• Published 26th Oct 2013
  • 12,688 Views, 378 Comments

Triptych - Daetrin

What does it mean to be a pony? A ruler? A god?

  • ...

A Canter Through Gethsemane

It always seemed to come back to the palace. That was where her story had begun, and events kept coming back around to it. Even though it was a ruin, even though it was surrounded by hostile forest, ponies and events ended up attracted it. So it seemed only fitting to start there.

Celestia appeared in the middle of the shattered throne room, the remnants of stained glass casting broken shards of color across crumbled stone. The surroundings matched the way she felt; aged, worn, and scarred by ancient mistakes.

And isolated. In the middle of the Everfree Forest, she wasn’t actually in Equestria, and the magic of the land was not the connected lives of all her ponies. Even with the power that had birthed it gone, it had its own life to it, a small pocket of otherness in the middle of her kingdom. Or rather, what used to be her kingdom.

Nearly a millennia of planning had brought her to that point, slow inevitability grinding toward the precipice she’d just stepped over. It was her duty, her purpose, her nature to guide and guard Equestria, and she had done so by ceding it to another. Victory by surrender. She thought Luna would approve of it, if ever they could discuss it without pain.

That victory had left her peculiarly aimless, bereft of the forces that had always driven the princess and the goddess and leaving only the pony that was Celestia to make decisions. And that particular pony had not done much for a very long time. She lifted a hoof, touching the broken throne that had set her on that path centuries ago, then with great deliberation turned her back on it. There was much value to be had from the past, but that past had brought her to this pass with the slow inevitability of causality, and she would rather hope for a better way.

The silence of the ruins was more melancholy than peaceful, centuries of decay pressed against centuries of memory, empty frames where art once hung and ragged grass where gardens grew. The ghosts of long-dead subjects followed her down a roofless corridor, though they were not disapproving memories. Her recriminations were her own, and didn’t need to be projected upon the voiceless dead.

And recriminations there were. The first mistake, her worst mistake, was sharper here even though its edges had been worn by the passage of time. It was not the act of besting what her sister had become, but an earlier, softer failure, one she still couldn’t pinpoint after all this time. The moment she had lost Luna’s heart.

It was not a question of love; that would never change between them. But somewhere, somewhen, Celestia had betrayed the connection between them and left Luna to go down a path that should never have been. It should never have been, yet Celestia treasured where she was, what she had done, far too much to undo it all even if she could. She was glad that she had never been offered the opportunity.

The sound of stone underhoof changed to the muffled crunch of dry grass and fallen twigs as she emerged into the courtyard. Nothing grew inside the great crevasse. No birds sang, no insects buzzed. The forces that had been unleashed so long ago were etched permanently into the stone, a scar on the world that would never heal.

The bridge that Rainbow Dash had rigged in place years ago was still intact, but Celestia crossed the gap with a flick of her wings, instead. Her heart felt heavy enough that such a fragile structure might give way under the weight. She made her way into the forest, picking her way through the underbrush with the unconscious grace only millennia of habit could yield. It was not simply aimless wandering; there was somepony she wanted to talk to.

There was a time that she had thought immortal gods had a monopoly on wisdom, but that had been long ago. In the long years of repairing the world from Discord’s mischief she had found there was far more to the world than any could imagine, mortal or divine. Or at least, any mortal or divine so far. A faint smile hovered at the edges of her muzzle at the thought, for if there was anypony who could discover all there was to be known in the world, it would be Twilight Sparkle. Unfortunately, Celestia couldn’t take advantage of her wisdom just yet.

The animals of the Everfree stayed far away from her. She was as a monster to them - something eldrich and powerful, a dangerous intruder best avoided or appeased. Which, in truth, was not so far from how many of her own subjects treated her.

By contrast, the dwelling in front of her was in harmony with the forest, part of it and not apart from it. Celestia walked under the spreading limbs of the tree, ducking her horn under the mask hanging above the door, and rapped her hoof against the wood.

