• Published 14th Jan 2012
  • 9,522 Views, 125 Comments

The Price of Grace - Sparkle



As Luna is set to return, Celestia's thoughts go back to the one mistake that sealed their fate.

  • ...
6
 125
 9,522

The Descent

Chapter 6
The Descent

I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night

Taught by the heavenly muse to venture down

The dark descent

And up to reascend

John Milton, Paradise Lost (III, 18)


Celestia was in free fall.

Heavy rain poured down as Canterlot below approached with an enormous velocity, domed high-rise buildings shooting left and right into the sky, indistinct and tiny at first, then growing ever higher and bigger. She fell peacefully, tranquilly; falling felt just like flying, but even freer, since you didn’t have to concentrate on how to steer and where to direct your wings.

She had given up on her attempts to make her wings move. They had stopped working seemingly by their own volition, and no matter what she had tried, Celestia couldn’t control them anymore. They were flapping about her body like those of an injured bird. But she felt no pain. On the contrary, the feeling was almost dreamlike, mesmerising, as though the world had turned into a tunnel towards whose end gravity was pulling her.

Left and right below her, she could make out the distinct street patterns of Canterlot. But where Canterlot Square was supposed to be, her eyes recognised nothing, everything was pitch-black, as though the light had been sucked out of the scene into a black hole; and an equally black, thick cloud was wallowing up in thick fumes, directly beneath her. She was falling straight towards this dark abyss, about to be swallowed by it; as though she was plummeting into her very own, personal nightmare, this one real. She met the dense, wide column of darkness, and her breath was taken away.

All is dark, she thought.

ALL IS DARK.

With a heavy thud, Celestia crashed into the ground. She immediately wailed up with pain, the most searing, most all-consuming pain that she had ever known. She had fallen onto her left wing. It felt as though it had been ripped from her body and was no longer anything but a downy stump.

She bit down hard on her tongue to stifle her cries until her saliva started tasting of blood. With the power of determination, she fought back against the pain and tried to get up on her hooves, shaking all over; but agony was criss-crossing her mind like branches of lightning. As she got up on trembling hooves, she realised that her left wing hung down limply from her side. Gathering up all her willpower, she tried to move it, but it didn’t budge by an inch. Celestia gasped, trying to focus and orient herself as the acute, searing sting turned into a dull throbbing.

Everything around her was thick darkness. It was as if she had entered a separate world where the daylight had left already; only that there was no moon in the sky to brighten the night, no source of light whatsoever, just the utter, limitless darkness of empty space. She managed to draw herself up to full height as she looked around, exhaled slowly, concentrating, then lit up her horn with a faint glow of light. The orb gently penetrated the darkness, cutting a narrow passageway through the night, faintly illuminating her surroundings. The heart-shaped diamond on her chest emanated a feeble sheen.

Canterlot Square was absolutely unrecognisable. The sumptuous timberwork buildings that had framed the navel of the city before lay in ashes: every structure on the square was nothing more but a jumbled heap of rubble debris. Celestia scanned the dark desert around her and searched for signs of life and movement, but nothing here gave away that hundreds of ponies had been on this square just hours earlier. Shattered windowpanes and torn-out bricks covered the ground, and the entire place was swimming with puddles of soiled water. A dry, choking feeling rose in Celestia’s throat that was even worse than the pain from her broken wing: something horrible had happened here, there was no doubt about it. Something had been broken today. Irreversibly broken.

She breathlessly started moving, the pain in her wing still pulsing, but becoming more and more bearable as she went on. Something else took its place. It was silent at first, but became ever more distinct: the familiar feeling of nagging fear crept into Celestia’s mind, one that she had experienced before, on the balcony of Canterlot Castle. Her mouth went completely dry, and her heart beat atrociously in her chest. The clanging hoofsteps of her gala shoes on the cobblestone echoed hauntingly over the Square, a sound as if the world was now devoid of anyone but her; as though she was the last pony on this earth, returning to look for signs of life. The steps were so unnaturally loud and abrasive that they set her own fur on end. Sometimes, when she stepped into a puddle, the splashing, suddenly organic sound echoing over the square was disruptive enough for her having to stop and collect herself for a while.

As she advanced, her eyes wandered left and right, searching for certain shapes on the ground; but none were discernible. No signs of life. As though nopony had ever been here. Besides the rubble, she sometimes stepped on what seemed to be banners from the Harvest Celebration weeks ago, now soiled and trampled upon. But finally, halfway through the square, there was a distinct lump of shadows on the ground. She narrowed her eyes and approached tensely.

She gave a start.

On the cobblestone, the silhouette of a pony body was visible. A dry taste of apprehension rose in her throat, but she forced herself to go on, her broken wing throbbing painfully, her horn glimmering feebly in the darkness and illuminating a far-too-tiny circle.

“Luna,” she cawed.

The darkness seemed to swallow her words whole. Barely had her mouth closed, she was not even sure anymore that she had said anything. She braced herself, and gathering all her resolve, she drew closer, dreading the moment her horn’s light would reach the object.

“L-luna —”

But it wasn’t Luna.

It was Sweetcorn.

There he lay on the dirty ground, his scruffy coat even more disheveled and dirty than usual, his wan ponytail soaked with mud, his jaw slack, tongue lolling out of his mouth, eyes half-closed. Like this, he seemed curiously tiny; his larger-than-life allure had evaporated completely. His greasy mane no longer framed his face in wild streaks, but floated atop a small puddle of water on the ground. His maddeningly vivid eyes, which used to carry the spark of insanity in them, were cold and matte now, sucking up the light of her horn.

He was dead.

Celestia frowned as she contemplated his figure on the ground. Somewhere in her heart, she felt pity that Sweetcorn should have ended like this. The circumstances seemed inappropriate for someone of his stature; and what was more, the concept of death had always seemed incompatible with Sweetcorn in her mind. But there was also a part of Celestia that felt grim triumph. In yet another corner of her consciousness, as though from far away, alarm bells were ringing, though they were no louder than chimes in a breeze.

“So Acier said the truth,” she muttered, to herself rather than anypony else.

He did.

Celestia staggered back. It was Sweetcorn’s voice that had spoken: there could be no doubt about that. She stared at him, her heart beating in her chest, an uncomprehending expression frozen on her face. The more she looked at him, the more alive he seemed to become. His eyes slowly peeled open, as though someone invisible was pulling apart their lids: and the familiar, red glint returned to them, but it looked fuzzy this time, approximate.

“I was waiting for you, Princess. Bored of the Gala already, are we?”

His voice sounded abnormal, distorted, remote; and he didn’t move his mouth at all. In fact, he didn’t move at all. It was as though his monstrous voice was supplied from somewhere else, breathed into him from a distance, strangely unmelodious and monotonous, as though garbled in the process of transmission.

“Is — is this real, or is this just another illusion?” Her own voice reverberated shakily over the Square. Mortal fear lay in her heart.

Sweetcorn’s mouth twisted into an entirely unnatural smile. “Smokes and mirrors. You’ve learnt how tricky I can be, haven’t you? Although at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter all that much if I am reality or illusion. The consequences are the same to you, and they are not pleasant. But for the purpose of conversation, if it comforts you, I can affirm as much: Sweetcorn truly and irreversibly is dead.”

Celestia had stopped understanding what was going on. She looked at the figure on the ground and after seconds of vain soul-searching asked the one pressing question, the only one that mattered right now: “Where is Luna?”

“Ah, Luna... we’re getting worried about our sister after all, are we? I am surprised about your late change of mind. And late it is indeed. Maybe you should have asked that question — where is Luna — earlier — ”

“Where is she?” Celestia interrupted him. “Is she — is she —”

“Dead? No.” His red pupils glowed dangerously. “No, she’s not dead. Don’t you worry. She’s alright.”

Unwitting relief spread through Celestia’s mind, and for a moment, she could breathe again. She was questioning the abnormality of her exchange with Sweetcorn less and less. Here, at the end of all things, in this strange and surreal world, it didn’t seem so far-fetched to talk to him again.

She turned to look over the square that lay in ashes and ruins. She spoke again, the valiance of her own voice surprising her. “What has happened here? All these people, all these ponies on the square, where are they now?”

“Ah, that’s a very good question, isn’t it? Well, they’ve left,” said the voice. “They’re all gone. I’m the last one standing, so to speak. That’s to be expected: ponies always let you down in the end, so I’m really not surprised. They just aren’t that reliable. But at least you’re here to keep me company. I guess you’ve come to hear it now?”

“Hear what?”

“Why, part two of my little story. Also the final part. The exciting conclusion, the grand finale, if you so will, about the fate of our two Sisters. That’s the entire reason why I’ve been kind enough to wait for you, even though my body is in ruins and my voice is but a distant echo. I just didn’t think it’d be fair to leave you hanging like that — cliffhangers are so, so tiring.”

“The story,” Celestia breathed, rummaging in her memories. “Of the Two Sisters, and the angry Spirit.”

“Remember where we left off? Our siege, and the promise of our angry Spirit? Let’s make it a bit more visual this time, shall we?”

His demonic eyes lit on the circular, stained glass window that formed the centrepiece of the town hall towering in front of them, about the only building not yet reduced to pieces. Celestia stared at the pattern on the window with a heavy feeling of recognition. Why hadn’t she ever noticed this before? It was the exact same motif as the one in the throne hall at Canterlot Castle. Two alicorns, one leaf-green, one a wintery blue, chasing each others tails endlessly —

The glass shattered. Celestia gave a start. It just seemed to fall apart into tiniest shards, as though busted by pressure. A shower of the coloured glass shards, fine as sand, was swept upward into the air by an invisible force. In mid-air, they started to form a kind of canvas, on which images started appearing: not clear ones, but distorted and unstable ones, as though viewed through the surface of rippled water. Only Sweetcorn’s red, unblinking eyes lit through the luminous, translucent surface against the surrounding darkness. Then his voice echoed again.

“... the Spirit promised the Sisters their revenge. But they told him to get lost and not come again, for he was vile and cruel, and they wanted no such spirits amongst the nobility of their castle... and so he left empty-handed, and furious. And they weren’t afraid of him: he had no hooves with which to strike, no weapons with which to fire. Only a tongue with which to speak.

Vague, glowing images shot into the darkness like plumes of mist, phantasmagorias of a swirling, gaseous liquidity, restless and unstable like a half-remembered dream. A giant castle formed in mid-air; it was hewn into a great rock, and its walls immaculately whitewashed. All the dozens of elegant little towers were crowned with gold, round domes. Pretty, stained-glass windows all around. Canterlot Castle.

“... ere too many suns rise, your enemies’ fate shall befall you, too....

One of the castle’s stained-glass windows smashed soundlessly into a thousand-coloured glitter, and out of them, onto the castle balcony, bursted two large figures. They were uncommonly big ponies, and like Celestia, they had wings as well as horns: one of them was a steely winter blue, almost like ice, and the other a fresh leaf-green, like the first notion of spring...

Celestia found it impossible to avert her eyes from the images in mid-air. Her unblinking gaze flickered with the reflection of the events in front of her, and her mind and heart had gone quiet.

The two alicorns were fighting fiercely, wedged into each other and tumbling towards the edge of the castle balcony, soon the one on top, soon the other. They were opening their mouths for silent roars, and a glowing, pulsing aura of unbridled magic surrounded them. Rapidly, they approached the balcony’s edge, tumbling down into the abyss... there was a flash of light, and the scene changed... a green meadow, extending as far as the eye could reach, but soaked with blood... a great battle, with soldiers clad in royal armour, red-soiled swords, and other ponies completely without armour, and pegasi flying in overhead formations like swarms of drones... There were many, many dead ponies, but the living ones had made space for the two alicorns, wedged into each other, biting with a desperate, savage violence... another lashing of light, green light, and the steely-blue alicorn lay unmoving in the grass, the giant, green one towering above it, panting, with a pained expression, and Celestia suddenly understood...

