• Published 23rd Nov 2022
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With Sunset Comes the Night - astrolatryy

The most loyal of Luna's servants goes by the name Sunset Shimmer.

  • ...

A Haughty Spirit Before a Fall

Dark days. Unhappy days.

Days that Sunset has not seen in a while, since her freedom from that cell. It would be unfair to say that her time with the princesses was all sunshine and roses, starlight and joy, but certainly the princesses tended to be either rather upbeat (Celestia) or else so stoic and determined that any stormclouds on the horizon seemed like they would pass sooner rather than later. (Luna)

But Lady Luna has always had her demons. (Hah.) Her Lady has always had shadows looming behind her; those shadows were the reason Sunset was drawn to her, after all. They both shared the same pain, the same struggles.

Those old wounds seem to be bothering her as of late. Lady Luna's patience has never been the longest thing, nor her temper, but now she seems to snap at every slight. The servants of the castle have started to flinch away from her gaze, or else attempt to rope the batponies into doing their tasks for them, as hesitant as they have always been around them. The batponies are to the commoners as she is to them—monstrous in shape. Like them, but not. Just dissimilar enough to send chills down one's spine.

Sunset's own patience with them has started to wane in kind. Yes, there is something bothering Lady Luna, but it is not fair to her to flinch away from her every time she is anything less than her usual composed self. More than once she is seized with the tempting urge to flash fangs at one of the cowering servants, the maids who change her sheets or the butlers who deliver her meals. They have never trusted her, and now they can't even trust the mare who pulled her out of her path of destruction that decade ago?

Ridiculous. They're all ridiculous. If they want something to fear, she should give it to them.

But she restrains herself, for Lady Luna's sake. Lady Luna is dealing with enough, even if she cannot see what pain lies behind that veiled, angry gaze. She does not need to deal with the servants deciding to desert completely should she decide to take her own frustrations out on them, no matter how much she wishes to. A servant should be loyal to their master, just like Sunset is to her Lady. Pathetic.

Princess Celestia is of little help in this regard. She does not bother even coming to her with these restrained impulses. One of the few things they do not agree on in the first place is tolerance. Tolerating the fools that dare to walk the castle halls, pestering her Lady with inane requests. Tolerating the idiots who think she is something to fear, her Lady of the night. Can't they see how beautiful she is? They will never know how hard she works under cover of darkness to keep them all safe.

If she mentioned the fear of the servants who work the night shift in the palace, what would she say? Something pretty and vapid about how they will learn to trust, in the end. They will learn, from one's actions, that one is not the monster they initially thought one was in the first place.

To which Sunset would reply, how dare they fear me in the first place. How dare they consign her to the life in Tartarus she thought she had to accept, surrounded by enemies? It was because of them that she thought there was nothing better for her out there; that any good in her life she had to claw her way to, or else it would slip through her talons.

So, no, she does not go to Celestia. She suspects that Lady Luna has done the same, which only serves to cement her beliefs. If Lady Luna cannot even go to her own sister for advice, then how would Princess Celestia be helpful to her?

She does not bring this up to Lady Luna, either. Not out of a belief that she wouldn't be able to help, but simply because her Lady already has so much to deal with. This darkness that has come over her, this resentment against the world around her; it must weigh so heavily upon her in addition to her usual duties. It's fine. Sunset can deal with it herself. If she dealt with years upon years of being a demon, believing that she deserved Tartarus and that she deserved nothing better, she can deal with this.

Lady Luna, of course, notices her simmering irritation. She never could hide anything from her.

Lady Luna calls her in the late hours of the night, almost morning, after both their duties are mostly completed. Sunset enters her quarters with a bow and a spread of her wings. "What can I do for you, my Lady?"

"Sunset," Lady Luna says, in a rather less formal voice than usual, and Sunset folds her wings and rises from the bow. This must not be a matter relating to her duties, then.

"Pray tell, has there been… anything bothering you, of late?"

"Nothing my Lady needs concern herself with," Sunset replies almost immediately. She doesn't. Sunset can handle herself.

"So there is something, then." Lady Luna raises her eyebrows and fixes Sunset with a sharpness in her gaze that says, Out with it.

Sunset sighs mentally. "It's nothing, really. I've just been… more aware… of the way ponies tend to react to me, lately. It's nothing."

"Oh? Is that the case? Yet you seem to circle ever-closer to my side as of late, and bare your fangs quite a bit more ferociously when called upon to frighten. Nothing, indeed."

She's got her there. Sunset scuffs a hoof against the royal blue carpet, then immediately regrets it. "I mean—I can deal with it. It's nothing you should concern yourself with, my Lady."

"Is my subject's well-being not something I should be concerned with, Sunset Shimmer? Are you to decide what matters are and are not my concern?"

"No—no, not at all. Apologies, my Lady."

Lady Luna's expression softens a few degrees, and Sunset feels herself relax in kind. "I do not mean any harshness, Sunset. I was hoping you would open up to me about this. The matter of your feelings is my responsibility, even if you may not think so, and I would happily help resolve whatever is weighing so heavily upon you."

"I just…" Sunset replies. "You've been working so hard, my Lady. I don't want to be a burden."

"Sunset Shimmer," Lady Luna says. "Many things in my long life have been a burden. You are not, and could never be, one of them."

The sigh that slips from her is soft and relieved, if not entirely intentional. It's just so nice to hear those words. To be reminded of the reason she came up from those dungeons those years ago. "Of course, my Lady."

She trots across the room and lays down across from Lady Luna, tucking her back legs underneath her in a well-practiced motion. "I'm just… frustrated, I suppose. Frustrated with the world. Frustrated with the ponies in it. Frustrated, most of all, with…"

She huffs. "It sounds silly when I say it, but frustrated with the servants. They've been doing an excellent job, as they always have. It's just—I'm sorry to bring this up, but surely you've noticed. They've been flinching away from me. From us."

"Yes, I have noticed," Lady Luna confirms, her face impassive.

"I keep thinking, it's just not fair. I know, I know, life isn't fair, but after all this time…"

She huffs. "I just thought they would have gotten used to me by now.

"It's a stupid thought, I've always been seen as a monster. Why would that change? They haven't let it affect their work or anything. I should just ignore them. But it gets to me, you know? Every fearful stare, every flinch. I keep feeling like I should be looking over my shoulder, just in case one of them gets any ideas. You know how easily fear can turn into hate.

"The worst part is, there's nothing I can do about it. If I tried to get one of them in a conversation, they'd run away. Or else nod along, lying through their teeth, and I'd rather be openly despised than have some simpering fool try to hide it like a damn noblepony. If we replaced them, somepony else would come along and act the exact same way.

"So I just sit there, smiling through my teeth every time I see one of them try to hide a flinch when I get close, and I just. I'm fucking exhausted of it, you know? I'm tired of being hated. I know they'll never stop, I know there's no way to get them to fucking stop, but…

"Tartarus," she says, putting her head in her hooves. When did I get this soft? she thinks, but it's a thought she doesn't voice. She was only made aware of the terrible amount of hatred and fear that surrounded her when she started serving the princesses; saying that thought out loud would read as an insult, even if she never intended it. The princesses were the best thing that happened to her.

Lady Luna is silent for a long moment, solemn. She looks up and can see the words turning and turning in her head, her Lady's eyes focused as she figures out what to say.

"I fear," Lady Luna starts, "—that our troubles are the very same.

"I, too, have been noticing the stares ponies have given me out in public. It is everywhere; from the simpering nobleponies who think they can bribe or talk their way into an audience with me, to the few ponies that witness me as I fly through the night.

"The few ponies who witness me, for here is the thing—out there, in the darkness, the streets are empty. At certain hours, the lamps lie dark, unburning, and the cobbles are empty of the clopping of my subjects' hooves. Nopony awaits me as I venture out to their cities in the night. Nopony awaits me as I fly back to the palace after my work is done, not even to admire my silhouette against the stars.

"Were Celestia to go out there during her day, she would be wading through a swamp of her admirers. She has to take carriages when she leaves the palace in the day, pulled by the pegasi of her Day Guard, or else she cannot get through the ponies which flock to meet her. Streets overflow where she walks. Crowds cluster where she speaks. All of them, out there during her brilliant day, witnessing her, admiring her. She shines with the light of her sun, everywhere she goes, and I am…

"...I am eclipsed. There is nopony out there besides my loyal batponies, my Night Guard, and recently even that has become a sparse comfort. So many years I have lived, Sunset Shimmer. So many years I have ruled over ponies whom hide from the brilliance of the stars, only daring to come out at the touch of my sister's hooves on the cobblestone. When she raises her sun into the sky to blot out my work, the ponies jump for joy. When I set my moon into motion and light my night the same way, nopony sees.

"And in the moments when I am witnessed by our subjects, they cower. They hide. They flinch."

Lady Luna spits the word flinch out searing with anger, seething. Lady Luna is as cold as the moon which hangs over them all, and with her anger, her voice is so cold it threatens to burn.

Sunset has leaned forward without even thinking. Her heart is racing with her Lady's anger, because she understands. Oh, does she understand the hatred which threatens at her voice, threatens to burst out of it entirely. She understands it in the way she has to restrain baring her teeth at those damnable servants who think they can see the monster in her blood-red coat and slitted eyes. She understands it in the way Lady Luna's eyes lock with hers, and they remember; yes, they are both monsters. Yes, they are cut of the same cloth. Yes, they understand—

"It isn't fair," Sunset seethes.

