• Published 27th Mar 2018
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Lunangrad - Cynewulf

Luna, newly returned from her exile, takes Twilight along on a pilgrimage into her own past.

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III. The Mare Who Does Not Sleep

In Highest Canterlot, Twilight Sparkle slept in her old apartments and dreamed of a castle in disrepair.

The Everfree had encroached upon it, and the years had been unkind. Stone had been sundered from stone by inches as vines and roots worked their vengeance upon the cultivation of ponies. Moths had long ago eaten away the grand tapestries. The glass, colored and beautiful, had been looted.

She walked what had once been halls with her head on a constant, anxious swivel. The sun was going down. The sun was betraying her. It could stay but it didn’t want to stay, and so she had to make due with her weak unicorn’s eyes, unaccustomed to the bleak darkness of absolute night. She dared not call forth an ounce of magic. Something seemed urgent in this fear, something seemed needful about it. She did not know what it was she feared would come for her at the slightest spark of her horn, but she was sure it would come with terror.

The shadows lengthened. Twilight found herself in the ruins of a great hall.

Above her the vaulted ceiling was shot through with holes like wounds in an already eviscerated corpse, insult to a forgotten fatal injury. The dusk-sky, tinged with red, darkened before her very eyes, and Twilight Sparkle swore she saw the stars begin to shine beyond the clouds like eyes at the end of a long alleyway.

Around her was rubble. The floor had been torn up by some force and great divots made navigation slow. The pillars that lined the vaulted height were weak, shot through with cracks, and dark purple vines clung to them and seemed, to Twilight’s addled and worried mind, to pulse with a malevolent light.

And before her? Before Twilight rose a spiralling ebon throne, all spikes and fluted majesty, glistening--or did it cast its own light?--laid out in brightest, tempting jewels. Behind it an array of sharp onyx in the shape of a nine point star, and above the highest point, suspended by chains from the pillars and ceiling, hung a silvery moon.

The maze of ruin was perilous. She stumbled over rocks she could barely see, and narrowly avoided catching her leg in a jagged crack. Every step brought her closer to the throne. Why must she reach it? What was it? And where was this place?

But she knew. She knew as she stumbled and bit back a curse. She knew as she climbed over a fallen pillar and shuddered as her leg brushed a purple vine and felt the slimy, viscous flesh.

This was the castle in the Everfree, where she had faced down an enraged goddess with nothing but her wits and a few fast-found friends. This was where her life had hung by a thread.

She cleared the rubble. She stood before the throne.

It was not empty.

She who sat upon it was giant, and Twilight saw that the throne too was massive, a great twisted impossibility.

Who had she expected to be awaiting her? Nightmare Moon? Yes, but this was not she. Nightmare Moon had been a sneering villain, a fanged despot out of ancient texts who dreamed of empire and mortal struggle. Nightmare Moon had been the sort of foe that a pony might fight against, struggle against--yes, even die against--but this was not Nightmare Moon.

She who sat upon the throne of Night itself was a baleful vision, all shadow and flashing light. She was like a storm given vague shape, and when she opened her mouth to speak Twilight saw horrors that made her weep and sink to her haunches within the open maw.

“Hello, my little pony.”

Twilight tried to answer but her words fell out of her ears. Who was this? What was it that raged within her? Who was she? But her questions would not form into words. Like sand through a dragon’s claws they ran away and all that was left was to look in weeping horror.

The Queen of Night laughed, or at least Twilight thought that it was a light, for the sound was like hissing. Eyes opened up all over her shadowy, changing form, red irises with narrow slitted pupils, all focused on Twilight.

She rose.

“My sweet little pony,” she hummed in a dozen voices. Mouths opened up to sing in unison, her whole body becoming a chorus of beings. “The night is coming. ‘Twould be unseemly if I did not welcome you to my court in the flesh as the moon comes into view. Rise, and we will show you what it is to be free.”

