The Price of Grace

by Sparkle

First published

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

‘Have you ever,’ she started, ‘broken a promise you made?’

Celestia and Luna live a carefree childhood at Canterlot Castle, but its end approaches far too quickly — no matter how much they struggle, they find themselves drifting apart. And without their noticing, a new evil rises that could drive a wedge between them for good...


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Chapter 1

« ... a tiny speck of shadow against the vast, bright sunlight ... »

It was midnight, but the lights in Canterlot Tower were still burning.

Princess Celestia sat in her study and stared out through the window into a starless night. In front of her, atop the disorder that was her desk, lay unfurled a scroll of parchment which she had been studying meticulously. But even her attention span had been depleted by now, and she had felt her mind slip more and more often as she tried to focus on the letters in front of her; so she had given up on it to gaze aimlessly into the darkness. Midnight’s stroke did little to disrupt her thoughts; in her mind, she was drifting off to a faraway place, a faraway time...

The door was opened discreetly. She turned around: it was one of her numerous servants, a young, almost baby-faced stallion with a perfectly befitting subservient look. She couldn’t recall seeing him before, which was unsurprising; they changed constantly. He bowed and proceeded to clear up the tea service on her desk. She watched him in silence and smiled wearily.

“Any mail?” she asked.

He looked surprised. “Not that I know of, Majesty.”

“But it’s Tuesday —”

“By now it is Wednesday. Are you expecting anything in particular, your Majesty? At this hour?"

She gave him a long, searching look, then shook her head. She could hardly admit what letter she was really waiting for.

"I just came to check up on you," the servant went on. "And as always, you seem dreadfully busy.”

“I certainly am,” she said and wiped her eyes with her hoof. “News aren’t so good these days. I hardly feel like reading them anymore.” She pointed towards the parchment on her desk. Then she gave him a smile. “What about you? You’ve been here since dawn. You should call it quits for today, if you want to,” she said gently.

“Thank you," he said, surprised. "But it is an unwritten rule among servants not to call it a night before the boss does.”

She laughed. “How very courteous of you. I’m afraid, however, that it will be some time before I too can make it to bed. So now may just be your last chance to take me up on the offer before I change my mind.”

“Before you make it to bed? I was unaware Majesty ever slept.”

“Not when I can avoid it."

“Well, Majesty, if you need to stay up, I might instead make myself useful by preparing some more black tea.”

“Maybe that wouldn’t be the worst of ideas,” she said and smiled.

The stallion bowed politely and, hovering the service in front of him, trotted over to the door. But before he left the study, curiosity appeared to get the better of him, and he turned around. “I know my curiosity isn’t... befitting... but what is it that keeps you up so late?”

She looked at him absently, then at the parchment on her desk. Her apologetic smile slowly faded. “Nothing in particular, I’m just ... indulging old memories. Nostalgia. I guess I’m growing old, aren’t I?”

“You’re immortal, Majesty.”

His gaze remained inscrutable as she stared at him intently, weighing his words. When she spoke again, her tone careful and deliberate. “Yes... that is what they say, do they not? My body may be... but even the best of spirits is drained eventually by the fatigue that comes with time. Is weighed down by it... Every mind, even my own, has its expiry date.”

A thick silence fell between the ponies.

“Well, your Majesty,” the servant said finally. “Let us hope that your life will continue to be prosperous. I just hope you haven’t forgotten about tomorrow’s festivities.” And with that, he gently closed the door behind him.

The festivities...

It was the eve of the Summer Sun Celebration. Another year had gone by.

Celestia sighed deeply. She got up and walked towards the large, resplendent gable window; imposed on top of the darkness, her own feeble reflection stared back at her, like a ghost floating in the night sky outside. She placed a hoof against the glass and waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness.

She used her other hoof to comb aside her fur on her chest. Hidden under the immaculate coat, there was a tiny, perfectly circular burning mark. She lifted her head to stare out into the darkness that lay behind her reflection, into the starless night, where thick clouds drained any light.

And yet far off in the distance, a faint silvery crescent moon hung resplendent in the darkness, surrounded by a feeble aura of milky light. It was tiny, so tiny and so far away; but it looked tantalisingly close, as though she just had to extend her hoof to grasp it. The crescent stirred an insatiable yearning in Celestia. She soundlessly opened the window, and the sharp, fresh smell of night air permeated the room.

“Luna,” she tentatively whispered into the night.

Of course, no response came back. She sighed and closed the window once more.

Drooping her head, she looked once more at the circular scar on her chest. It was a merely superficial lesion; the true wounds, she thought, ran much deeper.

Her mind started to wander. As her own reflection in the glass seemed to fade into Luna’s, all those memories began floating to the surface once more. The sensation wasn’t at all unfamiliar. During endless years, she had grown accustomed to it. It was always the same memories; always the same question.

Where had it all gone wrong?


How she had first laid eyes on Luna!

Her mind traveled back to that day, more than a millennium ago. In her mind’s eye, she was a foal again. She saw herself from the outside, as an external observer. Her younger self stood in one of Canterlot Castle’s endless corridors, by the window, and looked out over the castle’s grounds. It was weird; the scene came to her vividly, not vaguely, as though she was really standing there once more, all those centuries ago. How old was she back then? Four? Five? In any case, she was anxiously waiting for something, her gaze terse with anticipation, about to be confronted with something she wasn’t familiar with yet.

Someone called her from behind; young Celestia took her eyes off the window and turned around. It was one of the servants who was beckoning her into the room. Apparently, the time had come.

The servant let her in and, with a nod, closed the door behind her. On the large, fluffy bed lay her mother; a large, spring green mare with a resplendent blue orb for a cutie mark. She had doffed her diamond collier and deposited it on the night stand. Despite her apparent exhaustion, she smiled weakly when she saw Celestia enter.

“Tia,” she said. “C’mere.”

Celestia timidly approached, unsure what to expect or how to act. In her mother’s hooves, closely cradled against her sleek, ample chest, lay a tiny foal of a creamy blue colour — the colour of the night sky when the moon was at its highest. It was fast asleep, eyes tightly closed with a bit of grit in their corner, its tiny chest raising and lowering peacefully. The stump of a horn protruded from the forehead, and the outline of tiny, downy wings was visible against the foal’s minuscule body. On its face was a peaceful smile that for some reason appeared incredibly profound to Celestia. She questioningly looked up at her mother, her eyes wide, saying nothing.

“She’s your sister, Tia,” her mother said, smiling, a watery glint in her eyes.

My sister...

Don’t be shy, Tia,” her mother encouraged her. “Come up here into bed.”

Celestia lightly hopped onto the sheets. She looked at the tiny filly in awe. She looked like something infinitely precious and delicate, something that you didn’t want to lose, but that you had to be sure to handle with the utmost care so as not to break it. The foal that was her sister looked so fragile that Celestia suddenly worried her mere gaze might hurt her.

But her mother lightly brushed the filly’s fur and downs, slightly ruffling them in the process; the little one was too tightly asleep to take notice.

“Does she... does she have a name yet?” Celestia asked breathlessly.

“Yes,” her mother said without hesitation. “Her name is Luna.”

Luna,” Celestia repeated, as if to commit the name to memory. Luna... the name seemed intimately familiar, like something she had known a long time ago and was now reminded of. As though it had always been a part of her, somewhere, in some faraway corner of her self. It sounded right.

“Did you pick her name?” she said with wide eyes. “It’s so beautiful.”

Her mother laughed lightly and raised a hoof to tousle Celestia’s soft rose mane. “It’s the only one that fits! Celestia Sunray... and Luna Moonlight. Look.”

She moved her hoof and revealed the foal’s tiny flank. It wasn’t blank; instead, it had the prettiest cutie mark Celestia had ever seen on any pony: a brightly glowing crescent moon, untarnished by clouds or stars, standing out clearly against the foal’s night-blue coat. It emitted a fine silvery light into the dim room, something that Celestia had never seen before on any cutie mark. Her mother looked attentively at the cutie mark and then smiled at Celestia.

“Your sister’s the night sky,” she said, her voice thick with happiness. “And you’re a morning’s dawn. I’m just the soil — I guess that can only mean you’ll both surpass me by leaps and bounds.”

She gently kissed the newborn’s forehead, who didn’t even seem to notice, and then bowed over to Celestia to kiss her, too, right between her eyes; Celestia returned her mother’s affectionate gaze.

“You and your sister,” she said slowly, making sure Celestia understood, “you will one day rule this land. But you have to do it together; just like the day needs the night to be day, you two are going to need each other to be strong.” She tenderly brushed a streak of stray purple hair from Celestia’s forehead.

Celestia looked at the filly’s tiny forehead, then could no longer hold back the question that tormented her. “But will you still love me?”

Her mother looked surprised, but then smiled. “Of course, Sunray. I’ll always love you.” She laid down on the bed, her one, newborn daughter in her arm, her other daughter lying beside her, and looked up to the chamber’s enchanted ceiling, where galaxies and nebulae were turning and swirling. Her smile faded, not disappearing, simply becoming weaker, more pensive. “I will always love you,” she repeated, this time addressing Luna, as if to make sure neither felt disadvantaged. But in reality, her words were addressed to herself first of all. “There’s enough love for both of you,” she murmured under her breath. “And there always will be.”

And there always will be.



Even the thousand years that came after did nothing to deter from the vividness of those earliest memories. The thousand years had left no visible footprint behind, strangely enough, but her childhood was still there in sharp detail.

She smiled as those memories resurfaced; back then, Celestia had been the happiest she could recall. Of course, when you are young, you don’t realise that things aren’t going to stay that way forever. You simply assume life remains all fun and games until the deathbed.

There was much fun to be had if you were a royal filly in Canterlot without a care in the world and a sister for your best friend. A foal’s world is to be found at half-height, from a different perspective; it’s a secret garden inaccessible to adults, however royal they may be, hidden from their sight. Everything was new and fresh in those early days. Every food was something new and exciting, every place they went to, even if it lay within Canterlot Castle’s confines, was like visiting a faraway planet, and every flower they smelled had the strongest and most invigorating scent of them all. It was these single, successive moments that formed the mosaic of memories retained in Celestia’s mind.

Alas, theirs was a foal’s world exclusively. Her mother had very little part in their early lives. Even looking back, Celestia couldn’t really find fault with that, sympathising with her mother now that she herself held this responsibility and knew what sacrifices it entailed. They had no father. Consequently, the only adults present in their early lives were the hoofful of nannies her mother had engaged and wisely instructed to watch over them, but not constrain their foalish enthusiasm too much. Their nannies’ hoofs-off approach, which was really more of a sideline service in case a wound needed mending or tears drying (usually Luna’s), suited the fillies perfectly. They soon became partners in crime trying to escape their nannies’ attention for longer and longer, conspiring to elaborate schemes that involved sending their caretakers on impossible errants while the fillies ravaged the royal pantry for chocolate.

Once, they had earned themselves two weeks of house arrest for releasing a pack of giant, famished parasprites from the royal bestiary into the pantry “to see what was going to happen”. By some mistake, they ended up spending most of it in one chamber high up in Canterlot Tower. That fortnight was probably the one she had been closest to her sister, Celestia thought. How they had passed the time! Celestia, as the older sister, was always eager to show off her more advanced magical abilities, while Luna responded with an adorable sense of absolute astonishment to the simplest of tricks.

“Look, Loony,” she said, closing her eyes in concentration, slowly levitating a tiny daisy she had found in a vase, all petals still cramped closely against the trunk. The plant rotated idly in mid-air, unaware of its own fate. Celestia looked on with intense focus, and then, her features contracted, made the flower open its petals until it stood in full bloom.

Luna gasped in amazement.

“It’s so pretty,” she squeaked.

“Yeah, it is.” Celestia grinned, pleased with herself.

Suddenly, Luna thought of something. “Tia,” she said. “Can you do it the other way too?”

Celestia frowned at her sister. “The other way?”

“Yeah. You know — make it lose its petals.”

“You mean kill it?”

Luna looked scared. “No! I just mean —”

“Where’d you get that?” Celestia said, shaking her head in mock disgust. “Why would you want to destroy that beautiful flower? Who gave you that idea?”

Luna lowered her head. “— nopony. Sorry.”

The daisy still hovered in full bloom, but instantly dropped to the floor as though made of lead when Celestia’s attention was suddenly diverted by the open window. She looked at it, then at her wings, who were already rather strong for a filly’s, and wondered why she hadn’t thought of this before.

“Hey Luna,” she said mischievously. “Feel like staying holed up in here any longer?”


“You’re supposed to say no,” Celestia said, frowning.

“D’you wanna get out?” Celestia tried again.

“Umm, out? But how — oh —”

Luna looked towards the open window and watched Celestia, who gave a silvery laugh and climbed onto the window frame. She also threw a quick, mildly disappointed glance towards her own wings, which as of yet remained slightly underdeveloped.

“But Tia, I can’t — fly—”

Celestia turned around, an impish smile on her lips. “You can’t fly?” she said. “Well, in that case, I will have to throw you!” And with these words, she pushed Luna out of the window. The filly screamed, but quickly broke into laughter, as Celestia was soaring after her to slow down her fall; prodding her with her muzzle, wrapping her hooves around her in mid-air, and pulling her along, the view beneath them dizzying, but invigorating.

Luna laughed as Celestia let go with one hoof, and they both dropped a dozen feet. “Come on, now by yourself, Luna!”

“But I can’t!”

“Just beat your wings!” Celestia cried out and let go of Luna.

Luna flapped them bravely, indeed managing to stay in the air for a couple of seconds, hovering on the spot like an oversized, periwinkle hummingbird. Celestia soared overhead and dragged her sister along with her, who laughed, then screamed, then laughed again. How free they had felt! How invigorating it was to escape from the confines of that chamber! And how wonderful it was to be here, soaring through the skies, the cool wind ruffling their feathers and fur, with her little sister, her sister! Celestia remembered the laughing most of all.

But something had gone wrong. As Celestia laughed, in a slip of attention, she hadn’t held the filly tight enough. Luna’s laughs soon turned into screams as she tumbled towards the castle grounds. Celestia only noticed at the very last instant that Luna had slipped from her grip, and as she dived after Luna, she realised she wasn’t going to make it.

“FLAP YOUR WINGS!” Celestia screamed, but the slipstream stifled her cries. Luna instinctively beat her wings, but at the velocity she was rushing towards the ground, the chance of overcoming air drag was very low. Celestia, whose heart was palpitating madly, pressed her own wings snug against her body and simply speared down, willing her muscles to be as tightly clenched as possible so as to be faster. In the very last moment, when she felt the ground approaching, she opened her eyes and grabbed Luna’s neck from right under her with her mouth.

They were barely two feet over the ground.

Celestia wrapped herself around her sister like a hedgehog to protect her from the impact, and the next instant, a blinding pain tore through her shoulder. She skidded a few feet before finally coming to rest on the lawn, her little sister wrapped in her hoofs, safe and unscathed.

They breathed heavily. Luna’s eyes were closed, and Celestia felt her tiny heart boom furiously in her chest. Celestia gasped for air. Only very slowly did her breathing normalise, her heart beat at a regular rhythm, and the adrenaline evaporate from her veins. She felt Luna’s warmth against her body, and the sounds of their raspy breathing intermingled.

After what seemed like an eternity, Luna started to cry.

“No,” Celestia said weakly, still out of breath. “Don’t cry...”

Luna rolled off Celestia with a thud. “I told you I couldn’t fly!” wailed the filly. “I told you! Why did you make me?”

“I didn’t -- Loony -- where are you going?”

“Getting Mom,” said the filly and stomped up towards the castle.

“To tell on me?”

“No,” squeaked Luna, her face full of confused tears. “Because you’re hurt!”


Celestia’s subsequent trip to the infirmary had ended with an acquittal by her mother, who apparently thought Celestia had been punished enough for any further house arrest to be necessary. “I don’t believe in punishment, anyways,” her mother had confided in Celestia. “It’s your nannies. But what can I do? They won’t be able to keep up with you if they can’t even give you house arrest.”

“Sooo... can you tell them... not to give us house arrest anymore?”

“Sure. I’m Queen Gaia, monarch of Equestria, remember?” And she gave an impish laugh.

Gaia’s nonchalant attitude, however, did little to hide the fact that she was first and foremost insanely relieved nothing worse had happened. Celestia’s shoulder was unscathed except for some superficial bruises. She could then already leave a few hours after her mother’s visit.

As Celestia trotted back to their chamber that evening, on the corridor, she saw her mother’s large figure sitting on the balcony, her back turned to the door, unflanked by any guards or adjutants and all alone; a rare sight. She simply seemed to enjoy the impending sunset, her spring-green plumage aglow with the soft evening light; a golden halo surrounded her entire figure.

But something else attracted Celestia’s attention: she heard animated laughter from inside of the guard’s quarters. That was often the case at this hour of day, but this time, she stayed, pricking up her ears when she heard the name Luna. She soundlessly approached the door and leaned in to listen, trying hard to discern the muffled voices on the other side of the door.

“Yeah, she flew today“, blurted a young, rough voice from inside. “I saw her fly with her sister. Seems like she’s teaching her.“

“Damn, she’s learning fast.“

“Too fast for my liking.“

“It’s not enough that she’s giving everypony the creeps with her weirdness, her whole creepy stare, now she can fly too! Great!“

“I tell you, that foal ain’t right.“

“Remember last week? Her little accident. I had a full two day of stomachaches afterwards. I keep saying, that ain’t right, but what can you do? She’s royalty. Can’t just say, nope, sorry, Gaia, not gonna be around that creep of a daughter anymore!”

“Keep it down some, guys,” a nervous voice tried to placate, but was quickly drowned out.

“Well, you can’t be right when you’re supposed to represent the night — I don’t envy that kid, no wonder folks are afraid of her!“

“Hey, I don’t mind the night!“

“Yeah, cause that’s the time to get drunk!“

With those words, roaring laughter emerged from inside of the quarters, and what sounded like beer mugs being clinked.

“Accident,” Celestia mouthed.

She had heard enough. Confused and intimidated, she hurried towards their chamber, certainly not with the intention to tell the vulnerable Luna what she had heard. And there was another, new feeling inside of her.



There was no father in Celestia’s and Luna’s life, and especially Celestia soon tried to fill that hole by seeking out the friendship of the oldest and most experienced guards in the castle. The Queen had put this stallion in charge of castle security — a mostly consultative capacity — in recognition of his merit and experience in battle. Word on the castle grounds — which had not reached the filly — was that the respected old pony had suffered heavy wounds in battle, and not just of the physical nature. He was friendly towards Celestia and her sister, and since he himself had no family anypony knew of, ponies murmured that he started to regard especially Celestia as a surrogate daughter.

His name was Acier; everypony agreed that it must be foreign, although he had no discernible accent, and there was nopony still around at court to remember when he had first arrived to work as a guard; except maybe for the queen herself. Taciturn by nature, he did not take to ponies asking him about his past; and because young Celestia like any foal was thoroughly uninterested in the past, that was a perfect fit. Any glum lifestory he might have had thus remained hidden to Celestia; neither did it initially strike her as odd that he didn't seem to have a cutie mark.

Acier had an uncommon hobby for a war veteran, or maybe not as uncommon as could be assumed. He spent his free afternoons in his workshop — which was essentially his sleeping chamber — in front of his workbench, to work on intricate and fine jewellery. His specialty was gems. He had an intimate relationship with them, perhaps more intimate than with any pony, and when he spoke of them, his benign old eyes would light up, and his taciturnity seemed gone. Maybe, Celestia thought now, he needed the delicate beauty of gems to compensate for all the ugliness and horrors he had witnessed.

In any case, Acier was the one she turned to when she heard the guards’ whispers about Luna. She visited him, a habit she had taken on, in his workshop-chamber; it was always overfilled with cutting tools and gems and metals, in a state of constant disarray which Acier swore was actually a very cleverly thought out order. Along one side of the room, there ran a giant key-board, on which he kept the keys to all the castle’s major doors. In any case, there were so many gems in so many colours lying there that the room was constantly bathed in a rainbow-coloured sparkle: they refracted the sunlight.

She entered the workshop. “Acier?” she called. “I wanna ask you something. I was walking back from dinner today, and then … I ran into a couple of guards,” she swindled, preferring not to admit she had eavesdropped. “And they were making fun of Loony. Why were they making fun of Loony?”

The stallion froze.

“Making fun of her?” the sturdy pony said finally, interrupting his work for a while to benignly look at the filly. “How? What did they say?”

“They called her creepy,” Celestia said, spitting the word out as though it left a nasty taste in her mouth.

He sighed, then proceeded to close the door behind her. “They’re afraid of her is all. Bloody bunch of idiots.”

“Afraid?” Celestia asked. “Why are they afraid?”

He looked at her, weighing how deep the bond of trust between them ran, and whether it was worth telling the truth. He decided it was. “There’s been talk about funny stuff going on with that filly,” he sighed.

Celestia frowned. “That filly,” she said, “is my sister, and she has a name, Luna, Princess Luna, thank you very much.” She puffed her chest, which appeared ridiculous; yet Acier didn’t laugh, but just nodded earnestly.

“You’re right. I’m sorry, Tia.”

“Apology accepted,” she chirped with dignity. “But what funny stuff?”

“Well, she’s... apparently, she’s known to have some trouble containing her ... her magic. I don’t really know much, I don’t see her that often — and different from you she doesn’t really visit me here…”

“Her magic“, Celestia murmured and remembered Luna’s fruitless attempts to make the daisy blossom. “I didn’t think she was really good with her magic yet…“

The guard went back to work, chipping away the gem at hoof with a very finely controlled chisel, which he was moving in midair using his horn. He sanded off any rough edges. Celestia observed him, mildly interested, before asking him what he was working on.

“A brooch,” he said.

“For whom?”

He smirked. “Gonna be a present for you.”

“For me?”

“For the two of you. One for you, and one for your sister. You see, this is a very special stone that I’m working on here. Want to have a look?”

She came closer to the workbench and propped up her tiny front hooves so that she could see what was on the surface. The gem that lay there looked inconspicuous at first, but when she took a closer look, she realised its colour was divided neatly in two halves: one half was a bright white, the other a dark night blue. It had a beautiful sparkle to it.

“It’s a bistone,” he said. “Those are pretty rare to find, let me tell you. Pity it’s not going to stay whole.”

“Not whole?” she asked incredulously. “Are you going to... split it up?”

“Well, yes. How else could I make two brooches out of it?”

“But... if you split it up, it won’t be as beautiful, cause it’s not one anymore.”

“Is that so?” he said, a twinkle in his eyes. “Or will it be even more beautiful than before? Wouldn’t I have made two beautiful pieces of jewellery out of a single rough stone?”

“It’s just not... right... to split it up,” she insisted.

“Well, sometimes, Tia,” he said conspiratorially, “two things that were apart will grow all the stronger when they find each other once more.”

She tried to understand his words, but no matter how much she mulled them over, they didn’t make any sense to her. So she simply brushed them aside while watching him sand the stone, cringing when he finally made the cut and started to polish the two halves until they had a smooth shimmer to them. In the end, they both had the forms of perfect half-orbs that could be put together at the intersection to form one perfectly round, two-coloured marble.

“D’you think I should tell mom?” Celestia blurted suddenly.

“You mean about the guards?” Acier asked in surprise.

“Yeah. Cause if I tell her —”

“— she’d surely send them to the moon, yes,” he said gravely. “Or rather, she’ll have me do it. But at the end of the day, that decision is up to you, Tia. Do you want to punish them?”

“Punish them?” She looked up at the stallion, surprised at the question. “Well... I don’t know... I don’t wanna punish them, I just want to know what problem they have with her. Because to be honest, it makes me a little angry to hear them talk about her like that. Well, very angry.”

“That’s normal. You’re protective of your sister.”

“I mean, it’s just not their business, you know?”

“Oh, I know. Well, if you want to, I can have a word with them. I’m sure they’ll get the memo sooner rather than later.”

But they never would.


Celestia distinctly remembered one day in particular from their childhood; she was nine at the time, and Luna six. It had been a mild summer afternoon, and the air around Canterlot was heavy and sweet with the odours of the ongoing fruit harvest; the apple trees planted all over the castle’s demesne were covered with apples and abandoned harvest baskets. Celestia had dragged Luna out into the castle grounds to investigate a rumour one of the castle guards had made her aware of.

“She said,” a breathless Celestia told Luna, her voice a conspiratorial whisper, “that there’s a phoenix around here.”

Luna’s eyes widened. “Woah,” she said, and then added: “What’s a phoenix, Tia?”

“A bird!” Celestia announced. “A huge red bird with really beautiful gold lines and stuff which is really pretty and really rare.”

“Woah,” her sister said again.

“And we two,” Celestia said mischievously, “we are going to catch it!”

“Catch it? But isn’t that — dangerous?”

“Pah, for the bird maybe.”

“But why do you wanna catch it?”

“Cause it’ll be really fun,” assured Celestia. “And you can practise flying. Okay, here’s our plan.” Like a general leaning over a map of battlegrounds, she bent over a tiny crayon drawing with a clumsily drawn map of the castle grounds. “The phoenix was seen here —” she pointed towards a horribly misspelt caption on the map “and if it’s still there, which it will be, we are gonna catch it and bam! We’ve got ourselves a new pet.”

Luna wasn’t entirely convinced about the viability of Celestia’s plan. “Won’t it just fly away when it feels threatened?”

“Well, yeah, duh. But we’ve got wings too, right? So then we’ll just fly after him!”

“I can’t fly,” muttered Luna.

“Oh yes you can, Loony, you flew great when we were grounded in that tower, remember?”

Luna stared blankly at Celestia, then shook her head. “Yeah, but that was different,” she peeped. “You pushed me out of a window.”

“Oh yeah... right... but I also caught you to make up for it! You just need a little more confidence, that’s all!”

They indeed found the phoenix, so their hunt ended not without success — and yet with mixed results. It turned out that Luna had been so afraid of the phoenix that she couldn’t hold it in place as had been instructed; she shrieked and ran away towards the castle in fear, leaving Celestia to catch the bird with her horn’s powers (which was considerably less fun). She put an apple crate over the bird to keep it in place, but for some reason that had everything to do with the intricacy of sisterly relationships, she didn’t feel content about her success, but rather let down by her sister.

“You didn’t do it right, Loony! You’re doing it all wrong!” Celestia spouted with tears of anger in her eyes at nopony in particular (since her sister was far off by now). “You were supposed to hold it!”

But Luna had run for it and wasn’t there anymore. Instead, it was somepony else who came striding over the hill: a large, sleek alicorn with a spring-green hue; on her chest there hung resplendent a gold collier with a large, rough diamond in its middle, of infinite beauty, of infinite purity...

Her mother looked at Celestia in the grass, blinking surprisedly, and then smiled when she understood what was going on, the phoenix trapped under the crate and Celestia’s angry cries. She lightly stepped down the hill and embraced Celestia.

“Shh, shh, shh,” made her mother and cradled her close against her chest. “No need to cry. Maybe, Tia, it’s you who’s doing it all wrong.”

Celestia said nothing but had stopped crying, feeling her mother’s warmth against her, breathlessly, her eyes wide open. Her mother extended a hoof through the broad gaps between the crate’s beams and carefully petted the sleek phoenix. The bird didn’t object in the slightest and responded to the caresses by craning its beautiful neck and cooing softly.

“What a proud and graceful bird. Do you really think she’ll be happy in that cage?”

“It’s… she’s… a she?” Celestia muttered sheepishly.

Her mother gave a silvery laugh. “Of course! You haven’t found a name for her yet then, I assume?”

Celestia shook her head.

“Well, maybe I can make a suggestion.” She patted Celestia’s forehead. “How about Grace?”

“I don’t know, mom,” Celestia said, confused by the prolonged attention she was receiving. “Grace … Grace is a weird name for a bird…”

“Do you think so?” her mother said softly. “I like it.” She traced the silvery patterns on the bird’s coat with her hooves. Its fiery and mysterious eyes looked back at her, moonstruck, as though an invisible band ran between them. Celestia felt her anger dissipate. What did it matter that Luna hadn’t caught the bird properly? Wasn’t that a luck?

“There’s only one thing that really counts,” her mother continued gently. “Grace. Grace, grace, grace, that’s the most important thing you can ever have. That you can ever share with the world.”

She softly kissed her daughter’s forehead. “Grace,” she repeated, and with a glow of her horn set the phoenix free.

The dazed bird looked around, incredulous about this lucky turn of fate, and tentatively moved its wings. When it saw all resistance gone, all constraints removed, it got up on its hindlegs, as though afraid of toppling over, and finally propelled itself into the air; its two large, scarlet wings fully outstretched, it rose high above them and finally let itself glide with the wind. It looked down at them and emitted a loud but pleasant-sounding cry that sounded almost grateful.

Her mother followed the bird with her eyes, then turned back to Celestia.

