• Published 30th Aug 2015
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Nine Days Down - JoeShogun



Celestia's latest game of Save the Princess gets more serious than she'd have liked when she gets herself thrown into Tartarus. It would be bad enough if she were alone...but it seems she'd picked up a straggler as well.

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Extra Bonus Thing: The First and the Last

--This little aside takes place at some undefined time before the epilogue.

The Princesses of Equestria and beyond reclined together in a fancy and very private sitting room. They'd done this a few times since Twilight's return, gathering to discuss the revelations of her trip through Tartarus. Though perhaps a better term than 'discuss' would be 'get interrogated about things Twilight wasn't yet clear on.' This meeting was off to a slow start though, because its youngest member was having difficulty coming up with a reasonable way to ask the question she had in mind.

"So, about Terra. What's, um, what's wrong with her?"

Not the most diplomatic of beginnings, Twilight would be the first to admit.

Celestia winced. Luna looked slightly pained as well. Cadance frowned.

"That isn't a very nice way to ask, Twilight."

"I know! That came out wrong, I'm sorry. It's just, I mean, I only met Terra for a little while, but she was so...She was just—"

Luna sighed.

"Just such a..." It seemed like she'd been about to say a great deal more, but she stopped herself. "So frigid?"

"Uh, yeah."

"Yes. She certainly can be." A wry smile bent Luna's lips. "You have nothing to apologize for, Twilight. Your question is a fair one." She settled in against her pillow and gazed at the ceiling of the plush entertaining room in which the four Princesses reclined. A lavish, alarmingly realistic mosiaic of the night sky, complete with diamond stars and a huge, fire-opal moon, twinkled back down at her. "What," she began, "is wrong with Terra? Where to even begin."

"Ah, if I may? Who is Terra?" asked Cadance.

"I find that the best place to start a story," said Celestia, "is often at the beginning. And I think the whole of it will answer both your questions."

Her audience settled in to listen with an adjusting of legs and fluffing of wings.

"A long, long time ago, the universe was a very different place. There was little of anything that you might recognize today, and what remains has changed so much that it can be hard to remember that such a time even existed. But I do remember this. She was the first of us. The Goddesses. As far as I know, she was the first of anything. We would come to call her Gaia in time, but back then, she simply was. My first real memory is of her, welcoming me into existence, celebrating my birth from across the grand void of space." Celestia's eyes went wistful. "She did the same for every new star and planet to be born, ushering us in like a tender mother long before we even understood the concept of such a thing."

"There are more?" asked Twilight. "Like you?"

"Oh, certainly," said Luna. "Many astral beings are worlds in their own right, though few are so great as us." She grinned at Celestia, who gave a pleasant roll of her eyes. "There were many once, but alas, most of them are now so distant that you may never meet them, or so alien that you should never wish to. We god-things rarely get along, it seems. And We should think you meant to say 'like us.' You have joined our little family, Sister."

Oh. Right. Twilight was one now. A Goddess. It was weird to think of herself like that. She barely felt different than she ever had, and she was a hardly a world in any right. And...wait. Sister!?

She opened her mouth to blurt the thousand questions and/or protestations that even now jostled each other for release, but Luna cut her off, a slight, sly smile on her face.

"But do continue, Celestia."

"Of course. Gaia and I spent a timeless age together, whirling through the emptiness, just...being. It was a cold existence, nigh mindless, but peaceful. Simple. A time without word or thought, or any need for them." Celestia poked at the carpeted floor, the ghost of a smile playing at her lips. "I love my life as a pony. I truly do. But I will always remember those days fondly." She shook herself. "Alas, nothing lasts forever. It was the sudden appearance of a new Goddess that brought that silent era to an end. She was born of a cataclysm: a meteor, large enough to drag in others like it, finally collided with its smaller peers. What arose from that catastrophic meeting was Luna."

The Princess in question preened proudly.

"Were the others Goddesses before you...merged?" asked Twilight.

Celestia looked to Luna.

