by Cynewulf

First published

Luna, newly returned from her exile, takes Twilight along on a pilgrimage into her own past.

Luna's homecoming tour has taken her to every major city in Equestria. Every city but one. Lunangrad, the frozen sentinel of Equestria's forbidding north, and Luna's ancient sacred center.

Twilight, along for the ride, finds herself drawn inwards towards some horrible secret as the world she knows trembles before some great revelation. The Pilgrimage has begun.

I. Be Comfortable, Creature

View Online

Canterlot always did this to her, didn’t it? It always reached deep down and tugged at all of her memories.

Luna’s letter had been markedly different from what Twilight had come to expect. She had switched from her usual manner to a very formal one, shedding the turns of phrase, the playful word games, and the occasional lapse into other languages that so marked her correspondence. At first it had troubled her, but she had decided it was merely Luna settling into her role. That was a good thing. A Princess should be comfortable switching between roles. Not that she knew much about being a princess.

Idly, Twilight wondered what Luna remembered whenever she explored a brand new Equestria. What did she think of Canterlot? It had only been a small settlement around an old fort when she’d… Left. That was the politest way that Twilight knew how to phrase that. What would it be like to come back home and find that not only was your home gone, but that the city it had been inside of was gone, that everypony had moved away, and that hardly anyone remembered that there had ever even been such a city? Did she walk through Canterlot and see flashes of her old life in the faces of the ponies she passed, the architecture that reached up towards the mountain sky?

Or did she just miss it, and not see anything but a city she could never think of as home?

Twilight shook her head. That was a bit bleak.

Perhaps Luna’s missive had put her in such a mood. Or perhaps it was just natural to find oneself being a bit melancholy after a long absence from childhood’s home.

The the summons had been ambiguous though not entirely devoid of information. Luna had been on something of a homecoming tour in the wake of her return, exploring the great cities of Equestria and greeting the ponies there as a Princess is wont to do. She had been given the keys to half a dozen cities, and had tasted the wine and produce of the provinces and seen the ways in which ponies lived in a bright new world. Twilight had been under the impression that her tour had ended several months ago, but apparently it had not. Luna had one last city to see.

Lunangrad. Twilight knew little about it, and she had discovered quickly that her ignorance was almost universal. Her Ponyville neighbors knew precious little about it, and the books in her library had only been helpful to a point.

It was a lonely city, far from any other civilization in the northern province. The closest city was Stalliongrad, and between the two beacons of light and warmth there were only rough roads. Its connection to the principality at large was tenuous in more sense than one: geographic isolation bred other sorts of isolation. Perhaps it was a product of rough terrain and dreadful storms that buffeted the Lunaga river basin and kept it frozen six months out of the year; perhaps it was the aftereffects of Chaotic magic and Discord’s tenure as master of the continent, as some sources speculated; perhaps it had always been this way--whatever the cause, Lunangrad had very little in common with anypony and any place. Its ponies were a hard and stoic sort, not given to song or story. They shared few, if any, of the customs and holidays of their southern neighbors, and some sources suggested that they had once been completely independent of Equestria. Somehow this had changed, but the histories were at a loss to explain how or why the altogether unfriendly and uninterested citizens of the bleak northern sentinel had thrown in their lot with the united tribes.

Twilight hoped that it was exaggeration. Sometimes the old writers were a bit… judgey, especially about differences between tribes. Back then, ponies weren’t accustomed to playing nice with everyone, and she tried to keep that in mind. Besides, ponies changed! Maybe Lunangrad was a much happier place now! Though it was probably still cold, so she had packed her warmest clothes.

The gate to the palace was also as she remembered it being the first day she had arrived at it. The guards bowed slightly and let her in, and she thanked them as she passed.

Around her, the palace bustled. Within her was a similar energy, as if five dozen small Twilights were rushing from shelf to shelf, working out what lay ahead of her.

Why invite her? Going to Lunangrad, the tour of the country, all of that… those things made sense. She had thought it was a good idea as soon as she had heard that the tour was in the works: what better after a long absence then to both adjust oneself to a new world, and have it reacquainted with you? But in all of that, why invite Twilight Sparkle?

It wasn’t as if she had any sort of ideas about herself as worthless or not deserving. Twilight tried to be modest, but she had studied as the personal student of the Princess, and her family was technically an old and storied one. She had corresponded with some of Equestria’s most learned ponies, and held her ground with them all. Twilight was a scholar for all seasons.

But did Luna need a scholar? What could a scholar bring to her in this situation that she didn’t already know, and far more intimately? For harmony’s sake, Luna probably knew everything she did and more! She’d probably lived it herself.

She almost ran into a poor servant on her way to the throne room, and apologized absently. Introspection would get her nowhere. She would just need to find the sisters and see what waited for her.

She had expected Luna to be waiting, but instead she found Celestia finishing up court for the day in the throne room.

Twilight remembered court. She had attended several times as a filly, and had found it to be an altogether dull exercise. Anything that tore her from her books and the privacy of her observatory had been agony, and the idiocy of listening to every yokel with a gripe had added grievous insult to her inequine injury.

Although she had changed since then, Twilight felt she would never find something like holding court fun. She waited near the door as the last petitioner of the day completed his presentation, with Celestia promising a modest sum from her personal royal coffers to help his project. The stallion left with a spring in his steps and a bright, confident smile, and Twilight couldn’t help but smile along with him.

Her smile only grew when Celestia rose from her throne and announced that her court was officially closed to the public. The scattered townsponies who had wandered in to see what the day had to offer shuffled away as Celestia’s platoon of attendants and scribes scurried back to the comfort of their office burrows. Soon, only Celestia herself and Twilight remained in the great hall.

“Twilight, my faithful student,” Celestia approached and offered Twilight a hug. “It is good to see you.”

“It’s good to see you too, Princess!” Twilight accepted the hug with cheer.

Celestia nuzzled her student and then winked at Twilight. “I believe it’s almost time for lunch! Will you walk with me whilst I pay my chef a visit? Not that he’ll be happy to have the palace’s most gluttonous inhabitant like a barbarian at his gate.”

Twilight chuckled. “Petit Pan? Of course!”

Celestia grinned and ushered Twilight along with her towards the kitchens.

II. Take Care, Take Care, Take Care

View Online

Twilight laid back in her chair, stuffed. Celestia was on her third helping.

Twilight shook her head. Typical. She’d forgotten how much of an appetite an alicorn had. As a filly this had been a delightful discovery, and as a grown mare it was still rather amusing.

She was lost in thought when her teacher and liege coughed politely and drew Twilight back into the present.

“With us, Twilight?” she asked with a chuckle.

Twilight flushed. “Uh, yes, Your Highness. Sorry about that. I was just remembering when I was younger. Remember my first meal at the palace?”

Celestia appeared to ponder this and tapped her chin. “Do you mean the one right after your magical overload, when your parents insisted you eat to replenish your strength as I explained that you were going to be alright and also that they didn’t have to pay for any of the damage?”

Twilight thought she had been flushed before. She hid her face. “Princess…”

Celestia only laughed some more. “I know which you are referring to. Your first proper meal as my student! You were such a paradoxical little filly, Twilight. So shy, and yet so very eager. I would ask you about magic and you would explode with words, but on every other topic you were quiet as a mouse sneaking into the pantry.”

Twilight squirmed. “I was just… excited. And nervous. I wasn’t exactly used to talking to ponies, let alone princesses!”

Celestia let her laughter trail off and rested her head on one hoof and surveyed her otherwise empty dining table. “I am glad you are here, Twilight. I’ve missed your studious presence in these halls.” She straightened suddenly and took a deep breath. “Very glad. I hate to darken the mood, Twilight, but I did want to talk to you in private for a bit about something rather serious.”

The faithful student blinked and leaned in. “Is… is something wrong? Whatever it is, I can have the girls here in a few hours at most and we can--”

Celestia was already waving her assurances away. “No, no, nothing like that.”

“Then… then what?”

Celestia looked towards the double doors that were the main entrance to the dining room. A single unicorn guard stood raptly at attention beside them. She nodded at him, and Twilight turned to watch him step outside and close the door. It locked. The sound made her shiver.

“Princess… I’m a bit worried,” Twilight said. “Did I… Have I done something wrong?”

Celestia seemed startled, and then shook her head with a rueful smile. “No, not at all. I’m sorry, Twilight. I don’t mean to worry you, I just wish us to have some privacy. If anything, I’m very, very glad that you are here and that my sister requested that you accompany her. I was hoping she would take my advice.”

Twilight pursed her lips. “Your advice? Is she going somewhere dangerous? I thought she was just going to a parade in Lunangrad or something along those lines. Why would she need me?” Twilight chewed on her bottom lip. “I thought she just wanted some company, or that she wanted to get to know each other a little better.”

“Oh, she does.” Celestia beamed. “Luna has quite enjoyed your correspondence. She tells me you’ve begun playing chess through letters. Is that going well?”

There was a tension in the air even as Celestia smiled at her, one that Twilight was not sure she had ever felt in the presence of her mentor. It was not merely the tension of secrets about to be unveiled, though it had some of that flavor. The air felt thick with something sour.

“Yes,” Twilight said, trying to act as if she did not feel anything out of the ordinary. “She’s very good. She’s honestly better than I am by leagues, and when she gets back into the swing of things, I suspect I’m not going to be winning very many games. But it’s been a lot of fun.”

“I’m glad she’s found something to occupy herself. I’ve played a few games with her as well, when the day ends and my sister is bright and alert. She’s a rather aggressive player, by the by. She will almost always go for easy captures. Do take advantage of that,” Celestia added with a wink.

It did not dispel the cold iron in Twilight’s stomach. That had come to stay, it seemed.

“So… um, if I can ask…”

Celestia interrupted her. “What is it I’m concerned about? I know you can tell. I know that I’m probably radiating worry.”

Twilight cringed. “A bit.”

Celestia sighed and looked away, towards nothing at all on the far wall. “I’m sorry, Twilight. I truly am. You aren’t in danger. Not really. My sister will… will be safe, in a purely physical way.”

Celestia chuckled darkly. Twilight knew no other way to describe it but darkly.

There are moments when the world seems to not change so much as tilt. One stands as one always has, and yet the floor is different. The walls and the halls have rearranged themselves. The universe is no longer set properly, or with growing dismay the thought worms its way into one’s brain that perhaps it has always been thus. It has always been as it must be, and it was you who were not flush with the order of things, it was you who stood at the wrong angle and watched the plumb line lurch across the narrow stripe of your vision.

Twilight experienced this, and only barely did she suppress a shiver. “Physical?” she asked, probing for information even as some inner voice struggled to know less than it already had.

Indeed for a moment Twilight Sparkle was two mares. One pulled forward and wanted to dive deep into the troubled seas ahead. That Twilight wanted to know, and more than that to be within the inky uncertainty of whatever story was weaving itself around herself and Celestia and Luna even as she sat in the echoes of her mentor’s dying laughter. But the other? The other Twilight cringed back. She retreated. This other Twilight wanted as little as possible to do with possibility and the weight of what it brought.

“Yes. I seriously doubt that there is anything or anypony in Lunangrad who could harm my sister. It would take a few companies of rather determined ponies to do that,” the Princess said with a smirk. “You should have seen her in the past, Twilight. When we fought side by side, she was a terror. Her hammer held high, her eyes alight with…”

Celestia had been staring off into the distance, but shook herself and seemed confused for a moment before smiling sheepishly.

“Forgive me,” she said. “But yes, no danger. What do you know of Lunangrad, Twilight?”

Twilight shrugged. “Not much, unfortunately. I did my research, of course!”

“Of course.”

“But there just isn’t that much in the library in Ponyville. What I could find was annoyingly vague or downright ridiculous. What I could gather beyond the basics--location, climate, those sorts of things--is that it’s a different sort of place from the rest of Equestria.”

Celestia nodded. “That’s putting it mildly. It is a very, very old city.”

“How old? Older than Manehattan? Canterlot?”

“Older than both by far,” Celestia said. “I daresay it is older than most of Equestria. It is a city steeped in old traditions, and tinged with old faiths which exist now only as shadows. It has held empires at bay and turned monsters from its path, and yet few know anything about it except that the ponies there are tightlipped.” She smirked. “My little ponies, as much as I love them, are not always as inquisitive as perhaps they should be, Twilight.”

“What else can you tell me, Princess?” Twilight asked, and the mare within that wanted to know began to win the struggle. “Anything you think might be useful. I want to be helpful if I can, especially if there’s more to this whole visit than I know.”

The smirk died.

“Knowledge will not help you,” she said. “But I will answer in part. Much of it is not my tale to tell, my faithful student. The city was once independant, and when the principality was secure we invited them to join the united tribes. They refused, which I had expected, but then made a very odd request. Their messenger asked that my sister grace them with her presence. She accepted the invitation, and was gone for two weeks. When she returned… she brought the city’s allegiance, and a story which perhaps she will tell you.”


“One could say that it is Luna’s city more than Equestria’s. They were the last to accept her absence, and only surrendered to my rule when I went alone to speak to them. That particular tale I will not be telling. At least, not for some time.”

“Shouldn’t she be happy to see it? Do they still think of themselves as being her city?”

“Fervently so,” Celestia replied. “I am not unwelcome, entirely, but as soon as Luna returned…”

“Then it should be a wonderful reunion,” Twilight said a bit too quickly, grinning.

“For them, perhaps.”

Twilight groaned. “I don’t understand.”

“I know you don’t. I’m sorry.” Celestia reached across and touched her hoof. “Twilight, I cannot tell you why I am worried, and I am very sorry. It simply isn’t my place to explain this whole sordid affair to you. But my sister needs you. She does not need your brilliance, or your magic, or the Elements. She simply needs you. She needs a friend, somepony who can be there for her and remind her that at least one pony looks at her and sees somepony worth writing letters to and playing chess with. Does that make sense?”

Twilight hesitated. She nodded.

“I think so.”

“That’s all I can ask. Thank you.” Celestia leaned over and nuzzled her cheek. “Thank you,” she repeated, softer this time. “Please be for her what I cannot in this time.”

With that, the Princess pulled away. “She’ll be up soon, but as for now… Your rooms in the tower are still available for your use, if you wish them. I suggest you rest and prepare for my sister. She will be a bit on edge, no doubt, and you’ll want to have your wits about you tonight.”

Twilight nodded. She knew when she was being politely dismissed, and to be honest she needed to go quietly worry by herself for awhile.

III. The Mare Who Does Not Sleep

View Online

In Highest Canterlot, Twilight Sparkle slept in her old apartments and dreamed of a castle in disrepair.

The Everfree had encroached upon it, and the years had been unkind. Stone had been sundered from stone by inches as vines and roots worked their vengeance upon the cultivation of ponies. Moths had long ago eaten away the grand tapestries. The glass, colored and beautiful, had been looted.

She walked what had once been halls with her head on a constant, anxious swivel. The sun was going down. The sun was betraying her. It could stay but it didn’t want to stay, and so she had to make due with her weak unicorn’s eyes, unaccustomed to the bleak darkness of absolute night. She dared not call forth an ounce of magic. Something seemed urgent in this fear, something seemed needful about it. She did not know what it was she feared would come for her at the slightest spark of her horn, but she was sure it would come with terror.