“I think you’re growing up, Tia,” she said mildly. “There’s no denying it. You’re growing up. Tears of anger really don’t suit you.” She lightly caressed Celestia’s rosy, flowing mane, then got up reluctantly when one of her adjutants, who had just appeared on the hill to interrupt their moment, called her.

“Queen Gaia,” he said nervously. “We need you in the castle, please.”

She nodded without turning to face him, still smiling at Celestia. “Grace,” she said again. “Don’t you ever forget, Sunray, what grace can do.” And then, after winking at Celestia, she let go of her to follow her servants into the castle. Celestia struggled to get up on her hooves.

“I’ll see you at dinner, mom!” she cried after her mother. The queen turned around and smiled, still striding away. “Yes!” she shouted back. “I’ll see the two of you, Tia!”

We’ll see you at dinner,” Celestia murmured, but her mother was already out of earshot.


She looked up towards the sky, where the faint outline of the phoenix was still visible, rising higher and higher; soon it was only a tiny speck of shadow against the vast bright sunlight, and then gone. There was a twinge in her heart: had all their work been in vain? To simply let free the phoenix they had tried so hard to catch!

But somewhere in her heart, she felt that her mother was right, and that letting go of something that wanted to be free was the only proper course of action; that clutching on to something could be selfish. And that grace could set yourself free, too.

“Goodbye, Grace,” she murmured. Then, not without a pang of guilt, she got up to look after her sister.

“A phoenix,” Acier said later that day and clucked his tongue. “That’s something.”

Celestia had visited him once again in his workshop and, somewhat overeagerly, recounted their little adventure, flailing her hooves about wildly to demonstrate the phoenix’s narrow escape and eventual triumph. When she described how she had nonetheless managed to trap the bird under the box, her excitement waned, and she felt a slight pricking of remorse.

“And then,” she hurried to say, “my mom came, and she said the phoenix wasn’t a he, but a she!

“Oh really? How did she know?” the old guard asked amusedly and continued beating the adamant he was smithing.

“I dunno… but my mom is really good with animals, I guess…”

He nodded sagely. “That is true. She’s very good with animals.”

“And my mom gave her a name, you’ll never guess what it is!”

“Mrs Steerforth?”

“What? No. She named her Grace!”

“That’s a weird name for a bird,” he acknowledged, and Celestia felt validated.

He stopped a moment, waiting for the adamant to cool, and took on a pensive expression as he fixed her with his gaze. “A phoenix,” he said again. “Those are really rare, powerful birds. Normal ponies would never be able to catch one, much less... on a whim...”

Celestia couldn’t help but smile proudly. His gaze, however, was at most only half praising, the other half being more curious or even analytic. “And Luna helped?” he asked after a while.

“Yeah,” she said, “but Luna’s not that good at flying yet…”

“And is she good at magic?”

Celestia shook her head. “Not yet…”

“She’s six now, isn’t she?”

“Yeah. I got three years on her, remember?”

“Oh, o’course.” He dipped the metal into a small bath of water to cool it down, then recommenced working on it. “You know, I’ve seen a phoenix, once. Just once.”


“Yeah. But that’s been a long, long, long time ago, in a faraway place. I had no idea that two lil’ cubs like you were just gonna go for a walk in the park and find one flying around these parts. Just like that!” He clicked his hooves. “You know what a phoenix can do?”

“What do you mean?” Celestia asked blankly. “Fly?”

“That too. But any bird can fly. And a phoenix isn’t just like any normal, run-of-the-mill fowl. They can do something amazing. Something that, now that I think about it, you can do, too.” He was looking at her directly now, as though he saw her for the very first time.

“What?” Celestia asked. “Well, I can fly, too, not very well, but—”

“Not that. A phoenix can live forever.”

“But I… oh,” she said, not without disappointment. Living forever didn’t really seem like any special power to her back then. Not necessarily because she herself had this property — which she would painfully struggle with later — but first and foremost because any child can only imagine the here and now and maybe at the most the next mealtime, but never the meaning of a term as abstract and obscure as “forever”. Accordingly, a lack of mortality didn’t really speak to her in particular. For example, she was blissfully unaware that the guard in front of her, her good friend Acier, would die one day, and sooner rather than later. Even if somepony had told her, what bearing would it have had on the here and now? And if someone had told her that things would change with time, that she wouldn’t always be with her sister -- would she even have understood the significance of that at that point? (She understood now. How things had changed!)

“And when my mother came and saw me, she said,” Celestia added proudly, “that I was growing up. That I’ll probably have magic lessons soon and stuff.”

He looked at her. “That’s what she said?”

“Yes.” Celestia cocked her head. “Then she had to leave go with her stupid adjutants again.”

“You’re not happy about that, are you?”

Celestia shook her head violently.

“Well, your mother… she’s very busy these days. I mean, she’s always busy, but now even more so than usual. I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

Celestia nodded and lowered her gaze. If anypony had noticed, it was clearly her, she thought heavily.

“You know — there’s bad ponies who are trying to hurt her in Canterlot right now. Who aren’t keeping their promises. Who are talking behind your mother’s back.”

Celestia raised her head to look at the old pony. “What do you mean?”

“That they’re trying to —” He stopped in his tracks, then started anew. “Just that your mother is very busy right now, trying to deal with these ponies.”

“But why would they… don’t they… don’t they like mom?”

He sighed. “Most do. We’ll just have to wait and see.” And there was something apologetic, sympathetic even, in his gaze. Celestia was manifestly confused; realising for the first time that one’s parents weren’t universally loved — or that anything wasn’t, for that matter — was a troubling experience for any child.

“There we go,” Acier said as he pulled out the cooled and ornate metal from its bath. He looked at it approvingly and showed it to Celestia. “It’s for your bistone brooches, you know? I hope you haven’t forgotten about those.”

Her eyes widened. “Are they — are they ready now?”

“Oh, not yet,” he said. “That’s gonna take a while. Maybe in one, two years?”

“Two years? But that’s, like, an eternity…

“Well, Tia, maybe good metal needs a bit of time to ripen. To mature, if you so will.”

That, of course, was clearly nonsense. But maybe he had meant to say that she needed to mature first?

That evening, the two fillies both lay awake for a long time in their chamber. Celestia mulled over Acier’s words. There’s bad ponies in Canterlot who aren’t keeping their promises. Which bad ponies? Which promises?

“Tia,” Luna said timidly into the dark of the room. “Are you… are you asleep?”

“No,” sighed Celestia after a long moment of silence.

“Me neither.”

“I know, Loony.”

Celestia heard Luna take a deep breath. There was another moment of silence in which they both contemplated the stars on the enchanted ceiling above. The stars were teetering back and forth, as though affixed to some invisible, gelatinous substance. Their feeble light danced on the walls in mesmerising patterns. Somewhere off in the distance, a galaxy spiralled. Bad ponies who are talking behind your mom’s back...

“Are you - are you still mad at me, Tia?”

“Because of the phoenix? No,” Celestia whispered, her lids half-closed. “No, I’m not mad at you.”

“But you’re mad at somepony. Somepony else then,” Luna insisted.

“Why do you think that?”


“Cause I know what being mad at somepony looks like,” Luna said finally. “What it feels like.”

Celestia said nothing. The only sound between them was their slow, almost inaudible breathing.

“And you, are you mad at me, Loony?”

“No,” Luna said after a while. “But I’m sad about you sometimes.”


“I can’t sleep,” said Luna.

“Mhm,” said Celestia into her pillow.

“Can you … can you sing a lullaby?”

Celestia rolled over and exhaled deeply. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, time to fall asleep right now.“


“That was… that didn’t even rhyme.” Luna tittered.

“Well, I’m not a poet,” grinned Celestia.

Above them, Earth whizzed past its giant mother star, a tiny, tiny speck of shadow in front of the Sun’s vast, bright light. And yet besides that, all was dark and cold in the universe.

Bad ponies trying to hurt your mother...

Celestia knew that Luna was still awake; but she felt her own lids grow heavy, her vision darkening, and her breathing slow down. “I love you, Luna,” she murmured, only half-conscious, before finally falling asleep.


Celestia’s dreams had been a vague amalgamation of shapes and light, indistinct figures walking towards her on shaky hooves; faces she did neither know nor could make out with any clarity. Her dream had started off grey and gloomy, but soon, more colours appeared: a soft spring green, a periwinkle blue, and then a flaming red that had almost blinded her with its refulgence, accompanied by a soothing, cooing call...

A phoenix, Celestia murmured.

The dream had burned in the image of the phoenix flying to freedom for good; it had managed to chase away any thoughts about Acier’s words and replaced them with undiluted beauty. Images have that proclivity. They tend to simply override words.

So that day, Celestia took it upon herself to find out more about the creature; she entered the castle’s library for what was maybe the first time and obtained a book on the Creatures of Equestria. It was leather-clad and certain to date back at least a century, but it would do the job. Celestia obviously knew how to read, but this was the first time she had delved into a book by her own initiative. There was something to opening a book, finding information and finishing a chapter that was strangely rewarding. Rewarding in a different way than catching a phoenix could ever be.

She stayed up late reading the tome; when she had finished the chapter on phoenixes, she simply went back and started over. But her lids were already heavy, and the letters in front of her started to blur.

The PHOENIX, or firebird, is an ornate bird approximately the size of an eagle. It is not a bird of prey and appears indeed independent of any kind of nourishment. Its specimens can be easily distinguished by their flame-coloured coat, with orange, yellow and scarlet red hues, as well as the intricate silver patterns that embellish their feathers; and no less by their distinctive, soothing cry, resembling the cooing of a dove...

Celestia’s head slumped onto the book and she finally dozed off. As the book bounced off the floor, another chapter sprang open.

But the most dangerous creature of all is the DRACONEQUUS, a mythical beast, an abomination against nature, an ancient being that by its very nature must not be... that thrives on disorder and strife, that feasts on undoing what others have built... cruel, cunning and reckless, its evasive and volatile disposition makes it invulnerable ... to almost any sort of attack ... indeed makes it impossible to recognise it for what it truly is.


As the years went on, Celestia’s conception of being a queen in the future changed from the idealised conception of a queen every little filly had, the fairy tale that everypony wanted to live, into the realisation that being a queen would entail a lot of responsibility and skill, and hard work on the road to that point. Since Celestia was three years older than Luna, that at some point meant they could spend less time together. This observation wasn’t yet obvious to Luna, who remained the foal she was; a loveable kid, but not yet embarked on the slow and long path to adolescence Celestia was already starting to climb. She felt stressed about her future, to say the least.

The book Celestia had consulted on the phoenix had instilled something else in her: a hunger for knowledge. What was more, she had at some point made the observation that academic success could be an outlet for her own feelings of inadequacy; they made her feel more justified in being a princess, as though she could earn herself the title through studious work. And they resulted in praise. Young Celestia thrived on it; words of praise from her mother were few and in between, and when Celestia was thrown that bone, she gobbled it up eagerly. Elogies about her academic progress were one of the few constants of their mother-daughter relationship, maybe because scholarly achievement constituted such a tangible and concrete measure of Celestia's mental development. Celestia then slowly started to spend less time outside with her sister and more at a desk, determined to do right by her future; even if those feelings of inadequacy would never go away, and the insecurity about her perceived ineptitude only grew stronger.


One day, the two sisters were on a trip to the Everfree Forest, where the castle was being built that was to become theirs one day. By the evening, Celestia found Luna on a cliff throning over the woods; she was crying. Luna had always been a weepy foal, sensitive, hurting; but the last year had been a time where things had been especially bad, where she would bawl her eyes out for no obvious reason. When she didn’t cry, she was silent and reserved, strangely removed from the goings-on around her in the castle.

Celestia walked up to the filly and sat beside her. Their silhouettes stood out against the twilight of the impending night, one slightly larger than the other. Celestia knew better than to talk to her sister. She knew there were times when silent comfort was all that was needed. She laid a hoof around Luna and joined her in staring down onto the peaceful forest. The woods’ tranquility was interrupted only by a birds’ concert to embrace the impending twilight.

After a while, Luna spoke up. “Tia...”


“They’re building this castle for us, right?”

“... yeah.”

“But I can’t stay with you here when it’s done. I’ll have to run away.”

Celestia was bewildered. “Run away?”


Celestia gave a silvery laugh.

“Why would you have to run away? Don’t be silly. You’re my sister. This will be our castle. We’re meant to rule together one day, Loony. That’s certain.”

But she saw in Luna’s eyes that that was a future the filly was already doubting; upon Celestia’s words, she averted her eyes, and instead looked out over the grounds in front of them. She was apparently scrambling to put her torment in words. “How do we know,” she said finally. “How do we know that we’re meant to become queens?”

Celestia lightly touched Luna’s flank, who shivered at the touch. “It’s our cutie marks,” she said. “We’ve got them since birth, have we not? They are our destiny. If anything is certain, then it’s this: One rules the light, one rules the night. The one can’t live without the other. We’re meant to rule together.”

Luna looked on doubtfully. “But night and day can never be together. One can’t exist with the other around.” Celestia’s smile faded. “One destroys the other. They’re opposites, they’ll never be together in the same place.”

“What’re you talking about, Luna? That’s nonsense.”

The filly shook her head. “There’s times,” she said, “when I’m all alone, when all around me’s silent, and then I can’t help but hear it.”

“Hear what?”

“That small buzzing in my head. It’s not really a voice... you can’t really make out what it says word by word. But I know that it tells me I’ll do something horrible. Like it’s telling my future. And it’s right. Sometimes I don’t even notice it. I’ll get angry for no reason, and I can make things happen to ponies. Bad things. Without me really wanting to.”

Celestia stared at her. She recalled Luna’s words that night in the chamber. She also recalled how she had been sure to have heard voices from inside their chamber when Luna had been in there all alone. But then she gave a small, bright laugh. “I’ve never seen you get angry, Loony. With or without a reason. Never.”

The two sisters looked down on Canterlot. Somewhere in the distance, a fleet of birds launched themselves into the air, crying out to announce their departure. The north star was already faintly visible.

“Tia,” Luna said finally, as though she had been searching for words all this time. “I want you to promise me something.” Celestia looked at her sister in surprise. “Anything,” she said.

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

Luna was biting her lower lips, her gaze furtive, shyly waiting. Celestia looked at her and realised that this question must have been haunting her for quite some time now; surely she had been searching for a long time for the right words to pose it to Celestia, for the right moment. The thought brought a weird melancholy to Celestia.

“Of course,” she said, her mouth dry. “I will always love you, Luna. Always.”

“Even when everypony else will hate me? If they hate me.”

“Even if they all hate you.”

Luna’s gaze was deep and searching.

“And if you let me fall, and I don’t manage to beat my wings by myself, you’ll catch me?”

“Like I did the first time and always.”

“And you will never hurt me?”


Celestia looked at her sister mildly; as she looked into Luna’s face, she was suddenly swept up in an extreme rush of affection for her sister, the kind of love your body seems barely able to contain. She pulled her sister towards her and hugged her tightly. Luna smiled bravely as she met Celestia’s gaze.

“You’ll always be my sister, Luna,” Celestia said, tousling and grooming the filly’s mane. “No matter what happens.”

Celestia, who had finally received the bistone brooches Acier had completed a solid three years ago, felt like this was the proper moment to share them with her sister. She levitated the two perfectly circular brooches in front of them. “Look,” she said.

Luna raised her eyes. There were two of them; one dark, the other bright like a morning’s sun; the first had a finely engraved, silvery crescent on it, the second a six-rayed sun... and both were made from the selfsame stone.

As she continued grooming Luna’s mane, she carefully affixed the dark brooch to her sister’s chest; the other one to her own. The brooches stuck by themselves. Their engraved marks lit up very faintly as they made contact with their warm skin. “As long as we live, Luna,” Celestia whispered. “As long as we live, we will have these, and no matter where we are, we will always be together.”

Night fell, and since the moon was still feeble and narrow, it were the castle’s torches that made them cast their shadows; and what giant shadows they cast, projected all over the forest in front of them, broad at their bases and tapering towards their ends. Celestia raised her hoof, vaguely waving it, idly marvelling at its monstrous size. Her own shadow was even bigger than Luna’s. “I’m an elephant“, Celestia blurted and held the hoof so that its shadow resembled a trunk. Luna giggled. Then they fell silent again. Luna’s eyes were filled with the faint outline of the moon.

They both stared out into the night, Celestia and her younger sister, mutually reassured by each other’s presence, but not without melancholy. They were posing themselves the same question.

For how much longer can this bliss last?


Three months later, a week before Harvest Celebration, 12-year-old Celestia was walking down the floors of Canterlot Castle, whistling a toneless melody, when she bumped into two guards that appeared disoriented, stumbling down the corridor as though they were drunk. But that clearly wasn’t the case: it looked more as though fear lay in their eyes.

Before Celestia could think too much about them, she crossed another, completely unknown pony that she had never seen before: a sleek, yellow, slightly meager stallion with a dishevelled long mane. On his flank, he had what looked like a sweetcorn for a cutie mark. His wild gaze was unmistakeable: it was the gaze of someone who didn’t belong here, but was nevertheless determined to make his way.

Celestia froze. “Can — can I help you?” she stammered, her voice high-pitched.

“I hope so!” he cried madly, glee flashing in his eyes. She directly returned his gaze, her own eyes wide with shock. “You’re little Celestia, aren’t you? Lovely. Well, Celestia, can you tell me where I can find your mommy?”

Celestia felt her own heart palpitate, trying to think fast. “Mom — my mother — is not at home,” she squeaked. She had always been a bad liar.

“Well, maybe you can relay a message to her,” the pony said. He approached her, and she retreated towards the wall, her eyes wide with fear. Her heart hammered against her chest. His head came very close to her own. “Or I’ll talk to you directly.” She felt his breath on her face.

“Did you really think you could live so large?” the pony whispered menacingly. “Live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us? Your life here is perfect in every way, isn’t it? But outside of this castle’s walls — and yes, outside of this oh-so-glamorous, oh-so-fancy town — things aren’t looking as bright. Ponies aren't all that happy. There’s a lot of discontent.”

He bared his teeth, his voice deteriorating into a gruff, angry whisper.

“Right now, life here is perfect for you. But you’ll see soon enough, little princess, how fragile this little court life you have here really is. How vulnerable. How volatile. How very quickly this can all fall apart. For you see, little princess, ponies out there are furious. They will do anything to remove your mother from her throne.”


“Because ponies out there are suffering. You wouldn’t know it from your fenced garden, where everything and everypony is beautiful and happy, but in all her elegance and graceful bliss, your mother must have forgotten that everypony has a tendency. A tendency to want the most for themselves. A tendency to want more than what they already have. And that’s why, if you want to or not, something is going to happen sooner rather than later. Just imagine what would happen then! How different things would be if it all came tumbling down all of a sudden. And we are almost there! All the goodwill in the world won’t be enough to avert it.”

“To avert what?” she managed to say.

A dispassionate smile spread over his face. “Regicide.

He cocked his head when he heard the sound of galloping hoofsteps from the corridor. “But don’t you worry about your mom just yet! There coming to get me now, little filly,” he said and smiled weakly. “It’s okay, I’m unarmed. I got nothing on them. Not yet.” He straightened up and continued grinning. “Be the witness to Queen Gaia’s mercifulness!”

Celestia stared back at him, her eyes wide open; his wild, blue-eyed gaze had something spellbinding to it.

The hoofsteps grew louder. “Be sure to greet your mother from me, little Celestia.”

Two guards dashed around the corner and shouted at each other.

“And your lovely sister,” he added, half-whispering, and closed his eyes.

They charged towards him.

“Be the witness to Queen Gaia’s mercifulness,” the stallion muttered once more.

Celestia shrieked. The two guards had thrown themselves towards the stallion and hit him over the head with the blunt end of their blades. The stallion immediately went down towards the ground, unconscious, but the two guards nonetheless kicked him hard in the stomach. “STOP!” Celestia screamed. “STOP!”

The guards looked up at her, but they were already done: one of them grabbed the unconscious stallion by the neck and dragged him around the corner, while the other tended to Celestia.

“It’s okay, Princess,” he said bluntly. “You’re safe now.”

“Safe?” she shrieked. “DON’T TOUCH ME!”

“This must be very troubling for you. We’re making sure that he can’t hurt you anymore, and that you’re in perfect security —”

Me? But what about him? Why did you do that to him?”

“Princess, do you realize that he was intending to hurt you —”

“He wasn’t! He was just — just talking — where — where are you taking him now?”

The guard, whose all too paternal patience was driving Celestia mad, inclined his head. “To the infirmary,” he said.

“You’re lying,” Celestia said through tears of anger. “WHERE ARE YOU TAKING HIM?”

Before the guard could answer once again, there were more hoofsteps, and when they whirled around, Queen Gaia herself faced them, her expression serious and fierce. “What happened here?” she asked quietly.

“Your Majesty,” the guard said and bowed deeply. “There’s been an intruder.”

“How could this have happened?” she asked immediately. “How could someone have entered the castle grounds without my guards noticing him?”

“They were — they were apparently distracted. I know nothing about that. My apologies for this lapse. The castle is now safe once again, my Queen.”

“Distracted,” she said tonelessly. “I see.”

“Mom!” Celestia cried and galloped towards her mother. “They hurt him! They hurt him real bad, they hit him over the head, he wasn’t moving anymore!” Her eyes, swimming with tears, were as questioning as they were angry. They were saying: Why, mom, are you letting this happen?

Her mother returned her look with sincerity, before posing the question that Celestia had asked before: “Where did you take him?”

“To — to the guard’s quarters — for further — disciplining—,” the guard stammered.

“Disciplining,” she said tonelessly.

“What does he mean by that?” Celestia said tearfully and pawed her mother’s flank.

Her mother didn’t look at her, but instead stared the guard in front of her directly in the eyes. As Celestia watched her mother, she saw something lying in that gaze that she had never seen before in her mother, something that scared her enough to stumble away from Gaia: cold, fierce anger.

“I will talk to him immediately,” her mother said without raising her voice, but very distinctly.

“Yes, Majesty.”

“You will take me to him right now.”


“Nothing will happen to him. You will immediately put an end to whatever it is you call disciplining.”

“Yes, Majesty.”

“Afterwards, you and anyone else involved in this can pack their things and leave this castle and town forever.” There was unmistakeable disgust in her voice. “I don’t think you’re fit to wear this,” she added and looked down the guard’s ornate gold-plated armour.

The stallion’s eyes widened in shock, and he gulped. Celestia noticed that the thick vein on his neck was pulsing violently all of a sudden.

“I — your Majesty, with all due respect! I was just doing my job, trying to protect —”

“Doing your job,” Gaia repeated. “Do you think I’m stupid? Do you think I don’t see what’s going on here?” The diamond on her chest sparkled menacingly.

Celestia looked anxiously from the dumbfounded guard, who was about to open his mouth in protest, to her mother, who cut him off.

“You’re going to lead me to this pony now. Did I make myself clear?” she asked coolly.

“P— perfectly clear, Majesty.”

“Great. Then let’s go,” she said. She looked down towards Celestia, who was staring blankly at both of them, and lightly touched her mane. “You need to go find Luna, Sunray…”

“... Luna? But I want to come —”

“You find Luna,” Gaia said again, and for the first time in her life, Celestia understood that her mother had issued her an order, and not a mere suggestion. Then, on swift, strong hooves, the Queen followed the dumbstruck guard down the hall.

And so it came to pass that, notwithstanding the filly’s horror, Celestia indeed got to be the witness to Queen Gaia’s mercifulness. But another thing had happened at this point, too, something that Celestia would recognise only much, much later.

The smallest part of her innocence had been lost.

When her heart's wild palpitations had abated somewhat, she got moving.


Her voice resounded through uncommonly empty corridors, but the filly was nowhere to be found. Celestia opened the door to their chamber; it was empty. She gallopped down the corridor, slowing her steps to appear a little more dignified and mature when she met a stray group of guards apparently returning to their quarters. Once past, she raced on. “Luna!” she shouted again. “Where are you?”

She finally found her on the palace balcony. Luna sat motionlessly, her back to the castle, staring out over Canterlot’s golden roofs, faintly illuminated by what little light there was left from the day.

“Luna,” Celestia said. “Good grace, I found you, you’re safe — have you been hiding here?”

The filly turned around to look at Celestia. Celestia froze; her gaze was so tired and empty that it made her shiver slightly. At the time, she couldn’t pinpoint the feeling; but Celestia now decided that Luna looked like someone who had suddenly stopped caring. Celestia was taken aback.

“Someone’s entered the castle,” she stammered, recalling her mother’s words. “Someone bad. An intruder.”

Her sister didn’t react at first. Then she cocked her head and looked at Celestia through strangely distant eyes. How her sister had grown, Celestia thought suddenly.

“I know there’s been an intruder,” Luna said calmly.

There was a short pause. Luna threw Celestia a furtive glance. “Tia…”


“You remember the promise you gave me, right?”

“… of course,” Celestia said in surprise.

“And you stand by it? You won’t hate me?”

“Of course I stand by it. I’ll never hate you, you’re my sister!”

Luna nodded lightly, then stared out into the darkness. Off in the distance, a bird called out.

“I let him in,” she said.

Celestia froze.

She wanted to believe it had been a joke. But there could be no doubt that Luna had been serious. Luna never joked. It wasn’t in her nature.

As Celestia looked at her sister, a prickling, hollowing sensation spread through her insides.

Why?” she managed to say.

“I don’t know, really,” her sister said with a strange calm. “I guess I was — I was feeling angry.”

Celestia blinked and slowly shook her head. “This isn’t right, Loony,” she said quietly. “This isn’t right. Somepony could have been hurt — somepony has been hurt. You shouldn’t — you shouldn’t have done this.”

Luna grimaced as though she had just bitten on something bitter.

“You just don’t know what it feels like,” she said finally. “To always be the leftover, the good-for-nothing, to be overlooked, always — always in the shadows of — of somepony else.” She looked as though she was going to vomit.

A short silence fell, in which Luna gritted her teeth, palpably going through some painful internal struggle. “Do you want me to show you,” the filly finally said, her voice strangely distanced. “What I did to those guards. Cause I can show you.”

Celestia shook her head. “What you did to those guards?”

Luna threw her a look, then closed her eyes.

“What’re you doing?”

Luna’s face contorted in utmost concentration. Something very weird was happening to her cutie mark: the dark clouds that had always been there grew larger, swelled, and pushed themselves in front of the faintly glowing moon. Celestia blinked. Was this real? Soon, the dark clouds had enveloped the crescent, obscuring it completely. Celestia stepped back. Luna’s eyes looked on in utmost concentration; there was a ghostly white glow in them that Celestia had never seen before.

And then, the darkness left the confines of Luna’s cutie mark. It started to spread around Luna, compressing the dusk’s light that was all around them and crushing it into night, gradually enveloping everything around her in a thick, pitch-black cloud. All of a sudden, Celestia was afraid.

“Stop it, Loony,” she said anxiously. “This isn’t — this isn’t normal —”

What lay in Luna’s eyes? A plead for help? A trace of defiance? Fear?

“Stop that now,” she said again, more emphatically. Like a gas, the darkness kept growing, encroaching, obscuring everything around them. Luna looked on blankly. “STOP IT, LOONY —”


Celestia gasped for breath, a shiver racing down her spine as she was submerged in the black; it was suffocating, vertiginous, everything started to swirl, and then, it hit her like a solid wall. Fear. Like an anchor heaved from the most profound depths of her heart to float atop her consciousness. Fear. Not just any fear. Her own fear. Her mother, dead. Luna, dead. The castle in ruins. All the happiness seemed gone from the world. No more light. No more hope.

A gargling sound emerged from her throat.She struggled, drowning, kicking her legs desperately to get to the surface. And then, before she was over the edge, she managed to pull together all her willpower, to tap the one source of warmth and light inside her that would never go away, and then, in a panicked flash of light that burst from her horn, the darkness around her dissipated.

Celestia opened her eyes, catching her breath. It was over. The golden light of the sunset returned to them, the clouds disappearing from Luna’s flank. Luna was as tiny as she had been before, but this time, Celestia didn’t dare to hug and comfort her. No, this time, that glimmer of white remained in Luna’s eyes; even behind all that sadness, Celestia was sure of it.

Her sister looked at her with tears in her eyes. “My name is Luna,” she breathed. Tears were all over her face.

“You look so beautiful, Tia,” Luna finally said, searching for words. “Not like me. You look so pretty and... full of grace. Like a large and noble swan. So strong. And you’re… so loved. You’re so loved, god, you have no idea how loved you are.

Her voice was urgent, pleading, supplicating. But Celestia didn’t say anything.

Luna looked at her sadly for a while; then she got up and trotted off. She halted and very lightly turned her head back towards Celestia, without looking at her directly.

“They were talking about you, you know,” she said quietly. “They said you were going to ascend to the throne later. They also that I wasn’t reliable. That my mom wouldn’t want me to follow in her hoofsteps anymore.”

Celestia shook her head irritatedly.