The door opened to reveal quizzical turquoise eyes peering out from a black-and-white face. “That I get visitors rarely is true, but of all ponies I did not expect to see you.” Zecora stepped back from the doorway, gesturing Celestia inside. “Please be welcome, and make yourself at home. Your heart, I think, makes you tread this forest’s loam.”

“Thank you, Zecora.” Celesta stepped over the threshold, the tip of her horn nearly scraping the roof of Zecora’s home. She didn’t directly address Zecora’s comment, merely nodding to acknowledge the zebra’s insight. “I know we haven’t spoken in a while, but I hope Twilight and her friends have kept you up to date. Especially where Twilight is concerned?”

“The new goddess has visited me, indeed. It is wondrous to see what has grown from that seed.” Zecora gave Celestia a knowing look. “She is the same but has also changed, and it seems it was something you arranged.”

“I am afraid so.” Celesta settled down on the bare floor. No doubt there were many ponies in the court that would be horrified by the sight, but she and Zecora had long discarded any need for that sort of ceremony. “I told them both the truth and then left them in charge of Equestria. I admit that might sound irresponsible, but I believe it was the only way.”

“It sounds as if everything is decided, to me.” Zecora lifted her kettle, positioning it over the fire. “But I suspect that you came here for more than just my tea.”

“As much as I enjoy your tea, no, not just for that.” Celestia bowed her head briefly. “I did not part with them on the best of terms. I cannot say that I would have, or could have, chosen any differently, but that does not mean it hurts any less.”

“It takes a strong pony to lead a nation,” Zecora observed. “That complaint seems beneath your station. I feel for you, I truly do, but this not a problem that is new.”

“This is somewhat unique.” Celestia watched Zecora pour tea. “I have sent ponies to their death or ruin, no matter how difficult it was, no matter how much I loved them. That is necessary, and I accept that. But it has always been for the sake of Equestria, of all the ponies under my care. But I have never before condemned one to immortality for the sake of another.”

“A special complaint that is indeed, and my curiosity I ask you feed. It's not a blessing you've given your student, but she has only done what she thought prudent. It was her choice to take this course; you offered guidance but not force. Though you may mourn what might yet be, it is not your responsibility.”

Celestia accepted the simple clay mug from Zecora, looking down at the rippled surface of the tea within. “That may be true, but I certainly led her down the garden path. And even if I cede responsibility for her fate, what about all the others she will affect? I do not mean if she turns into another Sombra or Nightmare Moon. That I can deal with.” Her voice went flat, hard, and cold as hammered steel on the last two words, and she paused before taking a sip of the tea.

“She is the first new god in thousands of years, and the world is far different these days. Even small mistakes could affect thousands, or millions. And the reason for taking this gamble is to prevent another god from doing the same.” Celestia looked directly into Zecora’s eyes. “We are creating more problems, we gods, and that should not be.”

Zecora frowned, balancing her own mug on the tip of her hoof. “You deeply think before you act, and you always do what you must. Twilight's feats are simply fact, and in her you have placed your trust.” She gestured with her other hoof, a sweeping wave that took in both Celestia and all the lands about them. “She will only make the mistakes she needs, and surely will perform the greatest of deeds. I do not think you doubt Twilight's odds, but rather yourself, or the nature of gods."

“A bit of both,” Celestia admitted. “I was never meant to rule alone, and after a thousand years I know I am somewhat adrift. But over that same thousand years I have seen the world tamed, its great monsters vanquished, and all the tumult we gods so excelled at riding stilled to a quiet murmur. I must wonder if there is a place for us anymore, and if the world would be better served without us. Or if it is that my perspective has changed, and the world not at all.”

“Both of these things may be true, but the world is not just you.” Zecora shook her head at Celestia. “The three pony gods are indeed great, but I will tell you something straight: though I admit that some are frauds, other races have their gods. If it's perspective that you lack, speak with them ere you go back.”