"We believe so. We can at times recall being something other than what We are now, but," she tilted her head, as if trying to remember. "Those memories are strange, fragmented. We used to understand them better, but..." Luna shrugged.

"Is that kind of thing normal? Can a Goddess become something entirely different from what she started as?" asked Cadance.

"And what about the ones who aren't, um, worlds?" Twilight's face screwed up as she tried to wrap her head around the idea of a bunch of space rocks having personalities and then running into each other to become the Moon.

"I honestly have no idea, Twilight," stated Celestia. " Immortals can grow, but it is a slow process, and never easy. As far as I know, Luna may be the only Goddess to have ever done so in such a way. It perhaps explains why change is so much simpler for her than the rest of us."

"Yes," interrupted Luna, posing. "Even among eternal beings, We have always been special." Luna turned back to the others, the very picture of a pony who was genuinely hoping to add to the conversation, and who certainly wasn't fishing for compliments or anything. Celestia's raised, bemused eyebrows expressed exactly what she thought of that.

"Hm. Yes. You are certainly very 'special,' Luna." She patted her younger sister on the head.

Luna snorted.

"But back to our tale." Celestia resettled herself. "As it so often does, dear little Luna's sudden appearance complicated things."

Luna beamed up at her. She looked as though she had something to say, but she stilled herself before it came out. It wasn't the first time Twilight had noticed her doing that. She was so different here. Both the Princesses were. In Tartarus (and in dreams, in Luna's case) they'd held nothing back, even when they maybe should have. They were so much more controlled in Equestria. They were the same Princesses Twilight had always known, but having seen them as she now had, she wasn't sure she liked it.

"If not for our new sister's intervention, life could never have been. We had become too close, Gaia and I. She was scorched bare in my embrace, and my fires dimmed in her seas and in the shadow of her mountains. We let nothing come between us, crushing and incinerating all who ventured near. Not out of malice, mind, but because we simply failed to notice much of anything else. But then, Luna came. She knocked us apart for a time, then drew us all back together into a more joyful orbit than we could have imagined. She tempered my blazing fires. She brought order to Gaia's churning oceans and cracking earth. She inspired us with tales of the impossible things she'd witnessed in her previous lives, and filled us with a wonder we had never known. And a desire to share it. Luna brought us balance. She made us..." Celestia turned to her sister again, and this time there was nothing but love and admiration in her. "Whole."

Twilight watched as they shared a moment. She intentionally clinked her teacup around when it went on a bit.

The Royal Sisters jumped, eyes flicking from each other to Twilight to the floor. They looked almost as if they'd been caught at something. Twilight glanced to Cadance, but she was busy watching them intently, her expression a bit quizzical.

"Ahem! Yes. Where was I? Right. Life. So, the three of us spent an age with only ourselves for company. As before, it was a pleasant time. But as we wheeled through existence, we saw others out there, dancing through the emptiness of the universe. They seemed much like us, but so very different. Fascinating and wonderful in their own right, but just as often bizarre and terrible. Some few we invited to join our little circle, though we have never been as close to them as to each other. They are the planets you've seen in that telescope you so love."

Twilight's mouth had opened before the questions were even fully formed.

"But that," Luna cut in with a grin, "is a story for another time."

Twilight's lips collapsed into a pout. Celestia smiled apologetically, then continued.

"Even as our family grew, we found ourselves restless."

"It seemed as though there could be so much more," said Luna. "More than simply existing! The other Goddesses and Gods were interesting, of course, but they were so stolid and distant. We had become agitated, unsatisfied. We didn't understand what we were feeling. " She shook her head. "We were certain that the answer was there, if only we could find it. So, failing to attain satisfaction from others, we turned inward. There was so much unexplored potential within us!"

Celestia nodded.

"I said before that Luna had inspired us, and this, perhaps, was the price of that. For the first time, we wanted. But we didn't know what we wanted. We needed more than to simply be. We needed to be..." She waved a hoof, searching for the words. "Acknowledged. Known. Felt. And we wanted to return that feeling. We were, in a word, lonely."

