• Published 30th Sep 2015
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Cruel Beauty - ObabScribbler

Deep in the catacombs beneath the Crystal Castle, Cadence and Shining Armour discover something that brings Luna running.

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1. Cruel Beauty

Celestia flared her wings and set down on the crystal balcony. Her golden shoes barely made a noise, as if too cowed to actually follow physics and break the silence that seemed to have fallen over the place. She felt the tingle in the air; a kind of tension, like many breaths being held as many ponies waited for someone to tell them what was going on.

Someone like her.

It was always her who told others what was happening; always her who saw the bigger picture and endured the frightened gasps when the truth was bad. Being a ruler meant you kept your happiness close and your sorrows closer, the better to shield your ponies from the hurts of life.

Cadence was waiting at the Prench window. Briefly they touched noses, a courteous bit of affection that spoke far more than words could.

“Thank you for coming so quickly, Auntie.”

“Where is she?” Celestia asked softly.

“In the catacombs. We couldn’t move her. She … she set up a shielding spell to keep us out.”

Celestia nodded, expression carefully neutral. “Take me to her.”

It didn’t matter that Cadence was a princess with her own Empire now. Celestia’s quiet authority chimed the old chime in her niece and Cadence ceded to the order without protest that it was an order. Celestia noted this and filed it away as something to speak to Cadence about later. Rulers needed to be careful about who saw them being ruled themselves.

Guards stood aside, servants melting away into side rooms and alcoves as they passed by. Celestia knew she was imposing but wondered absently which alicorn they were most reverent of. More than one eye followed Cadence with the kind of awed wonder usually reserved for a goddess. The two alicorns trotted down long hallways and through rooms with such ornate vaulted ceilings that even Celestia was impressed. Stained glass windows were her favourite decoration at home but these put her whole receiving chamber to shame. Intricate patterns wove in an out in a calculated dance of colour, light and shadow that made her want to stop and study them even when she knew she should not. The power of the beauty here was staggering.

The Crystal Empire had always been renowned for its architecture. Millennia ago, they had hoarded their secrets and allowed nopony outside their lands to learn how they created such magnificent splendour from solid crystal. Their insular nature had been their downfall, since they interacted so rarely with the outside world that nopony knew what Sombra had wrought here until it was too late. The crystal ponies had paid a high price for their self-interest. Celestia hoped the second chance they had been granted would result in a more open international policy. Judging by the number who had emigrated to Canterlot, she had faith they would not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Shining Armour was at his post on the last door. Magic prickled along Celestia’s shoulders, making her hackles rise involuntarily. The doors muffled it, infused as they were in magic of their own, but still the tang of alicorn spellcasting suffused the air. She shook off the feelings as Shining bowed to her.

“At ease. You’re not my Royal Guard Captain anymore, Shining Armour.”

“Apologies, your Majesty. The whole prince thing is still new to me.” He rose, nuzzling Cadence warmly.

“Is she still inside?” Celestia asked.

His face contorted for a moment before he could hide it. “Yes, your Majesty. She is. She … hasn’t come out since Wednesday.”

Celestia was aghast. “But that was two days ago!” Alicorns could slow their metabolism at will in times of crisis, but dehydration affected them as much as any mortal pony.

“We made sure to leave food and water beside her shield,” Shining Armour explained. “Sometimes she takes it. Sometimes she doesn’t. Mostly she just sits and … well, stares.”

“She used to talk,” Cadence added. “First to us, then to herself, we thought, but ...” She bit her lip before continuing. “She stopped after a while. It’s like we’re not even there anymore.”

Celestia’s chest clenched. She ruffled her feathers. “Take me to her.” She arched her neck. “Please.”

Nodding, Shining gestured to a pair of Crystal Guards, who pulled open the heavy double doors. A winding, rough-hewn staircase spiralled away into blackness pierced only by sconces in the walls. The crystal surface beneath Celestia’s hooves became coarse as she stepped forward. Her shoes crunched and squeaked slightly. It was not jagged enough to cut through the enchanted metal, but anyone without wings would have to mind not to slip or they would be badly gashed. She lit her horn for extra light, bathing everything in a soft golden glow.

Shining Armour and Cadence followed as she began her descent. Part of her wanted to shoo them away, but she allowed them to accompany her, as much for their benefit as for her own. They bade the guards remain behind and soon the only thing cutting through the silence was the sound of three sets of hoofsteps.

The shadows peeled back against Celestia’s magic. It was quite some time before the bottom of the cave loomed up from the darkness. Large shapes glistened in the ever-widening circle of her light like something on an ocean floor; ancient and raw, they pulsed with magic only a few ponies in the world knew how to use. One such pony them had met a horrible end only a short year ago, though by rights he should have died a thousand years prior. There would have been much less pain if he had.

