Celestia realizes just how hard Luna's job is ... and how important it is to NOT mess up.
In the aftermath of "A Royal Problem", Celestia wants nothing more than a good night's sleep. However, her subconscious has other plans, as a mistake from the previous night returns to haunt her dreams. Now, Celestia must confront her darker self once again — and learn just how little she truly knows about the dream realm.
Rated for a couple brief mentions of death or physical injury.
"Oh look, there's the sun! Time for me to turn in!"
Celestia scowled as her sister fled the balcony, vanishing among the spires of Canterlot Castle. Perfect, now I get to spend today cleaning up the mess she left? Celestia sighed. Luna, I love you, but you're not making this any easier for me. She shook herself, clearing her thoughts in preparation for the day ahead. Well, Luna did my job after a full night's work. Guess it's my turn. Her horn lit up, its aura once more a familiar yellow. After all, the sun isn't going to raise itself.
The Princess of the Day put forth her power, and Canterlot was soon greeted with a magnificent sunrise.
If the sunrise that day had been particularly spectacular, the sunset that followed was decidedly less so. Rather than slowly sinking to the horizon in a shimmering blaze of color and glory, the sun descended with little fanfare, its disappearance far overshadowed by a glorious moonrise. And while most ponies were content to enjoy Luna's masterful work that evening, some couldn't help but wonder what could be ailing Celestia to put so little care into her daily task.
Some ponies, however, had no need to speculate. Every pony in Canterlot Castle knew exactly what the problem was. Their beloved princess had had a bad day.
To say that Celestia's day had been trying would be an exercise in understatement. Her earlier fears aside, fixing Luna's missteps from the previous day had actually been the least of her trials. The foals' field trip was easily funded, the crown having no shortage of bits, and the foals were quick to forgive. The timberwolf issue had been somewhat more of a project - honestly, how did those creatures end up so far from the Everfree? - but having lived in that accursed forest a thousand years ago, Celestia was accustomed to dealing with far worse; the townsponies near the White Tail Woods, however, were understandably quite shaken, and it would be some time before their fears were fully assuaged.
But Celestia would sooner have faced a thousand timberwolves with her wings tied than endure what followed upon her return to Canterlot.
Whatever else one might say about the elite ponies of Canterlot, they were certainly observant. Some had gossiped among themselves for weeks regarding the mounting tension between the Royal Sisters, and Starlight Glimmer's arrival had not passed unnoticed. When Princess Luna appeared in her sister's role the previous morning, sitting on her sister's throne, with her sister's mark upon her flanks, nobles, guards, and servants alike were quick to make the obvious connection. For twenty-four hours, gossip and speculation ran wild throughout the city, each individual coming to their own conclusions as to why this was happening. Unfortunately, a few of the more paranoid nobles, including Prince Blueblood, had come to the conclusion that this was a plot by Luna and/or Starlight, depending on whom you asked, to overthrow and replace Celestia. Cooler heads, Fancy Pants high among them, rightly condemned such theories as utterly implausible. But, as any longtime resident of Ponyville could tell you, when one small group of ponies starts to panic, others are quick to follow.
While afternoon court was not always a pleasant experience for Celestia, at least it usually ended with some progress having been made, some new project approved, some dispute between nobles resolved. Today, however, was different. Convincing nobleponies of anything could be difficult at the best of times, but when they were in a state of panic and actively expecting, or plotting, a coup, the task became monumentally more implausible. One might as well try to convince Pinkie Pie to go on a diet. Fortunately, nopony was bold, or foolish, enough to directly accuse Luna of treason in front of her sister.
Nopony, that is, except for Prince Blueblood.
Blueblood had always been wary of Luna. Like most ponies, he grew up hearing the tales of Nightmare Moon, a monster who would gobble up little ponies unless she was sated with sugary treats. However, Blueblood knew more than most about the origin of those foalhood tales, and he was by no means stupid. When the Summer Sun Celebration in Ponyville was interrupted by the legend herself, and then Celestia's long-lost sister just happened to show up the next day, Blueblood wasn't the only pony to make the connection. Like most of the other nobles, he noticed the sisters growing more distant, and when the darker alicorn took his aunt's place for the day, his suspicion became certainty.
Now, Blueblood was not tactless; far from it. He was normally more than capable of reading a pony's tone of voice and body language, and he had the highest respect for his beloved aunt. But as the two sisters had so succinctly proven to Starlight the previous morning, sufficient stress and the heat of the moment can cause anypony to say or do things they normally wouldn't. And so, as tempers ran high among the gathered nobles and Celestia strove in vain to regain control of the room, Blueblood opened his mouth and inserted all four of his hooves, calling out loudly for vengeance against both the former creature of nightmares and the pony who had assisted in her attempted conquest.
