestia,” Twilight whispered despairingly at the same prospect surely reverberating through her churning mind. “I don’t want to put you through that!”
“Twilight. You are beginning to panic.” Despite her own grim fear, Celestia spoke the sentence as a cold and somber remark, like she were reading out an unpleasant weather forecast. “You are assuming the worst is going to happen. You are assuming that we will not be able to do this despite your confidence that we would be able to together. And most importantly, you are letting your faith in your friends waver. Never do that, Twilight. Never.”
Twilight stared, unblinking, her eyes alight with fear she no longer had any way of expressing.
“Take a deep breath, Twilight,” Celestia said. “Luna tells me that Fear is the first stage of dark magic corruption. It seems to be evidence that we indeed have begun.”
“Wait,” Twilight breathed. “What do you mean? S… stages?”
“Yes.” Celestia nodded. “Luna says that over the course of the night, you will move through a variation of emotions, in a rather predictable order. Fear is the first.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that beforehand?” Twilight cocked her head. “Wouldn’t it have helped me prepare?”
“Yes,” Celestia said again. “Which is precisely why I did not. I see no reason to give Nightmare Moon’s soul a means to predict which direction your emotions will take, something it would most certainly use to its advantage.”
Twilight blinked in surprise. Then, she narrowed her eyes. “I don’t know how I feel about you keeping secrets about me when my own sanity is on the line. I think that’s a call I deserve to have had a say in.”
“I apologize,” Celestia said simply. “But I also disagree. Deserve is an insufficient justification for the unnecessary risks it would provide.”
Twilight fell silent, offering no refutation, but it seemed clear to Celestia that she greatly wished to. Instead, she trotted past Celestia to look out at the colourful moon distorted through two layers of stained glass as it rose parallel with one of the castle’s decorative spires.
The stage of Fear hadn’t lasted long. Not nearly as long as Celestia had been hoping. Merely simple expressions of fear towards her friends, and then the next stage was already showing signs that it was ready to click into place with as much finality as a slide clacking in an old carousel projector.
Twilight had already been swept out further by the dark magic storm’s great currents, and she telegraphed so without subtlety as she turned back from the window wearing a small scowl.
“Why would the Elements of Harmony do this?” she growled. “Aren’t they supposed to help ponies?”
“I suppose sacrifices are always necessary, even with something as pure as the magic of friendship,” Celestia answered levelly. From experience, she knew that calmness was often the best way to keep growing anger at bay.
“I suppose you’d know a whole lot about that.”
To Celestia, Twilight’s remark sounded… uncharacteristically confrontational.
Or at least, unusually confrontational compared to what Celestia had grown to expect from Twilight—even as equals Twilight had always regarded her with the respect of a student, and while her remark was undetectable to any without as sharp senses as Celestia, she herself knew a lingering oddity when she heard it.
Then again, it truly could have been an earnest statement. Celestia also knew that she was quite panicked herself, and she was not willing to place any significant level of trust on her powers of observation at the moment.
“Nopony ever said the Elements of Harmony were perfect,” Celestia said eventually. “But regardless of the cost, I consider freeing my sister from the throes of evil a strong justification.”
“Mhm,” Twilight mumbled, staring at her hooves. “Kind of a selfish thing to say, but whatever.”
This time, any subtlety seemed to have been abandoned.
Still, Twilight’s angry glare was directed at her hooves, and Celestia raised the younger alicorn’s chin gently with a hoof.
Celestia locked into her darkening eyes, and with a simple smile and nary a single word, she successfully softened Twilight’s annoyed glare.
“Sorry,” Twilight said meekly. “That… I don’t think that was me.”
Even if Twilight herself did not believe it was.
Everything tonight would be her, and Celestia knew so. No matter how distorted by dark magic her thoughts became, they would always be her thoughts.
In many ways, the very prospect was exciting to Celestia. For so long, she had always figured that Twilight had a thousands questions or statements that she dared not actually express despite Celestia’s continued assurances that she would never hope to condemn any manner of innocent expression.
“Even if it was you, I would not be insulted,” Celestia replied. “I’ve lived too long to be insulted by any friend’s honesty.”
