• Published 28th Nov 2011
  • 33,189 Views, 997 Comments

The Moonstone Cup - Cyanide



Twilight is invited to Canterlot to compete with some of the greatest unicorns in Equestria!

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Chapter 7

The barracks in the ground level of Canterlot Castle hadn't seen their intended use in centuries, instead being intermittently pressed into service as guest quarters. The old shared shower facilities had been updated to a more comfortable standard, with raised stone platforms equipped with wash tubs and shower fixtures set in in place of the open-head showers the room had originally been equipped with. A trail of muddy hoof prints led from the wooden doorway to one of those wash tubs and the downcast pony sitting in it.

Twilight sat in the warm, increasingly cloudy water, glumly scrubbing herself with a large dandy brush. The bottom of the wash basin was already strewn with bits of crushed grass, grit and a few small bone fragments. Twilight was listlessly pushing the last of these around with her hoof, watching ancient flecks of dirt and mud come away in the water.

Gianna did this to impress and flatter me, Twilight thought. She looked at a coin-sized fragment, the largest that had been caught in her mane. Even through the murk, Twilight could make out the ridged, porous surface. This used to be somepony, and Gianna turned it into a puppet, and all for Twilight's benefit.

Gianna wasn't the only who was treating Twilight as if she were something special. Shahnaz had acted like he was taking lessons from her. Al-Dhi'b wanted her, personally, to keep the memory of his people alive. Najstariot seemed to think she was somehow a threat. Everywhere she went, there were ponies watching her, talking about her. Even Princess Luna had thought she was strong enough to take part in this competition in the first place. It was as if everypony had gone crazy, except for her friends. In the end, however, Twilight had run away from everyone, including them.

Twilight stood, grey water swirling around her knees, and she stepped out of the washtub. A quick telekinetic tug and the stopper came loose, sending the dirty water swirling down the retrofitted drain. Twilight set the stopper down on the raised stone floor, next to the tub. The water drained quickly, leaving only the grit and sediment that had settled out. A moment later, the bone fragments levitated out of the drained tub and set down next to the stopper. With another small effort of telekinesis, Twilight turned the showerhead back on. She began mechanically cleaning the bottom of the basin with the dandy brush, sending the sediment left behind in the tub down after the grey water.

She restored the stopper once the tub was clean and carefully stepped back up into the tub, letting the shower run to refill. Her third bath, and finally the water wasn't immediately turning into mud. She settled down into the rising water, wings twitching under the shower, her mane and tail floating lazily on the surface. She resumed scrubbing herself.

Many minutes later, Twilight started as an unexpected knock came at the wooden door at the far end of the washroom. "Um, hello?" she said, with a bit of trepidation.

The voice through the door was muffled, but clear. "Twilight, may I come in?"

Twilight smiled wanly at the familiar and welcome voice. "Oh, princess! Yes, please, come in."

The door creaked open and Princess Celestia stepped into long washroom, ducking slightly to get her horn in under the door frame. She made her way over to Twilight's tub, smiling. "You did extraordinarily well in today's matches, Twilight. You should be very proud."

Twilight sighed. "Thank you, princess," she said, listlessly. "I don't feel proud, just a bit sick. Is it true about gryphons and-" Twilight paused. "Dead things?"

"You mean, is it true that they raise the dead as a sign of respect?"

Sinking a bit deeper into the water, Twilight nodded.

"It is," Celestia said, kindly. "It's a very old tradition with gryphons. There haven't been any real wars between the aeries in centuries, but when they hold their war games it's considered a serious insult if the summoners on the attacking side don't raise skeletons to fight. I once mediated a dispute between two of the gryphon kings over exactly that."

Twilight splashed water onto her back with her wings. "I should apologize to Gianna for getting so upset with her."

"I wouldn't worry, Twilight." Celestia smiled. "If I had to guess, she's probably asking her teacher why you were so upset and having pony customs explained to her." Her smile turning to a conspiratorial smirk, Princess Celestia leaned down. "But that's not really what you wanted to ask, is it?"

Twilight fidgeted in the cooling water, then sighed again. "Princess, there's history between your sister and the dragon queen, isn't there?"

Celestia nodded. "How much did Luna tell you?"

Twilight's towel floated up from the stone shelf as she carefully stepped out of the tub. She began wringing water from her mane and tail as she described to Celestia the short conversation she, Luna and her friends had had between matches earlier that day. She carefully omitted the mention of Tirac and Luna's violent response.

"And that's it. But I think there's a lot more to it than Princess Luna was letting on," Twilight said, draping the damp towel over the side of the tub.

Celestia's horn glowed and the door to the washroom opened. "Twilight, walk with me," she said, softly.

Twilight fetched her saddlebags, carefully putting them on around her wings, and quickly deposited the recovered bone fragments in them. "Alright, Princess," she said, sounding somewhat cheerful for the first time that evening. "Where are we going?"

"The sculpture garden."