"It was Gaia's unique genius that gave us the answer to a question we didn't know how to ask," said Luna. "Life. True life. What she envisioned was not just another cold and immutable God-thing, spinning through the emptiness, barely capable of thought, but an infinitude of creatures that live and die and change and create! She invented mortality, Twilight! It was her greatest work. Perhaps it sounds strange, to be so proud of building a thing that was destined to end in the subjective blink of her eye, but to us, it was an awesome feat. Life grows! It changes! It varies in so many ways that none of us could ever have predicted, always surprising us with its unbelievable ingenuity!"

"And in the end, it may outlast us all." Celestia's eyes were sober, but fiercely proud. "Mountains crumble, Twilight. The seas may dry, and even my Sun will one day collapse in a blaze of final glory, but life may escape even that and go ever on, until the end of time."

"With the aid of Our dreams and Celestia's guiding light, Gaia set to work."

"We all merely watched, at first. From far away, we looked down into the lives of our sister's new children and thrilled at their every move. Even Gaia kept her distance, though life grew on and within her. But after a time, she took her experiment even further." Celestia leaned in, her voice an excited hush. "She joined in."

"She was the first of us to incarnate," said Luna, voice quickening as she met Celestia's enthusiasm. "The first to walk her own Earth and live among her creations. She pulled a part of herself free and shaped it into flesh. We watched in horrified wonder as she did this thing. It was barely comprehensible to us. I had only suggested it as joke, but she actually did it! Madness! But so brilliant! The living feel, Twilight! They know pleasure and pain! They exult in their happiness, and mourn in sorrow! You have no idea of how amazing witnessing real emotion was to us, to say nothing of the bodily pleasures. Watching Gaia have those things made it impossible for us to resist her invitation."

Twilight found herself smiling, caught up Luna and Celestia's infectious energy.

"So, wait," asked Cadance. "Gaia made life, then joined it? So, you didn't make ponies in your image?"

The sisters laughed.

"Rather the opposite, I'm afraid," said Celestia. "We shaped ourselves in yours."

Well. That was a revelation. Twilight jumped on the moment of quiet.

"Why ponies? Were they just what came first?"

"Oh, no. The first mortals were tiny things, as I recall," said Celestia, tapping her chin with a hoof.

"Moss and such," said Luna. "It was all really more of a diversion at first. Gaia was just experimenting." She shrugged. "That her creation began growing into more on its own was something of a happy accident, as they say."

Twilight tried to hold back a serious existential panic attack as she asked her next question.

"Are you telling me that life as I know it, that everything I've ever done and experienced was an accident!?"

Luna tilted her head.

"Would that be so terrible?"

"Yes!"

"Worse than knowing that the most ancient beings in existence still have no idea where they came from or for what, if any, purpose? Because unless Celestia has been holding out on Us, We do not." Luna smiled with perfect innocence. "Some questions simply have no answers, Twilight."

Twilight's eye twitched.

Celestia, seeing that something needed to be done before Twilight's entire concept of reality violently imploded, spoke up.

"But if answers to these questions are to be found, perhaps you will be the one to enlighten us, Twilight. You always have been a great thinker. Why don't we move on for now?"

"I, s-sure. Um," Twilight pulled herself together. "Can I ask something first?"

"Certainly."

"You said Gaia made 'true' life. But in Tartarus you said something about Ben, about how Luna had created him, I think." The spider perked up at hearing himself referenced. "Or, them. The dreamspinners. Can you just do that? Make living things?"

"Ah. Well, in answer to the first," said Celestia. "Yes, Luna did invent them."

"Some of my finest work." Luna smiled fondly at the spider. He chirped happily.

"But the spinners aren't true life, not the kind you know."

Twilight's eyebrow rose. She looked at Ben. He looked back.

"He seems pretty alive to me. What's the difference?"

Luna answered.