The shadows lengthened. Twilight found herself in the ruins of a great hall.

Above her the vaulted ceiling was shot through with holes like wounds in an already eviscerated corpse, insult to a forgotten fatal injury. The dusk-sky, tinged with red, darkened before her very eyes, and Twilight Sparkle swore she saw the stars begin to shine beyond the clouds like eyes at the end of a long alleyway.

Around her was rubble. The floor had been torn up by some force and great divots made navigation slow. The pillars that lined the vaulted height were weak, shot through with cracks, and dark purple vines clung to them and seemed, to Twilight’s addled and worried mind, to pulse with a malevolent light.

And before her? Before Twilight rose a spiralling ebon throne, all spikes and fluted majesty, glistening--or did it cast its own light?--laid out in brightest, tempting jewels. Behind it an array of sharp onyx in the shape of a nine point star, and above the highest point, suspended by chains from the pillars and ceiling, hung a silvery moon.

The maze of ruin was perilous. She stumbled over rocks she could barely see, and narrowly avoided catching her leg in a jagged crack. Every step brought her closer to the throne. Why must she reach it? What was it? And where was this place?

But she knew. She knew as she stumbled and bit back a curse. She knew as she climbed over a fallen pillar and shuddered as her leg brushed a purple vine and felt the slimy, viscous flesh.

This was the castle in the Everfree, where she had faced down an enraged goddess with nothing but her wits and a few fast-found friends. This was where her life had hung by a thread.

She cleared the rubble. She stood before the throne.

It was not empty.

She who sat upon it was giant, and Twilight saw that the throne too was massive, a great twisted impossibility.

Who had she expected to be awaiting her? Nightmare Moon? Yes, but this was not she. Nightmare Moon had been a sneering villain, a fanged despot out of ancient texts who dreamed of empire and mortal struggle. Nightmare Moon had been the sort of foe that a pony might fight against, struggle against--yes, even die against--but this was not Nightmare Moon.

She who sat upon the throne of Night itself was a baleful vision, all shadow and flashing light. She was like a storm given vague shape, and when she opened her mouth to speak Twilight saw horrors that made her weep and sink to her haunches within the open maw.

“Hello, my little pony.”

Twilight tried to answer but her words fell out of her ears. Who was this? What was it that raged within her? Who was she? But her questions would not form into words. Like sand through a dragon’s claws they ran away and all that was left was to look in weeping horror.

The Queen of Night laughed, or at least Twilight thought that it was a light, for the sound was like hissing. Eyes opened up all over her shadowy, changing form, red irises with narrow slitted pupils, all focused on Twilight.

She rose.

“My sweet little pony,” she hummed in a dozen voices. Mouths opened up to sing in unison, her whole body becoming a chorus of beings. “The night is coming. ‘Twould be unseemly if I did not welcome you to my court in the flesh as the moon comes into view. Rise, and we will show you what it is to be free.”

Twilight was so cold. She tried to rise but her body was no longer her own. Already, perhaps before she had even laid eyes on the goddess of darkness itself, something had seeped into her very bones. Her hooves melted into the stones. Her coat leaked with oily fluid. She tasted bile and blood. She could not even tell what ran down her cheeks. Screams struggled to escape but her tongue would not obey.

The nightmare was upon her. The Night smiled and leaned down and she smelled of death and sickly sweetness. Twilight’s eyes would not shut. Something clouded her vision, but she could see well enough to look into the glowing eyes of her new god.

It kissed her forehead, beneath her horn and Twilight at last whimpered as she felt the pricking of her flesh as sharp fangs pierced it.

“Good night, Twilight.”

She woke.

Twilight did not rise up immediately, breathing raggedly. She did not cry out. These are theatrics, rare things which she had never experienced.

But her breathing was difficult. Her body felt wooden and heavy. Her covers were twisted around her sprawled body and she realized that the air stank of sweat.

Bit by bit, the young mare put herself together. The blankets she re-arranged without magic, curling into a ball beneath a carefully constructed nest. Somehow using magic just this moment worried her. It felt dangerous. Why? The reasons that the dream had supplied, if it had ever supplied them, began to slip away from her.

There was no way to tell how much time had passed. Celestia hadn’t sent for her, so it couldn’t be that long. She’d only laid down for a nap.

Grimacing, she reached out with her magic for the clock on the bedside table and brought it into her constructed abode.

Five, the opening of evening. She’d slept much longer than planned. With a groan, Twilight rose and shivered in the cold air. Had the tower always been so cold?

Getting herself presentable only took a few minutes. Twilight had never been one for obsessing over her appearance. She followed her mother’s sage advice--a neat minimum kept her from wasting time better spent productively, and you never had to worry if you looked nice.

The walk down from her tower was, well, lonely. The observatory had always been empty, and she’d chosen it at least partially for its rather unparalleled isolation from other ponies. Nowhere else, aside from any secret place of the Princess’ knowledge, was free of the hustle and bustle of the crowd in the way that her tower was.

Twilight snorted. “Her” tower.

She paused for a moment on the long circling stairs to take a brief look out the window. The sun was just beginning to set, and so she supposed that all in all things had worked out in her favor. She would probably need to adjust to a somewhat unconventional schedule while traveling with Luna, no doubt.

She was still thinking about it as she trotted into the palace proper, giving the Lunar guard a perfunctory hello as she passed. Sleeping spells? But then she would have to deal with the near constant casting of spell and counterspell to stay focused. Sleeping spells were useful, but they tended to leave the sleeper feeling a bit hungover and sluggish. There were spells that could then counter this effect, but honestly it was a lot of hassle and literal headache.

Her legs moved without her. Walking on autopilot had become something of a specialty of Twilight’s--her eyes were often occupied by books--and so it was that she stumbled into the hall where Celestia usually took dinner mumbling to herself.

“What was that?”

Twilight, looking at the floor with a furrowed brow, answered. “Polyphasic sleeping. You shift from sleeping in one eight-hour block to sleeping in shifts, or phases. Poly meaning many, phasic as in the sleeping phases. That way, you sleep several times instead of just one. It’s a pattern one notices in… some nomadic societies… Oh. Ah, hello.”

Halfway through her explanation, it had occurred to Twilight to look up and see who had spoken to her. She stood halfway down the long table, one she knew quite well. But things were different now: Celestia sat at her accustomed place, but now Luna occupied the great chair that had been long empty at the other end.

Twilight sat in the middle sheepishly.

“A curious idea,” Celestia said. It had been she who had asked the question.

“For myself, I am more curious as to what prompted the line of thought,” a much lower, somber voice asked. Twilight looked to her right to find Luna smirking at her. “I am familiar with what she says, as you should be, sister mine. It is but taking watch extrapolated.”

“I suppose. My adventuring days are a few millenia behind me.”

“Only one and a half,” Luna said and shrugged. “Closer for me.”

“Sometimes I find I wish I could return to those days. Do you feel the same?”

“Some parts of it were excellent. Most parts.”

Twilight felt a bit like a spectator at a tennis match, right at midcourt. One sister would speak, and her ears would swivel and then her head and eyes would follow suit, but as soon as she had settled the other one would reply.

“The wine is much better now,” Celestia said mildly, and only now did Twilight see they were both mid meal. Celestia calmly cut a portion off of the fish laid before her and ate it as daintily as Rarity might have.

Fish. She had been very puzzled by this when as a small filly she had first come to study in the palace. Celestia had been very intentional about not making a fuss over it, simply having Twilight sit near her at the table along with her staff at dinner, and making sure that Twilight saw her consuming it in good company and in high spirits.

Twilight, she had said when her student’s confusion had been clear long enough, the entire world is not the small unicorn neighborhood you grew up in.

Twilight could almost hear her say it again as their eyes met briefly. She could see her teacher’s smile again and her unreadable eyes.

“Aye, so I’ve noticed. Well,” Luna began, and then paused. Twilight swiveled. “It’s certainly smoother than it was. Judgements of quality I leave to those who care for such things. I require two things of wine.”

“Oh?” Celestia giggled and it tickled Twilight’s ear.

“Firstly, that it be red and dark as blood. Secondly, and most vitally, that it be in great supply.”

Twilight snorted at that, and then looked away to avoid Luna’s grin.

“Methinks young Twilight is one after my own heart.”

“It would suit her name,” Celestia said smoothly.

Twilight shifted in her seat. “I um, just thought it was funny. I’ve never really, ah, had lots of that. Wine, I mean. I mostly drink coffee. And tea, if I visit Fluttershy. Or Rarity, I guess. Cider if I’m at Applejack’s…”

“On second thought, despite her otherwise auspicious name, I do think she is one of yours, sister,” Luna said, and Twilight heard the clatter of utensils resume.

Twilight almost jumped when the brush of another’s thaumic field against her own came during the pause, but it was just a young servant bringing her a salad. She thanked him and he bowed. She looked down at it for a moment, realized she was starving, and then dug in.

Sitting between the sun and the moon is an odd experience. Twilight was not sure if that thought had ever been thought before in a way that was not metaphorical, but here she was. Thinking it. More than that, there was a strangness to seeing something out of a play or a book unfold before you in real life.

Real Life, capitals attached and all, rarely gives us perfect dualities. We can make dualities well enough--day and night, light and dark, dry and wet, forever and a day--but even these are not so obvious. Day does not give over to night in one fell swoop. It does not shift in a heartbeat and leave us all in the dark. No, it changes. Things change, and in that change, Twilight knew there were an infinite set of moments just as there were infinite points between integers.

She was also acutely aware that she sat, twilight, between day and night in an absolute physical sense.

On her left, Celestia was the height of a nation’s vision of poise, grace, and perfection. In her every art and science found their completion. She was known in the sense that only figures universal could in fact be known--any child on the street could tell you that Celestia was wise, and they could tell you more than that if you stayed to listen. Any foal from the untamed south to the frigid north knew her name, her likeness, her passions, her strengths. Her tiniest idiosyncrasies shifted the patterns of society both high and low. Her very words could destroy the empires built by hoof and magic. Nations vied not against each other alone but to stand most directly in her light. Her enemies hated and feared, but could not hope to ignore. She was the Sun, and the Sun had always been victorious.

On her right, Luna was focused energy. Against the poise, against the absolute precision of her sister Luna was a gale of rough and untempered movement. She ate with no manner of grace. She spoke without her sister’s measured cadances. Celestia had not a hair out of its proper and perfect place, but Luna’s mane lived wildly and her appearance was less that of a princess of the modern age and more of a rough-hewn warlord out of the mists of an older time.

“I was meaning to ask,” Celestia said, breaking into the stream of Twilight’s reverie, “but how long do you think you will be away?”

Luna shrugged. She swallowed. “Tis a fair question, but not one I can answer with ease. The journey north is safer now, so I am told, but that does not mean it is shorter.”

Twilight blinked. “Were we not taking the train?”

Luna blinked at her. “Cry your pardon?”

“The train,” Twilight said again. “I assumed we would be going by train, or at least by chariot.” When Luna did not answer, she continued in haste. “I hadn’t asked, because I had assumed your staff already had an itinerary planned, but I had assumed that we would be taking the morning train at 8 in the morning to Stalliongrad.”

Celestia coughed, and Twilight turned.

“You did ask your seneschal to handle the arrangements, didn’t you?”

“Arrangments? I informed Hyacinth that I would be away, and that the responsibility to safeguard the capitol in the night was to fall to her and her devotees. I drilled the watch and charged them duly with preserving my demense, and had given orders regarding the handling of my courtly affairs while I was gone. I did this all a fortnight ago. Was there some other arrangement to be made?” She paused, and then clicked her tongue. “Stars above, of course. An honor guard. I had presumed too much on you, dearest Twilight. I assume you had planned on my own house guard accompanying us.”

“I… what?”

“Your house guard.” Luna looked at her askance. “The sworn ponies-at-arms of House Sparkle, I believe it is? The oathsworn companions of your noble line who bear your colors?”

“I…” Twilight turned to her mentor with much be a look of utter confusion.

She found, with some degree of dismay, that Celestia was trying not to laugh at them both.

“My sister is under the impression that your, ah, house employs a number of armed ponies, Twilight. I had not informed her that House Sparke has not had ponies under arms in any sense in at least seven centuries.”

“Oh. The House. Right.” Twilight shrugged. “I forget about it, honestly. I think the charter is in my mom’s office. Dad wanted it in his, but its messier and she kept nagging him about it being crooked in the frame so he let her have it.”

“You… I’m afraid I am a bit lost. Do not take this the wrong way, Twilight, for I would be loathe to insult you in any fashion…”

“It’s okay,” Twilight said, still feeling lost.

“But you are of a noble house, correct? Are you a commoner? Has my sister been, ah, having me on?”

“I… I mean technically we’re nobles,” Twilight said. “We have a piece of paper that says so. Parchment, actually. It’s rather old.” She looked at Celestia and then back to Luna, feeling a bit ridiculous, as if she had done some embarrassing thing. “But we don’t have a compound in High Canterlot, or guards, or anything like that. We have a large house, and I think we still have some land? Dad would know. He loves wearing the old colors to formal things, but that’s about it. We have the words--in fermentum et veritas--and a crest. But that’s really it. I live in a upscale neighborhood and had normal neighbors.”

Luna shook her head. “I… Forgive me. I keep forgetting how much things have changed. Just when I think I have a grasp on things, when I’ve caught the new age in a vice, it slips away again.” She smiled, but Twilight found she did not like this particular smile. “I shall have a talk with my seneschal regarding transportation and the like. Hyacinth has no doubt already anticipated my needs. She has a way of doing that.”

Celestia sighed. “She has had a while to prepare.”

Luna pursed her lips and nodded stiffly. “Right you are. I would call for wine to be brought and for us to retire to better lodgings, but I find that I am unsure if that would cause offense.”

“Whyever would it?” Celestia asked, and Twilight saw her cock her head ever so slightly.

“I... “ Luna seemed to be struggling. “I find I am in a mercurial mood, sister. The passing of time itself seems a personal affront, which is ridiculous. I am embarassed that I no longer understand protocol, and I barely understood it before. It was not my strength then, it is now an indignity to my person in these odd years.”

“Wine and a chat is perfectly acceptable, Luna,” Celestia said softly. “You’ve been back but a year and a half. It will be alright. Twilight, would you like to join us?”

“I… if that’s alright,” Twilight said, frowning.

“It is very alright,” Celestia assured her.

“Hear, hear! Your company would be most appreciated, my friend. And certainly, as we are to be companions upon the road, it would do us well to celebrate even as we talk.”

Both sisters rose at once, and Twilight stumbled to her hooves after them. Some of the tension was gone, but in its wake she felt uneasy.

IV. Remember Me as a Time of Day

View Online

It is easy to forget in a time of harmony that the smoothly running machine of Equestrian society was ever anything but a beautiful and almost seamless union. But there was a time when one herd strong and united was split and internecine conflict had been the order of the day. Even when they avoided open war, and they often did, the three tribes of Equestria-to-be had so very rarely sought to understand each other until the malign winter drove them south.