"It was never fair, my most loyal servant," Lady Luna replies. "It has not been fair for as long as I lived."

She sighs, her Lady does, with the weight of millenia. "And for all the moons I have seen, I have never found a way to lift this curse we live beneath. Are we always consigned to be hated? Is this supposed to be our fate, dear Sunset?"

"No," Sunset spits, with an intensity that surprises herself. Surprises herself, but not for long.

She breathes in, deep. Her words are slow and measured when she begins to speak again. "For so long, I thought Tartarus was supposed to be my only fate. My life was fire and brimstone, fighting other demons and grappling for territory and power that didn't mean a thing.

"Then I saw two princesses descend into Tartarus for the first time, and raise land from nothing. I saw you freeze magma that had boiled for thousands of years with your power. I saw the demons that tried to destroy you, to take your power for their own, except you never permitted them to lay a claw upon you.

"From the moment I saw you descend into my hell, I knew I wanted to be as powerful as you. I had resigned myself to that fate, but you changed it. You showed me that there was a surface. You showed me I could have something else, anything that wasn't fire and brimstone and hate.

"And then you captured me, and stuck me in this form. And I was angry, right? You remember that. I was so angry about being stuck in a form that wasn't mine. All my powers locked away, maybe for good.

"But then, instead of leaving me to rot in that cell, you visited. You told me, again, that there was another way. That we might be monsters, and that we'll be monsters forever, even in a different form, but we can still have a life. We can still be loved."

She raises her eyes up to meet her Lady, wide and trusting and grateful—so grateful, for everything Lady Luna has done for her. "Maybe this is our life now. But you showed me before, twice, that there was always, always another way. There is some way to make a life where we don't have to suffer under the gaze of under ponies. We don't have to be trapped under their hate. We can make this better. You can make this better, my Lady. I believe in you. I always have."

Lady Luna is quiet for a long, long moment.

Then, all at once, she stands and Sunset finds herself being swept into a velvet-winged hug.

Lady Luna is so big she engulfs her in it, and it's all Sunset can do to hug back with her own leathery wings, clinging to her with them. It's such a foreign sensation, being held; she can't remember the last time she's been held like this. She's not sure she's ever been held like this.

All she knows is that her Lady is here, and her Lady is hugging her, and her Lady's head is rested so gently on her shoulder and Lady Luna murmurs into her ear, "Thank you, Sunset Shimmer."

"Anything. Anything for you, my Lady."

Lady Luna pulls back, and Sunset immediately finds herself missing her presence despite the midnight chill of it. Her Lady looks… amused, of all things.

"I do recall this was supposed to be a conversation about you, Sunset Shimmer," Lady Luna remarks, which earns a laugh out of her, too.

"I guess it was about both our feelings. Our shared problem, you know? The way ponies treat us. It's the same, even if you interact with them in a different way than I interact with them."

"You are much more permitted to terrify them, yes," Lady Luna says.

Sunset's mouth quirks sharply in a half-smile. "I terrify the masses on your orders," she reminds her.

"Ah, details," Lady Luna says, and then they're laughing, laughing with the weight of everything that is now off their shoulders and out in the cool night air, relieved.

Of course, one little conversation about their feelings would never be enough to end the weight of all the things that Sunset now knows hangs over them both. If anything, it only serves to make her more aware of it. Every time a maid looks to be holding back fear by the skin of her teeth before scurrying away as soon as she's done delivering fresh blankets, Sunset can now only think of Lady Luna. Poor Luna, all alone in the night; poor Lady Luna, who nobody else seems to notice how hard she works.

It is not often that she interacts with Celestia. Some days she finds herself missing it. She's grown attached to the princess' warmth. But these days it's a kind of relief she doesn't see her often; Sunset doesn't know what she'd say to her if she did.

You've lived alongside Lady Luna your whole lives, haven't you? She wants to ask. How have you never noticed how sad your pretty life makes her feel?

It's not fair to put it all on Princess Celestia, isn't it? Surely she would have noticed. Surely there just wasn't much she could have done, just like the two of them can hardly do anything to free themselves from the mire of outside hatred they find themselves in.

Still, Sunset wonders.

Still, Sunset thinks it's a good thing she hasn't gotten the chance to ask the princess these questions. She might not like the answers.

These days it is a relief every time Sunset is sent out of the castle for her duties. Working in darkness against the enemies of the Crown, there is nopony to see her frustration. Witnesses are rare in her line of work, and almost never intentional.

And there is something sharply satisfying about digging up blackmail on a pony she knows wouldn't think twice about calling the guards on her in another life. Who cares what will happen to them after she's done? They were opposing the Crown, anyway. They were opposing Lady Luna. No doubt they deserved it.

Outside of her work she begins to feel a sense of longing for the things she does during. The ponies—and other things, other species or just straight-up monsters—she deals with are 'acceptable targets'. Nobody will get too upset when they vanish one day. But she's been thinking, these days, there's not enough acceptable targets. Who cares if she upsets some noblepony by outing his affairs for all and sundry? He wouldn't care a lick about her. Just another monster to mock, or worse. If the nobility only tolerate Celestia's rule, they outright despise Lady Luna, and the thought burns.

And as the nights pass, it begins to leave her frustrated. Deal with only these creatures, in only this way. Blackmail only these ponies. Set up an ambush in the night alongside the Night Guard, flickering through the shadows and relaying what she sees to the batponies around her, all the time wishing she could sink her fangs into something that had done more than this.

She wants destruction. She wants revenge, for every second she had been made to spend down in Tartarus and for every moment she thought that was the only life she could ever have. She wants to take those looks of fear and disgust and tear them off those ponies' faces. They are so determined to fear her? Then let them have something to fear.

It comes to a head as she's flying back to the palace late one night. It will be dawn in only an hour or so, and Celestia's day will reign over the world again. Sunset isn't thinking much of that, though; she's flying absentmindedly, thinking seething thoughts, anger boiling underneath her skin. She's thinking of how the work she does feels petty; never enough, these days. She wants to do something real. She wants things to change. She has always chased power, always felt like she needed it, needed the ability to shape the world around her into thorns before the world hurt her with the same, but she thought she was satisfied with what she had. What better power was there than the very princess of the night as her mentor and empress? To go any higher would be to surpass the gods themselves, and Sunset wasn't that arrogant.

But what use was all this supposed power if she could never do anything with it? If she could never strike down the gawking eyes at every corner? If she could not claim what was rightfully hers: a life outside of the shadows?

She alights on the balcony just outside one of the dining halls with a heavy clack of hooves on marble, tucking her wings at her side angrily.

Then she hears it: two raised voices, distantly speaking to each other. Arguing, from the sound of it, but at this distance Sunset can't hear what.

Trained as she is in matters of subterfuge, she can't help but want to listen in. Her hoofsteps become far less heavy on the stone as she creeps inward through the palace, passing the long dining hall and pulling open the doors softly with a wing, tufted ears pricked for the sound of that conversation.

A few rooms and a hallway down, she can finally hear the sound of the argument enough to identify the voices. It's… Lady Luna. Lady Luna and her sister, locked in an argument about something.

She should leave. She may serve them, but the princess' matters are not her business. What they choose to leave behind closed doors should stay behind closed doors. She owes them too much to breach their trust like this.

Then again, it's a rare occasion when Sunset actually listens to her better nature.

She slips into a disused side room—a guest bedroom, from the looks of things, clean and well-kept but otherwise untouched—and trots over to the wall, pressing her ear to the stone to hear the sisters more clearly.

"And of the servants?" Celestia. "I understand your displeasure with how they have been treating you, and I am sorry. But the ponies who serve us in this palace are not chess pieces to be swapped out on a whim! They are our subjects, same as any other—and moral matters aside, what will happen when we run out of ponies willing to serve beneath you?"

"Hah. I suspect those number few in the first place, don't they, sister? Are you worried that I may eventually have to resort to washing my sheets and cooking my food myself? Surely a thought that has never crossed your mind, Celestia."

"The issue is not which of our subjects are willing to serve you—even though there are far more ponies who fit that than you might think, Luna. The issue is that you cannot treat your subjects as disposable. Don't you care for them, Luna? These are ponies' livelihoods we are talking about, my sister! Some of the ponies you are proposing be dismissed rely on this income solely to feed their families. What about them, Luna?"

"Can they not find work elsewhere? There are leagues of simpering nobility living right here in Canterlot who would love to have a pony skilled enough to work under the princesses, rejects or not. I should not have to tolerate constant disrespect from the subjects who live under my very wing, Celestia."

"There are other ways to deal with the problems you are facing with your servants, Luna. They will trust you in the end, you know. A panicked mind can be soothed. You can show them that you are no threat, if only you try a little harder. They will see that their fears are unfounded, in the end, and you will have won their loyalty."

"Oh? Change their ways, you say—drive them to act better through my own actions? And how effective has that tactic been on the nobleponies, Celestia? Have your actions gotten them to change their ways; to stop attempting to drain every bit from your coffers? There are ponies in this castle who have been serving under us their entire lives, and they have not changed. My own, most loyal subject has been living in this castle for nigh on a decade, and the servants still treat her like some wild animal who may bite at the slightest provocation!"