“But they also said something else,” she babbled on. “They talked about Mom. They said she wasn’t gonna make it much longer. That she was too squeamish, too hesitant to make the tough choices.”

“So what did you say,” Celestia said, aware of the strange, foreign sound her voice had all of a sudden. “You agreed, didn’t you.”

“No, I told them to shut their dirty mouths or they were going straight to the moon,” Luna said, tears still running through her fur. She turned away with a jerk and disappeared inside of the castle.

Celestia could have followed her. She could have gone after her. Maybe she could have made it all right; maybe this possibility still existed, and the train hadn’t gone off the rails yet. But she felt too estranged, too alienated to go after Luna, and so she didn’t. Instead, she straightened up, her muscles tensing and stiffening, and turned to look out over the balcony’s balustrades, over the castle’s immeasurable grounds.

Night and day can never be together, said Luna.

Regicide, said the intruder with the sweetcorn cutie mark.

“Celestia Sunray,” said Celestia into the upcoming, cloudy night, “and Luna Moonlight.”

But no response came back. All was silent.

To be continued. Next chapter: Truth in Our Hearts.

My first fic. This took me quite a while, any comments are welcome. Thanks to Cadmium, Demetrius and gracious EqD pre-reader A1X3 for their helpful suggestions!

Amazing original artwork by CuteSkitty.

Truth in Our Hearts

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Chapter 2
Truth in Our Hearts

« In all that doubt, she found certitude. »

The night everything changed, young Celestia had slept very poorly.

She remembered no dreams. That wasn’t because she hadn’t had any. On the contrary; only that her nightmares had not been of the visible, but of the visceral kind. Vague feelings of dread had gripped her. While her sleep was usually sound and peaceful, this night had been very agitated; her bedclothes were ruffled. She had thrashed about wildly, mumbled indistinct words, seen shapeless evils.

Maybe it was for that reason that when Celestia awoke, this morning felt very different from the previous one. As she opened her eyes to the feeble sunlight so hesitantly creeping into the room, she saw a tall, leaf-green figure standing in the doorframe.

For how long had her mother been watching her sleep?

“Tia,” Gaia said and smiled. “Come have breakfast with me.”

That was something Celestia needn’t be told twice. She immediately got up and stole a glance at her sister; she was apparently still fast asleep, and thankfully so, Celestia thought. Outside of the narrow gable window, dawn had barely broken, and traces of night still lingered amongst the fresh morning.

“Come with me,” Gaia said again.

The entire castle was silent as they walked down the corridors. Celestia wasn’t a late riser by any means, but this was early even by her standards. Judging by the sun’s position, it was barely five o’clock. She yawned heartily as she stumbled alongside her mother, while the Queen was already wide awake, her green gaze attentive as ever. “Are we going to the dining room?” Celestia asked groggily as she tried to keep up.

“No, Sunray... with this weather, I’d much rather go outside and enjoy the sunrise, don’t you think?” And they headed for the balcony where Celestia had sat just the night before and contemplated the darkness.

Seemingly overnight, autumn had befallen the castle grounds. Granted, the leaves still remained on the trees; but while most of them remained a summery green, some were starting to turn a pale shade of yellow. Birds were already up on their feet, speeding from tree to tree to feed their young. The air carried the lazy sweetness of early autumn. The first light of the morning cast them in a stark, abundant light; the heart-shaped diamond on Gaia’s chest sparkled mysteriously.

Gaia made an opulent breakfast appear out of thin air, and they ate in complete silence for a good quarter of an hour. The only sound between them was the clattering of dishes and silverware, and perhaps, the anticipation of words yet to be spoken.

When they were finished, Gaia spirited away the dishes. Celestia turned to look at her. There was something her mother wanted to tell her; surely, Celestia thought glumly, she didn’t simply want to share a breakfast with her daughter.

“You’ve brought me here, because —”

“Because I know you have questions, Tia. And I just — I just want to give you an opportunity to get answers to those questions. Because I haven’t been forthcoming enough in the past. It’s your right to get answers. I will answer everything.”

“So... because of yesterday—” Celestia started, but Gaia simply nodded.

“These walls are thick,” she said and pointed at the castle walls underneath them. “Very, very thick. And thicker than just simple walls of stone. There are other protections at work here; very, very powerful magic that I myself have put in place. Protections that will safeguard this castle — and us.”

“But they didn’t yesterday,” Celestia murmured.

Gaia sighed. “Things have changed by now. I was certain the castle’s shields were impenetrable, but there are some holes that — that you cannot close. And there are some ponies driven enough to go to insane lengths to have their way. You can only protect yourself against something like that so much. The stallion that you saw yesterday: he was foolish enough to risk his life trying to hurt me.”

“Or maybe,” Celestia muttered after a while, “he knew that you wouldn’t do anything to him, and wasn’t risking his life at all.”

Her mother turned to look at Celestia; there was curiosity in her gaze, and as she stared at her daughter, Celestia had the distinct feeling of being seen right through.

“He couldn’t really have done anything, though,” Celestia said and cocked her head. “He didn’t — he didn’t have any weapons. That’s what he said. But I don’t understand that,” she continued hastily. “Why would you do that... without a weapon? It makes no sense.”

“Do you really think any weapon he could have brought would have been a threat to me?” Her eyes sparkled profoundly. “You know, Tia, that I’m not just any unicorn. It’s not that simple to come and hurt me, no matter how well you’re prepared. So don’t you worry about me just yet. That’s not what he was after.”

“But what then?”

“Scaring us, no doubt. He wanted to prove that it was possible to enter the castle in the first place.”

Celestia drooped her head. “Then he’s done it, hasn’t he? He’s scared us.” She could not quite put her feelings in words: somepony had invaded her most intimate living space. Once more, the intruder’s face flashed before her mental eye; that wild, mesmerising gaze, full with dizzying compulsion; that savage, unkempt mane that clung to the face in thick, sweaty streaks. And the madness, the madness in his eyes...

“But who is he?” she muttered.

“We honestly don’t know, and nopony can tell me. It’s strange, normally we know who to look out for. But this pony, nopony has heard of him before. He doesn’t have a name, or at least, he won’t tell us what it is. The guards have conveniently dubbed him Sweetcorn.” Gaia gave a small, but unconvincing laugh. “I would not be surprised if that were his real name. Names like that are pretty common in the countryside. He’s probably a peasant from the outskirts of Canterlot, or from even farther away, if his accent is any indication.”

Celestia tried to imagine what that countryside was like; what would drive a pony living there to such extreme measures? She had never been to anywhere else but on the castle grounds and to the Everfree Forest, and on rare occasions, to Canterlot.

“I want to visit this pony,” Celestia said. “I mean, if that’s alright. I want to talk to him.”

“You want to talk to him? You can,” her mother said earnestly. “He’s in one of the dungeon jails, Acier can take you if you want. And don’t worry, he’s fine,” she added, when Celestia’s expression grew all too worried.

”The guards, they — they beat him up. That’s what they meant by disciplining, right?” Celestia said.

Gaia nodded; her eyes had narrowed, and her nose was scrunched up. “But I arrived in time. Nothing bad had happened. He is fine now, don’t worry about it.”

“That’s why you were so angry at the guards, right?”

“Yes. Because even foes deserve justice. Even enemies deserve compassion.”

“But those two aren’t the same thing,” Celestia argued.

“Sometimes they are.” But there was a certain obstinacy in her gaze; if Celestia hadn’t known better, even a certain spite.

Celestia frowned as she tried to recall the details of yesterday’s scene, which was hard, since the image of the intruder’s face madly grinning just inches from her own kept floating to the surface, and then, Luna enveloping herself in that cloud of night, and all that fear, that fear...

She willed herself to try and order her thoughts and memories.

“When you told off those guards,” she said carefully. “You said something like I know what’s going on here. And you asked Do you think I’m stupid. Right? What did you mean by that?”

Her mother sighed.

“That’s a long story, Tia.”

“You said you were going to answer my questions.”

“I did, you’re right. So let’s see, the guards,” Gaia said and took a quick sip of tea. “You see, guards are everywhere around here. They are responsible for keeping the castle safe. For keeping us safe.”

“Like the walls.”

“Yes, like the walls. It is their job to protect us. When you’re in a position like mine — like ours — you tend to have enemies, no matter how well you do; be it out of envy, be it out of disagreement. It doesn’t really make a difference. Being a queen is a very difficult position sometimes. You need to find common ground, mediate, compromise. And sometimes, people feel left out in the cold if they don’t get exactly what they want.”

“But the thing about the guards is this. They have their own little state here. In fact, almost the entire castle is inhabited by guards, servants and their families; and then the whole official apparatus. But I’m not worried about the latter two; they don’t have any military expertise. That is the tricky part. All my guards are skilled soldiers; a lot of them have been on the battlefield before they joined the guard. And they have a certain tendency of bonding. Keeping to themselves, amusing themselves in their merry little den. I don’t know what’s going on in there.”

Her expression darkened.

“Suffice to say that I tend to find them... unpleasant.”

Celestia looked up at her mother and narrowed her eyes. “But don’t you depend on them?”

“Too much so. The problem is that they’re easily swayed. You know, some fifty years ago, there was a big war. Long before you were born; but for me, fifty years is a mere batting with the eyelash. There was a big war, a horrible war, and I’ve had some... bad experiences with soldiers.”

“A war,” said Celestia and looked at her mother, who was herself staring out into the void that lay before them.

“That’s behind us,” Gaia said finally. “But even now there are powers at work that you wouldn’t understand; at least not yet. Normal ponies could never understand, let alone combat them. Forces of chaos that are trying to split apart Equestria at its very seams. That know how to sow discord and strife to suit their own ends.“

For a while, they were silent as Celestia contemplated what her mother might mean by “forces of chaos”. No matter how much she pondered the phrase, no image formed in her mind but Luna’s suffocating cloud of darkness. She sighed deeply.

“What about Luna,” she said finally.

“Luna,” Gaia repeated and pawed at the ground. It had been the elephant in the room. Somewhere in the back of her head, it occurred to Celestia that it was weird how quickly her sister had turned from the centre of her life to a mere elephant in the room. But she tried to push that thought out of her mind.

“I haven’t told you what happened,” Celestia said and anxiously looked up at her mother. “I never told you what happened after I went to find Luna.”

Gaia gave a sad, soft laugh. “But I already know. I have my ways of knowing; not just from your mouth.”

“You know what happened on this balcony?”

“I do.”

“I just don’t understand how it could come to this,” Celestia said and stared out over the balustrades. “I mean, I never — I never had any idea that she was even — even that good at magic. I always thought she was — well — lagging behind somewhat,” Celestia said, her face red: hadn’t she always felt a little superior to her sister? Was that why Luna’s outburst of magic had come as such a surprise to her?

“Well, I had expected that, too,” Gaia said after a while. “But as you can see, I was wrong.”

“This outburst all of a sudden, I’ve never — I’ve never seen Luna like that! Normally, she’s sweet and — yes, a little quiet, maybe, but that’s not — but now, she was so... so different. It’s just that, I was standing here, and I was talking with her and looking at her, but I wasn’t really — I was just looking at a — a complete stranger. Do you understand?”

But Gaia’s gaze was a bit too understanding.

“Of course, Sunray.” She locked eyes with Celestia. “But that isn’t surprising, either. There’s something I should have told you about. Both of you, and much sooner. It is my mistake that I haven’t done it earlier. My foolish mistake. You see, it was unavoidable that something like this was going to happen sooner or later.”

“You knew?”

“I didn’t know what exactly was going to happen, I just — I just had a feeling, you see.” She gave Celestia a feeble smile. How much older her mother seemed all of a sudden! Celestia thought. Especially in the harsh first light of the day, dark bags were visible under Gaia’s eyes.

“You know what happens to normal ponies when they reach a certain age, right? About the age you are right now. Some earlier, some later.”

Normal ponies, Celestia thought glumly.

“They get their cutie marks,” she murmured. Celestia was not at all uneducated on this subject: she had spent a lot of time in the library researching this very topic. “But we already have our cutie marks. We’ve always had them.” She glanced at the eight-rayed sun symbol on her flank; in the morning sun, it gleamed with a golden shimmer.

“And you understand what that means, right?”

“That... that our... that we are going to become queens.”

“Yes. And that is because your destiny is predetermined. Because your trajectory through life is already laid out. Do you understand?”

Celestia gave a jerky nod, as though she was trying to shoo off a fly from her shoulder.

“Luna has awakened. That means something has changed inside of her, and all that pent-up magical energy just finds its way, so to speak. It breaks free; it wants to find its way out into the open. That’s normal, but for some reason — I simply expected that you would be the first to awaken. Maybe because you’re older.”

She gave Celestia a searching look, which Celestia found herself absolutely unable to adequately handle; what was she supposed to say to that? Sorry that I’m so slow?

“Well, you know what I’m talking about. That explains her gloominess, and the whole... you know.” Gaia shortly closed her eyes and put her head back, seemingly breathing in the morning air that was only now warming. “Her mood swings, and her tendency to leave the castle at night to stray about the grounds.”

Tendency to leave the castle at night?

“She’s not leaving the castle at night,” Celestia said and shook her head. “I sleep in a chamber with her, I’ve never seen —”

“Well, you sleep too soundly. She’s been doing that for a while now, and there is nothing I can do about it; not much that I want to do about it, either. I believe in granting certain freedoms. There is so much energy inside of us, so much magical energy; and at your age precisely, it just all breaks free. You can’t keep that pent up inside of you. That’s why she needs a bit of freedom to live it all out.

And that’s also why I have decided that she won’t be — that there won’t be punishment. I’m sure she meant no harm. That kind of confusion is simply natural at that age, all your energy just bursts out. Sometimes with a bang. I can’t blame her for that; I’m sure her regret is punishment enough. She needs room to breathe right now, room to think.”

Room to breathe?

“And I also want to ask you not to talk to her about it, not to pressure her about it. Just give her time to come to grips with it herself, and she will seek your advice all on her own.” The look she gave Celestia was urgent. But Celestia wouldn’t have addressed the subject either way. After all, what could she well have asked her sister? No appropriate words would come to her.

She returned Gaia’s look and nodded lightly.

Gaia smiled.

“Sunray, I’ve — I’ve not spent as much time with you as I maybe should have. And yes, by that I mean both of you. I’m sorry for that. That will change. Okay?”


“And I think I might have tried to protect you too much. I should have done otherwise, but that was difficult at the time. I was just trying to keep you safe, make sure you grow up happy. But of course, I can’t keep you locked up in here all the time. Not without you — finding a way out, at least.” She smiled nervously, and Celestia returned the smile.

“Because we have wings now, mom.”

“Yes,” Gaia smiled.

“And we’re not afraid to use them.”

“No,” Gaia said, and this time, her all-too eager smile was quivering suspiciously. She darted a sideway glance, then looked at Celestia directly. “You’ve grown so much, Sunray. I sometimes wonder where all that time went. It’s strange, I’ve got so much of it, but — these years I won’t get back.”

Celestia, who had no idea what her mother was talking about, just smiled diplomatically.

“Look, a green streak,” Gaia said and gently touched Celestia’s mane. And indeed: in that sea of rose, there was a single green length that she hadn’t seen before. Her mother slowly stroked it. “I think it’s time that I show you more of what I do. That I involve you more. After all, that’s what needs to happen sooner or later, anyway. After all, you are going to be queen one day.”

Celestia frowned. “But what if I don’t want to,” she murmured. “What if I’d rather be... something else.”

“It doesn’t work like that. Your life’s calling is already determined. Be grateful for that. For other ponies, finding their cutie marks is a source of great distress. You should appreciate that kind of certainty. And after all, who else is going to become queen if not you?”

“And Luna.”

“And Luna,” her mother affirmed, but her gaze darkened. She once more stared down onto the marble walls.

“These walls will stand,” she said again. “As long as one of us dwells in this castle, these walls will stand.” Only this time, it sounded more defiant than confident.

“Tia, I want you to come with me this weekend. To the Harvest Celebration. I want you to join me. Would you do that?”

“Yes,” Celestia murmured and looked at her mother. “Of course. I would — I would love to.”

Gaia smiled at Celestia. “I’m glad. I’ll be looking forward to go with you. I need to go back inside now. But it was nice having breakfast with you for once.”

Celestia nodded, taken aback, and watched Gaia disappear inside.

For a while, Celestia idly stared out over the castle grounds. Vague thoughts were hanging in her mind like wafts of mist. Finally, she, too, got up and walked inside. There was something she needed to attend to.


In the corridor, she met Luna. She froze; she had no idea what to say right now. She wasn’t prepared just yet, had no words at the ready. And it wasn’t just words she hadn’t settled on: her feelings towards her sister were undecided, too.

Now, in the daylight, Luna looked very different from how she had looked the night before — less menacing; younger; and, in a way, more real, more tangible. And what threw off Celestia even more was the fact that on Luna’s chest, there still was the dark bistone brooch Acier had made them; and on her own chest, there still was the other half. Celestia had increasing difficulties interrelating all those different images she had of Luna.

For a moment, they simply looked at each other, and did not say anything. Luna finally couldn’t uphold her gaze and looked towards the ground.

Celestia was confused, but she also couldn’t simply keep quiet; that wasn’t in her nature.

“Hey,” she said finally, trying to sound as cheerful and easy-going as she could.

“Hey,” Luna said very quietly. Her eyes briefly flickered over Celestia’s, then she looked down again.

“How are you?” Celestia asked and immediately bit her lips. She knew it was a stupid question, but right now, she preferred any question to silence.

“... I don’t know.”

“You don’t know.”


Celestia nodded. On that account, they were in agreement.

Luna was still looking down. Celestia pawed at the ground and suddenly grew very conscious of the birds’ chirping outside. She couldn’t recall ever having felt like this with her sister; hadn’t they always been light-hearted and lively around each other? Or was that just her memories deceiving her?

She could feel it, that invisible barrier around Luna; and both of them were building it. To Luna, it was a sort of soft cocoon; to Celestia, a wall that posed an insurmountable obstacle, and she couldn’t bring herself to extend her hoof and shatter that wall.

“So, is it true?” Celestia said after a while. “I’ve heard you walk out of the castle at nights. To fly, or —”

Luna nodded hastily.

“That’s weird. I’ve never really seen you leave.”

For a moment, Luna was silent. Then she raised her head.

“I’m very quiet when I leave.” Her voice was quiet, too, but flat. It didn’t seem to carry any particular kind of emotion; it was more of a matter-of-fact statement.

“So what do you do outside?” Celestia asked. “You know, after dark.”

“...I listen”, Luna said simply.

“Okay. You listen — to what?”

“The song of the stars.”

Celestia narrowed her eyes. The song of the stars? Really? She could barely begin to imagine why Luna would say something like that, what kinds of emotions she must be going through. In fact, she could not imagine at all.

“The song of the stars,” she repeated. “Okay. I didn’t — I didn’t know there was such a thing. I’ve never heard one, at the very least.” She smiled nervously. Luna didn’t smile.

“They are very quiet, too,” she said. She looked at Celestia, as if trying to make her understand. “You need to listen closely.”

Before Celestia could answer, a young guard passed by the two and shot Luna a malicious glare. Seeing her seemed to short-circuit him, and he barked at her. “There we have her, our little traitor,” he snapped. Luna flinched and lowered her gaze; if in shame, shyness or defiance, neither of them could see.

Celestia cut the guard a look. “Don’t talk like that to my sister,” she said. “You got that? I’m a princess, and she’s a princess, and you can’t talk to us like that. Is that clear?”

At least some of her confidence was feigned, and even though her words were very true, the guard seemed to sense that lingering uncertainty and latch on to it. He seemed on the verge of foolishly opening his mouths once more, when Acier turned around the corner. He instantly grasped the situation and looked daggers at the guard in question, who was his direct subordinate.

“There a problem here?” he asked gruffly.

The guard lowered his head, but still glared with spite. “Maybe,” he muttered and shot Acier an elusive look. “Look out, here comes — Commander Blank Flank —”

Acier nodded slowly, then approached. He moved towards the colt until he was mere inches from his face. He stared down onto him, which was effortless, since he was easily a head taller.

Consistency in our tongues,” he growled simply.

Celestia didn’t understand; but the guard seemed to struggle, as though he was on the verge of saying something, but didn’t quite dare. Their staredown continued for a few seconds. Then the guard averted his gaze and, with a jerk, disappeared around the corner.

Acier gazed after the guard; then he smiled mildly at Celestia and Luna and turned the key to his chamber.

Luna was still drooping her head; but Celestia imagined to have seen gratitude in Luna’s eyes. It was at that moment that she felt the urge to comfort her sister, and for a tiny while everything was as it always had been; but as she extended her hoof to touch her sister, she bumped into that invisible wall, and quickly retracted her hoof.

Luna smiled sadly at Celestia. Then, she disappeared around the corner, too.

For a while, Celestia looked after her. She sighed deeply.

Then she followed Acier into his chamber. Sitting down on one of the stools, she gave him a curious look.

Consistency in our tongues,” she repeated after his words. “What does that mean?”

“It means allegiance,” he said. “Allegiance to the pledge of the guards, and loyalty to the Queen. It’s part of the guards’ motto.”

He pointed to a banner on the wall; up to now, Celestia had never paid much attention to it. There were engraved three lines of golden lettering.


The stallion shook his head and chuckled. “Been our mantra since time immortal. Doubt that it’ll ever change. Then again, what ever does.”

“Why did you spare that guard?” she asked. “He... I mean... he was so disrespectful that you could have ... let him go, right?”

“For that, I could have done much worse than let him go,” he said glumly.

“But you didn’t, because you were merciful. Because of grace,” she said. “Right?”

He turned to look at her. My god, he thought. She’s still just a child. Not a queen. Just a little filly. His gaze was almost sympathetic.

“No matter how much your mom chews on that, you can’t run a country on grace, love, or cotton candy. No, this land is run like any other: with spear, bow, and sword.”

She looked up at him.

“I didn’t do anything to that guard,” he went on after the slightest moment of hesitation, “not because of some fit of mercy or whatever you might call it. That buys me nothing. No, I didn’t do anything because the guards need to be kept on our — on your mom’s side. They need to be kept happy. And that’s difficult right now, since they’re pretty upset. Now imagine if somepony who is jealous of your mother’s place would reach out to them. Would welcome them with open arms, give them freedoms, power, and yes, money. What do you think would happen then?

Without the guards’ support, your mom can close shop. And by close shop, I mean abandon the castle. Do you understand? She’s not that powerful that she can act as she pleases, with no consequences. It’s all about tradeoffs and compromise. Gotta keep the guards happy. You understand?”

Celestia gave him a searching look. “That’s why she’s employed you,” she said after a while. “To keep the guards happy.”

“Yes,” he said with a strained smile. “That is exactly why she’s employed me. That is my job. When I was young, I was in the army, that’s what got me into this, I earned my merits there. That leaves its marks. Idealism, fancy ideas — a fat load of use that is to me! I gotta work with truths, realities. Gaia doesn’t know what that’s like, she just has to smile gently and — ” He stopped in his tracks, then turned back towards his workbench. “I’m sorry,” he murmured.

Celestia watched him and contemplated what he had just said.

“But you don’t keep the guards happy,” she said after a while.

“Well, it’s getting more difficult by the minute when your mom keeps doings things like —” Once again, he fell silent.

“Like what?”

He turned around to face her. “You’re just a kid, Tia. A royal kid, maybe, but still just a kid. I can’t talk with you about that. You wouldn’t understand in any case, okay?”

That was the wrong thing to say to Celestia, who was already convinced of being much more than a kid.

“I rarely see you with the other guards,” she said with some spite. “You’re almost never in their quarters, except when you have business there. I never saw you drink with them. They always drink, right? But you never join them.”

He closed his eyes. “I don’t drink,” he said finally. “Not anymore.”

“What you cannot know, Tia,” he said after a while, with barely contained pain in his voice, “what you cannot know is what kind of pain there exists out there. What kind of wounds. What kind of scars. You cannot know anything about that, and that is as it should be. You’re just a foal.”

“I’m the future Queen,” she said, with more defiance than she had intended.

He snorted softly. “Yes, you are, Tia. I mean, uh, your Highness Princess Celestia. Congratulations. So what are you going to do? Discharge me for this lack of respect?”

“No, I need the guards’ support, remember?”

Her words had been incredibly hurtful, and she realised that only as she was speaking them. He lowered his gaze and nodded. “Exactly,” he whispered gruffly. “Exactly...”

But as Celestia turned around, she believed she could see a suspicious sparkle in his eyes. The thought struck her as odd; some ponies you simply don’t imagine to be capable of actual tears.

“Exactly,” he muttered once more.

“Why don’t you have a cutie mark?” she asked outright. The question had been preying on her mind for a long time now.


“I had a cutie mark once,” he said after a while.

“You had one.”

He nodded. Outside the window, a bird passed by.

“Well, where’d it—”

“Away,” he said simply. Then he turned back towards his workbench.

She stared at the point where his armour left visible the part of the flank where a cutie mark normally was to be found. It was blank and immaculately grey, like the rest of his coat.

There was no point in waiting or pressing him on the issue. There was no chance that he would say anything else on the matter, and, with a pang of guilt, Celestia fell silent, too. For a moment, she contemplated Acier’s face, now illuminated in profile with all the colours of the rainbow; a stark contrast against the light filtered through all those gems, a carousel of hues and nuances.

“My mom told me you would take me to see Sweetcorn,” she said after a while, to break the silence. “Can you — can we go there?”

“Yes,” he said after a while and turned to look at her. “Yes, we can. We’ll go visit him in the afternoon. I’m busy now. Come back then.”

She nodded, then, not knowing what else to discuss, she left. Outside, she wondered why she had been so unkind. She was angry with herself; she was usually so good at talking. Why did she have to use words to hurt Acier?

Where did this new urge come from? And why couldn’t she just go back and say sorry?

She sighed. “Truth in our hearts, consistency in our tongues,” she muttered.

A passing servant gave her a funny look.


Later that day, together with Acier, she descended the stairs towards the dungeons for the first time. The further downstairs she went, the gloomier the light grew, the rougher the marble walls, and the ornate patterns that had been lining the upper flights of stairs soon disappeared. She had never been in this part of the castle before; in fact, she had always been only vaguely aware that the dungeons even existed. Further downstairs, the mild sweetness of the air gave way to an earthy, moist odour.

When they had arrived downstairs, an iron-barred door hindered their progress. Acier fumbled in his saddlebag for the keys to the door, then opened it with a clatter. The ground, too, was moist and muddy here; the feeble light, filtered through narrow, moss-covered windows, had a greenish hue to it.

There were gloomy cells left and right, each of them shut off by thick, dense iron bars that obscured their contents. Celestia didn’t look too closely, either; the subtle sound of breathing all around made her feel more than just slightly uneasy, and she kept her gaze centred on the aisle they were walking.

Finally, they arrived at the last cell. It wasn’t on the left or the right side of the dark hallway, but formed its back wall. Acier nodded to Celestia, and she timidly approached the bars, while he kept in the background.

Beyond the iron bars, on a mattress, there lay the pony they called Sweetcorn.

He appeared to be sleeping. It was unmistakably him; same scruffy, mud-beige coat, same messy, greasy mane. An oversized sweetcorn on his flank. She had to look very closely to see him move at all.

After she had contemplated his figure for a while, a feeble voice emerged from the cell. It startled her: his mouth was half-obscured, and had barely moved at all.

“A royal visitor,” he muttered dispassionately. “What honour. What can I do for your Highness.”

She plucked up all her courage and spoke. “Give me answers,” she said hesitantly into the darkness. “Just... who you are. Where you come from. Why you tried to break in here. You know... your story.”

He ejected a quiet, joyless snort. “My story,” he repeated, his tone unfathomable. She nodded, and he stirred slightly on his mattress.

“My tale isn’t very interesting,” he said after a while. But I can tell you a different one, if you want.”

“Okay,” she breathed.

“Have you ever heard the tale,” he murmured, “of the Eternal Flame.”

She froze. His whispering was as distinct as though he was standing right next to her; his voice still as strangely reverberant, even though it was hushed to the point of being barely audible.

“The eternal flame,” Celestia muttered.

He nodded almost imperceptibly. As far as Celestia could see, his eyes were still closed.

“No,” she whispered.

He took a deep breath.

“A long, long time ago, when the Earth was young and most of Equestria virgin land,” he began in a broken voice, ”three tribes populated the land: the tribe of the earth ponies, the tribe of the unicorns, and the tribe of the pegasi. As the earth they roamed was so immense, and their numbers so little, barely did they know about each other’s existence; they went about their own business and kept to each other. In their separation, there was harmony; and in their distance, peace.”

He stirred.