"Ben, as you call him, is just as immortal as We are. He was one of my first. Must be thousands of years old by now. 'Tis a testament to his cleverness that he is still here."

Twilight blinked, then turned again to the apparently ancient critter sitting on her flank. He saluted.

"Seriously?"

"Quite so," said Celestia. "That is the difference between what we can create and what Gaia could. Ben will live until he is killed in some way, or Luna reclaims him."

Twilight's eyes snapped to Celestia's.

"What do you mean 'reclaim?'"

Celestia paused for a moment in the way she always did when a promising student asked a difficult question.

"To make another being, we Goddesses must remove a part ourselves. A bit of, I don't know, essence? Some of that which makes us what we are. The beings we make will then live as independent creatures for as long as we wish. But no longer than that. That is what the bodies before you are: incarnations. We are different from the whole of ourselves, but still a part of it. Our other creations are similar. Luna and I might make 'children,' but we will never have grandchildren. And, of course, we can take that little spark of ourselves back as we please, ending the creature it empowers at any time."

Twilight's mouth opened, then closed.

"It is not murder," declared Luna. She was looking straight into Twilight, head high. "They are Us. Their body, their memory, everything."

It felt like murder to Twilight. But she didn't know.

"Just as Insight is you."

Twilight thought about that. She had been wondering where her sword went when she wasn't with her. Was Twilight really just...she didn't want to say 'absorbing' her, but maybe that was what she was doing? And creating her again any time she needed her?

"Oh. Okay. I'll um, I'll need to take some time on that one. But, wait. If a Goddess can't have children, what about Sobek?"

Celestia and Luna blinked.

"What about him?"

"You said he was the son of Sobek, who was also the son of Sobek. He was a God, right? So why could his kids have kids?"

"Ah," said Celestia. "He was a God, yes, but every divine being is entirely unique, and very few of us are truly immortal. One of Sobek's aspects was fertility, if you can believe that, and he sired many children. He has long since passed, but he lives on in them."

"For now," said Luna. "His children are mighty and long-lived, but nothing to what Sobek was. One day the blood will run so thin that there will be nothing of him left in it." She seemed almost saddened by this.

"Hrmm. Alright." Twilight rubbed a hoof on her jaw, pondering. "So I really have to choose between children or immortality?" At the other Princesses' surprised or questioning looks, she explained. "You told me that in Tartarus. What made you decide on kids, Cadance?"

"I..." Cadenza looked a bit confused. "I didn't make any decision, Twilight. I didn't even know..." She looked in consternation at Celestia and Luna.

"You did," said Luna. "Perhaps not consciously, and likely very early in life." At Cadance's frown, she gave a soft smile. "Would you change your mind now, if you could? Would you watch your beloved family suffer the ravages of time while you went untouched? Sacrifice the joys the motherhood for a youthful eternity?"

Cadance's frown melted away. She didn't answer. She didn't have to.

"We thought not." Luna still smiled, but it was tinged with that same sadness from before. Mourning for a thing beautiful and rare, that would one day be lost.

Celestia's smile however, was warm with pride.

"It was never a question for Cadance," she said. "She has known what she wanted from a young age, even if she wasn't always aware of it. It was no dilemma for us, either." She gestured to her sister and herself. "Luna and I were simply born this way. I'm afraid we will be of little help in explaining how such things work, Twilight, but I suspect you will know your answer when the moment comes, just as you did when you chose to be what you are."

Time passed as Twilight looked between the ponies around her. Cadance appeared just as disturbed as Twilight felt. Luna held that sad smile, hopeful and hopeless all at once. Celestia held her gaze, warm and solid as always, a bastion of peace against this churning sea of impossible indecision. It was she who broke the silence.

"But that moment needn't come now. You asked why we chose ponies, I believe?"

Twilight nodded, and all that quiet tension popped like a balloon.

"I must admit that I'm not entirely sure."

Luna's expression perked up immediately growing slightly salacious. She opened her lips to speak, but then, as if she'd thought better of it, subsided and gave way to Celestia.