"...Luna," Celestia says. "Is this about Sunset? I—I haven't seen much more than a glimpse of her for moons, is she alright?"

"Sunset," Luna replies, "—is perfectly fine. She has been dealing with the servants admirably, with nary a hint of temper from her even though she would be well within her rights to deal with her problem in her own ways. Certainly I would not blame her for it. She has been bearing this weight upon her shoulders same as I have, and the night has come where I have grown tired of watching her bear it. I have grown tired of putting up with these disloyal subjects myself. They will be gone, and if I cannot find anypony else who dares tolerate my presence…"

A hesitation, the kind of space where Sunset would put a sigh if she wasn't the one in that conversation, most likely desperately trying to push down an emotional outburst.

"...so be it."

"Luna," Celestia says, a note of worry in her voice. "Luna, wait. There is more to be said here—I can help you!"

"Enough, Celestia. I grow tired of this conversation."

Sunset hears a door swing open and fall shut again. One set of hoofsteps clicking on the marble, away from her. The sounds fade. There is quiet.

Rather than leave the same way she entered, through the door, and risk detection by some nosy servant who might also have been snooping on the princesses' argument, she slips into the shadow cast by the bed and leaves through there instead.

That just leaves the matter of how Sunset is to mention the conversation she'd overheard to Lady Luna. The best action, here, of course, would just be to not bring it up at all. Act like nothing happened, like she didn't hear the royal sisters arguing in a way she's never heard them argue before. Yes, it was a measured debate, tense as it was, but still—she's never heard Lady Luna talk to Celestia like that. With that note of strain in her tone, like she was about to slip into the Royal Canterlot Voice at any moment; or worse, burst into tears.

Neither Sunset nor Lady Luna have ever been good at expressing their emotions. It's a mutual understanding between the two that bonds them together in that way; that they both know they are terrible at putting words to what they feel inside, at wanting to do such a thing in the first place, and it's fine. Lady Luna understands if it might take a few tries, a few deflections for her to really see what's on Sunset's mind. She doesn't hold it against her.

Celestia has always been good with Sunset's feelings, too, but it's different. Celestia is endlessly patient, a warmth at the edge of her barriers that gradually melts them down, lets her know that it's okay to put words to her feelings, even if she's awful at it. But Celestia is open and honest and Celestia has never just gotten her the same way Lady Luna does. She disagrees with Celestia on many things. She cannot remember the last time she disagreed with Lady Luna over anything major, anything more than a slip of communication, a brief misunderstanding. Has she ever?

It is never Celestia's comfort that she seeks when something in her aches homesick and she misses her upright form, her tattered wings, her magic. It is never Celestia's quarters that she slips to when she wishes for comfort, for a presence she can trust to relax her guard around without fearing talons in her back.

It is, and has always been, Luna.

She wonders at that. Rolls the thought around in her mind, matches it against the terrible way Lady Luna had sounded as she talked to Celestia that one early morning. Matches it against the way she herself had been refusing to go to Celestia about this, for fear of the very same thing that happened to her. Why don't you try and fix it, Celestia had been saying. You can change their minds! They can trust you!

She had said show them you are no threat, if only you try a little harder, and in that moment Sunset had wanted to scream at the top of her lungs, I am trying!

She is trying, she always has been. She has always wanted a better life. For the last ten years she has lived in the shadows of the Canterlot palace, only acknowledged as an equal by Lady Luna's batpony subjects (and only barely) and by Lady Luna herself. For the last ten years she has served, and she has tried, and she has raged against the world and she has been holding herself back against the ponies who hate her so bravely and she is sick of it.

What has striving gotten her in the end? A palace with no home? Less friends than there are moons in the sky? Ten years—ten years, isn't that supposed to be a long while for mortals? It feels like a long while for her, finally aware of the passing of time, of the cycle from stars to blue skies to stars again, lit by the beauty of Lady Luna's moonlight.

She's tired. She's tired of all this. Holding herself back and trying to tell herself that the princesses don't want it, it would be bad for the princesses, so don't eviscerate that asshole who thinks he can look down upon her and call her Lady Luna's lapdog—all the while seething inside. All the while wishing, wishing, wishing that something would change.

But nothing has changed, has it? Not even Celestia.

She… she loves Celestia, doesn't she? It was Celestia who spent all that time sitting outside her cell; all that time spent waiting, gently, asking, seeing the seething demon on the other side of the cell not showing any sign of budging in her hate. And yet she never got frustrated with her, or upset. She never yelled. She never threatened. It was just Celestia there, always, a constant company and the only warmth in the dingy, cold depths of those dungeons for so long.

She owes Celestia so much. She owes Celestia her life. She would not be where she is now if Celestia didn't show her that the path she was trying to walk was never going to bring her any tangible happiness. She would not be serving joyously under Luna's wing if Celestia hadn't been there first; if Celestia hadn't helped to take her down, to talk her down, to pull her from that terrible path.

Dear, dear Celestia. Noble and warm and… naive.

Perhaps Sunset was right when she called her that, after all.

All these thoughts, spinning conflicted in her head. This love and respect and trust for Celestia mixed with the hole in her heart that the words if only you tried seems to have opened. Sunset doesn't know how to deal with it. She doesn't know what to do with it. She needs…

…she needs to speak with Luna.

She knocks thrice on the door to Lady Luna's chambers with one wing.

"Who is…?" she hears Lady Luna ask, with quite a bit more ice in her voice than she's used to hearing. The door opens.

"Oh, Sunset Shimmer, my most loyal servant. I was wondering when you'd visit. Come in, I have been expecting you."

"You have?" Sunset asks, ducking beneath her velvet wing to proceed into the room proper. She's always liked the atmosphere of Lady Luna's quarters. She keeps them far too cold—part of her wonders if Lady Luna even realizes how chilly her bedroom is—but the architectural style is quite beautiful. Blue sandstone accents glitter in the walls. Morning glories bloom on the trellises of the balcony. The ceiling is painted with tiny, iridescent stars in the patterns of the same constellations Lady Luna has painted into the sky.

"It has been far too long since you have visited, Sunset," Lady Luna replies. "And I believe we both have much that is weighing on our minds and hearts."

"Yes, um," Sunset starts, realizing that now she has to confess what she overheard between Lady Luna and Celestia the other night, or else hold her tongue. "I apologize, my Lady. Two nights ago, I was flying back from an errand outside the palace and heard you and Celestia arguing over something. I… may have eavesdropped."

"Oh?" Sunset genuinely cannot read Lady Luna's expression right now. Her eyebrows are raised, in curiosity, in surprise?—but she can't tell anything beyond the surface. "Pray tell, how much did you hear?"

"Ah… something about the servants? The servants under the night shift in particular. Celestia seemed quite displeased with how you were proposing to treat them. And, I heard, you…"

She shuffles her wings awkwardly in an excuse to pause. "You mentioned me. You mentioned the things I was dealing with, that conversation we had the other night, and I'm… I'm flattered by your praise."

It's hard for her to put into words the kind of emotions overhearing her Lady's argument has made her feel. She knows that Lady Luna likes her, of course she does, but it's one thing to like a pony because they serve you as loyally and faithfully as they would nopony else—and quite another overhearing her Lady defending her to her sister. Defending her emotions. Defending the things that they've both been going through. Defending her… right to have those emotions in the first place, she supposes.

It's a new feeling, almost overwhelming in its unfamiliarity. The fact of the matter is—she's never had anypony defend her like that before. She's never had anypony treat her in this way.

She's grateful for it, yes. So grateful. So grateful that out of all the world, Lady Luna is the one who treats her like herself. Celestia may treat her like just any other pony, and she supposes she is grateful for that, too, but that's the thing; Celestia quite willfully treats her like she could be any other pony working in the castle or walking in the streets below. Celestia treats her like she could be just any one of those ponies, another face in the masses.

But Sunset will never be any of those ponies. That is a long-established fact; something even the truth of her form cannot conceal. Lady Luna knows this, and Lady Luna understands this, and she loves her for that.

"I just—" She struggles to elaborate, just in case Lady Luna is still displeased by her eavesdropping, it's quite hard to tell at the moment, "—thank you. Thank you so much, my Lady. I'm always grateful that you've always been at my side, even when nopony else is."

She sighs. "Even when the servants think they can get away with treating me like a rabid dog to be avoided."

"That is the crux of the matter, is it not?" Lady Luna says. "You shall be happy to know that in any case, all of the servants who have been mistreating us so no longer work beneath the Crown."

Sunset blinks. "Right, I… that's about what it sounded like, from what I overheard…"

She glances up at her Lady, daring the slightest hint of a smile. "You really…? You managed to do it in the end? Your sister sounded unhappy with your decision."

Lady Luna snorts. "Even my sister cannot decide how I command those beneath my rule. Those servants worked beneath me, and I am free to do what I wish with them; even banishing them from the palace entirely. They do not deserve to work for the likes of you and I if they are incapable of practicing such a thing as simple respect."

Sunset does smile, now, sharply. "As it should be, my Lady. You were right. Princess Celestia just cares too much about the poor little feelings of the ponies beneath her, and not whether or not they should be respected in the first place. Why should we have to tolerate them when they can't even tolerate us?"

