• Published 3rd Jan 2012
  • 36,063 Views, 787 Comments

Eternal - device heretic



Princess Celestia and Twilight Sparkle's bond is tested by miscommunication and guilt.

  • ...
65
 787
 36,063

V. Myths and Histories

V. MYTHS AND HISTORIES

Who Are You Trying To Impress? + The Field at The Heart of Dreams + Twilight Speaks to Herself + It was a Dark and Stormy Night in Canterlot + The Secret of the Ivory Tower + The Tale of the Two Sisters + At the Heart of the Mountain + You Understand, Don’t You? + It’s About Us + The Little Sister + Twilight Falls into Darkness

~(E)~

Somewhere:

Celestia laid, eyes closed, and focused on the sun. It hovered, just above the horizon.

“How long are you going to torture yourself like this?”

The voice was Celestia’s, but it was more bitter and mocking than the princess’ had ever been. The viciousness was only barely managing to hide the fatigue and plaintiveness it was meant to conceal. This voice belonged to something which was enduring a fatigue inexpressible by mortal ponies.

“Who are you trying to impress? This can’t be much fun for you, either,” the voice whined.

Celestia ignored the voice. It was asking a question she had long ago ceased feeling the need to answer.

Eternally, she thought, once again. I will push myself like this for eternity, if that’s what must be done.

For Equestria, and all my little ponies.

All of them.

All of them.

Her eyes opened, harsh and gleaming. A labored breath escaped her mouth.

For Equestria, I will endure.

~(E)~

A rolling plain of sweet-smelling grass spread into the distance under a sea of stars, the horizon graced by a sparkling lake fed by a stream that gleamed with the reflections of the unending night sky like jewels.

For the first time in many, many years, Twilight Sparkle gratefully sniffed the wind of the field, its revitalizing freshness driving the lingering aches of her recent trauma from her mind—well, dulling them, at least. The unicorn took deep, gulping breaths of the refreshing air, reveling in the contentment and peace that each breath imbued in her, staving off the dark thoughts that loomed in her mind.

Somehow she was still conscious of her body, resting peacefully on a sleeper car bed aboard a special priority line to Canterlot—having royalty around being very useful from time to time. Every breath in the dream seemed to dull an ache or soreness, some of which Twilight hadn’t been fully conscious of until she noticed their sudden absence. The whole experience was fascinating.

She breathed in, and out. It was wonderful, like breathing roses, sea air, and the crisp smell of new snow, all at once—not the smell, of course, but the experience. Refreshing and calming.

“Of all ponies that have been, are, or shall ever be…you are most welcome here, Twilight Sparkle,” said Princess Luna, behind her.

Twilight took another deep breath in, and slowly let it out. “I feel amazing. Is there a…healing effect to this, er…place? Some special magic..?”

Place is about as good a word as any.” Luna circled Twilight, looking her over carefully. What marks remained from her recent mental ordeal were fading quickly. “This is the field at the heart of dreams. It is a place of serenity and peace, a sanctuary from the many pains of the waking mind. Almost everypony finds their way here from time to time. It is here for them, after all.”

A thousand questions about the mechanics of this statement leapt to Twilight’s mind, but she dismissed them with a rueful smile. For obvious reasons, she knew little about dreams, but she had heard enough about the logic of dreams from Luna to suppress the urge to seek hard-and-fast rules about how something like this field operated. It was an entirely different type of magic from the straightforward logic of the waking world—an entirely different type of reality—and asking questions as if it were the same often made no sense. Ask, for example, where something or somepony was, in dreams, and Luna would give that little smile and reply, “Don’t you mean…when?” It was maddening.

Twilight desperately sought something to say that wouldn’t sound silly. Luna had always taken such delight in being knowing. “Er…a very interesting…phenomenon,” she said, lamely, giving Luna an embarrassed little smile.

Luna’s face was lit with amusement. “If I had any doubt that the Arch-Mage, Twilight Sparkle, had returned to me more or less intact, it is quieted now.”

“Don’t make fun.”

Luna stepped up beside her, towering over her in the fullness of her power here in dreams. “That was not my intention, as I’m sure you’re aware. It has always wounded me that you could not be here…” She looked down and gave Twilight a bright smile. “I suspect you’ll quickly become fond of it, as I am.”

Twilight looked out into twinkling sky. “I would like it better in different circumstances, I think. It’s a shame, really, to have such a peaceful dream when everything is so…” She searched in vain for something meaningful to say that encompassed the whole of her feelings, and gave up. “Screwed up.”

“Ah, you’ve been distant from dreams for far too long, my friend.” Luna gave her a thoughtful look. “This is one of the true dreams; anypony can come here, if they wish, and the way is known to them. I’ll teach you, if you like.”

“Don’t you think I’ve had enough problems with teachers, lately, that—” The retort had come out automatically and unconsidered, and its conclusion stuck, painfully, in Twilight’s throat.

“Think of it as…another opportunity to collaborate, perhaps. Would that be better?” Luna gave Twilight an encouraging smile. “That would please me. I do miss working with you, Twilight.”

Twilight looked away, her expression pained.

One of the rather more annoying side-effects of her magically-induced psychotherapy was a stark and unsympathetic memory of her behavior up to this point. It was like this: generally, when a pony goes about making a change in their life through waking means, they can often look back on their behavior earlier and say to themselves, “Ah, well, I was being silly. I was still emotional about things; anypony would have done the same…” The gradual transition from one state to another made the memory of ones’ foolishness more distant and understandable. Sure, it was embarrassing in retrospect, but comprehensible. There was a process of forgiving oneself, step by step over time, that made the knowledge of one’s mistakes easier to bear.

Twilight, on the other hoof, had put herself through a great deal of mental gear-shifting, all at once, and her mind was still trying to sift through all of it. The process kept tossing up little memories that scraped across her mind like a hoof on a chalkboard—for the first time ever, she cursed her precise, graphic memory and her mind’s ability to make leaps of reasoning, connecting disparate memories and sequences of events with their usual startling clarity and speed. Twilight was learning that she very much preferred not to be the one being startled by it.

Too many nights hyperventilating into pillows. Too many little things she had done, missions she had taken upon herself, which now she realized had done just to see if Celestia would notice she was doing them. Finding excuses to work instead of spending time with her friends, because something in her had screamed that making Ponyville a success was the latest in a series of unspoken tests. Treating Spike like a servant rather than the little brother she knew he deserved to be, because everything was about Twilight’s ongoing quest to be the very best wizard, the great statespony, the eloquent author and theoretician…all of it, all of it, because she was so, so frightened that she wasn’t special anymore. Special to Celestia—or at least, special to the Celestia her mind had wished existed—the perfect one, which never frightened or hurt her.

Twilight’s eyes fell guiltily on Luna, who was regarding her curiously. Breaking off her ongoing research with Luna had seemed like such a good idea at the time—a matter of timekeeping. Oh, I’m so sorry princess; I’ve just had so much on my plate lately! I’m sure when things calm down a bit, we can pick this back up—it’s not like you’re getting any older, ha ha ha! We have all the time in the world…

But now, in the harsh light of perfect hindsight…well, Luna just hadn’t been the right alicorn, had she…?

And now, looking up at the dusky-blue princess, Twilight’s guts churned as the awareness that Luna must have suspected something along those lines drew over her.

Once again, she took deep, revitalizing lungfuls of the sweet-smelling air of the dream. It seemed to help her mind settle, dulling the edges of the painful memories, helping her set aside the little spirals of miserable guilt which she found herself slipping down. The dream was not a cureall; it just...cushioned the blows.

“How do you feel?” Luna asked, cautiously.

“Lost.” This, too, just slipped out; Twilight tched in irritation. “I’m a little out of control.”

“If you want my honest feeling, I’d prefer you be a little out of control at the moment,” Luna said, slightly more amused than Twilight was entirely happy with. “There are things in you that need to be let free, and bindings you placed on yourself that you need to grow past.”

“In that case, let me ask: how much of what…happened, what we saw…was because of me, and how much was because of what…” Twilight found the name sticking in her throat, and felt foolish. It was just a name—Celestia. Agh, but it made her heart ache, after everything.

“How much was…magically induced, perhaps?” Luna suggested, politely avoiding the name that distressed the unicorn so.

Twilight smiled at her gratefully. “Yes.”

“Well…from what I can tell, from what you told me before I put you to bed, and from what Rarity and Rainbow Dash have reported since, I think you are lucky to be sane. It sounds like she was completely out of control—caught, like you, in some cruel way of thinking. She revealed something like the fullness of her power to you…and yet you endured.” Luna’s voice, thick with concern and worry, somehow found space to be admiring as well.

“Barely.”

“Nevertheless,” Luna said, smiling at Twilight’s humility. “In doing this to induce you to speak your true feelings about her, for whatever reason, she seems to have forced you down into your own mind, which was rebelling against itself. Again, you showed miraculous strength. Magic is not friendly to the mind, as you well know.”

“Were the images of…her…part of that? The chains?”

“No, Twilight,” Luna stated frankly. “Those you made yourself.”

Twilight looked away, her last little refuge of self-comfort torn away.

“Would you like my…perspective, Twilight?”

Twilight sighed. “I suppose so.”

The princess fluffed her wings and stretched her neck fretfully as she considered how to phrase things. “I think it is fair to say, Twilight, that Celestia has been…the focus of your life. Your teacher and mentor since you were very young—and thus, impressionable. And she is a truly wonderful pony, Twilight, she really is,” Luna added, hastily, as if worried that this was not apparent. “But as we have so dramatically explored together…she is not perfect.”

Twilight remained silent, staring out, unseeing, into the distant stars.

“I think…your heart realized what was happening long before you understood, in your mind. Felt my sister separating herself from you. The absence of such an important part of your life, and the legitimate joy you took in being her…” Luna paused to give Twilight an apologetic look, “Her faithful student—” Twilight winced, and Luna grimaced in sympathy, “—the absence of that made your hurt heart seek to reclaim it. This, combined with your growing sense of loss as your friends’ lives became more distant from you… as the alienation grew, so did the obsession with getting back that feeling of being special.”

“That sounds about right,” Twilight murmured. Even here, in the field, she felt a crush of emotion; shame, embarrassment, anger, sorrow…all warring on Twilight Sparkle’s always-vulnerable sense of self-worth.

Luna sighed. “It’s perfectly understandable, Twilight. You’re hardly the first pony to have a hard time dealing with a relationship souring in this way.”

“Still, I feel like I should have known better,” Twilight said, frowning. She hung her head. “Some expert on the magic of friendship I turned out to be.”

“If it makes you feel better, my sister didn’t see any of this happening, either,” Luna replied gently. “So you’re in good company. I think it is one of those situations where neither of you could see the forest for the trees…and of course, my sister has other problems as well.”

Twilight stiffened. She had been trying to avoid contemplating that—the crowning achievement of her childish obsession’s destructive reach. It was the true cruelty of what she had done to herself—not only had she had to be so mercilessly shocked out of a cycle of obsessive, self-destructive idolization, but it had taken Celestia apparently beginning to die for her to realize that anything was wrong. The abysmal lack of awareness and contemplation was the deepest wound—not only had she failed herself, but she had failed the real Celestia when she needed Twilight the most.