The image rippled, and they were in the exact same place, the exact same pasture, but everything had gone and only Gaia was there anymore, a painful longing etched into her face. She closed her eyes, lit up her horn, and as she did so, the heart-shaped diamond on her chest gleamed up blindingly, and as by themselves, trees shot into the air, one after the other, everywhere on the grassy plain, rows and rows of living trees, and plants, and underwood... Celestia realised that she was watching the birth of the Everfree Forest...

There was a poof and the images evaporated like smoke, only to once more reveal the cold, unmoving face of Sweetcorn, an obscene grin etched permanently in his face that was out of line with his sombre voice.

“And so harmony was dead, and the Spirit was proved right: once the stench of guilt hangs heavy over your house, evil will keep haunting it. There is no reprieve. No redemption. The fate of their enemies had befallen them, too... But it wasn’t over yet. No matter how much the now lone sister tried to hold the reins, war raged in all of Equestria.”

The image reemerged. A dusty, sandy road with a single, wilted palm. Celestia knew this was where the zebras lived. A small troop of pony soldiers, without armour, but in turn equipped with heavy crossbows, made its way through a village of zebras, who were shutting their doors and leading away their children. For a split second, Celestia believed to have recognised one of the soldiers. Acier? They set fire to the huts, and smoke seemed to billow up into the darkness she found herself in now and melt into it.

“‘... ere too many suns rise, your enemies’ fate shall befall you, too!’ But soon, nopony could tell enemy from friend any longer. And when that happens, everyone becomes the enemy.”

The shards of glass changed back to Canterlot Castle. Gaia stood on its highest tower, looking out fiercely over the castle grounds, as though she was focusing on something far, far away, whose presence she could only divine. She spoke inaudible words, and the images didn’t tell the whole story, but when she had fallen silent, a grim expression spread over her face. She opened her mouth to roar something inaudible, her features ripe with hot anger. As she did so, a thin, sparkling cloak of light seemed to spread itself over the castle, like a luminescent coating of closure.

“Oh, she might have had her revenge on the Spirit in the end, but at which price...”

The image tilted downwards onto the castle grounds. A giant, serpentine creature stood frozen there as though tied by invisible ropes, only the oversized, hypnotic red eyes moving hurriedly from left to right; the creature brandished an assortment of wildly different members and limbs: it had what seemed like an eagle claw on the one hand, a lion paw on the other, and a long dragontail. It also had wings: one pegasus wing, one that seemed more in place on an oversized bat... but on its face, there was a bizarre, lop-sided smile that upset Celestia’s stomach, so cold, so unmoved... a single fang stuck out at the mouth’s left-hand side...

She frowned. “Discord?”

With a ripple of the image’s surface, the draconequus was slowly enveloped in a green light; and as the light receded, he froze over, not with ice, but with stone. It started with his feet, one reptilian, one equine: grainy, thick grey stone, like a fixative harness, like rigid moss growing on his body; the stone crept upwards, locking in place the creature’s tiny wings, the claws and arms, then fixing the lopsided smile, and finally, creeping over the demonic, red eyes with the savage look in them, until the draconequus was one solid, twelve-feet-high stature from head to toes... up on the tower, Gaia breathed heavily in exhaustion and looked down onto the banished Discord, fighting for air, but still, grim, bitter triumph in her eyes...

“A momentary relief from all this horribleness?” rang out the voice. “Maybe that was the one chance to make it all better...”

Again, the image rippled, and when it had come to a rest, a pang of pain jabbed Celestia’s side. What she saw now, she recognised instantly; they had skipped decades.

It was Gaia’s bedchamber. Her mother lay sprawled over her bed; she looked so different now. She had doffed her collar and deposited it on the night stand. Cradled in her arms, there was a newborn, periwinkle foal, peacefully breathing, blissfully unaware. Despite her apparent exhaustion, Gaia smiled weakly when she saw Celestia enter.

Everything started converging in Celestia’s mind: she could no longer distinguish past from present, reality from dream. Unwittingly, she stretched out her hoof into the formless image, in vain hopes of touching that bygone reality and making it real once more.

Their likenesses opened their mouths to speak silent words, but still, Celestia could hear every single one; her memory dubbed them in seamlessly.

« She’s your sister, Tia... »

« My sister... »

« Don’t be shy. »

The young Celestia hopped onto the sheets, shyly approaching the foal.

« Her name is Luna? That’s so beautiful! Did you pick it? »

« It’s the only one that fits — Celestia Sunray, and Luna Moonlight. »

“No...”

Her hoof tried to keep that image floating in midair, as if to drag it towards her and possess it, but her hoof connected with nothing, merely sending off a slight, concentric ripple around the point where she had tried to touch. With wide eyes, she watched her younger self awkwardly caress the sleeping Luna, whose eyes’ corners had bits of grit in them. Watching her caused Celestia a painful stitch in her side. Then her filly self’s expression changed, and she looked at her mother with apprehension.

« Will you still love me? » she muttered, in sync with the filly’s lip movements.

« There’s enough love for both of you. And there always will be. »

But wasn’t there doubt in her mother’s eyes, fear even, merely drowned out in gently spoken words?

Like all the others, this image dissolved, too, carried away like grains of sand in a breeze. For the first time, Celestia felt tears on her face. Why couldn’t she stop time? Why did it all have to fall apart? It all went by too fast.

“Oh, how bent your mother was on creating an equilibrium where there could be none! How determined, but how vain. You can’t stick together what doesn’t belong together. She was bound to fail from the very start, and she knew that all too well from experience. But she had become obsessed, dangerously obsessed, with an idea: the idea of forgiveness. The idea of a second chance at all cost. The second chance she had denied her own sister. Grace.”

His muzzle twisted into a haunting smile as if pulled apart by an invisible string. She shivered. “Hazardous things, ideas, aren’t they? Once they’re there, once they’ve infested your mind, they never go away. But all the better for the spirit. Because in this simple truth lay his opportunity. Oh yes, Gaia might have imprisoned him for the time being...”

The grains of glass assembled themselves into the familiar statue of the Draconequus in the castle maze. The statue towered high above her, his unfathomably mischievous, unwarrantedly gloating expression locked on the fossilised face, cold, grey eyes staring down at her. Even through the image, Celestia believed to discern the statue’s subtle heartbeat. The lopsided smile, one fang revealed, seemed directed straight at her.

“... but can you really imprison freedom itself? Can you truly forever confine a force that is the absence of all confines? Can you cage chaos? Well, what do you think?” There was something rough in his voice, like pent-up hatred, detestation. “Well, personally, I think you can’t,” he added with mock thoughtfulness. “You can’t.”

The statue in the image twisted its smile into a familiar lopsided grin.

“Behind those stone eyes, the Spirit still saw and breathed and waited, waited, waited... still alive... He saw everything happening around him. For, remember, he was not as ponies are: he doesn’t see with eyes. In fact, like chaos itself, he is blind and yet sees more than your mother ever could. Foolish to believe that she could keep him at bay out of all things. That she could keep chaos in check.

“You see, behind everything that is, there are a thousand things that aren’t. Behind every line drawn, there are a thousand circles, and between earth and heaven, a million things no eyes can see, no mouths can pronounce. Oh, he might have been enclosed in stone, but the stone was enclosed in Him, too; and His heart beat with the same fervour, with the same burning desire of revenge, with the same compulsion to destroy that fleeting equilibrium Gaia had wrested from the gears of time.

“Because indeed, there is no prison to which chaos can be confined. If Spring really is undying, then chaos is a thousand times eternity; if grace is in all the winds of this earth and all the pretty lights and gentle animals, in all that is grand and great, then chaos is to be found in the small and tiny, in the seedy in-betweens of this world, in the interstices, the little gaps and hairline crazes, normally hidden from eyesight because nopony cares enough to look more closely: not as resplendent, not as pretty, but always there, always waiting, and, at the end of the day, truer, more real than all the shiny surfaces. Oh yes, he was indeed very, very alive, our spirit, and had not wasted a day with inactivity.

“But of course, you had that all figured out already, hadn’t you, Little Miss Sunshine?”

“You’re Discord,” she said tonelessly.

“Of course I am DISCORD!” he roared. The surface of the image warbled dangerously, as though imbued with a sudden burst of energy, about to collapse at any moment.

“Fifty years! Do you know what it’s like to be locked up inside that stone? Every day is never-ending agony, an eternity of stasis, the only thing that Gaia full well knows burns me up inside! But it’s all good now,” he added, more softly. “Because even a seemingly endless ordeal can be reversed by a single instant of time. Curious thing, time, isn’t it? All those years and years mean nothing in the face of one moment and one moment only. And I, I like to call that one moment — ” he broke into a whisper — “the opportunity.”

Celestia stared, transfixed, at the image of the statue towering above her. Luna entered the picture, a confused, lost look on her face, and Celestia instantly knew what day she was witnessing: the day they had attempted to catch that phoenix.

Luna was six. She was crying, in her own, silent way, that looked as though sometimes her tears caused her so much shame that the shame overshadowed her sadness. It dawned on Celestia that on that day, something of a magnitude had happened that she hadn’t ever been able to comprehend. And it also dawned on her that now, now after all these years, the day of comprehension might finally have come.

The filly perked up her ears and looked towards the statue. She seemed to see something in it that Celestia had only divined; she met the statues’ cold, stone eyes, and slowly approached, eyes wide open, as though unwittingly drawn towards it, like a piece of iron to a magnetic pole. She had stopped crying, and now her expression was as blank as an empty book.

She spoke. There was no doubt that Luna could somehow hear a voice, that she was reacting to some inaudible interlocutor. It took Celestia a while to realise that that voice came from the statue, and that she only heard Luna’s answers.

« I don’t know. I’m just sad. Then I cry with no reason.

— You too?

— But why are you sad?

— Yeah, sometimes I get that feeling. Because they talk about me. They say stuff. Like, not very nice stuff. Not when they know I listen, though. But still, I can hear it. I just know that I’m not... not like them.

— But what happened to you?

— My sister’s mad at me.

— Yeah. Yeah, I wanna help you. I... don’t want other people to be sad, too. »

Sweetcorn’s demonic eyes sparkled. “And there, the first crack sprang. Of course, my entire enterprise depended from the very start on her utter isolation. Had she spoken about this to anyone, anypony, my endeavour would have blown up instantly. Had your mother known, she would have put an end to this before it even began. But I knew nothing of the sort would happen before long. Your kin has a strange habit of leaving things unsaid. One of many strange habits, if I say so.”

Luna’s eyes lit up curiously as she stared toward the statue. Celestia felt sick; she could suddenly feel the strange and heavy atmosphere again that had emanated from the stone, that upsetting sensation the statue in the maze had caused her. But now, it felt more as though someone had punched Celestia in the stomach. She began to understand what Sweetcorn had meant by total pain.

The image flickered and disappeared, like a blown-out candle. Once more, only Sweetcorn’s disturbing grimace stayed behind. With Celestia’s growing discomfort consorted an encroaching malaise on her mind, a still vague, but building sense of dread, no doubt caused by the effects of the dense darkness around her. She felt her energy dwindle.

“Oh, how happy our little princess of the night was to finally have someone to talk to! Who would listen, who would understand her. Because, of course, the Spirit had been shunned too! He knew what it was like to always be the leftover. To always be the odd one out. Ah, the yoke of the outsider! I was all too glad to share the burden with her.