"Most right," Lady Luna says, flashing her a dark smile in return. "We may be viewed as monstrous by the majority of the population, but we should be entitled to respect here of all places, in our very seat of power."

"We should be entitled to respect everywhere," Sunset hisses, without really thinking. She has kept these feelings back for a long time, not wanting to show her true, searing, angry self to even the likes of Lady Luna, who does have to rule these imbeciles. But now in the face of Celestia's ridiculous opinions, the molten anger within her is boiling over.

"Think about it," Sunset says, beginning to pace. "I'm just a simple servant. Maybe I don't have the right to demand this, when I've already been given so much. I can deal with the hate as I walk these halls; it's far better than what would be waiting for me outside of them.

"But you? You rule Equestria, too! Equestria is not only Celestia's domain, for her to preside over and to be loved for. Equestria may be hers when the sun is in the sky, but it is yours when darkness falls. Why should ponies flinch away from you when they see your shadow in the sky? They should rejoice! They should be celebrating you, my Lady. They should be celebrating your power, they should be celebrating your beauty!"

"Exactly," Lady Luna hisses, fervent.

Sunset pauses, caught off-guard by the ferocity with which Lady Luna spits the word. Her Lady, for all her grief, ultimately has far less to deal with from the populace in the end than Sunset does. At least Lady Luna is respected for her nature, if not loved. At least Lady Luna doesn't have a chance of being attacked in the streets.

Then again, far fewer ponies even know Sunset's existence. All of Equestria knows of Lady Luna; all of Equestria's eyes are on her, watching, taunting. There are vanishingly few ponies in the night who will appreciate her, who will understand; there will always be the nobility, the scared commoners, who perceive her as something to hide from.

How heavy must that weigh on a pony's back? How heavy must that weigh on hers?

"I do listen to my sister, despite what she may think," Lady Luna says. "We must treat the ponies beneath our rule right, she says. They are our subjects, and we have so much power over them—we must use that power right, do we not? They deserve—ha—they deserve respect.

"But like you said, my loyal servant: do they deserve tolerance if they will not tolerate us in turn? Restraint? Respect? We have power, yes, but what has it ever done for us? It has put me as the center of attention, but not as an idol, never as something to be loved. I am a monster to be gawked at, hidden away behind these palace walls during the light of day. They do not know me. They do not respect me. When I am awake to roam during my beautiful night, I look down at the empty streets and I know—they are hiding. They are hiding from me.

"Have I not been a good ruler, Sunset Shimmer? Have I not listened to my sister's advice? I restrain myself, much as you have. I guard myself with idle, empty threats, but never have I acted upon any of them.

"I defended you, Sunset Shimmer, because in you I see my troubles. All my worries, all my pain; they are reflected in you, too, are they not? They are the struggles of monsters, Sunset Shimmer. They are the struggles of nightmares like us who the common ponies see unfit for the streets. When was the last time you let yourself be witnessed outside these walls, Sunset?"

"A week ago," Sunset says, remembering, "To threaten a particularly difficult pony who wasn't listening to the Crown's warnings."

"And that is precisely my point, Sunset Shimmer. Even in the shadow of my wing, you have only ever used your presence as a threat. A tool to push ponies to do your bidding. Is that all you are, my loyal servant? Is that all you wish your existence to be? Knowing you, I think not."

"You know why I left Tartarus, my Lady," Sunset says. She sighs. "Even here, surrounded by hatred, I feel more at home than down there in the depths."

"Hardly a choice, is it not? Ironic that the thing my sister worried most about when we acquired you is the very thing you still struggle with to this day. Do you still believe your only choices are between hellfire and hatred? Do you still believe yourself so trapped?"

"Serving under you has been wonderful, my Lady. I would choose no other option."

"You say that, Sunset Shimmer. Yet I see in your eyes and your voice that you still long for something more. You have always burned with ambition, my loyal subject. It is for this ambition that I ask: what would you do to gain that life you long for, that freedom?"

"I…" Sunset asks. The answer should be obvious, shouldn't it? It should come to her lips in a heartbeat. Anything.

But she hesitates, because even after all this, Celestia's words and advice still ring in her head. She came up to Tartarus for the first time and almost dashed her only chance on the rocks of the princesses' power. It was only by the grace of their mercy that she even ended up with this life in the first place. What would have happened if she had tried to overthrow the subjects of a less benevolent ruler? What then?

Celestia talked her down from her goals of conquest because she showed her that there was no point to such a goal. Even if she made a throne from the souls of the ponies she'd enslaved, where would that leave her in the end? She would end up shackled to the very thing she thought she wanted so badly.

"The question isn't what would I do," Sunset begins, words drawn out with realization. "It's how I would do it."

Lady Luna throws her head back and laughs, a vicious thing. "Well said, my most loyal servant! Well said indeed."

It may be well said, but the question still hangs in the air between them. After all, it is a question that Lady Luna herself admitted she had no answer to in front of her, all those years ago. How can one free themselves from the shackles of hatred in a world so full of it? Filled with ponies determined to hate them, determined to find a way to throw down, crush, destroy the things that disgust them so, like swatting a spider?

You destroy them first, Sunset thinks, remembering days lived in hellfire and brimstone, where destroying your enemies before they destroyed you was the only way to survive.

But that is quite a demonic thought, so Sunset pushes it down; after all these years spent in batpony form, the action is automatic. Surely Lady Luna does not mean to go that far.


Surely, the thought echoes in her mind when Lady Luna calls her back into her chambers less than a week later.

Surely, she thinks, Lady Luna has some other plan. Perhaps she will take the fields of diplomacy; perhaps she will try her luck against her sister again, fruitless though that endeavor seems to be. Perhaps Celestia will finally get it through her skull that her naive little suggestions are just that: naive.

Ha. That seems about as likely as the ponies spontaneously changing their minds and deciding to love them after all.

Lady Luna seems agitated when she enters her quarters, the door left ajar. "Do close that behind you, Sunset," Lady Luna says with a gesture of her wing, and she does as ordered.

"My Lady," Sunset says, giving her customary bow. "How may I serve you?"

"Sunset Shimmer," Lady Luna begins, "The last time you were in these chambers, you proposed an interesting question indeed. How would you go about earning the life of freedom you so desire?"

A pause between them. "Well?" Lady Luna prompts, and Sunset blinks, realizing it wasn't a rhetorical question.

"You wouldn't like the answer to that, my Lady," she says, stubbornly pushing demonic instinct down deeper into the back of her mind.

"Oh? Is that so, Sunset Shimmer? Perhaps I am more tolerant of whatever ideas you have brewing in your mind than you think."

Or perhaps, Sunset thinks, she's trying to make a point. The sisters both have that in common, she knows, prompting the other pony in a conversation to answer a question they already know the answer to, so they can build upon it.

It is a distinct kind of discomfort to think that her innermost anger might be so easily read.

Then again, who else does she spend more time with besides Lady Luna? Who else does she have more in common with?

Well. Her Lady is waiting for an answer. "Our problem," Sunset begins, "—is hatred. From the commoners to the nobility, everypony around us is filled with spite towards us and our existence. Even our very servants flinch away from us, afraid of our fangs. All the world despises us. And how can we change all the world? We're just two ponies.

"When I was in Tartarus, my Lady, living my life as a demon, I had my fair share of enemies. Fellow demons who hated me for what I was; hated me for my power, my cunning, my speed. They saw me as a threat, much as the ponies on the surface do, too. They wanted me dead."

"So," Sunset says, running her tongue over her fangs, remembering the sulfur taste of demon blood, "—I killed them first.

"If all the world hates us, my Lady, I would burn it down and make a new one."

She sighs, softly, and fixes her gaze on the carpet, not daring to look up and see whatever expression might be on Lady Luna's face. "Of course, I'm no longer a demon anymore, aren't I? I can't just solve all my problems with fire and brimstone. If I burn down the world, my enemies will just keep coming. If they yet live, they will continue to hate me, whether demon or pony."

"You may live in a mortal form, my loyal servant, but it is evident that your hellfire continues to burn within you. You are still a demon, Sunset Shimmer. Are the ponies' opinions of you not evidence of that?"

"I suppose," she sighs. "No matter how far I try to flee, I can never escape the truth of my nature."

"Is that such a bad thing, Sunset?"

Sunset glances up at her, confused. Lady Luna's back is to her; she is halfway on the balcony, the glass doors wide open, staring out at a starlit Canterlot. "My Lady?"

"These ponies who hate you, they do not know you like I have. They have not seen you like I have. I am one of the few ponies that have witnessed you in your true form. I am one of the few you have targeted directly, through my subjects. Yet I have never held it against you, Sunset Shimmer. I see you for who you truly are; a monster like I am, lashing out because you saw no other option."

She makes a three-quarter turn, fixing Sunset beneath one sharp, cyan eye. Her gaze may be cold as ice, but it burns with the passion of a mind decided.

"All this land, Sunset Shimmer, is beneath my rule. For as long as my moon has hung in the sky, it has always been. Yet the ponies hide away from the beauty of their ruler; they do not love me the same way they love my sister. We are supposed to be equals, yet while she exults in their love I am merely the monster the ponies warn their children about at night. Is that right, my servant?"