Twilight was so cold. She tried to rise but her body was no longer her own. Already, perhaps before she had even laid eyes on the goddess of darkness itself, something had seeped into her very bones. Her hooves melted into the stones. Her coat leaked with oily fluid. She tasted bile and blood. She could not even tell what ran down her cheeks. Screams struggled to escape but her tongue would not obey.

The nightmare was upon her. The Night smiled and leaned down and she smelled of death and sickly sweetness. Twilight’s eyes would not shut. Something clouded her vision, but she could see well enough to look into the glowing eyes of her new god.

It kissed her forehead, beneath her horn and Twilight at last whimpered as she felt the pricking of her flesh as sharp fangs pierced it.

“Good night, Twilight.”

She woke.

Twilight did not rise up immediately, breathing raggedly. She did not cry out. These are theatrics, rare things which she had never experienced.

But her breathing was difficult. Her body felt wooden and heavy. Her covers were twisted around her sprawled body and she realized that the air stank of sweat.

Bit by bit, the young mare put herself together. The blankets she re-arranged without magic, curling into a ball beneath a carefully constructed nest. Somehow using magic just this moment worried her. It felt dangerous. Why? The reasons that the dream had supplied, if it had ever supplied them, began to slip away from her.

There was no way to tell how much time had passed. Celestia hadn’t sent for her, so it couldn’t be that long. She’d only laid down for a nap.

Grimacing, she reached out with her magic for the clock on the bedside table and brought it into her constructed abode.

Five, the opening of evening. She’d slept much longer than planned. With a groan, Twilight rose and shivered in the cold air. Had the tower always been so cold?

Getting herself presentable only took a few minutes. Twilight had never been one for obsessing over her appearance. She followed her mother’s sage advice--a neat minimum kept her from wasting time better spent productively, and you never had to worry if you looked nice.

The walk down from her tower was, well, lonely. The observatory had always been empty, and she’d chosen it at least partially for its rather unparalleled isolation from other ponies. Nowhere else, aside from any secret place of the Princess’ knowledge, was free of the hustle and bustle of the crowd in the way that her tower was.

Twilight snorted. “Her” tower.

She paused for a moment on the long circling stairs to take a brief look out the window. The sun was just beginning to set, and so she supposed that all in all things had worked out in her favor. She would probably need to adjust to a somewhat unconventional schedule while traveling with Luna, no doubt.

She was still thinking about it as she trotted into the palace proper, giving the Lunar guard a perfunctory hello as she passed. Sleeping spells? But then she would have to deal with the near constant casting of spell and counterspell to stay focused. Sleeping spells were useful, but they tended to leave the sleeper feeling a bit hungover and sluggish. There were spells that could then counter this effect, but honestly it was a lot of hassle and literal headache.

Her legs moved without her. Walking on autopilot had become something of a specialty of Twilight’s--her eyes were often occupied by books--and so it was that she stumbled into the hall where Celestia usually took dinner mumbling to herself.

“What was that?”

Twilight, looking at the floor with a furrowed brow, answered. “Polyphasic sleeping. You shift from sleeping in one eight-hour block to sleeping in shifts, or phases. Poly meaning many, phasic as in the sleeping phases. That way, you sleep several times instead of just one. It’s a pattern one notices in… some nomadic societies… Oh. Ah, hello.”

Halfway through her explanation, it had occurred to Twilight to look up and see who had spoken to her. She stood halfway down the long table, one she knew quite well. But things were different now: Celestia sat at her accustomed place, but now Luna occupied the great chair that had been long empty at the other end.

Twilight sat in the middle sheepishly.

“A curious idea,” Celestia said. It had been she who had asked the question.

“For myself, I am more curious as to what prompted the line of thought,” a much lower, somber voice asked. Twilight looked to her right to find Luna smirking at her. “I am familiar with what she says, as you should be, sister mine. It is but taking watch extrapolated.”

“I suppose. My adventuring days are a few millenia behind me.”

“Only one and a half,” Luna said and shrugged. “Closer for me.”

“Sometimes I find I wish I could return to those days. Do you feel the same?”

“Some parts of it were excellent. Most parts.”