“What…what is happening to her? Is she—“

Luna’s expression grew grave. “She is…ill. In a way. I will explain everything I know soon enough, when we arrive in Canterlot.” The princess gave Twilight an irritable look. “When all of us arrive there.”

“So our friends are still with us, then?” Twilight said, emphasizing the collective pronoun. Luna had been dead-set against anyone except Twilight accompanying her back to Canterlot; Twilight had been equally insistent that they come. This had not been a request so much as a sticking point, and had delayed Twilight’s grateful collapse into the embrace of sleep for several tense minutes, and Luna had seemed half-ready to chase them off even then.

The princess gave Twilight an awkward look. “I realize that the six of you—no, Spike, too, so seven—have been through a lot together…”

Twilight looked up at the princess firmly. “They have a right to know what’s going on. They care about the princess just as much as I do.”

“Do they?” Luna looked down at the unicorn, face unreadable.

“Oh, don’t be like that,” Twilight grumbled, as her treacherous mind answered: No, they don’t. Not even close.

Luna sighed again, shifting uncomfortably. “Why are you so insistent they be with us..?”

Well I don’t know, Twilight’s mind groused. Because I’m scared out of my mind, not sure what to do, and need to feel like I have some ponies around I can trust, besides you? Aren’t seven shoulders to lean on better than one? For comfort, if nothing else.

“The comfort of companions can be as much a hindrance in crises as a help,” Luna said primly. “Distracting you, making you act less decisively, tempting you to consult when you should act.”

Twilight covered her mouth with a hoof. “Was I speaking out loud?”

Luna gave her a thin little smile.

“Is this to do with dreams..? Are you reading my mind, somehow?”

Luna looked out at the stars. “No, Twilight. I just know you.”

“I’m glad to know I’m so predictable,” Twilight huffed.

The princess sighed. “Forgive me; in truth, I am being…selfish. The things that will be discussed do not reflect well on me, and…I don’t want everypony I care about hearing them. I don’t really want you hearing them—in fact, to be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure I want to say them at all!” As she spoke, her voice grew louder and less controlled, her discomfort apparent in every word. The princess seemed to realize this, and took a moment to compose herself again before looking down at Twilight, her face proud for all that resignation lurked in her eyes. “But needs must,” she finished, gravely.

Twilight gave the princess a sympathetic smile. “Whatever happened, I sincerely doubt that your friends won’t support you, Luna.” The princess’ expression remained forlorn and lonely. “They are your friends, you know…don’t insult them by doubting it.”

“I know,” Luna replied distantly. “But I beg you, allow Luna to be Luna, and let her have her pride.” She turned to Twilight, looking about as bashful as she ever did. “Even if it is a fool’s pride.”

“I suppose I’m not in a position to be critical of anypony’s character,” Twilight admitted.

“Possibly not,” Luna mused, with a little grin.

Twilight, feeling that she had some ground to make up, gave Luna an earnest smile. “Luna, I appreciate what you did for me—“

“No, Twilight, you do not.” Luna’s voice was firm and definite, but not unfriendly, much like a parent explaining to a child that the broken clock on the floor had been her grandmother’s and was going to be difficult and expensive to repair. “But…looking forward to the immediate future, it is important that you do understand, I think. What I did for you—there is no real word for it—is something I would hesitate to do to anypony. The necessity of what I did grieves me.”

“Wait, do…to?” Twilight recoiled, as if struck—what a…threatening way to describe something that had been so important!

“Yes.” Luna looked back at Twilight over her shoulder in a wary sort of way that suggested she expected Twilight to get angry with her. “There is a somewhat…penetrative aspect to all of it. You were burying yourself deep in your mind, binding yourself to a pattern of thinking that you were desperate to embrace. I was forced to be very…involved. I dove deep into your mind so that I could speak to you. It was extremely dangerous for both of us, especially since you were using magic without conscious control. In your madness, you were quite literally killing me. Not my body or my mind…me. And yourself, as well...and your friends, who were present in the room with you.”

Twilight was stunned. “I…I didn’t mean to..!”

Luna blinked, once, and slowly looked away. “Many things that have happened recently are not what anypony intended, and yet they are so.”

They sat together in silence for a time.

“I’m sorry,” Twilight said, eventually.

“That is well,” Luna replied evenly. “But…in truth, you have nothing to thank me for. I did what I had to do, for my sister’s sake, and yours.” The princess looked awkward, suddenly, in the way she did when she was tearing an admission out from underneath her terrible pride. “And my own.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I invite you to consider why I would, without hesitation, willingly expose myself to every mental defense your extremely capable mind could create for me, to save you from a nightmare of your own creation…” She trailed off, letting the emphasis sink in.

Behind her, in the sky of the dream, an image of a purple hoof reached out of a swirling vortex of rainbow-colored light, which seemed to cut a little hole of light in a roiling hell of non-color. A dusky-blue hoof shod in silver shoes, straining against tendrils of darkness that strove to reclaim it, reached out as well, trembling. Twilight stared as the hooves touched, and a bright burst of multicolored light drove the darkness away, eating at it like fire burning paper.

Twilight stared up at it. “I…don’t remember anything like that.”

“I know you don’t.” Luna’s face was sad, now. “I wish you did. You showed…exceptional courage, and fortitude, as you have again in the last few hours. It always pains me to see you doubt yourself--I think it a shame you are robbed of one of your greatest moments.”

Twilight didn’t know what to say.

“And I have faith you will impress me once again, as we work together to help Celestia.”

Twilight had expected the name, spoken aloud, to refill her with the lingering dread that had lurked in her heart since she had been forcibly recalled from her mind. Everything had seemed so out of control, so screwed up, that she despaired of there being a real solution. Half of her expected Luna to be taking them to something like a funeral.

To her brief surprise, though, she only felt a momentary flicker of unease, which passed like smoke in the wind. She wasn’t sure if it was the sedative effect of the dream, or just the general mental unclenching that had been slowly taking place speaking to Luna, but…

There was a glimmer of hope, deep inside her. Like a single, distant star in a cloudy sky, its uniqueness stood out as precious in the void, making the darkness seem less impenetrable and all-consuming.

“We…can help her, right?” Twilight asked, more to confirm than to query. Something in her was beginning to refuse to believe there was nothing left to be done.

“Help her?” Luna looked to the unicorn’s determined expression and smiled wryly. “We need to figure out what’s wrong with her, first.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Agh, we don’t even know that?”

“Of course not,” Luna chuckled.

“Of course,” Twilight agreed. They automatically broke, as one pony, into familiar, harassed grins of put-upon professionals diving into yet another hopeless case. The smiles faded quickly, though, as their flippancy turned bitter on their tongues. There were some hurts levity just couldn’t diminish. The two sat together, awkwardness filling the silence.

“There is—“

“I feel like—“

The two spoke at the same time, surprising each other. They looked to one another in embarrassment.

“Speak, please,” Luna said.

“I feel like there’s something left for me to do yet,” Twilight said. “In my head, I mean.”

Luna considered this. “A great deal, I suspect.” She looked to Twilight with a curious expression. “Do you have a…feeling, perhaps, that suggests what it is?”

Twilight shook her head. “Everything’s still so screwed up in my mind,” she said. “I feel like I’m having twenty thoughts at once…”

“I’d be surprised if it weren’t all ‘screwed up’, dear Twilight.” Luna gave Twilight an affectionate nuzzle. “You’ve been through a lot in the last few days, both in your mind and in the world. If I had a choice, I would let you rest for the next decade, I think.”

Twilight chuckled. “We don’t all have your longevity, princess.”

“That I know, all too well,” Luna replied, her features strained. “It is a shame, because I know how long it can take for some hurts to heal fully.”

“Well, as you say, princess, needs must.” Twilight sighed, wistfully. “We’ll do what we have to…for Princess Celestia.”

Luna turned on Twilight. “No.”

“What?” Twilight was stunned by this.

“No, Twilight. Don’t do this for her.” Luna looked deadly serious, eyes lit strangely by the starlight of the dream.

“Okay, for…Equestria, then.” Twilight tried to give a pacifying smile.

Luna rolled her eyes. “No, not for…please, let me do what I must for Celestia and Equestria.” An involuntary little grin flashed across her face at the rhyme, and Twilight matched it eagerly. The tension broke, and the two shared an embarrassed little chuckle, feeling like fillies.

“Ah, now I’ve lost the moment…” the princess muttered, half-annoyed, half-relieved.

“What should I do it, for, then?” Twilight asked, her grin fading.

Luna turned to her, smiling warmly. “Do it for yourself, Twilight.”

“That’s a bit selfish, don’t you think?”

The princess’ grin grew a little patronizing. “What freed you from yourself, Twilight? Was it thoughts of Equestria, or Celestia’s safety?”

Twilight felt a little bloom of guilt erupt in her chest as she remembered the demand that had freed her: she wanted the truth, for herself. “No, it wasn’t.”

Luna regarded her, curiously. “You seem…upset, by this.”

“Well…” Twilight trailed off, pawing the ground in front of her. “It should have been, shouldn’t it..?”

“Oh, heavens above,” Luna sniffed. “You’re just like her. You’ve both managed to turn self-sacrifice into a vanity.”

“What does that mean?”

The princess gave her a calm look as she very obviously weighed several responses in her mind. “Twilight, I…worry about you. Often. Because I care for you a great deal.” The princess began pacing in front of Twilight. “You were breaking your mind; doing everything you could do, trying to be the best you could for Celestia, pursuing an empty dream that lead nowhere. You do the same thing for your friends, without question. And, I suspect, robbed of both, you would still labor your hooves bloody for Ponyville and Equestria.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Twilight said, warily.

Luna gave her a cool glance. “I have known ponies like this before, and I shall hence, I daresay,” she said, in a strange tone that was both pained and tender. “While giving of oneself is a virtue, and a blessing to everypony, if you do not take some time to dream for yourself…what’s the point?”

“Isn’t wanting everypony’s lives to be better a dream?”

“Oh, certainly.” Luna fluffed her wings. “But why build a better world if you’re not going to live in it..? I’ve seen ponies, good ponies, waste away, giving of themselves until everything they were was consumed. And even then, they apologized for being unable to give more. This is not a fate I wish you to share.”

Twilight began to answer, but stopped herself. Memories of feverishly writing letter after letter to various dignitaries, while behind her she heard the library door close as Spike excused himself to visit Rarity for…well, the rest of the day, presented themselves as exhibit A in Luna’s favor, and there were several alphabets full of similar exhibits lining up right behind it. She shook her head. “So you want me to be…selfish?”

“Selfish isn’t quite the right word, Twilight.” Luna turned to her, looking her at her seriously. “I just want you to think about what you want. It’s allowed, Twilight; it’s fair to think of what you desire and work towards it. It’s right.”

“I want…” Twilight paused. “I just want to help the princess, right now. Everything else is secondary at the moment.”

Luna sighed. “I meant a little more long-term than that. A directionless life is a curse.”