"It's the way it's always been," Sunset replies, hesitant.

Her Lady laughs. "And have you always taken those petty words as an answer? Was that thought in your mind when you clawed your way up from Tartarus? Or are you hiding from what must truly be done?"

Is she hiding? Is she hesitant? Years ago, she would have never been. In her true form, she would have never been. A decade ago, she told Celestia that she fought the world for every scrap of good in her life because she believed there was no other way for her to have it. But with a smile and patience and the lighting of her horn, Celestia proved her wrong.

Celestia was there for her in the depths of those dungeons when nopony else was. Celestia was the one who waited outside her cell, day after day, hoping that she could teach that angry, lonely demon something new. Celestia was the one who met the monster who enslaved her subjects and met someone that could be good. Was Sunset going to throw all that away?

But also—Lady Luna's presence, a shadow against her night, her head wreathed by the outline of her moon as a halo. In the gentle light of her night sky, she seemed more ethereal than physical; an embodiment, rather than any living thing.

But also: Lady Luna's rage, trembling half-contained in her voice. The pain which that rage embodied; the loneliness that Sunset knew all too well.

Lady Luna had the batponies of the Night Guard beneath her wing because she could not trust the Day Guard to protect her. Lady Luna developed a spell all her own to transform her most loyal subjects into something more befitting of her night, so that she could keep them close by her side.

Princess Celestia had the whole of the daylight world beneath her wing. Any pony would be honored to be chosen as her servant, or as her guard.

Lady Luna had to make do with those few who saw her as she was; a beauty, not a terror. Lady Luna made do with the few ponies who did not shy away from the intensity of her gaze, nor her midnight-dark coat, nor her fangs. Often, those ponies were already outcasts; not to the level that Sunset herself was, but eccentrics. Midnight scholars and astronomers who studied the patterns of her constellations, who made it their life's work to trace the magic linked to such a thing. Lonely souls who felt more comfortable watched by owls and bats than other ponies. Ponies on the edges of society, just like her, just like Lady Luna herself.

Lady Luna collected outcasts. She took in those ponies who had nopony else to turn to; who were just as hated by the rest of the world as she was.

That was the thing that Celestia could never understand: Lady Luna loved where nopony else could. She was the one who would accept the downtrodden, the outcast, the monsters. She was the one who Celestia preached would love a monster when nopony else would, in the end. She was the pony who Celestia said to hope for.

They would love you in the end, Celestia claimed, if only you tried. She claimed you had to show them that you were not a threat; show them through your actions that you could be somebody to love.

But who would listen to such a thing?

Just Lady Luna. Only her Lady, who knew better than anypony else what a monster looked like.

Lady Luna knew. She knew better than Celestia the things that Celestia was trying to preach, the solutions that Celestia so naively hoofed out like they would work with just anypony. For a solar princess who saw so much, she was so stupidly blind to that fact. Offer yourself to the knife, Celestia claimed, they won't hurt you.

For there to be love, there could not be a knife at all. Lady Luna knew that. Lady Luna knew the reality of the world; Lady Luna knew why such things wouldn't work.

Stupid, naive, selfish; to preach these things to the sister who knew far better than her what those things actually meant, the cost one would have to pay, the rarity of selflessness. The rarity of love, for those it never came easily for.

And all this time, Celestia had been speaking to her like Lady Luna was the pessimistic one.

Sunset owed Celestia so much. Celestia taught her that the surface was not like the hell below, not at all; Celestia taught her that she did not have to claw and bite to be loved; Celestia taught her that she must always think her goals through before actually attempting to accomplish them, because otherwise they would lead to ruin and despair.

Well, this is Sunset thinking it through. This is Sunset thinking on everything she is and everything she's learned beneath the princesses' wings.

This is Sunset seeing the frostfire in her Lady's gaze and knowing that Celestia is wrong.

She was useful in the past, she supposes, and she will always be grateful for Celestia for what she's done. For giving her a path to the surface, a path to the life she lives now. Without Celestia, she would have never met Lady Luna; without Celestia, she would have never served beneath her Lady's wing.

But Celestia, too, is a thing of the past. Her opinions stuck naively in a golden age that belongs to her, she thinks everypony is capable of love, if only one tries.

My apologies, princess. You never meant it, but the pain you've caused has gone on for long enough.

Sunset Shimmer looks into her Lady's eyes, and she makes a choice.

Revenge is a thing best served cold, is it not? Lady Luna would know best; the cold is her domain, much like the night and the moon.

That is to say, although Sunset may have talked of burning the whole world down and replacing it with something new, something better, something that would love them—

—well, it's one thing to speak her anger and another thing to act on it in a way that won't end up with her thrown back into the dungeons of Tartarus.

In practice, the act of starting a better world for the two of them is a slow thing; done in the shadows, as Sunset and her Lady have always worked.

The act of starting a better world starts first with the batponies, who Sunset has interacted with in a vague sort of you-and-I-both-serve-the-same-mare way, but has never really gotten to speak with until now, in these dark days. But to have the world on her side—at least, enough that they do not dare flinch away from her in the streets—Lady Luna first needs to make sure of the loyalty of those she does have, and that is how Sunset begins to work with them.

She finds a surprising sort of kinship in the batponies. They are both keenly aware that she is not truly like them, merely some fiery thing bound into a mortal shape, but once she gets over her innate disdain for them and they get over the uncanniness she seems to cause in them, they fall into quite a pleasant working relationship. She is all fire and sharpness, a burning knife in her manipulation of the ponies they need to manipulate, those they need to render blind to the darkness growing in the Canterlot palace and those they simply need out of the way—but they have been Lady Luna's right wing far longer than she has, and Sunset is surprised to find that there are things she can learn from her Lady's fellow chosen.

Once she saw this form as a curse, as a shackle. Then she saw it as a vassal, the tool with which her Lady does her bidding.

It is only with the batponies that she begins to see it for the blessing it is.

It is under their teachings that she unlocks the thing she thought held back from her all those years; her ability to look through the windows of the mind and enslave the very soul.

It is not as powerful as it once was, when she was a fallen star of a thing which shredded wooden walls like scroll paper. But the batponies have had those in their ranks talented in the arts of enchantment before—bats and trickery, bats and hypnosis go wing-in-wing—and once they are willing to trust Sunset as an aide who wants the very same things they do, she learns a thing or two.

It is in this way that she helps the most towards the effort Lady Luna has started. Celestia may be blind to the pain of her subjects, but she is still a brilliant tactician and socialite, and with their work beginning to creep further and further through Canterlot like a virulent web it would be a given that somepony would eventually notice and bring it to their beloved solar princess' attention.

They would have noticed, if not for Sunset's interference. A look in the eyes here, a twist of the wing there, and their eyes glaze over with her cyan aura and they know no more. Ignorance is bliss, don't they say?

While all this happens beneath Celestia's notice, Lady Luna keeps up the act of a benevolent ruler. Perhaps even more benevolent than before; her temper once stretched thin ceases to be a thing, and she takes on an endless patience similar to Celestia. It is, after all, far easier to look some simpering noblepony in the eyes and politely tell him that perhaps come back tomorrow and he might get somewhere knowing full well of the conspiracy rotting the marble beneath his hooves. Sunset ends up adopting much the same attitude.

The servants even stop flinching from the two of them, which is a pleasant surprise. Once, Sunset is walking in the halls and a maid actually gives her a smile. Isn't that nice. Respect, once lost, is a thing not easily gained, but perhaps if that little maid groveled and begged enough she would deserve mercy from the very monsters she once found herself so disgusted with.

Imbeciles and fools, all of them. Sunset has put herself upon this path and she will not budge. The anger within her burns too brightly for her to snuff it out now.

Besides, they deserve it, don't they? For all the pain they've caused her. For all the pain they've caused Lady Luna, who she loves so.

So they keep up their pretty, smiling facades that Celestia would be so pleased with, and the conspiracy marches onward. In the darkness, they gather their strength. In the darkness, they spin their webs, gaining allies among those similarly discontent with Celestia's naive rule; the fact that she brushed off their concerns and their problems and their pain with blaise, naive answers instead of opening her eyes to the way things really were.

The words Celestia spoke the fateful day Sunset's opinion began to truly change still drift in her mind. If only you try…

Because trying solves everything, doesn't it? Thanks, Celestia: it's fixed.

Slowly but as surely as the moon will rise, Canterlot Palace becomes theirs.

In an conversation in the dead of night, Lady Luna mentions offhoofedly that in another time, perhaps she would have staged her coup in the Castle of the Two Sisters rather than the Canterlot Palace they now rein in. They visit there from time to time, Sunset knows; she has even gone there a few times herself, following in her Lady's shadow. But Canterlot Palace has become the new heart of their empire, the seat of both the sisters' power.

If Sunset was not there to aid her so, Lady Luna would have chosen the Castle of the Two Sisters from which to overthrow her sister. It was a smaller base of power, lesser-visited, lesser-frequented by servants. It would have been easier to hide the strings of her conspiracy with.

But Sunset is there, and Sunset has learned well, and Sunset bathes in her praise as Lady Luna tells her that she is the reason that they have been able to build the steps of this plan right beneath Celestia without her being yet the wiser.

That is, until Celestia does find out.