The deafening silence that followed told Blueblood one thing: he had badly overstepped. Patient and kind though his aunt was, unknown to him, she had been teetering at the edge of sanity for the past hour. Hearing such accusations and demands from her adopted nephew was the last straw -- and Princess Celestia's legendary composure finally snapped.
The temperature in the room noticeably increased. Sweat trickled down everypony's faces, from both the sudden heat and sheer terror they felt as they stared at their benevolent princess. Her rigid mask of motherly calm was gone, her teeth showing beneath curled lips; her left eye twitched violently, a dangerous light flickering in her slitted pupils; small tongues of orange flame danced at the edges of her ethereal mane. Nopony dared to move or speak, lest they unwittingly draw her wrath upon them instead.
It lasted but a moment, and then the heat was gone, the mask firmly back in place; Celestia, kind, motherly, infinitely patient Celestia, sat upon her throne, the usual gentle smile upon her lips. The petrified nobles aside, it was as if nothing unusual had happened -- and yet, every noble, guard, and servant in the room knew they would never be able to erase that snarling visage from their mind, a stark reminder of the true power their princess wielded.
As for Celestia herself, she was puzzled at the sudden quiet. One moment, a hundred panicked voices were shouting over each other demanding answers or retribution; an instant later, every eye in the room was fixated on her, knees trembling, jaws hanging, terror in their eyes as if she had ordered their execution!
Dismissing this mystery for the moment, Celestia seized the opportunity the silence had provided and cleared her throat. "My ponies, I understand that the events of yesterday have given you cause for concern, but I tell you once again that your concern is unmerited. Since I seem to have your attention now, please listen carefully, as this will be my final word on the subject." She then proceeded to recount the events of the previous day in full, being careful to emphasize the difficulties that each sister encountered in doing the other's job, from Luna's strained smile to Starlight's nightmare. She spoke of the fear and uncertainty she felt facing her evil self in the dream, her reconciliation with Luna, and her sister's reassurance that ultimately helped her to defeat the nightmares. She explained Starlight's abilities and her role, both as Princess Twilight's former student and as the pony who ultimately brought the two sisters closer to each other than ever before.
"In the end," Celestia concluded, "I am grateful for Starlight Glimmer's actions yesterday. Thanks to her, both my sister and I now have a better understanding of and appreciation for each other. The experience has taught both of us an important lesson, one that I hope you yourselves will take to heart. As this is my final word on the topic of yesterday's events, I am considering the issue closed. If there are any more issues that require my attention today, please bring them forward now."
Never again, Celestia thought as she plodded wearily to her bedchamber, I am never pulling a double shift again. Oh sister, is this what you had to endure yesterday? I am so, so sorry for putting you through that. Her eyes narrowed, though whether from irritation or exhaustion was difficult to tell. Next time I can't sleep at night, I am canceling my morning appointments and sleeping in, hang the nobles. She barely had the energy to greet her sister as she passed by, the thought of her warm, soft bed consuming her full attention. She didn't even bother to stifle her yawns as she reached her goal.
At least, she thought as she nuzzled into her pillow, it's finally over.
She stares down the invader, her eyes narrowed with barely-suppressed rage. This queen, this creature, dares to threaten her subjects in so brazen a manner? The bride, what horrors had she endured to reduce her to this disheveled wreck? Her own student, she had seen, she had known. If only I had listened to her, this might not have happened. My subjects might still be safe, were it not for my own blindness.
Regardless, hope is not yet lost. Defeat the queen, and her subjects would soon follow. So long as her Captain's shield holds, there is still time. This invader — this insect — must not be allowed to harm her beloved ponies. She must be stopped.
She must DIE.
Flying now, a beam of golden magic lancing down from her horn. The invader counters with her own beam, its color a sickly green. A futile effort, for the Sun cannot be overcome, certainly not by such vermin. She puts forth her power, striving to overcome the queen's magic.
Her beam stalls.
The queen's magic advances.