Long-term? Well…there was…but, of course she intended to…

Twilight sputtered. “Agh, I’m already an Arch-Mage! And…and I mean…well there’s some books I’ve been thinking of writing…and of course, Ponyville keeps me busy, but…”

Twilight’s mouth fell open, slackly. There was nothing. As she looked forward to the future, there was a blank; nothing she desired or wanted to work towards. There was just the routine of work she had created around herself in her desperation to be the best agent, the best student, the Celestia could ever want. Her accomplishments suddenly seemed hollow and unrewarding—which was mad, because she’d done so much, so much good for everypony…but…

“I think you understand why I was a little worried, yes?” Luna asked, pointedly.

“I suppose I do.” Twilight hung her head. She was beginning to realize that the chaos of her thoughts was all scrambling to fill a void that had once been filled by the desperate attachment to the empty praise of a memory.

“There is an absence in you, after what you experienced,” Luna said, again as if she could read Twilight’s mind. “But there is a part of you, the part that has always known what was going on, even when it got truly, truly bad…that knows what you really want. Let that part of you speak to you, and to me, now.”

If Twilight had felt bewildered earlier, now she was set adrift on a grey sea of miserable indecision. “How am I supposed…what…what am I supposed to think? How do I decide..?”

“Well, to be perfectly honest, I think I can help with that,” Luna said, with sudden smugness. “We are in the realm of dreams, after all; I have some sway here.” She gave Twilight a sad smile. “I can help you have the dream you were so desperately suppressing, for so long, because you feared that by acknowledging it, it could never come true.”

Twilight’s heart stopped. “How…”

Luna’s smile broadened. “Our minds touched, Twilight. I suspect you’ll have some little insights into me, for a while, as well. That is part of why I am so wary of doing what I did; it is…intensely intimate.”

“Er…intimate, huh..?” Twilight blushed crimson.

Luna’s eyes widened as she realized she had misspoken. “Oh, not…not quite like that.” She raised a wing in front of her face as she also colored. “Just…emotionally close. Open. Vulnerable.”

“The actual meaning of intimate, in fact,” Twilight said quickly, embarrassed to have suspected otherwise.

Luna nodded. “Indeed.” She cleared her throat, and the two shared another familiar little moment of amusement at each other’s discomfiture.

“As much as I miss…Celestia,” Twilight managed, “I miss my relationship with you, too. Working with you, and spending time with you. All of this has gotten in the way.”

She had intended this to please Luna, but something—perhaps the insight Luna referred to—drew her attention to the slight strain, the little spasm of nervousness, in the princess’ otherwise happy reaction. “That’s kind of you to say, Twilight. Of course, I feel the same way. But as I’ve said, I am very much at fault in bringing these events about, so…”

“So..?”

“So let me help you, now,” Luna said quickly, in a tone of voice that suggested that it was only half of what she wanted to say. “Let me help you speak to yourself.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “This is all a little mystic, don’t you think?”

“Well, yes,” Luna said, haughtily. “But that doesn’t make it any less true. I want you to have this dream, Twilight, experience it—“

“What if it shows me something…terrible? Or something that could never be..?” Twilight asked, suddenly nervous.

“Then that’s what you see. We often want things we cannot have, or have private desires that are…not entirely healthy. But by letting yourself accept that you have such a desire, you can then move past it, and search for a new direction in your life. Suppressing it requires constant effort and attention; moving on is a process that ends, eventually.” Luna smiled. “In any case, I suspect that nothing Twilight Sparkle desires could be that terrible. She is such a gentle soul, after all.”

Twilight’s blush returned, hot as fire. “Ah, well, uh—“

“You’re…misinterpreting my words again, I think,” Luna said, her face aglow with delighted amusement.

“You mean ‘desire’ in a more…broad sense. I hope.”

“Yes,” Luna said, delight shining from her face. “But I hope you trust me not to be judgmental in any case. It is my belief that what you see will be what your heart wants to strive for, in your life.”

Twilight thought about this for a moment. “I...”

“And I believe we both know what the dream will be about.” Luna’s eyes, bright and proud in the height of her power at the heart of dreams, bored into Twilight’s, but the intensity of the stare didn’t intimidate, instead conveying a love that was as quiet and gentle as moonlight and as brilliant as stars.

Twilight didn’t respond.

Luna stepped behind Twilight, spreading her wings. “I know this is frightening for you. I wish I didn’t have to put you through so much all at once, Twilight, I really do.” She wrapped the dusky feathers around Twilight and lowered her voice to a whisper. “But I think it’s long past time that you let yourself know what you truly desire.”

Inside the cloak of darkness, Twilight whispered back. “What if it…my dream…is impossible?” she asked again. Several options had presented themselves, and she had been troubled by how much the unattainable fantasies had appealed.

There was a little chuckle. “Does the possibility frighten you?”

“If the dream is anything like what I think it will be…if it were impossible…the idea terrifies me.”

“But will you face it, nevertheless?”

There was a pause, a complicated moment of agonized consideration.

“Yes,” Twilight whispered.

“I would expect nothing less from you.” Twilight felt the darkness compress her, gently; it was a warm and friendly feeling, like being hugged while wrapped in a blanket on a cold night. “Now, just relax…and dream…”

It was like falling slowly backwards into a warm bath, comfortable and relaxing. Her mind quiet, Twilight Sparkle let herself dream the dream so precious that she had not dared to let it be dreamed…until now.

It wasn’t so scary, after all. And the tea was rather good.

~(E)~

Was the sun supposed to be this hot?

Yes, yes it was. That was the point, wasn’t it? Yes.

“Your heart just isn’t in it anymore, Celestia. Just relax, okay? You’re scaring me.”

“Be quiet,” Celestia demanded. She immediately cursed herself for rising to the nagging voice’s whiny little barbs. “This is just…a bad time. Things got a little out of control. Once I regain my focus, I’ll be…” She trailed off, the lie souring in her mouth. “Everything will be fine.”

She cringed internally. Not much better.

“Is that so?” There was another silence noticeably lacking a mocking little snicker. “Well, I suppose you’d be the one to know…”

Behind closed eyelids, Celestia rolled her eyes. “Just leave me alone, will you?”

“That’s a strange thing to ask of me, don’t you think?”

Celestia’s lip curled into a sneer. Strange it may be, but that didn’t make her wish it any less.

~(E)~

Canterlot at night was usually a spectacular and beautiful place; its tall towers and walls seemed to glow under moonlight, making the darkness luminous and silvery. Where in the day the palace was gleaming and proud, the grandeur and history of the place seeming to leak from the walls, at night it was mysterious and enticing, little flashes of starlight glinting off gilt to hint of the castle’s majesty, inviting the mind to imagine the many stories and intrigues that such a magnificent place would hold.

That night, though, clouds hung low over Canterlot, threatening rain. A chilly wind, for summer, blew across the palace grounds as the prowling figure of Luna, barely visible in the gloom, led the Elements and Spike towards the distant Academy grounds, everypony lost in their own thoughts—which, if Twilight guessed right, had a lot to do with her state of mind, if their little sidelong glances were anything to guess at. Even Pinkie Pie was unusually subdued, only giggling and making shadow puppets very occasionally.

For herself, well…she had a lot to think about, so the silence was a blessing in her mind if nopony else’s.

The dream had awoken her, in a way, as Luna predicted; it focused her thoughts on a goal, an objective. Immediately after the experience, Twilight had been eager and joyful—it had seemed close, then, and not just possible, but downright probable. Luna had politely endured the unicorn gushing, the princess’ face mysterious and unreadable as ever, but in an amused sort of way.

Now, though, in the cloying gloom of this night, listening to the howl of the wind amongst the shadows of her old home, the afterglow of that joy faded quickly. Doubt found a way in, snuffing hope and quenching enthusiasm, and where those warm thoughts were suddenly absent rose painful memories and her ever-present, biting feelings of self-doubt. So while she was no longer being driven to distraction, lost in a cloud of guilt and humiliation, the destination she now sought seemed to be at the end of an ever-lengthening road.

“Man, is it just me, or is it really creepy here?” Spike asked, looking around warily. The sound of his voice, so deep now, made Twilight stir from her rumination. “I don’t remember it ever being like this, in all the years we lived here…”

“Well, we weren’t exactly out much,” Twilight observed, “Especially when the weather got bad. We usually stayed up in the tower, or…went to see Princess Celestia.” Her voice only faltered a little.

The little gaggle carried on, passing through tunnels, under walkways, and through hedges. Luna stalked at the head of the procession, her expression unreadable, eyes glancing here and there, although what she was looking at, or for, nopony could guess.

“Ah’m a little confused,” Applejack whispered to Twilight. “Ah woulda thought that if the princess was laid up at all, she’d be up in her rooms in the palace.”

Twilight gave Applejack a sheepish look. “Well, to be honest…I’ve never seen or heard of the princess being hurt or sick, so I really have no idea.”

“Not once? In all your time here?” Rarity whispered, disbelieving.

“Well, she is the princess,” Rainbow Dash hissed from above them. “Who knows how she works, really?”

“Nopony does,” Luna said, not turning around, taking everypony else by surprise. “Not even I. That is part of our crisis.”

They rounded a corner and approached a gate, which was heavily guarded by both Celestia’s golden-armored guards and the black-and-blue liveried ponies of Luna’s personal soldiery. The latter bowed deeply as she approached, while the former gave her courteous salutes. She smiled, briefly, and a golden-armored unicorn unlocked and opened the gate, allowing the party to pass through.

“Nopony else is to enter,” Luna called back to the guards as they passed into the distance. There was a distant cry of “Yes, my lady!” and some poorly-suppressed snickers from the golden-armored guardponies at their colleagues’s expense.

“Whoa, that’s some serious security,” Dash said. Her eyes were scanning the sky. “There’s at least…sixteen pegasi up there!”

“You can see that many of them?” Luna frowned. “I shall have to have a word with the captains.”

Twilight peered around her, lost in memory. All of Canterlot Castle was more or less familiar to the unicorn, having wandered these ways since she was a filly, but she was in some seriously nostalgic territory now. Just up ahead, there was a little side-path leading to—

“Here we are,” Luna declared.

—the ivory tower Twilight had occupied for so many years.

Twilight stared.

“Whoa, no way!” Spike exclaimed, excitedly. “We haven’t been here forever!”

Twilight galloped up next to Luna. “Do…do you know—“

“Yes, Twilight. In fact, I know just a little bit more than you,” Luna said, a hint of her sly humor peeking out through her solemnity, just for a moment, before being buried again. “But not for much longer.”

The eight figures strode up to the lonely tower, which stood proud from the small sitting gardens around it. More armored guards were present here than Twilight had seen in one place, even at diplomatic affairs, standing around looking tough, keeping a wary eye on the little group of ponies.

Twilight shuddered. Seeing the guards, grim-faced and powerful, surrounding the tower in the gloom of this fearsome night clashed jarringly with her memories of the peaceful sanctuary from her youth, and she felt a little pang of loss as another little vestige of that innocent joy was consumed by the terrible events of the last few days.

Luna stepped forward and greeted the detachment commander imperiously, exchanging a brief, muttered discussion that seemed to annoy the guard intensely. He galloped off in the direction of the gate, barking orders the whole way. Luna motioned to the Elements and led them into the tower, Twilight taking a moment to look at the doorway and sigh, wistfully. Luna waved her head gently and candles flared to life around them, the flames burning blue for just a moment as her magic kissed the wicks.