Twilight looked to her hooves and didn’t reply.
“Besides,” Celestia added. “You aren’t wrong. I do not deny that what I put you and your friends through can perhaps be attributed to selfishness on my part. Wagering Equestria just to get my sister back. I was fully aware of the cost of failure.”
“Then… then why would you do it?” Twilight looked up and cocked her head questioningly.
“Why do you suppose?” Celestia smiled. “I did it because I trusted you. I trusted you enough that I was willing to take the risk.”
“What about Luna?” Twilight spoke in a whisper.
This time, it was Celestia who frowned curiously. “I do not know what you mean.”
“What does she think of that choice?” Twilight elaborated. “I mean… surely she feels strange knowing such a huge risk was taken all for her.”
“Luna… does not like to talk about how she views that night,” Celestia said cautiously. “She spoke to me once at lengths, and we agreed that it would be a conversation best not repeated and best not drudged up again. I can say little else but that Luna is more grateful to you than she is to anypony else in her life, and she… had her initial condemnations for the risks I took for her.”
“What? Like, she figured she wasn’t worth it?”
“I believe these are questions you should ask Luna, when you are in the right state of mind to do so.”
“I believe you’re purposefully not answering me.”
“That belief is correct.”
Twilight stomped a hoof in frustration. “I just don’t like the idea of her carrying so much guilt when I don’t carry any blame towards her. The Tantibus, Nightmare Night… and now you’re telling me she still thinks she has to be feared?”
“You musn’t blame yourself for Luna’s feelings of guilt towards what you did to help her.”
“I don’t,” Twilight said. She closed her eyes for a moment, and when she reopened them Celestia saw her pupils had already begun to shrink. Twilight gave a ginger flap of her wings and smiled mirthlessly. “I blame you, Celestia.”
“That’s understandable. Many do. Sometimes even I do.”
Twilight seemed a little taken aback for a moment at Celestia’s honesty. A tiny bit of light returned to her darkening scleras, but when Celestia smiled they instantly flickered back into darkness and she scowled.
“Oh?” Twilight cocked her head. “Then do you mind if I say that at times you are senselessly irresponsible and willing to bet the lives of others to benefit your whims?”
Surely, Twilight—or whatever shadow of her Celestia was speaking with—was expecting Celestia to gawk in insult and surprise, but Celestia instead responded with a patient smile.
“I’m trying to remember,” she mused distractedly. “...What was it I used to ask you to do back in Magic Kindergarten?”
Celestia gave a playful smile. “You’ve only given me a conclusion. Show your work, Twilight Sparkle.”
“Fine! Every force that has ever threatened Equestria, you’ve put me and my friends in danger to try and stop it,” Twilight said. “You’ve bet the Crystal Empire on me and you sat at home doing nothing while we all risked our life!”
“I see,” Celestia said. “First of all, I am happy that you are saying these things to me.”
“What?!” Twilight barked. “H… happy?”
“Yes, Twilight. I am happy my most faithful student and my proudest achievement is not so blind as to be unobservant of my flaws. I am glad you are capable of being loyal without being mindlessly complacent. The greatest pride of any teacher is when a student begins thinking for themselves in ways I could not predict. Even as you fall to such shadows—”
“Stop.” Twilight narrowed her eyes, sharply growling out the single word. “Stop this whole white-dove routine. I’m not falling for it. You didn’t refute a single thing I said.”
“That’s because you’re correct,” Celestia replied. “I put you and your friends in danger. I knew I was doing so, and I did so anyways. Indeed, I placed inexpressible responsibility on your shoulders…”
“And yet you’re the same mare who is supposed to be the ruler of Equestria,” Twilight said. “I’ve always been a little terrified by that. Too bad the old Twilight Sparkle was too chickenshit to say so.”
Without reacting, Celestia noted the obvious. Already, Twilight was becoming detached from herself—so much so that she had just referred to herself as an outsider.
Then… it was almost time.
A glance at the clock gave Celestia the literal time… midnight. The eleventh hour had passed by in an impossible blur—one populated by Twilight’s fearful silence, but now they had truly began.