Twilight wondered at that. This wasn't the first time she'd done it. Why? She'd been so different in Tartarus and the dreamworld. So much more expressive. Terrifying at times, yes, but also funny and dramatic and all sorts of things. It wasn't just her, either. Celestia had told her that being separated from her Sun made her less stable, and she'd obviously felt that to be a bad thing, but Twilight couldn't honestly say that she agreed. They just seemed so controlled here, so calm and perfect. The Luna and Celestia she was speaking with felt less real than the ones she'd met in Tartarus. Less themselves.

She made a note of it; they would absolutely be talking about this later. But for now, she listened.

"Our first incarnations were dragons. Such power in those bodies. Such pride and might! But, in time, we found we preferred other accommodations. And ponies had always been a favorite of Gaia's. They proved themselves, time and again. Despite being born into a world full of larger, more dangerous creatures, ponies dragged themselves up from seemingly nothing and spread across the entire world. They learned. They adapted! They made farms and technology and built cities that shamed the simple dwellings of anything that had come before! Gaia respected such things. She loved all her children, in her way, but ponies were one of the few peoples that she truly adopted. And they loved her for it."

"We all loved her," said Luna. Her voice was strangely quiet now, lacking the excitement it had held mere moments before. "Even Discord was smitten with Gaia, for what brings more chaos to the world than life? But even so..."

There was a long pause, which Celestia again broke.

"I have told you of our history, Twilight. Of how the world came to be as you know it. But I have not answered your question. 'What is wrong with her?' you asked." Celestia breathed out. "We loved her, but our sister was not a kind Goddess," whispered Celestia.

"None of us were," murmured Luna. "Our night is a time of peace and respite. Every dream is a wonder. But horrible things can hide in the dark, and nightmares will find a sleeper anywhere."

Celestia nodded, looking at nothing.

"My fire carries warmth and shines through deception. It is so often a welcome thing. Until it begins to burn. And truth can be so much worse than happy falsehood."

"And Gaia, too, ingenious, bold, loving Gaia, had a dark side. I ask you, Twilight," said Luna, her voice little more than a whisper. "What kind of mind invents death? What cruel being would bring life and all its joys into the world, only to afflict it with disease and pain and starvation? Nature, as they say, is red in hoof and horn.

"And Gaia," intoned Celestia, "was nature itself. She was the rain that nourished a village, and the flood that washed it away. A shake of her Earth laid waste to entire populations, only to make room for just as many. And more than that, she was life. She was the mother bear that would die for her cubs, and slaughter anything that threatened them. Even another mother and her own cubs. She was prey, predator, and parasite. Ruin and resurrection. Mother and murderer. All of this was Gaia. And she was not a responsible creator. You've always known her best works, Twilight, but now you have seen some of her worst in the things we banished to Tartarus."

"We loved Gaia," said Luna. "But in many ways, we feared her."

The sisters placed a wing over each other as Twilight watched, pain etched clearly on their faces. She should say something. They could stop now, maybe pick this up later. She almost did it. Before she could, Luna took a deep, slightly shuddering breath, and continued.

"But such was the world, back then. We didn't know any other way. And we were beyond death, in any event, so there was no great push to change our ways."

"We could have," said Celestia. Her hoof smacked against the floor. "We could have made things better! For all our vaunted power and wisdom, we were so ignorant!"

"Aye," answered Luna. "It shames Us now, to think on it. But things grew worse still."

"Gaia birthed more creatures, after those first. She took the ideas their adaptations gave her and made ever more complex beings. More and more and more. Each one was a marvel, a grand achievement! But over time, she began to change. She grew distant from us. Her new children became bizarre things, aberrant and dangerous. The hekatonkhire are perhaps the most obvious example." Celestia closed her eyes. "They were some of her last."

"We didn't understand what was happening," said Luna. Her voice had an edge of pleading to it, like she was asking for some kind of forgiveness. She, too, looked away from Twilight. "We told you before that in order to create, we must take of ourselves. That we must choose between life unending and children. We barely understood that then. We thought her different than us. Better, somehow. Inexhaustible. We didn't know the truth until much too late. It seems so obvious now."