It shouldn't be possible. How can this creature's power surpass her own? She, who guides the Sun across the sky and draws strength from its immeasurable power, overcome by this thing? The queen's magic draws ever nearer, and her own magic begins to waver. I've failed. My power just isn't strong enough. But my student ... surely, with her friends and the Elements, surely they can —
Rage. Her power swells. The queen's advance is halted. She feels the warmth of magic at her core, the warmth of the Sun. She remembers. All the times when her magic wasn't enough, the times she held back. The times I was WEAK. But there was another time. The war against Discord, before the Elements were found. Strife with the griffons and dragons after the banishment of Nightmare Moon. When she wasn't afraid. The Sun was not weak then — the Sun burned. Back then, her enemies feared her. Because they saw, and they knew.
The wrath of the Unconquered Sun.
Enough holding back. Fire erupts from her form, shimmering dawn colors shifting to raging flames. Her magic triples, quadruples, presses down upon her foe and overwhelms her.
The queen scarcely has time to scream as her insectoid body boils from the inside.
Gliding back down, the Sun incarnate lands to inspect the remains. Nothing but an empty husk — a fitting end for a piece of trash. A crackling sound reaches her ears, and she looks up to see the shield cracking, fractures spreading across its width as the invading horde strikes against it.Let them come. They will soon learn the depth of their folly, and PAIN will be their mentor.
As the fragments of the shield rain down upon the city, the fiery alicorn takes flight. Sun and ash follow in her wake.
Celestia sat bolt upright in her bed, the dying shrieks of Changeling drones still echoing in her head. Her hooves clutched the sheets tight against her chest, her barrel heaving as though she had just run a marathon. She could still feel the fire that had consumed her in the dream, the rage that had fueled her magic and transformed her into that ... monster. That monster, whom she herself had destroyed the previous night. 'You are NOT real, and you will NEVER exist again!' That should have been the end of it, the end of her... Right?
Yet she had little time to contemplate her dream, or her dark self that had returned in it, for several of her now-awakened senses were clamoring urgently for her attention.
The first thing she noticed was the heat. That wasn't right, she knew — she always kept her balcony door open at night. The cool night breeze of Canterlot Mountain had always helped to soothe her body and ease her slumbers, a fact she had been doubly grateful for during the long, lonely centuries of Luna's banishment. Even in winter, she rarely closed the balcony door unless a snowstorm was imminent. Other ponies might have shivered and frozen in such a chill wind, but to the mare for whom sunfire was as her very lifeblood, the coldest of Arctic blasts was as the gentle zephyrs of spring.
On the other end of the scale, even the extreme heat of the southern deserts never bothered her. Ordinary fire wouldn't even singe her immaculate coat. Lava, of course, felt hot to the touch and could injure her, especially if she was submerged in it for an extended period — she was no dragon, after all, and despite the beliefs of many of her subjects, even the alicorn who raises the Sun has her physical limits. But the sunfire within her, so far beyond the heat of any common fire, normally kept her safe from anything the wildest of weather could inflict.
The fact that the heat she felt right now even registered as uncomfortable was more than a little alarming.
The next thing to catch her attention was the noise. Not the sound of an intruder or an assassin — that, she could deal with, or at least hope that her guards or the Elements would come to her aid. Nor was it the sound of thunder — Celestia was far too old and experienced to be frightened by a mere storm, even startled fresh out of a nightmare. No, the sound that now assaulted her hearing was one that she had loathed for centuries: the roaring and crackling of a raging inferno.
Not that she had any fear of fire in general; indeed, her chambers hosted a large hearth, and on her rare evenings to herself, she would often have a cozy fire burning merrily while she read Twilight's latest friendship report or the newest Daring Do novel. Often, she would warm herself by the fire before bed, just so that the cool night breeze would feel that much more soothing. A warm fire in one's hearth was a sign of home, of comfort.
But larger fires, bonfires, brought back terrible memories. Memories of long ago, of the wars with the Griffons and Dragons following the banishment of Nightmare Moon. Seeing Equestria bereft of one of its rulers, and thinking the land more vulnerable for it, the two races began a bloody war of conquest. Unwilling to send her beloved ponies to die in her defense while she remained safe behind, she had fought on the front lines. She saw many fall, on all sides — and most of them were burned. So many loyal and beloved friends, sent to their final rest as ash on the wind. Standing and watching silently as her subjects, her friends, went up in roaring flames... It was one of the hardest things she ever did as Princess.
Already shaken by her nightmare, still groggy and not thinking clearly, the sound of the blaze and the memories it dredged up did no favors for her composure.
Finally, as her eyes opened, she saw the source of the other sensations. A bright amber glow assaulted her vision; the entire room was lit up like daylight. Orange and yellow flames filled her vision on every side. Over, under, and around her, the sheets were already beginning to disintegrate into ash, and the plush mattress beneath her was blazing fiercely. Brighter yellow, almost white, flames flickered intermittently at the corners of her vision, though she could not identify their source. But solving these mysteries was the last thing on her mind.
