• Published 3rd May 2012
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The Powers of Harmony - CyborgSamurai



The Mane Six develop the powers of the Elements of Harmony and must use them to stop a new villain.

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- Act Two: The Players and the Pawns - Chapter 17: The Shield of Ignorance

Act Two: The Players and the Pawns

Chapter 17:

The Shield of Ignorance

The Next Day-

If there was one mystery that had enticed the minds of countless generations, it was how a pair of sentient beings could move the sun and the moon. Magic was the obvious answer, of course, but the details had been sought after by ponies throughout the ages. The pair of sentient beings in question had been interviewed, but Celestia and Luna always replied that they just focused on their heavenly charge, and willed it to rise and move through the heavens. This vague response never failed to frustrate, yet no matter how much the researchers begged, needled, wheedled, inquired, challenged, requested, or even threatened, the response was the same. It was finally decided that the secret must be too great or terrible to share, and nothing could be done to loosen the lips of the two immortals.

Nopony even considered that said immortals might not actually know.

Luna flew through the crisp fall morning air in the moments before dawn above Canterlot Castle with her normal escort of five guards in tow. The sky was a dull baby blue, and the stars had faded away into the haze. She’d just sent the moon to rest beyond the mountains, and her thoughts wandered as she circled high above a familiar balcony in anticipation for a certain somepony to make their usual appearance.

The Princesses of Equestria knew many things. Where they came from, how they'd come into power, where they'd found the Elements and why they'd been chosen as the original Bearers, how they'd been chosen to rule, who their enemies were, the laws they'd set into motion, the borders they'd established, the treaties they'd set into place, the wars they'd fought in and the uprisings they'd quelled, the spells at their command, how they wanted ponykind to develop, and what they wanted to do in the future, to name but a few.

Luna suspected it was all that knowledge that'd led them to their hubris. After all, when you have that much experience, power and authority under your belt, are respected as a powerful entity at the very least and worshipped as a god at the very most, it's embarrassing to admit you know next to nothing about something that defines your very being. The topic had been the cause of countless arguments with Celestia over the years, but her elder sister's resolve had never wavered, for they both knew that there was only one way to find out the secret of their immortality.

Self-experimentation.

Both Celestia and Luna continually interacted with their subjects over the centuries to prevent themselves from becoming detached, but the sting of death never became any easier to bear. Every student, servant, friend and lover that they lost to the ravages of time was another knife driven into their chests, and Celestia knew that if either she or Luna knew the secret to their immortality, they’d eventually share it. What seemed like the greatest mercy at the time would eventually be seen as the greatest cruelty, and the pony they saved would curse their fate, just as Celestia did.

Luna didn’t see it that way at all. She’d always been a generous and loyal soul, driven by an insatiable curiosity to learn. Why wasn’t she sharing the greatest gift of all with the ones she loved the most? Wasn’t it a betrayal to deny her friends salvation from the clutches of death? What of the knowledge that was being lost? Generations of minds could be working together to help advance ponykind and make their civilization flourish. Hadn’t their society developed enough that they could keep a few power-hungry mongrels in check?

One thousand and five years ago, Luna finally had enough. She sequestered herself away in the Hollow Shades, an ancient secluded valley known for its affinity for lunar magic, and experimented on her link to the moon in secret. Celestia had just assumed Luna was working on some pet project or another, as her sister always did have a reclusive streak. A few years apart now and then was good for both of them, and so Celestia managed the kingdom in Luna’s absence without complaint. She even invented a cover story for her.

A flicker of white below snapped Luna out of her musings. Celestia stood on her dew-soaked balcony, still and resolute as a sentinel. Her immaculate coat was covered in a soft sheen, and her multi-hued mane and tail waved in the solar wind. Her regalia shone with a golden radiance as she looked to the east.

Luna signaled to her guards, who reluctantly veered away. She descended to alight soundlessly on the parapets above the balcony entrance, her arrival going unnoticed by her sister. Luna watched as Celestia closed her eyes, set her horn awash in gold, and with an effortless motion born from thousands of years of practice, called forth the sun to begin a new day.

Her old friend sluggishly responded, poking its head above the distant, snow-capped eastern mountains of the Equius Valley and bathing the kingdom in a gentle glow. The two alicorns watched as the light swept across the lands and set the sky ablaze on its timeless journey across the heavens, spreading life and light to their beloved kingdom.

Luna stared directly into the sun with a naked smile, relishing the gentle warmth on her face. She hadn’t seen a single sunrise during her time on the moon. The Elements had physically fused her body with the satellite, placing her in a dreamlike state and sealing her power away. She could only remain lucid for small amounts of time, and every time she managed to wake up, it’d been either to absolute darkness or blinding light. The time spent in this state had felt like both a month and an eon, and she surmised that her awareness had been altered in some way. Unfortunately, explaining it better than that had proved difficult—even with the dictionary and thesaurus Celestia had so graciously provided for her.

It was amusing then, that Luna’s recent studies in vernacular allowed her to easily find a word to describe the natural phenomenon she’d just witnessed.