There had been some changes, recently.

“I…love what you’ve done with the place,” Spike said.

The tiled floor of the entrance hall had been torn up, the tiles neatly stacked against a wall. Where they had been was a huge section of finely-finished basalt, black as a night sky dead of stars, smooth as finest brandy. At its center—where, Twilight recalled, a rather nice wine-red carpet had been—was a broad, round stone inset into a ring, both of a pale grey stone. The ring was inlaid with runes, which under Twilight’s eye throbbed gently with lingering magic, but the real sight was the inset circle, which was decorated with a brilliant mosaic of brightly-colored stones, depicting the sun setting behind a much older Canterlot, not quite so bedecked with spires and towers as it was now.

It was stunning; the workmanship was so masterful as to be unreal, the pieces fitting together so closely that somepony could be forgiven for believing that each beautiful section of color had been hewn from a single stone. All the ponies looked at it in awe.

“Do you like it?” Luna asked the ponies, who stood wide-eyed around the mysterious stone. The princess spoke in a much smaller voice than she probably intended.

“It’s…beautiful!” Rarity gushed. “I can’t imagine why anypony would hide it like this. This…everypony in Equestria should see it…” Her eyes were alight with the wonder of somepony who not only appreciates beauty, but has the knowledgeable eye of a true expert beholding a masterpiece, a triumph of the discipline.

Luna smiled proudly. “I made it for Celestia, long ago. Before the Nightmare.”

Spike stared at it, hungrily. “You have a good eye for stones, princess.”

“What is it?” Twilight asked, stepping forward. The runework on the ring was fascinating, like nothing she’d ever seen before.

Luna looked to the door and windows, satisfying herself that she was not being observed. “It is a door, of sorts. Seal, perhaps, is the better word. Below, Celestia awaits us.”

Twilight was staring. She had no idea this had been here. Princess Celestia had never mentioned it, and despite being very obviously magical, she’d never sensed the presence of anything during her years of self-imposed more-or-less exile in the tower. She actually felt a little embarrassed about that, and apparently looked it.

Luna gave her a sympathetic look. “Don’t be upset. Being difficult to find is part of its magic.”

“Still, you’d think the princess would mention something like this!” Spike declared.

A shadow passed across the face of the Princess of the Moon. “I suspect it will soon become apparent why she would not. Twilight Sparkle, stand over there; I shall require your help.”

The unicorn and alicorn took positions on opposite sides of the stone seal. Luna gave Twilight some instructions that were completely incomprehensible to everypony else, but perfectly routine to the Arch-Mage, who smiled and nodded eagerly. With strained faces of intense concentration, they removed the seal from the runic ring, turning it back and forth carefully as if having to navigate physical barriers although the sides were perfectly smooth. When they let it fall from their magical control, it seemed to float a half a meter or so over the basalt slab, to general astonishment.

Spike reached out and gave it a gentle push; it moved slightly, slowing to a halt with unusual haste. The movement seemed distorted and unnatural, and even he, a magical creature himself and furthermore a witness to many feats of strange and uncanny magic, shuddered and looked at it warily.

Applejack peered inside the ring. There was a large, solid-looking staircase of finished stone descending into inky darkness, which seemed cloying and thick, drinking in the light eagerly. “How far down does this go?”

“To the heart of the mountain, deep under the earth,” Luna replied, solemnly. “It is an ancient place, where the heartbeat of creation still echoes loudly.”

“That’s, uh…nice,” Applejack said, her face scrunching up in an expression of discomfort as her fundamentally practical, down-to-earth nature once again ran up against mythic forces from the dawn of time. “We’ll need some light, though, Ah reckon, or it’ll be a much faster trip down. Ah don’t suppose there’s any lanterns about, or—”

“That will not be necessary,” Luna said, firmly. Twilight noticed that Luna had begun to unconsciously fluff her wings in the same way Rainbow Dash did when she was annoyed or sulking, her eyes leaping from pony to pony in what, to an unpracticed observer of Luna in the wild, might be mistaken for concern. The dreaded confession approached, and Twilight could almost feel Luna’s mental distress as her ferocious pride and desire to be thought well of warred with her duty to her sister.

Twilight decided to save Luna the agony of indecision. “Well, you heard the princess, we won’t need lights, so…let’s go!” Twilight said, with brittle brightness. “Everypony in…”

Luna shot her a strange look; her face was irritated, but a hint of gratitude was lit deep in her eyes. “I shall lead the way,” Luna said, to general relief. Unspoken, but understood between the alicorn and Twilight, was the remainder of the sentence: That way, I won’t have to look at anypony’s reaction.

The princess stepped into the ring, followed closely by Twilight, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie; Rarity, Applejack, Spike and Rainbow Dash lingered only a moment before slipping in as well.

“Stay close,” Luna said, as if she had to.

As they descended, a strange thing occurred; though the circle of light above them grew distant, their immediate surroundings remained dimly lit such that they could see where they were stepping, though the inky blackness swallowed everything much further than that greedily.

“Ooooh, spoooooky!” Pinkie crooned, as happily as anything. “It seems to go on for-EV-errrrrr!”

“Would it comfort your journey, Pinkie Pie, if I told you a story?” Luna’s voice was slightly choked and stilted, grateful for a neat segue, but still unhappy at its necessity.

“I dunno…” Pinkie replied, suspiciously. “Depends on what kind of story it is. Happy stories always make things easier, but this really doesn’t seem like the time, does it…”

Luna didn’t pause, or turn, but Twilight again noticed her wings twitching nervously. “I’m afraid it’s a very sad story. It’s about two very silly sisters…”

“Does it have a happy ending at least?” Pinkie asked, in an encouraging sort of way. Twilight reflected that Pinkie’s way of being concerned was just to be more Pinkie at the source of distress until it succumbed to the fluffy pink enthusiasm that was a magic of her very own. “Just because it’s a sad story doesn’t mean it ends sad. Sometimes those are the best stories, because everything turns out alright in the end!”

Luna was silent for a time. “That remains to be seen,” she said, quietly.

~(E)~

“Five hundred sixty-one thousand, six hundred, and twenty-five. Five hundred sixty-one thousand, six hundred, and twenty-six.”

“What, dare I ask, ” Celestia growled, “Are you counting?” Her voice was strained, although not nearly as so much as her patience.

“Seconds,” the voice replied. “I’m a bit behind, sorry.”

Celestia frowned. “Do seconds even have meaning, here?”

“They have meaning to you. You perceive and experience time; thus it exists, even if only subjectively. As a thing that exists, it can be observed.” If the voice could have, it would have grinned smugly. “And counted.”

“Do I even want to know why you’re counting them, then?”

“Probably not,” the voice whined. “You always get upset when I do things like this.”

“So don’t do them.” Celestia felt a momentary flash of panic—her focus on the sun was…slipping. She tried to suppress her curiosity, which gnawed at her concentration—but as it is for every true scholar, idle speculation was a reflex now. Maybe an answer would help. “What was the starting point for the count?”

“You were saying that everything would be fine, awhile ago.”

Celestia’s head was beginning to spin. “Did I?”

“Six hundred seventy-three thousand, eight hundred and twelve seconds ago, yes.”

Celestia grinned, ferociously, panting. “So it’s a contest, is it? How long can I last?”

“If you like.”

“I can do contests.”

~(E)~

Stories, in the dark:

“In ancient times, my sister and I came into being. Even we have never known the reason or nature of our existence; we remember being, and that is all, though we have often tried to divine the nature of our birth.” Luna spoke with the grand voice of somepony reciting ancient lore, heavy with the weight of history and circumstance; the exaggerated tone of gravity protected her, a little, from how personal it all was to her.

To Twilight, and the rest of the group, of course, it was something like mythology and history rolled into one, and even now the scholar in Twilight thrilled to hear the tales straight from the lips of somepony who had actually been there.

The darkness around them grew airy and light, slowly becoming a landscape, coming into focus. The ponies now seemed to be walking in a snowy scrubland amongst the foothills of distant mountains, which lay black and grim on the horizon. The sky was the lazy grey of midwinter, and the air smelled strongly of crisp, new snowfall.

“Just keep walking,” Luna said, setting aside the expansive tone for a moment in reaction to the other ponies’ stunned reactions.

“What’s going on, Princess?” Twilight asked, fascinated. “Are you doing this? Is it…some kind of dream?”

“No, Twilight. This place is old, and it…remembers.” She turned her head over her shoulder very slightly. “You should understand that this is its way of being friendly, everypony. It is telling you the story with me.”

“Friendly? A place?” Dash sputtered.

Luna turned away. “Surely that isn’t the strangest thing you’ve heard in your life, Rainbow Dash?” She cleared her throat and resumed the tale, her voice drawn back into the grand voice of the storyteller.

“It was a time of disharmony. Chaos and anarchy ruled existence. The pony nation of Equestria, so recently united by the three great heroes— the unicorn wizard Trifolium Sollerti, Flosculus the Pegasus, and Morbi Crustulum, the earth pony—was falling into internecine conflict, with war threatening to break out between the three tribes once again. So the first to come was the sun, the bright beacon of unity.”

Off in the distance, a bright light suddenly erupted from the tundra, flaring outwards from a cleft stone, growing brighter and more intense with every passing moment, driving away the gloom and melting snow around it so fast and hot that steam rose in great plumes.

“And so Celestia, the Princess of the Sun, came to be.”

The distant light erupted into a burst of golden light. The ponies had to shade their eyes from the brightness. Even so shaded, Luna and Twilight’s sight-beyond-sight showed them the beautiful, pearlescent streams of primal magic swirling around the newborn creature. It was golden-white, with a mane the light pink of the first kiss of sunrise.

“Is that really Princess Celestia?” Fluttershy asked, awed. “She looks so different!”

“Yes,” Luna said, quietly.

The newborn alicorn filly, little smaller than a grown mare, shook her head and looked around in a disconcertingly intelligent way. The ponies had the very distinct impression that she knew they were here, somehow—and that she not only knew who they were, but why they were there. This perception was enhanced by a knowing little smile it gave their general direction as the scene passed.

The landscape blurred again, and around the little group the events of Celestia’s early life flowed across their vision. Ponies gathered around her, flocking to her wisdom, even as a very young mare. There was a war, between those who followed her and those who refused her leadership. They witnessed things, then, that they could not have imagined happening between ponies.

“Change…is always painful. Especially when it is necessary,” Luna said, quietly.

The scene changed once again. Celestia, now as silver-white as they had always known her but still small, and her mane still pink, sat upon a golden throne in a deep, wooded temple.

“This is the Temple of Two Sisters!” Twilight exclaimed.

“Not yet,” Luna said, smiling. “I am not just the younger sister because I often look that way, after all.” She cleared her throat and resumed her storytelling voice. “So she was victorious, and led a renewed Equestria for several generations to a new age of harmony. But she found herself growing tired.” The Celestia on the throne blinked, blearily, barely paying attention to the unicorn in front of her, who appeared to be speaking pompously.

Again, the blur of movement. They were at a moonlit seaside, far in the south of Equestria.