“But my ear was only half in it. Because of course, listening to the woes of a stupid child was so boring. I had little else to do, but still, it was annoying, to say the least... That unmitigated narcissism — another feature of your kin! — had taken a strong hold of her. Oh my god, nobody understands me, I’m so alone, boo hoo... BOO HOO HOO. And it seems she hasn’t learnt anything in all these years, has she? ‘I ran away uphill. I was a scared child. I felt bad about that; but I thought, Luna, you told her you didn’t want to catch that phoenix. There’s no obligation involved. No promise broken. But of course, I was wrong. If the tiniest of promises do not hold, then what good are the big ones?’ Oh GROW UP! You’re not the CENTRE OF THE WORLD!”

Celestia flinched, afflicted with pain at the still all-too-present phrase. “You read her letter?” she asked, almost in desperation.

“Oh, letters, shmetters. I don’t read letters. I read minds.”

“Then tell me,” Celestia managed to say. “Tell me. What is the song of the stars?”

Sweetcorn’s ashen face turned to a grin. “Ah yes,” he whispered. “That is the question, isn’t it?”

“Is it real? Is it something that only she can hear?”

“Well, by now you should have learnt that it doesn’t matter if something is real or not as long as you believe it is. Your sister knows that better than anypony. She sees what doesn’t meet the eye. And she’s right, she knows how to listen. Because unlike her sister, this filly’s ears are attuned to the gentle sounds the winds and spirits make; are sensitive enough not to have that subtle heartbeat of the world drowned out by the roaring splendour of the bright and ostensible. Yes, yes, the song of the stars was that subtle heartbeat that lured her out at night.”

The gentle sounds the winds and spirits make? No, it was something you invented,” Celestia proposed weakly, but nonetheless with anger, at herself as much as anypony. “That you made her hear.”

“Oh no, oh no. On that account, you simply lack imagination. Only because you couldn’t hear it doesn’t mean your sister couldn’t, either. No, no, all I did was insert a note into the song here and there. A little, jarring note, inconspicuous, but just like a nagging thought in the back of your head: a discordant note. That can change everything, little by little, once it has taken hold of you. And just like a single idea can blossom into a full-blown obsession, a single note can proliferate into a symphony of dissonance that could make her do anything I wanted sooner or later.”

“A nagging thought...”

“... that fell on fertile ground: Nobody loves you, Loony, nobody, only meeeeee... And another thought, the perfect complement to a potent combination: that she was going to do something horrible. Didn’t she ever speak to you about her dreams?” said the voice, almost sympathetically. “Or did you not listen? Did you shrug it off? I think that might be the case. I think you might have been too preoccupied by your own mind to go to the effort of trying to understand another. Isn’t that right?”

She groaned. “Exactly as you appeared in my dream, last night,” she said slowly. “You made her these visions through her dreams. That’s why she said that she — that she had nightmares all the time —”

“Let’s say I was mentally preparing her. If you hear, see or live something often enough — no matter whether real or imagined — you become certain that it’s an inevitability. That it’s destiny. And you’re all very good at believing in destiny, all of you.”

Celestia looked down and bit on her lips. “Why didn’t I realise what was going on, why didn’t I try to talk and —”

“Oh, why indeed? A very valid question. Maybe things would have gone very differently if you had.” His words reverberated eerily over the empty square. The almost otherworldly sound sent shivers down Celestia’s spine. “But still, if it’s any consolation, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for me. Contrary to what I believed initially, your sister wasn’t a total imbecile. Oh, let that be.”

Without realising it, in a spontaneous lash of outrage, Celestia had set his coat on fire. The sickening stench of burnt flesh immediately met her nose. She hurried to try and put out the fire, but her magic listened to her only very hesitantly. Her concentration had waned as the pain and suffocating anxiety had encroached further on her mind, and everything started to become fuzzier momentarily.

“Thank you,” the voice said cooly.

The shards of glass assembled themselves again, this time into a cliff, and Celestia immediately recognised the scene from her dream last night. The memory of that day on the cliff in the Everfree Forest. She and Luna sitting, looking out over the trees into an uncertain future, in the background a half-finished castle rearing into the cloudless sky. The realisation that years and years ago, Gaia had spilt her own sister’s blood here gave the scene a sombre aftertaste, a gravity that sucked out all innocence there might ever have been to it.

Luna was bothered. She spoke to Celestia in keeping her eyes glued to the ground. Celestia again breathlessly filled in her words.

« I can’t stay with you here when the castle’s done. I’ll have to run away. »

« Run away? Don’t be silly. This will be our castle. We’re meant to rule together one day, Loony. That’s certain. »

Yet of course, nothing had been certain.

« But night and day can never be together. One — one can’t exist with the other around. One destroys the other. They’re opposites, they’ll never be together in the same — »

“No.... stop...

But Discord’s voice went on mercilessly. “But yes, she was smart. She figured out what I was really asking of her all too soon. She knew where it was going to end, and she was afraid. She knew that I wanted everything of her. She had doubts. And this one time, you did say something to her. I was surprised, Celestia, I really was. For once, you’d broken the veil of silence. Little Loony was confused, but she decided she did not want to talk with me anymore. You’d pulled her over to the bright side, just for the moment! That was inconvenient, to say the least.”

Celestia witnessed, a stake driven through her heart, how the two exchanged their bistone brooches, and how she so carefully affixed the dark one to Luna’s chest, as though a binding spell was cast between the two of them. But had there really been? There’s no obligation involved.

« Even when nopony else loves me anymore, will you love me for as long as we live? »

« Of course. I will always love you, Luna. Always. »

No obligation involved. The inconsequential babbling of children.

“I think she sensed what was going on. She turned away from me and attuned her ears to other sounds. Voices became too explicit, too obvious. Unfortunately for her, she, too, was adamant that you can’t change your tendencies. That she couldn’t run away from the ‘fate’ I had her see.

“So what did she do in her confusion? She listened. She sought comfort in that song of the stars, felt herself welcomed by it, maybe too much so... and everything became so indistinct. And sure enough, soon, little Loony couldn’t even tell the difference any more. What did she do by her own volition? What did that song make her do? And what did someone else make her do? It became all dreadfully blurry, you see. Hard to tell the difference.”

The image went topsy-turvy as the darkness surrounding them seemed to encroach on the glass shards, too. Celestia realised that the scene she was witnessing now was the night Sweetcorn had first gotten into Canterlot Castle... had that really been just weeks ago? It seemed like an eternity away. She was sitting alongside Luna, thorough shock etched into her face. She could see it in her eyes, the alienation...

“Long be the day remembered,” Discord’s hair-rising voice whispered. “Of course, no one among you realised it at the time, but my great feat wasn’t breaking into the castle, it was breaking out of my prison. Only to get thrown into another one, but of a wholly different nature: a body of my own that I was free to control. So how did I do it? How did I pull off my great escape? As always I turn to Sunlock Holmes for explanation.”

Celestia tried to concentrate and put together the pieces. “You were one of the construction workers in the Everfree Forest,” she breathed. “That’s where you seemed familiar from.”

“Well, not me, but this body of mine was. A poor migrant worker from Hoofington. I had little Luna lead him to me under some pretext, once more ascertaining myself of the grip I had on her by this point. She didn’t realise what was going on or why she was doing what she did; it just felt right. And this worker disappeared without a trace. Peu importe. It’s not like anyone would miss a single pony in this giant gearbox. Not the ponies that don’t matter, anyway.” His eyes fixed on her.

“Did you kill this pony?”

“Does that really matter? I replaced his spirit with my own. I breathed the closest thing I have to a soul into him. If that amounts to murder, then so be it. I had a body back to my name. To be sure, a pony’s body, but nevertheless, a body that was free to move. Including the proverbial hoof with which to strike.” And as if to prove it, the body on the ground jerkily moved its hoof, causing a splash in the puddle. It looked as though it was attached to a string pulled by a puppeteer. Everything turned in Celestia’s head. It was as though the darkness, in concert with the suffocating revelation, was slowly sucking the consciousness from her mind.

“And of course, I had struck gold. No one was going to suspect my true nature before long. Because it’s always the peasants, the evil ones, isn’t it? It didn’t cross anyone’s mind, and least of all your mother’s, that I wasn’t who I was pretending to be, a class-war waging anarchistpony... implausible as it was. My, I am constantly surprised at how gullible you all are. And I do mean you all. You all are so naive. All I have to do is play a little role, say a couple of words here and there, and voilà! There we have discord. But as to your defence, again, I think your gullibility must be the result of your strange and unshakeable belief in fate. A fate that’s tattooed on your ass! That’s just ridiculous. You see, I make my own fate.”

Celestia’s eyes wandered down his flank. Indeed, Sweetcorn’s cutie mark changed to a green earth globe, flickered to a crescent moon, and then to a six-rayed sun. His grin sharpened. She felt vague nausea as she watched the cutie mark change back into a grain of maize.

“If it’s so easy for you to change, then why did you pick the sweetcorn?”

He laughed drily. “Really? Your world is crashing down, and you ask me about my cutie mark? Well, the sweetcorn.... I borrowed it from my unfortunate body-host with only the slightest of alterations. I thought I could make a joke of it. But you ponies never get jokes. You take yourself so seriously, it’s depressing. If only you had looked closer at my gorgeous cutie mark!”

She stared at it, frowning, trying to focus as well as she could. There was something weird about the corn of maize.

“Ah... ergot,” she said finally, as the cruel joke dawned on her. “There’s ergot on that maize.”

“Very good. And what do our less erudite friends call ergot?”

“H-horse’s tooth.”

Discord’s voice broke into a cold fit of giggles that made Sweetcorn’s body tremble violently. “That’s right. Diente de caballo! That’s right! I must say, I do like horsey puns! And the name is the game. Just like this little fungus ravages cobs of corn, I’ve broken into your petty little world and blown it all up. Into tiny pieces, and chaos, and never-ending despair. Poof!”

“You’ve done nothing of the sort,” Celestia started, aware of the defiance in her voice. “You’ve achieved nothing. My mother defeated you, and she will defeat you again. If necessary, I — I will defeat you. This isn’t a game that you can win.“

“Ah, if only it was that simple. Well, your mother did finally realise that something had gone wrong after my, admittedly overly showy, standoff on Canterlot Square. Right here, do you remember? The place looked different back then, didn’t it...”

“The Harvest Celebration... and just moments before, you had escaped from the dungeons at Canterlot Castle. You had turned to Acier. You knew that he, as master of the guards, had access to all of the keys...”

“Oh, we don’t want to jump to premature conclusions, do we? It wasn’t because he had the keys that I called upon him. That was just a side effect. It was because he was your ‘friend.’”

Celestia felt a pang of pain in her heart, this one sharp, not dulling as the encroaching darkness.

“No, no, leaving that dungeon was a much more trivial task for me, certainly none requiring of a key. ‘The spirit was not as ponies are; stone walls posed no obstacle to him, and he entered and left the castle effortlessly like a ghost, as though devoid of physical substance....’ I don’t care about the physical rules of your world. I don’t care about any rules, in fact. Certainly, no walls of brick and mortar can stop me.”

She closed her eyes. “And only afterwards did my mother renew walls of a different nature —”

“Right, right. It took her some time to realise what was going on. Well, what can I say: your mother is a very, very powerful alicorn, no doubt about that. If I have ever known anything such as fear, I freely admit that it was when I was facing her. Once she was in the know, she put very, very powerful protections around Canterlot Castle. She had sealed it off. From there on, I knew that my new body could no longer enter the castle a second time.”

“So you called upon Acier in the castle to do your bidding instead. You had him attack the guard and the lieutenant in the castle, and leave this horrible invitation card — ”

“Oh, no, no, again, that again wasn’t the reason,” he whispered. “I told you, you’re thinking too far. I just needed him to win over a friend of yours.”

“How — how did you win him over?”