Celestia let out a long breath. “You’re long into the second stage, Twilight. How are you feeling?”
Twilight grinned. Her pupils were now lost to a sea of black sclera. “I’m feeling like I need a breath of fresh air, and maybe a cup of coffee. This room is pretty stuffy with all these candles burning.”
“I agree,” Celestia said. “But I cannot let you leave my study until the dark magic storm has finished.”
“What am I?” Twilight growled. “Grounded?”
“No,” Celestia smiled despite herself. “I believe my authority on that is quite the archaic notion. We are here for your own safety.”
Safety Celestia dared not elaborate on, for fear of Nightmare Moon exploiting it once more. It was not a lie on her part, after all. The arcane candles were a tightrope they would need to maintain balance on if they hoped to reach the other side of the dark magic storm. Without them to break the corrupting magic racking through Twilight’s brain, it would go nowhere and instead stay within.
They would cease their progress. They would no longer be letting the dark magic out, but rather giving it time to percolate within. And, with Twilight approaching the third stage of corruption, they were in a poor place to do so.
Fear. They were long past that.
Anger. Twilight had already shown it in spades.
Now, they were approaching the final, longest stage—when Twilight’s anger shifted into violence.
“My safety.” Twilight snorted. “Well, that’s too bad. I’m going. I’m not your prisoner.”
“Twilight. I was hoping you would maintain your lucidity a little longer,” Celestia said, sounding like a disappointed parent. Indeed, only two hours had passed and Twilight was already so far gone. “Do you not recall what you agreed upon when you arrived here?”
“Do you not recall what the whole ‘catch’ of this procedure was?” Twilight replied. “I’m not afraid of disappointing you anymore.”
Clearly, level-headed calmness would be a useless weapon against an emotionally empty Twilight Sparkle. Celestia found herself somewhat relieved—she no longer had to keep a facade alive, and she instead rolled her eyes and motioned at the locked study door.
“Then go ahead, Twilight Sparkle. Try to leave. Test your ‘irresponsible princess.’”
Twilight rose an eyebrow curiously. “If you couldn’t turn your magic against Luna, why should I be afraid of you turning it against me?”
Celestia did not answer, and she did not break her patronizing smile directed towards the study door. A silent challenge to prove her hypothesis. A challenge Twilight Sparkle would surely never take. Even with an absence of morality and emotion, Twilight was no fool to fight a fruitless fight she couldn’t hope to benefit from.
Or, so Celestia assumed.
It was an assumption quickly proven foolish when Twilight let loose with a burst of magic directed not at the door nor at Celestia, but instead at the tall glass window of the study.
Twilight wasted no time, but neither did Celestia. Shards of glass were still falling from the broken window as Celestia dove out after her former student, pattering on the princess' back and falling to the courtyard far below. And yet, contrary to Twilight’s furious and rebellious insanity, Celestia chased after her student with evident surprise. Twilight’s act was one of premeditation, and as quick as Celestia had been she still had the disadvantage of reaction.
She was in freefall for several feet before her wings were at their full length and she beat them furiously in pursuit of Twilight’s fleeing form—a shadow against the spires of Canterlot Castle glimmering amongst the unusually potent moonlight. She was tearing off in the direction of Ponyville; why, Celestia couldn’t possibly reason—perhaps it was some subconscious magnetic gravitation towards the ruins of the castle where the whole damn business had begun, so long ago.
Twilight was feeding magic into her horn, undoubtedly charging a long-distance teleportation spell that would take her heavens knew where. Celestia could not tary, nor lose a moment to any concept of personal connection towards Twilight. Her student, perhaps, but a shadow of such twisted into darkness, and a danger to herself and to Equestria all the same.
“Stage three, here we go,” Celestia breathed aloud.
While Twilight had youth on her side, Celestia was hardly a frail old mare out of practice with the art of flight—even if the art of flight was something her life did not commonly have cause for. With both experience and determination fueling her great flaps, Celestia was above Twilight Sparkle in a moment.
The younger princess had an empty, glazed look. Besides the glowing magic of her charging teleportation spell, sparks shot from her horn without evident direction or purpose as the arcane candles struggled to maintain a link to her magic. Celestia knew they already would not be able to, and with a flare of her own horn she cut their link. No sense wasting resources. She’d keep them burning for later use.