“Marvelous.”

Celestia’s ears twitched. She turned and looked up at Luna, who still wore her wide, joyous smile. Her melodic voice carried on the cool morning air as she continued.

“I’ve nary had to recalibrate my magical instruments since my return. Has the sun grown out of its ticklish phase at last?”

Celestia rolled her eyes. “I wish. It’ll throw out solar flares if you so much as poke it. I don’t even bother fussing with it anymore unless I have to.”

Luna gave a sagely nod and looked back up at the sunrise. “Perhaps that’s best.”

Celestia’s eyes swept over her younger sister. “How’re you feeling?”

“You ask me that every time we’re apart for more than a few hours, and my response is always the same.” Luna’s smile turned playful. “Better.”

It was hard to disagree. Luna’s vibrant eyes sparkled brilliantly as the morning light reflected the droplets of dew on her darkening periwinkle coat. Her mane and tail had gone wispy at the edges, and most noticeable of all, her legs had started to grow out, giving her a lanky appearance.

“Were you outside all night again?” Celestia asked.

Luna nodded as she wiggled one of her gangly legs. "Marble floors are the bane of those with skewed balance, and my wings have been getting stronger in the past week.”

Celestia adopted an odd, wistful expression. “You always did like to fly.”

Luna’s smile fell into a thin, flat line. It wasn’t easy for either of them to talk about what'd happened, and they both understood that it’d be a long time before things would go back to the way they were. Their relationship was, to put it lightly, strained, but Luna refused to fall prey to her guilt and self-loathing. She understood the repercussions of harboring such emotions, and wasn’t eager to repeat the experience.

Celestia, however, seemed to be having a harder time reconciling with the past.

“Tia,” Luna began.

Celestia caught the consolatory tone in her sister’s voice. She met Luna’s eyes with an impassive gaze.

“Yes?”

Luna fluttered down to the balcony to stand before her. “I’ve had time to think, and I want to talk to you about your plans.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.

Luna took a deep breath as she collected her thoughts. “I thank you for being honest with me. Your resolve has always been something I’ve respected, but even more so now that I know the depth of the measures you’ve taken for my sake. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like to go for so long without hope, and the steps you’ve taken to keep our kingdom prosperous while shouldering the centuries alone are justified in my eyes.”

“But know this," Luna said with a wink. "No matter how calm, logical, or stoic you may seem to the rest of the world, you can’t fool me. I still see the old you behind that little mask of dispassion.”

It took everything Celestia had to keep her jaw from falling on the floor. She’d met with countless kings and queens of other races, both civil and savage, who’d threatened, screamed, mocked, courted, even pleaded with her, all of which she’d weathered without so much as a twitch. Her poker face was the stuff of legends—something she’d literally taken decades to perfect, and yet here was her sister, gone for one thousand years and still able to read her like a book.

She didn't know whether to be flattered or insulted.

“Is it that obvious?” Celestia managed.

Luna stretched a wing to rest on her sister's shoulder. “You’ve only pretended to detach yourself in an attempt to numb the pain, sister. Regardless of what walls you put up or the lies you tell yourself, your heart is too great to be hidden away. You should've known such a gesture was futile from the start.”

Celestia swallowed hard. Luna's bluntness was like a tool that drove straight to the point and didn’t allow anything to be hidden away or ignored. Her shrewd point of view had a way of exposing the truth for all to see, which directly contrasted Celestia’s preference for finesse and tact. It was one of the many ways they balanced each other out.

Luna ran her primary feathers through Celestia’s coat like a brush. “I understand your actions and rationality with regards to recent events. Telling the Bearers about the true nature of my condition will lead to mistrust, and possibly even force them to unwanted action before they’re ready. It’s better for the time being that they not know that my counterpart still lives.”

Celestia closed her eyes at the mention of Luna’s… condition. The Elements could do incredible things, but they couldn’t take a life. They’d judged that Luna be reverted to her original state in order to restore balance, but Nightmare Moon was also a part of her that had to be treated as a separate entity. The Elements had equally divided Luna’s mind, magic, and lifeforce between the two, and Nightmare Moon was placed in a comatose state inside their shared body. Luna was now in complete control over their shared faculties, and as Nightmare Moon slept, her half of their magic was slowly being shifted back to Luna.

“Speaking of the Bearers, you’re right to treat them as a threat,” Luna continued. “Sending the Echoes has alerted her to our knowledge of the situation, but it’ll also deter her from taking action, and she’ll never reveal herself if we intervene directly. It’s just unfortunate you’ve had to obscure the truth from your own soldiers.”

Celestia lowered her eyes. “You can’t always afford the luxury of truth in a hostage situation, Lulu. I don’t like it any more than you, but the Zodiac Knights have to remain ignorant so that they can be around Applejack and Fluttershy.

Luna stepped forward to stand beside Celestia and looked down at the waking city below. “I’ll admit you've handled this well. You seem to have mastered the art of withholding information and using vague insinuations to make others come to the wrong conclusion. Which I suppose isn’t really lying… not technically, anyway.”