"Every life Gaia made took from her," said Celestia. "Every magnificent new species robbed her of a bit of what she was. Gaia's creations live on in their own children. That is what makes them greater than we undying things. But a mortal child takes a toll on her mother that can never be reclaimed, and even Gaia could not take back what she spent in making them. She bore thousands of them, Twilight! Maybe millions!"

Luna shook her head. "I think Gaia had some idea of what was happening. I think she was afraid. She became anxious, suspicious of everything. Her nightmares were horrifying, and when she woke, she would lash out without warning. I think she was trying to tell us, but she couldn't speak the words. We didn't even have words for such things. Or perhaps we simply couldn't hear them."

The Sisters shivered together.

Twilight looked to Cadance, and Cadance looked to her, and neither knew what to do.

Celestia spoke.

"Her last children were meant to be guardians. They were to be creatures so fierce that any who might dare invade the world she had made would fall before their might. That was why they were so monstrous, so terribly powerful."

"But even they were only a precursor. A model on which her final, greatest creation would be based."

After no small amount of hesitation, Twilight asked the question.

"What was her final creation, Princess?"

"Typhon." It came out as barely a whisper. Her eyes were closed, but that didn't stop a tear from sneaking out.

"So, um, what happened? With Typhon?"

It was Luna who, after a sniffle, answered.

"Gaia gave him everything she had left. He was to be our protector, invincible and incorruptible. A God in his own right, greater than any other. But..."

"But a mother's fears become those of her children," said Celestia. "We have seen it happen an infinity of times. All her doubts, her prejudices, every niggling, paranoid fantasy will, if she is not careful, be passed on."

"And Gaia was never careful. She was afraid." Luna spit the word as if it were a personal insult. "Every shadow held a monster to her eyes, even the empty reaches between distant stars. And those monsters were coming for us. The world would fall apart without her, all of her children would be slaughtered, everything she'd made would be cast to the void and forgotten, and nothing could stop it. Because we were weak. We were too foolish even to see what was happening to her, and she didn't trust us to preserve the world she'd built of herself. And so...she made Typhon."

"We should have guessed what would happen." Celestia's voice was quiet, stuttering. "We should have known! We had seen the cost of childbirth, watched it from afar so many times! But it just seemed so impossible that...that an Astral Goddess, a world in herself! That she might..."

Celestia and Luna's eyes were closed, downcast, taught with regret. Twilight's former babysitter didn't look much better.

"Die," whispered Cadance.

Twilight honestly hoped that she might never know what was going through their minds right now.

"Princess..." Twilight put a hoof to Celestia's chest. She might never have dared before, but it was easy now. "It wasn't your fault."

Ugh. That was just the kind of pointless nonsense people always said when tragedy struck. Nobody actually felt better when someone told them things like that. She had more than enough recent experience to attest to that. Guilt didn't care about logic, it just was. The words weren't any real reassurance. But then, the self-recrimination the Princesses were raking themselves over was hardly real either. Just an old wound, still hurting. Just guilt being guilt. So, darn it, Twilight did her best to make her words real by sheer force of will.

Celestia and Luna both looked at her through tear-brimmed eyes.

"If there had been anything you could have done, you would have. Everypony makes mistakes, and they hurt, but I know you did the best you could."

Celestia tried to smile. Luna looked away, shaking her head.

"Maybe it wasn't the best, then," said Cadance. "But you did the best you knew to do."

Both Sisters looked up at that.

"And you learned from it!" blurted Twilight, with a silent 'thank you' to Cadance. "You taught me..."

Celestia actually did smile at that, a little. Luna did too.

'Accept those feelings, and they can be exquisite,' Luna had said. Maybe so. Had they ever told anyone this story? Maybe they needed this, just like Twilight had needed her own release. So she gave them a moment to wallow in it, then drew them along.