Rattled by an intense nightmare, suffering traumatic flashbacks, finding herself suddenly in the midst of consuming flames, Celestia froze. She panicked. And she screamed.
Whatever else might be said about the royal guards, their response time at least was irreproachable, especially when their princess was in danger. Scarcely had the scream left Celestia's mouth when the door to her chamber flew open. Two guards, a Pegasus and a unicorn, stood in the aperture, wings spread and horn alight, prepared to face any threat from Changelings to Discord. This was not an exaggeration — these two guards in particular would have willingly faced the Lord of Chaos himself to keep their princess from harm. But even their intense training had not prepared them for the sight that now laid in front of them — a sight that would return to haunt their dreams for many moons to come.
Fierce orange and yellow flames filled the room, spreading rapidly across the lush carpet. And at the center of the blaze, frozen in panic, lay Princess Celestia, her bed blazing beneath her. Her gold eyes were wide and staring, the pupils contracted to mere slits; her fiery mane twitched and flickered erratically. These features were not lost on the astonished guards — after that day's incident during court, the whole story had spread in whispers throughout the palace, and even the guards who had not been present had been informed of Celestia's alleged darker self. The two of them had initially dismissed the rumors of her momentary transformation in court as mere gossip, but now, seeing it for themselves, they knew the rumors had been true. Both guards were momentarily transfixed in shock and fear, struggling to comprehend the change that had taken place in their princess.
Seconds later, their years of training kicked in. No words were needed — the course of action was obvious: put out the fire, and wake the Princess from her stupor. The first would require water, which would also serve for the second — clouds, then; by silent agreement, the Pegasus took the initiative. Concentrating on the fire first, the unicorn lit his horn as his comrade shot out the balcony door. Focusing his magic, he began drawing the oxygen away from the central part of the blaze — a rather basic fire suppression spell, but one that had served him well on more than one occasion. He only hoped that his comrade would return quickly with the much-needed water — he was unable to maintain the spell on this scale for more than a few minutes, and anyways, he did not much wish to test how long his princess could survive without oxygen before passing out.
Fortunately, luck was with them both. While the skies above Canterlot were mostly clear that night, there had been a few lingering clouds near the waterfalls, and several of them were laden with moisture — nature's own fire extinguisher. Returning with three large, heavy clouds, the Pegasus positioned one of them directly over Celestia's bed, muttered a quick prayer for forgiveness — old habits die hard, especially where the princesses are concerned — and stomped on the cloud with all his might.
A veritable waterfall cascaded over Celestia's head, both breaking her panic-induced stupor and extinguishing the flames around her. Spluttering and gasping for breath, her mind now as clear as the water drenching her fur, she lit her horn and vanished in a flash of sunlight, reappearing next to her unicorn guard with all four hooves firmly planted on the ground. Giving a grateful nod to her Pegasus guard, she watched as he emptied the next two clouds, smoke and steam filling the room and pouring out the balcony as the flames vanished.
The flames extinguished, the Pegasus bucked the clouds into oblivion, then landed next to his comrade, both guards saluting their princess. She returned their salute wearily, then spoke softly. "Thank you, gentlecolts. My apologies for worrying you like that. Are you both unharmed?" The guards both nodded smartly, though the unicorn pawed gently at the ground with his hoof, a question on his lips that he dared not speak aloud. The princess noticed and nodded to him encouragingly. "You wish to speak?"
The unicorn paused, then nodded slowly. "Begging your pardon, Your Highness, but I've been trying to figure out how the fire started in the first place. There was no trace of magic, unicorn or otherwise, that might indicate an intruder. As near as I can tell, you were the only pony in this room all night. I'm not sure how to say this, but I think... The pony who started the fire..." He cringed slightly as he finished. "It might have been you."
Celestia sighed and nodded. "You may be correct. As you are no doubt aware, the last few days have been rather ... stressful, to say the least. Last night was quite the shock to my system, seeing firsthoof the dangers of my sister's job, facing an evil version of myself in a dream... Yesterday's court session didn't do much to help in that regard. Before you came in a moment ago, I had just woken up from a rather unpleasant dream, one that I believe was caused by my experiences of the past 24 hours. Perhaps it was the emotions of that dream that caused the fire to start — I know from past experience that my more intense emotions can cause a local temperature increase."