“The sun rises, and sets. And when the Sun rests…the Moon reigns. So I came to be,” Luna said. She recited this in a very formal, practiced way, as if it were a catechism or a prayer; Twilight got the distinct impression she had repeated this to herself many times in the past.

Luna pointed to the moonlight glinting off the water. It was moving, quickly, towards the shore, and as it struck land, a beautiful spray of silvery-bright water splashed magnificently around the new-formed Luna, small and filly-like, her hair stars, her eyes lit by reflected moonlight, her laugh of joy at the sheer exhilaration of existence a song…

“I was somewhat different back then,” Luna admitted, smiling bashfully.

The scene returned to the temple, where the youthful-looking Luna presented herself to Celestia, who embraced her readily. In eye-watering fast-motion, the court moved in and out, the sisters ruling side by side, day and night. “In time Celestia confided in me her urge to sleep. We reasoned that as I wax and wane with the moon, so she must rise and set to renew herself, as the sun does, much like her phoenix pet.” On cue, the flaming bird sailed down onto Celestia’s waiting hoof.

“Philhelmina?” Fluttershy’s face was a portrait of astonishment.

“I was surprised, too,” Luna said, regarding her fondly over her shoulder. “I would have thought the bird would be sick of her by now, honestly…”

The visions of Celestia and Luna descended into the bowels of the temple, entering a large chamber, which Celestia entered alone, laying down inside.

“I still remember what she said to me, that very first time…” Luna murmured. Their perspective drew closer to Celestia, whose lips moved as the present Luna spoke. “Watch for sunrise.” The doors closed, and everything went black.

“So I waited,” Luna’s voice rang out in the darkness. “For three months I fretted, worrying that day had passed into night for good; that she had not gone to sleep but instead, to rest. But then, one morning, I felt the sun rising.”

In the depths, a glow blazed in the distance, growing brighter and brighter, until it consumed everything, filling their vision with glorious, burning sunlight—

“Sorry about this,” Luna said. “It’s a bit…melodramatic.”

The glow died down and they saw Luna, arrayed in beautiful royal vestments, tearfully embracing her renewed sister, once again golden-white and young. “And so it went for generations. Every few decades my sister would rest, and every month I would cycle from full to new. All was well. But as you are all too well aware, this did not last forever…”

“Discord,” Applejack muttered, darkly.

“Yes,” Luna hissed.

The scene blurred again, flying deep through a forbidding wood, filled with shadows and hints of great beasts lurking behind wretched, mangled-looking trees. This was the great grandfather of the Ever-Free Forest, wilder and more brutal than even that dark place could ever dream of becoming. A familiar cackle of insane glee wound around them.

“We did not suspect his existence, for too long. He was the cause at the root of the sorrows that had plagued the three tribes so, before my sister and I arrived. As we ruled over Equestria, he worked in secret against us, unleashing monsters and evil magic to plague our reign, spreading disharmony and terror as he saw fit. You’ve seen his handiwork—the manticores of the Ever-Free Forest, for example, and the gryphon race—“

“The gryphons were made by Discord?” Rainbow Dash exclaimed, angry shock dripping from her words.

“Yes,” Luna said impassively. “A race of monstrous warriors, created to steal the skies from the pegasi. But Discord erred; he made them too intelligent, which they needed to be to fight the disciplined pegasus warriors. And the gryphons were proud. Ultimately, towards the end of the war, Celestia was able to convince them that life as Discord’s slaves demeaned them. One of her better diplomatic coups, I must say.”

“I…had no idea…” Dash said, awed.

“Few do, now,” Luna remarked, “Even among the gryphons. It was a secret that will soon be lost, because too few are willing to bear it.” She paused. “It goes without saying that this is probably something you ought to keep to yourselves.”

“Yeah, no kidding.”

“So: we finally found out about Discord’s existence, and began taking action against him. Free to act unrestrained now, he unleashed his madness on Equestria in ways which we had never thought possible.”

“We saw—“ Twilight began.

“You saw nothing,” Luna snapped, harshly.

Fire sprang up around them, burning every imaginable color; but it was a disturbing and malevolent thing, pure evil. Even Pinkie Pie, who could find something delightful in even the most bizarre things, recoiled from it, looking horrified as it coruscated around them, burning and putrefying everything it touched. Beyond the wall of flame, they saw ponies at war with demons and monsters defying description—hideous, insane beings of unreality, their existence an insult to sanity. The sounds and smells of battle were an oppressive, almost physical force, pushing down on them.

“The war consumed our attention, but rather than binding us together, it wore on our relationship. We drifted apart. We disagreed more and more often, about strategy, about potential solutions, about priorities…Celestia insisted that there was a magical solution to Discord’s existence, that he represented a fundamental force that had to be balanced. I was of the...opinion that he was just a powerful enemy to fight, with hoof and wing and magic.”

Before the ponies, the two sisters faced each other, looking combative. Behind Celestia was a wizard Twilight recognized as Fireheart the Old, while beside Luna stood the legendary, eyepatched unicorn knight Starlight Chaser, her gunmetal armor gleaming.

The sounds of battle increased in volume, becoming an ear-gnawing cacophony of sound. Above them, a thunderhead gathered, lightning flashing inside it ominously.

“And then Celestia…fell.” Luna choked.

Lights streamed above the din of battle, blue and pink and sickly-green; the serpentine form of Discord swirled in the air, larger than the Elements remembered, cackling insanely. Luna and Celestia dived and whirled around him, blasting him with powerful magic, which seemed to do little except amuse him. As Celestia flew around Discord to take another pass, the beast lashed at her with a claw wrapped in horrible energies, slashing her brutally and sending her plummeting to the earth. The Luna of the past screamed in terror and dove after her, Discord laughing triumphantly.

The terrible scene faded away, the mad laughter clinging to their minds. The great snowy waste where Celestia had first appeared spread around them, covered with the clutter of battle—broken pennants, shattered weapons, battered armor…dead friends. The memory of Luna, wrapped in a black cloak, stood alone in the distance, the wind pulling at her forlornly.

“For three weeks I waited, hoping against hope that she would return...and my faith was rewarded.” The distant figure reared up as a blast of sunlight appeared at her feet. Celestia, reborn, stepped forward, carrying a pair of crowns and gorgets in her magic which seemed very familiar.

“The Elements of Harmony!” the ponies cried.

“Yes. She returned from…wherever she goes…bearing the Elements. And with them, we sealed Discord and restored harmony to Equestria…for a time.” The familiar scene of Discord’s first defeat replayed itself before them, Rainbow Dash giving a little hoof-pump as the creature was sealed in stone for the next thousand years. The sisters stood before them, looking at the stone statue with satisfaction.

“But what had happened was more of a strain on Celestia than she was, or is, willing to admit,” Luna said. The Celestia before them turned her head, revealing a streak of cyan running through her previously uniform pink mane. Her eyes were wary and haunted.

The scene blurred again, revealing the court of Canterlot, filled with nobleponies in ancient costume. Luna was standing before Celestia, magic roiling around her as she shouted and raged, Celestia looking down on her with queenly dispassion.

“I…” Luna began, watching her past self scream her fear and anger. “I was terrified. I was afraid something had happened to her, some corruption had leaked in. I wasn’t totally alone. There was a split, politically, between the Night and Day courts that had arisen during the war against Discord. Fights broke out. I…acted rashly. I demanded she return to sleep, to recover. She ignored my concerns out of hoof…insisted everything was fine.”

Luna stopped walking. The rest of the group stopped behind her, sensing that Luna was struggling internally, watching the argument between herself and her sister rage silently in front of her. Weird dreamstuff boiled around the memory of Luna, terrifying the ponies around her, lashing out at her loyal knight Starlight Chaser as the Princess of the Night drove herself berserk with fear.

“I was…so foolish…” Luna whispered, huskily, hanging her head.

Fluttershy, with a little hmmm of sympathy, broke from the group, head held proud in a way that suggested she was forcing down fear, but face gentle and sympathetic. She stood next to Luna and nuzzled her—timidly, at first, but with greater confidence as Luna did not shy from her touch.

“Thank you, my friend,” the princess murmured. She cleared her throat and lifted her head, forcing her voice into a facsimile of the storyteller voice she had been using until now. The ponies resumed their downwards journey.

“In the end, as you know…the…the moon refused…to give way to the sun.” Luna closed her eyes and looked away as the scene faded, showing only Luna, howling with rage and terror, being consumed and polluted with the dark power of the Nightmare. Blackness surrounded the ponies, for a time, as they descended, their footing somehow instinctively sure even without sight.

“When I returned,” Luna said, eventually, “Saved, by six of the bravest ponies I have ever known…I was stunned to see what had happened to Celestia. She stood before me, transfigured, completely unlike the pony I had known so long ago.” Light, again, surrounded them. The tall, pillared walls of Canterlot spread in every direction, Luna and a much more familiar Celestia, pale white coat and billowing multihued mane, walking down the endless hallway. Luna looked fearful and chastened, Celestia much more serious and anxious than anypony had seen save in the last few days.

“My sister explained to me that things had changed in my absence. She claimed to have transcended the cycle of rising and setting, and become the Eternal Sun of Equestria,” Luna said. “And though she did not explain exactly what that meant, she insisted that she had not suffered any problems since. And to be honest, for a time, I was willing to believe anything of her, and her magic—modern Equestria is like a paradise compared to the war-torn, wild place I remember. But over time I saw that familiar streak of pride in her, the one that had made her refuse to even listen to me a thousand years earlier, and fear was rekindled in my heart.

“So I watched her—she had grown unaccustomed to having her sister about, and had forgotten the many little ways I am different than other ponies. I noticed her fatigue—in the old days, she slept, physically slept, once a month, not every day!—and how stressful circumstances distracted her and made her act somewhat hastily. I was ever the hasty one, once…”

Images flashed before them. Luna, peeking around a corner, catching Celestia yawning; Celestia, not looking up as Luna flew overhead, fretting and muttering to herself; Luna, watching Celestia’s smile grow glassy as Twilight gushed to the princesses about some research; Celestia, sighing and reading one of Twilight’s letters, looking bored…

Twilight tried, and failed, to suppress a little whimper.

“I’m sorry, Twilight,” Luna said, with real sympathy in her voice. “But it was always worst around you.”

Why?” Twilight managed.

“That is one of the many things I do not know,” Luna admitted. “But as your relationship with her deteriorated, as she became more distant from you…she became more…tired.”

“So—" Twilight’s heart leapt, urgently. “It’s possible that what was happening to her, not setting, is part of why we were growing apart?” As the words tumbled out, she cursed how pathetic and desperate they sounded; but there was a lot of her that was eager for this to be true.

Luna turned her head to regard Twilight carefully. “It is entirely possible, yes. But…to be honest, I suspect it is the other way around, and your relationship’s deterioration made her fatigue grow. I’m sorry.”

Twilight swallowed, but the crushing guilt still grabbed her throat relentlessly. The sudden comforting nuzzles and hugs from her friends seemed a very long way away, indeed.