“I don’t like exploiting my old weakness.” Celestia looked over to the main gate and saw a cloaked figure enter the courtyard escorted by a pair of unicorn guards. “Ponies aren’t pawns to be used while the players skulk in the shadows orchestrating their moves.”

“And what are we, sister? The players, or the pawns?”

Celestia stiffened. She tried to hide the gesture with a cough as she looked over at Luna. “What do you mean?”

Luna jumped up onto the railing so that she could be eye level with her. “You may not like doing it, but that doesn’t stop you from telling these little half-truths if it suits your motives. It must be habitual by this point.”

Celestia shifted. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I think you do,” Luna said calmly. “You’ve told me a great deal about the Zodiac Knights and their predicament with the Gate of Tartarus.”

“I told you everything I could think of,” Celestia insisted. "It wasn’t on purpose if I missed something.”

Luna put a hoof to her chin. “Their host… Horizon, was it? From what you’ve told me, the damage to his body and mind is extensive. Undergoing partial transmutation into magical energy and surviving? There’s not a spell made by the hooves of mortals that can undo that. The only thing that could possibly restore him is the Elements, and they’ve been dormant since the war. It's rather fortunate that the new Bearers emerged at the precise time that the barrier keeping him alive is about to fall apart, don’t you think?”

Celestia pursed her lips.

“And then there's the matter of the Elements' dormancy," Luna continued in a nonchalant tone. "You said that it happened not long after you used them to banish me, correct?”

“Yes,” Celestia said slowly. “A year later, to be precise.”

“Strange, that.” Luna jumped off the railing to hover in midair. “We’d been connected to the Elements for thousands of years up to that point. An entire part of who we are, a very piece of what defines us, and you wake up one day and it’s just… gone. You must've been devastated.”

The impassive mask instinctively slipped over Celestia’s face.

Luna crossed her forehooves. “I understand that three months is nowhere near enough to cover a thousand years of lost time, and you’ve probably gotten used to keeping secrets from our subjects. You may be doing it to protect me, but I refuse to remain ignorant to the truth, especially considering that said ignorance has been the cause of so much pain in the first place. Do you disagree?”

Celestia’s thoughts whirred. She’d taken a risk in telling Luna about Horizon and the Zodiac Knights, but there hadn’t been any other choice. She’d intentionally omitted choice details to throw Luna off, but it seemed that, as usual, she’d underestimated the Bearer of Magic.

“You don’t know what you’re getting into,” Celestia said.

“Oh, really?” Luna challenged. “Let me tell you what I’ve figured out. We were chosen to be the Bearers of the Elements because we exemplify their traits to the utmost. To be suddenly cut off would imply that’s no longer the case, which is understandable considering our actions in the war. So the question becomes… what did the cutting?”

Celestia gritted her teeth. She had to stop this. Luna was following the same trail she had a millennium ago, and she knew exactly where it led.

“All we’ve ever known about the Elements is that they’re an extension of the planet’s will, and even that was a theory based off what we felt when using them to their full effect.” Luna flew back onto the balcony and sat on her haunches. “To have our connection be damaged or fade over time could be explained as natural decay, but for it to be severed completely such a short time after the war, when up to that point we’d seen no evidence that such a thing could even be done?”

Luna narrowed her eyes. "That was intentional."

Celestia winced as she watched her avenues of escape getting cut off one by one. Her worst fears were about to be realized, and there was nothing she could do about it.

“There’s no point in trying to hide it from me." Luna spoke with perfect clarity and conviction. "I know there’s something controlling the Elements. What I don’t know however, is the extent of that control. Has it been guiding us along like puppets on strings for our entire lives? Did it know that our links to the sun and moon are comprised of Chaos magic? The implications of that alone are staggering! Think of all that could’ve been avoided, Tia! The arguments, the pain, the tears, the loneliness, the failures, the war, the millennium of time we’ve lost! Ponies have suffered and died, an entire host still suffers, their only crime being that they were loyal to me, and there’s nothing I can do about it!”

It was too late. Luna had already put the pieces together. Celestia barely even heard the monologue as she silently cursed at herself.

Luna’s voice rose as she continued. “I fear we’ve been used, and only now that we’ve been cut off from the Elements do I see the extent of the influence. I suspect that this force is going to do the same for the new Bearers, and I shudder to think what kind of machinations are in store for them. Already I see signs—unless you’re going to tell me it was coincidence that the new Bearers emerged to take up the Elements on the exact same day of my return after a millennium of dormancy? Not only that, but the new Bearers are all in the same location, which is less than a day’s travel from where the Elements are?! If that’s all coincidence, I’ll turn the moon into cheese!”

“Luna…” Celestia’s voice was dim and went unheard.