At this point, Discord’s hollow, remote voice once more erupted into mirthless, dry laughter. “I didn’t win him over, of course! No, no, no, you got it all backwards once more. I won you over, naturally. Haha! How easy it is to plant ideas in ponies’ heads! How EASY! You’re all alike, alicorn or not, you, your sister, your mother, these stupid peasants on the Square, even this Chuckbolt guy who seriously believed that I knew who his stupid fiancée was — you’re making my job FAR TOO EASY! Sowing discord? Strife? Destroying harmony? Child’s play! Parlour magic! Sometimes, I shouldn’t even say it, but I get bored a bit playing with all these ordinary and gullible ponies... I’d just love to see someone challenge me some more this time round. Your mother used to be able to do that, but then she turned soft... you’re a tough cookie, though. I have high hopes for you. The very highest.”

She shook her head in confusion. Everything was swirling. The darkness was winning, no matter how desperately she tried to fight it. “What are you talking about?”

“First, let’s watch and learn some more.”

His hoof twitched dismissively, as if to shoo away the image of Luna on the castle balcony. The dimly luminescent pieces of glass now assumed the darkness floating around them. It was night, and a full, round moon hung high in the sky. Luna was looking downwards from a cliff onto a long and winding road, the road to Canterlot. Next to her, apparently unnoticed, a small, green fox was pacing up and down. Luna got up and started stalking two earth ponies walking on the street below.

“Now, as I was saying: having embarked on this slippery slope, sometimes our Loony didn’t even know anymore who was responsible — me, or herself. And then guilt becomes indistinguishable from responsibility. That can be very upsetting, you see.”

The two earth ponies’ voices reverberated over the square, as though carried by the wind from a distant land: « He’ll capture the castle for us, he’ll tear down those gates, and then it’s curtains for Gaia, and to nip things in the bud, for her heir, too. Goodbye, little Celestia. »

Celestia was not sure whether to feel appalled or affectionate towards her sister as Luna plunged onto the earth ponies. There was something wild, savage, beastly about her sister that she had never seen in her before, not even on the balcony the day of Sweetcorn’s first intrusion, as Luna attacked the travellers time and time again, clouds of darkness enveloping her, her eyes glowing with the white of the moon...

“Oh yes, there she was, little Loony,” Discord remarked eerily. “Now why didn’t they die? Because Gaia had figured out by now what was happening with her offspring.”

Celestia’s heart tied into a knot as she watched the green fox, who had been following Luna, jump downwards onto the road and grow into Gaia’s full pony form. In Gaia’s gaze, too, there was something Celestia had never seen before; and had she been pressed to describe it, she would have called it fear. Gaia’s horn glowed, the diamond on her collar lit up, and Luna went limp immediately. Celestia gasped, her heart beating violently, as she witnessed her mother in the moonshine, surrounded by three limp bodies.

“That is why — why nobody died,” Celestia muttered.

“Oh yes. Gaia had been keeping an eye on her. Because, in spite of what she might have wanted to believe, that there could be redemption, that there could be harmony for once, her heart was still imbued with her own memories, and she suspected that no good would come out of it. Luna truly was the black sheep in your family, huh? Oh yes, internally, Gaia had made up her mind. She decided it was time to do the only sensible thing.”

“She kept her in this dulled state,” Celestia heard herself say. Her heart screamed in her chest. “She kept her like this to confine her to the infirmary.” Her voice had gone flat and almost too raspy to speak at all. “She’s numbed Luna — my sister — her own daughter — because she was afraid of her.”

“Very good,” Discord said tonelessly. “I am enjoying this, you know. Your namby-pamby goody two-shoes mamma is a myth that had been deserving of disenchantment far earlier. Like I said: she had fallen prey to an erroneous, unwavering belief in fate.”

“And Acier knew about what she was doing, which is why he could blackmail her, and had all this influence over —”

“Oh for pony’s sake, why don’t you GET IT?” The image suspended in mid-air shattered back into the thousand pieces it was assembled from, bursting into a shower of glass shards that unceremoniously floated atop the puddles on the ground. “He’s one of the good guys.”

“B-but the letter in his chamber —”

“The letter! Again, the letter! You and your letters, as if that proved anything! But let me quote from your great ‘letter.’ ‘A purulent ulcer at the very heart of our nation, a proliferating growth that so vociferously devours the very essence, the soul of this land,’” he aped. “’The heavy air we breathe still hangs pestiferous with the resilient residue of gluttonous cupidity, of unbridled greed... pretty good for a dimwitted ex-soldier who CAN’T EVEN READ, don’t you think?”

Celestia fell silent.

“Oh yes, Gaia employed many a duff one in her day. I remember Acier, too. As you have seen, I was there, you know, all these years ago, in that war. In the very front rows. He was pretty good at war, it seems. Provided me with endless entertainment. Well, if this is any indication, he’ll be able to fight for his life again soon enough.”

Another pain added to Celestia’s agony, the pain of betraying a friend, the pain of doing wrong by someone who had her best intentions at heart. It was all too much. She almost felt her bones crushing under it.

That’s why the one guard had this strange mark on his shoulder,” she said quietly. “Acier has been on the lookout for Luna, my mother had tasked him with protecting her, and hiding all this from the guards... Then Luna attacked this guard in the corridor, but Stronghooves’ lieutenant, this Benedict, must have surprised her. So Acier took him out before he would tell anybody. That was what he was talking about with — with my mom that night, and —”

“Aren’t — you — the cleverest — little horse.”

“And I turned him over to Stronghooves, I had him arrested as —”

“As a traitor. But, oh, you are so right, you are the true traitor. And as for Stronghooves — he’s an idiot. Just another one in a big world full of idiocy. Although I like that, actually. Idiocy can be a great deal of fun.” The unblinking, red eyes seemed to fixate Celestia’s, which caused her an extremely unpleasant situation: almost the feeling of lukewarm wax trickling down her spine.

“You were into this guy, weren’t you? Unfortunately, you overestimated his capacities. Like any proper idiot, he’s a chess figure to be set by someone else. I think I might happen to be that person from now on. Why not make him my General? He’s got everything it takes: for starters, a complete lack of imagination.”

She lowered her head as she thought of Stronghooves, and Discord’s voice seemed to pick up on it: “Of course, he also was your only shred of a chance of a normal life, a life that your sister incidentally and mistakenly believed you already had... too bad.”

For the first time, she felt tired, endlessly tired.

“Then what was the point of getting all these people on the square?” she asked finally. “I don’t understand. Why would you go to all this effort? Was it just to ... denigrate my mother, to tarnish her image, I don’t... “

“Understand? Well, I’ll tell you, it’s nothing personal. It’s just that I need disorder everywhere. Chaos feeds me. Strife builds me up. Discord is my life force. That is the only way how I can ever hope to get my own body back one day, and with it, my full former glory. It’s cyclic, you see. And Discord is the air I breathe, and harmony is my venom. Don’t judge me too harshly — we all just want to live in our own way, don’t we?”

He smirked.

“So here we are. We’ve come to the truth at last. After all, I did promise you to finish my story. The grand finale it is, then. C’est parti.

She saw the flickering image of the very square she was now standing on, but whole, resplendent, and in broad daylight; it had been raining before and deep puddles were everywhere on the cobblestone, but now, the sky was mostly clear again. She knew that the image she was witnessing could not be much older than one, two hours, an extremely weird sensation, since now the square was eerily deserted:

The scene was total and utter chaos. The entire square was packed with ponies. Soldiers bearing the crest of the Royal Guard were trying to keep the crowd in check, but it was already out of control, what with the staged assassination of the two earth ponies having taken place immediately before. Most soldiers were merely involved in brawls, still wary of using weapons, but some did have their swords drawn; an angry mob was slowly driving them back against the confines of the square. The situation was close to a dangerous tipping point.

Just at that moment, there was the now familiar sound of explosions. The entire crowd, soldiers included, stopped in their tracks and looked up in apprehension.

The three entranceways to the square, two broad, sumptuous roads from either side and one smaller alleyway, were blocked by large heaps of bricks tumbling down from the buildings that had framed them, from where thin columns of smoke were rising. The explosions had blocked the only escapeways.

Into the abrupt silence that ensued, Sweetcorn was once more climbing the wooden stage, causing an uproarious reaction from the crowd in the process. They went wild, in some sort of almost messianic admiration that he only greeted with a sly, red gaze sizing up the mass of ponies in front of him. “They are trying to bottle us up!” he proclaimed, gesticulating towards the entranceways. “Just think about that!” He made another hoof gesture to silence the once again erupting crowd. “Now that we have the truth about Queen Gaia at least! First with her daughter attacking those earth ponies, and then Gaia has them killed! killed! and now this... A truth we all knew in our hearts to be true, but that we know have confirmed with our ears. But her own daughter... “ He shook his head in exasperation. “Her own daughter! Princess Luna! My, what is wrong at the Court?”

Everything was quiet on the Square as demonstrators and soldiers alike looked towards the stage.

“And then, we have seen how Queen Gaia handles criticism, of course! Not very much in line with her self-proclaimed goals, one might declare with some righteousness. I have to say, what she does feels more like unscrupulousness, especially with her own daughter —”

He fell silent and, in an almost theatric gesture, looked skywards. A shadow appeared on the horizon. Hundreds of heads slowly turned towards the apparition, some more slowly than others, but everyone saw it.

Celestia watched in awe as Luna sailed down towards the square, a fury in her eyes that she had not seen before. As a dark silhouette in the sky, she looked strangely menacing, drawing closer like an otherworldly bird of prey, her mane wallowing behind her as a stratum of stars.

Luna had picked out her goal, there was no doubt about it. She steered directly towards the wooden stage on which Sweetcorn had climbed to overlook the Square, and with a shattering of wood, landed on her four hooves, like a comet crashing into the ground. Her eyes were white as she threw Sweetcorn a furious look, an injured animal scared to death. Her pupils weren’t visible. As though something had been switched off in her.

Sweetcorn fell silent and turned his head towards Luna with grim contentment.

« Some thoughts are too powerful. Too consuming. »

« You’re no longer a part of their world. »

Luna was panting and looked utterly confused. Her eyes were open, but they were like windows to an empty house: she looked on so blankly, so utterly uncomprehending, that she might as well not have been seeing anything. There was a moment of realisation as she turned to look at her cutie mark, and time seemed to grind to a halt as her eyes widened, the ghostly, white glow slowly tarnishing them with a milky taint.

The dark clouds on her cutie mark started to push themselves in front of the spotless full moon thereon, encroaching on it, consuming it, and at that same time, Luna looked at it with an utter fascination, undergoing some kind of internal transformation. Sweetcorn had stepped up to her, embracing her from behind, something she had barely seemed to notice. After a moment of acclimatisation, he started grinning devilishly. The two looked up to the real moon above, a thin, crisp crescent whose silhouette was barely visible in the early evening sky.

« It’s too light, too bright. Make it go away, will you? »

« Where else do you have to go? »

“It’s HER! HER! She’s KILLING SWEETCORN!”

Screams of rage filled the ravaged square as the ponies deciphered her intent. The outrage spread over the square like a cresting wave, building up vigour in the process as it approached those ponies in the very front lines. Their eyes were indecipherable in the grainy image, but their intent unmistakeable.

“STOP HER!”

Sweetcorn smiled almost blissfully as he grabbed on to her, his eyes slowly rolling up in their sockets as he exchanged something with Luna. A sudden impulse broke the surface of the image. But Celestia realised that what was truly going on was not comprehensible from below the stage. From the square, it must have looked as though Sweetcorn was trying to keep Luna at bay as she was attacking him.

The wave of outrage broke and erupted into a fit of violence. There were a few blurry soldiers at the fringes who had stopped and looked towards the stage, only to be beat down by bystanders and trampled over. Some took the soldiers’ bows and aimed them at the stage. A hail of arrows seared towards the front and, with a dull thwack, stuck in the wood. Luna, abruptly turning her head, staggered back, but Sweetcorn didn’t let go of her, unafraid of her physical prowess.