Since the day that Celestia, eating fish just as well as you please, had opened her eyes to what sort of differences she might find not so far from her doorstep, Twilight had sought to learn more and more of other ponies. Even as she shut herself away in her all but literal ivory tower, she had studied their ways and customs from the ancient past until the present. The irony had, unfortunately, been lost on her until she’d moved to Ponyville.

But one which she remembered reading quite a bit about was the symposia, a primarily pegasus tradition still preserved from the very beginning of written history. When the pegasi had been given to banditry, before the unification of their kind into roving armies of discipline and iron will, they would celebrate successful raids and battles by partaking generously of the ill-gotten gain. A feast, if you could call it such. At least one ancient writer had rather snidely referred to it as an orgy, which Twilight could not help but remember and flush furiously about as she waited.

A symposium begins, in true pegasus style, with a raid. In the modern day, where wanton raiding was both illegal and not terribly sustainable, raiding looked more like procuring supplies as a boisterous and not-altogether sober band of revelers.

Despite the appearance of chaos, she had read, a symposium was in fact a very ordered affair. The truest order was that sort which curbed the excess of chaos, after all, and the drinking parties of the pegasi did just that. No mere benders, symposia bonded pegasi to a strict adherence to raucous ceremony on their honor.

First, of course, came the wine. Preferably in copious amounts, and if one were a bit too traditional, stolen from some unfortunate shopkeeper with a note and a few bits.

Celestia and Luna reclined lazily on great palettes devised of pillows and blankets, looking for all the world like something out of an ancient painting. Luna had brought out cups of solid gold from her private stores, and Twilight had forgotten what they were doing entirely as she stared in awe. It was not every day one touched an actual artifact of pre-Unification history.

The wine came from the royal cellars. It had not been called for, but Celestia and Luna had dragged Twilight into a side corridor and felt to giggling amongst themselves before informing her that she mustn’t tell a soul what she saw.

And like that, Twilight watched them both change. Their bodies shone with light from within and the light shrank to her own height, and when she could see properly again two strangers stood before her with foalish grins.

One was a pink pegasus which reminded her a bit of her old babysitter, Cadance. The other was a handsome young colt of darkest blue. They had winked at her in unison and then shoved her into the kitchens to make small talk with the only ponies left there cleaning whilst they made off with stars-alone knew how many casks.

Twilight looked down at her cup and then at the two sisters.

“Tell me, what ever happened with those ponies over the Eastern sea?” Luna asked, pouring a new round.

“Ah, the colonists,” Celestia said. She chuckled. “Luna, it was absolutely hilarious. The first batch quit after only few years. They spent so much time looking for gold that they forgot to plant.”

“Of course, lured by the promise of easily-gained luchre. Ah, Twilight, I was about to fill you overmuch. Come now, keep up the pace!” Luna all but roared and then laughed.

“I, um… Alright,” Twilight said, a but bewildered.

“Oh, don’t push the dear,” Celestia said. “Nopony but I could hope to match you, fool.”

“Ha! As if you could! But not tonight, I think. I’d like to retain a bit of my wits. Your pardon I cry a third and hopefully final time, sweetest Twilight.”

“No harm,” Twilight said with a smile and sipped. It was good, to be fair. She wondered if Celestia had picked with her in mind, something mild and sweet.

“What has my sister told you of our mission, Twilight? Of mercy, as it were! To me at least, it is not.”

“Mission? Oh! Your visit!” Twilight smiled. “I know we’re going to Lunangrad, and that it is an important place to you. I’m afraid I don’t know much about it, but I’m sure I’ll learn a lot!”

A shadow passed over Luna’s face, but she brightened.

“Aye! So you will! Oh, I would love to show you… Ha. I was going to say that I would, but I shall! You will see the great Library of the Moon, and stand atop the tower of Selene Victor. Step by step we shalll ascend together the hundred steps of the Waning and Waxing Moon and in the old Square feel that solemn chill.” She grinned, a savage grin and Twilight marked it. “We shall have a time, you and I.”

“They have built more since last you saw it,” Celstia said. “You know, there is a building there built in your honor.”

Luna scoffed. She emptied her goblet, and poured more. “Of course. Most things there are,” she said with a smirk and a little tilt of her head.

Celestia’s voice was strangely flat. “A sort of temple, in fact.”

Luna froze.

It was not merely that she paused to process this. Twilight had seen ponies take a moment to come to terms with or understand something mid-conversation. It was not a pause. She froze like a mare in the grips of rigor mortis, like a pony who had seen the ghost of an eternal foe, like one shot through the heart with a bodkin of iron.

She shuddered.

“What… what kind,” she said hoarsely. The goblet was put away.

“That is for you to decide,” Celestia said.

“Stars above,” Luna whispered.

Twilight again looked from princess to princess in confused dismay. She was missing something. No, she was missing a lot of somethings. Again she felt the disconnect of the now and the then, between her ignorant present and a past of potentially horrible knowledge.

And again, she felt a great gulf open up, as if the ground had split in half and divided her from them entirely, and again sister from sister. She could not cross. To cross was not just impossibility but in fact it was death--not the possibility of death, not the potential for injury that might wound even eternity but the absolute certainty of it.

Twilight was paralyzed. Paralysis had become her near-constant state since arriving in the palace and she was not accustomed to it. Twilight was a mare of action as much as Rainbow Dash and Applejack. They charged in a bit more than she did, but Twilight was never paralyzed. She planned, she researched, she sought out. Even when she stood still, her mind never paused.

Her whole life, Twilight had been on the move. Her whole life, there had never been an unwinnable scenario or impassable obstacle. Time and space itself had unfolded before her like a flower.

But this was not time and space but Time and Space. This was not the brief flashes of history which one could digest and analyze but all of history and what came before all at once, and there was no way Twilight could hope to comprehend it.

Twilight had walked the long road from the palace down to the Central Station many times in her life, but never quite like this.

It was more accurate to say that she had walked it, but never been carried along it on a palanquin decked with silver moons and ringing with bells.

It was early morning, eight of the clock exactly, and a very grumpy Luna and a very anxious Twilight were on their way to Stalliongrad.

The palanquin itself was carried by a team of brawny batpony stallions in perfect lockstep with the veritable squadron flanking it on either side. They marched with spears and pennants, for all the world as if it were a Unification Day parade, but with solemn faces. She had seen some of the banners before--there was Equestria’s, and there was in fact her own. But others she had never seen before in her life. A White Moon, waning on an inky black field and stars around it in chaotic array. A roaring Hippogriff reared up. A sickle like the Minotaurs carried, red with what she assumed was blood and carried aloft by a ;clawed fist. Twin crossed hammers and another crescent moon emblazoned between them.

She wanted to ask Luna about the banners. She wanted to ask Luna a lot of things, but every time she formed a new question, she felt again the dizzying heights of uncertainty and the gulf of time as she had at the symposium, and she said nothing.

Luna was groggy, at best. Grumpy, half-awake, and bored of her own pomp and circumstance. Whatever had been on her mind as she drifted into somber brooding deep in her cups the night before, mere tiredness had washed it away. Perhaps that was good, Twilight thought. Perhaps that signalled that whatever energy she had felt might not fill the air again on this trip. She thought more of how to avoid feeling that way then she did about discovering what had caused that moment to happen. The how and the why seemed not only irrelevant but unknowable, and even if it were knowable, for once in her life Twilight did not in fact want to know.

As they approached the lower city and the train station, Twilight tried to fill her mind with other things. The arrangements had all been made quickly, and its particulars would be looked after by Luna’s small and determined staff--some of which, Twilight was baffled to find, she had not known existed--but that did not mean that a mare of Twilight Sparkle’s caliber wouldn’t be sure to have it all memorized to a T.

There was a lot of ceremony involved with this undertaking of Luna’s, going back farther into Equestria’s history than Twilight had before ventured. Sure, she had read extensively about the first century or so of Equestria, but the records before Celestia were so unhelpful. Much had been lost or corrupted by Discord’s decades of misrule, and the task of piecing together the contradictory and the often very literally arcane had continued into her own lifetime.

But this? The protocols she fished from the pack by her side to read for the fifth time that morning filled her with a kind of giddy energy. Luna had provided personal documents from her own vaults. Where those Vaults were, how large they were, and other details had not been forthcoming. Celestia had even refused her quiet inquiries about them with a knowing smile, that doubly infuriating and final smile Twilight knew all too well.

This look into the past, she thought wryly, at least did not fill her with dread.

The palanquin stopped. They disembarked with slow pace borne more of Luna’s grouchy weariness more than any sense of ceremony. Twilight followed at her princess’ heels, holding the papers before her.

The car which had been prepared for them was Celestia’s own private car, which could only be entered in by magical means. She watched with interest as the conductor was summoned and he and the captain of Luna’s honor guard pressed their hooves to the door. It glowed, and then parted to reveal an ostentatious room not unlike one of Celestia’s many receiving rooms.

The conductor bowed to the Princess before he left, and spoke somewhat quickly.

“Your Highness,” he said first, and she nodded stiffly at him. He swallowed and continued. “Princess Celestia had us furnish her private car for your trip. The train is mostly empty besides your party, and the car itself is very private. No one should have access but yourself, Miss Sparkle, your captain, and me.”

Luna nodded again. “Thank you. We are pleased with your accomodations on short notice. Please let it be known that we will be asleep during the daylight hours.”

With that, she turned and entered, and the conductor left in a hurry.

Twilight hesitated, looking after the stallion running the train.

“I couldn’t tell if he was nervous because she was a princess, or…” she said softly, and then shook her head. “Either way.”

“Most ponies don’t know what to expect,” said a voice beside her ear.

Twilight startled, and whirled to find Luna’s captain grinning.

He was a strange pony, for sure.Not because he was a batpony--rudeness of such a sentiment aside, she wasn’t sure a pony could be raised in Canterlot and not have seen one--but because he was so very different from the guardsponies she had seen with her brother.

Shining and his fellow cadets had been large, strong ponies. They had been giants, or if not towering than at least built of what seemed more iron than flesh. They ate a lot, talked loudly, and took up a lot of presence in a room. Not that that was an inherently bad thing, and not as if Shining hadn’t been a bit different from them. But this captain was only a bit taller than she was and more sleek than anything else. His face was scarred, but not hideously, and his fangs made his amused smile seem always a bit threatening.

“Forgot I was here?” he asked.

“Yes,” she admitted hastily. “I’m sorry, Captain Moonflower. I’m… just a bit off-balance, I suppose. No morning coffee.”

He raised an eyebrow, but shrugged. “I’ll have some made for you and brought to your car. Would you also like to be undisturbed in daylight hours?”

Twilight blinked. “Pardon?”

The Captain chuckled. “You’ll be adjusting to a new schedule, Miss. You’re a daypony.”

Twilight cocked her head to the side. “A daypony?”

Moonflower just smiled again and turned. He called to the guards standing at attention on the platform to load up, and then turned back to her.

“If I could show you to your car, I can explain on the way.”

Twilight smiled back at last and when he offered her a hoof as if to more formally escort her she broke out into titters. “Thank you, captain, but I’m fine,” she said, shaking her head.

“As you will,” he replied and they walked towards the front of the train. He hummed for a while, and then began to speak.

“Our ancestors were subterranean,” he said firstly. “Some of us still are to this day. We are not nocturnal by nature so much as we are unaccustomed, at first, to the brighter sorts of lights.” He gestured and she mounted the stairs up into the passenger car.

It was a nice one, certainly. One of the better kinds, the ones you paid extra on the ticket for, not that she ever had. Behind them, attendants brought her luggage as the captain led her through towards the dining car.

“Ah, so a daypony is somepony more familiar with, say, sunlight,” Twilight said. “Stands to reason.”

He nodded. “But also somepony who is bound by a 24-hour clock. We were not, at first. All time was just time. Our arrangements did not follow sun or moon.”

She hummed. “It’s interesting to think about, certainly.”

They arrived at the dining car, and Twilight took a look around. It was nice, with booths along the windowed walls and a small bar. She spotted a blinking, surprised attendant behind the bar.

“Coffee, would you?” asked the captain. The mare behind the counter nodded and scurried back to her open kitchen while Twilight and the captain took a booth.

“Thanks,” Twilight said. She sighed and leaned on the table. “So I should consider turning in, soon, then?”

“If you wish. I certainly would before noon,” Moonflower said with a shrug and leaned back. “I’ve a feeling that there is more to your earlier hesitation than mere lack of caffeine. For one, I saw you down the two mugs that the maids brought you this morning.”

Twilight flushed. “Ah. I forgot.”

He chuckled. “So, if I might inquire... “

“Fortune favors the bold,” Twilight shot back with a smirk and then shrugged. “I was excited about this trip at first, Captain.”

“You can call me Moonflower, you know, as I am off duty.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Since when?”

“Since now.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Yes, well. I was excited about this trip. Seeing a new place, learning something about a frankly understudied part of Equestria? On top of that, being at Luna’s side and getting to know her better while learning from her about her own experience?” She flailed a bit. “Isn’t that exciting? I thought it was. But ever since I arrived in Canterlot, I’ve had a bad feeling about this whole thing.”

Her companion nodded and hummed to himself as two steaming mugs of coffee were brought. Twilight poured some sugar into hers from the small silver container on the table.

“Do you know what the source of your trouble is?”

“Princess Luna. The City. The combination of Luna, the City, and the past. Argh.” She laid her head on the table. “Lots of things. There is something about Lunangrad that causes Princess Luna to be so tense, so upset yet unwilling to speak. It’s unbearable.”

“It’s like the first day of winter,” came the response between sips of steaming coffee. “Like that first morning, when the chill hits you with the breeze and you know that there’s a long, bitter winter ahead. Just that moment.”

Twilight blinked and then nodded hesitantly. “Actually, that’s not such a bad description.”

“Aye. So you’ve felt it, then. I had an inkling that you had. It is a bit difficult at first.”


“The Presence,” he said, and his voice lowered to just a notch above a hissed whisper. “So we call it. Her Mantle. The Burden of the Goddess. The Burning Moonlight.”

“I’m not sure I, ah, follow.”

“The Nightmother was always different from her sister. Even before her long exile, before her Fall, they were very different. I am told, though I have not quite experienced these feelings, that the presence of Celestia is… invigorating. Soothing. Those are contradictory, and yet both are true. She is warmth.”

Twilight nodded slowly.

“But the Nightmother is not. Do not misunderstand. I do not mean that she is cruel, or cold in that sense at all. I mean something else. You’ve felt a bit of it. Celestia’s weight is… light. Her yoke.”

He had leaned in closer.

Twilight felt the air change. Out of the corner of her eyes she saw the waiter back away. Not noticeably, not overtly. If you had not been paying attention, you would have missed it, and perhaps she was unaware of her own motivations.

The world seemed to be expanding, just out of the corner of her eyes. Just for a moment, just… just so.

“My Lady’s yoke is heavy, yet also light. It condenses the world into a point, and pushes every single thing away.” You’re feeling it, aren’t you?”

Twilight nodded numbly.