Luna began to pace back and forth. “I’ve said this to you once, and I will continue to say for the next one thousand years. I’ll only take responsibility for actions that were in my control. This thing, force, presence, entity, whatever it is—I suspect it’s been withholding information from us to further its own ends. If that’s true, then it clearly has no moral conscience, holds a complete disregard for peace and prosperity, is ineffably evil, is responsible for the deaths of thousands, and needs to be held accountable for its crimes!”

Luna stopped and slowly turned, her teal eyes boring holes into her sister’s face.

“Which is why it’s so disturbing that you’re working for it.”

And there it was. Celestia groaned and put a hoof to her forehead, feeling a dull throbbing behind her eyes that had nothing to do with her magical font. All the planning, subtlety and secrecy she'd set up to keep this from her sister had just been laid bare, and there was nothing left for her to hide behind.

Celestia almost laughed. Luna really was feeling better.

There was a shout from below. The two of them looked down to see that it was time for the changing of the guard. The dark clad pegasi and unicorns marched off to their barracks to replaced by their golden armored counterparts with all the efficiency and precision of a military operation.

Celestia gestured to her balcony door. “Let’s go inside.”

The two Princesses went through a pair of golden curtains into Celestia’s apartment. Luna still opted to fly, sneering at the marble floors and coming to rest in the cushioned-filled sunken circle. Celestia followed after, closing the balcony door and sitting down on a large golden pillow.

Luna's gaze wandered to various points around the room as she waited for Celestia to speak. It’d been a gamble confronting her sister about this, and she hadn’t wanted her suspicions to be correct. She knew she wouldn’t be able fight Celestia off if she’d just stumbled into something sinister, but her curiosity refused to be denied. There had to be a reason why her sister, the former Bearer of Kindness, Laughter, and Honesty was voluntarily working with what could very well be a monster, and she needed to know what it was.

Celestia’s eyes were closed as she took slow, deep breaths. She did this for a full minute before she exhaled out her nose, and spoke one word in a resigned tone.

“Harmony.”

Luna cocked her head. “What about it?”

“No, no.” Celestia raised her forehooves in quotes. “The ‘force’ you’re referring to. It—her… name is Harmony.”

Luna blinked. “As in… the Elements of Harmony?”

Celestia nodded. “She’s their creator, and before you go off again, she's not the horrible, maniacal psychopath you're making her out to be. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

Luna adjusted herself to be more comfortable on her pillow. “Start from the beginning.”

“Balance in all things,” Celestia intoned with a slight twitch of her lips. “Life and death, good and evil, light and dark, land and sea, sun and moon… the creators of our world are no different. Eons ago, Harmony and her counterpart chanced upon our barren little rock in their travels across the cosmos, and they decided it was a good place to settle. Harmony tamed the lands, her counterpart created the oceans and the weather, and together they made our world into a paradise.”

“Who's her counterpart?” Luna asked.

Celestia’s expression darkened. “Oh, I'm sure you'll remember him.”

An image arose in Luna's mind. A coiled patchwork serpentine body wallowing in the blood of thousands. Mismatched claws that ripped through the fabric of reality itself. Chaotic eyes that promised only death and destruction as they danced with primal fury. The creature’s gaping maw was open as it let loose a mad, bone-chilling laugh.

Luna suddenly felt like she'd swallowed a rock. “You can’t mean—”

A sneer twitched on Celestia's lips. “I wouldn't kid about something like this.”

Luna shuddered. The memories of that foul creature alone were enough to send shivers up her spine. She was resistant to physical cold, not the chill of evil incarnate.

Celestia's expression softened as she noted her sister's discomfort. Her horn flashed once, and a merry fire started in a small firepit in the center of the sunken circle. She stared into the blaze as she continued.

“After cultivating the planet, Harmony and Discord brought about the races of our world, putting a little bit of themselves into all of us. Harmony’s touch instills peace, order, and a desire for things to stay the same. Discord’s influence inspires change, and pushes to keep things in a constant state of flux and fluidity. It’s easy to see who’s got more of whom in them.”

Luna inched herself closer to the fire. “So what happened?”

“There was tranquility for a time,” Celestia said, “but both of them loathed the methodologies of the other, and wanted to spread more of their influence to the world they’d created. They argued, tensions rose, and it finally came to a breaking point.”

“War?” Luna guessed.

“Not so grand as that.” Celestia looked over to an ornate, dust-covered armoire in the far corner. She hadn't even looked at her battleplate in three centuries. “Discord attacked Harmony in a swift and brutal ambush. They’re equal in terms of power, but putting a pacifist up against a warmonger isn’t much of a contest. Discord was about to deal the final blow, but before he could, Harmony performed one final, desperate act.”

Celestia gently tapped the floor with a hoof. “She fused herself with the planet.”

Luna jerked. “Is… that even possible?”

“Of course it is,” Celestia said. “It’s not so dissimilar to how you were fused with the moon.”

Luna thought for a moment on that. It could be done in theory, yes, but the amount of magical power that would require was on a scale she couldn’t even comprehend. And if it really was like how she'd been merged with the moon…

The realization dawned in Luna’s eyes. “She’s trapped, isn’t she?”