“I think I shall.” Celestia paused thoughtfully, then corrected herself. “I think I must.” She lifted her head, her horn stopping just short of scraping the ceiling, and looked at Zecora speculatively. “I am on neither good terms nor bad with the Zebra gods, and they have no reason to listen to me. But you could ask for me.”

“It is true that I could try, but I don't see why they would reply.” Zecora met Celestia’s gaze, challenging.

“They might ignore Zecora. But She-Who-Walks-Without-Shade, The Suncatcher, The Sirocco...they’ll listen to her. Even if she hasn’t been seen for a long time.”

Zecora was still and silent for a moment, then nodded slowly in response to Celestia’s words. “Because it is not lightly that you ask, I shall put my hoof to the task.”

“Thank you.” Celestia sipped her tea and watched as Zecora stood, crossing to her stand of alchemical ingredients and going to work. Berries were crushed and powders mixed, and Zecora muttered in her native language as she applied the paints to her hide, drawing patterns out of the stripes of her coat.

The result transformed Zecora from a simple shaman and teacher to something altogether older and darker; a warrior-priestess or tribal queen, laden with power, knowledge, and authority. She began to chant in a rolling cadence, the fire flaring brightly and casting sharp shadows on the walls of Zecora’s hut. Celestia could feel the power ripple, like a stone cast into still waters, then rebounding and sweeping back in.

The light and shadow grew stronger, consuming the hut walls with black and white until they were surrounded by a two-tone world, hills and sky and mountains rendered in absolutes. Even Zecora lost her shades and subtleties, leaving Celestia as the only source of color. Out of that colorless land two figures emerged, one composed of utter black and the other of blinding white, invisible where they crossed their own shade and weaving their way toward Celestia and Zecora.

“Who is it that comes here?” The black one spoke first.

“Who is it that walks upon our land?” The white one spoke second.

The monochrome washed through Zecora at their words, lapping at the island of color Celestia maintained. She was in in their realm, and their rules controlled all but the sovereignty she held for herself. They spoke not Equestrian or Zebrican, but a cant more primal than any language, the words of creation itself.

“I am one of the People.” Zecora replied in kind, her usual rhyming lost to the cadence imposed by the realm. “I am She-Who-Walks-Without-Shade. I have ridden the sirocco and I have touched the sun. I belong here.” With each word, color pulsed out from Zecora, ripples of shading that expanded and encircled her to create a small piece of protected reality much like Celestia’s.

“We recognize you, Zecora of the People.” The black one spoke in his turn, and the white followed after.

“But you bring a companion, unasked and unnamed.”

“So we ask, who?”

“Who is it that you bring?”

“She is Celestia,” Zecora replied. “She is the sun.”

With those words, Celestia blazed. With her godhood ignited, light cascaded forth in a thunderous rush of color, contesting the stark absolutes of the Zebra gods’ realm. They responded in kind, dividing the world in half, black on white and white on black. Power roiled at the interface where light met white and color met its absence, coruscating lightnings lashing at the fabric of existence.

“Why are you here?”

“Why have you come?”

Their words cut through the fury of competing power like pointed steel as they circled her, a cautious orbit around her brilliant core. She regarded them, one white, one black, and gave them an answer.

“To ask a question.”

Their silence was as penetrating as their words, stretching out to a single syllable spoken in unison.


The claws of their dismissal savaged at the edges of her power, black and white creeping in toward her, but she refused to be moved. “I will not be denied,” she said quietly, muffling the furor of their conflict with a slow wash of her will. “I must have your answers.”

They circled her silently, with Zecora between, the zebra’s face set in grim disapproval. But she said nothing, refusing to take part in the conflict of words. She stood braced, hooves on the ground, defending herself against the clash of powers and the echo of divine speech.

“What are you?” Celestia’s voice rippled outward and the reply came back in overlapping waves.

“We are gods.”



“No.” Celestia tapped her hoof lightly against the ground, and it shuddered in reply. “What are you?”

“We are gods.”


“Speakers of Words.”

