• Published 22nd Sep 2012
  • 3,599 Views, 132 Comments

The Nightingale Effect - N00813



A griffon psychologist, assigned to help Princess Luna recover from her time in exile, develops feelings for his patient. [LunaxOC]

  • ...
7
 132
 3,599

3

Chapter 3

--

I forgot the exact length of time that we stayed quiet, sitting in our own silent positions. Luna didn’t seem to be falling asleep; her eyes flicked around by infinitesimal amounts. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to where they hovered. She must have been in deep thought.

Her voice broke the silence some time later. “One guide is better than naught.”

I knew that I had come to the same conclusion, somewhere deep in my mind. The cold grip of resignation snaked around my heart, fighting off the desire to do more. To do better. Somehow, I could feel the two opposing thoughts fight one another for dominance in my mind.

Luna flicked her head and eyes up until her gaze rested directly on my face. She didn’t move after that, seemingly content to stay and stare at me. At least she was acclimatizing her eyes to the higher light level.

“I suppose so,” I returned, muffling a sigh. “I hate feeling powerless.”

“We agree,” Luna mumbled, getting to her hooves. She squinted at the lighting, which I just noticed was now slightly dimmer than it had been before. Odd thing. Maybe Luna’s magic was coming back to her. But her horn wasn’t shining…

I glanced down at the rudimentary watch I wore. It read 6:00 pm exactly. Sunset.

“Starlight bright enough?” I asked.

I only got a blank stare as a response.

Looking away, I sighed. “Let’s go to the garden.”

The guards formed up, having overheard our conversation. They lined themselves up until they surrounded the two of us in a ring of golden armor and muscle.

Again, I was reminded of how much security there was around this client. Was that on purpose? Most definitely. Relations had been cooling recently, and neither side was above racism. Bloody politics.

As we clanked up, around and through staircases, fixtures and passages respectively, I took frequent glances at Luna. She seemed to be holding up well. Perhaps too well.

By concentrating on her eyes, I could see that she was still with us. She hadn’t retreated into the false sanctuary of the mind. Something I could respect, that. She had chosen the long-term solution to her troubles, rather than the easier trap. Not a lot of people could do that, pony or griffon.

The halls were still lit with magical torches. I’d heard that they were enchanted to store unicorn magic and release it over a long time as light. The rumors said it was Princess Celestia herself who charged them up. I doubted that, personally, but still. True or not, it didn’t matter. If Celestia was as beloved as I’d heard, the ponies wouldn’t believe that she’d do anything bad, even if the words came from her own mouth.

Back to the point. The lights kept the castle passages at a relatively bright level; about three quarters as bright as daylight was my rough guess. Still, Luna hissed and slitted her eyes as she passed them, her head hung low.

The legendary, almighty night-goddess brought down to this.

I shook my head. Once upon a time, I’d have felt some sort of bubbling, vengeful glee; there are no gods, no unstoppable masters in this world. Seeing one of the self-proclaimed goddesses of Equestria hobbling like a broken pony with a shattered mind would have seemed like just revenge.

Would have, if I hadn’t seen just how badly she’d been damaged.

As I said, the mind is a feeble thing. Ironically, it was also the most important part of one’s self. You might as well be another person sharing the same body if you lost your memories.

Shaking my head slowly, I extended a wing over her head. The grey feathers diffused enough of the incoming light for her to widen her eyes and shoot me a small smile. A sign of progress. That had been the most emotion she’d shown since her return.

It was then that I noticed we’d stopped moving. Glancing around, I saw that the ring had somehow gotten a lot less welcoming.

The guards around us had rotated to face us – or rather, me – and I could see that none of them moved. They were clearly itching to; I could see them shift miniscule amounts, and it didn’t take me too long to figure out what was going on. My wing.

The ones in facing my front had one of their hooves half-cocked, no doubt ready to snap their retractable spears into action. I was certain that the ones behind were exactly the same.

“Why didst thou stop?” Luna called out, softly, from beneath the shade of my wing.

“The guards stopped us,” I said, keeping my extended wing stock still. No need to make them think I was going to hit their Princess. Right now, the hallway was empty, and if they wanted to do anything to us, there wouldn’t be any witnesses to give ‘impartial’ judgment. Even if there were, the guard captain would simply ‘persuade’ them to keep quiet.