“Has been ever since,” Celestia said with a heavy sigh. “It saved her life, but with her awareness altered and power stripped, she couldn’t stop Discord from wreaking havoc. He fell prey to his own nature without a counterbalance, and it resulted in him descending into madness and bringing chaos to the planet. He generated constant enmity between the sentient races, instigated wars and destruction, prevented civilizations from advancing, and caused the lands to be in a constant state of upheaval.”

“The Era of Discord.” Luna ran a hoof over her face. “What of Harmony, though? She must’ve found a way to use her power if she created the Elements to stop him. How’d she do it?”

“Harmony can extend her will to anything that’s been touched by her influence, which is to say, all living things.” Celestia's mane shifted and began to flow behind her back. “It’s a very subtle thing: A suggestion here, an impulse there, a whisper that comes from nowhere, the surge of power that comes in desperate moments. She can do just about anything she wants with it—over the course of a thousand years or so.”

“Incredibly powerful, yet incredibly weak,” Luna said with a note of awe. “I’m guessing she found a way using this method to make the Elements?”

“That, and other things...” Celestia trailed off for a moment. She wet her lips and met her sister's gaze.

“Such as a pair of individuals best suited to wielding them for her.”

Luna's eyes went wide. “You mean to say she created us specifically to wield the Elements?!”

“It's more accurate to say she influenced our genealogy and ancestry,” Celestia corrected. “Calling us ‘puppets’ is a tad extreme, as she can't override free will, but it’s hard to resist something if you don’t know it’s there to begin with.”

Luna was suddenly struck with an epiphany. “I-If her influence only works if you don’t know it’s there, that'd mean that knowledge of her existence makes her virtually powerless...”

Celestia rested her head on a hoof and stared at Luna through half-lidded eyes.

“Yep.”

Luna gulped. “What’s going to happen to me?”

Celestia shook her head. “You’re not going to be banished to the moon again, if that’s what you’re thinking. Harmony works in one of two ways. She either influences you, or she uses you. If she can’t do one, she does the other. To use one of your questions as an example, she did know about our links to the sun and moon, and she tried to stop you from performing your experiments in every way she could. She knew you’d expose yourself to the Chaos magic and fall to madness, but you ignored all her efforts and did it anyway. When she realized she couldn’t stop you, she decided to make the best of a bad situation, and has been guiding along events ever since.”

“The best of a bad situation?” Luna echoed. “How could she—“

Celestia continued to stare at her with that same peculiar expression. Her face held no lines, no wrinkles, no marring of any kind that gave evidence to her incredible lifespan, yet still Celestia looked ancient, sorrowful, and tired beyond belief. Luna realized it was her eyes. They were like bottomless holes trying to suck her into a well of despair.

A terrible suspicion arose in Luna’s mind. “Tell me how you found out.”

Celestia’s gaze fell. “I did it a few months after the war ended.”

“Did what?”

Celestia said nothing. Instead, she slowly, carefully, removed her golden collar.

Luna sucked in her breath through clenched teeth. Set on the left side of Celestia’s chest were a pair of ugly, jagged three inch scars. The fur covering them was white, but the scars and skin around them were a pure, deathly black. Luna reached out with her magic, and felt her gorge rise as she detected a faint aura that only came from a specific pair of Lunairium blades.

“You didn’t...”

Perigee and Apogee,” Celestia whispered. “I have to give you credit on your spellwork, Lulu—they were around negative three-hundred degrees Marenheit when I plunged them in. Didn’t work, obviously, but I keep the scars as a reminder.”

“Why?” Luna croaked.

“You were gone,” Celestia said in a monotone. “I had no way of getting you back. Our kingdom was in shambles, and life had nothing left to offer me but pain and dust. I had so much on my plate, and none of it seemed to matter anymore. Your counterpart was always coming up with something nasty to throw at me, so I figured it was the best shot.”

Luna's throat went tight. “You fool…”

Celestia slipped her regalia back over the scars. “I met Harmony as I hovered there between life and death. I’d had suspicions of my own that something was orchestrating the events of the war, but I didn’t have any concrete evidence and I was beyond caring anyway. She’d known I was close to sniffing her out, and so she decided to push me over the edge so that we could have a little chat.”

“She goaded you into attempting suicide?!" Luna jumped up into the air, her limbs splayed out and nostrils flared. "What kind of sick, twisted—“

The fledging rant was interrupted by laughter. Luna stopped as she stared down at Celestia, who did nothing to stifle her amusement. A tinge of fear colored Luna’s face.

“Tia?”

Celestia stopped and remembered herself. “Sorry, that probably seemed a little frightening... let’s just say it takes a lot more than that to kill us, Lulu. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me keep going.”

Luna scrunched her eyebrows, but slowly lowered herself back onto her pillow with a hesitant nod.

“Talking with Harmony isn’t easy,” Celestia explained. “The only way to do it is to put yourself into Limbo, and if she hasn’t guided you there, you'd have to get her attention somehow… which would be like a flea trying to flag down a dragon mid-flight.”