The catacombs stretched out in all directions but Celestia immediately knew which way to go. She recognised her sister’s magic as easily as she would her own and sped up to reach her. Cadence and Shining Armour struggled to keep up with her longer stride but she did not slow for them. She faltered only when the pale blue iridescence of Luna’s shield spell came into view.

A figure sat in the middle of the radiant half-globe. Luna’s mane and tail billowed like always, but something about her was diminished. She seemed smaller than Celestia remembered, even though she had spoken to her only a few days prior. Luna had been smiling then, pleased at the rising popularity of the Night Court amongst the Equestrian citizens. That had been before the letter arrived from the Crystal Empire about the strange discovery beneath the Crystal Castle and she had teleported herself out of Canterlot without Celestia’s knowledge, causing uproar when night failed to come and she was nowhere to be found.


Luna did not turn.

“Sister, please.”

Still, she did not move.

“We tried calling her. We even tried yelling at her. She never responds,” Shining Armour explained.

Celestia was not deterred. “Luna, let me in. let me in right now or I will break this spell myself and come to you whether you like it or not.” The authority of the Sun Princess fell away, relinquishing itself to the authority of a big sister.

A big sister who knew her little sister was in pain.

A big sister who wasn’t sure she could heal it, but was determined to try anyway.

The shield spelled flickered just long enough to indicate Luna had heard her. Then it died.

Celestia stepped through the crystalline outcroppings, choosing a place that looked least uncomfortable to sit down. Next to her, Luna continued to stare upwards as if still alone. The silence between them was heavy as air before a storm. Celestia wondered whether she should be the one to break it. She was grateful to Cadence and Shining Armour for keeping back. This was a private matter. She would explain it to them later – they deserved some answers – but for now all that mattered was Luna and the focus of her baleful stare.

“Sister –”

“He was here all this time.” Luna’s voice sounded crackly from disuse and possibly dehydration. Her eyes were red and puffy but dry. She clearly had not been resting properly. “The catacombs did not vanish with the rest of the palace. They were buried here, under the snow. He was here … buried here alone … for all this time.”

“Luna, I –”

“I do not know how to free him, sister. I have tried as many spells as I am able but … none have worked and … and I am frightened that if I try more powerful magic I may …. I may hurt … even k-kill …” Her words dissolved into pained heaving, as if just trying to say them caused her pain.

Celestia spread one wing and used it to draw her sister close. She was reminded of times when they were young and she had performed the same gesture to help cut knees or stubbed noses feel less painful. A wing-hug could not heal a broken heart, however.

The unicorn stallion locked in the chunk of crystal before them stared out, though she would wager he could not see them. His prison was as ageless as the cavern around them: cold, beautiful and cruel. It was an ignoble fate for a pony who had saved her sister’s life. Celestia could feel his life pulsing gently at the centre of the crystal, but the secrets of crystal magic had been another thing the Empire hoarded during its heyday. She suspected most had disappeared with Sombra himself. The irony was too awful: by defeating the despot, Twilight and her friends may have taken away the only means Luna had to reunite with the pony who had loved her when it seemed to her that everyone else favoured her sister.

Loved her enough to take the blast of crystal magic meant for her.

Loved her enough to endure a living death.

Loved her enough to leave her all alone.

Loved her enough that the loss of him had eaten away at her and Nightmare Moon had seeped into the corrosive loneliness left by his loss.

“He once gave me a paperweight of a moth encased inside a crystal ball,” Luna whispered. “He had come here, to the Empire, especially to purchase it for me as a token on my birthday. I thought it a terrible gift. I was always so foul-tempered back then. I thought he was calling me a moth to your a beautiful butterfly, so I smashed it in a rage. Do you know what he did? He picked up every single shard with his telekinesis and spent a month putting it back together. When he gave it to me again, I didn’t understand. It was uglier than ever, all covered in cracks so one could not see the moth inside anymore. He told me that imperfection is beauty and to love someone’s imperfections is to love them fully. I … I didn’t understand. I sent him away. I was hurt. And then … I wanted the crystal to be whole again. I didn’t want it to be imperfect. It seemed so important at the time. I was so … so stupid. S-so I came here to the Empire, to have one of the artisans work their magic upon it. Sombra heard that I was here and must have thought I was spying on him … he sent an … assassin …” Her eyes closed. Her lashes were spiked with moisture. “Mystic had followed me. If it weren’t for him, I … it would be me in this crystal prison now, not him.”

“We will take him back to Equestria with us,” Celestia murmured. “Whatever happens, Luna, we will find a way to save him. I promise.”

It was not a promise she knew she could keep, and therefore it was a cruel promise to make, but Celestia made it anyway.

And Luna finally stopped staring at the stallion, buried her face in her big sister’s wing and sobbed out a heartbreak over a thousand years old.

Author's Note:

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