« Oh, you know what they’re trying to do... Don’t let them do this to you, will you? Not you. »

Luna’s white eyes didn’t betray a response. Two arrows landed in her chest. She growled like an injured animal, retreating and staring into the crowd, her mouth wide open.

“STOP HER before she kills him!”

People were throwing things onto the stage now, bottles, but also knives and stones, and Luna was hit by some of them, roaring again like a hurt animal... the white crept into her eyes, and Sweetcorn pressed against her, whispering something in her ear...

« Don’t let them DO THIS TO YOU! »

There was a flash, and for a while, the entire square went quiet. When the stage was visible again, Luna reared up, whether in pain or triumph, no one could distinguish. In any case, it was clear that the ponies on the square had altogether stopped comprehending what was going on at this point, but Celestia knew... there was another flash, and now, Celestia was certain to have seen the giant, ghostly outline of the draconequus rise into the air behind them like a fume, like a soul leaving one body to get some fresh air, but not for long...

“No...”

The third flash, and Luna’s forehooves met the ground. Something very strange had happened to her eyes: there were still white, but there was a red glow in them now, and as the crowd looked on, she seemed to undergo a transformation... her body grew larger, and darker, pitch-black, in fact... Celestia swallowed hard as she watched the scene in front of her... patterns formed on Luna’s body, fine, bluish ornaments, and her cutie mark stretched and changed, too, the clouds grew even more prominent in front of the moon... and then she looked down, now completely black, finally as completely and utterly dark as the night without a moon.

Celestia could barely concentrate anymore. Everything was turning around her, her focus was fading, and the darkness was encroaching further on her mind. She gulped for air. The image faded once more, and she saw Sweetcorn’s dead body on the ground again, Discord’s voice reverberating from it like a clang in an empty vessel.

“Who’d have thought?” said the voice mirthlessly. “Seems like your sister’s second awakening is even more spectacular than her first. That is to say, if that still really is your sister.”

“You said she was fine,” she said tonelessly. The ground seemed to retreat under her hooves, and she had an alarming feeling of being about to topple into a dark abyss.

“Oh, she is. She is fine. Finer than she’s ever been. She’s become someone else entirely. But her transformation is not quite complete yet...”

Sweetcorn’s red eyes flickered up.

“Alas, chaos tends to bring boring, orderly people to the scene. And sure enough, there came the mother, to save her little child — or did she?”

M-mom...

Celestia could no longer will herself to look away from the image unfolding in front of her; it grew ever more distorted, like a painting frizzing out at the edges, somewhere between fantasy and reality and dream and wakefulness. But nonetheless, there was no mistaking the leaf-green alicorn that had appeared on the square, unperturbed by the crowd left and right, a look of utmost determination on her face. The look on Gaia’s face scared Celestia: it looked so distrait, so lost, and... Celestia lacked the right word...

“Hello, Discord.”

Luna looked at her mother with an extremely weird, screwed-up expression, as though there was a fight going on beside her empty eyes. Finally, a voice came out of her mouth, a monstrous, hideously distorted voice, and reverberated throughout the square, over which the evening sun was slowly setting in.

So the penny has finally dropped?”

Celestia flinched. This voice was the most horrible sound she had ever heard; it traversed her entire body like something slimy that she had eaten. The sickness in her stomach grew unbearable. If there had been doubt, there was no longer any, since the nature of this voice was entirely clear. It was a blend of Luna’s own and, yes, Discord’s ghastly, cruel snarl.

But Gaia only tilted her head and stared up towards what had been Luna, not even taking notice of the ponies surrounding her on all sides; those who still could parted, their faces blank and eyes wide open, so that she could pass freely. “Listen to me, Luna,” she said quietly.

« Don’t listen to her. No, when does she ever listen to you? »

The creature roared one last time, looking left and right, as ponies still sent arrows flying towards her. It seemed that the new spirit that had infested her still didn’t control her completely. She still had the two arrows stuck in her chest, but apparently, they caused her no pain; not even bewilderment. But if she recognised who had just appeared on the square, she gave no indication of it. She only looked into Gaia’s vague direction with otherworldly stupor.

« What does she know? She’s one of them. She’s part of their world, and she’s made her choice already. Don’t listen to her. » Luna seemed to whisper to herself.

Thwack, thwack. More arrows landed next to Luna. She emitted a scream like a lion, her eyes completely unseeing, a feral animal. She turned, and Celestia had never seen her sister like this, never, never before.

And here I thought you were busy at the Gala. Have you come to set the record straight?” spoke the horribly distorted voice once more.

For a long moment, Gaia said nothing. Then she perked up her ears, as though she could hear something, a music from far, far away. She threw a look towards the giant stained-glass window on the city hall towering above the square. Then she turned back towards Luna, not moving, but waiting, waiting.

But Luna didn’t recognise her own mother anymore. After a few seconds of toppling, Sweetcorn’s body finally fell limply by the side, rousing a cry of indignation from the crowd that echoed over the square. But Celestia knew that Discord had won Luna over. He had manifested himself in her mind, and when Luna opened them again, they were not blank anymore, but steely and cold and blue. She looked at her cutie mark.

The dark clouds pushed themselves in front of the moon crescent, and then, in a puff of energy, they expanded off her body, giving off thick fumes of darkness that shot into the air behind her, like a fire rising.

Panic ensued on the square.

Mom,” echoed the horrible, hair-rising voice over the square. “It’s me, Luna. Please don’t kill me. I love you so much and I need your help so much. We can all take things back to how they used to be. You, and I, and Tia...

Gaia slowly closed her eyes. “You’re not Luna,” she said finally. The discorded Luna, eyes once more white, looked on blankly.

Then what have you come for?” roared back the voice. “Have you come to save your subjects? To save all these ponies by sacrificing who used to be your own daughter?

There was a long, long silence before Gaia reopened her sapphire eyes.

“No.”

The creature on stage nodded, lightly, almost in disappointment; but her eyes were still unseeing and empty. “So this time, you’re ready to pay the price?

“... I am ready.”

And you are well aware that the price will be all these ponies dead?

There was a dead silence on the square as the demonstrators looked at Gaia, towards their queen, disputed, but nevertheless tasked with their protection; and the soldiers’ looks especially were questioning.

“I am aware,” she uttered finally.

Luna nodded slowly.

You are free,” said the voice. Luna’s horn glowed and the piles of debris blocking the three entrances slowly melted into a pasty, red-hot substance, until finally being once more level with the ground. The exits from the square were now unblocked, and immediately, without a second thought, the crowd streamed out, rebels and soldiers alike, almost trampling each other to dead, the only thought in their head being to escape from this nightmare. Gaia watched them as they went, her gaze slowly sinking, until only she, Luna and Sweetcorn’s empty shell were left on the Square.

Pitiful...”

Gaia looked up. Celestia suddenly realised what had been laying in Gaia’s gaze: resignation. Now, Gaia slowly closed her eyes again, drooped her head and moved no more. She was no more than a dozen feet from the stage, in the very centre of Canterlot Square.

By now, Luna’s eyes had gone completely white, her horn glowing white-hot, and the sheer power of whatever horrible force was occupying her lifter her into the air as though suspended on an invisible hook. It looked as though Celestia was watching her own crucification. There were streams of darkness running around Luna in thick threads, and finally, they expanded off her, like a star coughing out its gases in the moment of its death, lashing out with unbridled force...

Gaia closed her eyes at the exact same moment as Celestia turned away from the image, not bearing to look on anymore, feeling as empty as anyone had ever felt. When she looked again, Gaia was rearing up, hit squarely in the chest, and fell to the ground, and then the darkness enveloped her and the entire of Canterlot Square was dark as though the end of the world had come.

The end had come.

THE END HAD COME.



The image disappeared in the darkness like a turned-off light. Only an afterimage of shadows remained. Celestia didn’t move, didn’t speak, didn’t think, but the voice was already speaking again.

“How do you kill an ‘immortal’ goddess? You have another goddess do it. Even when someone of much lower motives is really pulling the strings, like me. I must say, Celestia, your sister’s body is a true upgrade from that peasant’s. A true upgrade, and such a long horn.

“By the way, I think she needs a new name. How about The Night-mare? Cheesy, maybe, but it’s really befitting, and I do like horsey puns... we’ll get her a fancy armour, and some snazzy horseshoes ...”

“Don’t do this to me,” Celestia pleaded voicelessly.

Dont do this to me,” he aped. “Remember, your don’t is my do. Your fear is my anticipation. Your madness is my sanity. Chaos. Chaos. Chaos. Oh, together, we’ll have such a bright future, me and your sis — or maybe not so bright at all. But after all, chaos and eternal night truly go together. Luna knew that best of all: only in the night are we free from your, chrm, chrm, narrow-mindedness. You see, I didn’t own your sister, no. I just gave her a little nudge to drive her over the edge.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, I’m sure you came here to make it all right in a daring feat of gung-ho heroism. For that, you’ve come too late, unfortunately. Far too late. Oh, and by the way, how is your wing?”

Celestia shook her head. Then she slowly looked up as his question started to sink in. “What did you say?”

“I hope you didn’t think I took that much time out of my busy schedule being dead just out of mere altruism, or because I think I’m such a great storyteller. No, no, you need to look deeper. How long do you think we talked again, Sunray? A good half-hour? That’s just about the time you’d need to gallop back up to the castle, no, and mess it all up? Of course, flying would be faster, but your wings...”

“Wh-what are you talking about?”

“Oh, don’t tell you me you didn’t get that yet. The Gala? Hello? Oh, I know. You thought you were so clever once more, you had it all figured out while your mother was still in the dark. Well, of course, the Gala was a diversion — but not only a diversion. At the Gala, after all, there are hundreds of the most prominent nobleponies dancing in blissful unawareness of the demise of Canterlot. Do you really think I’d forgo such an opportunity? The stars really align tonight, don’t they? Because as it turns out to, today held yet another opportunity for me. A princess who has left her castle all alone.”

As long as one of us stays here, the castle is safe,” Celestia breathed.

“Why do these half-remembered phrases only ever come to you after the fact? You gotta work on that. I hope now you understand why I had to make sure you didn’t like your friend Acier anymore. I was wary of that guy, you know. He was too cautious, too watchful, and I think he was close to being on to my little game with the guards in the castle. If he had kept the castle at this hour under his watchful gaze, that would have foiled my ambitious plans and spoilt all the fun. Then you’d just have followed your mother. But ah, luckily, distrust never fails. Well, well, basking in your self-assured omniscience, you did fly away, preferring to surrender your good friend to your, uh, slightly less good friend Stronghooves, who was all too happy to sink his teeth into this matter...”

More images in the air... Stronghooves brutally apprehending Acier, who looked down out after the window through which Celestia had left, something in his eyes like bereavement... then, the throne hall, where all the ponies were still dancing, blissfully unaware that had happened, and the guards that stood next to all the entrances and windows, watching the scene... then, as though on a signal, all the doors to the throne hall were closed and barred, all the couples slowly stopped dancing and, confused, looked around for explanation...

“I know what you think, Celestia. Your loverboy Stronghooves must have been responsible for this. But I can reassure you that he wouldn’t be able to come up with such an ambitious plan. I told you, like any able general, he completely lacks imagination. I had to have recourse to one of his slightly more insane lieutenants to get the whole thing rolling...”

“The f-first time you g-got into the castle, y-you weren’t r-really b-beaten by the guards, but y-you...”

“I had come to make them an offer. Things always seem obvious in retrospect, no? I managed to convince those guards — well, those who I realised from the get-go would play ball — with a few emphatic words that it’d be a better bet for them in the long run to put their money on me. When asked, some ponies’ are rather simple: money, influence, power, recognition, more money... grace doesn’t usually figure on peoples’ lists, I have to admit. But yes, I know your mother anticipated that, and this time, she was right. Unfortunately, everyone else believed she had gone off the rails with her conspiracy theories. But I told you how lonely it can be up there...”