Sunset Shimmer bolts upright in her quarters with the call of Lady Luna's magic still resonating behind her ears.

Come! The magic calls without words. Now, Sunset Shimmer—it is urgent.

With the hairs of her coat on end she does what her Lady commands, barely bothering to leave her bed before she's wrapping herself in shadow and throwing herself to the beacon of her Lady's magic in a whisper.

She appears just behind Lady Luna in the great hallway leading up to the double doors of the throne room. From the position of the sun in the sky, it must be late evening; an hour or so before when Sunset usually wakes, after Celestia has lowered the sun. The time of day which she's named after, she remembers; though this is hardly a time for reminiscence.

"What is—?" Sunset begins, only to be silenced by a flare of her Lady's wing.

"I have been called by Celestia for a discussion. Considering the place she has decided upon for said discussion, I assume it is about the conspiracy which you and I have been weaving the strings of these last moons."

The words drop like shards of ice in her mind. A strange, ethereal kind of calm washes over her; an emotional chill from the tip of her muzzle to the very end of her tail.

So this is it, then. The old mare's finally noticed. No more hiding, no more plotting, no more waiting for the other horseshoe to drop. It is simply time for Lady Luna and Celestia to finally confront each other; it is simply time for the moon and the sun to finally meet, and see which one of them is consumed.

Lady Luna nods solemnly upon seeing Sunset's expression change. "Stay in the shadows, Sunset Shimmer. Do not allow yourself to be seen. I shall call upon you when the time is right."

What Lady Luna thinks Sunset can do against the very alicorn of the sun, she has no idea. But she nods her understanding well enough, and trails off to the side as Lady Luna's horn lights sapphire.

The double doors to the throne room open with the creak of the damned.

Above all else, Princess Celestia's voice has always sounded kind.

Even with her sister before her, her traitorous sister, knowing full well what she has been planning, her voice echoes through the throne room like a gentle dawn.

But it is the fact that Celestia dares to take the throne at all; that she looks down upon her sister rather than standing at her side, that marks that dawn with empty words.

"Dearest Luna," Celestia begins. "A noblepony came to me the other evening, saying the oddest things. He said that he sighted your batponies involved in an exchange with my Day Guard, passing a substantial amount of money to them. It is strange—surely your batponies have no business bribing my own guardsponies. Yet that is what it sounds like this noblepony witnessed!"

Lady Luna snorts. "Surely you are not inclined to believe the words of every noblepony who comes your way. They speak more lies than truth, sister."

"Furthermore," Celestia continues, and Sunset can't help a roll of her eyes. "I have been noticing some troubles with my Day Guard recently in general. Lost orders. Misspoken words. Supplies vanishing into thin air. Strange reports of slitted eyes in the dark; monsters beneath their beds.

"Now, Luna, I am sure this is all some… great misunderstanding. Surely this is a rogue group of your batponies that have been acting against your wishes? Or, if you do have some problem with the guardsponies beneath my rule, you could have always come to me. I am sure there is a way to sort this all out without having to resort to such terrible sabotage."

Briefly, there is silence. Lady Luna stands beneath Celestia's gaze as her sister stares down upon her from her position on the solar throne; the lunar throne beside her left empty. Celestia's gaze is as warm as it always is, pink eyes shining with a seeming inner light. How warm her expression looks, despite it all; the poor, naive mare, always willing to forgive. Always willing to pretend all this is just some mistake, even when they both know well how it's not.

How it must burn to be pinned beneath such a gaze.

Lady Luna does not break, does not falter. Her pause is only a momentary thing; Sunset can see the consideration in the line of her brow, the way she is so clearly—to her—thinking through her next move. To lie or not to lie. To keep up the facade, to test Celestia's tolerance, to see how far they might push this before her patience finally snaps.

"You know as well as I do that this was intentional, sister."

Celestia's expression changes like a cloud over the sun; she frowns, and Sunset feels so much like a foal beneath a disapproving mother that it makes her want to tear out of the shadows screaming. She did not claw her way out of Tartarus to be pitied.

"What would drive you to such lengths, Luna? In all the years I have known you, you have never acted like this towards me. Can we not trust each other? Could you not come to me to talk this through? What problems plague you so, my sister? Please, tell me. I am here for you."

"You are here, but you do not listen," Luna snarls. "All these years we have been together, and you have never noticed how your light outshines my own? That I am only a pitiful reflection of the love and respect you command among your ponies? Even my Night Guard's ranks are mere pittance compared to your own, that we are forced to resort to trickery and sabotage to stand a fair chance against them."

"I—I don't understand, Luna. Why would you do such a thing? Why are you speaking like you are commanding some kind of war?"

"You are not listening," Luna says, spitting every word through teeth that might as well be fanged for the viciousness in which she bares them. "Did I not just tell you? The brightest lights cast the darkest shadows, my dear sister, and the shadow which I have been living in all my life has been the darkest by far. All my life, I have had to watch the populace clamoring for your attention, your love, your praise. You, always you they cried for. You, always you, they missed when your sun fell beneath the horizon.

"Are you truly so blind as to not see? All my life, I have spent being hated, while you have spent being loved. And when I take this problem to you, Celestia, or I try to act against the world which surrounds me with pitchforks and torches, what do you say? What pitiful advice do you have to give? Oh, if only I tried a little harder, the world would love me. Oh, if only I showed myself better beneath my night, if only I—I spread my wings and did a little dance for the masses—

"I have only been trying to help you, Luna—"

"You have never helped!" Luna cries, wings flaring with a desperate snap! to cut her sister off. "You suggest that I may show myself to the masses and they will see how wrong they were, but there are no masses for me to show! The ponies laugh and play in your day, dear sister, but oh, how they hide away from my night. How they fear it. I fly above our Canterlot's streets and those streets are empty. There is nopony there to see me in the brilliance of my night. There will be nopony.

"When our subjects come to look upon you, sister, they do so to bathe in your beauty. They think your presence a blessing. But when our subjects dare to look upon me, my dearest sister, they do it to gawk. I am—I am some exotic animal for them to wonder at the strangeness of, for them to—to gag at the ugliness of. How awful the shape of such a thing! How terrible its teeth, its horn, its night-dark wings!"

"Luna, I—" Celestia looks stricken, eyes wide. Did she truly not know the depth of her sister's pain? Did she truly never know?

"You told me to try, dear sister? Well, here I am, striving for what I deserve. Equestria has been built on my blood, my suffering. For too long I have been aiding it from the shadows, a thankless job with no gratitude. For too long I have only been seen as an omen, some dark stain on Equestria's rulership. You are their princess, their beloved, their source of love, and life, and joy. And I—I am simply Princess Luna.

"I say no more, sister," Lady Luna says. Slowly, yet surely, her horn begins to glow; it glows so intensely that it makes Sunset double-take, watching the subtle whorls of it light up with a power from deep within. What is she doing?

"From this moment forth, my night will last forever."

Darkness envelops the throne room. Sunset hears the sharp click-click of hooves on the stone, Celestia standing suddenly, but even in a slit-eyed body she can't see anything through the inky shadow that's poured in from every corner of the room. It feels like ice against her coat.

From within the dark, Sunset's slit eyes can pick out the barest sapphire light; it feels like a beacon against the all-consuming shadows.

Beyond, behind Lady Luna, she notices something else through the vaulted glass which takes up most of the throne room's walls: the moon is rising, though the sun has not quite set.

The moon is rising red, red as spilled blood, red as released anger; red as the harvest.

All at once, Sunset understands what Lady Luna's grand plan is to overthrow her sister. To overthrow Celestia, she must not have an empire to rule; to overthrow the sun, one must raise the moon.

Somewhere, she knows the batponies are cheering.

"Sister!" Celestia cries. "What are you doing?! I plead with you, stop this madness—" Her horn is fire against the shadow, but it is not enough to clear away the smoke; only enough to illuminate her pastel form like a beacon, her mane radiant as any sun even at the near-core of Lady Luna's outpour of dark magic.

"Madness? This is not madness!" Lady Luna cries, her voice the eye of her storm of swirling darkness. "Madness was listening to your insipid advice, tolerating it all this years despite how useless it was. Madness was waiting in your shadow while ponies laughed and played at your side, all the while being denied my birthright. My throne. My empire."

"Luna—" Oh, but Celestia sounds so desperate.

"I am not your Luna, dear sister. Not anymore."

The darkness clears in a rush of wind that sends Sunset's mane wildly askew, but she's not focused on that. Sunset is focused on the figure in the center of the room, placed exactly where Lady Luna was standing. Sunset is focused on this: her coat darker than midnight, darker than the eclipse. Her cyan eyes bright with madness, slitted with malice. The fangs she bares at the sister who has caused her so much pain over these years; every blunted tooth in her mouth has turned sharp, sharper than a bat's, sharklike or perhaps lamprey-like. Either way, made for blood in the water.

The double doors at the back of the throne room slam open. Neither Lady Luna nor her sister look, but Sunset does—with sharp eyes and a rush of adrenaline from the heart beating in her ears she spots two of the day guards that were positioned outside the room.

"By the sun—Princess Celestia? Princess Luna?!" one of them cries, and oh, how Sunset despises them. How dare they make a pretense of rushing to both the princesses' aids, knowing full well which one they're truly loyal to? They are Day Guard for a reason. They have never trusted Lady Luna, and they never will.