---

In the rising moonlight, the statues in Canterlot's sculpture garden cast long shadows. The light painted everything in shades of black, grey and bone-white. With nopony else there, the only sounds beside Twilight and Celestia's hooves on the cobbles were the occasional caw of a raven and the skittering feet of mice and squirrels, night-time bandits fleeing the two intruding ponies.

The two walked on, past silent, eyeless ponies keeping watch over the still-barren site that formerly held the Canterlot hedge maze. Twilight and Celestia both gave a cracked pedestal bearing the worn legend "Draconequus" a wide berth. Deeper into the sculpture garden they walked, off the well-maintained paths. Many of the statues they passed were older, bearing the scars of age and damage that Twilight couldn't begin to identify in the dim light. Statues dedicated to virtues gave way to memorial pillars and monuments to ancient heroes. Unfamiliar, rough-hewn ponies stood around Twilight, some standing at attention, others rearing, many wielding weapons that one wouldn't find outside a museum.

The path the two ponies walked ended abruptly, in a tall, thorny hedge overlooked by a pair of rampant, powerful-looking bronze unicorns. Celestia's horn glowed, and the hedge parted as if hinged, opening into another part of the sculpture garden that Twilight had never seen before. The grass was brown and overgrown here, as if only tended irregularly. Instead of statuary, there were neat, even rows of small stone plaques set into the ground, interspersed with larger stone markers bearing names Twilight had never heard of. A graveyard.

Twilight swallowed involuntarily, breaking the funerary silence. "Princess, what are we doing here?"

"Come, Twilight. I'd like to introduce you to someone."

Twilight lowered her head, anxiously, and walked closely behind the princess as the two threaded their way through the small cemetery. They stopped toward the far corner of the graveyard, next to a small plaque set away from the rest of the monuments, bearing no markings but an archaic-sounding name.

"This is the grave of my sister's student, Rubedo." Celestia began, without preamble. "She was training him in magic and alchemy before she became Nightmare Moon. He started training when he was a little older than you did."

"I didn't know Princess Luna had a student," said Twilight, slowly.

"He was about the same age you are now," Celestia continued, "when my sister fell to madness. Rubedo was entirely loyal to her, and so he was the first pony to join her."

Twilight blinked, looking up at Celestia in surprise. "The first? There were more?"

"Yes, Twilight," the princess responded. "Nightmare Moon's power was not as great when Luna first turned into her. Instead of taking over by herself, she raised an army and drove me and the ponies that remained loyal to me out of the old castle."

"But why would anypony want to fight for somepony who wants to bring eternal night?" Twilight protested. "That doesn't make any sense!"

Celestia shrugged her wings expansively. "She offered power. Earth ponies especially sided with her when she promised to make them into pegasi or unicorns if they joined her army."

"Sh-she could do that?" Twilight asked in shock.

"She still can. You've seen her charioteers."

Twilight blinked and sat down heavily, in the grass.

Celestia folded her wings again and continued. "Rubedo helped her develop the magical techniques to do so, but his first major experiment was on himself. He gave himself two horns and a set of arms like an ape."

Twilight blinked, then stood back up, quickly. "Wait, princess! That sounds like-" Twilight paused and looked around, before lowering her voice and continuing. "That sounds like Tirac!"

"That's the name he took when my sister adopted the name Nightmare Moon." Celestia said as Twilight stared, dumbfounded. "He was a monster. He and Nightmare Moon had their soldiers capture ponies for him to experiment on. Eventually, Nightmare Moon used the same methods to transform herself."

"Into the Nightmare Moon that we met during the Summer Sun Celebration," Twilight said, finishing the princess' thought.

"Yes, Twilight. After that," Celestia said, and then paused, inhaling deeply. "They got worse. Their armies started destroying everything in their path. Tirac poisoned hundreds of thousands of acres around the old castle and created the Everfree Forest. He sent a huge army to level the city of Canterlot and we paid a heavy price to defend it. Eventually, it was the dragons that brought him down and helped me banish my sister."

"The dragons?"

Celestia lay down, her legs folded under her so that she could be eye-level with Twilight. "Nightmare Moon's soldiers started killing dragons for parts for Tirac's experiments, so Najstariot recalled all of the dragons she could to Ormsreich and led over a thousand in an attack on the old castle. They destroyed it and captured the Elements of Harmony, but many dragons were killed and Najstariot was horribly wounded in combat with Tirac himself. She lost an eye and one of her wings was crippled."

Twilight swallowed hard. "So, you banished Nightmare Moon for a thousand years. What happened to Tirac?"

The princess reached out with a hoof and tapped on the nondescript marker. "Najstariot killed him. He's buried here." She turned to look at her young student. "The dragon queen is distrustful of my sister, but she's deathly afraid of you."

"Because she's worried that I'm going to be the next Rubedo?"

"Exactly." Celestia replied, gently. "I'm sorry, Twilight. I didn't know about Najstariot's feelings until after the qualifying trials."

Twilight looked around at the simple, forgotten graveyard. Who were all these ponies?

"I think I'd like to go inside now, princess."

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