In mid-air, the well-clad ponies were all turning to the stage in the throne hall as someone entered. It was Stronghooves’ taciturn lieutenant, Arnold, with the long, black streaks falling around his face. Stronghooves followed him white-faced. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “please remain calm...”

“How handy that right now, Acier, the former master of the guards, is in a dungeon jail, and the protective spells over the castle that would have prevented this from happening are not working as Sweetcorn’s loyal army — who now thinks he’s such a valiant martyr — enters the castle. I really am in luck today. Well, what can I say. I like to call this moment,” Discord phrased, “the opportunity. There’s so many of those moments. If only your kin had been able to recognise theirs. If only you hadn’t believed quite so blindly in the intransigence of fate. Maybe everything would have gone differently. But instead, Celestia, in your endless arrogance, you swam right into my net.”

She breathed in slowly. “Why do you want to take the castle now that —”

“Oh, right. I don’t really want your stupid castle. I was just waiting for an opportunity to get you all out of there, you annoying bunch, and now that it’s mine, I’ll have plenty of time to mull over what I’m gonna do with it. I mean, at the end of the day, without your mother and her spells, it’s really nothing but a pretentious heap of stone. I’ll give it some thought if it will come in useful. And anyway, this Stronghooves might still come in handy. Like I said, he’s a perfectly able general, seeing how he lacks any and all imagination. I might just make him my spearhead in this upcoming great war.

“And now, I’ll leave you to it. The story ends here, little Celestia. But I’ll tell you, we’ll meet again, you and I. And of course, your sister and you. Do look forward to it. Either way, looks like our little sun princess is in exile now. I doubt you’ll be very welcome at the castle anymore, Princess, if it still stands, that is...”

The glass shards in front of her had assembled into Canterlot Castle once more. The entire structure slowly disintegrated, like wax dripping from a candle until only the stump is left.

“Or welcome anywhere, really. After all, your mother dies in dis-grace, in front of her opponents as well as her own soldiers... how ironic. Me out of all spirits giving her subjects what she denied them. Doesn’t look so good, does it?

“And as for me... well, let me put it this way, I have even more far-reaching plans than just Canterlot Square. Not killing the ponies on this square today is nothing but an investment — that’s how I see it. An investment into wreaking even more havoc and killing even more ponies in the future! Oh, I’ll show you all how wrong — how conceited — you were to believe you could fool me, lock me away, and contain me. No, you sure as hell can’t — cage — chaos. And now, with my new best friend Loony, we’re going to take it a step further very soon.”

Celestia shook her head, screwing up her face with a ubiquitous pain that was not connected in any way to her broken wing. “What are you talking about?”

“Eternal night, of course. The natural state of things. I’ll help undo what your arrogant mother has done. You can try and stop me if you want, but that will mean stopping your sister, naturally, if you catch my drift. I don’t know if you’re willing to do that — your mother wasn’t, after all. Do you have it in you? Are you tough enough? Or do you fall prey to dangerous delusions, too? We’ll see soon enough.

After all, in one point, little Loony was perfectly right. Night and day can never be together. One can’t exist with the other around. One destroys the other, they’re opposites, they’ll never be together in the same place. Even though, being the haughty pony you are, it has never occurred to you: your sister does have a certain perspicacity that you lack.”

“My sister,” said Celestia slowly, gathering her words. “My sister has k-killed...” She couldn’t speak any further and looked into the darkness. “One destroys the other,” she murmured finally, but there was something else rising in her that she hadn’t recognised before. Something that wasn’t entirely despair, but anger. “Only one can live.”

“Very good.”

Sweetcorn’s demonic eyes lit up one last time.

“It’s raining again, you feel that? A fine, feeble drizzle. But soon enough, it’ll be winter, and that drizzle will turn into snow. And you know what that means: nights getting longer, days getting shorter. Either way, Spring is over. Seems like it wasn’t that Eternal after all.

“You know, I really look forward to playing this game with you. To taking things up a notch. You’re not as boring as your mom, I know it. I have a flair for things like that. And of course, my story isn’t over yet. It’s just getting to the exciting part, and what’s a story without a valiant hero pitted against the formidable villain? Let’s see who stands and who falls in this war. Let’s see who lives and who dies and who dies of grief. The thing is, this is a game where there’s only wrong choices for goody-two-shoes such as you. Not so much for me, though. Your wrong is my right, your bad is my good, your pain is my pleasure. That’s why I’m the only one who can win. That’s why chaos wins out over whatever pretentiousness you brandish.

“And here is the prophecy I leave you with for today, Celestia. The very same I gave your mother when she denied me payment, even though she was foolish enough to believe she could overcome it, that she could have it all and fool her creditors.

“Even if you will stand victorious, which I doubt, even if you will come out on top, if you defeat such lowly beasts and scum as me and yes, maybe your sister; you will be doomed to a life of hell, an eternal, never-ending hell, where you will love no-one and no-one will ever love you. Yes, Celestia, that is your burden now. Your tragedy. You’re alone. They’re all gone now. You’re all alone.

Suspended in mid-air, Canterlot Castle tumbled down the cliff into the endless abyss below, disintegrating into nothing but bricks and debris.

“We’ll meet again. And by we, I mean you and the Night-mare. And now, go say your goodbyes.”

His red eyes met hers, which were strangely hollow, empty, like a deserted house; then, from one moment to the next, the red flickered in Sweetcorn’s eyes, disappeared and left only black behind. As if a switch had been flipped. Sweetcorn would no longer be needed.

The glass shards fell to the ground.




Celestia opened her eyes and walked on, past the now completely motionless Sweetcorn, the light in his eyes entirely gone. She couldn’t feel either wing by now. Her hooves seemed to work by their own volition. Step, step, step. Celestia walked, like in trance, until she found the spot she had been looking for.

Gaia smiled when she saw her daughter approach her. Her once-green fur was soaked with the muddy rain water that had flooded the Square, and her feathers were ruffled and broken, some blackened and protruding roughly in all directions. There was no collar, no heart-shaped diamond around her neck — Celestia couldn’t remember it ever having been absent. Gaia’s entire body was heaving and lowering peacefully, slowly, as though she was asleep; but her sapphire eyes were still open, and she didn’t seem to be pain, but her entire face was aglow with the same otherworldliness that she had always had about her.

No doubt in agony, she turned her head and looked at Celestia.

Biting down on her tongue, Celestia forced herself to come closer. There was something on Gaia’s chest; round, swirling, a whirlwind of darkness that sucked at her and sapped her lifeforce, that ate away at her soul. The thought caused Celestia a painful, icy jolt. She cowered beside her mother.

“Hello, Sunray.”

Celestia was silent. She felt as if something was wringing out her entrails like a wet rag. A feeling akin to sickness rose in her throat, but nothing quite like vomit came up; she just opened her mouth uselessly. All she wanted was to wake up, wake up from this bottomless nightmare.

Gaia’s eyes were as clear as they had ever been. Like the fresh, limpid water of a mountain creek, calm, but endlessly profound. But Celestia was no longer sure what to see in them. Yet her mother looked up at her, her eyes wide open: what could she really have to hide? A weak, soft smile played around her mouth.

For a long time, they said nothing, and Gaia just looked up at Celestia with the same expression, as though contemplating a piece of art in a museum; taking in all the details, soaking them up, branding them onto her memory. Her gaze also met the heart-shaped diamond on Celestia’s chest, almost as though she was contemplating her reflection in it. Then, finally, when time grew too pressing, her mother spoke again, her voice slightly broken, but firm.

“I’m sorry about this. About all of this. So very, very sorry.”

Celestia stayed silent as she met her mother’s gaze. Did she want her mother to be sorry? She didn’t know anymore. All she heard was the slow pulsing of blood in her temples, the only true, real sound in this nightmarish landscape. She looked down.

“Why didn’t you bring the Eternal Flame,” she managed to say. “I thought Acier stole it from you, b-but —”

Gaia slowly shook her head. “No. I left it at the castle and entrusted it to him before — before I came here.”

“Why?”

“Because if I had brought it,” Gaia said slowly, “I wouldn’t know what I’d have done.”

Celestia looked at her mother as the thought started to sink in. “You knew you were going to hurt Luna if only you brought the proper tools. So you didn’t come here to save her, you were convinced that was already impossible, you didn’t come here to kill S-sweet— Discord, and you didn’t come here to s-save all these ponies from my sister. So you c-came here only to — to —”

“I’m sorry,” Gaia said again, her eyes seeking Celestia’s, which were glued to the ground.

“When you told Luna that you love her,” Celestia murmured finally, her gaze still down. “To Stronghooves. You meant that, didn’t you?”

“Of course,” Gaia smiled weakly. “I meant everything I said, every single word, even though.. I ought to have spoken more... because even more than those I meant the words I left unsaid, that I couldn’t... couldn’t pronounce or... put in the right order...”

Celestia closed her eyes. “I just don’t understand. H-how can you just — j-just leave me alone l-like this, how c-can you r-risk these ponies dying and then t-talk about gr-grace all this time — of all things...”

Her mother slowly shook her head. “Don’t say you don’t understand. Don’t be like him. There’s so much more between earth and sky,” she said laboriously. “So much more that he doesn’t understand, and that he never will... he only looks at the dark and sleazy spots and ignores what is plain to see in the daylight. You are so graceful, Tia, like a large and noble swan. I admit it... I had started to see too much of me in you, I was convinced of it, and the closer I got to you, the farther... the farther I got from Luna... without intending to... but I always believed that if only we held on to that one shining principle, to grace —”

“Empty words,” Celestia cut over her mother, with a sudden sharpness that shocked her. “You were willing to let all these ponies d-die. How can you then speak of grace? How can you?”
Gaia exhaled slowly. “True grace always has a price... or it is mere gratuitousness. It means to choose one thing over another. It means to let go of one thing to gain another that you deem... more important, more worthy. And it’s not only a matter of right versus wrong choice. There’s other things that play a role, other things that are so dreadfully important. I hope you’ll understand one day, but that you’ll still never ... have to make that choice...”

“And you chose my sister’s life over that of these hundreds of ponies, some of them your soldiers?”

“If you had seen what I have seen,” Gaia said, her breathing growing more flat, “if you had lived what I have lived, then you would understand that I couldn’t ... couldn’t... ever hurt my own daughter...”

“No matter the circumstances. No matter what she had done.”

“No matter. Oh, I had tried, I had tried to keep this from happening, but I failed. I knew it was going — going to come to this in the end. I just wanted to —”

“How can you have known?” Celestia interrupted her mother. “How can you ever know?”

“Because everything is already laid down. Everything has already been decided —”

“No. We make choices, as you have done now, not fate. Things could have gone differently if we had just acted otherwise.” She didn’t even recognise herself as she spoke, but it was as though something was ripening inside of her, something that hadn’t been there before.

Gaia inhaled slowly. “You will understand,” she said finally. “One day, you will understand. After all, you are now my heiress — my — my princess ....” Her eyes sparkled, almost yearningly. Celestia only managed to open her mouth to bite onto her teeth.

“How can you leave me all alone like this? How can you?” She couldn’t stop the accusations; they seemed to be stronger than herself, as though she wanted to get them all out so her mother could hear them before it was too late. She had no time to even think about that now.

Celestia fought back her tears. “You should have talked to me before. Why does nopony ever talk?”

“I knew that he was going to do something like this. When he sent out these Gala invitations with these ponies still on the square, I knew that ... that he was trying to humiliate me, and get Luna —”

“So then you knowingly played along with his plan, b-bravo.”

“No, you don’t understand. I knew that he was never going to really kill these ponies on the square, that it was all just a ploy to tarnish us.”