Luna closed her mouth and licked her teeth. “I see.”

“Harmony told me about her origins, how she operates, and the specifics of the Elements." Celestia stretched out her wings to warm her shoulder joints. “You’d mentioned that you noticed that your decisions and actions seemed guided while we were connected to the Elements? That’s because the Bearers are more susceptible to her influence than anypony else. We also talked about the war, what plans she had for the future, and then, what plans she had for me.”

Luna stared hard at her sister. “You had to have felt enraged, rebellious, and betrayed. You were hoping for nothing but the sweet embrace of death, and instead you got confronted by our creator, who told you your entire purpose is to be a tool to further her own ends, and she’s not done using you yet. There’s only one way Harmony could’ve enlisted your cooperation, and ensured your continued silence.”

Luna didn’t want to ask her next question. She knew the answer would spear her like a lance. She asked it anyway.

“What did she offer?”

Celestia stared at her sister with desperate longing.

“You.”

Luna closed her eyes. Of course it wasn't enough that she'd inflicted untold pain and suffering upon generations of ponies and subjected her sister to the burden of facing immortality alone, she also had to be used as a bargaining chip in a game played by a veritable god.

“We made a deal, as you already guessed.” Celestia put a hoof into the firepit and adjusted a burning log. The flames licked at her shining fur, but didn't actually burn. “She’d free you from Nightmare Moon, and I’d perform any task that she gave me in exchange. I agreed without a second thought.”

Luna opened her eyes, which had turned dull and distant. “What task did she give you?”

Celestia looked up, the shadow of her mask playing on her features. “To pick up where you left off.”

“Pick up? What—”

Luna's eyes shrunk to pinpricks as her words clicked. It couldn't be true. She couldn't have done it. There was no way, not after what'd happened to her. Yet, while Celestia was known to play the occasional joke here and there, she'd never jest in a time like this.

Luna's voice was almost a squeak. "You... experimented on yourself?”

“Hundreds of times,” Celestia said without any note of concern. “I couldn’t devote myself wholeheartedly to it, what with running the kingdom and all, but time is a resource that we have in spades. I took every conceivable precaution I could think of, and I even used your old notes for reference. It was slow progress, but it paid off in the end.”

Luna’s breath caught in her chest. “Did you—”

“Yes Luna,” Celestia said calmly. “I did it. It took me seven hundred and thirty-two years, but I did it. I know the specifics of how we control the sun and moon, and by extension, the secret to our immortality.”

Luna wasn’t sure what to think. This was something she’d wanted for thousands of years. She’d lost count of how many arguments she’d had with Celestia about it, and how many times she’d wished she could do something as a loved one faded away. But now that desire was now tainted with the sting of her failure, as well as the burden of the knowledge of what Celestia had gone through. The precautionary measures her sister must have taken after seeing what happened to her would’ve been extreme, obsessive to the point of redundancy—insanity, even.

Celestia watched as Luna fidgeted on her pillow. “Do you really want to know? I’ll tell you if you do.”

Luna ground her teeth. "Of course I do, but I don’t have the right. Perhaps one day, but not now. You only did it because of my failure, after all. I’m sorry you had to do something so dangerous because of me. I’m just happy you didn’t get hurt.”

“Knowing the truth isn’t always best,” Celestia said. “Ignorance can be the strongest of shields if you use it correctly.”

“Or the most lethal of poisons,” Luna muttered. She flipped around to expose her other side to the fire. “I’m curious, though. Why would Harmony have you research our immortality when she tried to stop me from doing it?”

Celestia’s voice turned somber. “Because you were going to fail. If it’s any consolation, the only reason I didn’t was because of all the failsafes I’d put in place, and I only had them because of what happened to you.”

Luna lightly ground her teeth as she felt the rock shift in her gut. “Best of a bad situation, indeed.”

“I know this is probably impossible for you, but don't try to think too hard on it.” Celestia leaned forward and rested a hoof on Luna’s forearm. “Harmony operates on the grandest of scales, and what seems like a random occurrence or a setback in our eyes is all according to plan in hers.”

Luna watched as Celestia lightly stroked her fur. “To what end, though? What does she want?”

“We’re talking about the very creator of the Elements, Lulu,” Celestia said quietly. “She helped shape our planet, seeded it with life, and now only wants to see her children thrive. I’ve had my doubts in her over the centuries too, but she’s proven that she makes good on her promises, even if it takes her a while.”

Luna sighed. This was a bitter pill to swallow. Here she’d thought that she’d finally reclaimed her free will, only to discover that she may never have had it in the first place. A large part of her wanted to get the answers straight from the source and talk with Harmony herself, but it sounded like that’d be exceedingly difficult, not to mention painful. And what would it accomplish? Harmony was going to do what she thought was best, regardless of whether or not Luna went along with it.

“Are you angry at me?” Celestia asked.