The unicorn shook his head slowly. "Forgive me, Princess, but I think there's more to it than that. You see..." He paused, biting his lip uncertainly, but the gentle warmth in his princess's magenta eyes urged him onward. "When we got here, we saw the fire and you in the middle of it — but it wasn't you, exactly, not as you are now." Celestia cocked her head quizzically as he continued. "Your eyes were yellow, with slitted pupils, and your mane was like a river of fire." Nearly an exact solar counterpart to Nightmare Moon, he thought to himself, though he valued his life too highly to say such a thing out loud. "Based on the appearance and behavior of your mane and your proximity to the worst of the blaze, I believe it's likely that that was the initial cause of the fire. Whether that was caused by your dream or by something else, you would know better than me."
As Celestia began to process this information, the unicorn stroked his chin in thought. "Actually, that reminds me: one of the guards who was at court yesterday described something similar. From what he told me, one of the nobles said something that angered you, and for a moment, you took on the exact likeness of the creature you described from your dream last night." He cringed slightly and added hastily, "I wasn't there myself, but I overheard more than a few of the guards and servants saying almost the same thing." His gaze was almost beseeching now, begging for answers. "I don't know that I've seen you like that before, or if you've just kept something like this hidden all this time, but as your guards, I think we need to know what's going on if we're to continue serving you." Not that he or his comrade would ever resign, but not all the guards were as seasoned as the two of them. "Some of the colts are really scared right now, even if they don't want to admit it, and the Captain's nearly at his wit's end. I need to know what we should tell them. Please, Princess. We want to help you."
Celestia was silent for several moments. What did I ever do in my life to deserve such honest, loyal guards? She sighed softly, then gave them a motherly smile. "Thank you for bringing these facts to my attention, sir. If I'm to be honest, I myself am rather puzzled; then again, dreams and transformations were never my forte. However, I can assure you that neither you nor anypony else has anything to fear from me. The nobles may try my patience on occasion, but it is simply in a pony's nature to react aversely to any perceived threat, even one from my sister. I can't tell you what to say to your fellow stallions in light of all this, but I trust your judgement on the matter." She gave a rather un-princess-like yawn and glanced out her balcony door. The sky was still dark, Luna's moon not yet at its zenith. "Forgive me, gentlecolts, but I believe I must retire once more; the night is still young, and even we alicorns need our sleep." With a wave of her horn, her plush bed was dried and restored to its former plumpness; the sheets would have to be replaced entirely. "Thank you again, both of you."
The guards both saluted and smiled. "Our pleasure, Your Highness," replied the Pegasus. "I hope your dreams will be more peaceful from now on. But just in case they aren't," he grinned cheekily, "perhaps you might consider a fireproofing spell?"
The guards saluted once more and marched out of the room, the unicorn's aura closing the door behind them. Celestia chuckled at her guard's cheek, but doubts clutched at her mind. That bed was fireproofed. I renewed the spell just last week. And what he said about my appearance... She shook her head. NO, I can't let myself think like that. The resemblance may just be a coincidence. I mustn't jump to conclusions without more evidence. She nodded to herself, her mind made up. That settles it. Tomorrow I'll talk to Luna and see what she knows. She's the real expert on dreams; maybe she can explain this whole mess away, and things can finally go back to normal. She re-fluffed her pillows, summoned a new blanket and sheets, and curled up, closing her eyes and allowing the cool night breeze to lull her to sleep.
As he pulled the door closed behind him, the unicorn sighed in relief. "Well, that just happened." His companion was silent, wings twitching slightly, waiting for him to continue. The unicorn glanced back at the door. "I don't like this. I know the Princess said there's nothing to fear, but I have my doubts. If something like this had happened before, we would have known about it."
"Would we?" The Pegasus turned to face him. "You've been in the guard nearly as long as I have — you should know our princess better. She's an expert in hiding things that she doesn't want her subjects knowing — she kept Nightmare Moon's identity a secret for a thousand years, after all. Even if something like this did happen in the past, what makes you think we would know about it?" He snorted softly. "I know she only keeps her secrets to protect her subjects and keep the peace, but the guard at least should have known about Princess Luna before her return."
The unicorn shook his head. "Well, like it or not, there's not much we can do about that. She's the Princess for a reason; we'll just have to trust her wisdom like we always have." He paused, shuffling his hooves anxiously. "So what are we going to tell the colts in the morning? You saw the shape they're in. No guard should be that afraid of the princess he protects."