Perhaps Twilight had underestimated Celestia’s flight abilities in her insane overconfidence, or perhaps she truly still did not believe Celestia had any drive to turn her magic against her, but regardless of the reason Celestia had torn through the air and was before Twilight with several savage flaps of her great wings. She brought herself in front of Twilight but still far enough above that she was flying in her blindspot. Not matter what happened, she would be escalating the intensity of their situation with her next action, and she figured she might as well ensure her success if she would have to do so.
As soon as she was ahead of Twilight, Celestia folded her wings and descended into a freefall. For a few motionless moments, the wind whipped past her ears, her eyes watered, and she became aware of the scent of the garden far below.
Then, she violently collided with Twilight Sparkle midflight.
Twilight cried out in surprise and fury—a savage and animalistic cry—but Celestia wrapped her in her hooves as they fell, holding her tight as the ground sped towards them. Celestia tensed as she prepared for the incoming painful impact, but it was one that the ground did not provide.
Instead, the pain that registered came from a flare of black-tinted magic from the end of Twilight’s horn.
With hardly a moment to fully realize that her student—her faithful student who she loved with a love that could make a mother’s jealous—had just attacked her.
The thought had only a moment to percolate before Celestia felt another biting pain ring out, followed by a symphony of loud and sharp snaps as the two tumbled through the branches of some exotic tree. If it succeeded in slowing their fall, it did so to a degree that Celestia couldn’t possibly notice, and the two alicorns struck ground painfully a moment later. Dirt and grass flew upwards as though they had stepped onto a landmine, and then…
And then, silence save for Twilight and Celestia’s frantic panting.
They laid together in a heap of dishevelled fur and feathers, and it was not until several minutes had already passed did Celestia fully notice the cold trickling emanating from her throbbing barrel.
Perhaps Twilight was unconscious, but her calm breathing was enough to let Celestia know it was not anything worse. Wearily, she pushed Twilight off of her and then stumbled to her hooves, gripping her forehoof flush against the freshly dripping wound. She wandered forwards several steps, scanning her surroundings passively.
The Canterlot Castle Courtyard. Their impact had surely sent its entire population of grazing animals in a frenzying flee, but Celestia could not find the capacity to care as she instead let out a long sigh of relief when neither her wings nor hooves showed indication of having been broken from the violent fall.
Behind her came a rustle of movement as Twilight mirrored Celestia’s resurface—not a groggy and wary affair like Celestia, but one full of strength and vigour.
“If you think we’re done,” Twilight’s voice called out. “Then you’ve made yet another mistake, Celestia.”
“I assure you I am no such fool,” Celestia replied, not bothering to turn around. “You’re more her than Twilight, now, aren’t you? I might as well call you what you are.”
“And what am I, Celestia?”
“You’re a wolf wearing sheep’s clothing,” Celestia spoke passively, still staring straight ahead at the moon glinting off a tall spire of the castle. She turned, slowly, a stoic frown on her face. “If you think because you are holding Twilight Sparkle hostage before me that you carry an advantage, I assure you that it would best to reconsider. And if you think she cannot hear me right now, and is not still fighting to keep you at bay, then you understand very little about what willpower truly means.”
No, Celestia reminded herself. Not Twilight. Not fully, anyways.
Or so she figured.
“‘Dear Princess Celestia,’” Twilight cooed, her horn beginning to glow. “‘Tonight I learned that you are an emotionless chessmaster who doesn’t remotely care about me or my friends and is willing to use us like tools to further her selfish desires. I always fearfully suspected it and convinced myself it couldn’t possibly be true, but it’s nice to have confirmation.’”
Celestia did not lose a beat. Not even to Twilight’s wordless refutation of her claims that Nightmare Moon truly did have full control.
Twilight Sparkle was still speaking with her. Twilight Sparkle had just confessed to secretly harbouring distrust towards her.
“‘My Faithful Student: I recommend you either revise your far-fetched thesis, or elaborate upon your supporting arguments.'"