He straightened, and at once the world shifted back into its right position. Twilight sat back, blinking as if she had come into the sun after a long tunnel.

“Forgive me,” Captain Moonflower said. “You’ve been touched by the Moon, as I thought. This may explain much of your discomfort.”

“I…” Twilight licked her lips. “I’m not sure what to make of this, Captain.”

“And I am not sure knowing would help,” replied Moonflower. “Be that as it may, you will be safe.”

He stood and bowed. “I would suggest you settle into your bed for the day, Miss Sparkle. I’ll make sure you are woken with ample time to spare to prepare for our arrival in Stalliongrad.”

Twilight nodded numbly and then looked ahead mutely as he walked away.

V. The Music of the Spheres

View Online

One expects the moon to be silent and still. One expects it to be a sucking peaceful void laid thickly upon a barren porcelain desert.

One does not expect the stars. It would make sense to, but the stars have a way of taking the breath right out of mortal ponies. One does not expect the lush darkness of an alien jungle, the constant hubbub of life.

Twilight stumbled through the thick jungle. She did not know where she was, or where she was going. She had no memory of what was before or what lay ahead, or even of the now. She had a hard time thinking of herself at all, of experiencing anything other than the warm wet air or the soft tread of her hooves. She looked down and saw only the faintest impression of herself.

Tracks. Hoof tracks that set off through the brush, in front of her and around her as if made by a great host. Something in her pushed at her chest, something trying to escape or something trying to give chase. She had to follow the tracks.

And she did. Her pace quickened without command, though her double-time beating heart would have commanded so regardless.

Branches caught at her mane but she did not falter. Vines and branches tore at her legs but she soared above them, leaving the ground entirely behind. She flew on wings of sinew and feather, of ice and shadow. She did not know how to fly, but she did not need to know. Her wings knew. They knew where to take her as she tore through the wilds.

And then there were no wilds.

There was the open sky, but not like any sky she knew. It was not her night sky. It was…

She saw above her, suspended as if it were alive, as if it were not hanging upon the roof of the sky but was watching, flying, coming for her to meet her in the air as she was taken up into it, she saw it--a planet of awesome size, of awful glow. It was her own. It was the world she had lived and worked upon, which she and her sister had traveled for millenia in one way or another. She knew its plains and its coasts, she knew its treacherous seas and its quiet inlets. It was torn in that moment from here and she did not think she could ever see it again the same way. It was not Earth. It was not home, even, but simply that planet of awful, awesome size which filled her vision. There was no room to see the canyons of sterile white below her, or the craters of long conquered lands, or the ravages of time and radiation upon the moon’s lighter and barren half. She had no time to see the shadows which gathered below her, no space to concieve of anything except the world, where ponies lived and played, where they looked up--if in fact they ever would--and saw her and did nothing.

How alone it was to be looked upon, to be seen but to not be noticed or worth--

They were upon her. Shadows, mechanical and creaking, liquid and alive. Their knives found purchase, but she twisted and fought them. She summoned magic which tore them apart atom by atom, and yet before her eyes they reassembled, screaming like pigs in the slaughter, shrieking so high and so close that they battered her thoughts to dust.

She screamed back, and felt that nervous energy within her that had followed the tracks explode outwards with such force she could almost feel herself coming apart at the seams, and

Twilight woke to a gentle triple knock on her door.

She lay in a tangle of blankets, blinking at the ceiling. Beneath her, the train rattled on its tracks.

The air was cold. Far, far too cold. Cold like the tops of Mount Canterhorn.

The knocking came again. She half-rose and called out. “I’m up! I’m… up,” she said and shuffled her way through the jungle of sheets onto the floor. “Who is it?”

A stallion on the other side cleared his throat. “Private Honest, Miss Sparkle. Captain sent me to tell you the Lady will be up and about soon.”

“Ah. I… thank you, sir,” she said, and let out a breath as she heard hoofsteps outside. She did not, under any circumstances, want to see or be seen by anypony right just then.

Time crawled around her as Twilight Sparkle put herself together. Sleeping during the day had been difficult, and it explained the troublesome dream well… or, it would, had it not been for the way that the cold lingered even through her ritual of grooming.

Eventually, she stepped out of her private car and headed towards the dining car.

Coffee was ready before she even asked. The waiter smiled at her and she smiled back. She mixed some sugar in, sat at the bar, and tried to pretend that this was a normal morning at Donut Joe’s, and that she was just on her way to morning classes.

The pleasant illusion lasted perhaps ten minutes before her coffee was half gone and several night guards piled in to do much the same as she had. The peace, the calm was shattered and she sighed. “What do I owe you?” she asked with a wan smile.

The pony behind the counter shook his head. “Nothing at all, Miss. It’s all on the house, as it were.” He winked and Twilight chuckled.

There wasn’t much else to do, and nowhere else to go. Usually, the chance to talk with Princess Luna would have filled her with excitement! Only yesterday, in fact, it had filled her with eagerness.

Twilight shook her head. This was ridiculous. Dreams and strange conversations and suddenly she was nothing like herself! Was that all that she was made of? Were Librarians made of no sterner stuff than this?

Twilight huffed and strode with her head hight out of the dining car and back towards Luna’s chambers. Beneath her, she felt the train rattling and imagined herself carried along the great plains of the north.

The door to Luna’s car was guarded by a single batpony stallion in dark armor who nodded stiffly at her. “The wards will work for you.”

He did not look at her as he said it, so unlike the palace guards who had known her name and used it freely. She smiled back regardless, as her mother had taught her long ago, and put her hoof to the door. It swung aside on its own and she stepped into opulence.

The car was dark--somehow she was not surprised--but there were a few magical lights that allowed her to see. Celestia’s actual apartments were not spartan, but they were moderate. She believed in moderation in all areas except those which were purely for others benefit. This was not a place to live in.This was a place to receive a cowed foe. She hadn’t seen so much gold in one place in a long, long time.

Luna lounged in a chair in the corner, reading by a floating magical light.

She did not lift her head. She did not greet Twilight. The fire, small as it was, that had lit in the librarian’s heart did not falter.

“Um, hello,” Twilight said, not sure what else to do.

Luna startled and looked up with wide eyes. For a moment her movements almost seemed alien: too quick, too sensuous. But then she relaxed and smiled, and the world was normal. A trick of the light, and nothing more. Here was the Luna of letters.

“Forgive me. I was a bit caught up in reading. Come in! Oh, the light.” She blinked owlishly and with a brief light of her horn, the lights glowed more brightly. Twilight was reminded of dusk.

“May I inquire what you’re reading?” Twilight asked and found herself a chair and pulled it gingerly into the corner by the window near Luna.

Luna’s smile turned into the slyest of grins and she floated the book up. “Ars Amatoria. Heard of it?”

Twilight blinked, and then flushed before licking her lips. “Ah, yes. I have.”

“Excellent. I never did get over the fact that his name was Long Nose.” She snorted. “A pity that Celestia had him exiled.”

“You wouldn’t happen to know, would you? It’s always been a matter of some debate.”

Luna snickered, and then lost her composure and laughed heartily. Twilight joined her, glad for this warm familiarity at last.

“Oh, that? Poor Nose. He had the misfortune of, ah, how did he put it? A poem and a mistake.”

“Yes! Ponies assume it was the Art of Love that did it, but no one is quite sure why.”

“They’re wrong. We both rather liked the ArsAmatoria. It was the, ah, how shall I put this? ‘Twas the verses on my sister’s form and behaviors which did it. That and forgetting to burn his prank. A poem and a mistake. It is quite destroyed now, and I did not have the time to commit it to memory. But I assure you, it was delightful. I loved it. Celestia was… well. You try having a famous poet’s thousand line depiction of your carnal habits fall into the hands of gossiping maids and out into the streets.”

Twilight felt like her face was on fire. “A thousand lines?”

“A thousand exactly.”

“Part of me wants to ask.”

Luna chuckled and marked her place in the book with a bit of paper floated from somewhere Twilight didn’t see. “I’m afraid it is not mine to speak of, my friend. You really should ask our sister about it.”

“Yeah, that will never happen.”

Luna leaned in and flashed her teeth in an almost mocking grin. “Ah, so you fear her retribution?”

“More like I would die of embarrassment, but also yes.”

Luna leaned back with a chuckle. “You seem in high spirits this evening.”

Twilight’s ears twitched. “So you noticed?”

“I had.You seemed a bit preoccupied, but in fairness I am not at my best in the morning. Did our drinking sit ill at ease?”

“You mean like a hangover?” Twilight shook her head. “No. I mean, I guess I didn’t feel great. But I was just a bit spacey. Not sure why.”

Luna shrugged. “If thou say’st. I hear that my captain has introduced himself as well.”

Twilight chuckled. “He has.”

“And has he said anything to thee? Anything, ah, untoward?”

Twilight blinked. “Pardon?”

“He is competent, but I am not blind to his wiles. Do keep your maiden’s heart in check.” Luna smiled and stretched. “I hear many things, and see many things, you know. I know that you have misgivings.”

Looking away, Twilight Sparkle considered what to say to that. It wasn’t as if it were false. She did have some misgivings. Or really, she had one rather large misgiving which could hardly be named and which infected everything.

“I have a strange feeling,” she began slowly, as if each word was precious cargo. “There is just… I’m not sure what to say. Something about Celestia’s comments, your comments, my own dreams… Lunangrad seems more myth than reality, and I am not sure what to make of a functioning, incorporated city of the realm being…”

“Erased?” Luna finished for her.

Twilight flinched. “I wasn’t going to say that, and I’m not sure I wish to say it now. The idea that somepony could be so thorough is hard to imagine. Even with what we’ve lost that’s thousands of years of text…”

“Or one very clever bit of spellwork,” Luna said. “Coffee? I’ve heard tale that Celestia has you for one of her own, but that you are no stranger to finer things.”

“I… sure.”

Luna’s horn glowed with magic, and a bell rose from a table in the center of the room. It rang, with no answer. But this seemed to satisfy Luna, who turned back to Twilight.

“We dance and dance, but then we stop dancing. I know you’ve had troubled sleep. How long?”

She still would not look up at Princess Luna. Twilight swallowed. She licked her lips.

“Just the last two times I slept,” she said. “Just dreams. Strange dreams, of course, and unpleasant. But they are just dreams.”

Luna sighed. “Just dreams. I confess to you that I am in a fell mood, Twilight Sparkle. If it pleases, might I recall a tale?”

Twilight looked back now, her curiosity winning through. “Of course.”

The first time I walked the aether, I did so accidentally.

I could not explain it later to my siblings, and they could Sing. So I cannot hope to explain it to you now, you who does not sing. But I may yet try.

In the days before Discord, in our wide wanderings, my sister and I recieved our domains. Many ponies think that this is when I learned to walk among dreams. Or they believe I was born of it. No, I came into it through nightmare.

Stumbling from a great height, I found I had no wings. I cried out, but none could save me as I plummeted. Beneath the ground began to twist and boil and grass and rock, the very same that surrounded our birthplace in the West, grew thick with black thorns. Thirsty they were, for blood and mine in particular.

Screaming, I had almost fallen into their grasp when everything was cast into chaos. The force my screaming… no, that is not quite it. The force of me, my Self, pushing as I was in blind terror, broke the walls of my dreaming and my spirit spilled out into the aether beyond.

That first time… I imagine it is what dying will feel like, should I at last fall to blade or spell.

Your senses leave all at once, and then flicker. Feeling comes before awareness, before thought. Can you imagine what it is to feel and not to understand? Perhaps you do. It is unbearable. It is the lowest and basest of Tartarus’ inventions.

But comprehension does dawn eventually, somewhere between smell and taste. Your spirit pulls itself together like the shards of a broken mirror.

I lay astonished on a great plain. Picture it. It is a lie, but a convenient one for it conveys the truth like a ship carries one over the long sea. I lay there, gasping for air, and did not notice that I had slipped in between a crack in the Way of Things.

The Aether is… it is not physical. It is made up of thought and potential, of the possibilities of possibility. I have struggled before to explain that there is a difference between what we see, what is, and… No. A better way. Experience is in three parts divided. The thing-in-of-itself, our experience of the Thing, and our idea about the thing. What we see, what we experience, is the space between what is and what we think Is. The Aether I “walk” is the interplay of these three parts without the intervention of a single unified mind. It is chaos. It is meaning and no meaning at once. It is…

It is perhaps beyond the comprehension of those who who have not ever stepped beyond time. But I try.

Night after night I found myself in this incomprehensible space, and each time I came to understand it a bit more. It changed me, but that is not for tonight to explain. What I will say is that once I understood, I began to explore. In my sojourns I began to encounter dreams and dreamers.

Dreams are fickle things. They are more living things than any other classification of Being. They can swallow lives and take only a moment. Ponies think they have strange dreams, but I have seen the things their minds cannot hold on to, and I know for sure that there is more to the realms of mares than what they imagine in their philosophies. The dreams of creatures whose very living is imbued with magic do not have dreams devoid of that magic. As it warps and changes the universe, so it warps and changes the immaterial.

I will not ask you about your dreams.

Not yet.

VI. The Angels of Mons

View Online

Sleep. The train rumbled on, eating up the miles like the serpent of the end. To a pony raised in the country, it would have been a cacophony of constant noise and chaos. But to a pony like Twilight, who had grown up in the belly of Canterlot with all of its prancing life, it was nothing more than a lullaby, and so sleep had come easily.

Dreams came, but not the dreams she would perhaps have liked.

She stood in the great hall of Maldon, which ruled the island Midway, and called again for her armor.

Her sister held her wings out straight as her magic donned the armor that her lover had brought from their apartments. Twilight caught Celestia’s eyes, and they shared a moment forged in the centuries of their sisterly bond.

Had she said anything, she might have reminded Celestia of every previous battle and every misadventure before this day. She might have whispered in the song-language of the well at Jannah of a dozen desperate stands and the ten thousand miles that bore their mark.

Her seconds returned. One bore her armor, and the other struggled under the weight of her hammer. Twilight quickly retrieved the latter.

“My lady,” the poor pony managed with a gasp. He landed on his rump and heaved.

“At ease, sweet Granite,” she said, and in a moment she too was armed and ready.

The sisters made their way out into the courtyard, trading swift words in the language they had picked up in the Crystal Empire a century ago, sure that no one would understand it.

“Celestia,” Twilight began, “I have a feeling that this is not an ordinary raid.”

“On that we’re agreed, sister mine. But what sort of machinations are at work? They bear the flag of Zandikar atop their ships. Zandikar is certainly warlike, but…”

“It’s too far to govern the island,” Twilight finished. “Yes, I thought the same. Even if the ruler of that place were a fool, which he is not…” She growled. “By the Well, do you not feel it in the air? There is a heaviness. A darkness. Do you not taste it,” she added in a low hiss.

“Not as you seem to, but something is wrong.”

They strode past the mustering warriors of Maldon, and Twilight watched for a moment as a young stallion stumbled briefly and then righted himself. It still bothered her to see younger ponies on the fields of war. Many things had lost their power over her, but she doubted that would ever cease to sting.