The Pegasus began to pace slowly, a hoof to his muzzle as he thought. "We can't say anything with certainty. The Princess herself seems unsure of what's going on with her changes. She could be feigning ignorance to keep us from panicking, but I doubt that; if she was hiding something like that, I would have noticed." It was true: he was one of the best card players in the guard, and even Celestia herself couldn't conceal much from him. In another life, he might have made quite the successful defense attorney. "While the idea of a powerful alicorn transforming into something from her own nightmares sounds disturbing at best, she hasn't hurt anypony so far, and we have no reason to believe that she will in the near future. If I had to guess, she's probably going to consult Princess Luna in the morning — if anypony knows about nightmares, it's her. Let's wait until tomorrow and see what comes of that; if the colts ask, we can tell them what the Princess told us."
The unicorn nodded. "I can live with that. Here's hoping for a swift and boring end to this mess."
"Agreed. Boring is good. I'm okay with boring." The two guards laughed quietly and resumed their silent vigil, one thought echoing in both their minds.
Luna's mouth watered as she gazed at the repast in front of her: a stack of four massive, fluffy pancakes, warm and dripping with butter and syrup, artfully topped with whipped cream and fresh berries; a breakfast truly fit for a princess. Inhaling the delicious scent, she gave her sister an appreciative smile. "By my stars, sister, if your cooking tastes half so good as it smells, then I have truly been depriving myself these past moons."
Celestia smiled warmly in return. "As I told Starlight Glimmer, sister, I really enjoy doing it." Lifting her fork and knife in her sun-hued aura, her smile turned into a smirk. "Besides, if I let you cook for us, we'd both starve."
Luna gasped and recoiled in well-feigned shock, holding a hoof to her chest. "You wound me, sister! 'Tis a lie! I recall distinctly a time when you were more than happy to subsist on my culinary achievements!"
"You mean other than during Discord's reign? Chocolate cotton candy soup does not count as cooking."
Luna rested her chin on her raised hoof, taking her sister's teasing in stride. "You're just mad you didn't come up with it first."
"My stomach was mad enough that you came up with it at all!"
The two regal sisters glared at each other for a moment, before lapsing into helpless giggles.
Celestia brushed a tear from her eye as she regained her composure. "Oh, I've missed this, Luna. I know our differing schedules still don't allow us much time together, but I'm glad you were willing to stay up and share breakfast with me."
Luna nodded pensively. "'Tis a pleasure, sister, one that I have also missed. We do not spend nearly enough time together as sisters, and I fear I may be partially to blame for that." She paused to stifle a yawn and blushed faintly. "Oh, pardon. Speaking of things being missed..."
Celestia tittered faintly. Still not an early riser, but I wouldn't have her any other way. "Well, I certainly won't be accused of keeping a princess from her beauty rest; as a princess myself, I should know how important that is. Now eat up, before your pancakes get cold!"
The rest of the meal passed in companionable silence, both sisters simply taking the time to enjoy each other's company. Finishing her plate of pancakes with a very un-princess-like lick, Luna slid back her seat and stood up, stifling another yawn. "Most excellent, sister. I shall have to avail myself of your culinary expertise more often. Now, if you will excuse me, I believe I hear my bed calling." She turned and began to trot towards the door.
Luna stopped in her tracks and turned to face her sister again. All thoughts of sleep vanished at the expression on Celestia's face. All of a sudden, she seemed so ... vulnerable. That facial expression struck a chord with Luna—as the younger sister, she had often worn that same look over a thousand years ago, when they were but newly crowned princesses; and as the Mistress of Dreams, tasked with dispelling nightmares and counseling ponies troubled by them, she saw that face on almost a nightly basis.
It was the face of a frightened foal, one who had seen something terrible, seeking the wisdom and comforting strength of her loved ones to chase away the fear.
In short, it was an expression that had no business occupying the face of her big sister, and it was thus her duty to see that expression removed before she sought her chambers. She took a tentative step forward. "What troubles you, sister?"
Celestia glanced furtively around the room, ensuring there were no prying ears. "There's ... something I need to ask you about. Something that I believe only you can help me with."
Luna's ears pricked forward, realization lighting in her eyes. "Is this about your dream last night?"
Celestia's ears flattened. She softly pawed at the marble floor with one hoof. "You already knew?"
"I am the Mistress of Dreams, sister. Nothing in that realm escapes my notice." She cast her gaze downward, staring at her hoof as it tapped awkwardly against the floor. "Though, sometimes it might seem otherwise."
"Then why didn't you come to me last night?" Celestia was looking right at her now, her magenta eyes wide and searching, almost beseeching her for an explanation.