Luna considered. Was she? In just about any other case, she would be. Ignorance had caused her an untold amount of pain and suffering, but she understood that Celestia had done this for her protection. Luna didn’t know what was going to happen from now on, but she was going to take a more active role from now on, maybe even taking center stage once more. Was that something she wanted?

Luna looked up and saw the uncertainty etched on Celestia’s face. “That depends. How do you think she’ll use me?”

Celestia shrugged. “I can’t say for certain. If you scratch her back, she’ll scratch yours. If you make things complicated for her, she’ll do so for you in turn.”

So it was like that. “Then it doesn’t really matter how I feel, now does it?” Luna said with a frown.

Celestia removed her hoof and adjusted her mane. “This is why I didn’t want to get you involved. I knew you’d have trouble accepting this, and you’ve been through so much already that I wasn’t sure if you could handle it. You’re not even totally free of that monster yet, and I—“

“The moon must always have a dark side.” Luna closed her eyes and mentally prodded the glimmering prismatic barrier that separated her consciousness in two. Just beyond, she could make out a dormant, swirling, formless mist. “We may be separate now, but you have to accept that she’ll always be a part of me.”

Celestia narrowed her eyes. “Not if I have anything to say about it. I’ve suffered almost as much as you over these last ten centuries, and I’m tired of holding back. I’ve followed Harmony’s orders without question in exchange for a clear shot, and I’m not going to settle for anything less.”

Luna’s voice turned bitter. “You think I wouldn’t welcome such an opportunity? I’ve just as much of a stake in this as you, but this isn’t a contest to see who’s suffered more. We can’t allow our minds to become steeped in venom. We both know where that road inevitably leads.”

Celestia lowered her eyes and glanced to the side, the mantra of a long-passed soldier rising unbidden to her lips. “Old habits die hard.”

“Indeed they do,” Luna agreed. “The problem being that our habits are older than most. Annoyed is the word I’d use to describe my feelings, not angry. Perhaps irritated… or peeved… yes! Peeved is a good one.”

Celestia’s lips twitched. “Maybe giving you that thesaurus was a mistake.”

“Forsooth!” Luna put a hoof to her chest with wide eyes. “Thou meanest to imply thou preferest the old tongue over this modern gutterslang? Praise the heavens, thou hast seen reason at last! Mayhap the bill I proposed will pass, and we may reintroduce the proper ways! Prithee sister, say but the word and we will rid our subjects of this verbal tripe!”

Celestia squinted as she broke into a smile. “How long have you been waiting to use that?”

“A fortnight,” Luna said proudly. She went over to lie down beside her sister and nuzzled her side. “I’m serious about the bill though.”

Celestia stared at her younger sister beside her, almost disbelieving that Luna was real. How many times had she dreamed of this, only to wake up alone a moment later to see the silhouette of a mare still on the moon? Part of Celestia still refused to fully accept it for fear of the pain, but that part was becoming smaller and smaller as the days went by.

Besides, the dream version of Luna never had messy wings with dozens of feathers out of place.

Celestia chuckled, then bent her head down and began to gently preen her sister. Luna stiffened at the contact, but then relaxed as she realized what Celestia was doing. Luna leaned over to reciprocate, but Celestia's feathers were already groomed, so she closed her eyes and placed her head on her Celestia's withers as she enjoyed the pleasant nips and tugs.

The two sisters were silent as they lay together by the fire. In that moment, the past was gone, and they weren't a pair of immortals who wielded immense power and authority over an entire nation. They were ponies, siblings, performing an act that all siblings do for each other... well, all siblings that have wings, at any rate. It was such a simple thing, but yet, that's exactly why it did so much to restore their damaged bond, because it meant they trusted each other. They were a family again, things were back to normal, and eventually, everything that'd happened would fade into the mists of obscurity.

Luna rested her cheek on Celestia's shoulder. She'd let the moment last as long as she could, but she had one last bombshell to drop, and if she didn't say it now, it'd be hard to get another opportunity.

“You should know that I would’ve found out about all this regardless of whether or not you’d said anything,”

It was a good thing Celestia had taken that moment to step back and examine her work, or she would’ve accidentally pulled out one of Luna’s feathers.

“What makes you so sure of that?” Celestia asked.

Luna snorted, causing Celestia to twitch as the blast of air tickled the back of her neck. "Please. I’ve known something was amiss long before that Echo came barging into my boudoir. Tell me—is it customary to send personal protégées on errands to perform mundane managerial tasks in quaint country towns?”

Celestia opened her mouth to retort, but found that no sound came out. She slowly hung her head, which then turned into a facehoof.

“Horseapples.”

Luna giggled. “The aura of mystery surrounding the Elements will exonerate you in the eyes of most, but not from the one who was there when you found the Elements in the first place. There’s no way you could’ve known Twilight Sparkle was to be the new Bearer of Magic without either orchestrating the events yourself or being involved with the one who was. It makes me wonder what all you taught the filly in your ten years of tutelage.”