The terrain shivered, growing more stark, more real as they defined themselves. Mountains rose, valleys deepened, water flowed, and their outlines sharpened. They glared at her with invisible eyes, moving in surefooted steps through the landscape they’d made.

“What are you?” Celestia repeated, her voice snapping out against them, a solar wind ruffling their manes.

“We are gods.”

“Guides of life.”

“Guards of truth.”

The surroundings shifted abruptly to a flat plain, the mountains vanishing like shadows in the dawn and the hills melting into villages. Thousands of years of zebra history spread out around them, compressed into nine words. They walked among their people now, ghosting through lives and events, constants in the flickering lives of their mortal charges. Celestia’s eyes pierced through the layered tapestry of ages, surveying them before turning the flensing gaze back to the gods.

“What are you?

“We are gods.”

“The final judge.”

“The last hope.”

“The warrior’s heart.”

“The mother’s song.”

“The black.”

“The white.”

Each declaration reshaped the land, flashing through life and death, war and peace. They made the world shake under the drumbeat of their words, until finally it was a blank, empty plane again. Only the four of them remained, a small circle of color centered between black and white.

“I accept your answers,” Celestia said quietly. “Thank you.”

“Then go.”

“Leave us.”

This time she let herself be carried by the tides, and the colorless world washed away in a rush of color, the firelight returning to Zecora’s hut. Zecora herself remained a two-toned hole in the world, more a presence than a pony. Celestia waited patiently, feeling the echoes of the gods beat faintly through Zecora’s connection.

The cadence marched, eventually, to a halt and the firelight once again began to reflect off Zecora’s coat. She exhaled and favored Celestia with a sour look, dropping down to sit opposite her guest. “They are both now quite upset. I hope this gives me no cause for regret.”

“I do not intend to cause you trouble,” Celestia sighed. “Would that I could discharge my obligations without drawing in others. But they would never have let me into the heart of their power without you.”

“When the world your words define, most questions you will decline,” Zecora said pointedly. “I know you are a deliberate sort, but it seems that danger now you court.”

“Danger to you, and to them,” Celestia agreed. “But not to me or mine. You are a dear friend, Zecora, but you know I must put my ponies first. I have no other choice.”

The zebra blanched back from the heavy leaden weight in Celestia’s voice, but nodded. “Mimi kajua jua.” After Celestia merely smiled in tired acknowledgement, Zecora ventured another question. “Four questions, four replies. Among them did you find your prize?”

“They were all what I wanted.” The goddess of the sun stared, unblinking, into the fire. “We are all of us trapped by our own natures. They have defined themselves as arbiters, drawing the boundaries that, in turn, define all zebras. But there at least are ones such as you who can contest them on their own terms, and change that nature, little by little. Someday, they will have no words left for themselves.”

Zecora shivered. “Just between you and I, is it possible for the gods to die?”

“A god cannot be killed,” Celestia said deliberately. “But I know of some that are dead.”

Zecora met the statement with the narrowed eyes it deserved, but let it pass, knowing that was the best she would get out of Celestia. For her part, the goddess stared meditatively into the flickering light of still-burning logs and considered the self-declared nature of the zebra gods. Her horn lit, emptying kettle and cups of tea long gone cold, tools swirling around them in an herbal orrery as she brewed more.

Her conversation, if such stilted, stylized verbal conflict could be called such, had held little in the way of surprise. The ambiguity and uncertainty held little in the way of answers. But it would take some time to truly digest even the simplest answers to the most profound questions, and Celestia was nothing if not patient.

"While we were discussing things of weight, it has gotten to be quite late. I do not have an extra bed, but you can stay and rest your head."

Celestia looked up and favored Zecora with a smile. “Thank you, but no. Night is an appropriate time to find the next person I want to speak with.” She rose smoothly to her feet, and Zecora eyed her speculatively.

“I do not know whom you go to find, but I wish you luck and a clear mind.”

“Thank you,” Celestia said, warmly and honestly, before stepping out in the Everfree night.