Luna sighed and took another step closer. "You were not the only one whose sleep was troubled last night. Both Twilight and her student were plagued by night terrors, most likely brought on by the previous night's ... incident." Both sisters shuddered faintly at the memory of their dark selves waging war against each other. "I first sensed your nightmare just as I was dispelling Starlight's. By the time I had finished consoling her, you had already awoken."
Celestia tilted her head slightly, considering. "Then why did you not come to me when I fell back asleep?"
"Your sleep was dreamless after that, sister. While I can only guess at the contents of your dream, it greatly taxed your mind and body, and inducing further dreams would have been counterproductive; your body decided it needed a chance to recover, and I respected that." Luna gave a wavering smile. "Besides, I trusted you. I knew that if you were truly distraught, you would bring it up eventually. You've always been sensible like that."
Celestia sighed and nodded. "I suppose you have a point, and I can't fault you for wanting to finish one job before starting the next." She straightened and grimaced slightly, bracing herself to recall the previous night's events. "Actually, it's not just the dream I'm concerned about, so much as what happened after..."
Over the next several minutes, she related the events of last night—the voice in her dream, the sudden surge of power, the gruesome devastation she wrought with that power; then the shock of her awakening, the fire, her guards' quick action; and finally, the frightening implications of her guards' description of her transformed self, a form that was all too familiar. Luna listened silently, her expression gradually shifting, from curiosity, to shock, disgust, horror, and back to shock, before finally settling on deep contemplation as she processed what she had heard. "A frightening tale indeed. And you are certain of what your guards saw?"
Celestia sighed. "I wish I wasn't. When I explained Starlight's dream in court yesterday, I only gave the general details. I never described Daybreaker's appearance fully, just that she was like a more fiery, destructive version of myself. Had that been all that my guards had told me last night, I might have believed that they merely saw the flames and jumped to conclusions." She shook her head. "My guards' description was far more detailed. The slitted eyes, the predatory fangs, even the way her fiery mane flowed... Every detail was an exact match. What they saw last night ... what I turned into ... there can be no doubt."
"Most intriguing. I have seen many instances of sleep-casting, but never one involving a physical transformation. The fire I might be able to accept, given the events of your nightmare, but this..." Luna paced back and forth, eyes narrowed in concentration. "There is something else at work here. Something I just can't put my hoof on..." She continued pacing, muttering softly to herself as she considered the possibilities.
Celestia couldn't take it anymore. "Luna?" Her sister gave no sign that she had heard. "LUNA!" The Mistress of Dreams squawked in alarm, tripped over her own hooves, and landed face-first on the marble tiles. Celestia rolled her eyes, stifling a snicker. "As amusing as it is to watch you wear a hole in the floor, I have a very busy schedule today. If you have any answers, I would love to hear them."
Luna stood and shook herself out, then glared at her sister. "A fine attitude that is, for one seeking my help."
Celestia, realizing her mistake, sighed and massaged her temples. "I'm sorry I snapped like that, Luna. I guess I'm still a bit on edge from last night, and recalling it just now didn't exactly help." She stepped forward and nuzzled her sister. "If you need more time to think, that's fine, but I really do have to be going now. I'm already late for my first appointment."
Luna nodded. "I understand perfectly, sister. Go and attend to your duties. I shall consider this matter further once I retire for the day." At Celestia's quizzical look, she elaborated. "As you may know, dreams serve in part as a tool for the mind to conduct experiments and sort through memories. Some ponies are able to control this aspect of dreams, using their time asleep to find solutions to nagging problems." Seeing her elder sister's comprehension, she smiled and winked. "Who better to utilize dreams for problem solving than the Mistress of Dreams herself?"
Celestia chuckled softly. "Ah yes, how could I have forgotten? Twilight used to love doing that when she was my student. 'Dreamstorming', I believe she called it." She nodded. "Very well, then I hope your sleep today is both restful and productive. Shall we meet and discuss this further over dinner tonight?"
"Indeed we shall. Several possibilities already present themselves; it is my hope that by this evening, I shall have narrowed them down sufficiently for us to take action." She stifled a yawn. "Now, if you will excuse me, I will retire. I wish you well in your duties, sister." She turned and trotted out the door, then paused and looked back. "Oh, and sister? It might be best to keep this between ourselves for the time being. I believe your little story yesterday gave your nephew quite the scare."
Celestia snorted. "Blueblood's scared of his own shadow these days. But I agree, sister; our switching places for a day was disruptive enough, let alone this fiasco. I don't even want to imagine the chaos if this got out to the nobles."