That was how things worked, how they worked now, and how they would work. I didn’t believe for a second that Equestria was any different. Sometimes, the nastiest of secrets lay beneath the most beautiful of faces.

The guard leading our little troupe, whom I assumed was the most senior, spoke first. “What do you intend?”

“To help my client,” I replied evenly, concealing a shiver as my adrenaline reached a peak. It was getting tough to keep my wing steady, and my tensing muscles made it twitch and waft, warping the shadow falling on Luna. She huddled closer to my side, squinting at the speaking guard under the shade of my extended wing.

The guard’s eyes flicked downwards towards Luna, almost too quickly for me to notice. He nodded slowly, and stalked back to his place at the front of the ring. The others followed his lead, albeit slower than before, and I could sense their constant glances spearing us as we continued to the gardens.

Nothing I could do about it now. I wasn’t here to help them; I was here for Luna.

No, not in that way.

As dark enveloped us, and the bright hallway behind became another shining wart on the side of Canterlot castle. I re-folded my wing until it lay softly against my fur, before glancing upwards at the stars.

I could spot the Northern Point, an unremarkable blue spot in the inky sky that was the basis for navigation in the entirety of the Known World. There had been rumors why Luna hadn’t chosen to make it something more eye-catching; chief of all was that she wanted to play a bloody joke. Others said that she didn’t want the other stars to be overwhelmed by the Point. Personally, I thought that she was just the steward of the moon; she could push the moon around, sure, but she had been dealt a pre-stacked set of cards, and she couldn’t change them. Not without a lot of effort, and for not much gain.

Luna seemed to shrink from the heavens, hunching low. She couldn’t walk as fast as before, and I noticed before the distance between the two of us grew by too much. I could see the stark terror etched on her face.

“Luna?” I asked, although I feared that I already knew the answer. The sky. I’d thrown her off the deep end; mental murder.

Shit. I’d failed. My stupidity had led me to this. And now, I could only watch as her mind spiraled into a deeper hole of my making.

She threw me a quick glance, and her features seemed to soften with the lightest, smallest shard of hope. Then, without ceremony, she rocketed towards me, wings extended and propelling her blazing sharp horn towards me.

I could see it coming. I could dodge it, I knew. Her technique wasn’t good by any means; she flew clumsily, her wings propelling her towards the ground more than me. She galloped drunkenly, and that horn juddered as it danced from left to right, left to right. Question was, did I want to?

It didn’t matter. I’d failed. I closed my eyes. The howling of wind, the thundering of hooves, the barks of guards all combined to create a chaotic symphony; my funeral song.

Perhaps it was for the best that I did not live to see the aftermath of my failure. No, that was selfish. The coward’s way out. It was my fault. I wasn’t going to hide and pretend that there had been nothing I could do.

There was always a choice. The only thing was that sometimes, we’re just too thick to see it. Or we don't want to.

Adrenaline rushed into my body, and I opened my eyes, tensing my hindlegs as I prepared to fling myself into the sky.

Time seemed to slow down. I could see Luna’s half-open mouth trailing saliva out of one corner, the liquid droplets hanging in the air; the guards in mid-gallop towards her, making the few meters separating them seem a thousand times longer; and I could feel the weight of my innards shift towards my legs as my wings slowly, painfully extended.

I could tell that it was going to be too late, however.

Luna’s deranged grin seemed to extend further and further, and got closer and closer to my face. Too late. Too late. Always, too late.

Impact. She was a pony, an honest-to-Maker alicorn. I was half-bird. She must have outweighed me by about three times. I felt as if I had been hit with a carriage across the chest. My bones screamed in protest, and pain shot up my spine in cold rushes, before being muffled and beaten into reluctant submission by a timely injection of adrenaline.

The world went upside-down. Northern Point whizzed past my left eye, and for a moment, I tried to synchronize my own position.

Then, the stars went fuzzy. A wave of pain cascaded up and down my back like ripples in a pond. It hit my brain, and I’m sure I must have rolled my eyes or something, because the stars just seemed to blacken for a second.

Just lie there. Take the hit. It’ll be quick. A stomp to the neck, and –

Nothing.

A burning started inside my chest, growing to encompass my body, and I felt my mouth and throat open involuntarily and my stomach crunch downwards. I couldn’t think as the feeling grew stronger and stronger. What did my body want with me?

