• Published 30th Sep 2015
  • 2,840 Views, 35 Comments

Cruel Beauty - ObabScribbler



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

  • ...
10
 35
 2,840

2. Sleeping Duty

A quiet room.

A ticking clock.

A waiting mare.

A spell.

A glowing horn.

A disappointment.

A failure.

Again.

A day.

A week.

A month.

Still, she waits.

Still, the room is quiet.

Still, she casts. And casts. And casts.

Still, her sister tends to her.

Still, her hoofmaidens urge her to sleep.

A question from a curious student.

A shake of a saddened white head.

A lament for the long-gone Elements of Harmony.

An idea.

A book.

A spell.

A train pulling into the station.

A crystal princess.

An eternal student.

A promise to be kept by an elder sister.

A tired smile.

A single glowing horn. Then another. And another. And another.

A hope.

A prayer.

A crack in the crystal. Tiny. Insignificant.

Enough.


The Summer Fete sprawled across the meadow like a many-legged beast trying to scramble somewhere between Ponyville and the Everfree Forest. The ponies setting up stalls, unloading wares, stringing out decorations and calling instructions to each other were brief splashes of colour and noise on an otherwise peaceful morning.

Twilight stared down from the balcony of her castle and tried not to mentally list all the ways today could go wrong.

“Keep it together, Twilight.”

She tried to wrest her thoughts onto a more positive topic: her supreme organisation skills, the smiles on the faces of all the colts and fillies who were helping out, her own friends ready and raring to go. Yet no matter what she did, she kept being drawn back to that ever-growing list.

“This is stupid,” she muttered, as she retreated inside and descended through the castle’s labyrinthine halls to the kitchen and a nice soothing pot of tea. “I’m being totally overdramatic. Nothing will go wrong. Nothing at all. Nope. Totally going to be totally fine. Totally.”

The kettle on the stovetop whistled piercingly. Her ears flattened against her skull.

“I hope.”


“Are you sure you’re all right, Twi?”

Applejack fought the urge to take her friend’s hoof. Twilight looked so drained and wan that it was a miracle she was standing at all.

“All right might be pushing it, but I’m not going to collapse or anything like that.”

Applejack remained unconvinced. Judging by their friends’ expressions, they weren’t buying it either.

“I reckon you better sit down before you fall down,” Rainbow Dash opined.

“I have a cushion right here!” Pinkie held up the oversized beanbag. It was shaped like Twilight’s head.

“Where did you-?” Twilight stopped herself with a shake of her head. “No, never mind, it’s pointless to ask. Girls, seriously, I’m fine. I was just one part of the spell. The princesses and I all shared the burden of the casting equally.”

Rarity scrunched up her nose. “Even so, darling, you do look rather washed out.”

“It was hard keeping the balance of power. Princess Luna kept trying to shoulder more of the burden. It was generous, I guess, but in a magic spell designed to be shared equally …” Twilight sighed. “Not a great idea. We all had to keep her back as much as push ourselves forward.”

Applejack had understood maybe a third of all that. What she understood perfectly was that Twilight, Cadence, Luna and Celestia had performed some kind of miracle tonight, all based on Twilight’s idea and something cadence had brought from the Crystal Empire, and that nopony else had been allowed anywhere near the laboratory in which they cast their spell until well after the lightshow was over. Being an earth pony, Applejack had an innate aversion to using magic to solve her problems, but she knew a big spell when she saw it.

An’ that one was a whompin’ big ol’ spell like I ain’t never seen before. Whole castle lit up bright as Tirek when we used the Rainbow Magic on him.

There had been six of them against Tirek. She wondered whether she had looked as bad as Twilight did now. It was all a bit of a blur now.

Twilight looked over her shoulder. “I came to tell you girls what’s going on, but I’d better get back there. The other princesses need me.”

“What, still?” Applejack took a step forward. “Twi, you gotta rest!”

“I will.” Twilight nodded, already motioning to the guards who had escorted her down to the chambers she and her friends often used when in Canterlot together. “When this is over.”

“Twilight, please –”

“If … if anything happens.” Twilight met Applejack’s eye, then cast her gaze over the rest of her friends. “I’m trusting you guys to take care of it.”

“What the heck are we supposed to take care of that four alicorns can’t handle?” Spike demanded.

“Hush, Spikey!” Rarity chastised, causing a blush to cremate Spike’s cheeks.

“We’ll do what we can, Twi.” She may have been wrong, but Applejack could have sworn Twilight had held her gaze longer than the others’. She had seen something in Twilight’s eyes in that brief moment: deep-seated tiredness mingled with triumph and … something else. Sadness maybe? “You can count on us.”

“I know I can.” Twilight smiled and let her escorts pull the doors closed behind her.


“Twilight!” Applejack’s waving hoof was an orange beacon across the milling crowd.

Smiling, Twilight trotted towards her friend. “Excuse me. Pardon me. So sorry. If I could just squeeze through here? Thank you so much.” She popped out the other side of the crowd in a motion not totally unlike a cork from a bottle. Righting herself and trying not to be too obvious about smoothing down her mane, she beamed, “Hi! You guys are here early.”

“Eeyup,” Big Mac agreed.

Applejack tilted her head at the cart of apples her brother was pulling. “Early bird catches the worm, right?”