Or, except, she isn't Lady Luna now. No, the lady of the night raises her chin to look her dear, wayward sister in the eyes, bared teeth stretching wide into a grin, so every sharpened fang is on display.

"I am Nightmare Moon, and the only princess I am now is princess of your demise."

Princess Celestia does not seem frightened of the thing her sister has become, though Sunset wishes she was. No; she simply meets Nightmare Moon's gaze head-on (though it must pierce like deep frost), seeming to come to a conclusion in her mind.

She bows her head.

The motion is so ridiculous that Sunset Shimmer has to do a double-take. But it is nothing compared to the words which she speaks, eyes closed so peacefully you could almost believe she wasn't actively being overthrown—

"I will not fight you, Luna. You know you are better than this."

"How naive. You have thought wrong, sister."

The guards behind her have had enough. Sunset sees them raise their spears, something grim in their expressions—her wings flare wide and she tenses, preparing to burst out of the shadows to meet them. Nopony will lay a hoof on her Lady's coat if she does not permit it—

—but before she can pounce, Nightmare Moon flicks her horn towards her with a toss of her head, and a burst of dark magic leaps from Nightmare Moon's body to hers.

It is so sudden. One moment, she is a mere creature of the night, constrained by shadowy leather and fur; the next, she is fire and brimstone, and she is burning from the inside.

Her Lady has released the enchantment upon her, the spell which kept her bound; and consequently, her magic. She realizes this in a rush of power so heady it makes her dizzy with it—she is claws, and fangs, and a two-legged form, and instead of being just below height with the guards she was about to leap upon she towers at the height of an alicorn.

Her wings snap wide and her magic flares with it; one moment she is nothing and the next she is everything, a lava burst taking hold of the ponies' souls like dolls and twisting.

The guards which were bravely charging at the princess they never did serve skid to a terrible stop. Their eyes stare blankly a thousand yards past both alicorns, filmed over in hazy teal.

Sunset Shimmer throws her head back and laughs.

"Oh, Sunset." Celestia says, softly; that seems to be the only thing she can do in the face of her and her Lady's true and terrible might. Comment upon what has happened to her and bow like a pathetic thing. Pathetic, weak, and naive. Even now she believes in the better nature of creatures which have none. Even now she hopes for a better ending that she will not have. "I should have known you would follow Luna in this."

"Of course I did," Sunset spits, wings spread wide behind her as she floats over to her rightful place at her Lady's side. "She's the only one who can get anything done around here. She's the only one who understands. How many times have I had the same petty, pathetic arguments with you, spinning around and around in circles while you never understand what I really meant? Even in the dungeons where we met, you were always so naive. The ponies will love me in the end, you said. There is a place for you among them, you said. Ten years under your wing and where did that get me? A life of hiding myself away in the palace, or else the ponies would come after me with pitchforks and torches."

"I never lied to you, Sunset," Celestia says. "I believe every word I ever say to you. There can be a better existence than this, a better life—for the both of you. You must turn back. There is another way than darkness and hate—a better way!"

"I know you believe it." Sunset scoffs. "You've always believed it. You've always believed in the better nature of ponies who don't deserve it. Why should I have to tolerate those that will never love me and never will? Meet hatred with love, you say—what a stupid idea. Was I supposed to love the demons trying to kill me in Tartarus? Am I supposed to love the maid who flinches away from my gaze; the noblepony who looks upon me as less than a rat?"

Sunset's saying a lot of things, and Tartarus, she believes them, too. She believes them with a passion and a fire that rages. But in the back of her mind, she's doing something else; pushing power towards the ponies whose minds she'd touched in batpony form before, re-establishing that connection with the raw power of a true demon. In particular she focuses on the guardsponies she'd helped hoodwink… those very guards who are walking the halls of the Canterlot palace as they speak, armaments ready for the taking.

"You believed in those things, Celestia," Sunset says. "But look at you now. Pathetic and powerless beneath the light of my Lady's moon! This is what happens when you open your heart to the ponies that hate you, princess. You get a dagger in the back."

"Be this as it may," Celestia replies, "—I still will not fight you. Either of you. No matter how far things go, Luna, you can still lower the moon! No matter how alone, how hurt you feel in this world, Sunset, you can still use your powers for good. I'm offering you the chance to prove it. I'm offering you the chance to fix things."

"At least you're trying to do one thing right, Celestia," Sunset says, reclining back from where she's floating in the air to examine her pointed nails. "Playing me against her? If I were anybody else, it might just have worked."

But she owes Nightmare Moon her very life. Tartarus, she owes Nightmare Moon the very form she walks in now! In the hour of her ascension, her Lady has chosen to free her, to release her into her true and most beautiful form, and she is so very grateful for it.

"Loyalty can be a fleeting thing, Celestia. Even now, your very guards turn against you."

Sunset throws a hand to the double doors of the throne room. They open again not with a sudden bang, but with a slow creak, as a full phalanx of golden-armored Day Guard march into the room, hooves in perfect lockstep sync.

"But I? I will always be faithful to my moon."

She takes another glance at the Day Guard flooding the room, their pristine coats white with the color charm etched into their armor. It is a color that fits them, Sunset thinks; white like Celestia's coat, yes, but also white like the stars glittering in the night sky above them, white like her Lady's titanium moon.

"I think their armor could use a change when we're done with your idiot of a sister, my Lady," Sunset says off-handedly. "How does silver sound?"

Even in a form so dark the light can hardly touch it, starlight mane flooding around her with power and fangs as sharp as moonlight, her Lady still smiles the same. "That, my most loyal servant, sounds like a most wonderful idea.

"But do not get ahead of yourself, Sunset Shimmer. We must deal with my poor, stupid, naive sister in the first place! Do not worry, Celestia. I will make it quick."

"I will not fight you," Celestia says. "This is your last chance to turn away. Please, I beg of you!"

"Enough. I tire of your pleading." Her horn lights.

The sapphire ray she casts is swift, sharp, and final.

Or at least, it should have been—but Celestia, for all her talk, is not the kind of pony to take her own defeat lying down.

As soon as Nightmare Moon's horn lights, she takes off in a flurry of alabaster feathers, wings beating hard to lift her from the floor in ascension. Sunset bares her teeth in a snarl but hangs back; this is her Lady's fight, and it is one she will win in the end, she is certain of that. She is simply here to watch.

Celestia's horn lights in a fiery crescendo that blasts a section of the palace roof off, exposing it to open sky, Nightmare Moon's stars surrounded by a blood-red dark. It looks beautiful—

—and Nightmare Moon looks even more beautiful against it as she launches herself after her fleeing sister with a snarl, casting another bolt of magic so charged that Sunset tastes ozone on her teeth.

Celestia is, unfortunately, nothing but elegant in her grace as she dodges this shot too, curving around it with a flare of her wings that makes her seem swanlike against the night.

Sunset tosses her head and flies after the two, twitching the strings of her magic to call the pegasi in her little fleet after her as well. Nightmare Moon will hardly need the assistance, but—still. She has always been a planner, and it has never hurt to be prepared.

If one wasn't paying close attention, the bob and weave of the princesses' flight through the sky would seem more a dance than a fight. They have always been beautiful in that way; it is a shame, Sunset thinks, that Celestia will need to be cut down like this. Surely Nightmare Moon has a plan for her, of course she does, even at her lowest she has always loathed outright murder. But it will be a shame to see her fall from the sky, in the end.

Oh, well. What must be done must be done, and she will admit to a thrill lancing down her spine at the sight of a shot from Nightmare Moon that just barely misses, scorching some hairs off of Celestia's coat. The black mark is stark against the white of it; she's never seen Celestia so stained before.

There are ponies in the streets beneath them. She can hear their gasps every time Nightmare Moon fires another bolt of magic off at her wayward sister; catches them them shivering in the night cold that merely glances over her; sees their colorful coats so bright against the cobbles, even now. They have come in fleets, even though the moon darkens the sky with her bloody gaze.

Of course they would. Of course, because Celestia is out, and even fleeting and burned she has always attracted far more attention than her Lady ever could.

Well? They better be watching now. All of them. This night is the night of her Lady's ascension, and she will be there to ensure it.

With a spiteful flick of her finger, she directs the Day Guard following her to sweep low over the crowd, their feathers practically skimming the heads of the ponies gathered. There are gasps and cries in response—one pony calls out The guard! The Day Guard are here! and she can't help but laugh. Poor fools, thinking these ponies belong to anyone but her.

If she had the time, she would lash her magic to them, too; claim their souls, claim their power as her own, claim their loyalty for Nightmare Moon's new throne. But there is no time, and the sisters have always been strikingly fast on the wing—even spinning through the sky in their weaving, dodging maneuvers, it is all Sunset can do to keep up.

If the little ponies in the streets are beneath her, then even in demon form Sunset is so very beneath the alicorns streaking the sky with auroric light, the very measure of their speed bleeding off their wings like light through a prism. Celestia would be the one to worry about collateral damage; Nightmare Moon cares for no such thing, and the missed shots that do not streak off into the night sky instead burn themselves into the Canterlot streets below, causing gathered, gawking ponies to scatter in fright.