Celestia contemplated her mother’s face; she still smiled, detached, and it was impossible to tell if her mother was telling the truth. But Celestia wanted to believe that. She really did.

“T-tia, there’s something else I need to tell you. These brooches —” her eyes lit on Celestia’s bistone brooch on her chest — “I had Acier make them for you. There’s something — special about them, something that you need to know.”

Celestia turned her head.

“The Flame you now carry on your chest,” Gaia went on, “there’s a second one that my sister used to possess. If taken together, if combined, these two artefacts have a nearly boundless power. It was so , so long ago, but we used them to carve Canterlot Castle out of the mountain. But they were also our demise. Discord will do everything to find and recoup this second artefact. He was without a doubt hoping to steal my Eternal Flame today, but I didn’t bring it with me, so he will look for it, too...”

“And his empty shell couldn’t take it off me...”

“In t-that sense, it’s good that you took it out of the castle. It’s also my fault. I should have known that you wouldn’t sit there and twirl your hooves. You’re just like me, Tia. Maybe too much so. I look at you, and I see me. I wouldn’t have sat there and wait for my mommy to fix things, either.”

Celestia blankly looked at her mother. “Where is the second Flame?” But she already knew the answer.

“At the Castle of the Two Thrones — ”

“In the Everfree Forest,” Celestia murmured. “You decided to bury it and build a shell around it at the very place where you had taken it from your sister, your sister that you had —”

But Gaia shook her head and screwed her face into a painful grimace. “Not just a shell, I wanted to —” Her words failed, and she started anew, her voice now trembling. “I have done so much wrong, so much... there’s no judging me too harshly, I don’t deserve anything but death, I —”

“No...”

“You’re right, I shouldn’t have let it come to this. I sh-shouldn’t have asked so much of you, and your sister, and do it still. I’m sorry. I hoped that if I let you be, you’d be better than me, you’d be someone who I couldn’t, if only I taught you about grace, then maybe things would be alright for a change, and there would no fear and discord, and everything...”

“Mom....”

Gaia exhaled. “The Castle of the Two Thrones. I saw yourself sitting there, two Queens, to keep each other in check so that either of you wouldn’t make the mistakes that I made. Now I won’t live to see it finished.”

“And yet it is sealed,” Celestia blabbed, holding back her sobs as well as she could. “It is sealed, am I right?”

Gaia nodded strenuously. “Only your two bistone brooches taken together can open it. They’re the keys. Darkness and light. Moon and sun. Luna, and Celestia... not just one of you, but both of you... only in balance... do you understand?”

Celestia nodded, and bit down hard on her tongue to keep the tears inside. But internally, she felt like she was falling apart. She didn’t have it in her to tell her mother that Luna had given up her brooch and left it at Canterlot Castle. She didn’t have it in her to tell her how alone and painful and confused she felt about all this, and how impotent, how powerless, how woefully inadequate.

Her mother gathered herself and smiled at her with vague pride, as though looking into an especially bright light without blinking. “The brooches are your bond. Your hope. Your fate.”

Don’t... don’t talk to me about fate.

“That means she’ll ... they’ll come after me once they find out,” Celestia managed to say, doing everything to compose herself. “They’ll come for me, and they’ll want to get my brooch so they can get into the castle in the Everfree Forest... and ... “

Gaia’s gaze clouded.

“Sunray, there is one thing I want you to pr-promise — I want you to promise that no anger will come out of this, no resentment. Promise that you will forgive Luna. ”

Celestia met her mother’s gaze, and saw that the green in it was already waning, that it was turning paler and paler like a fading remembrance of summer. But she did not have it in her to speak soft words for the sake of closure. She did not have it in her to lie to her mother, not now.

“I can’t,” she whispered roughly. That’s asking too much of me. She’s taken everything I love, everything I had. She’s taken herself. She’s taken you. But she didn’t say that out loud.

Her mother’s expression softened, and it was as if a yearning infested her eyes; as if her gaze was reaching out for something too far away, and yet she kept grasping for it, to close her hoofs around nothing at all time and time again, beating on in vain against the current of time. She looked directly at Celestia. It was a plea.

Promise.”

“I cannot make a promise I can’t keep!”

Gaia lowered her gaze. Slowly, tiredly, she nodded. For once more, her voice became crystal clear. “Then at least never let go of that feeling. That warm feeling in your chest. The one you had in your dream, you remember? Hearing you talk about it made me so happy. Hearing that song. Seeing that phoenix. It made me so, so very happy... I’m tired, so tired, and I’m sorry that my story has to end like this. But yours... j-just begins.”

Her sapphire eyes connected with Celestia’s lavender ones, and she stirred a hoof that Celestia hurried to take into her own. Gaia smiled weakly.

“C-consistency in our tongues —”

“— truth in our hearts.”

With a last, content nod, gratified, Gaia relaxed. Then she seemed to have a thought. “S-sunray — ”

But before she could finish, she made a small sound, like a surprised gasp, and her eyes turned wide and matte. Queen Gaia had taken her final breath.




Here, at the end of all things, time seemed to stand still.

Finally, Celestia had stopped crying. She felt empty like a hollowed-out fruit. No tears were left, and new ones would never come to her again as long as she lived. They were all used up. A reservoir of tears drained forever in a single moment.

She raised her head and looked up towards the shrouded moon.

“The Night-mare,” she whispered, as if to verify that she still had her voice. “The Night-mare...

And then, what she had been waiting for so long did finally come to her; but by now, it had changed shape, and Celestia had changed, too, to the point where she could no longer recognise it.

As she bent over her mother, an impulse seized her, a sudden stirring of might that had long been sealed away in her. When the darkness around her seemed to become unbearable, she unwittingly tapped the one source of power and light inside of her that would never go away. The heart-shaped diamond on her chest lit up with unknown intensity, emitting searing heat like a flame, and as it did so, a warmth spread rapidly through Celestia’s chest and her entire body.

From her horn, raw, searing energy broke free, and lashed out into the open, forming a flaming corona around her. A circle of fire engirdled her and Gaia, and finally, a bolt of light, bright and warm as the sun, rapidly expanded around her, a half-sphere mushrooming up with unbridled force. She felt nothing but warm light inside and all about her, and if there had been anypony to look into her eyes, he would not have recognised them, for they were blank and resplendent, without pupils. At this moment, Celestia had the sensation of becoming one with her surroundings, with some secret universal power; and as she did so, the light dispersed the dense night Luna had left behind and cleared everything up, drove back the darkness and replaced it with unadulterated refulgence, blissful blaze of lambency, until it was dark no more and the brightest day had returned to Canterlot Square. And amidst all that warmth and energy, she had become someone else entirely; had undergone a new birth in no corporeal womb, but in a cradle of fire and light, risen from a heap of ashes like a phoenix.

Celestia inhaled sharply, and, overpowered, collapsed on the ground. At long last, she had awakened.

But innocence was finally, utterly dead.




Here ends the first book of “The Price of Grace.” Luna has transformed into Nightmare Moon, and Celestia, now orphaned, is driven into exile. The chaos of war reigns. And amongst all this, Celestia knows that she will have to face a horrible decision sooner or later.
This story is continued in The Nightmare.


[strike]And here I must give the lie to my previous sentence and say that unfortunately, in all likelihood, that 'second book' will never be written, even though the story exists in my head -- the enormous amount of work, time and thought I invest into this story bears no proportion to its fruits.

That means that our story, for now, ends here. [/strike]I want to thank my pre-reader, Mystic. And especially, I want to thank every one of you, my admittedly small stock of readers who have stuck with this story to the very end. A special shout-out goes out to Orfearus - you know why!

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Comments ( 35 )

Yes new Chapter!! 16k? Challenge Accepted:ajsmug:

Are you seriously telling me you're giving up right now?

Your writing is amazing. Only a handful of writers can portray Luna and Celestia this well. You tackled what might be the hardest sub-genre of FIM fiction, and rocked it. I can count on one hand the stories of pre-mane 6/young princesses stories that work. Please, please, please, don't give up now! :applecry:

So we've finally come full-circle. Well done.

Your descriptions are strong and do well the set the bleak mood of this final chapter. I like your take on the events preceding Celestia's millenium-long rule. Your characterization of Discord and the theme about the shattering of innocence strike me as particularly well-crafted. This was quite an enjoyable read.

Even so, I feel your villain's exposition is a little long, if necessary. The worst part is that you stop describing Celestia's reactions towards the end, which emphasizes the feeling of monologue that just drags on and on.

I also think the scene with Celestia and her mother is not nearly as powerful as it could've been. It's supposed to be touching in a tragic way, but it just didn't elicit that response in me, even though you did a good job in leading all the events together. If there's a point in writing your story where you dropped the ball on strong descriptions and painting the mood properly, this is it.

Still, overall, I enjoyed it. And I'm sad you don't get much recognition for your work. It is definitely one of the better ones of this fandom. Both as far as the mechanics of writing are concerned, as well as for the story itself.

I'll be on the lookout for your sequel, should you ever decide to write it. And I'll be sure to comment on every chapter.

Long days and pleasant nights to you.

Nice, what a good wrap up. I loved Gaia, she was a strong character, and she ends well. Great story, no doubt about it. I really enjoyed all of it. Thank you for sharing it. :twilightsmile:

It's a shame you are not continuing this, but if you no longer feel like writting the rest; what can we do? :fluttershysad: Who knows, maybe you will retake it someday. Meanwhile, best of luck on your future projects.

A useless sentiment to utter loss. An understanding of what you aren't and never will be. An absolute truth, the trade of life for wisdom.

Though this story didn't get many active followers as it should have, you did indescribably well. Good job.

763172
That's a fair criticism. In my defence, I was trying hard to avoid melodram, and I wanted there to remain a certain doubt, a distance from her mother. I'm glad that you like the story otherwise!

762575

Well, thank you very much, but as I see it, not having given up until now is a pretty good accomplishment in and by itself!

764628

Thanks a lot! It was an honour to have you abord from the very beginning :trollestia:

764860

Thank you!

I thought this chapter was little confusing but I got most of it.

But it kinda sucks that your not continuing this story. But if you ever do. I will be here to read it.

Well this was a great discovery, the first chapter piqued my interest, I'm currently on the third and so far I highly approve of what I'm reading. Popular or not is irrelevant, this is a great read and I'm saddened to see that you've decided to not go on, you seem too caught up in if the story is popular or not, that's a bad view to take. Please at least consider the possibility of going on, take a break if you want, but I must ask that you give it some more thought. It's a beautiful story.

772928 Thank you very much, I'm glad you like the story! I assure you that I'm not caught up in its popularity at all, however -- if so, I'd have abandoned it after the second chapter and moved on to more "promising" enterprises.

It's just that I consider this particular story finished now. Writing -- actual writing -- takes a lot of energy and thought, way more than can probably be ascertained from the final product, and I think it might be wiser to invest all that time and energy into something else from now on.

But who knows, maybe the story keeps bugging me so much that I'll do a sequel eventually. Time will tell.

773105
Well I'm quite aware that writing is a big investment of time, several years back I used to be able to write a lot, these days I've simply lost the flair for it all, I have neither the time nor energy to do so. If you truly care about the story you write, you'll certainly put a lot of time and energy into it and that after awhile can be mentally draining as well as taking up a lot of your time, energy and time that could likely be better used elsewhere. It is better to finish a story you feel as if you've completed, rather than drag it on forever.
My concern was merely that you finished it due to popularity concerns, reading certain comments seemed to suggest that you were going to give up at times, I'm glad that was not the case. Even so, if you ever do a sequel, I'll be reading.

I like it, but DAMN MAN.
THIS SHIT IS LONG!
You know whats a good time to read this fic?
WHILE YOUR ON THE MOOOOOOONNNNNNNNN
img.photobucket.com/albums/v705/RHF/My%20little%20pony%20blog/Trollestia.jpg

:fluttershysad:
That was really fun Sparkle, thank you.