“Do you have some machination of your own, Celestia?” Twilight asked.

They approached the gate. Their own warband had already assembled before the walls of the city as soon as word had reached of the impending landing force.

“The beginnings of one. The city’s muster is impressive, but they have not been truly tested. Midway is named well--it’s too far for most to bother with.”

Twilight grunted. “Their center will break. Or the wings. They will not endure if the Zandikarian lord over there has even the slightest guile.”

“From the way that the Earl spoke, I suspect that the center will be firmest. The bulk of the greenest of his ponies are on the right. I trust Ruby and yourself can keep it firm.”

“Aye, we can at that.”

Celestia spared her a grim smile. “Good. I will leave Dawn on the right to raise the Sun Banner. I suspect treachery may be afoot here--there was little warning of a fleet so large, and Maldon’s navy is not known for its laxitude. I will keep the Earl alive.”

Twilight hesitated for just a beat, torn between silence and a comforting word. It was a rare thing for one of the sisters to not fight alongside their beloved, and not a thing either of them was used to doing.

“Your husband will do your old banner honor, Celestia,” she said, not touching it directly.

Celestia’s curt nod told her she had made the right choice. “Aye, so he will. Nothing for it, regardless. I trust that he will not in too much danger. The Earl wants his flank to capture the crags overlooking the plain, and you know that nopony plays king of the hill like Dawn.” She tried to laugh but it was a little strangled sounding. Twilight stepped forward and touched her forehead to her sister’s gently. Celestia nuzzled her, and then they parted.

Luna took her first life east of Jannah’s tall plateau, miles and miles away from the Well that she had first breathed beside. The world had been much younger than. It had been a child, and so had she.

A pack of Veldtwolves had chanced upon them and apparently been desperate enough to contemplate attacking alicorns. A dozen of them had come rushing in from all sides. Luna had not yet chosen her hammer, and Celestia’s battle magic was not yet developed. They had no idea how one would even use magic to fight, apart from crudely throwing their attackers through the air.

One of the wolves had jumped through her veil of levitating rocks and landed on her back. It’s claws had torn her flesh, and his hot breath on the back of her ears had driven her into a panicked, instinctual rage. She had thrashed. She had brayed. She had dropped everything but that singular wolf and with her magic she had ripped him to shreds in the air. Sometimes she remembered the feel of his blood on her cheeks and shivered, even a millenium later.

She had seen so much death since then, and every kind beneath the sun. She had held so many lovers, fair maids and grizzled warriors and everything beside, and seen how time and iron could steal all joy.

She never got used to it. Celestia always seemed to grow stronger, and she did not understand.

But it had always been alright, before. It had always been at the end of a long life, and she had had decades to ready herself for the final parting of the ways.

She cradled Ruby and she wept. She screamed wordlessly and her body ached in a thousand places and her legs shook from the strain of battle but she did not care about anything but the tiny, broken form in her tight vicelike grasp.

Ruby of Canter, Ruby who smiled, Ruby who had nuzzled her awake in the morning and kissed her crying eyes a dozen times over, who had languished and trained both beside her with a joy she had been trying to find. Ruby of Canter, and she was unrecognizable now. Had she not known through the Glorybond she might have never found her love again amidst the piled bodies of Maldon’s ford. She might have laid rotting, waterlogged in the river now blocked up with bodies.

No glory, no songs. She had been in the crush of ponies going back and forth across the ford, most of them fleeing before the corsairs with their artificer-cannon ringing. The banner of the moon had gone down in the stampede and was somewhere along the river’s edge. She had been crushed, and Twilight hoped to all the gods that ponies had ever dreamed that she had died then and not later, not amid the others, not struggling to breath with a shattered body and punctured lungs, their spears goading her everywhere she tried to crawl and Luna so far away, knowing nothing but panic as she searched everywhere, not hearing Luna’s cries and dying knowing nothing could have come for her but even more misery until sleep.

Twilight rocked back and forth.

She had not lost one to battle. Not like this. Lily had gone in old age. Marigold in foalbirth by surrogate. High Garden had slipped away in her sleep. Not like this.

Her legs finally gave out. She fell on her side and screamed again.

She heard Celestia long before she saw her.

Celestia stumbled up to her, tripping over the Zandikarian remains that Twilight had not bothered to move. She sank down beside her.

Twilight looked up and held high the body of Ruby like a foal presenting a broken toy to her mother, so that her sister could see. So that the whole world could see.

Celestia reached out. She faltered. Her legs went slack. Her eyes were blank.

“Dawn is dead,” she said.

Luna just looked up at the sky as the sun blazed indifferently to them all.

When Twilight stumbled into the only car with a supply of coffee, it was some time after noon. This was mostly conjecture, as her fitful sleep and flip-flopped schedule had completely destroyed her sense of time.

The only pony beside her in the cabin was, of course, Captain Moonflower. The batpony was out of his armor, which was odd but required more energy to speculate about than she currently had, and he had posted himself up in the corner of the car at a table. He shot her a lazy, smiling salute. “Hail and well met, Lady Sparkle.”

She looked at Moonflower blankly, yawned, and then sat down across from him.

“Coffee?” he asked.

She grunted in response, which he seemed to understand. She didn’t follow him with her eyes as he rose, but instead looked out the window.

The flat plains were starting to give way to hills. In the distance she could see the hills themselves driven forth like a broken army before the distant, menacing mountains. It was the drowsy, fitful sleep that made them seem to grow before her eyes, less mountains than they were jagged teeth at the edge of some awful maw. It was like a dragon larger than cities had settled down in the earth and waited for fools to wander in, only to realize their mistake moments before doom.

She shook her head. At some point, the captain had returned and there was coffee right under her nose. She didn’t even blow on it first or wait for it to cool before drinking. That it was made just the way she liked, almost perfectly as if she herself had made it, was something she filed away to think about later.

The bureau drawer in her brain full of “things to ponder later” was starting to get a bit full.

Eventually, she felt sane enough to speak. “How far until the city?” she croaked.

“An hour or so, at most,” the captain replied. He leaned against the wall again. “Presuming there are no more delays.”

Twilight’s ears perked. She raised an eyebrow, willing him to continue.

“The train has a bit of… a setback,” Moonflower allowed. “The engineer’s a bit nervous about having my lady aboard and gave an unfortunately exaggerated account of his or the train’s abilities, depending on how you read it all. He’s pushing too hard to prove himself right.”

She blinked. “That’s… stupid,” she said.

He laughed. “Someone’s more blunt than usual!”

“Being civil,” she replied, “requires two things: sleep and energy. I have had fitful sleep at best and currently am rather low on energy, so my store of politeness has run a bit dry.”

“Understandable.” He stretched. “I have to make my rounds and fetch my armor. A pleasant afternoon to you, Lady Sparkle.”

He rose, and she followed him as he left with her eyes, and then returned to staring out the window.

Inevitably, lethargy set in. She cursed herself for having not brought a book from her saddlebags to read as she sat, but then remembered that magic was still a thing that she did, and with some annoying yet minor difficulty summoned one to her. As it floated from one car to the other, the doors opening with further magic, Twilight Sparkle drained the last of her mug.

More coffee, and soon she was lost in the comforting pages. Rarity was always giving her new novels to read. “Honestly,” she would insist, “just trust me! You’ll adore this one!” And to give her credit, her insistent recommendations weren’t always off the mark. True, they were almost exclusively romance novels, but Twilight hadn’t ever been that fond of the sharp divide some loudly self-proclaimed educated ponies made between the “high” and the “low”. Besides, the book on high culture in the 700’s had been fascinating.

Normalcy is a tricky thing, an illusory thing. A hollow thing. It never lingers in one place for long like a foal at play. It dances in front of your eyes like a mirage, an after image that you’ll reach out for and try to hold close to you. But it dances. It always dances.

It danced away from her, and Twilight kept reading, chasing after it. She sought it like a hunter’s hound, trying to corner it in the misadventures of this affably idiotic mare in love that lived on the page, but the life drained out in front of her and eventually, inevitably, it was just a page. No mare, no story, no mood, no feeling. A page with words printed on it.

She shut the book. She looked at the cover and admired its audacious commitment to bad art. But that was it. Her interest did not return.

“Well. Damn,” she said, and slid the book away.
The mountains were closer now. A little too close. How long had she been reading? It had only been a few minutes, hadn’t it? For a brief second she felt dizzy.

Twilight, suddenly angry, shook her head. She stopped looking out the window.

But the thing about windows is that once you’ve looked out once, it’s hard not to keep looking. The window calls to you. Almost as if it has a will of its own and it is forcing you to see what it wants you to see, the eye is drawn out into the world without conscious thought.

The mountains were closer.

No. No. She was starting to lose her patience. The nightmares, the confusion, the rising unease, the strangeness of everything she saw and everywhere she went… no. She refused.

Twilight Sparkle was a pony of reason. She did not wander around with no aim as so many did. She was the pony who delved deep into the world’s secrets and picked at them until they surrendered to her. She didn’t ogle at phenomena as they lumbered into view! She chased the world down, stuck a pin in it, and interrogated it until she was spent. This was all so wrong.

She stood, pushing through the sense of vertigo.

What had she been doing? Where was she going? The only think she could think to do was find Luna and ask her what was going on. Ask her about why she kept seeing strange things and feeling strange things, why the world kept being off-kilter and wrong.

But before she could even make it to the door to cross into the next car, there was an awful screeching sound, like a panicked dying animal, and then the train lurched. Twilight had no time to cry out in alarm.

Her head crashed into the wall and then she knew nothing at all.

VII. Snowblind

View Online

Consciousness is a curious thing. The more you try to touch it, prod it, cling to it, the faster it slips off into the night. Dreams ape it well, and do so convincingly. They can fool us even when we have woken from them. Caught in the liminal area between waking and sleeping, Twilight’s hold on everything was loose at best.

Vision came in spurts, and so did knowledge of her surroundings. Twilight felt cold, but had no context for cold. She saw Luna in a blurry tableau of nonsense.

She was Luna, and then was not. She walked around as her smiling goodstallion captain, giving orders as a train of black-clad soldiers evacuated a smoking train, carting off the goods they would need to brave the jagged mountains.

Twilight stood shivering in the snow, in an endless white blankness, and saw the mountains rise above her like living things, like shadowed mourners at a wake prepared for the two of them. She stood upon the bluff as the legion marched beneath, up into the crags, their steps belabored. The wind and the snow pushed at her face relentlessly and her ears were filled with roaring.

Luna was shouting curses up into the storm. “By the Well, I am half tempted to wrest the sun from you, Sister, just for a moment of warmth!”

Twilight yelled over the wind. “Aye, sister-mine, and I am more than half-tempted to do it myself!”

“Truly.” Luna turned to her. Her ethereal mane was shorter than it would be, by design or by nature none but herself perhaps knew. “Is this embassy to the northerners worth all of this misery? What need we of one frozen city?”

Twilight made her way over to Luna’s side and bumped her gently. “Plenty. Think of this as practice for campaigning.”

“If I’m caught attempting a march such as this in the heart of winter, then I think perhaps Equestria shall not have too many campaigns in her.” Luna cracked a smile. She turned back to the heights and shook her hoof at them. “Yon bastards! Yon stone cowards! I’ll see your back yet, whoresons! I’ll climb you myself! Flatten your peaks to make my dancing floor, miserable watchers in the cold!”

She laughed then, loudly and without care, and Twilight was glad to see it. How often of late had Luna seemed ill at ease upon her silver throne. To see her once again the wild Luna of the western Veldt was a warmth no ice could steal.

And then Twilight was clawing her way up the mountains. And then she was nowhere, insensate, only dimly aware she was Twilight at all.

And then, at last, she was lying in a soft bed. Reality did not shift beneath her. This, at least, was real. No more dreams, no more illusions.

Still, she did not move. Her mind still swam. It wasn’t unlike the first night she’d tried her hoof at drinking somewhere between secondary school and undergraduate, when she’d had far too much in too short of a time. She’d woken up with a feeling similar to this one, dizzy and aching and feeling like a dozen years had passed in a night.

Carefully, Twilight rose and surveyed her surroundings. She was in a large room, built of sturdy wood and rustically adorned. Not a train then, certainly. Certainly not what she had expected of the dreaded mystery that was Lunangrad.

Soon, however, it became clear she was in some sort of cabin, not in a larger structure, and she left through the door.

The stone giants that greeted her were not a surprise. The verdant, if fairly snowed over, valley before her was certainly one, however.

It was beautiful. It was the sort of place she could imagine ponies coming for miles to stay in for a few days. The sun perched between the mountaintops gently, the pines nobly standing, the air clean, the little cottages dotting the mountainside…

“It’s called Provideniye in the old native tongue,” said somepony behind her.

Twilight whirled and found--who else?--Moonflower posted against the door of the cabin. He stretched and stepped forward.

“And in ours?” Twilight asked, surprised at how shaky her voice sounded.

“Morning Dew. It’s a lovely little village.”

Twilight took a deep, steadying breath. “How long was I out, Captain?”

He stood up straight. “You woke briefly yesterday, but Luna sent you back into sleep. You, ah…” he coughed, and looked away. “Ma’am, you might want to look in a mirror rather than I tell you.”

Twilight blinked. There was a beat, and then fear blossomed full force in her and she felt sick. She pushed past him and threw the door open. It took only a moment to find a bathroom in the cabin, and then Twilight Sparkle was staring with naked horror at herself.

She heard voices behind her, indistinct and at the edge of her hearing. They grew louder.

“You were to send for me the moment she woke.”

“I am deeply sorry, my Lady, but she only now is sensate.”

Luna was behind her now, working her jaw as if the words were refusing to come.

“What happened?” Twilight croaked.

“It isn’t broken,” came the words tumbling out of Luna. “I assure thee, dear Twilight, it is not broken.”

“But what happened?”

Twilight reached a cautious hoof up to her own horn. It was hard to even look at the bandages and the hard cast around her horn.

Luna growled. “That fool of an engineer happened, though I know it is not him.” When Twilight just stared at her reflection, Luna continued. “The train came to an unfortunately sudden stop. You were thrown into a wall at an unfortunate angle. I had not expected all of this, but am not surprised. It is perhaps time for you and I to have a conversation regarding your dreams.”

Twilight nodded dumbly and let herself be led back outside and onto a dirt road that led down the mountain. It was only her and Luna now.

“How much do you know about alicorns, Twilight?” Luna asked, her tone light.

“I know what everypony knows,” Twilight said. “As well as some things that most ponies don’t. I know that you aren’t immortal. Ageless, that’s the word. Sorry, had to think of it. Poison probably can’t kill you, but weapons could. Magic could in theory. You regenerate at a frankly alarming rate. Having access to the innate magics of all three tribes compromises each and produces strange effects unique to alicorns. You were born somewhere else to the west, and you didn’t show up out of nowhere when Discord was King. You had been with us before, and had been with the individual tribes before that.”

Luna nodded. “So you know some things. Tell me, do you have fond memories of Celestia?”

Twilight blinked.

“Yes,” she replied, slowly.

“Describe one for me. One that to you would be emblematic of the time you were closest to her.”