"So, Typhon attacked you?"

"Hah!" Luna's laugh was more sob than anything else, and so bitter that even Cadance shied away. "No. Not at first."

"He came to us," said Celestia, staring at the carpet again. "Hurt, and alone. And in our fear, and grief, and stupidity, we rejected him. We hated him."

"He terrified us!"

"We thought it was he who had killed our sister. And we wasted no time in blaming him for it."

"We were..." said Luna, her voice dripping with acid self-loathing, "not the family we should have been."

A long silence fell in the room. Only the unknowing flickering of the fireplace dared interrupt it.

"Can you imagine, Twilight?" asked Celestia. "Just born into the world, fully aware, carrying all that your Mother was inside of you...and knowing that it was your birth that had killed her?"

"And then," snapped, Luna, "to have the only family you would ever know abandon you in hate and revulsion?"

She could. Goddess, she wished she couldn't, but she could! She'd seen it. Twilight had witnessed the hole in Typhon. In that brief, glorious moment when she'd truly seen the world around her, she'd known him. She'd felt the annihilating fury in his heart. She knew what he would do if he were set free. To hear how it had come to be there was...

Twilight found her vision clouding with tears. She let them come.

"But even that was not enough to make him what he has become."

Twilight looked up at Celestia. The idea that anything might be worse than what had just been described absolutely eluded her.

"It was Gaia's return that drove him to madness."

"Her...return?"

"You asked before if a Goddess could change, Cadance," said Celestia. "One way we can do that, we discovered, is to die. Gaia, our sister, who was once Life Itself...died. And in her place, wearing a pallid mockery of her body, rose Terra, the Silent Earth."

Twilight's mouth hung open. That empty, frozen thing was Gaia, the Goddess of Life?

But, no. It wasn't. Twilight hadn't understood what she'd seen in Terra, but she did now. That echoing emptiness, those ghosts of instinct, they had once been full and alive! Terra wasn't cruel, she was...gone. She was infuriating and cold because she'd forgotten what it was to be living. She was a mountain, trying to comprehend a sparrow. But still, she was trying! Even so...

"For one, tiny moment," said Luna, "Typhon was happy. He saw her rise and his eyes were so full of hope! But..."

"She barely remembered him!" cried Celestia. "She barely remembered any of us."

"He begged her to speak to him, to stay with him, to explain his purpose. To give him..." Luna's voice caught, and Twilight was at a loss to describe what emotion held her. Anger? Remorse? "A reason to be. Any reason."

"Terra stared at him for a long, long time. Then, as we all watched..." Celestia breathed deep. "She turned aside to examine a stone. Without sparing him a single word, she picked it up and walked away."

The fire crackled in the heavy silence.

"It was then that he attacked us," said Celestia. "Us, and everything else."

"He will kill the entire universe if he can, Twilight. Such is his only wish. An end to all things. Himself, most of all."

He would. Twilight had seen that in him. But she'd seen something else, too. He'd looked into her, just as she had into him, and something he'd seen had given him pause. Only for a moment, true, but still. For that second, he'd stopped. He'd tried.

"I can't recall how long it took us to finally defeat him," said Celestia, voice flat. "And even then, we could never kill him."

"He is a weapon forged by a master without peer," said Luna. "We don't know if he even can die. We could only banish him, and chain him, and prepare against the possibility of his escape."

"And so, we cast him into Tartarus, thinking that horrible place might hold him." Celestia shook her head. "But he tore his way free within a few decades, and was back upon our doorstep."

"It was then," intoned Luna. "That Terra came forth."

"She had all but ignored us until that moment. The great war with its mountain-rending battles, every entreaty we made for help or even simple recognition, the countless deaths Typhon had caused with his rampage, none of it had moved her in the slightest. To this day, we don't know why she returned. But in the end, she finally joined us in battle against her final, greatest child," said Celestia. "And together we forced him back into the prison-world."

"Then," said Luna, "with naught but a single glance back at us, Terra followed him in."