Twilight felt a bit like a spectator at a tennis match, right at midcourt. One sister would speak, and her ears would swivel and then her head and eyes would follow suit, but as soon as she had settled the other one would reply.

“The wine is much better now,” Celestia said mildly, and only now did Twilight see they were both mid meal. Celestia calmly cut a portion off of the fish laid before her and ate it as daintily as Rarity might have.

Fish. She had been very puzzled by this when as a small filly she had first come to study in the palace. Celestia had been very intentional about not making a fuss over it, simply having Twilight sit near her at the table along with her staff at dinner, and making sure that Twilight saw her consuming it in good company and in high spirits.

Twilight, she had said when her student’s confusion had been clear long enough, the entire world is not the small unicorn neighborhood you grew up in.

Twilight could almost hear her say it again as their eyes met briefly. She could see her teacher’s smile again and her unreadable eyes.

“Aye, so I’ve noticed. Well,” Luna began, and then paused. Twilight swiveled. “It’s certainly smoother than it was. Judgements of quality I leave to those who care for such things. I require two things of wine.”

“Oh?” Celestia giggled and it tickled Twilight’s ear.

“Firstly, that it be red and dark as blood. Secondly, and most vitally, that it be in great supply.”

Twilight snorted at that, and then looked away to avoid Luna’s grin.

“Methinks young Twilight is one after my own heart.”

“It would suit her name,” Celestia said smoothly.

Twilight shifted in her seat. “I um, just thought it was funny. I’ve never really, ah, had lots of that. Wine, I mean. I mostly drink coffee. And tea, if I visit Fluttershy. Or Rarity, I guess. Cider if I’m at Applejack’s…”

“On second thought, despite her otherwise auspicious name, I do think she is one of yours, sister,” Luna said, and Twilight heard the clatter of utensils resume.

Twilight almost jumped when the brush of another’s thaumic field against her own came during the pause, but it was just a young servant bringing her a salad. She thanked him and he bowed. She looked down at it for a moment, realized she was starving, and then dug in.

Sitting between the sun and the moon is an odd experience. Twilight was not sure if that thought had ever been thought before in a way that was not metaphorical, but here she was. Thinking it. More than that, there was a strangness to seeing something out of a play or a book unfold before you in real life.

Real Life, capitals attached and all, rarely gives us perfect dualities. We can make dualities well enough--day and night, light and dark, dry and wet, forever and a day--but even these are not so obvious. Day does not give over to night in one fell swoop. It does not shift in a heartbeat and leave us all in the dark. No, it changes. Things change, and in that change, Twilight knew there were an infinite set of moments just as there were infinite points between integers.

She was also acutely aware that she sat, twilight, between day and night in an absolute physical sense.

On her left, Celestia was the height of a nation’s vision of poise, grace, and perfection. In her every art and science found their completion. She was known in the sense that only figures universal could in fact be known--any child on the street could tell you that Celestia was wise, and they could tell you more than that if you stayed to listen. Any foal from the untamed south to the frigid north knew her name, her likeness, her passions, her strengths. Her tiniest idiosyncrasies shifted the patterns of society both high and low. Her very words could destroy the empires built by hoof and magic. Nations vied not against each other alone but to stand most directly in her light. Her enemies hated and feared, but could not hope to ignore. She was the Sun, and the Sun had always been victorious.

On her right, Luna was focused energy. Against the poise, against the absolute precision of her sister Luna was a gale of rough and untempered movement. She ate with no manner of grace. She spoke without her sister’s measured cadances. Celestia had not a hair out of its proper and perfect place, but Luna’s mane lived wildly and her appearance was less that of a princess of the modern age and more of a rough-hewn warlord out of the mists of an older time.

“I was meaning to ask,” Celestia said, breaking into the stream of Twilight’s reverie, “but how long do you think you will be away?”

Luna shrugged. She swallowed. “Tis a fair question, but not one I can answer with ease. The journey north is safer now, so I am told, but that does not mean it is shorter.”