“I wish it were otherwise, believe me,” Luna said, cutting through the mental distress. There was something odd in her voice, some little shadow that hinted at some deeper hurt…and there was, after all, that part of Twilight which was Twilight, always watching, its eye on Luna keener because of their mental contact. That part pricked up its ears and remembered while the rest of her recovered from the lingering agony of guilt.

They continued downwards for sometime, the visions fading, their surroundings now merely the immediately surrounding staircase once again.

Twilight’s mind raced. “So…did you ever confront her about this? The fatigue, the…”

“As a matter of fact, I did,” Luna said, her voice clipped and irritated. The vision of the hallway in Canterlot returned; it was winter, now, and Celestia was pacing ahead of Luna, looking frightened and annoyed. Luna, fully waned, trailed after her trying to keep pace, half-shouting. “When Discord appeared again—when you six dealt with him, years ago—she collapsed in the Hall of Histories after confronting him. Believe me when I say, with regret, that I felt hopeful he had done something to her. But to be frank, I doubt it. I think he just...agitated her, somehow. Whatever the case, I was bold enough, once she had awoken, to address her about this. She ignored me. Again.”

“You should have pressed the issue,” Twilight said, a little more acidly than she thought she meant to.

“I admit,” Luna said, her voice growing icy, “That this is one of the...mistakes I made in this situation. But I invite you to consider my position, Twilight. Do you think she would be particularly friendly to me bringing up, again and again, the old argument that had brought about our thousand-year separation? I certainly don’t.”

Twilight cringed, a little, embarrassed by the pain her friend was trying to hide with anger. “I suppose not.”

Luna sniffed, haughtily. “Furthermore, my sister has been wary of the changes in my personality. As I said, I was much different, long ago…and there is much in her, I think, that wishes the Luna that had returned from exile was that joyful being which erupted from the sea, all those centuries ago, and not the wounded thing she got, which so delights in being moody and mysterious.”

This last was delivered with a truly wretched bitterness. Fluttershy sped forward again, but Luna sped up as well, unwilling to show her face even to her dear friend.

“We’ve arrived, in any case,” Luna growled, waving her head. The visions cleared, and the weird localized light expanded around them to reveal a huge rock face of the same grey stone as the stairs. Carved crudely into the wall was a tight-fitting pair of, for lack of a better term, doors. Compared to the struggle required to remove complicated seal that barred entry to the stairway down into the heart of the mountain, these doors opened readily with a slight gesture from the princess’s horn.

Behind them was a rough, dome-shaped stone chamber, all unfinished stone, with great blue and yellow crystals jutting out from the walls and floor here and there, giving off a low, ethereal light. It was a rather large chamber—hundreds of ponies could gather in it, easily—and it was made to seem all the bigger for being empty save for the feature that dominated its center—a great stone bier, almost like an altar, hewn roughly from the same stone as the cavern itself.

Twilight barely noticed these things, her attention fully consumed by what lay there: Princess Celestia, looking for all the world like she was having an afternoon nap, peaceful as only the dead and dying can be.

The purple unicorn rushed forwards, her friends yelping warnings, Luna watching her silently. The princess still looked ancient and wasted, her mane still washed-out and motionless. Twilight had to watch very carefully to see the miniscule rise and fall of the princess’ body as she breathed, so, so slowly…

Twilight turned to Luna, desperately. “Can I—“

“Gently, please,” Luna said. Her face was stony and unreadable, beyond being unhappy.

With extreme care, Twilight laid her head on Celestia’s chest, straining with her ears to hear—

Thump-thump.

Twilight’s breath hissed in and out as she waited, desperate to confirm what she had heard, suddenly worried it had been a desperate illusion.

Thump-thump.

Twilight closed her eyes and relaxed, a little.

“She is alive,” Luna declared. “But she is…I don’t…” her stony tone faltered. “I have no idea what she is.”

Twilight felt tears, one from each eye, spill from her. For a tiny, desperate moment, she had a ridiculous filly’s hope that this would magically awaken Celestia, that her hurt and love would be enough to revive her mentor, but of course, all it did was slightly moisten the grey-white coat beneath her.

She was so cold. Twilight had never known Celestia to be anything but comfortably warm to the touch. And the slight glow the princess gave off was dim, washed out even by the weak light of the crystals.

“So…is…so she’s set, now?” Spike asked, warily. His voice was thick with fear and sorrow.

Luna sighed. “No. Again, I do not know what is happening now. But I should have…been more aware that something was going wrong. There were signs.”

“What kind of signs?” Twilight asked, breathless and accusatory, not turning around. She felt the hurt glare from Luna on her back, but didn’t care; her attention was consumed with the ruined body of her mentor.

Luna made uncomfortable little grumbles, then spoke, what firmness was left in her voice obviously forced. “I should have been more wary of sending her to Ponyville in the first place. And I encouraged a much more confrontational approach to resolving the problems between her and Twilight than I ought have, despite knowing that they were making her…situation worse. But something in me could not help but tease her; I was afraid of honesty.”

There was a moment of expectant silence as everypony looked from Luna to Twilight, waiting to see who would speak first.

“And?” Twilight said, her voice hollow. “There is something else, I can tell.”

“At the wedding,” Luna continued, with a growing tone of irritation, “I…walked into a memory she was having while she was awake and conscious. At the time, I assumed it was because she was having an extremely intense daydream, or something of that nature; but in retrospect, I am not so sure that it was that benign. I fear that her mind is trying to insulate itself from whatever she’s putting herself through by sinking into dreams. She was extremely emotional—about you, to be honest—and…” She trailed off, staring at the motionless unicorn.

“Which memory was it?”

“Is that important to know?”

“Possibly,” Twilight said, absently. “Increasing available information presents the possibility of new conclusions,” she added, in a rote, reflexive way. She just wanted to hear what memory had moved Celestia so, and both she and Luna knew it.

“She was remembering you as a filly, in Canterlot Gardens. You were moving lodestones.” Twilight heard Luna tapping the ground in front of her anxiously, but her voice remained firm. “I was…pointing out to her how you perceived her as perfect.”

Twilight said nothing, but rose from Celestia unwillingly, looking down at the recumbent figure longingly. She remembered that day, too; she remembered the title she had earned, and felt a desperate desire to hear it once again—for real, this time, not from a fantasy.

“I believe she is fighting the process,” Luna said, a little more softly. “She is not descending into the depths of sleep she has in the past; she is just unconscious to the waking world.”

“You can tell..?”

“I can tell,” Luna replied in a way that suggested asking more questions about it would be foolish.

“Well, I don’t see the problem,” Rainbow Dash exclaimed. Applejack moved to shush her, but the pegasus shoved her away, gently. “Let’s just go get the Elements of Harmony and give her a good blast with ‘em. That always works.”

“I…” Luna coughed, gently. “While you six seem to wield the Elements with much more skill than my sister and I ever did, I…suspect they would just drive Celestia to set. If, as I suspect, she has not renewed herself in more than a thousand years…who knows when she would wake up? Years? Decades?”

“She might not wake up at all,” Twilight murmured. “The elements might banish her, somehow, like it did Nightmare Moon. I don’t really understand or control what happens; it’s about restoring harmony. If the sun has been shining non-stop for a thousand years, so to speak...it might be harmonious to let the moon shine for the same amount of time…”

“But if it’s about saving her life—“ Rarity started to say, but she was silenced by a serious look from Applejack.

“Alright, then, no Elements,” the orange pony said. “I ‘spect you have another plan, princess, since ya were so eager ta get yer hooves on Twilight.”

Luna fluffed her wings uncomfortably. “Since Twilight’s relationship with her seems to be at the root of all this, I...”

“You were planning to take me with you into her mind,” Twilight said, dully, turning to face her. “Like you entered mine.”

Luna paused. The two of them shared a look which replayed Luna’s dark talk earlier about the invasive nature and danger of doing this. “Something like that, yes.”

“You can’t get in, yourself?” Twilight asked.

Luna’s expression grew cautious. “No. I…have tried. But together, I thought we might have more success.”

“Sounds good,” Dash gushed. “Let’s get to it!”

“What do you mean, let’s?” Luna said, irritation apparent.

“Come on, ya didn’t think we’d let you and Twilight do something like that alone, didya?” Applejack grinned. “Bein’ independent is great an’ all, but this is gonna be some heavy stuff. We weren’t there for y’all earlier, but we’re here now.” She gave Twilight a grin which struck Twilight as extremely patronizing, although it probably wasn’t meant that way. “Seven is better than two, dontcha think?”

“Eight,” Spike said, determinedly. He gave Applejack a severe look.

Twilight looked at her friends, who were all giving her eager expressions of helpfulness. In similar situations in the past, Twilight had been at least a little relieved at these displays of whole-hearted support. In fact, now she realized she had insisted Luna bring them because something in her had thought she’d want it now, in the face of what she had known was coming.

But standing here—Celestia’s ruined body behind her, Luna’s face twitching with the effort of not showing her miserable humiliation for her part in bringing this about—Twilight was suddenly ashamed that she had insisted on involving everypony. This was something private, for all that it was deadly grave, and she’d had only a little right to spread the news around...but she had, reflexively, to comfort herself.

Now, now, something in her rebelled. It is personal, but there’s more at stake here than your relationship with the princesses. This is also about Equestria, and about history…and it’s not like you can’t trust them. They’ll be discreet, that’s not a problem; they were discreet about so many other things, all the time. Who knows what will happen? Who knows if it will even work? They’ll be helpful, and useful, and support you, no matter what—just like they always have.

And it’s not like her friends didn’t care about the princess, too…

She let her mind toss up empty counter-arguments. I could never let themselves put their lives in danger, her mind said, automatically. Better that only I risk myself, than all six Elements of Harmony. There are more ponies directly depending on each of you than on me. The magic might not support all of us!

Fluttershy, what about Big Mac? Dash, don’t you still want to find your place in the world, as you’ve cried to me so many times? Pinkie, Ponyville needs your enthusiasm to keep growing! Rarity, you are only beginning to understand your role in Equestria—so many ponies look up to you, and you have no idea…Spike, you’re beginning to grow up—you have centuries of life left, don’t risk them so recklessly! Applejack, you need to watch out for them all, like you always have!

Though they tugged on her heart, Twilight knew these to be empty arguments—well, not empty, they were valid…just not the truth. They were not the real reason she was objecting. The real reason was that the dream she had let herself have, the dream that now seemed firmly lodged in her mind, demanding she go alone.

So there was that.

And yet…

No, she couldn’t just leave them behind, could she..? Not in this. This was too big; there was too much riding on it. And despite Luna’s entreaty that she do so, Twilight felt deeply uncomfortable acting so confidently on what the dream motivated her to do. Surely recent events, and pretty much her whole life, had demonstrated that she had a tendency to overdo things a bit when she got excited.

The wedding, for example. It should have been all about Fluttershy and Mac, and it had been. But there had been too much of it that had quietly been about Twilight, too, and her sudden, burning need for everything to be perfect, and she was ashamed even if nopony even suspected. She didn’t want to be selfish; she enjoyed giving of herself to others, and had accomplished so much in her life by being selfless.

Agh! But this, this was so important! It was Celestia! She wanted—

Yes, it’s Celestia, Twilight, that’s why everypony deserves to be involved. It’s bigger than you, and your dream, something in her said. She couldn’t tell what part of her it was, but it sounded much more sure of itself than she was overall.