Twilight made a little grimace that she hoped Luna didn’t see and looked down at her hooves. At least those weren’t in casts. She kicked a rock in her path and watched it tumble down and down towards the pines.

“Twilight?” Luna asked, her neutral tone gone.

Twilight jolted as if she’d been pushed out of bed. “Yes! Yes? Sorry.”

“Something troubles you. Or perhaps many things do. I suppose ‘tis natural. You rise in alien environs with a grievous injury and fragmented memory of how you came to be where you are. Even one as thoughtful and rational as you must be alarmed.”

Twilight decided that looking at the forest was a very good idea.

“Sorry. The way you worded that threw me off, I think. It seemed to imply that we’re not close, and that just hit me right in the gut. I’m being foolish.”

Luna clicked her tongue. “Ah. I understand. Cry your pardon. I meant only in physical proximity. Does it soothe you to know that my sister talks of you almost every day? She seems full of stories of you as a foal getting into things you shouldn’t.”

Twilight flushed and groaned. “Ugh, she probably exaggerates too. I swear that I was a good filly! I was just so curious!”

“So I gathered.” Luna laughed, honestly and openly, and it more than made up for her earlier drop. “Now, to my question. A time emblematic of when you were close to her in proximity, nearby for long periods of time.”

Twilight went through her memories, not sure exactly where this was heading. “Well… I was her personal student past a certain point, and in undergrad a lot of my tutorials were still taught by Celestia herself. I used to stay at the castle during the week. I did school work in her office most days, just laying on the floor. I was just a filly,” she said, smiling reflexively. “Doing homework on the nice, soft carpet. It was warm and happy. I always felt like she was watching out for me.”

“I’ve no doubt she was. That does sound like Celestia.”


Luna was silent, but when she spoke she did so very deliberately. “My sister and I, my sisters and I, must be very careful. We walk in a world that is… not quite made of parchment, but feels much that way. We have called this part of us many things over the years. An aura, a Presence. Glory. If we are not careful, it spills over.”

Twilight was immediately reminded of what the Captain had said. “What happens if it spills over? Is that dangerous?”

Luna chuckled. It was not a nice sound. “It depends,” she said. “You said you felt warm, safe, happy. I tell you that you were basking in the glow of my sister’s glory. When we are distressed, or even when we are filled with joy, it is hard to keep our natures under wraps. Our Presence warps reality around us, and it warps the perceptions of those nearby.”

Twilight furrowed her brow. “Are you telling me it wasn’t real?”

Luna shook her head. “No! No, not at all. I am not saying that.”

“Then what are you saying?”

“When you are exhausted or hungry, do you experience things as you do when you are well-fed and well-rested? If you were to drink, it would make you see the world differently. Are those experiences real?”

“Sure, I guess.” Twilight hummed. She could see where Luna was going. “So, the fact that her, ah, Presence was effecting things doesn’t make those memories fake. Just… Influenced, I guess.”

“More or less. Perhaps less. I tend to think that our influence reveals something basic, something lost with the passage of time. Ponies have forgotten how small they are, Twilight. They were already forgetting before I left, and now they have entirely forgotten. Well, except for a few such as yourself. The time you spent in my sister’s study is perhaps even more real for her Glory, for it took from you the dull mundanity your blessed kind has grown like an immunity. You felt her affection for you directly, not as a thing you imagined and knew in your head but as a reality present there in the room, a living breathing love.” She sighed. “None of that is important, and it draws my mind to the past. Before I continue, how is your horn?”

Twilight winced. “It’s… fine. I don’t feel it.”

“Good. Healing was never my strongest suit. You will be fine in a week or so if you do not use magic. Healing will be longer and more complicated if you do.” She looked over and raised an eyebrow. “Therefore, I suggest that you do not. How are you with your hooves?”

Twilight was about to scoff, but something made her change direction. “About as good as any other unicorn who has studied magic her whole life and relies on it extensively. I can manage, but slowly.”

“I have something that may help. Have you heard of a reservoir? The magic variety.”

Twilight nodded. She stole a glance out over the valley and saw a collection of houses below that she had missed, centered on a manor. “I’m familiar with them. I’m supposing you have one.”

“Aye! That I do. I’ll have you one shortly.”

Twilight nodded and kept looking down at the town’s apparent center. The road curled about but ultimately led there. “So… does this have anything to do with the train?”

“I believe so. My control has slipped. I am out of practice, and as is perhaps obvious, I am not calm much these days. I have been caught up in old memories. Old unpleasant memories. As I effect the world in ways I do not intend to, there are consequences. The train was one of those. My laxitude has injured you, Twilight, and I am deeply sorry.”

Twilight wanted to snap at her. She wanted to tell her about how her dreams had gotten worse and worse, how it was starting to drive her mad. She wanted to demand to be taken home, or demand an apology. Something.

But now, as they walked side by side, she saw that Luna looked absolutely wretched.The fire in her chest died.

“We’re still set on the city?” she asked instead.

“Yes. I was not stopped before, and I shall not be stopped now. But you already know that, don’t you?”

Twilight blinked. She stopped walking.

“My dreams. So something is happening. I’m not crazy. I’m not just having nightmares.”

“Something indeed. And I’ll have ample time to explain it on the ride to Lunangrad.”

Luna had walked ahead of her and now faced her. Twilight was reminded of just how massive the sisters were compared to herself. Luna seemed to have grown since the castle ruins in the Everfree, and now she seemed even taller than she had been.

Was the sky darker? No, but for a moment…

“We’re riding? Riding what?” Twilight asked.

“Chariots! I have sent word to the Knyaz of Lunangrad, and soon you and I shall ride as I would have wished to so long ago. The journey is almost done. It has been more trying for you than I would have wished, but it is almost over.”

She smiled when she said it, but Twilight could not find it in herself to smile back. Something was off still. Something about those words was so absolutely final, and she shivered. Perhaps it was just the cold. She had grown used to the warmer temperatures in Ponyville. That was it.

Nothing more.

VIII. One Moment Knell'd the Woe of Years / Luna To the Dark Tower Came

View Online

Luna, speaking to her as the barren wastes between the mountains and the City speed by:

It was not long after Discord had been dealt with. My sister and I spent years knitting together the frightened, weary fragments of the realm. You cannot imagine what it is like to see such things. For you, for all the ponies of this time, Discord’s reign is a page or so in a book. It is a dim and unformed idea, an unpleasant suggestion. What do you think about? A world of chocolate rain, perhaps. Trees that grow upside down. Trivialities. The playpen of gods.

Imagine if you can a world where nothing makes sense. Where you wake up in a new house every day, where you cannot remember who you are, or who your family is--imagine, if you can, a world where nothing ever stays still. Nothing will ever make sense.

We did our best. We righted what we could, comforted who we could. The settlements on the fringes that had broken away, we drew gently back into the fold. But one city of ponies in the lands between the old Empire and the sands of the Zebrahara remained outside of our protection, and with the old Empire of the Crystal Ponies newly under the control of Sombra… Its independence was no longer possible. We could not give the mad emperor a foothold in the middle lands, and we could not abide his iron-shod hoof crushing anypony else.

But our embassies were rebuffed. We were cautious, tentative, respectful of their traditional insularity. But they would not talk to us. Or, rather, they would not talk to envoys. They made very clear that there was but one pony that the old stallions would talk to: myself.

You have seen, so you say, some of our long trek north. Any waiting would have only angered them, so we thought, for then we did not know why they asked for me to bring them our terms. The Crystal Legions were gathering on the border. Time was of the essence. So we marched in winter, ready to repel a last minute incursion.

Yes, I know you wish to know. You will see soon. But I will tell you that it was not because of any attachment to me, to myself, to what is in my heart or mind. No, they wanted what I represented for them.

A clue: their sigil was always the moon, long before my sister and I had ever crossed the wide sea.

Twilight gasped when she first saw the city.

It was as the barest descriptions had told, but none had done it justice.

The river Lunaga flowed through it, cutting the city into two uneven parts. Dark spires rose up out of the snowy plain, flanked on all sides by strange and twisted architecture. It was imposing, but it was also beautiful. It shone in the sun as a paradox: a darkness that gave light.

“We will be landing at the Kniaz’s palace,” Luna said over the wind. “I am told a crowd will be awaiting my arrival!”

Twilight nodded dumbly as she tried to pick out--there it was. The complex near the river could be nothing else than the palace of a king, or in this case of a prince. It’s fluted towers screamed power, and she could see the teeming masses already assembled at its gates.

She could see more than dark towers now. The streets were filled with color, but from above it appeared as if color could live here only in the cracks between monoliths. Where it grew, it thrived in aggressive disregard for propriety, libertine and wild. She had often thought that a city reflected the ponies that lived here. What could she tell of them from such things?

As they drew closer and closer, Twilight wondered what Luna would say to them. She had been laconic to all but Twilight herself since their departure. Would she say anything at all?

They were level with the taller towers now. Twilight saw a great ziggurat on the other side of the river, and smaller ones beside it, and they grasped her attention. She almost spoke to ask Luna about them, but then one of the ponies drawing the chariot yelled back to them that they would be landing soon, and she was drawn back into the moment.

They circled the complex that she was now certain housed the leader of the city. It was, like most things in Lunangrad, a melange of greys and black, trimmed in argent silver and the occasional intense flashes of color.

They landed.

Luna gestured for the guards in the other chariots to begin moving, and they did. Her batponies fanned out, their faces like grim masks. There was a tension there that she did not yet understand, but she knew Luna was at the center of it. There had been long talks between herself and her officers in the night, and whatever had been discussed weighed on them obviously.

Luna gestured to Twilight. “Step out before me,” she said as the crowd’s noise began to swell. These were less cheers and more a thousand voices bursting into frenzied conversation at once, or like the braying of hounds on the chase. “Step out quickly, and stand at attention beside us as we approach the kniaz and his dias. Speak no words, Twilight of Ponyville, and move only as I command thee.”

Twilight nodded, and stepped out onto the hard stones. She stood beside the chariot, her legs locked.

As Luna rose, all sound ceased. It was not that it died down to a low murmur, or that the crowd was simply distracted with something new. No, it was an absolute dead silence. Twilight herself felt almost as if she’d had a bit stuck in her mouth and couldn’t say a thing.

Luna had prepared for this moment. She knew that. But there is a difference in knowing and seeing.

She wore armor that Twilight had never seen before, and upon her head was a silver circle with a crescent moon. Her eyes suddenly shone with an unbearable white light, and Twilight’s knees almost buckled beneath her. Where was this weight coming from, this weight on her back? Where--

She stepped down, and without instruction the masses beyond the gate knelt in a wave. Between Luna and her subjects, a wooden dias covered in finest furs hosted the seat of the prince of the city himself, and he rose only to bow before her.

Luna stalked towards him, her every footstep like an earthquake in of itself. No, she wasn’t Luna. Luna was the mare who played chess and told stories of her sister with a charming smirk. Luna was the mare who wrote letters to scholars tongue-in-cheek in a dozen languages half-lost to time. Luna was the one who made music and enjoyed wine and flying. This was another pony entirely, and when this pony looked back to her and bade her march on with only a look, Twilight obeyed in terror. Twilight followed at her heels, her head falling almost against her will. Was this what it was like for Luna to let her aura loose? Was this only a taste, or all of it at once? She did not want to know. Knowing would have only made it more alien.

Came Luna then to Lunangrad properly and at last, and mounted the dias. She laid a hoof on the prince’s head, and he shook.

She spoke, and her voice was like a dozen unearthly voices layered atop each other. “Rise, keeper the sacred city. I shall take back mine seat, and thou shalt sit beside me until such a time as I may judge they works. You may speak.”

“T-thank you,” said the stallion, pale as the snow. He was massive, scarred and fearsome in his own right by the standards of any of the tribes of Equestria. But beside this towering goddess he was like a foal.

Luna paused, as if not sure how to respond, but then sighed. “Do not thank us,” she commanded, and he straightened as she approaches his throne.

“Have it turned, that I might see the assembled,” she said.

He nodded and hurried. Twilight saw now that it sat on a small platform that rotated, and as he pushed, the chair was repositioned.

Luna sat on it, and then surveyed the mass. Her brow furrowed, and as Twilight took her place on the opposite side of the kniaz of Lunangrad, she found she could not read the emotions in that once familiar face.

“You have endured,” she said, her voice amplified for perhaps the whole city to hear. “You have survived. Like lichen in the darkest of the mountain’s caves, you have clung to your existence in unforgiving harshness.”

More silence.

“I am proud to see it.” Like that, some of the weight was lifted. She could almost feel the ponies outside the gate sagging in relief. “The ancient pact between us shall be renewed,” Luna continued. “I have not forgotten it. Whether or not you have is something that remains to be seen. I shall visit the ziggurat. What I find there shall be what I find there. If it has been touched, I shall know who has trodden upon holy ground.”

She held her hoof up, and they rose as one.

“Depart in peace, and return to Us upon the morrow. There shall be feasting upon these grounds, and I shall sit in judgement over you in your works and days as I did long before. Go!”

Silence continued as the ponies outside began to disperse, but it did not last long. Soon she could hear their buzzing from just out of sight, a thousand ponies set to talking in brief excited oveflows of anxiety.

Luna turned to the prince, and the amplification was gone. “You shall take me to the ziggurat. I will inspect all of them. What is your name, prince of the Lunaga?”

“I am… I am Nevsky II in the language of the North,” he said, and his voice faltered.

“Speak without dawdling,” Luna said with a flat tone. “Stand up straight. Do not cower in my sight, nor in anypony else’s.”

He nodded and took a breath. “To the Equestrians, I am Frozen Lake, for that was the name my mother chose in their tongue, Night Mother.”

Luna frowned at the name he gave her, but if it displeased her she did not say. “I shall call you by the name you bear in your own tongue. Nevsky, rise and take me to them.”

He did rise, and Twilight again followed at Luna’s heels.

Luna, an aside upon the march across the Lunaga, as Twilight began to lose her mind:

We had seen such tragedies, such sorrow. Often had I been sick in the depths of my heart and cried bitter tears, and that was before I saw what Discord had done. I had held the malformed children of a hundred sobbing mothers and given them what peace I could. Every single one that we saved was a blessing, and we had few blessings in the days after he was defeated.

But it was here that I lost what hope I had. I tell thee the truth, Twilight, when I say that here in this mine city did I truly begin to hate as I had never been able to hate in all my wandering. I had mourned, but only atop the great ziggurat of Lunangrad could I despair.

See it! Do you not see it rising up above us? I tell you that it is nothing now compared to how it was that first night, when the masters of this city bid me and only me to a feast in my honor. It is nothing now to that night that that I made my solitary way down into Hell.

Twilight stumbled, but righted herself.

Luna was definitely losing some of the control she held over herself. Her emotions spilled into Twilight, and now there was no confusion as to what was happening. If this despair was anything like what Luna contended with inside of herself, it was a miracle that she had come at all.

Luna may have looked to others as if she strode imperiously in the city that served her with every breath, but Twilight knew that within she was like a mare led to the grisly sight of her execution.