Weakly, I gasped, but all that came out was a small puff of cooling water vapor that dissipated quickly into the cool night air.

Burning pain. My chest on fire. Was this how I died? As a footnote in the annals of history?

Probably.

I tried to fight, waving my arms about as I sought refuge from whatever was happening to me. Technique had drifted into some locked corner of the mind, and now I simply flailed around like a wild animal, trying to spite its attacker just before its death. Something connected with the end of my fist, and I felt my body suck in a massive gulp of air, swallowing the sweet, cool juice before expelling it in a series of hacking coughs.

As I recovered, panting on the ground with one wing sandwiched between my side and the ground and the other flicking about in spasms in the air, I took stock of what had happened.

I had almost suffocated. Of that, I had no doubt. My ribs felt as if they’d been crushed with a hammer, and my wheezing would attest to the difficulty I had in getting fresh air into my lungs just a few moments before.

How? And why?

I propped myself up with my shoulders, before wishing I hadn’t as my vision swam and my back seared in agony, and I slumped back onto the ground. The stars drifted lazily across the sky in perfect synchronization, almost as if someone had painted them onto a big piece of fabric, and then dragged that to and fro across the aperture lined by the horizons.

Slumping back down, three blurry figures came into view. Ponies. Golden armor. Guards. I could only cough in response. Any half-formed words in my head simply stuck in my throat, and I clenched what muscles I could before the inevitable kicks.

Nothing came.

Turning my head to glance to my sides as I lay supine on the soft, grassy ground, I could see smooth, nearby rock unfold into the blue mass that was Luna.

The memories came back now. Charge, then impact. Insanity etched in muscle. Too slow. Failure.

That rictus grin never left her face, not even now. Even as she slowly hobbled towards me, grinning, I felt a cold chill of fear run down my back.

Still, what could I do about it? My spine must have snapped in at least three places, my ribs cracked, my internal organs ruptured. Wait. The fact that I was thinking about this meant that I wasn’t hurt nearly as bad as I’d thought.

Gritting my beak, I rolled to the side, smashing my eyelids together tightly as searing pain lanced up my body. So much for not showing weakness. And I was at the mercy of a country full of people who disliked me.

Well, I was here now. I’d promised Celestia, and myself, that I’d stay until Luna was fine. Still, it was looking easier and easier to simply hand in a resignation letter.

No. No more failure, no more hiding, no more 'everything's OK'.

I eventually managed to get into some sort of sitting position. The pain had dulled to low ripples that crashed occasionally upon my mind, but the haze surrounding my head had mostly vanished, and I could now think.

Solitary confinement in the darkness. To a griffon, that was essentially amputation of the highest degree. Without eyes, we could no longer function. Blind ponies used their noses and ears to navigate; blind griffons couldn’t. Our hearing and sense of smell were simply not good enough.

There had been several case studies on the effect of solitary confinement upon the griffons marked for death. It took approximately one minute for them to start speaking to themselves. One day was enough for them to hold full conversations with themselves. Auditory hallucinations would settle in on the third day. Visual hallucinations onset at the end of the first week. The studies only went that far, because one week was the average time between conviction and execution.

That study had been criticized for being inaccurate, since the subjects had all been marked for death. The assumption was that their brains were already wired up differently since birth. Of course, no one wanted to be the subject for an experiment like that.

Did Luna undergo the same thing? It was remarkable that she was speaking in a sort of coherent manner at all. The dark night must have triggered some sort of instinctive response from her. The environment of her exile. Her hypersensitivity to sensation. Her hallucinations, and schizophrenia. All of this was starting to come together like an intricate pattern in a rug. It only made sense when all the components were put together.

Exile. We’d assumed that meant she’d been banished to some far-away place, out of contact with any other pony for a thousand years. A physical prison wouldn’t hold an alicorn for long. A mental one, however…

The mind really is a fragile thing.

She grinned savagely, sucking in hisses of breaths and small strings of drool that hung from her flat teeth. As I pushed myself up slowly, cursing my weakness, I could see her eyes twitch to and fro, looking for a pattern in a place it didn’t exist.

Too much, too soon. “Luna!” I screeched, and then wheezed. She was getting further and further away. Her legs stayed in place, but she started to sway, and at that moment I knew that it wasn’t enough. She was gone.

Luna collapsed, and with that, the guards rushed me.