Her stomach heaved in sympathy with her mind as it raged against itself. Twilight wondered if she was going to throw up purely from mental anguish once again, but she was pulled from her thoughts by sudden contact. Pinkie Pie was hugging her.

“Wha—“ Twilight stammered, starting in surprise. “Pinkie, what..?”

“You just seemed like you needed a hug!” the pink pony declared in her usual tone of reflexive happiness, but her bright blue eyes had an unusual depth to them. Once again Twilight reflected that there was something very intelligent in Pinkie, lurking behind that façade of carefree enthusiasm, and that thing believed to the very core that expressing love could help any situation, no matter how grave.

“Thank you, Pinkie,” Twilight said weakly, giving her friend a squeeze in return. “I really did.”

“See? That’s what Ah’m talkin’ about.” Applejack declared. “We’re better off goin’ together. Supportin’ each other, all the way through, like we always have.”

Luna’s face cycled through a complicated series of emotions, all of them variations on a theme of ‘uneasy’. “I suppose it is as good a plan as Twilight herself…and there is something to the idea that the Elements of Harmony may yet…introduce stabilizing factors…” There was clearly an internal war of self-justification in Luna as well, but it seemed to be doing little except upsetting her. “Twilight, what is your thought on the matter?”

“C’mon, Twilight, you know we can help out,” Dash said, confidence oozing off her words.

Rarity nodded. “This is really dangerous. You’ve already been hurt once, dear! Let us support you.”

“Well—“ Twilight started, but she was interrupted bodily.

“And you never know when you’re going to need another hug!” Pinkie declared, giving her a particularly emphatic one. “Hugs help!”

Her friends—with the notable exception of Fluttershy, who was watching Luna with anxious concern—gave her their best expressions of wholehearted support, or in Rainbow Dash’s case, smug bravado.

They were just trying to help, but Twilight felt pressed upon and uncomfortable nevertheless. They…seemed to think it was just another big adventure—well, it sort of was.

But it also wasn’t. It was more than that, for Twilight.

Not that that hadn’t been the case before, though.

Agh!

Luna stared at her, pointedly. It’s up to you.

Twilight turned and looked at Celestia, lying there, peaceful in her doom. Behind her, the collected ponies (and dragon) shifted uncomfortably. The sounds, tiny and muffled, annoyed Twilight deeply, gnawing on the heels of her concentration, and yet, they also tied her back to reality, and didn’t let her lose herself in the chaotic sea of distress she was adrift upon. And behind all this, the dream, that beautiful, quiet dream with the rather good tea, loomed in her mind, crying its siren’s song to her heart.

In the pale light, looking on her fallen mentor, Twilight Sparkle made up her mind.

She turned back to the group. “I think…” Twilight began, clearing her throat and continuing more confidently, “I think…we should rest. We could stay here in the tower, if the guest room is still set up. And then, once we’ve put our heads down for awhile…we’ll get to work. All of us.”

Luna bristled, astonished. “Nothing about this situation strikes you as pressing?” Her eyes added: All of us? Are you certain? Is that what you want?

“You came all the way to Ponyville,” Twilight replied, evenly.

“That was necessary.”

“So is this,” Twilight said, staring Luna in the eye. “Don’t you agree, Applejack?”

“What? Uh, yeah,” Applejack stuttered, caught between a suddenly-decisive Twilight and an irritated Princess. Luna turned a dark look on the orange pony, who chuckled nervously. “A little shut-eye would do us a world o’ good, I reckon…” Applejack added weakly as Luna’s eyes narrowed.

“Three hours, then.” Twilight returned her gaze to Celestia, so nopony could see her face. “Princess, do you think you could guide us all to the field? So we get better rest?”

“Well, yes, but—“

“Good.” Twilight interrupted. She leaned forward and, letting her self-consciousness cause her to hesitate only a moment, gave the recumbent Celestia a gentle nuzzle. “I’ll be back soon,” she whispered.

Celestia gave no acknowledgement, of course, but Twilight felt better for having said it.

~(E)~

“Here’s what I really don’t understand, Celestia.”

“What…what’s that?”

“You could just ask for this to stop.”

“No.”

“Why not? I might even cooperate, who knows?”

“You…never…cooperate.”

“Oh, well I can’t imagine why not. You’re always so inflexible about things.”

“And so I shall remain,” Celestia huffed, huskily. “I made my choice long ago.”

“Do you regret it?”

Yes. “No.”

~(E)~

Spike dozed, not quite sleeping.

He didn’t anymore, not really; some of the books he and Twilight had found suggested that this had something to do with hoard guarding behavior, and that true wyrmrest came only occasionally, but lasted for decades. He had felt a strange sense of familiarity seeing Celestia lying there on the bier in the cavern at the heart of the mountain—and a little jealousy, truth be told. It seemed right, to him, even as everything in him was filled with a gnawing dread. He loved the princess as much as anypony.

The Elements and he had made do with what cushions could be found about the tower, and Luna had stood over each pony in turn, sending them into a deep, peaceful slumber at the heart of dreams, where their minds and bodies would rest easy. She had apologized to him, saying that by ancient custom she was forbidden to meddle in the dreams of the dragon race, and had bid him a somewhat stiff good night. He heard her pacing downstairs, her hooves snapping on the basalt slab when, he assumed, she grew too annoyed to pay attention to how hard her hooves were falling.

A sound made him open an eye. It rang out in the silence, in that special way small sounds can have of being very noticeable when someone is trying to be quiet. Twilight was rising from the stack of pillows she had made for herself in the corner, and had gotten to her hooves with only the slightest whisper of noise. She moved across the room without a sound, hooves surrounded in a weird distortion—Wind Strider’s Whispered Footfalls, Spike’s mental catalogue of magic tossed up automatically—and opened the door with a tiny click, stepping through quickly and beginning to close the door.

Spike’s other eye opened, and he crawled, lizard-like, across the floor with a speed and stealth his size and bulk would seem to make impossible. He grabbed the door with a clawed hand just as it was about to close, a tiny snarl of effort hissing through his teeth as he wrested the door from Twilight’s control. He opened the door just enough that he could stick his head through, where a stunned Twilight looked up at him from the stairs just outside the door.

The two held each others’ gaze for a heartbeat, and then Twilight looked away, abashed. Spike said nothing.

Twilight swallowed, and looked up at him again. “You understand, don’t you?”

Spike held her in his gaze for a little while longer, his heart a maelstrom of mixed feelings— but in the end, Twilight’s firm, but sad expression pushed him over the edge.

Nopony else would have. They would grouse and fight and wheedle, trying to prevent Twilight from striking out on her own, warning of the dangers and insisting that she share the load. Spike, though, had been there since the beginning, and knew better the full extent of what Twilight stood to lose….and gain.

He saw, in Twilight, the quiet determination to get to the bottom of things and, if necessary, say one last good-bye to her beloved mentor. She deserved the chance to do so on her terms, he decided.

He nodded, once, and pulled his head back in the door, not daring to say good-bye lest it become a prophecy. The little click of the latch sounded with guillotine finality. He lay against the door, sliding down to his haunches with the gentle hiss of scales dragging across lacquer.

The books said that dragons took pride in the fact that their tear ducts closed in adolescence, boasting that this demonstrated the strength and pride of their ancient race. Spike, now and always, thought that was a load of hooey.

~(E)~

Twilight stared at the door for a moment, even after it closed. Spike’s face was growing so…unreadable, but he had seemed conflicted, and she immediately felt the hot little cinder of shame burn hotter in her chest at having to test the dragon’s loyalty that way.

With a resigned sigh, she turned and quietly made her way downstairs, towards the sound of Luna’s irritable hoof-falls.

“Cleverly done, Twilight, keeping yourself awake like that,” Luna said, a little coldly, as Twilight rounded the last flight of stairs. “I might have appreciated some notice, though. I’ve spoken to the guard captain; he’ll make absolutely certain we’re undisturbed when your friends awake in the morning.”

“I’m sorry, princess,” Twilight said, quietly.

“Oh? For what, pray tell?” No friendly statement ends in "pray tell."

“For putting you through that. Having everypony hear about…what’s happened.”

Luna grimaced, but shook her head. Her voice was not quite so bitter, now, just hurt. “Well, you know how it is with confessions…you do feel better for having said them, once they’re out, whether good or ill comes from it.” She sighed.

Again, Twilight got the sense that there was something Luna wasn’t saying, still, but didn’t press the point. “Shall we?” she asked, gesturing to the magnificent stone. Once again, they carefully unsealed the passage downwards, and wordlessly began their descent.

The passage remained dark this time around, as it had when the party had returned up to the surface. The trip seemed to take far less time, the second and third time around; Twilight wondered how much the story had to do with that, if the "memory" of this place kept them moving through the story to its completion. That whole situation puzzled her—it seemed to "remember" a lot of very recent things, as well as ancient history. Something to ask when this was all over, perhaps—

“What made you decide to leave them behind, Twilight?” Luna asked, suddenly.

Twilight paused. The sudden absence of sound made Luna stop as well, turning to look up at the unicorn, eyebrow raised.

“I…” Twilight began. “I realized that they think this was just another adventure. Save the princess, again. But…it’s not. And I can’t explain to them why not, because I’m not sure I understand why, myself.”

Luna shook her head. “I think you do.” She turned and continued the descent, Twilight following.

They continued in silence for awhile, and then Twilight spoke. “This is about us. The three of us. Not anypony else.”

“Yes.”

“I felt like…if I brought my friends, it would be The Elements of Harmony and the Princess, again,” the unicorn continued. “And if I want to make what I saw in the dream come true, it has to be Twilight Sparkle and Celestia speaking to one another.” Twilight blushed into the dark. “I’m being completely irrational.”

“Rationality may not be a useful guide for behavior in this.” Luna remarked idly. “To be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure this will work regardless, but I’m almost certain it wouldn’t have worked if I had tried to put all of you in her mind at once.”

“Really?”

“Oh, almost certainly. Maybe with the Elements, but…why risk that? It’s her mind, Twilight, it’ll be very defensive about who’s inside with her. I never could have done what I did with you if you didn’t trust me a great deal, even in your agony. With her, it’s worse—her mind is adrift, lost in itself. She’s not really in control of things anymore.”

“What happened when you…tried..?” Twilight trailed off as Luna stiffened and drew to a halt. The unicorn drew up alongside the princess, and waited for her to speak.

“I…couldn’t get very far. She doesn’t want me in her mind.” Luna said, her voice brittle. “I appear as Nightmare Moon. Appearances, in the mind, are very…powerful. I forced myself to endure this thrice, and I nearly lost myself the last time. I suspect that is part of why I was so…violently angry, when I came to Ponyville…” Luna looked terrified, eyes wide, body trembling. Twilight nudged her sympathetically, and Luna returned the affectionate gesture, breathing deeply. “Let that be the first of many warnings to you about how dangerous this is, Twilight.”

Twilight’s stomach flipped. If Celestia’s mind could do that to Luna, force her to relive her worst and most humiliating memories…

“Having second thoughts?” Luna chuckled, darkly.