Guards went before them and behind them, her small honor guard supplemented by a full platoon of the city’s guards in strange furred hats and segmented armor. Their captain had asked from his prostrate position before the princess if his ponies might be allowed to sing on their processional, and with a sigh she had granted him his request. Twilight had watched it unfold with confusion, and even now she wished she understood the words of their odd lilting, off-kilter song. It was a coarse and yet reverant chorus, unschooled and uncultured men singing a song meant for grand halls.

Luna seemed aware of Twilight’s struggles, for she spoke out of the side of her mouth. “You feel it. You feel as I do. I do not know how to apologize, or if I even can.”

“It hurts.”

“I know that it does. I will not tell you to rest, or that it shall pass, for it has not yet passed for myself. But you will not fold beneath the weight. If you falter, ask, and I shall bear what I can for your sake. When we reach the top of the ziggurat, there will be… I will not call it rest. But there will be time for you to collect yourself.”

Twilight nodded.

Across the river there was a great avenue, and along it quiet neighborhoods where ponies peeked out at them or stood transfixed in the streets, unable to tear their eyes away. But not a one looked at her. It was Luna who held them all spellbound even after she had passed. She did no waving, no smiling. But it was perhaps for the best. For Twilight had the idea already that her smiles would have only alarmed them. This was a city gripped in a fear older than any Twilight had ever imagined.

There were brief, frightening moments where Luna’s emotions threatened to devour her whole, where she was Luna, and not herself at all. To be Luna and walk this street was beyond her ability to bear. She was terrified. She was filled with resentment Twilight, twenty summers all, could not fathom. It was as if every stone was the pressed remains of a child and ever tower built with the bones of her lovers. It was like the moment of mourning she had witnessed in the dream, but stretched out and out until it was not even a moment anymore but a mood, a state of being. It wasn’t something that Luna could walk away from, and now it was something that Twilight could not walk away from. She had only ever used the phrase “heart broken” before in irony, but here was the grisly truth of it.

The ziggurats were behind yet another gate, and this one Luna opened by herself, and guards fanned out in her wake. Others, all of them in furs and with grim faces, lined the lone walkway up to the prime ziggurat. Paths branched off to half a dozen others, but they were small affairs. Twilight tried to summon up something beyond misery. Curiosity about their make, their purpose, placement, anything at all, but she just kept returning to her own borrowed dread that lanced through every step.

They ascended, and the guards to a pony did not touch the structure. Even the kniaz himself seemed loathe to touch the steps, but he did.

“Who tends the temple?” asked Luna.

“Your Order does, Night Mother. The Duskwatch supervises the selection of the temple’s keepers for the year, and each is made sacrosanct and purified.”

“How?” Her tone was dangerous now, not merely flat.

“W-With water, Dread Lady, with water and then later anointed with oil.”

She hummed. “As it should be,” she said, in the manner of one throwing a dog a bone.

The climb was long and dizzying. Each step, Twilight swore she would slip and tumble back down to her death. Yet she found Luna walked close to her, not quite touching, as if to say that she would not be allowed to fall.

A part of her suddenly wanted to. A part of her--she did not know which part--daydreamed of falling, of slipping on the worn stone and rolling on sharp edge after sharp edge, her bones cracking and her body breaking--

“Keep your eyes up, sweet Twilight,” whispered Luna. “Eyes up.”

Twilight swallowed and obeyed.

They reached the top.

The top was flat, with four stone pillars with covered basins for fires. In the center was a kind of house-like structure with no door but rather the open-wound-like opening through which she could not see a thing. All of it looked ancient, worn down to perfect smoothness by the trodding of a thousand years or more of hooves. Here, the kniaz prostrated himself again.

“Please do not ask me to go further,” he said. “I beg it of you.”

Luna looked down at him and nodded stiffly.

“Sit at the foot of the steps, looking out over the city, and meditate upon the sins of your forefathers.”

He retreated, and Twilight struggled to keep up with Luna’s long strides as she ducked to enter the strange house-structure.

When her eyes had adjusted, Twilight found what could only be an altar. Luna sat before it.

“There are stairs beneath,” said the princess. “Twilight? Come and sit by me.”

Twilight sat.

“What is this… this feeling, princess?”

“Call me Luna.” Her voice sounded so strained.

Twilight’s breathing, too, was ragged. She didn’t want to be here. “What is it? Why does it feel so heavy? I don’t understand.” Luna continued not to speak, and Twilight prodded, afraid that if she stopped asking she would be lost in Luna’s warring feelings. “What happened here? What makes this city so awful? Who is this altar dedicated to?”

“Me,” whispered Luna. “It was dedicated to me. It is still dedicated to me.And in a better light, you could probably see the bloodstains.”

Twilight had no answer.

“I told you that you would find out everything,” Luna continued hoarsely. “And you shall. They invited me--

To a feast. I went, smiling as I crossed the bridge, delighted by their revelrous songs. I did not know their tongue. Had I known then, I would have not been in such high spirits as I was! But I was ignorant.

When we came to Equestria there was an ache in me, Twilight. It rested here, in my breast, beside my heart, sleeping soundly in the cavity of my chest. It grew so slowly. It opened its eyes in the wet, always-raining plains beyond in the West, as my sister and I won our respective celestial spheres, but then it slept again. But it never goes away. What is it?

A wound? But it is a wound that never healed. It is like a knife that our bodies have grown over. It is an infection.

But it slumbered. Discord’s madness stirred it, but victory calmed the growing cancer of my spirit. When the world was righted, we could breathe easily once more. My sister and I could laugh and live. I could dream of a time when I might be happy.

Happy! Truly happy, as I was when I was a child, with friends and lovers, free in my joy. Not a carefree life with no responsibility, but a life that I could be proud to live. One buoyed by hope.

I had been dreaming of it. I had finally let myself hope that all things could be set right, if only I tried hard enough.

We feasted and we feasted, and the night drug along and after many casks of wine I began to sense that a strange mood had overtaken them all. Space was cleared, and the ponies of the city cheered as two of their number were pushed into a ring of howling spectators. I was beyond drunk, Twilight. I was so far beyond it--they had brought me entire barrels of spirits when I boasted, and I had boasted until my legs were weak beneath me.

Those poor ponies fought and fought, and this was no honorable combat. It was nothing like the boastful play-fighting I had seen in the barbarous eastern lands we call Equestria today, or the solemn displays of prowess in Jannah and Valon, and it was not the sparring tinged with laughter and betting upon the western veldt. It was panicked, fearful, ugly struggle. They bit and spat and kicked. A unicorn, so small and frail, used his horn like a spear and I saw it bathed in blood. I tried to rise, but they would pull me down and offer more wine, more mulled wine, and I took it and told myself that surely this was pageantry. I saw none of them breathe their last, for the crowd absorbed them again. Fight after fight.

And then we ascended the steps, and I flew and the ponies of Lunangrad hailed me. I stumbled into this place and was welcomed by their prince and a figure in a robe.

She took the robe and cast it aside, and she was covered in blood. The smell alone… Gods, the smell alone. She reeked of death and refuse. Her hair was a matted heap, her face was torn and mended and torn again.

And there lay a foal, and she bowed and held a knife of onyx and told me that the last of those prepared for the Moon’s welcoming was mine to slay as I saw fit.

Twilight wept. Luna wept.

“Celestia. Oh Celestia, they…”

“There were more below,” Luna said.

She summoned magic into her horn and before Twilight could say anything or stop her or take refuge, she destroyed the Altar with a scream. Twilight was thrown back, and the force was like a kick in her face. Stone tore into her cheek.

She laid astonished, and when she could rise again she found Luna with a heaving chest standing over the ruins. She had injured herself as well, and Twilight watched in mute horror as her cuts sealed themselves.

Luna tore off her armor. Her magic balled every piece tightly and then tore them all asunder. The sound grated on Twilight ears and she covered them with a wince.

“I descended!” Luna said loudly. “And now must we both! For this was only the beginning, and there is nowhere else to go!” She turned and Twilight shuddered. “We shall see all there is to see. I do not know who will come back up from that place. I do not know. I do… I do not…”

She slumped and then mounted the stairs cut into the hole beneath where the altar had stood, and Twilight limped after her.

IX. Gates of Ivory and Horn

View Online

Twilight walked behind Luna, down the winding, winding stair.

She did not want to. She did not want to be here, in this cursed city--she did not want to be in this awful temple stained with blood, and she did not want to follow in the wake of this wrathful goddess.

They came to a great door and Luna blew it open with a mighty magical blow. Inside was a great chamber with stone slabs, and a pony in plain brown robes cowered behind one of them. As Luna strode into the room, she seemed torn between protrating and fleeing deeper into the temple, but whatever she would have chosen was moot. Luna’s magic grabbed her and held her aloft. For a moment--a brief, brief moment--Twilight feared that Luna would crush the poor mare like she had crushed the altar at the top of the ziggurat.

But she did not. The squirming mare pleaded. “Dread Lady, please! I-I have… I am only cleaning!”

Luna set her down somewhat roughly by the ruined doors. “Go,” she said, and did not watch her go.

Instead she walked among the slabs. “Twilight,” she began, “do you see these? All of them with bodies. Foals, all of them, their insides laid bare and exposed to the air whilst they still lived. Have you ever been in the presence of death, Twilight? The death of a pony?”

“No. I haven’t.”

“You can feel them die. You can feel them. When one dies, you will miss them as they go--if they die peacefully even I might miss it. But a pony that dies violently goes groaning down to Tartarus, or so they used to say. The more of them pass in one place, at one time, the louder their last dying sobs reverberate in the air.”

She took a deep breath and walked a bit longer, wandering, meandering, with no aim or goal. Twilight felt like it was wrong for her to be here and to witness this. But hadn’t this been what Celestia had asked of her?

“Murder scars the world,” Luna rasped. She was no longer there. Her body was in the sanctum, but her mind was somewhere far beyond, and Twilight did not want to go where she had gone. “It scars the world forever. The blood sinks into the ground and nothing can exorcise it. It covers you and it cannot be washed off. The blood! The blood! But it wasn’t the worst. It wasn’t the worst. I…” She shuddered.

Luna continued her story:

I drove them out. I stole the knives from their grasp and chased them out into the night with a thousand cuts. I set fire to the bodies, furious and drunken, enraged and wanting to purge the sickness around me.

But when my fires subsided, I looked and saw another door, another passageway. This one was smaller, more cramped, sealed then behind gates of adamantium which I pried apart only after great effort. But rage and sorrow drove me on, even when my head ached from magical overuse. But I breached! I charged down and down and… More priests. I slew them swiftly, before they could even express their surprise.

I destroyed and raged and eventually I had nothing left to destroy. I thought, for a brief moment, to bring the whole thing down on top of me. But even my anger is not infinite, and it fell away long enough for common sense to prevail. I solved nothing by destroying myself along with this vile edifice. They would do this again after me, unless… unless I stopped them. Perhaps I could. They had made it clear that they saw me as the earthly avatar of their distasteful goddess, and if I were to bring them a new revelation…

But I could not bear to go back up. Not yet. For I had found the final door, down into the last sanctum. See it? Carved in runes, recreated after my departure but there nonetheless. I made to force it open, but it opened for me instead. What did I think, then? Did I have an inkling of what laid down below? It’s hard to say.

But I felt compelled to enter the maw-like opening. It called to me--and I do mean it called, not in a metaphoric sense but in a very literal sense. The earth remembers blood. The air remembers magic. What we do lingers in creation, and what we are cannot be erased. The weight of what lies below pulled at my legs.

Here, come with me as we retrace my old steps. Slick, yes, slick with use these steps. They came down here often, before I ever came here. I wish they would not, but I cannot stop them. I take solace in the fact that they would never touch the secret they guard.

It’s not as dark as you expected, is it? The light from below filters up through the passageway.

But I was telling you of my journey. I felt… sick. Nauseous. The deeper down I went, the worst the feeling grew until I was slumped against the wall. Here, about here. I feel the same as I did long ago. I see you feel it too, Twilight. Be stout of heart, and lean on me if you must. Down we go.

I continued on. I had to. If I had risen and returned, the secret of what lay below would have tormented me.

In truth, in truth… I think that if I had not gone down to the water, things would have been worse. No course was good. I had no escape. Every road leads down highways into the pit.

We’re here. I’ll support you. Do you hear it? Sh. Listen.

You hear it, don’t you? The singing. And you see it. The water. The well.

Two wells they speak of, wells in Jannah and wells at the feet of the sea of mountains, but there is another. A well not of natural make, but of sorcery. Tainted. Cursed. Wrong.

When the song that birthed our world drew to a close, as I was being born, the waters receded. The young world was so empty, then, but so beautiful. But there were things already that sang discordantly. I do not know who or what trapped these song-blessed waters here in this forsaken place, but they did. Cut off from the holy wells which carried the rest of its kind, the song here echoed and echoed and finally lost its tune. It sang off key, and then it became a New Song.

It is not a good song.

The other wells are passageways into life and into the heart of the world. This is a passageway only into hell. Go not near it.

What am I saying? As if you could.

And if you could, could I even stop you? If the warped song did not lay you low, then it would control you so securely that I doubt short of maiming you could I arrest your progress.

It happened quickly.

As Luna has long known, awful things always happen so very quickly. The space between the thought and the act, between a pony living and dying, is so narrow that it sometimes hardly seems to exist at all.

The Well was as she had remembered it, and it still sang to her. It glowed with a sickly blue-white light, its waters never still but rolling in chaos, bubbling as the Well lived. She supposed it did, after a fashion. In its own way.

She had been about to tell Twilight something more, to explain why she felt so called to it, what she had seen beneath the little waves, but there was no time.

Twilight was already moving, called and as she had feared, unable to resist. Luna grabbed at her with hooves and then with magic, her wings unfurling in the cavernous space as if a lunge might save Twilight from her own needs, but Twilight was more powerful than any unicorn she’d met. Her magic was rebuffed with enough force to throw her off her guard. Twilight was sinking into the well before Luna could even call her name.

Luna, sitting by the well, spoke slowly to her own echoes:

When I went beneath the waves, in my sorrow, I had no throught to what I would see, or what would become of me. I may have left my immediate furor behind me, but that did not mean that I was sane yet.

Have you ever had a nightmare, Twilight, that was so vivid that when you woke you knew that you had seen what might yet be? A nightmare so vivid, you felt it had already been.

I did.

I saw dozens of them. Dozens.

I saw myself emerging and joining the ponies above. I saw my own banner, but changed, and beneath it marched armies wreathed in diseased darkness. I saw my sister and I arguing. I saw her stolen away by a returning Discord, or the life crushed out of her by Sombra’s hooves. You don’t know who he is, but I suspect you will. The times are changing.

I saw her die. I saw her die to Sombra. But then I saw another vision, and I knew it was true. I saw myself with an iron-shod hoof on her throat. She pleaded with me, and it was not dignified. It was shameless, base pleading. Tears ran down her face, blood mixed with spittle and dirt. She was not heroic. She was pathetic. Celestia begged for her life like a craven, promising servitude. She offered to cut her own horn off to prove that she would never, ever challenge me. She promised horrible things for a few more moments of life. And I leaned forward, bit by bit, until her words ran dry and she writhed without air.