“But not all was well. Much of their harvest fell prey to bitter winters and hungry animals; and there was famine and disease. Soon, the ponies were looking for ways to overcome these evils, and some left the bosom of their homes and set out to find what the Earth had to offer. Quickly, rumour spread that in the heart of the land of Equestria, there was a great castle which had stood since the beginning of time, hewn into a great mountain. And in that castle, there was a mighty flame that would vanquish all the evil spirits of this world; that would bring an eternal blessing to the tilled fields.”

“And indeed,” he went on, “did such a castle exist: it had been hewn into the highest mountain by powers ancient and mighty, at the hub of the world, at the centre of all existence. In this castle, there lived since time immemorial Two Sisters, very, very powerful ponies that had wings as well as horns. And indeed did they have this mighty flame: the Eternal Flame, shaped like a beating heart, brought them eternal warmth and eternal spring, and it drove off famine and death forever.”

Celestia felt her heart beat in her chest.

“When the other ponies learnt of this Flame,” he whispered, “they thought it unjust that they should be victim to famine and catastrophe when there was a way to stave off such evils. And so each tribe equipped a half dozen of their most skilled warriors with weapons, and send them off to see if they might find a way into the castle and steal the Flame to bring it home.

"They marched for endless days and days. When they finally arrived, they saw that the Castle was far too strongly fortified and the Sisters too mighty for them to attack. But soon, they found the other tribes had sent their warriors, too. And when they met, there was a great discussion, and they found they had a common goal and bonded; the earth ponies’ raw strength, the pegasi’s wings, and the unicorns’ magic were sure to bring success.”

He turned over on his mattress.

“When the Two Sisters saw this, they grew fearful. They talked and talked and tried to find a way to fend off the intruders, but nothing occurred to them. Three days they spent thusly, pondering a way to keep the Flame to themselves and keep their castle safe. All the while, the ponies outside were preparing to attack the castle with joined forces to try and steal the Flame. After all, they argued, was it not the case that they needed it more urgently than the Sisters? What gave the Sisters the right to keep it to themselves, when the ponies had famines, winter and wilderness to fight?

"The Sisters pondered long and deep, but they could not think of any way to drive off the enemies without a fight; and even though they were very powerful, they did not like to fight, for the warmth of the Flame had made them complacent and tender.

"But when the clash appeared inevitable, when the attack appeared imminent, and the Sisters’ desperation was at its highest, there came another guest to the castle, a strange and high-grown creature of a kind they had not seen before. He was not as ponies are; stone walls posed no obstacle to him, and he entered the castle effortlessly like a ghost, as though devoid of physical substance.

"When the Sisters saw this, they were all the more frightened. But the Spirit had not come to steal something from them, or to hurt them. Instead, he had come to make an offer. He proclaimed that he knew a way to stave off the warrior ponies outside, and that he would do it without the Sisters getting their hooves dirty. He proposed them his help.”

Celestia’s breathing was rapid by now.

“But he wouldn’t do it for free. He demanded a price for his services, to be paid once the warriors were driven away: a bargain. He gave them a half day to consider this offer, but urged them to decide quickly; for outside, the warriors were already preparing their weapons.

"That afternoon, the Sisters argued and quarrelled about this offer. The one sister refused; calling it dishonest and ignoble. But the other sister worried about the Warmth in their castle, and wanted to hold on to the Flame at all cost. They had a heated discussion about it; but eventually, she came out on top. And when the spirit returned after twelve hours, she proclaimed that they would take him up on his offer. The spirit smiled graciously and told them they had made the right decision; but he also warned them that after he had fulfilled his part, they would have to fulfil theirs, and pay the price he had demanded.

Then he immediately got to work.”

“What did he do,” Celestia breathed.

“The sisters didn’t know. They waited anxiously in their castle for a full day, already bracing themselves for an attack; but none came. Then, at the end of the day, they saw that nopony was waiting to attack them anymore. The camp of the three tribes was still there, but only cadavers populated it. Every single one of them was dead.”

Celestia gulped forcibly. A sick feeling rose in her throat.

“He... he did that?”

Sweetcorn grimaced. “No,” he whispered. “They had done it themselves. For the Spirit was cunning; he had sown strife amongst the ponies and convinced them that their neighbours and comrades were in fact their enemies. And so, it was as the spirit had promised: without getting their hooves dirty, the Two Sisters got to keep their Eternal Flame to themselves.”

A drip of dirty water ran down the cell’s walls.

“But barely was the danger gone,” he whispered, “and the Flame no longer in jeopardy, did the sisters become complacent and bold again. And when the Spirit came to demand his payment, they refused and told him to get lost and never return to the castle. They feared no harm from him, for he had no hooves with which to strike, and no weapons with which to fire; only a tongue with which to speak.

"When the Spirit heard this, he became very, very angry. He fumed and spouted: ‘We had a deal! I asked you for a price to pay, and you agreed. Now where is my price? Where is my payment?’ But they simply told him to get lost and not bother them any longer, for he was vile and cruel, and they wanted no such spirits amidst the gentility of their castle. And so, he left empty-handed, and furious.

"But before he left the two sisters, he turned around and made a terrible promise of revenge. He threatened: ‘You have betrayed me, and exploited my offer. In return, I will exact revenge upon you, and ere too many suns rise, your enemies’ fate shall befall you, too! Watch out and know,’ he warned, ‘that a single moment will be enough to undo all eternity you have spent in this castle. That everything can fall apart with just the batting of an eyelash.’

Her eyes were wide open with fear.

He lunged at the iron bars and gripped for her face through the bars. A violent jolt ran through her body. All his fatigue and feebleness seemed gone all of a sudden; the madness had returned to his savage eyes, and his yellow gaze seemed to penetrate her very soul.

“Will you pay the price,” he panted out. “Will you pay the price?

Celestia was petrified. Her heart hammered in her chest as though it was going to spring out any moment.

“Okay, story time’s over,” Acier intervened and firmly pulled Sweetcorn’s hooves from Celestia’s neck, gently steering her away from the bars. “I think you’ve got something a little mixed up there, ‘Sweetcorn’. Time to go back to sleep.”

But Celestia was all churned up inside as Acier accompanied her back through the aisle. She looked back over he shoulder, back at the beige-coated earth stallion now gripping firmly at his bars; he, too, was watching her with enormously wide eyes that seemed never to blink.

“What happened to the sisters?” she called out over her shoulder. “What happened to them?”

But all he did was smile dispassionately.

“What a load of hogwash,” Acier said calmly when they reemerged on the castle’s lighter corridors. “Who knew a guy like that had such an overactive imagination?” He snorted softly.

But Celestia didn’t laugh. She saw the throne hall’s stained-glass windows before her inner eye; and there, on one of their panes, there was exactly such a heart-shaped Flame as Sweetcorn had described.


The week went by in a blur. Celestia couldn’t deny how much she looked forward to the Celebration; her anticipation mounted from weekday to weekday. It felt, in a way, like her childhood was going to be over now anytime soon, something that appeared highly desirable to her: she was going to finally join her mother and sit by her side in the most important royal ceremony of the year.

And so she was already eagerly waiting when her mother entered the Great Hall to pick her up. In front of the castle, a pony-drawn carriage was waiting for them; Celestia would have preferred to simply fly, but the ceremonials dictated otherwise. And as she boarded the carriage, she could not feel but get a little swept up in the glamour of it. The two earth-pony pullers got moving.

Canterlot Castle was a ways off from the city itself. It towered high above town, half-hewn into rock, half-extending onto the boundless green grounds that surrounded it, where Celestia and Luna had spent so much time together. They passed the spot where Luna had let go of the phoenix, and Celestia, for the first time, caught it using the levitating force of her horn. That had been three years ago; but to Celestia, those three years meant an eternity. Now, the lawn there was covered in golden leaves, sometimes shuffled about by a soft gust of warm wind like a final remembrance of summer.

But even the grounds that had been the confines of Celestia’s whole word came to an end; eventually, the meticulously kept lawn gave way to the proliferation of nature unattended, and the so smoothly cobbled road they were moving on grew bumpy and was finally nothing but a dirt trail, the further downhill they went. Soon, in the distance, the first gleaming round roofs of Canterlot appeared on the horizon, and Celestia pressed her muzzle against the window to see.

She sensed her mother’s gaze on the back of her head as she watched Canterlot approach. It appeared to her much bigger than she had remembered; a city of high-rising, wealthy half-timbered houses, ostensibly built for their beauty as much as for their use. And the roads were resplendent with banners announcing the Queen’s arrival.

It was such a surreal experience: a parade welcomed them, with ponies in a red uniform performing some elaborate, stiff march choreography. There were ponies all over the place, lining both edges of the street, their eyes only on their carriage. As they rode by, Gaia idly waved towards them, which was acquitted with reverberant cheering. When Celestia tentatively stuck a hoof out the other window, too, the cheering grew thunderous. She flinched and quickly pulled it back in.

It was weird, thought Celestia. Here they are cheering at us, but we pass by so quick that I can’t even discern their faces. Only a big, indistinct mass of ponies. Were they really all cheering? The sound seemed to suggest so, but in between, she thought to have caught a few glares instead. And the windowpanes put an entire world between the two of them and the people outside. But that mattered little; Celestia felt herself getting swept up in it, and she soon stopped wondering what she had done to deserve like acclaim, which was exactly nothing so far, and embraced the thunderous effects her hoof seemed to have. These ponies love me, Celestia thought. It was certainly a good feeling.

Soon, their trajectory took a turn, and they found themselves on a resplendent broadway that led straight up to the market square. Large banners were draped between the houses overhead, on which hung resplendent the Queen’s Crest, an ornate leaf-green rendering of Gaia carrying the globe of the earth in her hooves. They were also embroidered with stylised autumn leaves. The trees that lined the boulevard left and right were decorated with red and golden garlands.

Celestia cocked her head. There was so much splendour here, but to what end? It would all go to waste after the festivities, Celestia thought. All those garlands and banners and shields would be taken off and tossed away. Wasn’t that a waste?

But her mother smiled indifferently, and waved idly. If you had been doing something for a thousand years, the excitement wanes eventually.

“Sorry for the pompousness,” she whispered in Celestia’s ear, as though she had anticipated her thoughts. “It can’t be helped. A ceremony like this is rare, but it is very important. That’s what rituals are about, after all. Giving confidence.”

When they finally arrived on the square, Celestia whispered the question that had been preying on her mind for hours now.

“Mom? Will I — will I have to go on stage, too?”

Gaia laughed. “Of course! I didn’t bring you here for you to sit it out in the carriage. Don’t worry, I’ll do the talking. I’ve done this a couple of times before, so I should be fine. And by the way, don’t be scared. It’s a show, there is a certain... flashiness to it.”

She nodded at Celestia, then climbed the stage on swift hooves. Plucking up all her courage, Celestia did the same. The crowd erupted into cheering. The square was so packed with ponies that it was impossible to make out any individual faces anymore.

Her mother started to speak; some elaborate, ritualised sermon about autumn, harvest, and how hard everypony was working. Celestia found it hard to concentrate on Gaia’s words and instead stared blankly into the crowd; she was intensely conscious of all the eyes on her. To avoid any false moves, she decided it best not to move at all.

As the year comes to a close, we reap the harvest of our hard work; the seeds we’ve planted have blossomed and grown. Only our hard work allows us to enjoy its benefits now. Winter approaches, but our pantries are full...

Celestia’s attention waned, and she gazed once more into the throng. Most ponies looked bored; some faces were glistening with enthusiasm; and others yet with disdain, if she was not mistaken. She flinched: a few rows further back, she believed to have seen Luna for a moment. But as she did a double-take, she realised it was only a periwinkle unicorn filly. She shook her head. She wondered where Luna was right now. What was she doing? What had she been doing when she wasn’t with Celestia? Celestia had no idea.

The tension in her body had made her breathing fall flat, and the sudden urge took her to inhale deeply. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, the speech was finally over.

Now is the time for the Harvest Blessing”, announced a pony in a ceremonial robe, and Gaia took the ceremonial position. “Gaia, o Queen by divine right, blesseth thou our yields and crops; and blesseth thou our fields, so they shall withstand winter; and blesseth thou...

The shallow words reached Celestia’s ears from far away. She soon found herself drifting off into a daydream; Luna and her were frolicking on summery green lawn. A phoenix was there, too, and they tried to caress it; but as Celestia stretched out her hoof to pet it, that wild face flashed before her mental eye once more, superimposed on the crowd, that messy and greased mane, that mad, pulsating look in his eyes — that seemed to stare into her very soul —

A shrill sound yanked her from her daze.

For a moment, she couldn’t remember where she was; then the image stabilised, and she saw that she was still on stage, with thousands of ponies in front of her. She realised that she had heard a sharp mare’s cry. It was shrill and bone-chilling and reverberated all over the square.

All ponies turned their heads to look for its source. The priest had stopped speaking and did the same. A quick glance to Celestia’s side revealed that her, mother, too, was looking over the crowd with narrow eyes. Something had gone wrong. Celestia’s heartbeat accelerated.

For a moment, all was dead silent. Then —


An explosion. A detonation, she thought immediately.

Before she knew it, thick, black smoke was billowing up everywhere, and she yanked her hooves in front of her eyes. Chaos broke out in a matter of mere seconds. All of a sudden, there were screams everywhere; the entire square had turned into a crescendo of shrieks and cries. There was no stopping the crowd: everypony started to wildly trample off in all directions.

She ejected a hacking cough. Blood rushed into her skull, and everything around her seemed to assume an urgent clarity. As she focused on the crowd in front of her, she started to make out individual ponies running for their lives. She zoomed in on the blue filly she had spotted in the throng: the filly’s eyes were wide open with fear as ponies trampled recklessly about. Without thinking much about it, Celestia leapt from the stage into the chaos below.

“Tia,” her mother screamed behind her. “No! Tia! Stay here!”

Celestia dived headfirst into the crowd and made her way towards the filly, driven by an urgent sense of compulsion. The filly had difficulties staying afoot, and the crowd didn’t care one bit; it was everypony for themselves, and they were trampling her down. Celestia dashed forward, using the spread of her wings to cut a way through the throng and keep ponies at a distance. When she had arrived by the foal, she extended a hoof towards her. From up close, the filly didn’t resemble Luna at all. She looked at Celestia for instants of a second, blinking incredulously, then took her hoof and let herself be pulled up, her eyes wide open with fear.

Celestia nodded slowly and tried a brave smile, then positioned herself in front of the foal, keeping her wings outstretched, to prevent her from being trampled to death. She stared at the ponies that passed them by in full gallop, and saw that their eyes did not see; there was an elementary madness in them that scared Celestia. It truly was everypony for themselves. The few and in-between pegasi were fluttering up into safety like a flock of startled birds, and a few earth ponies that had made it to the sidelines tilted their heads back to squint at them resentfully. Celestia stayed firmly in place.

More black smoke started to fill up the square. Thick plumes of it were billowing from the terraces surrounding the square; no doubt explosives had been installed there, prepared in advance to go off when the panic was at its highest. Suddenly, one of the heavy terraces broke and threatened to fall into the throng. Gaia immediately stopped its fall with her horn’s powers in mid-air; but suspending the heavy terrace cost her all of her focus.

By this point, there was no holding back any longer; ponies screamed at the top of their lungs, bone-chilling cries of desperation, and mercilessly trampled all over each other in their frenzied attempts at escaping the dramatically overcrowded square through the far too narrow alleyways that branched off of it. The screams were drowned out only by the violent thunder of thousands of utterly uncoordinated hoofs, sending the entire place shaking as though by an earthquake.

It was hard to see through the thick smoke billowing up everywhere. The wooden stage that had been erected was now a mere smouldering jumble of broken sticks and beams. The screams of the crowd were dizzying; Celestia found herself turning around, turning around in endless circles, trying to find the way out through the stream of ponies that kept pounding toward her in panic; but there was no escaping the throng of people hurrying towards the presumed exits. Her heart was beating madly in her chest, but she managed to stay firmly in place and not budge, bracing herself and the filly with her wings.

The onslaught of ponies continued; Celestia closed her eyes and forced herself to keep wide open her shaking wings; but she had not seen this many ponies her entire life, and here they were all charging towards her — somepony knocked into her left wings, then more ponies starting bumping into them — one hit her violently and knocked her down — she fell to the ground—

“TIA!” her mother called out again. She was still levitating the terrace in mid-air, but Celestia couldn’t see that. She instinctively covered her eyes with her hoofs, her wings flapping around erratically. “FLY! YOU NEED TO FLY AWAY!”

But Celestia couldn’t bring herself to move her wings; they seemed frozen in place. “I need to,” she murmured, “I need to — protect — ”

Wide open eyes above her. Hooves right and left. Did they even realise there was a princess lying on the ground? Celestia pushed the thought from her head. That didn’t matter, all that mattered was to —

She vaguely saw the blue filly being picked up by the nape by a stallion. He shot her a look; it was more frightened than grateful. Holding on to his daughter, he disappeared back into the crowd. Celestia closed her eyes to try and shut out the thunderous hoofs so close to her face —

Then, all of a sudden, something very strange happened. Celestia found herself enclosed by some kind of force shield; a thin, but invisible field seemed to protect her from the crowd that kept bumping into her, like a dome of spotless, unbreakable glass. What a weird sensation that was! With wide open eyes, her chest heaving and lowering forcefully as she attempted to catch her breath, she looked towards the ponies that simply kept running against that invisible wall mere inches from her, only to bounce back and, a dazed look on their faces, stumble along.

But she quickly realised what had happened. On stage, her mother was directly staring at her, and there was no doubt she had put the protection in place. There had been a price she had paid for that, however. To protect her daughter, she had dropped the terrace she had been suspending in mid-air.

Royalty first,” reverberated a gleeful, oily voice all over the square. “Make sure our wittle, wittle princess is safe from the ghastly little peasants.”

The voice only spurred on the crowd. They screamed, ran wildly all over the place, in divergent directions. Celestia frowned. Keep calm, she found herself thinking. Just keep calm, move into one direction, don’t panic. She bumped her hoof against her invisible cage, but it was impenetrable. The wild galloping around her did not cease, but only grow stronger. She took down her hooves and turned around herself in frustration. There were others, too. Many barely moved. Celestia gulped, then cried in frustration.

Let me out of here, she thought, willing her mother to hear her. Let me out of here. I need to help. I want to help. Don’t keep me in here.

Then, out of the blue, all was calm again.

Everypony seemed to stop in their tracks, as though reason had unexpectedly returned to the throng. The crowd gasped as one. Everyone was gazing at a single point that Celestia could not see. She turned around, then realised why: somewhere further in the square’s middle, an eerily familiar earth stallion was hovering in midair, idly rising ever higher, and it quickly became obvious that it wasn’t of his own accord; for a leaf-green aura surrounded him. Gaia stood on what was left of the stage, a fierce expression on her face, her horn aglow with an intensely energetic green hue. She had simply pulled the stallion out of the throng.

Who is that? it bolted through Celestia’s head. Who is that? Exasperatedly, she hammered her hoofs against the invisible walls.

But there could be little doubt as to the stallion’s identity. For as he turned, on his scruffy beige flank, there was an oversized sweetcorn for a cutie mark.

She stopped beating against her prison and let her hoof slide to the ground. Sweetcorn?

How was that possible? How had he escaped?

For the tiniest of moments, Celestia detected that same incomprehension in Gaia’s gaze; but the Queen quickly recovered, and her trademark unfazed, attentive calm returned to her eyes. Gaia pulled the stallion up towards the stage. His expression remained blissfully detached. There was no fear in his eyes, neither towards Gaia, nor towards the chaos and cooling smoke surrounding him, nor towards the prospect of hovering twenty feet above ground. He smiled, then he addressed the crowd as though that was the most natural thing in the world.

“Before you lock me away once more,” Sweetcorn said, his tender, oily voice forcefully reverberating, “won’t you hear me out? All of you.”

Gaia clenched her teeth. Sweetcorn could be sure of the fact that everypony’s eyes on the square were now on him; at least, all eyes that retained their liveliness.

Still enclosed in her invisible dome, Celestia suddenly understood the conundrum her mother was facing: if she prevented the stallion from speaking — one way or the other — that would make her look very bad in front of the crowd, even though it was palpably him who had caused the attack in the first place. If she tried to silence him — wouldn’t the people want to hear what he had to say all the more? If she tried to muzzle him — wouldn’t the people ask what she had to hide that was not to be spoken aloud? She could only lose either way.

“I am here to announce,” said the stallion amiably, “that the resistance is real. It exists, and it is real. I know there have been rumours, and they are all true! I assure you that this will not stand. I assure you that the earth ponies have had enough of being the working horses for a class of unicorns, pegasi and, worst of all, our lovely godqueens here who don’t miss out on anything.”

A small flock of ponies started to stomp their hooves on the ground, weakly at first, then growing louder. Most others weren’t joining them; but they still looked at them with blank expressions. Sweetcorn smiled softly, and Gaia narrowed her eyes as she surveyed the crowd’s reaction. Where to cut him off, where to draw the line? When had he said enough?

“An incendiary,” she spoke, her voice clear and calm. “A fearmonger. Is that someone you want to listen to? Will you let yourself be swayed by his poisonous words? You see what he has done just now!”

“Sometimes,” the stallion said and glared at the crowd, “your voice is so repressed that you need a bang to make yourself heard.”

Some in the crowd murmured assent; others looked at them, some with unconcealed interest, some with blatant disgust and hatred. Celestia slowly shook her as she felt tears glisten in her eyes. Slowly, silently, the crowd started shuffling around, some of those who had stomped their hooves flocking together; others, whose gaze was blank or even disgusted, stepped away from the assenters to form a crowd of their own. As the ponies regrouped themselves, the image became more clear-cut; all of the dissenters were earth-ponies who were sticking together; amongst those who distanced themselves were earth ponies, too, but most of them were pegasi and unicorns. Eventually, with little sound, the crowd had dispersed into two opposing mobs. They were staring each other down, some with incomprehension; others with hatred. Yet others with tears in their eyes.

In their midst, only now revealed to the daylight, lay those who hadn’t made it through the stampede.

There was neither fear nor anger in Gaia’s gaze. It was blank; uncomprehending. She looked at the stallion who hovered in front of her, and Celestia could see that Gaia was coming to some sort of conclusion; that she arrived at some realisation Celestia could not fathom. It looked as though something inside of her mother clicked into place.

“Gaia’s walls could not hold me back,” the stallion jeered. “They keep her away from you so reliably, keep her locked off in her comfortable little world with her two cute little kids, not a worry in the world, while they reap the fruits of other ponies’ hard labour — ours! Harvest Celebration? A bad joke! We till the soil, they eat the Harvest!”

Celestia’s vision was twirling. How could he speak like that? After what he had done?

“If we do not stand united,” Gaia exclaimed, and it sounded like a mantra, “then all that we have worked so hard to create will fall apart! We are all different, and we have different needs, and that’s how it should be! This society is not perfect, and neither am I. It is not I who builds this land; all I can do is do my part to keep up peace and defend us against that very threat of falling apart. For how can we live at all, if not together! How can there be peace if we are not willing to find compromise?”

“Exactly,” he muttered slyly. “There cannot be.”

And she was on the defensive.

“For agitation against the people of this land,” Gaia’s unwavering voice called out clearly, “and for deliberate terroristic acts willingly accepting innocent ponies to be injured and killed, for murder, and for disrespect to the laws of this land, I hereby arrest you.”

“Laws that you made.”

She ignored that statement. “You will receive a fair trial. Is that clear? That is what is going to happen to you. A fair trial like any other common criminal. I know what you want, but I’m not going to give it to you. You cannot scare us with your fear-mongering. You cannot drive us apart that easily.”

“I think I can,” he whispered only for her to hear. “Or rather, it is you who is doing the driving apart.”

She spoke no more. The crowd was silent; the tension was palpable, electric, and you would have been able to hear a pin drop to the ground.

“You are hereby,” Gaia pronounced very clearly, “under arrest.”

“But I’m not coming. I escaped the first time, remember? Don’t make a fool of yourself again,” he uttered, still only under his breath. Then he turned to the crowd and shouted. “She cannot hold me! She cannot muzzle me — and most of all, she cannot muzzle you.” Here and there, hoofstomps of assent were heard. “I declare to you all that the resistance is real. The rebellion is real. At this very moment, as I speak, all over the country, there are ponies banding together to fight for a country that is theirs once more. That knows to honour the efforts of its people. That makes sure the seeds we sow so laboriously are reaped only by us. If that is a thought you share, then I urge you to join them. I urge you to break free.”

He turned to face Gaia. “Time to stop indulging in fantasies. Your self-perceived nobleness of spirit buys these ponies exactly nothing. Your world-weary idealism is slowly eating away at the very foundation of your power. Seems like the Eternal Spring is withering away. It seems the reins are slipping out of your hooves!” He giggled.

That was enough. Gaia’s eyes flashed. She sharply yanked the hovering Sweetcorn toward her, intending to apprehend him; but at that precise moment, still in midair, the stallion suddenly turned to face Celestia, and a small smile appeared on his muzzle for only her to see. His gaze seemed to stare right into her heart, and there it reared its head again, that weird fascination with the wild eyes and the disheveled mane.

He held a hoof to his mouth, as if to consign Celestia to confidentiality. Celestia flinched. She was sure she had heard his voice in her head.

Will you pay the price?

And before Gaia could grasp him, there was a sudden puff of white smoke. When it cleared, he had apparently simply disappeared in mid-air.

Gaia stared blankly at the spot where he had disappeared. So did Celestia and the entire square; what had happened was absolutely incomprehensible.

Smoke and mirrors. A diversion. But where had he gone?

Right now, everything was dead silent. But the silence didn’t last for long.


Gaia grabbed Celestia by the nape like a lioness her cub and disappeared with her in a flash.

They landed on the castle’s marble balcony. By now, dusk was falling rapidly, and the torches on the balustrades illuminated them, a frightening theatre of shadows on the castle walls.

“It wasn’t Luna,” Celestia wailed immediately, and cast a pleading look towards her mother. “It wasn’t her who let him out! Not this time!” Her voice was imploring.

Gaia gently set Celestia on the marble. She gave her a sharp look, then without a word, stormed inside. Celestia hurried to run after her mother, struggling to keep up.

Barely had Gaia entered the castle, did a burly guard approach them. “Stronghooves has told me they’ve got their soldiers down there,” he said emphatically. “He’s deployed them to keep the situation under control.

“How great,” Gaia remarked grimly. “Fantastic prospect to have a bunch of soldiers on Canterlot Square. Where do you think this road leads? Get your people in the throne hall right now. And go fetch Acier!” she exclaimed.

Some of her gentility had been replaced with the same cold, fierce anger Celestia had seen when the guards had beat up Sweetcorn. And that didn’t fail to frighten Celestia, this time, either. The three of them entered the throne hall, which was plunged in twilight and empty.

“What about this Sweetcorn?” she asked sharply.

“His cell was unscathed and simply empty. We have no idea — “

“How could he have escaped?” she cut him off. “We’ve got one mad earth pony in here — just an earth pony, nopony’s heard of him before! — I give orders to keep him safe and secure, and then, within mere hours, he wreaks an unprecedented attack on Canterlot Square! How could he have escaped!”

“Maybe you should ask your daughter about that,” the guard said quietly. She turned around and looked at him as though she had misheard. Then her gaze darkened, and she locked eyes with him.

“Quiet,” she growled menacingly. Celestia flinched: she had never seen her mother like this. “This is the guards’ fault. You’ve failed keeping him from breaking in here; you’ve failed keeping him from breaking out again.”

“With all due respect, Majesty, I cannot accept that”, the stallion retorted. “If I may remind you, the guards were bent on neutralising Sweetcorn when he made his way in here, but you thought it wise to discharge two fine servicestallions who were doing their job with the express intention of protecting you, you and your daughters! And now you reproach us guards with his escape? I know you believe in some sort of crazy guard conspiracy, that’s no secret, but there’s a line for everything, and you are crossing that line right now, Majesty —”

Her eyes were fuming. She approached; the guard flinched, but did not budge as the alicorn came closer. Eyes narrow, ears laid back, she looked like a ferocious animal ready to attack. Celestia retreated into a corner.

“Who do you think you are?” Gaia said very quietly. “You are forgetting yourself.”

But the guard was feeling adventurous. He responded with equally strained quiet. “So what are you going to do, Majesty? Are you going to discharge me, too, for stating things as they are for once? You’ve always had a problem with knowing who your friends are. Whom to be friendly towards, and whom to be hostile against. Are you going to dismiss me now? Or worse?”

His gaze was defiant. Celestia turned away her head; this time not in fear. She realised that her mother had just been embarrassed to the point of disgrace, and that was a painful thing to watch.

Her mother’s eyes seemed to shoot daggers as she approached the stallion until she was mere inches away; she was at least two heads taller than the stallion, and her figure much more impressive, in no small part due to her large, graceful wings. But as she, her teeth clenched together, ripped the guard’s ensign from his armour, she appeared small.

“Leave,” she said simply.

The guard’s lips quivered slightly. Then he nodded a few times, slowly, and stared her directly in the eyes.