Twilight sighed. “Fifth or sixth, by now, I think.”

“And yet, you still put one hoof before the other. That is the measure of bravery, Twilight.” Luna said, stepping forward again with exaggerated ceremony. “It is my hope, however, that you will have more luck accessing Celestia’s mind than I.”

“What do you mean? I…I mean, I barely know anything about dreams, much less magic to do with dreams…”

“Ah, but you are an expert in the Magic of Friendship, which will be important here. Understanding other ponies, divining their feelings, communicating with them.” Luna turned a sad glance on Twilight as they descended side by side. “And…Celestia trusts you more than she trusts me.”

“I don’t know about that,” Twilight said, in a small voice. Her credibility as an expert in the Magic of Friendship was not exactly at its height at the moment-- she was here alone, after all, and this whole situation had come about because of her lack of thoughtfulness and openness with the pony she had claimed to love most. She tried tamp down this little surge of guilt with the determination she’d felt earlier that this was an intensely personal matter, but…unease still rolled in her mind.

The princess misinterpreted her, in any case. “Alright, that was a bit self-pitying, I suppose. Let’s say…there are wounds—old wounds—that have scarred over, but still pain us enough that our minds touching is…uncomfortable, for both of us.” Luna fluffed her wings anxiously.

Twilight politely declined to investigate what, specifically, Luna meant by this. “So you’ll open the door, so to speak…and in I’ll go.”

“Precisely. And I’ll be watching you, to help you pull yourself out if things get too...intense.”

“Like if I…what, get trapped, somehow?”

Luna nodded. “There will be many traps for you, I suspect. If what Rainbow Dash and Rarity told me about her behavior yesterday is true, and my own observation of her is accurate, I think she will both want, and not want you near her, which is sure to provide for an interesting experience.” She sighed, smiling ruefully. “Honestly, if it were anypony else, they’d just be having a cry…”

Twilight walked alongside Luna in silence, thinking about nothing in particular, although her mind was presenting her with a variety of exciting options to choose from. Betraying her friend’s trust; risking the fate of Equestria for her own selfish need to have some closure with Celestia; memories of her behavior from the past year or so which, in retrospect, were humiliating displays of gratuitous attention-seeking from a pony who, for reasons that were still unknown, was distancing herself from Twilight—

Well, there’s a question.

“Why do you think relationship deteriorated, Luna? Erm,” she added, quickly, as she realized how she'd misspoken. "My relationship with Princess Celestia, I mean."

Luna stopped walking, suddenly; Twilight was caught by surprise, fumbling her steps as she attempted to halt. Luna looked down at her, guiltily. Twilight’s mind recalled, with its usual swiftness, the moments earlier when Luna, despite her atypical openness in the last few hours, had been very poorly concealing the fact that she wasn’t saying everything she knew.

The princess swallowed, holding Twilight’s gaze cautiously. “I suspect you already realize this, Twilight, but…I have one last confession to make,” she said. “For you...alone.”

Twilight’s eyes narrowed, and Luna visibly quavered. It was a strange feeling, asserting this much emotional control over the princess; but Twilight didn’t have time to analyze the emotion before the blaze of suspicion consumed her attention. “Whatever it is, princess, let’s have it out in the open.”

“I…truly don’t know why you and Celestia grew apart, Twilight, I really don’t,” Luna said, quickly, realizing she had called a truly dangerous suspicion on herself. “That’s something you’ll have to find out from her, if you can.”

“But..?”

Luna’s face fell, and she bowed her head, shamed. “I…do know that I noticed it much earlier than either of you did, and yet, did nothing to repair it. Indeed, I…exploited it.”

“What!? How? Why?”

“Because…” Luna trailed off, looking away from Twilight up into the darkness. She breathed in and out slowly, a few times. “I was very selfish, Twilight. I saw it as an opportunity to pursue my relationship with you, separate from her. And with her, separate from you. I am…I was…jealous, of you. And of her. The two of you.”

Twilight was floored. She stared at Luna, who returned her gaze warily. “Jealous?”

“Yes. Of you, because you are Celestia’s...well, it was like she had another little sister, I suppose, of whom she was proud beyond words. And her, because…she had another little sister that I barely knew, but…desperately wanted to.” Luna wrapped a wing around herself like a cloak, defensively. “I fully intended to help you reconnect in time, I really did. I never tried to drive you further apart, I swear it.” The wing moved to cover more of her face. “I may have done so in any case, though.”

Twilight held her mouth shut and looked away. This would have been a problem in any circumstances, but now? Where they were, what they were on their way to do? "Betrayal" sprung readily to mind as a word to throw back at Luna; Twilight felt an urgent impulse to lash out, the pettiest part of her wanting to hurt the dusky alicorn for this selfish crime.

But the better part of Twilight triumphed—the part of her that was so truly expert in the Magic of Friendship. It wasn’t fair to blame the princess of the moon for the current situation; Luna had no way of knowing what the consequences would have been at the time. Further, what she had done was…understandable, if unwise and somewhat typically a product of Luna’s fear of being overtly confrontational with Celestia about personal issues—a strange quirk which Twilight now understood and sympathized with quite thoroughly. Luna knew now that she had made a grievous error. Her attitude was certainly genuinely penitent.

“When all this is over,” Twilight said, carefully, “The three of us are going to be having a series of very, very long talks.” She sighed. “So much wouldn’t have happened, if we had just talked more instead of getting wrapped up in ourselves. It’s not like we don’t care about each other, after all.”

Even as she said this, a maniac little snarl of thought whispered the poisonous terrors that had once been golden chains in her mind, binding her to a nonsense dream of a perfect Celestia: She never cared about you. You were a toy, to be discarded when it grew tiresome. Twilight forced the thought down with some difficulty, heart squirming in her chest.

“I’m so sorry, Twilight,” Luna said, miserably. She folded her wing behind her. “In retrospect, I may have made things much, much worse.”

“Well…” Twilight trailed off, unsure what to say about this. “Don’t do it again.”

Silence reigned, for a time, as the two stared at each other; Luna, chastened and—for once—not affecting royal pride and mysteriousness, Twilight meeting her gaze firmly.

“I am glad you felt you could be straight with me, Luna,” Twilight said, as gently as she could. “And I want you to know that despite your mistakes…I only respect you more, for being willing to confess them.”

Luna shook her head, sadly. “I…do think of you that way, you know,” she said, quietly.

Twilight looked up at her. “How do you mean?”

“Like a sister,” the princess said, coloring slightly and looking bashful. “You brought me back from the Nightmare, and taught me about the new Equestria, with your friendship and the letters my sister shared with me…I owe you much. And I have come to care for you a great deal.” She reminded Twilight, absurdly, of a familiar yellow pegasus for a moment, and the unicorn failed to suppress a giggle. Luna frowned, looking embarrassed. “Why are you laughing?”

“Not at you, not at you! Well, sort of at you, I guess,” Twilight said, as Luna’s frown grew suspicious. “It was like I was talking to Fluttershy for a second, there.”

Luna’s frown rose into a wistful little grin. “I do wish I could be more like her, sometimes. Kinder, gentler. But alas, I am Luna…”

Twilight found herself stepping up to Luna, reflexively, to comfort her, and she felt her heart accept Luna’s expression of affection without hesitation—and indeed, long to return it. “Luna, we’ve been through a lot together, and are about to go through even more…if you call me sister, I will gladly do the same,” she whispered, nuzzling the princess.

Luna laughed, weakly, in relief, and wrapped her wings around both of them. Just for a moment, the weight on them here in the depths of the earth didn’t seem quite so heavy.

~(E)~

“Have you begun to understand that you are accomplishing nothing with this...stubbornness?” The voice, speaking with Celestia’s tongue, had lost its tone of jovially acerbic familiarity and had descended into outright harassment. Celestia was repulsed to hear her voice speaking so cruelly, even to herself.

In her heart, she knew she deserved it, but, still; it was unpleasant to hear her own voice berate her, all the worse for everything it said being completely true. Something like pain was driving the voice, now.

“The only thing you’re doing,” the voice continued, furiously, “Is prolonging our mutual suffering with your hard-headedness. Just let go, Celestia.”

But the Eternal Sun endured. For Equestria.

For her sister, the moon. For herself.

For T—

For everypony in Equestria. Don’t lose sight of the big picture.

“You will fail, Celestia. What will happen, then, do you think?”

“Then I will have failed trying. But I will not surrender.”

“Not ever?”

“No.”

“Do you know,” the voice said, suddenly soft and a little sad, “That may be the great tragedy at the heart of all of this. You could have been so happy, if you had.”

~(E)~

Twilight and Luna sat, side by side, looking down on the sleeping Celestia. She was as pale and cool as she had been, still peaceful and unmoving, even as Luna spoke, in a toneless voice, of everything she knew about Celestia’s recent quest to investigate her alienation from Twilight. Several long pauses had ensued as Luna’s guilt got the better of her; the white alicorn failed to rise and comfort her sister, as she had so many times in the past. Instead, the duty fell on a purple unicorn, who shouldered it as willingly as Celestia ever had.

“So now you know as much as I,” Luna murmured. “And have heard the full account of my mistakes, and some of Celestia’s.”

“Just as you saved me from mine,” Twilight replied. She leaned over slightly and rested her head on Luna.

“When you brought me back from the Nightmare, Celestia told me your name, and I laughed. She asked me why I found it funny, and I replied...forgive the poetry, ‘Of course it is Twilight that brings the Sun and Moon together again.’” Luna looked down on Twilight seriously. “As your princess, your friend, and…” she trailed off.

“A sister?”

Luna blushed. “If you don’t think that’s…strange.”

A little piece of historical doggerel flashed in the unicorn’s mind. “In calling me unto thee by this name, you honor me, my belov’d Lady Moon,” Twilight recited, savoring Luna’s delight at being addressed with the ancient oath.

“It has been a long time since anypony pledged themselves to my service in that way.” Luna beamed down at her. “As all of those things, and above all, as a pony who has lost her sister and desperately wants her back…I ask you to risk everything to bring my sister and I together once again. Will you do this?”

Twilight smiled as courageously as she could. “I will.”

“Brave, brave Twilight.” Luna gave her a sad smile, running a hoof along her face affectionately. “Lie here—place your head next to hers.”

Twilight crawled up on the bier with Celestia, reminded acutely of the night before the wedding, when she had woken up to find herself in bed with Celestia, the princess’ foreleg draped over her. She had shaken it off, then—the ferocious joy and mind-bending confusion it had inspired had terrified her, although then she hadn’t understood why, as she did now. The event seemed so long ago now…but it was one of many things that Celestia and Twilight needed to speak about.

Luna stepped forward. “I’ll be able to communicate with you if we focus, but otherwise, remember the things I’ve told you. Focus on the dream you had, Twilight; focus on what you must do to bring it about. Don’t be distracted; don’t let yourself be scared off. She needs you to find her so we can solve this problem.”

“I understand.” Twilight nodded.

Luna leaned in and kissed Twilight’s forehead gently. “Then I wish you luck, little sister. Bring Celestia back to us, I beg.”

There was a flash of magical light, and Twilight felt herself fall, willingly and only a little afraid, into darkness.

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!