Celestia resumed her grooming. “History, magical theory, law, philosophy, science, but most of all, control, control, control. Twilight’s font is the largest I’ve ever seen in a unicorn, and her raw power might rival ours by the time she fully grows into her Element. Fortunately, she’s with an individual that’s second only to you in terms of knowledge and experience with magic addiction.”

“I remember Libra’s affliction quite well,” Luna said with a grim nod, “as well as how he put it to use. Does Twilight know any combat magic?”

“If she does, she didn’t learn it from me.” Celestia adjusted one last feather and looked up at Luna. “We covered a few theories on why certain spells have been declared forbidden, but it’s not like I was prepping her for war. The next thing I’m going to hear you say is that I was secretly turning her into a brilliant military strategist so that she’d rise up and become the ultimate weapon.”

Luna rolled her eyes. “Now that’s just absurd.”

Celestia felt a familiar tug on her magical font. There was a small pop, and a swirling jet of emerald flame appeared in front of them.

“Speaking of which…” Celestia watched as the flame coalesced into a scroll. She took in her magic, broke the seal, and began to read.

Dear Princess Celestia-

True friends are ones that understand what’s important to you, and are always there through thick and thin. They value your happiness above all else, and want you to do whatever you have to do to achieve it, even if it means that you have to part ways for a while. They’ll always be ready and willing to pick right back up where you left off, and as long as you reciprocate, the fire of friendship will never go out.

While I’ve found that nothing makes me happier than seeing the friends I’ve made be happy in turn, the converse is also true. I’ve run out of avenues for locating the Symbols of the Elements here in Ponyville, and I need to go abroad in order to progress further with my thesis. It’s been hard coming to this decision, but my friends understand that this is something I have to do and that the sooner I leave, the sooner I’ll get back.

By the time you read this I’ll already be on the train north with Blair, Ace, and Piro. Spike is staying behind to watch the library and will be staying with Fluttershy. Oh, and on that note, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Rainbow are coming up to Canterlot for a week and I told them that it’d be okay for them to stay in the Castle Suites. If by some off-chance that they’re all full, can they stay in my tower? I assume it’s still empty unless you needed storage or something.

I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, but I anticipate that my search will take at least a few months. I know the Symbols are out there somewhere. It’s just a matter of looking in the right places! I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Your Faithful Student-

Twilight Sparkle

A collection of random letters was hastily scrawled underneath the letter. Recognizing Blair’s code, Celestia cast a Decryption spell and read the message.

Your Majesty-

I’ll be taking Twilight’s trip abroad as an opportunity to train her to control her powers without any fear of collateral damage. I’ve also decided to inform her of our nature and Horizon’s situation. We know what the Symbols of the Elements are, and therefore won’t interfere with Twilight’s reason for the trip in the first place. We’ll return before the Temporal Stasis spell is up.

-Blair

Luna raised an eyebrow as Celestia’s face become more and more stoic as she read the letter.

“What is it?”

Celestia chewed on her lip. “We have a problem.”

There was a knock on the entrance door. The two Princesses looked at each other for a moment, and Luna reluctantly got up and went back over to her pillow. Celestia adjusted her collar, then opened the door a crack to allow admittance.

A Royal Guard stepped in. His eyes went wide upon seeing both Princesses present, and he quickly lowered his head in a bow.

“Your Majesties,” the guard said. “Captain Shining Armor has returned from the Crystal Empire.”

Celestia sucked on her teeth a moment before nodding to the soldier. “Have him report to the debriefing room after he’s attended to himself.”

The guard saluted and walked out the door. Luna felt Celestia shift, and saw she was getting to her hooves and preparing to leave.

“What’s this said problem?” Luna asked, still looking at the scroll.

“We’ll discuss that later.” Celestia extinguished the firepit. “I need to speak with Shining Armor first.”

Luna scrunched her brow, then with one fluid motion, leapt up into the air and flew over to the door. “If it’s that important, then I shall attend as well. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting the good Captain yet, though his reputation certainly precedes him.”

“What do you know about him?” Celestia asked.

“I took it upon myself to do a little research to separate the rumors from fact.” Luna raised her eyes to the ceiling. “Attended and graduated CSGU as Valedictorian, joined the Equestrian Military at age eighteen, received Battlemage certification at twenty-one, inducted into the Royal Guard at twenty-two, promoted to Captain at twenty-four. Frequently sent on diplomatic missions to the Crystal Empire due to his long-standing relationship with the current ruler Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, and is hailed for his prowess and adaptability in combat situations. All in all a very promising soldier, I’d even go so far as to call him a prodigy.”

“Does it surprise you then, that he’s also Twilight’s older brother?”

Luna almost fell out of the air. The only thing the records had mentioned that even remotely concerned Shining Armor’s family was his relationship with the foreign Princess. It was rather strange that they’d mention that over familial ties, especially considering one of them was Celestia’s protégée, and the Bearer... of Magic...

Luna regained her balance and adjusted her wispy mane. “I’m beginning to see how Harmony works.”

Celestia smiled wryly as they walked out the door. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”