Well this was a brilliantly done story, while I am sad to see it is over I am glad as well. Thank you for making a well written story, it was long, but very well done. I would like to see a second one...But if you do not want to put that stress on yourself I respect that completely. thanks again for the great fic! :pinkiesad2:

I loved this story, excellent imagery good writing... I just wish there was more, but alas. Thanks for the amazing fic!

Haven't really seen many stories on this theme, and gotta say this was masterfully executed - very strong characterisation and some genuinely intriguing original characters; Sweetcorn especially. Real shame there won't be any more of this, would love to read that.

The story is great, and it is well written too. But there is 1 thing that I would like to "propose" to you. Next time when you will be making a fic, please, make the chapter not so long. I think 6-8 thousand words will be okay, I can eat 10. But Around 14, that is too much, it took almost 2 hours for me to read it (You see I am not native english speaker, and though I can speak and talk to other people withhout any problems, reading this kind of well written story is really difficult to me, however I enjoyed every single minute) Take care!

I read this chapter without difficulty, to be honest I was putting it off, I didn't think I could read 15000 words in one go. But it was surprisingly easy because of how good the story was, this chapter in particular.

Although it really sucks that you're not writing book 2, I'm not going to hold that against you. It must have been an unbelievable pain in the ass to write this work of art and to be honest I could never do anything half as good as this (I'd have given up long ago because I'm lazy). And yes, I do think this is grossly under-appreciated.

796526 Haha, are you reading them in reverse order?:twilightsmile:

799066 I just noticed you placed your first comment on chapter six, but I guess that by itself isn't saying much :twilightblush:

Thanks! And yeah, more views would be nice, but life isn't fair :ajsleepy:

799518

As I am reading chapter 6 right now, I see it too. But that aint the case. You see, I wrote that comment in here http://www.fimfiction.net/story/6975/The-Price-of-Grace but I guess it automatically add it to the last chapter, or I don´t know what else could´ve happened. Anyway, I am not finished yet, I am halfway thru and confused as never before :rainbowlaugh: but gonna need to stop reading in 15 minutes, so I will have to finish it later this day :)

"But before she could finish, she made a small sound, like a surprised gasp, and her eyes turned wide and matte. Queen Gaia had taken her final breath"

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! ::fluttercry::fluttercry:

I must admit that this was really heart touching story, I enjoyed it from first moment, but this last chapter particulary. Great job, I am really sad that you won´t write the second book, but that is okay, no wonder anyway, so much work has been done and so small number of people to actually appreciate it.

Really, wonderful story Sparkle. Thank you for writing it :) :twilightsmile:

I am a little late in making this comment but I just wanted to thank you for a really great story, one that I think could really be the (though not exactly target audience friendly) origin story of MLP universe, and has greatly affected my own head cannon.

787232 I'm very glad to hear that! Thank you.

812621 Thanks! It's an honour to hear that it has affected your head canon! :twilightsmile:

Wow Sparkle
You made me cry. :raritycry:
And I'm the type of person that doesn't normally cry.

Such a good ending, definitely a fitting way to finish the story.

I must say the one thing I love the most about your writing is that everything comes around again. Everything from chapter one has importance right up to the very end, and the way you bring it all about is extremely well done. Just the way you tell the stories, and let the reader see how everything fits together, kept a >10K word long conversation interesting. Brilliantly done.

I would love to read the next story, but I realize how much time and effort it takes to write, especially with the length and depth you write with, and being the perfectionist you are. The quality really shows, as far as I've read it's unmatched, so I hope you keep at it!



I finish with a short sorry for being so late to this chapter, having been dragged back into the chaos of life, and a thank-you for the shout out. However, you deserve a lot more recognition than you get - it's only because of how captivating you make your writing that I'm here.

Whenever I talk to my friends about quality writing, I use you as an example. Thank-you for continuing to the end, I know it was hard, and know that you've made an eternal impact within my mind, and hopefully many others.

I dont know why but I like reading the stories that make me frustrated like this one :facehoof:

870374 Why does it make you frustrated? :D

871290 I honestly dont know... You ever read Envy and Arrogane, or Guilt and Hate? Those stories are kind of like this one where its such a good storie its frustrates you. :pinkiecrazy:

914669
Thank you! I'm very glad you like it. I had a giant reader drop from first to second chapter, so the first one might just be one of the story's weak spots, I guess?

I'm not sure if I nailed the Celestia/Luna dynamic. I'd like to be, but I think there's still lots of room for improvement here.

Second, is Gaia, and her relationship with her subjects, the guards especially. Believe it or not, my first impression of her was that she was an antagonist, a villain of sorts. Now, I'm not so sure. I can guess that Discord is behind the strife and conflict, and I can guess that Gaia is probably not a half-bad ruler, but the mentality of Sweetcorn and the guards reminds me somewhat of the American patriots of the Revolutionary War. It was their firm belief that the ruling class had nothing to offer them. We all know how that turned out, and with the pony guards and citizens thinking in much the same way, it blurs the line between who the "good guys" and "bad guys" are. I know (I think?) that Discord is behind it all, but there's a part of me that agrees with everything they are saying. Boy, he sure is convincing! (Alt: Boy, you sure are convincing!)

Thanks! Well, when I was writing this (and especially Gaia's dialogue in chapter 3), I was sort of wary of the political undertones you could infer from it. They aren't really intended in that capacity at all, and are really only supposed to be there for character development, but of course that's something that tends to introduce itself into stories like this. I wasn't trying to make the point that total obedience and unquestionable abidance by the law is the greatest, but rather illustrate Gaia's struggle and what Celestia took away from it. I remember when I watched The Dark Knight, which is still one of my all-time favourites, I would get slightly irked at what I took to be overly conservative/Republican overtones or subliminal political messages (à la "sometimes we have to break the law to defend it", even though actually I think Batman stuck to his ideals). But now I know that was probably just the byproduct of trying to create a believable backdrop for character development rather than any sort of subtext.

I'm almost finished with my book, I'll immerse myself into your story starting tomorrow :rainbowkiss:

It's been...

*checks*

It's been seven weeks since I left my last comment on your story. Since then, I have slowly but surely been finishing reading it. I don't have as much time to read as I used to, and so every minute of every hour spent on diversions like reading and hiking and videogames almost seems like time wasted. Of course, it's good to take a break every once and a while, but for me, the next three months sees time as a carefully rationed resource that is quite scarce to begin with.

I don't regret a minute spent reading your story.

This is more a comment on your story as a whole, rather than on the last chapter specifically (I know I said I would leave chapter-by-chapter comments, and I'm really sorry I didn't. You deserve 'em.)

First and foremost was the prose. Dat prose, man! It seemed like every single line had something important to say, some emotion to convey. It's so very, very impressive to me, the way so many descriptions of either action or emotion all seemed to be accompanied by something more: metaphors, all of which were both perfectly analogous and intuitively understandable. Either that, or it was phrased in a poetic way that, for all the extraneous wording, made things more understandable, not less. It was a pleasure to read and learn from.

Second was the mood set by your story, which remained pleasingly consistent throughout the whole thing. The dark dreariness that pervades it can be almost tiring at times, but it certainly didn't turn me off from finishing. In fact, some might consider the exhausting times to be a boone; that is, after all, what Celestia, Gaia, and Luna are feeling as the story progresses. It's something I enjoyed, for sure. The growing up process for the sisters was also well done, particularly as they begin to lose that innocent, rosy view of the world.

Third, and I know I've sort of said this before, is Celestia's relationships with other characters, especially Luna. By the gods, I love their dynamic, and their personalities. Especially Luna's shy, almost innocent and enigmatic nature. It's done really well. The part where she tries to describe "the song of the stars" in that letter comes to mind; it's so awkward for her, and so sad, the way she phrases everything like she can't quite get it out. Do like.

Aside from that, Celestia's interactions with the mother she doesn't really know, the soldier she mistrusts, and the general she might be enamored with, were all very believable, and again, enjoyable to read.

I found Gaia's end to be tragic, and it did touch me, but I almost wished for a little more closure between her and Celestia. It could have been a bit better, a bit more important or powerful, but you did a nice job with it nonetheless. (And honestly, who am I to talk?) Some parts do drag on, and some description of the scene does leave me wanting or confused, but it wasn't enough to mar the good name of the story that The Price of Grace.

All in all, it was good. Others have said it, and I will too: this needs more exposure. Alas, fimfic is a cruel place. I wish you would write the sequel, since it does end on a huge cliffhanger, but I know how exhausting it can all be, so I don't hold it against you.

Thank you very much for sharing your work. :twilightsmile:

Also, long comment is, once again, friggin' long.

:heart: well done well done i give you this :heart:

I cannot believe I haven't reviewed this story till now!

For some reason, I had the bizarre idea that I did, but plainly, I haven't...and I need to say something, because it's quite easily the best Celestia-centric story I've ever read. Which makes it such a shame that it doesn't really have many upvotes or reviews for it...one of those stories that got lost underneath, alongside so many other wonderful gems.

What it comes down too is, I guess I just love the depth of, well, everything....the presentation of Celestia and Luna, and how they steadily distance from themselves, Celestia as her burdens pile on more and more....The entire fic has an unbelievably tragic tone to it: Reality is not at all meshing with anyone's expectations....everything starts off so sweet in the beginning, and everything since is just a break down of that, bit by bit -- an idyllic fantasy, just broken down into pieces, and nobody really is getting what they want. One could argue it parallels growing up, if it weren't a pretty cynical thing to say, especially given how dark this story becomes...indeed, the story seems to explore the dichotomy of the perfect garden that everything seems to be in the beginning, where everything is peaceful and beautiful, and reality begins to set in little by little....Celestia and Luna begin to grow a silent rift between them....a rift between Gaia and everyone else....there really is just no Harmony between anyone anymore, and it just leaves everything with the message "What happened to me and the world around me?".

The tone is so very mystical, and you've introduced such a wonderful collection of new characters, my favorite far and above being Gaia - someone who Celestia is going to very much grow, right down to having that imperfect pacifism. Luna, in this story, I like how we actually saw very little of her...that everything was through Celestia's eyes, and the begin to grow apart from each other in how different they are...I loved the "buzzing" sound she began to hear, the "Song of the Stars"...she just grows into a very different person then Celestia, and the maturity and responsibilities that mount on her big sister make her completely blind to this.

I love your references to other media, especially the Dark Knight which Sweetcorn seems to channel right from the very start. When it comes to things like that, I can't say if I caught all the references, but I definitely enjoyed the ones that I caught.

The plot is certainly convoluted to say the least...I had to re-read it several times to really understand, especially toward the ending, what was actually going on. I'm not entirely sure what it was, but I simply had trouble keeping track of everything at times and what was going on. The complexity of it all was definitely one of the highlights of this story - who is trustworthy or not, who is right or wrong...I suppose, for my part, it got the better of me.

It's such an unbelievable shame that this story could have so little votes, so little attention...but I'm more then aware that you have to scour for the gems in life, and Popularity is just too darn fickle think on. Even so, I really wish this fic could have more attention, because it just darn deserves it...it's an amazing intricate tale, and I sincerely hope you'll one day consider updating the sequel :heart:

2603587 Thank you very much, I'm very happy about that. There's nothing more rewarding than knowing I've affected you emotionally.

2590442 Thank you very much for your elaborate comment. I'm really happy my story stuck with you!

2609849

I really wish your story had more reviews and comments, because it deserves it. I feel ashamed It even took so long for me to review, because it's just so darn well made.

I hope you consider continuing the sequel. I don't know how many people will read it, but you'll certainly make your followers very happy :scootangel:.

Login or register to comment
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!