And he did leave.

The exchange appeared to have exhausted Gaia. She simply sat down where she was; in the centre of the throne hall, on the marble floor in front of her throne. She seemed to be contemplating something. Then she looked at Celestia.

“I sincerely don’t believe that Luna was responsible for what happened,” she said. “She didn’t let Sweetcorn in. She can’t have, because she was with me at the time.”

Celestia froze.

“But why — why would she —”

“Why would she lie? I don’t know. Maybe to get a bit of credit for once. But she would never let in somepony who she knows is dangerous, who could hurt me, could hurt you. She did attack the guards, though. That much is true. So in the end, it doesn’t make much of a difference.”

“But — how else could he....?”

Gaia gave her a blank look.

“Is it true what he said? Is there a rebellion?”

“Of course not,” Gaia sighed. “But there’ll be one now.” She drooped her head.

“You did something very brave on the Square today, Tia”, she said after a while; in the twilight, it was already hard to make out her face. “Something very dangerous, but very brave. I’m proud of you.”

But as she turned around, Celestia, for the first time, saw tears in her mother’s eyes. “But don’t you ever do that again,” she said. “You hear me? Don’t you ever do that again. I don’t want to — lose — ”

Her voice trailed off and she breathed in sharply.

“Please don’t stick around when they come, Sunray. I said I was going to involve you, but not ... not like this. There’ll be generals here and ponies from the city council and nobility and a whole lot of unpleasantness is going to be discussed. Unpleasant decisions. I want to spare you all that.”

“Will there be war now,” Celestia asked quietly.

Gaia didn’t budge. “Whatever happens,” she said after a while. “We’re at a crossroads now, and both ways lead into uncertain futures. But we know that neither of these futures will be pleasant.”

Then she fell silent.

Celestia understood that it was time for her to go. She looked back one last time at her mother sitting in the throne hall, not on the throne, but simply in its middle, weary and with grim decision. And in that moment, the final light of the day passed through one of the glass-stained windows, to plunge the entire hall into a most peculiar, harlequin light of every colour; and yet, since the day was already coming to a close, the colours were muted and muffled and halfway between light and shadow.

Celestia raised her head towards that glass-stained window; it was as though she was noticing it for the first time. It was divided in three parts. Its upper half was a bright yellow as the sun, and a long, drawn-out alicorn seemed to form the upper part of a circle: it had a leaf-green hue to it. Another alicorn in the lower half completed the circle; but it was a cold, wintery blue. The two appeared to chase each other’s tails endlessly.

And in its centre, guarded by the two ponies, there was a heart-shaped flame of exactly the kind Sweetcorn had described.

She sighed deeply and looked one last time towards her mother’s bent figure in the throne hall. Then she left the hall and stepped into the corridors.


Things change; whether you want them to or not. Most of the time, change comes slowly, over the course of years. But sometimes, it occurs suddenly and overnight — with the batting of an eyelash. Celestia realised that only now. You had to go with the flow, or time would sweep you away. Yes, change had brought doubt with it; but in all that new doubt, Celestia found certitude.

In the corridors, there was an unprecedented hustle. The entire court seemed up on their hooves and on their way to the throne hall; they were moving up and down, important-looking dark-robed ponies with white wigs for a mane, guards in knots of two or three rushing to the guard’s quarters, where talks were going to be held, and a group of wigged, distinguished-looking ponies that Celestia knew constituted the city council and senate of the Town of Canterlot. It was like her mother had said: important matters were going to be discussed, no question.

But right now, Celestia chose to ignore it. She walked through the overcrowded corridors as though in a trance; she did not budge when the other ponies approached her, knowing full well that they would be the ones to move and avoid collision. Instead, she had the most peculiar sensation of being on a preordained trajectory; of unwaveringly following a line that led straight to her destiny. To her vocation.

The further she walked through the castle, back towards her chamber, the stronger this feeling became; everything seemed to fall in place in front of her eyes, under her hooves, and all around her. Every pony who cleared her way seemed to feel it, too; nopony asked her in any way where she was going, what she was going to do, because that all felt perfectly like it should be. And the ponies walking towards her for the first time undoubtedly recognised the clarity of mission in her eyes; saw the purposefulness of the spring in her hooves. Somewhere in the back of her head, she realised that she was walking the path of her life’s calling at that moment. Because really, the crossroads lay behind her already; from now on, it was all a perfectly straight line. She believed to finally understand what her mother had meant by destiny.

Her steps slowed down when she passed by Acier’s door. It stood ajar; the master of the guards was nowhere to be seen. Still feeling steered by a strange sense of mission, she pushed open the door with her hooves and entered into the room. Diamonds sparkled on the walls as per the usual; but now, they reflected only the oil lamp and not the sun, a much less resplendent light. Nonetheless, the keys on the giant rack of key-hooks over the workbench glistened in it.

It was at that moment that Celestia felt very strongly drawn to the workbench; pulled there by some compelling force. She approached, and cocked her head in apprehension. There, on the worktable, lay a single parchment. It was folded in halves. Its outside was blank.

She frowned and picked it up. She unfolded it. The hastily scribbled handwriting thereon seemed so urgent, so driven, so impelled that it must have been forced onto parchment in mere minutes, in a feverish bout of frenzy. It appeared like an excerpt from a longer text. She furrowed her brow, and in the polychromatic light of the gems, she started to read.

... a purulent ulcer at the very heart of our nation, a proliferating growth that so vociferously devours the very essence, the soul of this land! The heavy air we breathe still hangs pestiferous with the resilient residue of gluttonous cupidity, of unbridled greed, of those few who clasp in their hooves the fate of a nation too splendid, too meritorious for them to hold in slavery any longer. We soldiers must take to the arms! take to the arms and take back what is rightfully ours! The battles we have fought with vigour and conviction, the pledges and sacrifices we have offered, all made in vain, all made to the enemy in disguise! They say we fight the enemy; but is not the enemy our own lady? Are those not one and the same, is our true ally and master not freedom, not self-rule?

And what better way to destroy a pestilential growth than from within? What better place to attack than from inside the enemy’s sanctuary? To earn the enemy’s trust, and then to unlatch the gates for the comrades to come in, to end this war before it even started, to extinguish that Flame that cannot perish on its own and take its place, to take back the castle and give it back to its rightful owners, the great ponies of this land! Only swiftness and surreptitiousness ensure an equally quick and discreet victory, before the enemy even grows aware that she has nursed and harboured the assailant on her own demesne. And what better way to extinguish a life thought to be interminable than by attacking what is closest to the heart. By becoming friends with them, and then attacking those who are closest to the heart ...

That was all.

Her eyes slowly wandered up towards the rack of key-hooks. There hung the keys to all the dungeons. There hung the key that he had used to lead her to Sweetcorn. For a moment, she simply stared at it, her expression perfectly neutral.

Did she feel disappointed? Betrayed? Was that what she felt? She contemplated the thought for a moment, but then she realised that she wasn’t; for it now seemed unavoidable to her, as though it had been laid out like this from the start. Wasn’t that, too, just part of that great plan? Wasn’t that all as it should be? That great sense of cosmic determination was too immense for any personal sense of betrayal.

She crumpled the parchment in her hoofs, then stowed it away under her wing.

As she left the chamber, she saw Acier come down the corridor; no doubt he was returning from the throne hall. He looked at her with surprise, and a mild smile appeared on his muzzle. But he had barely begun to speak when he saw her gaze and thought better of it. She looked him directly in the eyes, with an expression that must have been entirely unfathomable to him.

“Tia, is everything —”

Truth in our hearts,” she said, very slowly, uttering every single syllable with the greatest distinction. “Consistency in our tongues.

And she turned her back on him to stride on, ignoring his calls. Her expression was grim: she was not going to tell anyone anything about this parchment, not her mother, nor anypony else: that much was clear. It was her knowledge, for it was her bond that had been betrayed; the parchment was her secret, and it was her who would decide what to do with that secret, how to act on it, which conclusions to draw from it. For that, she needed time.

But where could she go now?

The answer came to her naturally; her hooves seemed to find their way all by themselves.

When she arrived at her and Luna’s chamber and opened the door, it was empty. She laid down on her bed and stared up towards the ceiling. The warmth restored lost comfort to her; the galaxies swirling overhead eased at least some tension. But soon, even they seemed to feed into that agonising sense of inevitability that had infested her, the sudden conviction that everything was already laid out, already planned. Every actor had their script already, and from now on, the only thing left to do was watching the play unfold. The thought made her feel strangely disconnected from her surroundings. There was no going back now. She finally believed to understand what her mother had meant by destiny.

But which role was she going to play? And which role was —

She waited and waited. After what seemed like at least three hours, the door opened, and Luna slid in. Celestia could only see her outline in the bright doorframe; but with her, she brought a slight, fresh note of night air into the room, and Celestia slowly breathed in.

For a while, Luna stood indecisively in the doorframe and stared into the darkness of the room. Then she soundlessly closed the door behind her and moved towards her bed. Celestia’s eyes were still wide open. Above, two stars were performing a very elaborate, drawn-out dance of gravity; as they distanced themselves from each other, they slowed down, but when they approached again, they accelerated.

Celestia breathed in and turned her head to watch Luna climb into bed; the rustling of bedsheets was now the only sound in the room. She could still not see her sister’s face, only her shadowy outline. But nonetheless, she watched her attentively. Which role was she going to play?

A particularly deep breath from Celestia made Luna turn her head. There, in total darkness, they gazed at each other, and yet saw nothing but silhouettes. Celestia could not fathom that Luna’s eyes were half-closed; perhaps with a mixture of expectation and weariness, of detachment and affection. But that mattered little. In her heart, she felt that everything was as it should be; but there was something else. Luna’s words resounded in her mind. You’re so loved, god, you have no idea how loved you are.

There must be a place for all this love, she thought suddenly. It must not go to waste.

Wasn’t that the only truth that mattered? Whatever would happen tomorrow, whatever choices needed to be made, whatever would change — wasn’t there one thing that was certain today?

She slowly got out of her bed and walked over to Luna’s. For a moment, she just stood in front of it, motionless, merely divining her sister’s gaze.

Then, without really thinking about it, she climbed in. Very gently, very hesitantly, she nestled up to her sister, who remained motionless as a stone. She felt her breath against her own chest; a breathing that was a little too measured to be natural. She vaguely sensed Luna’s subtle warmth against her own.

In this position, they froze, and moved no further, finally drifting off into a shallow sleep. It was not all the comfort they needed, but all that they could muster; it was not all the closeness they craved, but all that they could endure. For between their fur, there remained a minute distance Celestia dared not bridge, a minuscule gap she dared not close.

It was only a tiny fraction of an inch; but in all actuality, it was an entire world.

To be continued.

Next chapter: Invitations.

Many thanks to my tirelessly radical pre-reader Cadmium for his helpful comments.

And thank you, dear reader, for sticking with this tale — even though this chapter turned out ridiculously long. It’s your warm comments and support that keep me going. That means, yes, please do take the time to rate and comment if you liked this story. If you have the time, please also rate on EqD. Thank you very much.


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Content warning: contains minor swearing

Chapter 3

« ... somewhere out there, there must be something that is both true and simple ... »

It is night in Equestria. Somewhere in the distance, the silhouette of a castle is visible against a black sky. The Everfree Forest is silent to those who don’t know how to listen, and almost devoid of movement. And yet, the silhouette of a pony moves over the lawn, a young, night-blue mare with wings and a horn.

A twig cracks. The figure pulls back her hoof, as though startled by herself; then she pricks up her ears again and scurries soundlessly over the soft blanket of wet leaves covering the ground. She moves more like a large cat than a pony, her sleek coat sometimes revealing the movement of lean muscles under her coat; and her movements are smooth and fluid, measured but swift. Sometimes, when she believes to hear a sound, she freezes, and her body ducks towards the ground, like a field animal seeking shelter from a bird of prey. After a while, she raises her head to perk up an ear and listen into the night; and her bright eyes float in the darkness like two full moons.

The real full moon that she looks up to silently, unbudgingly hangs suspended above the night, like the unblinking, unperturbed gaze of some great universal truth. This night, it is untarnished by clouds. She stares at it, as though she tries to elicit that truth; time and time again, she looks at the moon, if only to verify it is still there.

Then she slinks on, prowling through the night, and soon she finds that fluidity of movement again, that swiftness and spring in her hooves, that smooth shadowy grace of a silhouette; she seems to move to some kind of rhythm, a melody, even, that normal ears are oblivious to, but that seems to her as natural as the air she breathes. In her flowing suppleness, she seems to be swimming through the night, not just galloping.

Soon, she becomes more secure, swifter, more confident, and her halts to check for her surroundings become rarer and rarer. She runs alongside a small green fox, as though competing with it. The wet lawn she moves on starts to slope downwards, and she gathers speed as she darts downhill. Here, where the trees are less dense and there are less shadows, narrow beams of moonlight sometimes fall onto her figure and her face. The pattern they form on her figure and on the ground resemble that of a barred door: thin, linear beams of light alternate with somewhat broader shadows of trunks. But when her face does become visible, a smile is apparent, and her eyes light up with something else than the mere reflection of the moonlight. Sometimes, she huffs excitedly, for shortness of breath as well as for the exhilaration and thrill. In those moments, she can feel the night wind ruffle her fur and feathers, a slight tingle on her skin, and then, she feels one with the night around her, as if she were mere part of that one large movement that is the wind of the night, swiftly carrying hushed, unpronounceable messages from place to place ere the day breaks once more, messages audible only to those who know how to listen. Then, all her inhibition is gone, all her carefulness disappears, and all that remains is the excitement of moving under the cover of darkness, in tune with the stars.

Suddenly, she comes to another halt. Her muscles are taut in anticipation, and once more, she raises her head to listen into the night; this time, she has actually heard something, an unnatural, abrasive sound amongst the nocturnal tranquility. Her eyes narrow, and her ears remain pricked up as she cautiously stalks towards the source of the sound. Her expression darkens. Pony laughter. What more jarring sound could disrupt the night? What could be more misplaced amongst the grand universal truth of darkness than the terribly this-worldly, vulgar guttural guffaw from a pony’s throat?

The slope ends in a cliff. Keeping to the shadows as well as she can, she silently looks over the precipice onto the gravel road below. Her nose is wrinkled in apprehension, and she blinks a few times; even the feeble, but fiery roadside illumination of one torch every hundred feet is too bright for her now. She covers her eyes. Next to her, the fox has joined her, looking down as well.

Blankly, she stares down. Where does this road lead? For a moment, she is too caught up in the tranquility of the darkness to remember such mundane facts. Then her consciousness sharpens, and somewhere in the back of her head, she realises it connects Canterlot and Hoofington. Two earth stallions were walking below. They had scruffy, dirty coats, but their faces were ripe with some sort of glee. Their shadows danced in the illumination of the torchlight they carried.

She cocked her head, timid resentment on her moonlit face. Could they not see how misplaced their boisterousness was? She keeps to the ground, silently stalking alongside the cliff to follow their progress, and listens.

“Totally out of the blue,” said the one stallion, who had what seemed like a burlap sack for a cutie mark. His voice was harshly enthusiastic. “Like, nopony had any idea. If there’s ever been a surprise at the Harvest Celebration, this is it.” He guffawed.

“But this Sweetcorn guy — d’ya think he’s the real deal?”

“‘course he is! He’s the only one sticking up for guys like us. He’s right. She doesn’t care for us one bit, our glorious Her Majesty Queen Eternal Spring Gaia. I mean, I was there on that square. I saw what happened. She had her brat with her, Celestia, and when the chips were down, it was her that she protected, not us.”

“I didn’ even know she had a kid.”

“She got two kids. Knot, you been livin’ under a rock or what?”

Knot laughs. “In Hoofington, but that’s pretty much the same thing. Royal news don’t reach us back there. Never really cared much about them, too.”

“Well, this you should care about. There’s something going on there, too. She’s got two kids, but she only brings one! I mean, Gaia thinks nopony notices, but she’s wrong. Two kids, ‘meant to rule together’, least that’s what they told us some ten years ago. So where’s her other daughter? Dunno about you, but I ain’t stupid, something’s off at the royal court. Well, some stuff filters through. Rumours from the castle, I know a guy there. Apparently, the other princess, Luna, isn’t quite right in the head. There’s some nasty stuff being said about her. So Gaia hides her and shows the other one around, preps her for the throne. She’s embarrassed about her weirdo daughter. They call her Loony, and for a reason, I guess. ” He snorted.

A tiny pebble tumbled down the cliff, but in the night, it made a jarringly amplified sound. He stopped talking and put up his head to look towards the crag towering overhead. But the darkness was impenetrable.

“What is it?”

“Thought I heard something.”

“Just a stone falling.”

“Yeah....” He narrows his eyes and tries to make out shapes in the night; but when nothing moves and all is still, he turns back to his partner, and they trot on.

“So, like I said, seems they’re a bit short of domestic bliss over at the castle. Things not going as well as Gaia hoped, if yeh can trust the rumours. And that’s his chance. Sweetcorn’s. He’s gonna work from there. That’s his leverage.”

“His what?”

“You know, his hoof into the castle. If he’s got one hoof in, then it’s only a matter of time before he’s got the whole thing. And then he’s gonna rid us of her once and for all. Then the earth ponies are gonna call the shots here. Finally.”

“How d’you mean, rid us? Drive her away?”

“Yeah, that. Or worse.”

“Like what?”

“Kill her for good.”

There was a pause. The other stallion, Knot, looked at his conversational partner with unconcealed shock.

“That’s treason,” he said reflexively. But then, after a while, he added: “And you can’t kill the queen anyway. She ain’t... ain’t no normal pony. There’s no guillotine for her head. She’s immortal. Not even Sweetcorn can change that, even—even if that’s his stated mission.”

“Yeah, but this guy ain’t no normal pony, too,” his partner said, and in the torchlight, his face was glistening with unadulterated enthusiasm. “You weren’t there on that square, but I was. He gave her the full run-around. Couldn’t believe my eyes. She pulled him right out of the lot, yeah, but then he has his unbelievable speech, and right when she tries to grab him — poof — he‘s gone.”

“Gone,” Knot says and shakes his head incredulously.

“Yeah. Disappears into thin air, just like that. She can’t believe her eyes, too. Looks totally stupid up there on that jumbled stage. The most powerful alicorn lookin’ like a complete fool. I’m telling you, this Sweetcorn is something else.”

“That’s why you’re going to join him.”

“Yeah,” the other blurted and gruffly jabs his attendant in the side. “And you should join, too! If you know what’s good for you.”

“I dunno. Sweetcorn...” Knot is deep in thought for a while. “Funny, I once knew someone called Sweetcorn back in Hoovington,” he grins.

“But yah sure it wasn’t him?” Burlap asks eagerly.

“Nah, can’t be. That one was a total dope. Couldn’t string together three words. Not that sorta, like, genius you’re describing.” He fell silent, and his face glistened with some kind of admiration. “Man, that sure takes guts to do that to the Queen’s face...”

“And that’s just the beginning! He’ll make her look worse than that. I’m sure he can do it. He’ll capture the castle for us, he’ll tear down those gates, and then it’s curtains for Gaia, and to nip things in the bud, for her heir, too. Goodbye, little Celestia. And then, when those are out of the way, finally, finally will we —”

Suddenly, the light of their torch is gone with a hiss. Only the much feebler roadside illumination casts their glow upon them now. The sharp echo of Burlap’s unfinished sentence hangs uncomfortably in the air.

“What the...”

“Relight the torch, quick!”

“Where? I got no fire!”

“Take it from those!” Knot points at one of the roadside torches. But before they can approach it, those lights are extinguished, too, as though blown out by some invisible breath. They both freeze in place, suddenly scared at the sounds their hooves make on the gravel, and together, they perk up their ears and try to penetrate the darkness.

Burlap, acting on a whim, puts his head back to look at the moon. But something strange happens. A large and heavy cloud appears to push itself in front of it, to obscure any and all moonlight, and completely usurp any lingering light. All of a sudden, the darkness around them seems more dense than usual, more solid than a mere absence of light. He turns around to look for his partner, only to find that he can’t see him anymore.

“Knot?” he murmurs tentatively.

Nothing, as though the night has swallowed him.

He extends a hoof to feel into the darkness, but it finds no resistance. He is just groping about in nothingness. As he looks down, he realises he can’t even see the street under his hooves; neither can he see his hooves. A tingling feeling of fear starts to spread through his body.

He inhales sharply.


For a moment, he is sure to hear an angry hiss, and then, a weird, gargling sound escapes his throat, and he feels as though some black tentacle tugs on his heart, squeezes on his soul, and there is fear, fear heaved from the most profound depths of his self, and the last thing he sees is nothing at all, just a wall of solid, crushing black.


Celestia awoke to the sound of rain.

She blinked, and immediately turned around to her side: Luna wasn’t there. Had they even laid in this bed together? Celestia wasn’t sure anymore. She retained a vague memory of delicate closeness, of awkward intimacy, but for all she knew, it could have been a dream or even a distant memory. Things look different in the daylight.

Her members hurt, which meant her sleep had been stiff at best. Groaning, she got up and walked over to the gable window. Thick, heavy clouds were hanging in the sky, pouring down something awful, thick torrents of water gushing down like solid grey walls. The first autumn rain had come with a splash. For some reason, that harsh weather reflected very much Celestia’s inner turmoil. Her expression darkened.

On a whim, she opened a window and put out her hoof. The cool rain immediately soaked it to the bone, but she didn’t pull it back in: there was something strangely invigorating about the harsh sensation of rain on her fur, a feeling of being alive, an opportunity of getting back in touch with reality, of being one with some greater truth that lay outside there, outside of the confinements of these castle walls...

Idle thoughts of no importance. She pushed them from her mind, and as she kept looking into the grey outside, the realities came back to her. Somewhere below her, very, very far off in the distance, she believed to divine the gleaming domes of Canterlot. What was going on down there? The rain hid it under a thick veil. Acier. A pang of pain ran through her heart, but her expression was grim. The note lay under her pillow, and she felt she needed to do something about it. What, she didn’t yet know, but she needed to make a decision. And then, Luna. What had she been doing the night before, what did she do all the nights? What was going on with her? Celestia sighed. The more she thought about all the things going on, the less clear everything seemed to become.

Whatever it was, holding her hoof into the rain wasn’t helping. Taken by a sudden need for action, she pulled it back in and absentmindedly held it to her her horn to dry it. She went over to her bed and checked under the pillow; there it still was, that scrap of parchment. To unlatch the gates for the comrades to come in... what better way to extinguish a life thought to be interminable than by attacking what is closest to the heart? She shook her head. How could she have been so stupid? At least, that might finally give a hint as to why Acier didn’t have a cutie mark, she thought glumly.

Once more, she safely stored away the parchment in her own plumage. She was determined to keep it safe until she had decided what to do with it, until she had staked out Acier’s objectives.

Hastily spreading out the blankets over her beds, Celestia went out, deciding to take it one by one. The corridors, too, were sullen with greyness creeping through the broad windows. But before she could do anymore, she bumped into her mother, accompanied by somepony she hadn’t seen before.

“Tia,” her mother said and smiled lightly. She looked fatigued, no doubt she had slept little; but her eyes were as alert as ever, and the heart-shaped diamond on her chest sparkled mysteriously. Her expression darkened, however, as she introduced her attendant. “This is General Stronghooves.”

Next to her stood a stocky, young stallion in full military armour, which despite his relatively young age, was covered in medals and ensigns. Thick muscles bulge under his stainless white coat, which was immaculately kept; his ebony-black mane was cropped neatly, giving his head a rather square appearance. While his face was starkly cut and his eyes a steely blue, an all-too eager smile had spread over his muzzle when he saw Celestia, and his eyes sparkled.

She gave him a wary look, but he stepped forward and bowed more deeply than would have been necessary, taking her hoof in one swift motion to plant a measured kiss on it. “Princess,” he said with oily grandeur in his voice. “It is an honour and a pleasure to meet you. I am entirely at your service.”

Celestia was unsure how to feel about his kiss and winning smile; there was an ostentation, a pretension in his gestures that made her wary, but then again, he had a certain aura to him, an undeniable charm. Looking at him, she slowly pulled back her hoof, while he smiled unabatedly. Gaia frowned.

“General Stronghooves,” Gaia said pointedly, “is going to stay with us for a few days here at the castle, in a merely consultative capacity. He’s brought a few of his friends with him, too. Isn’t that right, General?” The displeasure in her voice was unmistakeable.

“That is very right, my Queen. In the light of the recent events.”

Celestia’s eyes wandered towards the cutie mark on the firm flank, and it was a fairly predictable sword. The name was the game: parallel to each of his forelegs, there ran a smoothly polished, shining silver blade, pointing upwards and attached to his hooves by a gold ring at its end. The swords worked with the usual mechanism: when he would yank his hooves, the blades would fold out and snap into place to become a mortal weapon. When his work was done, he would fold them back in. Celestia grew wary of the thought how his white coat must look after their usage. But there was no doubt about it: in spite of his grandiose smile, they gave him a radiating air of intimidation, a vague inkling that there was something more dangerous behind that grin.

“Might I say, Princess, you are even prettier than they say.”

Celestia looked back at him, and Gaia, who appeared to have followed both Celestia’s look and Stronghooves’ overly eager smile, narrowed her eyes until they were mere slits. She pulled her daughter towards her to take her under her hooves and demonstratively tousled her hair. Celestia was taken aback; but soon, she wrested herself free from her mother’s, as it seemed to her, overly protective grip.

For a few seconds, awkward silence reigned, then Stronghooves clicked his hooves and said jovially, “We were on our way to breakfast, Majesty! Not to hasten you, but I am so hungry I could eat a... well... a horse really!” He laughed boisterously.

“I’m sure you could,” Gaia muttered under her breath, but if Stronghooves had heard it, it sure didn’t wipe the smile from his face. Instead, he looked at Celestia again, and this time, she was sure to have seen a wink. “Maybe your lovely daughter can join us!”

“No, I don’t think so —”

“I haven’t had breakfast yet,” Celestia said and looked at her mother. Gaia’s green eyes sparkled, but then she gave in with a deep sigh.

“What about Luna? Where is she, maybe she can —” started Celestia, in an attempt to make her desire to join them appear less weird, but she couldn’t finish her words before she sensed a warning in her mother’s eyes. She fell silent.

Stronghooves looked curiously from one to the other. “Your sister?” he said eagerly. “I’ve heard about her, of course she can join —”

“She won’t.” And that was that.

With measured, supple steps, Gaia led the way towards the dining room. Celestia trotted after her, soon looking at her mother, soon looking at Stronghooves, soon scanning the corridors for a glimpse of Acier or Luna. For some reason, her uncanny certainty of the previous evening was replaced more and more by confusion, and everything that had seemed to click into place fell apart once more. When Gaia opened the door to the dining hall, Celestia was surprised to not find it empty, as it was usually reserved for the royal family: two shifty-looking soldiers, they, too, decorated with ensigns and medals, had been talking quietly and now turned their heads to look at the new entrants. When they recognised Gaia, they scrambled to bow deeply, which the queen acquiesced with a nod. Stronghooves’ greeting turned out more expansive: he crossed hooves with each of them, pulling them towards him in the process. “Oh, Benedict here, and this is Arnold. I’ve known my lieutenants for a while,” he laughed when he saw Celestia’s look. But they stayed silent observers as Celestia, Gaia and Stronghooves sat down. With a nonchalant swipe of Gaia’s hoof, breakfast, finest china and silverware appeared on the table, much to the two lieutenants’ barely contained amazement. Stronghooves himself didn’t seem very surprised by that feat.

When he caught the Queen’s impatient look, his smile was quickly replaced by a blank, business-like attitude, as though he had flipped a switch.

“Okay, here’s the lay of the land,” he said. He laid his hooves on the table, but as he spoke, he would make measured, but forceful movements with them to underline his points. “The situation in Canterlot is tense. During the last nights, there’s been pillagers and agitators crawling through the city. Nothing very serious has happened so far, but that Sweetcorn definitely has succeeded in luring the troublemakers out of their holes. Apparently, they feel encouraged now by the, as they see it, lack of swift response on your part.” He coughed. Gaia said nothing. “And there’s something else going on. The situation on Canterlot Square yesterdays has calmed down and people dispersed into the streets, but early this morning, we found a small crowd of ponies there — apparently, they’ve camped out the night there. Not all too many, maybe a hundred. All of them are petty separatists and anarchists,” he spat out those words, “some of which have been well-known to the army before. Apparently, they see in that Sweetcorn some sort of leader figure or something to rally around. But now that he’s disappeared, all they can do is eagerly await his return, which is just what they appear to be doing now.”

“And where is he now?” she said, her tone sharper than would have been necessary.