Twilight’s idea of elaboration was not a carefully constructed argument, like Celestia would have expected from any sane incarnation of her student, but instead a sudden burst of magic that Celestia calmly blocked. Even in her present state, Celestia knew that the beam of magic was hardly a dangerous one—Twilight subconsciously (or perhaps still consciously) refusing to cast anything more. It seemed as though she was aiming for fear, but fear of her own was keeping such aims at bay.
“Additional point of evidence!” Twilight screamed, charging another magic beam. “Quotation: ‘I put you and your friends in danger. I knew I was doing so, and I did so anyways!’ Spoken by Princess Celestia, one hour ago.”
Twilight let loose with another charged magic beam. This time, it flew wildly off course, so that Celestia managed to avoid it by simply ducking her head slightly.
“Very acutely recited,” Celestia complimented. “Twilight, I understand your fears and your concerns, and I’m sorry it takes so much dark magic corruption for you to finally be willing to express them to me. But I am not what you claim of me.”
Clinging to an anchor of familiarity, Celestia used it in a wild attempt to stab through Nightmare Moon’s corruption and reach some lingering bit of Twilight within.
No matter what Twilight became, she was Celestia’s student, after all.
“A literature question, my faithful student: in chapter six of his essay on the art of war, what does Commander Easyglider state on the concept of ‘risk?’”
Indeed, even through so many layers of dark magic, some stubborn instinct refused to lay to rest within Twilight, and she answered without objection. “‘An act of ‘risk’ does not presuppose ambivalence towards that being risked. It instead presupposes an understanding that a favourable result provides sufficient justification towards sustained losses, and that in the event of an unfavourable result, losses sustained must not indicate total failure.’ In other words, victory justifies the means, and there should be a Plan B in place in the case of failure.”
The moment the argument left her lips, Twilight shook her head clear and scowled. “That doesn’t absolve you of anything! If anything, it proves me right! What was your backup plan against Luna?”
Celestia’s head sunk.
“Killing her,” she admitted softly.
“And Discord?” Twilight was smiling triumphantly.
“Sombra? Tirek? Chrysalis?”
“Twilight, you are proving yourself wrong,” Celestia replied. “I used you and your friends so that these options did not have to be. And, as Easyglider claims is necessary, you have proven that the results justify the risks.”
“What about me?!” Twilight snarled. “What about the risks to me? Justify those!”
Celestia was taken aback. “I do not understand.”
“Oh, bullshit you don’t understand!” Twilight screamed. “Bullshit you and Luna didn’t go through the same thing!”
For a moment, Celestia simply stared; dumb and oblivious.
Then, as Twilight gave them an impatient little rustle, it hit her without mercy.
The goddess-damned wings.
“Do you seriously not realize how terrified I am, every day?” Twilight had begun advancing towards Celestia, pointing a hoof directly before the older alicorn’s face. “Will they become afraid of me? Will I become something to be feared? Will I be a good princess? Will they hate me if I’m not?”
Celestia tensed as tears began dripping down Twilight’s cheeks, and as her horn began glowing again. No longer warning spells now, Celestia could tell, and she took a cautious step back whilst feeding shield magic into her own horn.
“Will I screw up? Make a mistake? Put my friends into danger? Cause one of them to get hurt? Stop caring whether or not they do?”
Twilight punctuated every sentence with a violent flare of magic, each becoming increasingly difficult for Celestia to avoid. Simple deflections became hasty shields, hasty shields became exhausting barriers, and soon Celestia had no choice but to begin flapping her wings furiously to lift herself off of the exposed courtyard starting to burst into flame.
Even despite her panicked, churning mind, it rung out as odd to Celestia. Twilight’s magic setting fire to the flora was by no means unexpected, and where there was violence or battle there was often fire.
Yet, Celestia could account for each of Twilight’s blasts, which had all created great craters in the cold earth. Despite the glaring impossibility, the flames seemed to have another source.
“Do you know what it’s like to feel inadequate?” Twilight was screaming above the sound of her magic whishing through the air and erupting against the ground. “Of course you don’t! You’re perfect! Your greatest mistakes are planned! The risks you take are noble, and your failures are tragedies! Oh, I’ve always wanted to scream at just how lucky you are!”