And then she died.

And I was alone in our destroyed castle, changed from what I had been all my life. I looked different. I was a monster. The fangs I bear from my long struggle with the Father of Vampires were no longer hidden, but enhanced, and my eyes were full of feral lusts. I didn’t know who I was looking at , because it was not me. That creature was not me.

Not yet.

Another: Celestia, laughing as I fled, magic breaking my shield and lancing through my hind leg to bring me down. I went sprawling, and she towered over me. She was on fire. More magic, and she melted holes in my legs. She cut my wings off piece by piece, and she told me she’d always wanted to. Ever since that day, before we reached the place where the both of us took hold of the heavens, hundreds of years before. She’d always wanted to do this. Celestia hated me. I was the whining shadow who was never happy, who could never be satisfied. Centuries of having a baby bird or a mewling kitten follow me around, she said. The first centuries it had been cute, even endearing. But how it grated! How she wanted to be done with me! Even my lovers had complained of it before they all left us for good.

Another--there were so many--We argued, and at last Celestia embraced me, and I cried against her shoulder, and I apologized. I had just been… but I never said, for I cried out in alarm and pulled back with a dagger in my ribs. Or as we seperated, she smiled sadly and told me that yes, she knew, it was alright. But I had still gone too far, hadn’t I? And then the elements--your elements now, I suppose--rose up.

I saw the moon long before I lived there.

The visions all ended there. Do you know what the moon is like? Do you have any idea? Do you know what its like to lie astonished upon the gray dusty plain and see Earth hanging there above you and hear nothing at all, with no air and no wind? No smell, no sound, no breathing, only yourself alone in the dead lands.

Stars. Nights and days that never end. I crawled on my stomach for a thousand years in absolute darkness, hating the sun and the light of home. And you know, before I emerged only an hour later, I liked it. I liked being miserable and blind. It was so comforting to hate. Despair is like a cozy bed where you lie at peace and hate and hate and hate and it feels wonderful. IT feels perfect to rot. It feels right.

I never told my sister. But everytime she smiled at me I wanted to ask her how often she dreamed of tearing my wings off.

I stopped going into her dreams. I started to fear her.

What if I went and saw and knew it was all true? Then what? Then what? What was I supposed to do?

So I festered. I rotted. I liked it. I hated. I hated and I hated and I hated and

And you know what happened.

You’ll know even better when you come up again.

Won’t you?

I’m sorry.

Maybe I wanted you to know what it was like. Maybe that is whyI wanted you to come.


I’m sorry.

X. AntiEssence, or a Song For the Weak

View Online

Twilight woke in a dimly lit stone room, covered in sweat and buried alive in covers.

She took a deep breath, and then another. Something told her that this was important, that this moment perhaps or this action was important. Something told her.

The phrase something told her/me/them/etc was perhaps one of the most dishonest and misleading phrases Twilight Sparkle had ever encountered. She hated finding it in fiction. It was a lazy phrase, a meaningless phrase in-universe, a signal that the one writing the phrase had no idea how to connect point A to point B in a logically consistent manner, and had instead chosen to wave his or her hooves and make strange noises to distract the reader while kicking the story into the next bit with their hindleg.

She wasn’t sure why that would occur to her, but it did. It mostly did because she was frankly rather miserable and sweaty, she had no idea why she was ensconced in a veritable avalanche of supposed comfort, and on top of that she could not for the life of her remember the events that had brought her to this bed.

Twilight sat up and licked her dry lips, and tried not to gag over her own cottonmouth. Sickness, perhaps? A fever that had stolen a few hours from her in delirium? What was the last thing she remembered?

Arriving in the city, which had been rather strange and stand-offish. The crowd had had such an odd energy… and then what? Dinner? She had vague recollections about food. She hadn’t had anything to drink--no headache, after all. But certainly a feeling of weakness, for as she tried to step down onto the floor her legs betrayed her and she had to keep hold of the bed to avoid a painful and humiliating fall.

Twilight, still leaning on the bed, sighed. Hadn’t she already done this bit? The whole waking up and not knowing exactly where she was or what had happened to her and feeling as if she’d gone eight rounds with a family of Ursae?

This time, there was no one conveniently barging into check on her, and so when she felt more steady, Twilight left her lodgings and stepped out into the halls of the Kniaz’s palace to find coffee and if she were lucky, food and answers.

The royal visit to Lunangrad was a week long, and by all accounts it was a good week. Apparently, she’d missed the initial welcoming feast due to some minor illness and perhaps a bit of dehydration, but after breakfast and a surprisingly nice chat with the city’s master, Twilight recovered swiftly. She chalked her strange fainting spell up to mundane concerns, and noted to the Kniaz over blinis that changing her sleeping schedule to keep up with Luna had left her far more tired than she cared to admit.

The Kniaz, knowing that Twilight would not have anything official to occupy her time during the day--and wanting no doubt wanting to show his beloved Princess that he was a good host--arranged for Twilight to be shown the old palace archives and left to wander. All in all, Twilight had been beyond delighted with the antiquities within, and had even managed to convince the archivists to let her take a few of their books back to Canterlot to be copied for broader study.

When the sun faded, Luna roamed the halls. Twilight had tea and listened to the Kniaz’s patronized musicians with Luna as she ate her own breakfast, and they occupied the time with chess. Official visits to various sites in the city were arranged, and Twilight found that through all of them Luna seemed far more happy than she had been in Stalliongrad.

To what did she attribute this? Twilight speculated, but after the third day’s close, she found that it wasn’t that important. Why question the happiness of someone she wanted to be happy? The past had bothered Luna before, and perhaps now it also brought solace to see familiar sites and know that sometimes, things didn’t change when you weren’t looking.

On their last night before setting out, they ate once more in the grand hall of the palace, and the old families of the city were in attendance. Luna sat at the head of a great table, and on either side of her sat Twilight and the Kniaz.

“It’s funny,” Twilight said between courses, using her magic to slowly tilt the dark wine in her cup back and forth. “The trip here was full of such… strangeness. It was unsettling, I remember that. Difficult, certainly. But for the life of me, the details are fuzzy. They don’t seem to matter. And now here we are, in Lunangrad, and I find it’s actually rather normal.”

“Normal?” Luna prompted.

“Well, more or less. Sure, culturally its very different. It’s weird hearing a language other than the common tongue in an Equestrian city. Er, I mean as the dominant language. You know what I mean. The city is so different than what I’m used to thinking as Equestria, and it’s broadened my horizons considerably! But these half-remembered feelings made the relative calm of our visit seem so anticlimactic.”

The Kniaz chuckled and then looked at her across the table and put on a mock-hurt expression.

“My lady, I am wounded! My city is strange and anticlimactic!”

Twilight huffed and buried her face in her cup before answering. “I’m no good with words.”

“No one is, I find,” Luna said quietly, but then turned to Twilight. “Feelings of dismay? Unusual. Perhaps that is also a part of your illness a few days ago.”

Twilight sighed and shrugged. “I mean, it could be. I won’t rule that out. I don’t know. Ignore me, your Highness. I’m just thinking aloud.”

Luna nodded, and then offered her a smile. “There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m glad that our visit has been to your liking. Though, there was a point that sticks, one I must inquire after. You said that you remembered little of our journey?”

Twilight grimaced. “Honestly? I mostly remember talking in your train car… I remember the train breaking down and me hitting my head. Events-wise, that’s all I remember.” She blinked, and then cocked her head to the side as she gazed out at the party around them. “You know… now that I think about it? I feel like I forgot someone. Your captain! I haven’t seen him since we got here.”

She chuckled, concluded he was no doubt very busy, and dropped it.

Luna hummed, and the conversation moved along. Or it would have, except that Luna asked one more thing.

“Twilight, what do you think it means when you don’t remember something? What is it to not remember?”

Twilight shrugged. “To not recall? I’m sensing you don’t want a dictionary’s answer.”

Luna chuckled. “No, I do not. Pay me no mind as well! Just a bit of morbid thought--if we can’t remember what we do, does it ‘count’, as ponies these days might say? Does anything, even if you remember it? Does it matter?” She laughed again, and gestured for more wine. “My sister and I used to pose such ridiculous things to each other, years ago. But for now… My good prince, I’ve heard that your city still crafts certain delicacies that I have long yearned for…”

Luna shifted in her seat and waited for Celestia to make her move.

She was beyond tired. She suspected that they both felt that way, that they had felt that way for a long time, that they would continue to feel that way in the future.

Celestia hummed. Luna had, until Twilight mentioned it briefly on the way back to Canterlot, thought of it as a very Celestia thing to do. She supposed it was a very Alicorn thing to do. Music had a way of worming itself into the heart and mind, breeding and replicating far past the time when the words are meaningless. The lyrics always faded first. They faded fast.

Celestia moved.

“Twilight said some curious things to me,” Celestia said softly, carelessly, as if she was discussing the weather or the embroidery on a particularly mundane assemblage.

“Did she? She is a curious sort. Did you time this for the beginning of my turn?”

“You are as old as I, Lulu. Surely by now you’ve learned the art of multitasking.”

“Yet, curiously, for all my advanced age I am not nor shall ever be as duplicitous as thou art,” Luna said and stared at her pieces. She moved--a bold move, one that demanded an answer.

The most tired thing in the world was the chess metaphor, and Luna knew it. She had outgrown it before she was exiled, and a thousand years of time off from the evolving conversation that was time had not really breathed new life into the old figurative bones. It was well and fine to say that the way one played chess, or did most things, reflected their character and mood. But in practice? Did moving one’s pawn truly say anything of note? For that matter, she questioned the tenuous connection between cause and act in general. Did playing chess with her mean anything, did it signify anything about Celestia besides the obvious, like an enjoyment of chess or a wish to not be bored?

“I am hardly duplicitous. That implies a degree of malice that I’m afraid I lack,” Celestia said.

“Come now. Plans within plans, playing chess whilst you edge around some penetrating question. This is the way a duplicitous character acts.”

Celestia sniffed. “Alright, fine. Twilight couldn’t remember much of her journey at all. I already know that you took her memories.”

“Then we have no need to palaver over it,” Luna replied.

“I still want to talk about it.”

Luna sighed and massaged her temples. “You always do. Push push push. Fine, sister dearest. Proceed. Campaign away.”

“Why did you do it?”

Luna rolled her eyes and caught her older sibling in a glare. She felt, at least at the moment, as if Celestia were being deliberately obtuse. Was she looking for a timeline, or was this a question of motive? Not that it mattered, because her motives were obvious and Celestia knew enough about Lunangrad to have already guessed the only reason that Luna would wipe her student’s mind blank of it all.

“Twilight dived into the well,” Luna said. “As I had feared she might, but I brought her along anyway. I’m sorry, for what its worth. And am incensed about the whole affair, for it was beyond pointless. Going was meaningless, bringing Twilight was meaningless.”

Celestia had been smiling, smirking, simple in her obvious enjoyment of the little back and forth. But at the last, she pulled back with the first signs of genuine confusion. “Pardon?”

“Meaningless, sun-adled old mare. To be without meaning. To be empty and void of purpose. My going was meaningless, my bringing Twilight was meaningless. I am incensed about these things. It is not a difficult concept.”

“You truly think that bringing Twilight along--”

Luna stopped pretending to play chess and simply slumped. “What is the point of bringing a young mortal along to witness ancient sins and listen to your confusing stories? All I did was burden her, bother her, and in my absoulte foolishness perhaps corrupt her. You felt me on her, didn’t you?”

“I did. I had wondered, but wanted to ask.”

“I a out of practice containing myself,” Luna said with a snort. “Not that I was ever good at it. Her dive into the false well only solidified my decision.”

“You might find me more amenable to that solution than you’d think,” Celestia said, and she too stopped pretending to play chess. She took a sip of her omnipresent tea. I treasure anything that delays the inevitable, so Luna remembered her saying. “Am I pleased that Twilight’s mind has been violated? No. But would I rather have had her returned home in madness? Also no.”

“No faith that she would have endured her visions?” Luna asked a bit too quickly.

“The pony I have the most faith in didn’t,” Celestia replied just as quickly.

Luna wished they could go back to sparring through chess metaphors. No matter how cliche or dubious they were, she preferred them now.

“I… fair,” Luna managed. “Forgive me.”

Celestia just nodded. She had been rather serious about her commitment to stop apologizing over and over since Luna’s return.

“What was your original motive for asking for Twilight to accompany you?” she asked instead.

“I… I wasn’t thinking clearly. I felt so lonely. I just wanted someone who wasn’t me to look at that place and…” Luna squirmed in her seat. Was it hot in this room? Why hadn’t she asked to meet her sister on one of their balconies where escape was easy? “If you’re looking for a good reason, there isn’t one.”

“I think there is.”

“Then please, enlighten me.”

Celestia looked back at the board. “You wanted someone to confess to. Some pony you could confide in, and not worry about history. You wanted a friend, sister. That is far from meaningless.”

“And she knows, what, nothing? I erased it all.”

“You didn’t erase the experience for yourself, I assume.”

Luna blinked. “Well, no.”

“Then you remember that Twilight Sparkle is a good mare who has come a long way from her days in my tutelage. You know that she can bear your burden and call you friend. I’d say you learned more than you let on.”

Celestia yawned. “As for the rest… well. I won’t tell you that your suffering has or does not have meaning, Lulu. You’re the one who insisted on meaning inside every stone, not me.”

“Our oldest contention,” Luna griped.

“And the one that shall never die. Does your past in that city have meaning? Well, do you want it to? Because if you do, then I think you already know what it means. And if you don’t, then it doesn’t mean a thing just as you suspected, and you shall be free.”

“As noncommittal as ever,” Luna grunted.

But Celestia shook her head. “No. I am very committed. I simply care more about ponies themselves than about the ideas that bite at their ankles. I care more about my little sister, Luna, then I do about the questions others might ask about her. And with that… It’s about time that I retired, Lulu. Will you be alright?”

Luna smirked. “I’ll be fine. I’ll see you at breakfast.”

Celestia laughed and hummed. “I’d like that.” And she took the pieces and put them back in her rosewood box even as Luna rose and dusted herself off out of habit. They embraced, and Celestia kissed both her cheeks as they did long before Equestria, when Luna had still felt young indeed. They said their goodbyes, and Luna returned to her quiet solitary apartments. She listened to the echoes of tiny palace noises magnified in her resounding chambers tenfold times, and drew out the cosmic alignments for the month in glowing thaumic residue upon the floor, scribing runes that burned in place on the very air. She had work to do, she had work to do. She had secrets to burrow into and dreams to shepherd.

It was about this time that she noticed the letter waiting for her on her desk. Her seneschal had scribbled an apologizing explanation that it was personal mail, not court business, and inside she found another letter from her friend, Twilight Sparkle.

You went first last time, so it’s my turn to go first. I’ll be up most of the night, so… e4.

Luna blinked. She laughed. She laughed scattered her glowing projections and reworked them into a board, moving Twilight’s pawn upon it. Meaningful or not, she would gladly still play the game.