“Sweetcorn?” Stronghooves put on an ostensible smile and made an apologetic, sweeping gesture with his hooves. “In spite of all my military expertise, if he manages to escape even from her Majesty’s hooves, there’s no way I or one of my folks stand a chance of finding him. Not that we aren’t trying!” he added , and his eyes lit up with an almost scary enterprise. “I can tell you, if by some miracle, we do get this bastard, then I will be sure to waste no time in crushing him like an ant under my ho—”

Gaia scrunched her nose. “A brilliant idea,” she said pointedly. “Hasn’t it occurred to you that that is precisely what he wants? No, he needs to be tried like any other petty criminal. Putting him behind bars will be enough. No crushing necessary. Or desirable.”

“Are you sure putting him behind bars will be enough? After all, hasn’t he already escaped twice?”

For a moment, Celestia wondered if her mother would scold Stronghooves; but she didn’t. “Yes, he has,” she said grudgingly. “He has.”

“See, for some ponies, handcuffs just aren’t enough, Majesty!” He guffawed.

“And for some ponies, the mere act of putting on handcuffs just isn’t enough,” she said darkly. “So they are pillaging already. And a hundred ponies on Canterlot Square, you say? He’s ensnaring them more quickly than I thought. They think he cares about them, but he really doesn’t. I’ve dealt with his kind before. I know the fantasy he’s trying to sell all too well: giving a voice to the voiceless, whoever that might be. He preys on vague feelings of discontent that are selfish more than anything else.” She looked tired. “But if that’s what they want, then let them. They are not content with me, so let them express it. That is their right. They’ll hopefully see soon enough what kind of pony this Sweetcorn really is. A criminal, a murderer, a rogue! What a person to rally around.” She stared at her hooves. “Besides, a hundred ponies on Canterlot Square isn’t all that much. What are they supposed to do? That’s not a serious situation.”

“Oh, it is very serious, Majesty,” Stronghooves said gruffly. “Because it won’t stay like this. More ponies are going to come, the crowd is going to grow. We’ve checked those who were already there, and they all have their own little motivations. A lot of them are already known petty criminals and misfits. Others are agitators trying to latch on to this ‘Sweetcorn’ guy’s notoriety. In both cases, there’s plenty of these left in this country who are sure to join the motley crew once they arrive.”

She shook her head. “All to wait for the second coming of this criminal?”

“He’s the one they want. There’s all kinds of rumours about him, but no one has seen him. Not only in Canterlot, nowhere. But apparently, he doesn’t need to be around to exert his influence,” Stronghooves growled. “It’s like the crowd acts on remote control, it forms all by itself to do his bidding.”

“Some ponies are too gullible. I am here to tell you that the rebellion is real! All over the country, right now, rebel groups are forming... and magically, rebel groups really do appear. Well, at least you can’t say he isn’t clever.”

Stronghooves seemed to lose the red thread and simply stared blankly at Gaia.

“I had my chance, though,” Gaia said. “I should have called him out on that. Sweetcorn, who knew a plain pony like that had such a silver tongue?”

“But Majesty! Let us keep the discussion on relevant —”

“Nothing is more relevant,” she cut him off, and there was that obstinacy in her gaze again, the slightest bit of spite, as though it was Gaia who had been personally wronged. “I had the chance on the Square to outsmart him, but he outsmarted me. He had the moment of surprise on his side.”

“Well, Majesty, if I might — offer my opinion. You should have been more forceful in your handling of the situation. You should have let him speak in the first place, but immediately make sure he never speaks a word again, then you would have avoided looking so, forgive me, indecisive and —”

“Enough,” she said quietly. “You speak like the soldier you are, Stronghooves, but I speak as a queen. You know nothing about that.” Stronghooves’ enterprising grin faded. “Yes, he did want to make me look weak,” she conceded after a while. “But what he really wanted to do is plant an idea in their mind. A crackpot idea, to be sure, one that is completely unrelated to any kind of reality, but a big idea nonetheless. That’s where strife first takes its course. In ponies’ heads. And then, once it has infested their minds, it becomes more and more real, until they are sure it really exists. And then, you can’t stop it anymore. Then the chaos in their heads becomes real chaos. He knew that. He knew where to send the first spark. And some ponies’ brains are made of rather inflammable material.”

Celestia looked at her mother, and Stronghooves gave an especially broad fake smile this time. “But Majesty!” he said jovially. “Some ponies might call that view pretty cynical!” His tone left little doubt that he wasn’t one of those ponies.

“This isn’t really about me, or this Sweetcorn, or whatever,” Gaia went on, looking straight through him, as though she hadn’t heard him at all; and in fact, this time, she seemed to speak more to herself than to either them. “Some ponies just want to see things happen. Yes, there’s discontent, yes, there’s some friction, but you can never do right by everyone. It’s always the same old story. But ponies forget where the road of chaos leads if you choose to follow it to the very end. They forget too quickly that that little stretch of excitement isn’t worth the consequences. We’ve been there before. We’ve had it all before. Ponies just forget too easily.”

Stronghooves, who also looked like someone who forgets too easily, gave her a curious look. “Are you referring,” he said with his gravelly voice, “to the war fifty years ago? I wasn’t born back then, Majesty, and they weren’t, too! So forgive us for not remembering.” He laughed boisterously. Gaia drooped her eyelids. She stared at the salad under her, but apparently couldn’t really find the appetite to eat it.

“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m referring to,” she said after a while. “It was the exact same back then. Earth ponies, unicorns, pegasi. Some ponies always believe that all society is on the verge of collapsing, even if everything is working just fine. You just need someone to come up and tell them, yes, you’re right, society really is collapsing! Let’s put the boot in!, and they will say, yes, we were right all along, let us do something to fix it. But they tend to take it too far. And they don’t see that they are not fighting for a good cause, but only for that one agitator clever enough to manipulate them. Peace is quiet, too quiet for anyone too notice. War is loud. And all it takes is one loud voice, and ponies believe that one loud voice has been the silent minority all along. I’ve worked so hard to have balance, to have equilibrium, but apparently, no equilibrium is stable enough that some Sweetcorn or whatever he calls himself can come along and throw it apart with one cowardly bomb attack. And the worst thing, some ponies will applaud him for that, too. Just a handful is enough. I know you’re exactly right. They will grow. Well, what can I do. I have the best intentions.” Her gaze was lugubrious.

Celestia had never heard her mother talk like this, and she detected fatigue in her mother’s voice. The purpose of her speech seemed entirely lost on Stronghooves, however, who just nodded eagerly with his square jaw, and then exclaimed: “Exactly, Majesty! That crowd will grow. Just a handful of them is enough, and before you know it, you have a wild mob out of control. I told you that right now it is some one hundred ponies we’re talking, but how many will it be this evening? Tomorrow? And all it takes for these ponies to become violent is one incident, one little occasion, and they can set Canterlot ablaze. There’s enormous potential for unrest. Just last night, two earth ponies have been found unconscious on the road near Everfree Forest! Apparently held up.”

Gaia looked at him. “What did you say?” she said absently.

“Two earth ponies. Have been assaulted last night. Knocked out. Not dead, but barely. That’s just the beginning, of course, I have someone on it to figure out what happened. In any case, whoever assaulted them, incidents of this kind are only going to become more frequent — inside of Canterlot, and all over the country. And that kind of thing happening will only incite the crowd even further. Bad news is a sting into the hive-mind. You don’t wanna take that risk.”

Gaia stared down onto her lettuce.

“Well, I will have to take that risk,” she said pointedly. “What is the alternative?”

“Preemptive action,” he said, like a shot. “I told you that my soldiers are on the sidelines. I have two battalions standing by in Canterlot, just waiting for my — I mean, your word. We could evict that square in two hours flat, and everything would be back to normal.”

“No,” she said simply. “That is the most foolish thing I have ever heard. Evict them? Do you think they will just go if you ask them kindly? They’re too deep into this to simply walk away. Or what do you mean by evicting them? You can only mean permission to use force.”

“That is indeed exactly what I mean—” he started and nodded eagerly.

“You mean I should have my soldiers turn on my own people?” Her eyes sparkled dangerously.

“No, I mean—”

“You mean yes,” she said trenchantly and turned her head. Celestia could divine the irritation behind her mother’s eyes. “I find it enormously hard to work with your kind. Don’t you comprehend that I will never allow you to use force on my people? I will never give that kind of permission, let alone command. Am I clear about that?”

He bit his nether lip, as if to keep himself from blurting out a comeback. He slowly nodded. “Understood, Madam. We stand by and observe the situation then?”

“You do that.”

“And we will keep you posted.”

“You do that, too.”

“And when the situation changes,” he added hopefully, “we might need to reconsider and think of appropriate measures to take, of course, in consultation with Your Majesty —”

“Of course,” she said pointedly, without looking at him. She had instead started to look at Celestia, even though Celestia wasn’t sure why.

“Just make sure that you make the right decisions, Majesty. Remember, Sweetcorn is out to get you, and he will stop at nothing to mobilise his mob. He’s underground right now, but that poses a big problem. He’s out of anypony’s grasp, seems to call his own tune. Like the pied piper, he’ll rally round people until he has his own personal army. You can’t let it come to that.”

Gaia’s eyes sparkled dangerously. “A pied piper,” she mouthed. “Well, thank you very much for tutoring me, but I have little use for your advice in this matter. There’s different ways to go forward from now. It’s not too late to — for dialogue. Let them have their say if they are malcontent. I’ll lend them an ear. I’m not stubborn, I will listen to what they have to say,” she said defiantly. “There will be no need for violence.”

He shook his head, but somehow, it was clear that he didn’t agree with that statement. He looked over to his two silent lieutenants, who were still staring intently at the table plate, their long, black manes hanging in front of their faces like greasy curtains. Their faces were unmoving, but somehow, Celestia had the feeling that they had intently listened to every word that had been spoken. When they caught Stronghooves’ look, they seemed to exchange some kind of silent understanding in their gazes. Gaia seemed to once more stare into all directions at once with equal intensity.

Stronghooves, who had apparently decided pursuing the matter would do no good, relaxed his rigid posture and military demeanour, reaching out for his mug. He drank his coffee with big, greedy gulps. Celestia watched him in spite of herself. There was something raw about him that she couldn’t quite put her hoof on.

Stronghooves smiled when he caught Celestia’s eye. “A lot of heavy stuff being talked about, huh?”

“Yeah.” She indicated a nod, and tried a smile of her own.

“Maybe we should take about something more pleasant. What say you, Majesty? The Grand Galloping Gala is coming up sooner rather than later here at the castle, isn’t that right? Isn’t it a mere week away?”

“The Gala? I don’t know yet,” Gaia said, as if nothing was farther from her mind than that right now. “I ought to call it off.”


“For two very simple reasons. Firstly, I’m sure you will agree it wouldn’t give the best of impressions if high society has a big pretentious party here at the castle while Canterlot is slipping out of control. And secondly, somewhat independently, I just can’t stand these Galas and the insufferable crowd of pretentious snobs they draw.” Her regard left little doubt that she included Stronghooves in that category.

“Oh, Majesty, I for one think you should absolutely have it this week! For you, it would be an excellent opportunity to reconnect with your supporters in Canterlot. Rally them round you! Don’t forget about that, you need the support of the nobility if you want to stay afloat, and they might feel you’ve given them a bit of the cold shoulder in recent times. ”

“Excellent tactical manoeuvring as always, General. Well, if they think I’ve been giving them the cold shoulder, they’re right. My hoof still hurts from all the shaking, my cheeks from all the fake smiling.”

“You should still consider it. Purely personally speaking, I have to admit, I have been looking forward to this event the minute it was clear I was going to stay in the castle!” He guffawed and blinked at Celestia. “And maybe I could share a dance with the lovely Princess... what do you think?”

That was an ambiguous question that could have been addressed to either Gaia or Celestia. Celestia was faintly flattered. She hadn’t really been to the yearly Galas before, not taking much interest in them and instead staying with her sister, but times had changed. And it was undeniable that Stronghooves had a certain charm to him. Suddenly, the idea held a strange excitement to her.

“Maybe —”

But her mother cut him off. “No, I don’t think so,” Gaia said sharply.

Celestia did her best to sound mature as she turned to her mother. “I’m not a kid anymore, I can choose myself. I don’t need your permission.”

“She’s right! Majesty, your lovely daughter is growing up!” He guffawed once more, and this time, Celestia was sure he had his eyes on he cutie mark. While it was clear that Gaia was thoroughly annoyed, Celestia was faintly pleased.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Gaia said and looked at Celestia, and once again, Celestia had that disarming feeling of being seen right through. “We’ll talk about it later,” her mother said resignedly. “In any case, it’s still a week to the Gala. Things might look very different by then.”

“They might, but even in the worst times, there’s a little fun to be had in life. And in any case, I would be honoured,” Stronghooves said, and once more, he blinked at Celestia. Then he got up. “I need to go and acquaint myself with the castle now. Make a few friends over at the guard’s quarters! But Majesty — “ his smile once again disappeared and gave way to military properness — “think about your options. I urge you to attack. You don’t know what Sweetcorn is planning, you don’t know what the mob is up to.”

Thank you,” she said sharply.

“Well, you know where to find me, Majesty. Your Majesty, I will see you later — “ he bowed — “Princess” — he bowed even more deeply — “I hope to see you at the Gala. Oh, you two—” he said, less politely, to his two subordinates — “you can come along, too.”

And with another wink at Celestia, lieutenants in tow, he left the room. Celestia looked after him. For someone so intimidating, he had been very kind towards her.

“A charmer, isn’t he?” her mother said darkly, once they were all alone in the dining hall. There was no doubt she held some kind of grudge against Stronghooves, but Celestia couldn’t see why.

“Yes,” she replied, decidedly without irony. She realised that she hadn’t even touched her lettuce, but she didn’t even feel hungry. There was something else on her mind.

“Mom, where is Luna?”

Gaia looked at Celestia. “Luna is in the West Tower.”

“At the infirmary?

“Oh, please don’t worry, Sunray.” Gaia put on a reassuring smile. “Nothing bad, she’s feeling a little under the weather, that is all. A little cold. She’ll be back up on her hooves in a matter of days.”

“A cold?” Celestia remembered their awkward episode the night before and frowned. “But why — when I tried to talk about her with you just now, didn’t you... didn’t you try to stop me from speaking about her in front of this Stronghooves?”

Gaia looked towards the table. Her bright green eyes were unusually matte today; but that must have been due to the lack of sunlight streaming through the gable windows. It was just pelting rain. “Not everyone needs to know when you or Luna are a little under the weather,” Gaia said, with a hint of defiance. “That’s nopony’s concern but ours, and certainly not his.” For a moment, she was silent, but her narrow eyes made it clear that her train of thought wasn’t finished. “Besides, he wouldn’t understand.”

“Wouldn’t understand what?”

“Well — let’s just say that he’s not a sensitive one.”

Celestia frowned. Was her mother trying to hide Luna from Stronghooves? Was that the true purpose of Luna being in the West Tower? After all, wasn’t a simple cold easily curable by her mother? The thought made her feel strangely lonely.

Gaia breathed in deeply, her cursive, pale-green chest heaving in one graceful movement, and made the plates disappear for good. “It’ll be a busy day. They won’t leave me any rest.” She indicated a nod towards the door, which Celestia presumed to reference just about anypony. “I am going to initiate talks with their ringleaders. That’s what I’m going to do,” she said, as though laying the plan out as she spoke. “We’re going to have a meeting, at Canterlot Hall, and I will listen to what they have to say. They’ll see that it makes no sense to incense. They’ll see that violence makes no sense.”

It sounded strangely defiant. Celestia remembered how hateful some of the faces had been on Canterlot Square the day before, and how some, while terror was written on most ponies’ faces, had been eerily impressed by Sweetcorn’s stunt. He had had an eerie control over the crowd, even those that were horrified at his misdeeds, an eery charm of his own. In no small part due to his manic, pulsating gaze, those almost hypnotic yellow eyes, and the savagely unkempt mane left and right of his face...

“Sweetcorn’s charm will wear off eventually,” her mother said, as though she had read her thoughts. “Don’t worry about him.”

“But you don’t know what he’s up to next, he’s already been here in the castle, he’s—”

“A one-time lapse,” her mother cut her off. “Don’t worry about it. This castle’s walls are thick. As long as one of us dwells here, no evil can penetrate these walls.”

She looked towards the now empty table. “You know what, maybe he is right,” she said after a while and looked towards Celestia. Her familiar, warm smile returned to her face, something that Celestia had sorely missed. “Maybe I really should have the Gala. Just to take our minds off this whole wretched business for once.”

Celestia returned her mother’s smile and lightly nodded. “I would like that.”

“Plus, that means I get to send out these again...” She reached into thin air and pulled a single, folded invitation card out of nowhere. She passed it on to Celestia, and as Celestia looked at it, finely calligraphed, elegant cursive words appeared on the outside of the card, as though written with an invisible quill.

Your attendance at the Grand Galloping Gala is kindly requested
At the invitation of Her Majesty Queen Gaia
To Canterlot Castle

Celestia smiled, but her mother wasn’t finished. “It’s not done yet,” she said and gave a silvery laugh. “Sorry!” An additional line formed on the card and pushed the last one downwards.

At the invitation of Her Majesty Queen Gaia
And her daughter Majesty Princess Celestia

Celestia’s smile faded and the warm feeling ebbed away. The moment’s lightness had disappeared, and suddenly, Celestia felt very depressed. “You’ve forgotten—

“I’m sorry,” Gaia said quickly and looked at the tabletop. “I’m sorry.” She bit down on her lower lip.

At the invitation of Her Majesty Queen Gala
And her daughters Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna


“Yes.” Celestia tried hard to smile. “But now you’ve misspelled your own name.”

“Princess Gala,” Gaia said and laughed tensely. But Celestia saw a suspicious shimmer in her mother’s eyes. “Thanks for catching that, that would have been embarrassing.”

“It would,” Celestia agreed and nodded. She, too, had taken to looking towards the tabletop. There was a moment of silence. A lot of different thoughts and emotions were racing in Celestia’s head right now, and she kept feeling as though she was on the verge of opening her mouth, of speaking about one of them. She could already her herself saying the first word, but then she kept swallowing it down. For some reason, talking about her problems with her mother felt hard to do right now.

Gaia seemed to sense Celestia’s unease. “If you need to talk about anything at all, I’m here for you,” she said. “Just so you know.”

Acier’s parchment suddenly seemed to weigh heavily under her wings, but Celestia just smiled feebly and shook her head. For some reason she couldn’t quite understand, she didn’t want to break it to her mother just yet. And for another reason that she couldn’t quite put in words, having that parchment under her wings, knowing a secret her mother didn’t, felt strangely empowering.

“One thing,” Celestia said, and her mother looked at her expectantly. “You keep talking about this war fifty years ago. What is that about? What happened then?”

“Oh that, that’s rather unpleasant, Sunray, I don’t —”

“You promised me you’d tell me everything.”

“I did promise,” Gaia said and nodded slowly. “I did.” She looked at the pendulum clock and bit her lower lip. “I will show you. I’ll make time for you this afternoon.”

“I’ll go visit Luna, then.”

“All the better.”

Gaia got up to leave, and apparently, she hadn’t noticed that her lettuce was still completely untouched.


The West Tower was a part of the castle that Celestia usually didn’t frequent. The infirmary occupied its very top floor; it was a big checkerboard-floored circular hall full with curtained beds left and right, but in spite of its purpose, it retained a friendly, warm feeling. The hall felt unbecomingly open and welcoming.

Celestia remembered having been here when she had sprained her wing. She smiled to herself; that was the day they had escaped their house arrest in flight. She had wrapped herself around Luna to protect her. Even now, Celestia felt vague pride. But the memory seemed so long ago that it could just as well have been from an earlier life.

Luna was at the far other end, in the bed the farthest away from the door. The curtains around the bed were pulled back, and Celestia stopped in her tracks when she saw that somepony else was bent over Luna: Acier.

“Hey,” she exclaimed. “Get away from her!”

Acier froze, then turned around towards Celestia. Her gaze was harsh, but his very soft; it had that same simply sagacity that he had always been partial to. “Tia—”

“Don’t call me like that.”

Princess,” he said with a sigh. He looked strangely beaten.

“What were you doing there? To my sister?”, she asked sharply.

“I was just checking on her, that’s all —”

“Get out,” she said quietly. He knows, it occurred to her. He knows that I know. But what had he been intending to do? There was a perverse curiosity in her that Celestia couldn’t deny. She wanted to collect all the pieces of the puzzle herself and then assemble them herself and come up with some sort of ingenious solution.

For a moment, it looked like he was going to retort something, but then Acier simply nodded and left. Keys were clanging in his saddle bag. Celestia followed him suspiciously with her eyes, and also not without guilt. He was a traitor, and every second that she let him run around freely meant danger. It was a true pity her mother had taught her about grace, but not about subterfuge, she thought glumly.

When she was sure he was gone, she turned to Luna, who looked very exhausted.

“Has he been trying to do anything to you?” she asked.

“The master of the guards?” Luna whispered. Celestia realised that she wasn’t very familiar with Acier. “No...”

Celestia’s expression grew mild as she took in her sister with her eyes. Luna’s dark-blue mane was spread out around her head like a wreath, and her blue eyes had a watery shimmer like the rippling surface of a very profound lake. On Luna’s chest, there was that bistone brooch whose counterpart Celestia wore, Luna’s dark as the night without light, without a moon. Celestia slowly laid a hoof on Luna’s head to see if she really had fever, and for a moment, it was all as it had always been, just a big sister taking care of her littler one. Celestia sighed. If anything, Luna’s forehead was colder than usual. Celestia pulled back her hoof and carefully sat down on the bed’s edge. Luna’s eyes were only half-open.

“Luna, because of yesterday evening —”

Luna’s eyes lit up.

“I just mean, not that there’s any — awkwardness between us, or —”

“No,” said Luna. “I thought it was kind of nice.”

“Yeah, kinda nice,” Celestia repeated. “So how do you feel? Your fever doesn’t seem all that bad. What happened?”

“I got a little cold.”

“A cold,” Celestia sighed. “Luna, where have you been last night?”

Luna stared towards the ceiling. “I already told you,” she said after a while. “I listen to the song of the stars.”

“The song of the stars.” Celestia raised an eyebrow. She wasn’t partial to that kind of otherworldly nonsense when they had very real problems in the here and now.

“Yeah,” Luna said simply.

Unwittingly, Celestia pulled back her hoof some. Luna was floating away from her once more, getting lost in reveries, and Celestia sensed it again, that invisible barrier around her sister that seemed mightier than herself. But her sister was still her sister, and their distance tore at Celestia’s heart.

“I had a nightmare last night,” Luna said. “A horrible dream, it was...” Her voice trailed off as she seemed to order her thoughts. “This pony everyone is talking about, the one with the maize grain for a cutie mark...”

“Sweetcorn,” Celestia said impatiently.

“Yes, him. I heard ponies talk about him. They loved him. They wanted to help him. But he is evil, very, very evil.” Luna looked at Celestia imploringly, as if trying to make her understand, but Celestia’s eyes were impenetrable. “They said that — that he wants to — he wants to — kill —”

Celestia waited. Her sister was struggling; she didn’t usually get this emotionally worked up.

“— Mom, and — and you. He’s evil,” Luna breathed, and Celestia could tell from experience that she was on the verge of tears. “He wants to hurt us.”

“Yes, he does want to hurt us.” Somewhere inside of her, Celestia felt a small bout of anger rise. “Knowing that, maybe you shouldn’t let him into the ca—”

“I’m sorry,” Luna winced, and quickly turned away her face as a tear ran from her eye. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t — it was —”

The unexpected display of contrition took aback Celestia. “It’s okay,” she murmured, in spite of herself, as she saw how vulnerable Luna looked. “It’s okay.”

“He’s dangerous, he wants to hurt —”

“I understand that. It’s okay, Luna. It was just a nightmare. It’s over now.”

“NO! It was — it’s not over — “

For a moment, Celestia waited for Luna to calm herself. Luna was unusually agitated, but after a while, calm came back to her. “What has happened, has happened, Luna. I’m willing to put that behind, do you understand? Because you are my sister, and I still —”

There was a pause.

“— I still very much care about you. Do you understand?”

“I do understand,” Luna said calmly. Suddenly, Celestia had an idea. For a moment, Celestia wondered whether she should address the issue, but then she went ahead with it.

“You know what, Luna? We’ll have the Gala this weekend at the castle. The Great Galloping Gala, remember?”

“Oh,” said Luna flatly. “How can ponies dance when other ponies get hurt. Aren’t they calling it off.”

While that was certainly a good question, Celestia shook her head. “They’re not calling it off. And in any case, I have decided I’m going to go,” Celestia said firmly, remembering Stronghooves’ invitation. She felt Luna’s deep eyes on her. “And I wonder... I wonder if you might come too. If you feel better by then.”

Luna slowly shook her head. “I’m not good with so many ponies, and the loud music — well, you know — you know, Tia.”

“Yes, I know, but maybe just this one time. Maybe it would be fun. I don’t know, just — just a nice change from — from all this. To give you a bit of a break, well, both of us, really. That’ll take our mind off things.”

Luna looked up towards Celestia, staring at her for a long time, her eyes wide. “I don’t know,” she said simply.

“Well, think about it. We’re going to wear dresses, and everypony’s going to — well, we’ll have fun, for sure. In any case, I would be very happy if you came. It would mean a lot to me.”

She didn’t look at Luna, but instead stared at her hooves. “Just give it some thought.”

“I will,” Luna said irresolutely, but her voice seemed to float from somewhere far away.

“You can’t live your life up in the clouds,” Celestia said suddenly. “You need to live a bit in the here and now, dance to some real music, not that ‘song of the stars’ or whatever, but real music, made by real ponies. Not just you, I mean, either of us, really. Do you see what I mean?”

Luna said nothing.

“Well, get better soon.”

Celestia left the West Tower with a sigh. At least, she thought to herself, she had reached out to Luna. All that she could hope for now was that Luna would accept her offer.


Gaia was waiting for her outside, talking to Stronghooves’ hirsute lieutenant, whose name Celestia couldn’t even remember. When she saw Celestia, she finished his conversation and practically sent him away.

“Instead of telling you,” her mother said solemnly, “I’ll show you. Come with me.”

Celestia nodded and followed her mother out onto the castle balcony. Looking back at her daughter, Gaia jumped onto the balustrade and lightly spread her large wings, but not to fly away, rather using them like a large parachute to glide towards the ground. Celestia did the same. The rain had stopped, but the still-chilly air brought a feeling of lightness with it as the wind filtered through her feathers, fluffing up her plumage until it bulged like a feather bed.

Below her, her mother had landed silently on the grass, and Celestia did the same. They were on the castle grounds, on the lawns that Celestia and Luna had rollicked and frolicked about in their childhood; memories that now seemed an eternity away. Gaia was silent, and didn’t say a word as she led the way, and Celestia followed with equal silence over the pastures. They were behind the backside of the castle.

A large, immaculately kept hedge of boxwood and roses — at least ten feet tall — enclosed the sculpture garden that had been largely off-limits to the younger Celestia and Luna, not because it was forbidden, but because it had seemed to contain absolutely nothing of interest, just boringly plain hedges, roses, and a couple of old statues. Now, however, the hedge looked different to Celestia, an impression maybe fostered by her mother’s heavy solemnity: it seemed mysterious and otherworldly, as if to delineate the mundane from a mysterious, grander world, from the realm of some great beyond.

As they passed through the hedge’s gate into the park, Celestia felt a slight tingle on her skin, almost like the brush of some invisible veil that brought them to the other side. Something in the air seemed to change. It seemed denser, sharper. Birds were chirping unnaturally loud, it occurred to Celestia, even though she couldn’t see any. Above them, the noon sun, hidden before by heavy clouds, was suddenly burning heavily: there was no trace of rain left here, and yet, a feeble, thin rainbow extended in the distance like a bridge to the beyond.

They were standing on an impeccably kept gravel path that led through the sculpture garden, a straight line running from the gate through to the other edge somewhere in the distance. Weirdly enough, the inside of the hedges seemed to much bigger than it looked from the outside. Gaia went ahead, and Celestia followed, a slightly uneasy feeling in her stomach as she looked left and right: the path was framed with statues staring at them with blunt eyes, stone ponies on stone pedestals, some brandishing banners, some locked in some inaudible brawl, some thrusting swords into the air. On the pedestal beneath each of them, on ebony tags, there were illegible captions. The sound of gravel softly crunching under their hooves occupied every step they made. The further they progressed, the uneasier Celestia felt.

It became clear that Gaia was leading her to a destination at the very end of the garden. They walked for a good ten minutes. Celestia wondered why they couldn’t have traversed the garden in flight, but as she tried to lift her wings, they seemed to cling to her body as though affixed by invisible glue. She soon stopped trying and understood Gaia must have had a reason for walking, that different rules applied here. Their destination came into view: the path was leading up to a large statue at the very end that loomed over them ever more menacingly the closer they came. Finally, they came to a halt.