"Honestly, it was..." Celestia paused, seeming to have trouble saying the next words. "S-something of a relief, watching her go." Her face was weary with an old, old guilt.

"Seeing her," said Luna, voice tight with disgust. "This walking stone corpse wearing the face of our beloved sister, it was..." She shook herself, unable to find the words.

Luna showed anger where Celestia displayed guilt, but Twilight knew they were just different expressions of the same thing: grief. She wondered again if this were the first time either of them had ever put these feelings into words.

"We have met Terra and her loyal sons a hoof-ful of times since then," said Celestia, "when we've had to return to Tartarus for one reason or another. Typhon has freed himself twice. None of them have ever left that place."

Silence reigned. Cadance glanced between her friends, worried, but uncertain what to say to help them get through this.

Twilight, for her part, was thinking feverishly. She was putting things together, making some sense of what she'd heard and what she'd seen.

"She was making peace," she said.

Everypony watched her.

"Terra..." Twilight groped for words, feeling the ideas out as she spoke them. "She isn't evil. But she doesn't belong here anymore. I think that maybe you, er, us, the living, I think we disturb her just as much as she does us. Not because she is less than she was when she was Gaia. You can't see that because you remember her when she lived, and I didn't get it at first either, but she isn't less. She's completely different. She wants, or maybe she is,quiet, I think. Stillness. Life is fast, and active, and changes constantly, and Terra doesn't know how to deal with that. Maybe it even hurts her, in a way. But even so, she tries to love her children, and maybe she even wants to, but she doesn't remember how. So she left. It's just like you said, Cadance. She did the best she knew to do. She left so everypony else could grow into their own, and no one would be dragged down by the memory of who she used to be."

Celestia and Luna stared at her, rapt.

"She probably knew she'd made mistakes at the end, and maybe that's why she finally came back. She took her last children to Tartarus with her so they wouldn't hurt anyone here. And once there, she tried to give them what, I think, she hoped to give you. Peace. She made the hekatonkhire guardians. She gave them a place and purpose, which they'd never had. And she put Typhon to sleep, because that was all she could do."

"And she did the same to Tartarus itself..." murmured Celestia.

Luna burst into something that most ponies might have thought was a laugh. Twilight's recent experience had taught her better though. Mixed into the mirth she heard there was sorrow and bitterness and the strange relief that came with finally realizing something that should have been obvious.

"That's what she meant when said she'd become a part of Tartarus! She's put the damned place in a coma! And we keep waking It up! That's why she hates us!"

Celestia watched her, eyes glittering with tears and appreciation and all kinds of things.

"She doesn't hate you," said Twilight. "I don't think she hates anyone. You just, I dunno, frustrate her."

"Twilight," replied Luna, watching her carefully. "As much as we would all love to believe our deceased sister means well, the gaps in Our memory make clear that she has killed Us more than once. You yourself chastised her for knowing you were in Tartarus and leaving you to hang. She would have watched you die and felt nothing. Why would you defend her?"

"I..." Twilight had to think on that one. Was she just being optimistic here? Was she saying these things because they were true, or because she wanted them to be true? "Because...I think that she's trying. I told you about the little village we found there, remember? If what her letter says is true, that was her idea. It didn't last, but she wants to change Tartarus into something better. And I think that, maybe..."

Twilight, even in her own brief sojourn through the place, had found at least three creatures in Tartarus worth saving. She'd failed Bait, but she'd at least gotten Beaksy and Ben out of there. And where there were three, there might be more. How many others might be out there?

Luna's gaze turned to one of concern.

"Twilight?"

And if these recent revelations were true, if there were others, and Tartarus could be changed, and Typhon might be made whole again...

She frowned, and it was just as complex a thing as Luna's laugh had been. This was going to be awful. It would be a nightmare. And she was going to do it. Not right now, she wasn't ready yet. But she would be. Because those people needed her. And this was what she had chosen.

The little spark of divinity within in her grew into a fire.

"I have to go back."

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