In an instant, Celestia’s mind froze upon the one collective accusation.
Did she know what it felt to be inadequate?
Of course she didn’t.
She hadn’t before, and it had cost her Luna.
Why would Nightmare Moon’s corruption tearing Twilight apart be any different?
And why would she be so stupid as to blindly turn her head to the same mistake that had torn her and Luna apart?
As though fate had decided Celestia’s shrieking self-condemnation were not enough, a mighty beam of arcane energy sailed from Twilight’s horn, through the air, and into Celestia’s flesh no longer protected by any shield magic of her own.
Once more, Celestia struck the courtyard earth in a heap.
Yet this time, it was not an impact she had the fortune of sharing with Twilight, who was instead already looming upon her, her horn aglow.
“I’d bet you understand now,” Twilight cooed. “Don’t you? You know, the thing is, I don’t even hate you. In fact, it’s the opposite. You’re everything I want to be, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t.”
She laughed, and her magic tapered slightly. “Would ya look at that? I’m jealous of you. Nightmare Moon tears away all my reservations and I end up still wishing I was you.”
“Twilight…” Celestia tried to stumble to her hooves. She felt her blood curdle as Twilight’s horn flared and she was pushed back down to the earth. Still, she carried on, fear twisting her voice with a wavering lining its transparent outskirts. “I gave you wings so that you wouldn’t feel inadequate. My whole life, I’ve fought to make you feel as proud of yourself as you deserve to be.”
“That’s a lie!”
“Then why do you presume you have wings, Twilight?” Even laying prone and defenseless upon charred earth, and surrounded by growing towers of arcane-produced flame, Celestia felt as though she’d already wrenched control of the situation once again. “You’re the smartest pony I’ve ever known. So explain in your view why I gave you wings. Tell me if it’s honestly probable that I did it just to make ponies afraid of you.”
Once more, Twilight’s magic tapered away.
She blinked. Her eyes began to water.
Around them, the flames continued burning furiously. Now, Celestia no longer had any doubts. The flames were the arcane flames indeed—how they’d sprung up in the courtyard, Celestia did not know, but their furious heat seemed to have wrenched Nightmare Moon from Twilight with impossible swiftness.
Twilight turned around—leaving Celestia in a crater in the earth—but she made it less than ten feet before she collapsed to her hooves in a sobbing fit.
“Goddesses above,” Twilight moaned. “I just… oh my goodness, Celestia… I just… I...”
Wordlessly, Celestia rose to follow. The towering walls of flame before them had already begun raining green sparks, but neither alicorn noticed their colourful falling dance nor the feeling of pain as they fell upon their coats drenched in sweat.
It was over. Sooner than Celestia had predicted. She sat beside Twilight, outstretching a wing around her.
For a long while, the two mares merely sat around the soaring flames, listening to their furious crackle. Celestia held Twilight close and the younger princess' resistance slowly seeped away. Her uncharacteristic violence vanished in her silence and in her tears, and as the night crept on and the last of the corrupting magic sparked from Twilight’s horn, she leaned in closer until their warmth was nearly inseparable.
“The things I said to you…” Twilight whispered. “I can’t believe what I said to you. I… I don’t believe them.”
Celestia did not answer.
Once more, Twilight’s tearful statement was a lie. Because at her core, she did.
And yet, in her long life, Celestia had come to appreciate the value of a pony’s core less and less. For if a pony is only as valuable as they were without compassion, forgiveness, or understanding… if it took dark magic to dilute a pony's mind so that such things were forgotten, how could she truly tell herself ponies were a species of friendship at all?
The only lie Celestia could see was the one she’d paraded as the truth at the beginning of the evening. An expression of emotion was not the limit of a pony’s self.
“I love you, Twilight Sparkle,” Celestia whispered. “I am thankful for all you have taught me tonight. How are you feeling?”
Twilight spoke as though she had not heard her. “I’m a monster.”
“You are not.”