“How many worms are you planning on catching with that contraption?”

She laughed. “You never did see my award-winning performance at the Grand Gallopin’ Gala, did you, sugarcube?” It took some manoeuvring to reach behind herself and pat the folded up huckster’s booth she had dragged all the way from Sweet Apple Acres, but somehow she managed it. “Are the others here yet?”

“As ever, you’re the first to arrive.”

“As ever?” Applejack raised an eyebrow.

Thinking she had somehow caused offence, Twilight instinctively raised her hooves in a placating gesture. “Just, y’know, you like to get to events nice and, ah, bright and early!”

The eyebrow rose higher.

“It’s that good, ah, strong Apple family work ethic at, ah … work.” Twilight grimaced. “Can you rescue me from this conversation now?”

Applejack’s laugh was like fresh golden delicious rolling around in a wooden bucket. “Why when you’re so entertainin’?”

Twilight’s mouth scrunched up in a moue, but it dropped from her features just as quickly as all their ears perked at a familiar high-pitched laugh.

“Ooh, can we have a cute cart contest today too? Twilight could totally judge it.”

“Hi Pinkie!”

“Hey there, Pinkie Pie.”

“Eeyup.”

Pinkie jogged up to them, apparently no slower than usual despite the brightly painted cart bouncing along behind her. It could not have been any pinker if she has plastered herself against the wood grain and pretended to be paint. Beneath the tarpaulin, sealed containers of wonderful smelling cargo jostled together.

“Hi girls! Well, and boy. Or you could be an honorary girl for today. How does that sound, Macintosh?”
.
“Nope.”

“Hmm. Pity. You’d look super-duper in a dress.” Apparently not noticing or maybe not caring about the irony of her own statement, Pinkie trotted up to … and then straight past the trio. “Sorry, got to get these baked goods to the tea tent quick pronto! We’ve got to make sure today goes extra specially magnificently super specially awesomely perfect for the princess, right? And the earl pony catches the churn! Or something like that.” Her snorting giggles blended into the general chatter as she was absorbed into the crowd.

“Well …” Twilight said eventually. “At least she’s enthusiastic about today.”

“Sugarcube, when is Pinkie Pie ever not enthusiastic about makin’ a shindig the shinniest dig it could ever could be?”

“Good point.”


“Luna.”

Luna lifted her eyes to Celestia. “Yes, sister?”

“He is not a foal, Luna. You don’t need to cradle him so.”

In response, Luna’s legs twitched, as if she wanted to push the stallion, who was almost as tall as she was, closer against her side. His face was a mess of wrinkles caused, not by age, but by the strain of being reborn into a world that had forgotten him for over a thousand years. Subduing him with a healing enchantment had not been difficult, even in their enfeebled state, but his dreams were clearly troubled ones.

“He is weak,” Luna responded.

“So are you. We all are.” Celestia gestured to Cadence, dozing on a nearby couch and looking far more haggard than Celestia could ever remember seeing her. “He is safe if you leave him to sleep alone.”

Luna bit her lip. Where Cadence seemed to have aged, Luna seemed inordinately younger than usual. Her mane hung limp, no longer a wafting cloud of spectral glory, but a soggy lump of barely glistening hair half-plastered to her neck with dried sweat. She stared at Celestia in a way she had not done in years: with the abject pleading of a filly who wanted her big sister to make all the bad things go away so the world was right again.

Celestia sighed. “At least promise me you won’t go into his dreams.”

Luna nodded. “Thank you, sister.”

Half-convinced she was making a mistake, Celestia turned away. Her own tail swept the floor. It was going to get filthy, but she had barely enough energy to raise her hooves in a slow plod across the room. Gently, she drew a fringed decorative blanket over Cadence, who curled into herself, forelegs crossed strangely across her abdomen. Celestia, however, was too tired to notice and sagged onto a neighbouring couch of her own. Even the base of each and every feather hurt. It was an ordeal to stretch her wings across her body and elegantly lay herself out for a nap.

Which was, of course, when the door to the room opened and her most faithful student barreled unsteadily inside.

“Did I miss anything?”

“No, Twilight. Everything is as you left it when you departed to speak to your friends.”

“It is?” She stared around suspiciously, as if wanting to believe her mentor but at the same time possessing enough life experiences now to distrust anything peaceful situation as anything more than a façade.

“Yes,” Celestia reassured her. “It is.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, Twilight.”

“You’re all still fine?”

“Fine might be stretching things a little, but we are as close as we could be under the circumstances.”

“You’re absolutely sure?”

“Yes, Twilight.”

“Good.” And with that, Twilight Sparkle, ascendant royal and princess of friendship, keeled over unconscious.

Author's Note:

I wrote 'Cruel Beauty' as a Patreon reward years ago. The patron wanted me to continue it in exchange for more of their monthly rewards and so I wrote it under the working title 'Sleeping Duty'. Unfortunately the patron dissolved their patronage before the fic was finished and Sleeping Duty went into storage with only a few chapters written. However, I always kind of liked where it was headed back then - even if the direction ended up being not quite what the patron envisioned. It seemed silly to leave it all unpublished forever, so for the foreseeable future, I figured I would release what I had in chaptered form and see whether people liked it enough for me to finish writing it.

As such, feedback is very much appreciated!