Gaia nudged wordlessly towards the statue. Putting her head back, Celestia looked at it in the bright sunlight. It was a good ten feet high, and it didn’t depict a pony; instead, a creature Celestia had never seen before. If she had been pressed to describe it, she would have said it was a sort of serpent or dragon, brandishing an assortment of wildly different members and limbs: it had what seemed like an eagle claw on the one hand, a lion paw on the other, and a long dragontail. It also had wings: one pegasus wing, one that seemed more in place on an oversized bat. But the most striking feature was its face. There was a dangerous element to it, a bizarre, lop-sided smile that was blissfully detached, beyond caring. A single fang stuck out at the mouth’s left-hand side. The entire creature seemed off, unbalanced, disharmonious, as if thrown together on the quick.

Suddenly, something clicked in place in Celestia. She was sure to recognise the creature.

A strange and high-grown spirit of a kind they had not seen before,” she murmured.

Her mother turned her head to look at her. “What?”

“Sweetcorn... when I visited him in the dungeons, he told me this strange story. About,” she frowned as she tried to remember, “two sisters living in a castle since the beginning of time. They had an Eternal Flame that warmed them and... made sure they were never hungry, or something like that, and then other ponies came to try and steal it from the sisters.”

Her mother’s gaze darkened. “He told you that story?”

“Yeah. And then... this Spirit came to visit the sisters. A strange and high-grown creature of a kind they had not seen before. He... made the ponies outside argue and fall out with each other, and then they... they killed each other before they could steal the Flame.”

The words hung heavy in the unusually dense air. Gaia frowned and looked at the statue, as if trying to glean some kind of information from it. Then she turned to Celestia.

“That’s him. And the game is his name. Discord. A spirit of disharmony and chaos. He turned ponies on each other, made them confuse friend with enemy, made them fight their own kind. That’s what’s happened in that war all those years ago. He divided: here the pegasi, here the earth ponies, here the unicorns, here the zebras. He built walls in ponies’ heads, and ponies embraced those walls and fought each other. A horrible, horrible war was the consequence.”

Celestia frowned. “So Sweetcorn’s story is... it’s true?”

Gaia didn’t say anything. She glumly looked at the statue towering over them. The leaden feeling in Celestia’s stomach grew heavier with every second she stared in the statue’s mesmerising, petrified eyes; they seemed to look back at her with some distant remembrance of life, and on the other side them, you could divine a mischievous sparkle. Celestia didn’t feel well at all, and that wasn’t lost on her mother.

“Let’s go,” Gaia said and turned her head away. Celestia could barely manage to avert her eyes; there was something about the stature’s gaze that left her spellbound. But as her mother nudged her, she turned her head and, almost reluctantly, stumbled alongside her mother back down the gravel path. The effect was immediate. With every step further away from the statue, her stomach grew a little lighter, and that strange feeling less and less noticeable.

“That war,” Gaia said, her voice muffled as they walked back towards the entrance, “that war has brought horrible sacrifices for everyone involved. Horrible, horrible sacrifices.” Her voice was gloomy. “But ponies forget too easily. This Sweetcorn uses the same methods Discord used, and the worst thing is that it still seems to work. If ponies follow this road further down, there’ll be war once again. If you do the same thing, only a fool would expect a different outcome. Not even my magic can do something against that brand of forgetfulness.”

“But Discord,” Celestia said, “you defeated him eventually, didn’t you?”

“I did defeat him,” Gaia said grimly. “But it didn’t come cheap.”

Celestia looked up at her mother. “What do you mean?” she mumbled.

“That I paid a price. A heavy price.”

Her mother’s gaze was obstinate, and it was clear that she would say no more. But Celestia remembered the story as if Sweetcorn was whispering it directly into her ears. He demanded a price for his services, a bargain...

For a while, only the gravel crunched under their hooves, and the birds seemed to have gone quiet.

“But how did you defeat... something like him? If he’s anything like the Spirit in the story... how can you... well... how can you kill a spirit?” Celestia tried again.

“You cannot kill a spirit,” Gaia said after a while, her expression glum. “Spirits have no solid body. No, all you can do is enclose them. Keep them in chains. That’s what I eventually managed to do with Discord. I built him a stone prison.”

“A stone prison? Where?”

Her mother looked at her, her green eyes sparkling profoundly, then nudged her head towards the statue far off behind them. Celestia gasped. Suddenly, the depressing feeling in her stomach made a lot of sense; she was sick, and what she wanted most in this world right now was to leave this cursed garden behind and get as far away as possible. She spoke no more with her mother until they had exited the hedge gate and the air became real and tangible again, the sun was once more draped in clouds, and the birds sang at a normal volume.

Once outside, Celestia took a deep breath. She tentatively tried to move her wings again; they worked effortlessly.

Gaia looked at her with an unfathomable expression. “Do you feel alright?”

“Yes,” Celestia said and tried a smile, that her mother soon returned.

“Being a Queen is sometimes quite wretched business. It’s not always just pleasantries and butterflies.”

Celestia nodded. “So the story is true?” she asked after a while, when she had regained some of her breath.

Gaia’s eyes sparkled profoundly. “Yes, and no.”

“You said,” Celestia said after a while and stared directly at her mother, “that you have paid a high price. That must have been it. The price the Spirit had demanded.”

Her mother narrowed her eyes and said nothing. She turned her head back towards the hedge garden, then looked at Celestia. “That is all behind us now. It’s a different time. Spirits and gods are no longer part of this world.”

“But the story isn’t true,” Celestia concluded. “I mean, there’s no Eternal Flame, right? A heart-shaped fire of incredible power that can stave off coldness and death forever, there’s no such thing —”

Her mother’s eyes widened.

“Oh, there is,” her mother said, and this time, her eyes sparkled especially bright. She slowly looked towards the heart-shaped diamond on her own chest. It shimmered with all the colours of the rainbow. “There is.”

That is the Eternal Flame?” It had been right there under her snout, the entire time.

“That’s what they call it,” her mother said. “It is a token of my power. It channels and amplifies my energy and magic. That is the reason why you don’t have to worry about the castle’s safety. I told you it was protected by very, very powerful magic. Magic that I myself have put it in place. Magic of no ordinary unicorn.”

“Prove it,” Celestia said after a while and looked at her mother. She was morbidly eager. For a moment, Celestia thought her mother would smile and shake her head, but she was proven wrong. Gaia accepted the challenge. She kept her eyes firmly locked with Celestia’s as the diamond on her chest lit up with all the colours of the rainbow.

Celestia gasped. The earth beneath them began to tremble, very lightly at first, but quivering with ever greater force. Gaia kept staring at Celestia, her eyes strenuously focussed, as mere feet behind her, an oak tree broke through the lawn and shot into the air with a deafening thunder, rapidly developing branches that themselves formed twigs, leaves unfolding at the tips and finally, flowers and acorns. Left and right, the same thing was happening, and the three trees seemed to compete with each other in reaching the sky first; foliage was forming rapidly and covering the gnarly branches under a coat of green. Finally, all three of them had reached the size of at least four stories. Gaia was still looking at Celestia, and the diamond on her chest ablaze, as the spectacle continued and acorns fell from the heights of the already erect trees onto the ground to spawn new trees with equal rapidity... six, nine, sixteen...

“Stop,” Celestia yelled over the thunderous sound. She was afraid. “Stop!”

Gaia blinked. The diamond lit up once more, like an echo, and now, the trees took the opposite direction; they seemed to regress back towards the ground, just as rapidly as they had sprouted, leaves turning brown and falling out, crumpled, the barks ridging and furrowing to death, and all the while, the trees shrunk, soon completely devoid of foliage, branches disappearing into their ancestors until only the trunk was left, and then, as the trunk’s diameter approaches zero, it disappears in the ground.

Once more, all was as it had been before, only perfectly kept, immaculate lawn. Celestia breathed heavily. Never, never, had she imagined her mother having this sort of power. But why hadn’t she? After all, her mother had awakened.

“Do you believe me now?”

“Yes,” Celestia managed to say, as she tried to catch her breath. The heart-shaped diamond’s light had evaporated, and once more, it only reflected and fractured the daylight. “That is why they call you — the Eternal Spring, right?”

“Right.” Her mother looked towards the castle, where apparently, nopony had heard a thing. “That is why.”

“But if you are so — so powerful, you could have simply destroyed Sweetcorn, he —”

Gaia turned towards Celestia and slowly shook her head. She looked almost disappointed. “The greatest power,” she said urgently, looking Celestia directly in the eye, “is the one you refrain from using. You understand?”

Did Celestia understand? She gave a noncommittal nod. But for a moment, she pondered whether it really had been the right decision to let Sweetcorn have its way if he could have been stopped this easily.

“This is the magic that protects the castle,” Gaia said and looked onto her own chest. “No evil can enter here as long as this magic stays in place. You’ve seen it. And no matter what that Sweetcorn has in mind, he won’t be able to enter. Not him alone — not again — , and certainly no army. This castle is impenetrable.”

For a while, they simply sat on the grass, each of them deep in their own thoughts and brooding. The grimness in Gaia’s eyes grew milder as she started to observe Celestia;her aloofness vanished in contemplation of her daughter. Celestia, in turn, still tried to process the new information she had gleaned, a plenitude of different emotions in her. Gaia gave her a diffident smile.

“Be careful with Stronghooves,” she said softly, and there was little doubt she had been waiting for an opportunity to say that all along. “I know what you’re looking for in him, but ... but he won’t give it to you. He hasn’t got that in him. All that matters to him are results. He knows whom to rally around him and whom to push away. He can be brutal if he needs to be — if he has the opportunity to be. I’d stay away from him if I were you.”

“But you’re not me,” said Celestia after a while, with more defiance than she had intended, and looked at her mother. What she had really wanted to say was that there must be something that was true and that was certain somewhere, and if not in her own heart, then in somepony else’s. “You’re not me.”

Her mother gave her a long, searching look.

“You’re right,” Gaia finally said. “Thanks for reminding me, sometimes... I just forget.” She once more extended her hoof to tousle Celestia’s mane, and this time, she let it happen. Celestia felt no less confused as she laid her own head against her mother’s leaf-green fur, feeling the warmth and energy inside of her, and they rested like this a good while.

“It’s just all so confusing,” Celestia said after a while.

“Yes.” Her mother nodded gravely. “It is all so very, very confusing.”

“I don’t know, I just want to know where my place is.”

“But that you already know,” said her mother and looked at her cutie mark. “You already know.“

“I don’t ... I know, but ... that’s not what I mean,” Celestia said and scrambled for words. “I feel like ... like I’m trying to hold it all together, but it just all tumbles down, you and Luna and... and my feelings, it’s... it’s as if I’m supposed to feel one way, but I feel something completely different, and then I’m just so thrown off. It’s as if I’m trying to hold water in my hooves, it just all — falls apart.”

Her mother smiled sadly. “That’s what it feels like to grow up, Sunray. Get used to it.”

Her words were kind, and they resonated deeply within Celestia.

“I know you can’t wait to awaken,” her mother went on. “I was the same, I still remember. But just give it time, and it will all come by itself. There’s no doubt about that.”

“That’s what you always say. Just give it time, it will all come by itself.”

“That’s the only thing that makes sense to say.”

For a while, they stayed silent. The sun disappeared behind a cloud, and Celestia realised that it had started to rain around them; but they didn’t get wet, it was like that one time on the Square. Her mother looked towards Celestia as the rain poured off from some invisible dome enclosing them. Celestia looked up towards the castle; for a moment, she believed to have seen a familiar face in a West Tower window. But after she blinked, it was gone.

Celestia realised that the entire castle, too, was enclosed in a dome, that they all were locked away under that dome, but that it was as fragile as glass, that it could all be gone with the batting of an eyelash.


Night spread over the castle, and as always, it was then that the silence in the corridors grew the loudest. But the tone of the silence had changed: it was no longer merely solemn, but downright depressing, a large and heavy cloak keeping the castle in a tight grip, keeping it wrapped in a somber sense of anticipation. The entire castle, like a living organism, seemed to echo the sentiment of its inhabitants.

Now at the onset of the night, voices are only heard behind closed doors, and maybe in passing from one room to the next. Corridors that had been so full the previous evening were empty. Celestia listened to whatever subdued voices she could catch up on as she walked the corridors; they were like a constant humming in the background, an unpleasant, inscrutable hiss, and whenever she picked up one of them, she tried to envisage its owner. She passed by the guards’ quarters. Muffled laughter came from the other side, and as she approached, she distinctly heard Stronghooves shouting something, to the amusement of the guards. Apparently, he was making friends quickly. For a while, she thought about peeking in; but what good would that have done?

She walked on, but soon stopped in her tracks. She was sure she had heard Acier’s voice from behind a study door. She frowned, and approached as quietly as she could, but there was no mistaking the voice that answered him: it was her mother’s. Both of them were speaking in subdued, hushed tones, but Celestia was sure to hear every word.

“I’m not going to do that,” said Gaia’s voice. She sounded weary. “Even if that’s the cost, I will not do that.”

“But I don’t have much wiggle room,” he replied calmly, but with insistence. “It’s either that or something even worse. And quite frankly, it’s the only way I see to get out of this mess right now.”

“And what about if I have the guards —”

“No! Sweetcorn is waiting for an opportunity, he’s waiting for his moment, and that would be an invitation right into the castle. And that’s just the start of it. You know the thing about Luna —”

Celestia frowned and moved her ear as close to the door as it would go, holding her breath to catch every word.

“— and it’s not gonna go on working like this forever, a decision needs to be made —”

“I’m not considering that.” Gaia’s voice was sharp.

“Well, your call, Gaia, but one thing is clear. You can't let letting feelings get the better of you. That won’t do anyone any good. You want to stay afloat — you need to make decisions. You already got Stronghooves in the castle, and if you make the tiniest mistake, trigger-happy guys like him will take the reins if that’s what it takes. They prey on indecision. Isn’t that what you want to avoid?”

There was a silence. Celestia assumed that her mother made some kind of gesture she couldn’t see.

“He wants me to do the Gala, but I don’t want to do the Gala, not now and not ever —”

“Haven’t you already sent out invitations? In any case, I’m with him on this account. You need support from Canterlot behind you. You need to butter up nobility if you want to keep things together. Stronghooves is thinking pragmatic here, and you should consider that, too.”

“He has no grace,” she said after a while. “No grace.”

Acier snorted.

“That’s not his fault. I know all too well what it’s like, and you know, too. He’s a warrior, and ‘grace’ has no place in war. Grace is pretty. War is ugly.”

Silence fell again. Celestia, who was breathing very flatly, tried to imagine the looks on her mother’s and Acier’s face behind that door. What had she just listened to? Why did Acier address her mother merely by her first name? Why did she have this discussion with him in the first place? What was he trying to tell her mother about Luna? How was he poisoning her thoughts? A bout of anger rose in Celestia, and she breathed heavily now as she waited for them to speak again.

But it didn’t come to that. A voice behind her made her flinch and whirl around. Stronghooves had emerged from the guards’ quarter and was calling her name. The door fell shut behind him; a jovial grin was still stuck on his face, no doubt furthered by alcohol, but Celestia felt caught red-handed for eavesdropping and quickly turned away.

“Princess,” he said again, and softer this time. Celestia, who was still furious and didn’t know how else to react, quickly strode away from the door and made an escape to the nearby balcony. Always that balcony, it shot through her head. She slowed down, took a deep breath to calm herself, and walked over to the balustrade to stare out into the night, for lack of anything else to busy herself with. Of course, Stronghooves hadn’t simply given up on her. She heard Stronghooves’ hoofsteps behind her, but her face was still red-hot.

“Princess,” he said.

She turned around. “General,” she said simply and bit her lip. It had been a while since she had used her voice this evening.

He smiled broadly, which showed to advantage his handsome features and steely blue eyes. “You were quick to walk out on me there!”

She succumbed to his smile. “That’s not it, I was just about to —”

“You were in a royal hurry, surely. In a hurry to step out onto this balcony for no good reason.”

“Yeah, maybe I was.” She chuckled and returned to stare out over the balustrade, turning her back to him. She heard him approach one or two steps. Her anger had receded somewhat and was replaced by vague flattery at the thought that he had sought her out. It was funny how quickly feelings could change. And while her mother had said that he had no grace, she found something very graceful about his concise and measured mannerisms.

“There’s a party at the guards’ quarters?”

“If by ‘party’ you mean guys getting distastefully drunk, there’s a party there every night!” He guffawed. “And you need to have fun from time to time. Especially in these serious times, what good is there in brooding and heavy thoughts? There’s a time to act, there’s a time to live, but there’s a no time to worry too much.”

“Maybe you’re right.” She smiled. “You’re getting acquainted with the guards pretty quickly.”

“Practically all of the guards here are former soldiers. It’s like coming home, I know a lot of these guys!”

She nodded slowly. “I wonder,” she said as she stared out into the night, “have you met the master of the guards?”

“Acier? Of course.”

“What do you think about him?”

“Strange guy,” Stronghooves said gruffly. “Seems to spend most of his days in his chamber working on diamonds or something? What the heck, as master of guards? I mean, what’s up with that?” He laughed.

“Yeah,” Celestia said slowly and narrowed her eyes. “What’s up with that?” She herself realised that she didn’t understand Acier’s role in the castle. That ignorance worried her, because she didn’t know what kind of influence he had over her mother.

“Well, apparently he’s a war hero, so...”

She turned around. “He’s a war hero?”

He nodded. “But that was before my time in the military. Still, I need to respect that.”

She frowned. She hadn’t ever heard that story. In fact, she knew next to nothing about Acier’s past. All they had ever talked about during all her countless visits to his chamber was her, her, her. She had done a lot of talking about herself in general, it suddenly occurred to her.

“But what kind of war hero —”

He coughed. “In the Discord wars,” he said with strange disinterest. “Apparently. That’s way back, though, so I can’t tell you about that, Princess. I’m too young for that.”

She frowned. What was Acier trying to tell her mother about Luna?

“You’re ‘too young for that’,” she said and turned to look at him. “How come you’re so young and a general already?” She looked him all over.

The reply came like a shot. “Because they say I’m the best, Princess.”

She smiled. Of course, that was an incredibly arrogant thing to say, but he had said it with such utter conviction and confidence, his armoured chest puffed out, that it sounded strangely credible. His charm drew her in. Her eyes wandered down to the blades on his hooves, and her smile faded slightly.

“What’s going on in Canterlot?” she asked.

“That’s a pot about to overboil,” he said darkly. “Pillagers and anarchists have found their champion in that Sweetcorn guy. They’re assembling on Canterlot Square, but that’s just the epicentre. The nights, they thrown in storefronts and set buildings ablaze. Right now, we can still control them. But Sweetcorn has really stirred up a bee’s nest there. If we don’t act quickly, Canterlot will fall to him.”

“Will fall to him?”

“Will burn. That’s what he’s after, isn’t he? Anarchy.” His steely gaze was unrelenting. “Well, I’m ready for the attack. I just need the Queen’s permission, and then we’ll clean up there for good.”

Her smile faded some more. She shook her head. “And Sweetcorn?” she said quietly.

He blinked at her a few times. “Sweetcorn,” he repeated. “He’s gone underground. But guys like him don’t like stay like that forever. They need attention. They wanna rear their heads and show the world their face. He won’t stay mum. I bet that guy will send us a message soon — even if just to state his demands, we don’t even know what he wants from us right now! And he’s going to make a mistake of some sort, and then we’ll grab and quash him.”

She sighed, vaguely repulsed. He was a hatchet pony.

“The Queen will come to her senses,” he said finally. “I live and die by her, and I would hate to see her make all the wrong decisions. She has the best intentions, but that Sweetcorn won’t share her qualms. He doesn’t hesitate. He’ll strike again, the question is only when. In the meantime, he doesn’t have to do anything but wait, while his army of anarchic minions forms all by itself.” He half-snorted, half-guffawed. His little speech was over, however.

She turned to look at him. “When you said you wanted to go to the Gala with me,” she said after a while, and turned towards him. “Did you mean that, or was it just—”

“Oh, I meant it,” Stronghooves asserted. “Of course I meant it! Who wouldn’t want the chance to share a dance with a young princess as beautiful as you are?”

She chuckled softly. She wanted to believe it. She wanted to have a simple truth to cling on to.

“So, what’s the deal with your sister?” he said after a while. “I’ve heard stories she’s not feeling so well? I’ve never seen her, and I’ve been her for a week now.”

Celestia’s smile faded. “Well, those stories aren’t true. Whoever told you them.”

She turned her back on him.

“I do hope Luna will come to the Gala, too,” she muttered out into the night, more to herself than him. “She said she might come. I would... I would like that.”

He pawed impatiently at the ground. “Well, as long as you are there, Princess, I’ll be happy.”

Without a further word, he disappeared inside. Celestia sighed and stared out into the night. “I would like that,” she murmured again. Above hung a waning moon. She wasn’t really sure what she was even looking for, but she stayed in place. Not a sound was to be heard, as if the night conspired everything to secrecy.

The song of the stars, she thought glumly. Wasn’t that what Luna kept saying? Well, if there really was one, she couldn’t hear it. She sighed deeply. Maybe Luna really was going mad, she brooded. She looked down onto her chest, where the white bistone brooch was sparkling, but now, as by some cosmic irony, it looked like the a full moon sphere. But it was proof that there was still a connection between them. Tangible proof. That consoled Celestia.

Sweetcorn doesn’t hesitate. He’ll send us a message. He’ll strike. The only question is when.”

She shook her head. Sweetcorn had already struck. He’d been in the castle. As she looked over the balcony, she believed to see Luna sitting there for a moment, confused, in tears, but it was only her memory. That hadn’t been too long ago, but it now seemed like an eternity.

Why did Sweetcorn try to enter the castle in the first place, only to escape a few days later? How could Luna have been so foolish? Yes, she had regrets, but...

Celestia firmly closed her eyes and shook her head. She was getting carried away. She was thinking with her head, but something warned her that that wasn’t how she was supposed to think about her sister. She sighed and looked down at her chest. She had made a promise, after all, but that now seemed an eternity ago...

For a while, she simply sat there, but the stillness was ever harder to suffer. She grew restless. The night held no answers for her. On the contrary, it was silent, too silent. The quietude was too oppressing, the night too cool, and soon, she decided to flee back to the warmth of the castle.

But barely had she entered, did she freeze when Stronghooves’ voice rang through the corridors.

“Fuck! Goddammit! Fuck!”

“What’s happened?”

The question was superfluous. Celestia’s heart missed a beat. There were two ponies laying on the ground. Stronghooves was kneeling over one of them. With apprehension in every step, Celestia approached, a sick feeling rising in her stomach. To the left of Stronghooves lay a young guard, unconscious, unmoving, his eyes closed. It took a while for Celestia to recognise him: he was the one who she had told off for shouting at Luna the other day. But Stronghooves was bent over a second pony, one that Celestia realised was his lieutenant, whom she had only ever seen very shortly during the breakfast.

Stronghooves was pumping his chest rapidly, the hoof on his heart, and hunched over him to check on his pulse. His face was contorted with a mixture of shock and rage, but most of it was rage.

“Princess!” he barked when he saw her. “Get somepony to help!”

“Are they—”

“Yeah, they’re alive! Barely! Get someone here!”

“But what — what happened —”

“I don’t know what happened! Okay? I have no fucking idea, but get someone here! Fuck!”

He let go of the unconscious lieutenant and bounded up to restlessly stroll the surroundings, as if he was expecting to find the evildoer hiding behind a flower vase. It was apparent that he could barely contain his rage; his gait was jumpy, and he jammed his hoofs violently onto the marble. He turned around and narrowed his eyes.

“I’ve just been drinking with them! Whichever bastard did this is going to —” He stopped. “Just — what is this? What the fuck?

Celestia saw it too. Her heart missed a beat as she realised fully how grotesque the scene was.

Both the guard’s and the lieutenant’s cutie mark appeared to have been pasted over with parchment. On the parchment on the guard’s flank, there was a crudely drawn moon crescent. On the lieutenant’s, an eight-rayed sun. Next to them, a piece of parchment laid on the ground. A leaden feeling permeated her insides as she approached. She realised it was a folded card.

Holding back her breath, Celestia picked it up. She had seen one of these before; it was an invitation to the Gala that were being sent out en masse to Canterlot nobility. On the outside, neat, cursive script announced:

Your attendance at the Grand Galloping Gala is kindly requested
At the invitation of Her Majesty Queen Gaia
And her daughters Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna
To Canterlot Castle

Her hoofs were shaking. Apprehension rose in her just before she unfolded it; there was something that just wasn’t right about it. She slowly pried apart the card. When she had opened it, she was so shocked that she almost dropped it. Its inside was densely covered in tiny, narrow block lettering, rigid columns of the ever-same phrases repeated over and over again. But in the middle, in red chicken scratch, a single word was sprawled all over the letters.




“So there’s his message. That psychotic bastard,” Stronghooves growled. Then, letting out a hair-raising, frustrated groan, he pounded his hooves onto the marble. Celestia dropped the card. Left and right, doors flew open.

Sweetcorn had finally stated his demands.

To be continued.
Next chapter: The Song of the Stars.

My apologies for the long wait. It turns out middles are really hard to write!

Many, many thanks to Cadmium and RiffraffsElbow for pre-reading!

And thank you, dear reader, for sticking with this tale. It’s your warm comments and support that keep me going.

The Dream

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Chapter 4
The Dream

« ... and then, it all flies into pieces ... »

All our gallant Gala goers
Are sure in for a surprise!
Don’t miss my big event
And share a dance, once, twice!

Gaia frowned as she scanned the invitation card’s backside.

She tossed it aside and let her eyes pass over the two ponies on the ground. Celestia watched her anxiously, and so did the guards that had just emerged from the quarters, perceptibly rendered speechless by the scene in front of them. But for some reason, Gaia looked as calm as ever. There was no particular surprise in her eyes; they sparkled serenely, as usual.

The two ponies on the ground lay stiff as a plank, but they weren’t dead. A slow, rhythmic breathing elevated their chests, then let them sink down again. The lieutenant’s expression was as unfathomable as in his waking life, inscrutable and sly, his thick, black mane spread around his head like a macabre halo. The blonde guard, who had insulted Luna a few days back, looked neutral. The two ponies’ breathing seemed uncannily synchronous. But as Celestia looked on, she did detect a striking difference between the two: the guard’s eyes were visibly flickering underneath his eyelids, as though he was immersed in a vivid, faraway dream, while the lieutenant just lay perfectly motionless save for his breaths, his eyes unmoving, apparently ordinarily knocked out.

In fact, the longer Celestia contemplated the two, the stranger this difference appeared to her. The lieutenant looked mundane, this-worldly, stricken by an ordinary act of violence; but when she looked at the guard, he seemed to be far away, as if his mind were still awake, but in a different world. This discrepancy was highly unsettling. She wondered if anyone else was aware of it.

Stronghooves, however, had barely recognised Gaia’s presence. He was still pacing up and down the corridor, banging his hooves onto the marble as he went. If intentional or not, his violent stomping had long since activated the mechanism on his hooves, and blades were glowing menacingly with the reflections of the corridor’s dim, autonomous illumination.

Behind them, guards were emerging from their quarters and streaming out onto the corridor; they all stopped in their tracks as they took in the scene unfolding in front of them. When Stronghooves saw them, he whirled around and threw them a furiously focused look. “Go search the castle!”, he barked at them. “Whoever did this can’t be far, don’t stand around like this! I want you to scan every last corner of —”

His voice suddenly trailed off, but his mouth was still moving, complete with spit spraying. He looked confused for a moment and stopped his lip movements, but when he understood what had happened, his expression grew all the more furious.

“I am the one in command here, thank you, General,” Gaia said cooly and looked at him. Her horn flashed, and the spell was lifted. The look she gave him seemed to challenge him to talk back now that he had recovered his voice, and he did seem to be on the verge of doing so; but eventually, he contented himself with just glaring at her reproachfully.

“I’m afraid there’s little point in turning the castle upside down in vague hopes of finding somepony you’re certainly not going to find,” she added gently. “That would just be wasting your energy. Whoever we’re looking for, he is certainly over the hills and far away by now.”

For a moment, Stronghooves looked at her with incredulity. “Excuse me?” he growled. “You’re intending to... just let this go? Is that what you’re proposing?”

“I am proposing to get them to the infirmary first of all,” Gaia said calmly.
“And the Gala? What is going to happen to that now?”

“It will still take place,” Gaia said decisively. Celestia looked at her mother in amazement, given her earlier reluctance to host it. “It will take place, if only to send the signal that we’re not intimidated.”

“But what if he’s really gonna strike then,” cautioned Benedict, who seemed unmoved by the fate of his brother-in-arms. “Then you would be responsible for the lives of hundreds of guests.”

“He won't strike,” she said. “If I am reading this card correctly, in his little poem — apart from the fact that it wasn’t a very good poem — he promised us a surprise. It’s hardly a surprise anymore now that he’s announced it, don’t you agree?”