“I feel terrible. I attacked you. I tried to hurt you… because I wanted to keep all the dark magic inside me. Oh my goodness, Celestia, I’m so sorry! I’m so, so—”
“I am merely happy to see that you are unhurt.” Celestia held up a hoof, earning silence in an instant.
“Is… is it over? I… I feel better. I…”
“It’s over,” Celestia cooed gently. “You won. You did not lose yourself.”
“The only reason I stopped…” Twilight sobbed. “The only reason I stopped was because I was afraid. I was ready to hurt you, and I didn’t even know why.”
“What were you afraid of?” The answer seemed obvious to Celestia, but Twilight’s answer took her by surprise nonetheless.
“I was afraid for myself,” Twilight replied shakily. “Not for you. I was afraid… I was afraid Luna would try to avenge you if I killed you. So I stopped. That’s what I am at my core, without reservations. A selfish murderer.”
“Twilight.” Celestia turned around again. “Do I look as though I blame you?”
They locked eyes for several seconds.
“N...no.” Twilight admitted eventually.
“Do I look as though I wish to punish you or make you feel you’ve done something wrong?”
“Then there is no reason why you should insist so,” Celestia cooed. “You’re a wonderful pony, and I don’t believe for a moment that you would ever willfully hurt me in your right mind. You have not done or said anything to me this evening that has made me think any less of you.”
Abruptly, Celestia rose.
Equally as abruptly, Celestia started back towards her study, as though nothing had truly occurred.
Despite her frequent assurances that she harboured no blame, Twilight continued offering tearful remarks as the two made their way through the cool summer air towards Celestia’s study. While Celestia could not speak for Twilight, she would have much preferred to walk than to fly on aching and painful wings, but Celestia could think of no explanation for her injury that would be convincing enough to not warrant explanation.
Giving a large majority of her guards a night off had been a troublesome situation in itself, but it had been necessary to avoid Twilight’s corruption from becoming a commonly known item. If Equestria knew that one of their princesses had fallen into darkness, but that Celestia had allowed so, then she could not see anything but further trouble in her future.
So they flew.
A knock on Celestia’s study door.
“Enter!” she cheerfully trilled, setting her knitting needles aside to grant the entering pony her full attention.
“Good morning, Celly,” Luna said. Her eyes swept across the study, pausing momentarily at the shattered window. She blinked, and looked back to Celestia without further telegraphing her surprise at the strange sight. “Sleep well?”
“Oh, you can cease the act,” Celestia rolled her eyes. “I know it was you.”
Luna cocked her head. “Oh?”
“Thank you, Luna. I believe you perhaps saved my life.”
“Setting the courtyard on fire is a hell of a way to save your life.”
Celestia shrugged. “More subtle than I’d intended with ‘arcane candles’, but I’m glad you put them to good use.”
“They were hardly providing much benefit in your study while you waged war elsewhere. I’m sure I can be forgiven for using them in a more proactive location.”
“And I’m thankful you were watching over me.”
“You didn’t seriously think I’d be so irresponsible as to let you do this alone. Especially… ah, considering the nature of the events in question.”
“Thank you, Luna,” Celestia said again, giving her sister a loving nuzzle, but narrowing her eyes as Luna tore away avoidingly. “Is something the matter?”
“Twilight is the matter,” Luna replied. “And I know you are thinking it, too.”
“Actually, I was thinking of asking her to join us for lunch next weekend.”
“Do not lie to me. You are disturbed by what you saw tonight.”
“I am,” Celestia admitted. “Severely. But, Twilight is as well, so I earnestly believe we do not have a great deal to fear. I think we can trust her.”
“I suppose it would be terribly hypocritical of me to disagree, considering I am presently living with the same trust.” Finally, Luna leaned into Celestia’s neck, giving an awkward but well-meant nuzzle, before turning to leave the study once more.
“Luna, before you leave…” Celestia called after her. “Am I irresponsible with the risks I take?”
Instead of answering, Luna gave a mischievous grin and pointed out the study window at the charred remains of the courtyard, before turning tail and setting on down the hallway.
“Yes,” Celestia answered herself aloud. “I suppose I am.”
Shaking her head clear, Celestia retook her knitting needles and let her mind drift elsewhere.