Twilight blinked. “Were we not taking the train?”

Luna blinked at her. “Cry your pardon?”

“The train,” Twilight said again. “I assumed we would be going by train, or at least by chariot.” When Luna did not answer, she continued in haste. “I hadn’t asked, because I had assumed your staff already had an itinerary planned, but I had assumed that we would be taking the morning train at 8 in the morning to Stalliongrad.”

Celestia coughed, and Twilight turned.

“You did ask your seneschal to handle the arrangements, didn’t you?”

“Arrangments? I informed Hyacinth that I would be away, and that the responsibility to safeguard the capitol in the night was to fall to her and her devotees. I drilled the watch and charged them duly with preserving my demense, and had given orders regarding the handling of my courtly affairs while I was gone. I did this all a fortnight ago. Was there some other arrangement to be made?” She paused, and then clicked her tongue. “Stars above, of course. An honor guard. I had presumed too much on you, dearest Twilight. I assume you had planned on my own house guard accompanying us.”

“I… what?”

“Your house guard.” Luna looked at her askance. “The sworn ponies-at-arms of House Sparkle, I believe it is? The oathsworn companions of your noble line who bear your colors?”

“I…” Twilight turned to her mentor with much be a look of utter confusion.

She found, with some degree of dismay, that Celestia was trying not to laugh at them both.

“My sister is under the impression that your, ah, house employs a number of armed ponies, Twilight. I had not informed her that House Sparke has not had ponies under arms in any sense in at least seven centuries.”

“Oh. The House. Right.” Twilight shrugged. “I forget about it, honestly. I think the charter is in my mom’s office. Dad wanted it in his, but its messier and she kept nagging him about it being crooked in the frame so he let her have it.”

“You… I’m afraid I am a bit lost. Do not take this the wrong way, Twilight, for I would be loathe to insult you in any fashion…”

“It’s okay,” Twilight said, still feeling lost.

“But you are of a noble house, correct? Are you a commoner? Has my sister been, ah, having me on?”

“I… I mean technically we’re nobles,” Twilight said. “We have a piece of paper that says so. Parchment, actually. It’s rather old.” She looked at Celestia and then back to Luna, feeling a bit ridiculous, as if she had done some embarrassing thing. “But we don’t have a compound in High Canterlot, or guards, or anything like that. We have a large house, and I think we still have some land? Dad would know. He loves wearing the old colors to formal things, but that’s about it. We have the words--in fermentum et veritas--and a crest. But that’s really it. I live in a upscale neighborhood and had normal neighbors.”

Luna shook her head. “I… Forgive me. I keep forgetting how much things have changed. Just when I think I have a grasp on things, when I’ve caught the new age in a vice, it slips away again.” She smiled, but Twilight found she did not like this particular smile. “I shall have a talk with my seneschal regarding transportation and the like. Hyacinth has no doubt already anticipated my needs. She has a way of doing that.”

Celestia sighed. “She has had a while to prepare.”

Luna pursed her lips and nodded stiffly. “Right you are. I would call for wine to be brought and for us to retire to better lodgings, but I find that I am unsure if that would cause offense.”

“Whyever would it?” Celestia asked, and Twilight saw her cock her head ever so slightly.

“I... “ Luna seemed to be struggling. “I find I am in a mercurial mood, sister. The passing of time itself seems a personal affront, which is ridiculous. I am embarassed that I no longer understand protocol, and I barely understood it before. It was not my strength then, it is now an indignity to my person in these odd years.”

“Wine and a chat is perfectly acceptable, Luna,” Celestia said softly. “You’ve been back but a year and a half. It will be alright. Twilight, would you like to join us?”

“I… if that’s alright,” Twilight said, frowning.

“It is very alright,” Celestia assured her.

“Hear, hear! Your company would be most appreciated, my friend. And certainly, as we are to be companions upon the road, it would do us well to celebrate even as we talk.”

Both sisters rose at once, and Twilight stumbled to her hooves after them. Some of the tension was gone, but in its wake she felt uneasy.