"Chaos" was putting it mildly.
Celestia sat stiffly on her throne, resisting the urge to clamp her hooves over her ears. Yesterday's shouting match now seemed trivial by comparison. She didn't know how, or who, though she had some guesses for both; but somehow, some loose-lipped individual within the castle had gotten wind of her transformation. Naturally, all of Canterlot knew the whole story—or at least, some exaggerated variation thereof—before noon.
She would have words with her guards tonight, and find the pony responsible. A month of latrine duty would be too good for him. Maybe she would let Luna decide his punishment; she was always the creative one when it came to such things.
At least today wasn't a total repeat of yesterday—no, it was much worse. Everywhere she went, ponies trembled in her presence. Most of them tried to hide it, but their eyes showed the truth. With few exceptions, her beloved subjects no longer loved her as they once had.
They feared her.
It didn't matter what she said. It didn't matter what she did. The damage had been done. They had heard the reports of her evil self, the rumors of her transformation the previous night, and those rumors had taken root like weeds in their minds. Some did manage to uproot the rumors in their own minds, those ponies who truly knew their beloved princess and refused to be swayed by mere words; were it not for them, she might not have kept her composure this long.
But the others—certain disreputable specimens of the nobility foremost among them—they saw in this moment an opportunity, a chance to prove the alicorns dangerous and unfit for rule, a chance for the noble unicorns to reclaim their rightful place at the top of society. And always, there were rabble-rousers, makers of mischief, otherwise stable ponies who wanted nothing more than to watch the world burn.
Celestia was not ignorant of these individuals; the fact that Equestria still stood was proof of that. But when the better part of the nobility sided with the agents of Chaos against her, there was little that she could do. Her calls for order went unheeded; the guards who were meant to maintain order were drawn into the quarrel. Even the Princess of the Sun was powerless against this madness.
Powerless... Just like all those other times...
Unbidden, a torrent of memories arose. Nightmare Moon... Discord... The changelings... Sombra... Tirek... All the great threats that had faced Equestria over the last eleven centuries... And each time, she had lost, or had come close to losing, something or someone most dear to her...
Because I wasn't strong enough...
NO! She gritted her teeth and clenched her eyes against the voice, the voice that was her own. I did what had to be done. I couldn't do anything more, even if I wanted to! I got my sister back, though it took a thousand years. Discord was reformed, and later helped save us from the changelings, who also became our allies. The Crystal Empire returned, and Sombra was destroyed. Tirek was returned to Tartarus. Everything worked out in the end!
At what cost? How many ponies, how long must they suffer for the sake of your pacifism?
Be silent! Her mane flickered erratically. BE SILENT! The quarrel grew ever louder, mirroring her own.
"SILENCE!!!" Windows shattered and eardrums ruptured as the full force of the Royal Canterlot Voice shook the mountain. Guards and nobles alike cried out and flung themselves to the ground, clamping their hooves over their aching ears; those closest to the throne scrambled backward, beating frantically at the flames rising from their clothes, their pristine fur scorched to ashes.
A choked voice spoke from the throne, though they dared not raise their eyes to meet its source. "Court is canceled. Get out."
They needed no second bidding.
As the stunned masses stumbled out to seek treatment for their injuries, a few individuals lingered for a moment at the door, questioning what had just happened. One such individual, a well-to-do unicorn with what once was a snow-white coat and azure mane, risked a glance back at where, just moments before, the Princess of the Sun had sat, calm and regal as ever. What he saw in that moment would haunt him for weeks to come.
The golden throne of Equestria was a smoldering ruin, its metal sagging and misshapen from the heat, the plush cushions and nearby wall hangings now a mess of smoking tatters. An immense white alicorn sat upon it, fire flowing from her neck and cascading over her shoulder. Her eyes, slitted golden orbs in a black abyss, gazed downward at the devastation she had wrought; her elongated, predatory teeth were clenched in a grimace. A tear, and then another, fell from her slitted eyes, meeting their end with a loud hiss on the scorching metal.
Fearsome though her form was, the eyes told a different story: fear, and confusion; grief, and regret. There was no doubt in his mind: that was no monster, seated upon the ruined throne.
This was a frightened child, all that remained of his beloved princess.
Shuddering and shaking his head, Fancy Pants slowly trotted out of the throne room. As the massive golden doors thudded to behind him, he almost missed the pop and flash of amber light from within.
He shivered and uttered a short prayer. All-mother Faust preserve us.