Sunset takes delight in watching them flee, but most of her attention is focused on following the battle between the two sisters—if it could be called that. Not once has she watched Celestia fire off a single beam of magic in retaliation, although Sunset's sure she could burn. No, her wings spread wide and she dances among the night and it is only Nightmare Moon that tries to entrap her; growing more desperate to finally strike down this irritance as Celestia continues her masterful dance across the sky, leading them further across the city.

Beneath them, the streets turn to charred slag in the wake of Nightmare Moon's terrible magic; the same shadow that transformed her in the throne room has begun to streak off her wings, dripping and drifting onto Canterlot below, engulfing its signature golds and purples in stifling, stygian black.

Sunset can hear screaming from the commoners below. The sound drives her further after the sisters, determined; her wings are tiring and she is not built to fly at these speeds for so long, but she pushes onward anyway, because she will be damned if she lets her Lady out of her sight. The Day Guard following her have long since been lost in the smoky shadow Nightmare Moon is pulling tight over the city like a veil, twisting the cobbles to blackened slag and Tartarus knows what else—but she can still feel the strings of their souls attached to her, so she doesn't worry about it too much.

Onwards and further, Celestia growing ever more elusive; but even an alicorn must tire eventually. They are not sleepless, perfect beings. Sunset knows this. Sunset knows she must land at some point, but where is she leading them?

In the wake of Nightmare Moon's consuming darkness, Sunset almost misses Celestia diving down into the streets of Canterlot below. Almost, but she is sharp, and she is loyal, and she dives as well, welcoming the shadows that cloud her like ink as soon as she deigns to land. She does not fear any darkness from her Lady.

She does, however, spark her magic, lighting a small fire to her hand to let her see at least a little of the world around her. It is hardly more than an arms-length; the darkness lingers on her tongue and she knows that if she were a pony, she would be having a desperate time breathing in this all-consuming gloom. It is hostile, coiling, and cold, filled with the anger which Nightmare Moon has been bottling up for so very, very long. The grudge of an alicorn.

But there is no night without its light; there is no Sunset without her Lady, and it is not long before she catches a familiar spark of blue in the haze. With it, a familiar call, sung magically in the back of her mind instead of with any living tune—come, Sunset.

Celestia's day is not yet over. They must silence this dawn, once and for all; that is the thought that pulls her closer, loyal to her Lady's command with every breath in her body.

In the dim flicker of the cyan flame cupped in her hand, the building they've landed at seems to be some kind of vault. It's not one Sunset has seen herself, but it must be important in some way, if Celestia was willing to fly half the city to land here. The purple double doors, trimmed with gold, have already been flung wide; her steps are soft on the long carpet leading through the entrance hall, empty save for huge engraved pillars on either side of her, monoliths towering over even a demon like her.

The doors at the very end are marked with the royal symbol of the two sisters, an alicorn with her head bowed. Sunset sneers at it for a moment—it is supposed to represent unity, but what an empty symbol it really is. Then she remembers herself, and pushes these doors open as well.

The gleam of Celestia's horn is like a roaring blaze compared to the all-consuming darkness that Nightmare Moon has left in her wake. It is apparently with her power alone that she is keeping this room free of her sister's influence; it is a vault of some kind, clearly, from the make of it, luxurious but not ornate in the way the prior rooms were.

But Sunset does not realize what this vault is meant to exactly contain until Nightmare Moon lets out a shrieking laugh.

"The Elements of Harmony, dear sister? Is this what you have chosen to defend yourself with?"

The Elements of Harmony. Of course, Sunset has heard of them. She'd have to be deaf and blind not to know what the Elements of Harmony were, living in close proximity with both of their bearers. The Elements were used to defeat Discord and return all the world to normal, years before she ever clawed her way out of Tartarus. She knew they were somewhere in Canterlot, the sisters' weapon in case something like Discord ever threatened Equestria again, but she was never told the exact location of the vault.

She believes in their power, though she doubts anything as petty as friendship truly powers the Elements. The sisters would not believe in such a weapon on a mere whim. She knows they have used them before, and she knows how powerful they truly must be to defeat the kind of beast that could reshape reality on a whim, but—

—really? Relying on the Elements like this?

She can see the entire array the Elements are stored in, now; an open trapdoor in the carpet behind Celestia suggests she pulled them up from their secret chamber while Sunset was busy finding her way through the darkness. It's quite an elaborate structure, something like an astrolabe or a model of a solar system. Five of the gems glitter on their pedestals where they stand; the sixth (isn't there supposed to be a sixth?) is nowhere to be found.

"You have given me no choice, Luna," Celestia says, wings flared in defensive position.

"Please," Nightmare Moon says, with a toss of her head. "You and I know full well how the Elements of Harmony work. And you and I know full well that you cannot utilize the Elements against a fellow bearer. The magic will not take. You are hopeless."

"Dear Luna," Celestia says. "You will always be my sister. No matter what you are, or who you are, I will always, always love you. But you are not the Luna who wielded those Elements so long ago. The very power of Harmony will not stand for the eternal night you are trying to create. Look at all the destruction you have already wrought, Luna. You have cloaked our city in a terrible, choking miasma of darkness. Can you truly not see it?"

"The ponies who live in these city streets are disloyal dogs, not worthy of my mercy," Nightmare Moon says, tilting her head back. Her slitted eyes are as cold as her moon as she regards Celestia. "When I am done with you, I will take Equestria and reshape it into something which suits me. Then we shall see if there are any left who are worthy of being my subjects."

"That is what I thought you'd say," Celestia says. Her magic reaches out for the Elements behind her, enveloping each gem in a golden glow. "I tried my best, my sister. I am so very sorry."

Nightmare Moon's lips tick into a snarl. Wrapped loose in gold and glitter, the Elements drift off their plinths and begin to resolve slowly around Celestia's body, fancy as a carousel.

That's all they should be: fancy tricks. That's all the Elements are against another bearer, little more than shiny stones; Sunset trusts her Lady's knowledge on this matter. It is this that makes Sunset simply float there and watch as the Elements revolve around Celestia, faster and faster; it is this that makes her tilt her head and frown a little, almost pitying the mare who is clearly putting her every hope into this.

Oh, well. At least she won't be so misguided for much longer. Beside her, Nightmare Moon is charging a magic of her own—and unlike those pretty little rocks which Celestia is spinning into formation, her Lady's magic has power. She can practically taste it on her tongue, more sensitive in true form to these things. And even if she wasn't, well—it's obvious in the whorls that have begun to glow upon Nightmare Moon's horn, not sapphire but a pure, powerful moon white, the magic so strong the light leaks through her before the spell has even cast. It is a spell that tastes like a distant, banished dawn, sent glittering below the horizon, and Sunset realizes exactly what Nightmare Moon is planning to do.

She wonders how Celestia will enjoy the domain of her own sun, with nopony left to adore her. It seems a fitting fate.

Something is ringing in Sunset's ears, though. A subtle tune somehow both like the chiming of bells and being stuck six feet underwater; she uncrosses her arms and stretches her talons wide, suddenly all on the alert. This feels powerful, this sensation that has begun to blanket her skin; a power that she's never tasted before; a power that tastes, somehow, like bittersweet love.

There is a sixth gem hovering in front of Celestia, star-pointed and pink. Lashes of power have begun to form, colored beams leaping from stone to stone—the Elements revolving too quickly around Celestia for Sunset to see, a ring of glowing power and oh.

No. This isn't supposed to end like this. They did everything right, the two of them—she served her Lady as faithfully and as cunning as she could, after clawing her way up from Tartarus all these years ago and this was supposed to be her reward! Her better life, her Lady's beautiful domain to rule as she pleased—they were finally going to be respected, they were finally going to be loved, they were finally going to be free!

The Elements fire, and she is falling.

Canterlot is ruined.

Celestia salvages what she can from the palace, but it is difficult work; more difficult, still, with the absence of a sister by her side. Her form still gazes down upon her from her moon; if she stares up for long enough at the craters, she can imagine she is still snarling.

The dark magic which Nightmare Moon unleashed upon the city is a plague that cannot be cured. If anything, it spreads; vicious and cutting in its nature, those ponies who linger within it too long end up… different. End up changed, twisted into beasts. Luna may have been sealed in her moon, but, oh, the damage stays like a scar unhealing.

She has not ruled from the Castle of the Two Sisters proper in a very long time. But the Everfree Forest is a lovely place, unspoiled by pony eye nor hoof, surprisingly welcoming despite that; she has left strict orders for the burgeoning settlement nearby to leave it unspoiled as best they can. It's mostly earth ponies, a stark difference from the unicorn nobility she has been used to for much of her life. They'll listen, she hopes.

She does not know Sunset's fate. The last she saw of the demon was a wide-eyed desperation, a kind of cornered animal instinct shining in her eyes that continues to haunt her dreams. It was the same animal instinct she saw in her snarl, in her claws in those first days down in the dungeons; it was that animal instinct that drove her to try and save this damaged soul, to try to teach her kindness in a life so clearly short of it.

She had done her best, but it was not enough, and she has to live with it.

Luna was banished to her moon, the place she resonated with the most. She thinks of Sunset, thinks of her fire and brimstone, the smell of sulfur that always rose off of her in her worst, most angry moments, and has a terrible feeling about where the Elements chose to banish her.

She wonders if either of them will ever be able to forgive her.