The guards looked at her, but Stronghooves, in his intense, forceful manner, slowly nodded his head in agreement. “So we’re not going to call it off.”

I’m not going to call it off, no.

He looked at Celestia, then back at Gaia. “Still, there are things we need to talk about,” he said in his gravelly voice. “After this, things sure have changed.”

“As you know, I’m always open to your amiable suggestions.”

Stronghooves looked at Benedict, whose black mane made him look more sinister than usual, even though his gaze remained inscrutable. Then, he looked back at Celestia; as though he was trying to decide whom to go after right now. He appeared to feel a certain regret over the missed opportunity. “But my Queen,” he said empathically. “If you are so sure about the perpetrator being gone —” his words oozed his disagreement — “then do I assume correctly that it is your belief Sweetcorn wasn’t responsible for this?”

“Not directly responsible, no.” Her eyes sparkled, as if to challenge him.

“I would very much like for you to lay out your reasoning in this matter. But since I know you don’t like to share—” He was vexed. He looked at her for a while, as though he was waiting for her to elaborate; but when she didn’t, he clucked his tongue impatiently and himself rushed to knee down besides the unconscious lieutenant and started to examine his fur. He narrowed his eyes.

“No signs of violence at first sight,” he said, not particularly touched by his subordinate’s fate. “Seems to have passed out all by himself. No wounds, no swelling, no ... wait a second ...” He stopped feeling the lieutenant’s fur at the back of his neck, cautiously going back and forth again. “There’s a slight bump here... and... “ He reached around and felt the other side. His gaze instantly darkened.

Reacharound,” he said, and for a moment, he looked at his other lieutenant. “That’s an army technique guaranteeing instant knock-out. And only knock-out, nothing else. It’s supposed not to leave traces, but if you know what to look for...”

“So I understand you’re implying that a soldier from my army has been responsible for this?”

“Exactly,” he snapped unwittingly, then did a double-take. “But Sweetcorn wasn’t —”

“He wasn’t in the army, no. Not as far as we know, at least.” She gave him a telling look.

He returned her look for a moment, incredulous, then marched over to the young guard lying next to his lieutenant. Stronghooves matter-of-factly examined the guard’s neck; but he soon shook his head in frustration. “Nothing with him,” he growled. “No marks.”

“Maybe the perpetrator has gained finesse in the meantime.”

“Are you mocking me?”

“Oh, no, not at all, general. I just want to make one thing very clear. None of that has been unintentional, none of this has been coincidental. Sweetcorn does everything with a motive. Yes, he wants to scare us, but that’s just the start of it. What he really wants most of all is to drive us apart. I’ve experienced that firsthand on Canterlot Square.” She sighed. “He’s trying to sow suspicion and distrust here in the castle. I think that should be evident to everyone involved. That’s how he operates. We mustn’t fall for it and turn on each other.” She gave the offending guard an emphatic look.

Stronghooves had apparently barely listened. “Why didn’t he kill them,” he growled, as if taken by sudden inspiration.

“Excuse me?”

“The perpetrator. Why didn’t he kill? Why just knock them unconscious? I find that hard to understand. Why would he have such qualms?”

“I can imagine that you would find it hard to understand why a pony would not kill another.”

Stronghooves shook his head violently. “It makes no sense,” he gnarled. “He killed on Canterlot Square, too. Why wouldn’t he now?”

Gaia said nothing and just looked at him. “Do you have a hypothesis,” she said flatly.

“Not yet,” he conceded with a growl. “But give it time, and I will figure it out. At the very latest when they awake and can tell us about everything that happened.” His gaze darkened and rested on Celestia for a bit, as though he was enlisting her in his very own conspiracy.

“You know, General, I don’t think that is one of our priorities right now.”

“What?” He looked incredulous. “Princess, do you realise the gravity of this situation and how compromising—”

“Yes, yes, thank you,” Gaia said and signalled for him to fall silent. She gestured towards the guards. “Now, please, we need to get these poor ponies to the infirmary.”

Celestia stayed behind as the ponies picked up the two victims and made their way towards the infirmary. The few remaining guards exchanged some whispers, then returned to the quarters. Celestia heard Stronghooves continue to plead with Gaia, who didn’t look back at him as she followed the small procession towards the infirmary, her gaze profound and unfathomable as was her wont. Their voices grew quieter and quieter as they went, and soon, all that stayed was the silence of the empty corridors. The bizarre scene that she had just lived through seemed ever more unreal now, as if it had never happened, at least not in this world.

There was a thought that had formed in Celestia’s mind. She did have a hypothesis. The solution to that big riddle. Acier, she thought glumly. He had been very close to the scene of the crime, talking to her mother. He had been in the army, hadn’t he? The parchment was still weighing heavily under her wing, but she could not bring herself to confront him, to denounce him; that was asking too much of her. He was the only friend she had had.

He was the only friend I had,” she muttered to the walls. Or was he?

But of course, the walls didn’t answer.

It was a night unfit for sleep. As it progressed, she found her way into Stronghooves’ quarters. He was awake and sitting hunched over maps on the desk; if out of curiosity or out of a desire for company, she wasn’t too sure. He looked more serious than usually, more determined, but also more tired. His eyes lit on her as she entered.

“Princess.” He nodded shortly, then got back to studying the maps.

“What are you doing?”

For a moment, he seemed unwilling to respond; but then, he thought better of it and turned the page. “I’m studying maps. Generals have to do that sometimes, you know.”
She nodded, and rested glued to the ground, in silence.

“I think his hideout is in the Everfree Forest,” Stronghooves said after a while. “Sweetcorn’s. But that’s just idle speculation.”

“In the Everfree Forest,” Celestia said, surprised. “How do you know?”

“For one, there’s been attacks there time and time again. Almost every night now. It’s not clear what their motives are, but they always seems to target earth ponies who are in some way connected to his cause.”

“But ... why would he attack his own supporters?”

“It makes no sense, no goddamn sense,” Stronghooves growled darkly. “Well, even if he is in the Everfree Forest, it’ll be a waste of time looking for him there. I’ll be the first to admit that.”


“Because the Everfree Forest isn’t like other forests. It’s ... not normal. I know the place. It’s scary.”

Celestia considered these words for a moment. When she had been to the Everfree Forest, she never felt anything out of the ordinary; in fact, to her, it had seemed a perfectly ordinary forest like any other, with the one difference that her and Luna’s castle was being built there. She wondered if its construction was completed by now. In fact, she hadn’t heard about it for a long while, and she hadn’t been there since giving Luna her bistone brooch. That had been almost three years ago. She looked down onto her own chest, where the white brooch remained affixed. Now that she thought about it, these brooches seemed like a rather odd present, and it hadn’t even been her own idea.

“What do you think will happen on Canterlot Square now?” she asked. “What are those ponies going to do about this?”

“About this? They won’t know about this,” he growled. “They won’t know what has happened here in the castle as long as we don’t tell them. Of course, it could very well be that this Sweetcorn wants to toot his own horn and boast about it. Then, that could make the Queen look weak. In any case, the situation remains tense, Princess, and it worsens all the time. That’s why I say we need to act. And I’m telling you — ” his gaze darkened — “I’m just waiting for your mother’s permission, just that one go-ahead, and then we’re going to strike and squash out that tension.” He had dented the table surface with the pressure of his hoof.

“You can’t squash out tension,” Celestia said. “Only dissipate it.”

“Bigger words don’t make it any less of a mission,” he said, his eyes sparkling feverishly. “That guy, this Sweetcorn — he’ll get what's coming to him. And so do the guys who think it clever to support him. They are gonna see just how wrong they are. I can’t stand people who step outside that well-ordered rank and file.”

Celestia drooped her eyes. She had wanted to tell him about Acier. But she just couldn’t. That would have felt like treason.

“Your mother needs to get a grip, you know,” he said after a while of blankly staring at her. “I don’t know what it was that made her think it would be okay to let that guy escape without looking into the matter any further, but it sure doesn’t seem like a particularly smart idea. My apologies, Princess, I sincerely never thought I would hear myself say these words, but — your mother might be losing her grip on reality.” He scowled at his maps. “Well,” he continued, and that twistedly charming smile of his reappeared out of a sudden, “the Gala in one week, that stands. At least I will get to share a dance with you.”

They had been robbed of a moment of intimacy by the attack on the guards, and they both knew it; but Celestia felt relieved by that.

With a last look back, she left his chamber, ejected back out onto the corridor, eventually finding her chamber and falling asleep.


And so, the final week took its course. It went by in a trickle. Here was the now, and there, off in the distance, the future; the closer it came, the slower everything seemed to become, like one giant pendulum losing its momentum near its tipping point. It was going to swing back with renewed force soon enough; and Celestia felt certain that that’s what was going to happen at the Gala. Everything seemed to converge towards that one point. And somewhere inside of her, there lay the certainty that on that day, everything would finally come to light.

Celestia spent her days in breathless routine. She got up early, would have breakfast with her mother, who insisted on having her daughter sit next to her, and would then go for a walk on the castle grounds. Her steps invariably felt drawn to the hedged garden; but as she approached, that depressing feeling took hold of her again, and then she would often just spread her wings and fly to feel lightweight and free again. In flight, her thoughts lost their leadenness if only for the smallest of moments, and all that mattered was the soft flow of air around her plumage, that subtle flutter of feathers, and the energising, fresh feeling of being alive, and then, for an instant, everything seemed easy again. But every day, the rain seemed a little denser, and the clouds a little heavier, and soon, thunderstorms took over the skies and cast them in a leaden grey. Then, the weather was simply too unpleasant to leave the castle.

On those days, Celestia remained inside and idled the time away, trying to practise her magic. Her mother had promised to give her personal lessons, but that had never come to pass. Celestia didn’t complain about it, either, she understood that her mother was too busy now, and was glad for every minute she did spend with her. But there was no denying it: the castle as she experienced it missed a presence, and without it, it was dead. Luna’s presence.

When those thoughts came to the forefront of her mind, nostalgic thoughts of her sister that were so joyful in their present and so hurtful in their past, Celestia would give up doing whatever it was she had been busy with. Right now, she just stared out of the library windows into the gloomy autumn rain outside, watching water trickle down the windowpanes. The longer she stared at them, the more the patterns resembled faces, Gaia’s, Luna’s, Acier’s, and, time and time again, Sweetcorn’s wild, mischievous gaze that simply wouldn’t leave her head. And then, there was Stronghooves, smiling at her, a sparkle in his eyes...

She shook her head to chase these phantasms from her mind. At least she needed to stay real.

Reports of new attacks came in everyday. Nopony cared to keep her in the loop, and her mother in particular seemed to actively try and hide anything from her daughter that might be too worrisome. But Celestia still overheard bits and pieces of bad news from talking guards in the corridor and sometimes at breakfast with her mother. Apparently, the attacks did indeed focus on the Everfree Forest. Maybe Stronghooves’ hypothesis had been right. Meanwhile, there were ever more ponies on Canterlot Square, and the tension was mounting.

She looked out of the window. On the lead-grey horizon, a faint crescent moon loomed.

The clock had been wound up. From now on, everything simply felt like waiting, waiting for something to happen, waiting for the day of the Gala, waiting for it all to untangle, this big, big mess they were in.


The day before the Gala, Celestia only saw her mother at breakfast, where Gaia had once more explicitly asked for her presence. When she got out, she was alone again as her mother convened with soldiers, only there in body and not in spirit; Gaia’s expression grew ever dreamier and airier.

And the castle felt ever lonelier. After a day spent in the library, in the evening, she finally overcame her feelings of alienation and made her way to the infirmary. The guard and the lieutenant lay still unconscious behind closed curtains, so she saw nothing of them; and so was Luna, but Celestia’s steps found her way automatically. “Hey.”

Luna turned her head. For a moment, everything was silent. Celestia held her breath. Luna seemed so serene that it was entirely possible she hadn’t even noticed her sister. But after a while, Luna fixed Celestia with her eyes.

“You don’t look so good,” Celestia said with concern. “But you’re not sick, are you,” she went on, when Luna didn’t respond. “You’re just a bit down, right?”

Luna dropped her gaze. “I’m not sick,” she said. “I’m not sick.”

“It’s okay.”

“You know, I’ve had a nightmare again,” she said after a while. “Tonight. I have nightmares all the nights. Did you know that?”

“No,” said Celestia slowly. “I’m sorry.”

Luna slowly shook her head, but didn’t say anything else. What was that supposed to mean?

“Luna, you know what’s happened, right? Two guards have been attacked last night, here in the castle. You know that, right? They are here, in the infirmary.”
“I didn’t know,” Luna said after a while. “I just don’t feel well. Not well at all. I —” Her voice trailed off.

Celestia sighed. Her eyes lighted on the nightstand. The daisy in the glass vase had its head hanging down, the borders of its leaves starting to crumple inwards, the green replaced by deep grey. “That’s weird,” she muttered. “I just watered it when I was here yesterday.”

And with a casual gesture, she lifted the flower out of its vase, her horn glowing weakly. The leaves straightened out, the flowerhead turned upwards with renewed strength, and the colour returned to a bright and vernal chartreuse.

She stopped in her tracks for a second as she felt Luna’s gaze on her. The flower hung idly suspended in mid-air. As though it was enclosed in an invisible block of ice, the chilly, pristinely preserved relic of a far-gone time. The image yanked a flashback in front of her inner eye, like a hastily unthawed, frozen memory with water still dripping from its sides; a memory of a younger Luna, a younger herself, and how they had been grounded in the North Tower. And along with it, a yearning stirred in her heart. Back then, Luna had been immensely impressed with the simple feat of Celestia making the daisy blossom; by now, Luna had awakened, and was capable of much more impressive feats.

Much more terrifying feats.

“Luna,” Celestia said earnestly. “The Gala, you know. It’s tomorrow. You will join me there, won’t you?”

But Luna lost herself in her bedsheets.

Outside of the infirmary, Stronghooves stood waiting for her.

“The guards are talking about her, you know,” he affirmed, with more malice than usual. Who knew what had happened in the meantime? “I don’t know what’s going on exactly, but your sister has some serious issues.”

“That’s none of your business,” she said decidedly.

“Well, I think it is. I got enough trouble with your mother, who is behaving somewhat unreasonably as of late. And if your sister has anything to do with any of this — then that is very much a concern of mine.” He eyed her for a moment. “Do you know that your mother hasn’t visited her once? Not once. Even when we accompanied my lieutenant and those guards back to the infirmary, she excused herself shortly before. I do wonder why,” he growled. “You see, if her daughter’s sick, you’d think she’d drop by, would she not?”

Celestia’s face flushed red. “None of your business!”

And, finally unable to control herself, she broke away and ran back towards her chamber, tucked herself in under the sheets, in her bed, that warm, cozy cocoon that was the last safe retreat in this cold, confusing world.

After a while, she drifted off into sleep.




“They’re building this castle for us, right?”


“But I can’t stay with you here when it’s done. I’ll have to ... run away...”

“Run away?”


“Don’t be silly. You’re my sister. This will be our castle. We’re meant to rule together one day, Loony. That’s certain.”

Celestia looked up and blinked a few times. Everything was fuzzy, bright, unreal. She glanced towards Luna next to her, who all of a sudden seemed frozen in place; still looking towards Celestia, that pleading, inquiring look fixed on her face. Everything was motionless, even the blades of grass they were on were stiff and unmoved by any wind. She pawed at her frozen sister; in vain. Luna was icy cold. So cold that Celestia was afraid she would shatter her into a thousand pieces with the lightest touch. Celestia tried to call her name, but of course, she didn’t answer.

“She can’t hear you,” said an oily voice.

She turned to her other side. Sweetcorn was there, exactly like he looked in real life, his long mane sticking to his face in greasy strands, his red eyes pulsating entrancingly, and he stared at her. She narrowed her eyes; she wasn’t afraid, just suspicious. He grinned at her, baring his large, misshapen teeth maliciously. “Hello, Princess.”

“Why are you in my dreams?”

He smiled slyly. “Oh, don’t act so surprised about that. This isn’t the first time you’ve dreamt about me, is it? Surely, you think about me a lot. That’s only natural. You don’t admit it, but I fascinate you endlessly. I’m just so different. For starters, I’m not as pretty as you are. And I’m slightly more... edgy, right? My greasy, savage mane, my pulsating, wild eyes... dare I say that deep down, you find me exciting?”

“Shut up,” she said and meant it. “Shut up. You’re a murderer. You’re trying to take away from me everything that I love. No, I don’t find you exciting. I hate you.”

“Oh, you finally allow yourself some judgment!” he said and snickered; but it sounded more like a growl. “The last time we met, you were far more intimidated. Seems we’re standing our ground now, aren’t we, princess?” He swept a stray streak from his face. “I admire that new mouth of yours. But you know, Princess, I’m not entirely convinced that your words are really true. I mean, I understand that’s what you have to say, being a princess and all. The official royal narrative: I’m the bad guy, and you’re one of the good gals, right?”

She shook her head and looked away.

“But that’s too simple,” he continued passionlessly. “We’re not all only bad or only good. You know that most of all, don’t you? There’s a whole zoo of different selves inside each and every one of us. Some of them are good, some less good. We have our own battles being fought underneath our skins. Which explains why so many of us are so adept at taking away what we love all by ourselves...”

“Shut up,” she said again, for lack of anything smarter to say. The voice laughed, the joyless, cruel laugh of someone who was perfectly aware that his words were true.

“See, deep down, you know I’m right,” he remarked. “You too have sides you’re very afraid of. You too have fears. And you also have longings. Isn’t that the most normal thing in the world?” He smacked his lips. “That must also be the reason why you’re into that feisty general with the silly name. He has everything your mother lacks... and what you, by extension, lack. Propensity to act without overthinking. Dashing good looks. I kid, I kid,” he said, but didn’t look like it. “A certain knack for brutality, willingness to do what must be done... or everything that can be done. A cruel streak. You admire that, don’t you? Because deep, deep inside, hidden in that secret corner of your soul whose existence you deny even to your own consciousness, you find your Mom so boring. And do I agree! Such a do-no-wrong, holier-than-thou goody two-shoes. So grating. So annoying. Right?” He bared his teeth.

“No,” said Celestia, her voice stifled. “No, that’s not right. My mother is the most —”

“Oh please,” he cut across her. “The most what? Gracious? She was pretty gracious when she spared me from those brutal, brutal guards, right? When I paid y’all a little visit. But she was also pretty stupid. Pretty irresponsible. Isn’t that what you truly think? After all, she could have ended it right then, and nobody would have died on Canterlot Square. Isn’t that right? Isn’t it a little self-righteous to call that grace? Maybe your Mom has chosen the easy path after all.”

Celestia grit her teeth and looked towards the ground. She shook her head. “It’s not true. It’s not true. That’s not what I think.”

He laughed.

“In any case, your mother needs bad guys like me, you see,” he went on. “And you, too. How else would you know that you’re still on the good side? That’s a kind of balance, too. What fun is there in being good when there’s nopony evil to look down upon? Don’t you agree?”

She shook her head. He laughed cruelly.

“Ah, Celestia, don’t deny it. I’ve seen your heart, too, no matter how much you try to close it off. See, that’s just my thing. I can see into ponies’ hearts, meddle with them for a while, and then sting them where it hurts. You understand? That’s a skill. A power of my own, for which I need neither horn nor wings. Just a little insight into equine nature.”

“Why are you telling me all this?”

“I don’t know! This is your dream, after all. I’m just a projection of your subconscious. Although it’s funny how you know this is a dream.”

“I don’t normally dream,” she murmured.

“Oh, yes you do. We all dream. You just don’t remember your dreams in the morning because you deem them unimportant. Too ... trivial. Not ... relevant enough. In that, you are so different from your sister. I bet she remembers all her dreams. — By the way, where exactly are we?”

“The Everfree Forest,” Celestia said quietly and turned around. Sure enough, they were on the enormous clearing in the Everfree Forest where Luna’s and Celestia’s castle was being built. It towered behind them; still unfinished, exactly as it had been on the day that both had sat here on this cliff. She looked towards Luna by her side, still frozen in place, her dark, glassy eyes wide open, Celestia’s own reflection visible in them.

“Interesting. This place must mean something to you, mustn’t it? This whole memory must have made an impression. It sure seems portentous.” He walked a few steps around Celestia, who followed him with his eyes, towards her sister. Very lightly, he patted Luna a few times on the head. Of course, she didn’t react. She still stared towards Celestia.

“Maybe you should listen to your dreams more often,” he said. “They often tell us things about us we don’t even realise when we’re awake. Things sure look different in the night. I hope you remember how you called her Loony. Do you even know what that word even means, in all actuality?”

“In all actuality?”

“It means moonstruck,” he said and smiled drily. His voice had an eerie echo to it. “You see, certain ponies tend to leave their beds at night and go outside, just to stare at the moon. Just like that. A weird attraction to that shiny, silvery orb up there. Some would even call it an addiction. These lunatics just can’t get enough of the moon. Do you understand why anypony would do that?”

“No,” she said honestly.

“I’m not very surprised. You’re not prone to bouts of imagination. Not prone to seeing what does not meet the eye. You don’t see beyond things. Now, you’re prone to perfection and rule-adherence, and that in itself can be much more dangerous than letting yourself go.” He slowly turned his look to Luna. “It is such a pity that you two are growing so distant,” he sighed. “You just don’t understand little Loony. Yes, in a way, I understand her better than you do.”

Celestia jerkily shook her head, but he just smirked. “It mightn’t be such a bad idea for you to try and resemble me some more, you see. I’m ahead of the curve. It really can’t hurt to take a page out of my book.”

She scrunched her nose in disgust. “You mean kill ponies recklessly and manipulate for my own gain?”

“Oh, no, no, no, are you accusing me of egoism? Then you got it all wrong!” he said indignantly. “No, I’m as selfless a pony as they come. That’s where I’m different from your little lovebird there. I have no self-interest. I don’t want your money. I don’t want your power. I don’t even want you — not in that way, Princess, sorry. No, no, all I want is to send a message.”

“A message,” she repeated. Even though she was dreaming, her heart beat furiously in her chest. She felt like she was going to wake up any second now.

He smirked. “Chaos reigns. Would you be so kind as to relay that message to your mom?”

“I’m sure she’s already figured it out,” Celestia said and stared at him, vaguely repulsed.

“I’d be very surprised if she had,” he said. “You see, I realised something a long, long time ago. All these rules, all these values, all these convictions — they are worth nothing in the end. But your mom just doesn’t understand that. See, she thinks that as long as she does the right thing and makes the right decisions at every point along the way, she will arrive at the best possible outcome, and everything will stay calm and harmonious. She subscribes to a no-error philosophy. She models the world as a function of her starry-eyed idealism.

And yet, she couldn’t be more mistaken. She couldn’t be more arrogant. The reality is that if you try to violently keep everything in its place, if you try to pursue harmony for its own sake, if suppress the natural tendencies that drive us all apart, then all the moveable elements in the world just keep penning up energy. Until one day, that energy comes free with a vengeance. And then, it all flies into pieces. You see, all ponies have tendencies. Trying to overcome them will only make them resurface with a vengeance. And that is why there is only one way to live in this world. Without rules. In chaos.

“But you too are trying to fashion the world to suit your ends,” Celestia said defiantly. “You’re treating ponies as toys. You killed these ponies on Canterlot Square, at the Harvest Celebration, just so that you could send your stupid message —”

“There’s one thing you need to understand about our little tête-à-tête on Canterlot Square,” he said cooly. “I didn’t kill a single pony that day. You’re doing wrong by me. You see, all I did is set off a few fireworks — just to celebrate the occasion! But — how could I have known! — ponies got all scared and suddenly started trampling each other to death. The horror.” He moved closer to her ear. “But that’s when all those ponies showed their real face. Yes, when the chips are down, your future subjects will tear each other to pieces. And you, too. No matter what lofty moral standard you see yourself entitled to. They don’t care one bit, no matter how hard you work, no matter how much you sacrifice. They just want to see you bleed. All they need is an idea in their head, and an opportunity. Don’t you remember how my little story went down?”

Celestia looked down. “You’re going to give them that opportunity, aren’t you?” Celestia said quietly.

“Exactly. I am,” he said, weirdly pleased with himself. “I will.”

She shook her head violently. Her thoughts came thick and fast, and she had trouble discerning from one another. His oily voice lulled her in. “The Gala,” she said quickly, trying to keep her thoughts together. “Are you... what are you going to...”

“At the Gala, at the Gala, we’re going to see them all... pretty princesses, and their mother, and a runaway general...

She stepped back. His singing was joyless, deadpan and flatly out of tune, but the smile stayed on his face.

We will think of this day forever, so soon at the GA-LA! At the GA-LA!

“What are you planning to do,” she asked quietly.

“Really? Are you really asking me that?” He snickered. “First of all, plans are for boring ponies. Why would I have a plan when I promised y’all a surprise? No, I’m not fond of plans. I like a little suspense.” He cocked his head. “And then again, Princess, I’m just a figment of your imagination. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen in the real world. I can only tell you what’s happening right here, in your — uh — headworld.”

He smirked and looked around, extending his arms as if he was embracing their surroundings. “Ah, this whole dream of yours is so weird,” he gloated. “How come you’re dreaming about me out of all ponies again?” He smirked. “Oh, I know the truth, little Celestia. Why would you dream about me? Well, who else do you have to dream about? Who else to confide in? Who else to reveal your silly little girl fears to? All of your little neuroses that are too trivial, too childish to voice... how you’re so afraid of the future... how you miss being around your sister... how you feel so confused about everything that’s going on... how you’re sure you’re missing out on something. And then, of course, how scared you are of growing up, how you don’t think you’re good enough to be a queen... and how scared you are of breaking your promise. If you haven’t forgotten about that already.” He looked at Luna and smirked. “Is there anypony else to understand, to comfort you? Anypony?” He approached her. “Does that make you feel so depressed? Does it depress you to know... just how alone you are? I’ll give you a tip to make it all a little bit more bearable. Open your eyes and look around you,” he said. “There’s no sense in sacrificing yourself for something you don’t really want in the first place. These ponies? They don’t care about you. When the chips are down, they are gonna tear you to pieces. Don’t you remember my little story?”

“I do,” Celestia said breathlessly. His words had hit a little too close to home. She looked to her side, where Luna was still frozen in place.

“Just let go of all that,” he whispered. “You care, you lose. It just makes you ... vulnerable. Just give it all up. It’s not worth the hassle in the end, trust me. Like I said, it’s all gonna fly into pieces sooner or later. No matter how hard you try to put your hoof down, nopony will thank you for that. It’s lonely and thankless being up there. It’s much more comfortable down here — at my level.”

“But —”

She flinched. He had grabbed her face firmly in his hooves, a painful sensation even in her dream, and stared her directly in the eyes, only a nose’s length away.

“You think your mommy will protect you, but you’re mistaken,” he whispered. “Mommy isn’t ready to do what needs to be done. But I am. I am so ready to do whatever suits me best. I reject your rules and resent your small world. I’m gonna show you just how arrogant you all are to believe you can keep it together. I’m gonna make you suffer until you let it all crumble down. You got that? I can make you suffer. And you better believe me. That’s my special talent, after all.”

“I thought your special talent... had something to do with corn...” Celestia managed to say.

He stared her down, and a grin appeared on his face. “At the very least, Princess, you have a sense of humour. I like that. I adore that.” He moved closer still. “But this is no laughing matter, Princess. I assure you — if you don’t work with me, I will destroy you.”

He suddenly let go.

“Is he lying next to you, our general,” he said in a low voice. “Right now?”

“Of course not,” she said quickly. He walked around her in circles, like a predator closing in on its prey. And indeed, when he spoke, his voice sounded vaguely reptilian; not oily anymore, but hissing, like a dragon’s.

“Better keep it that way. You never know who to trust, you see.”

With these words, he suddenly, without warning, bucked Celestia straight in the abdomen. The pain was searing, blinding, exploding; everything turned white for a split-second, thin black lines criss-crossing through Celestia’s field of vision, and her entire body was agony, bursting at its seams...

And then it was over. She cried out and took a breath so profound that it felt as if she was going to suck up all the air around her. Now that the absolute pain had receded, she realised it had been made up of thousands of smaller, more local pains, that only now were perceptible; they felt like a billion little, well-sharpened needles prodding her brain.

“You’re tough, aren’t you,” Sweetcorn murmured and looked at her with a weird fascination. “Any normal pony would have woken up by now. Maybe you’re not as plain as you think.”

Celestia couldn’t answer. She was panting violently, her face still frozen in painful contortion, her mouth still emitting a soundless scream. Sweetcorn circled in on her, his red eyes suddenly focused and motionless, and flung a hoof around her neck, seemingly effortlessly yanking her up into the air. She felt his breath on the back of her head.

“You’re tough, but you’re not tough enough, little Celestia. You think you have it bad? You think everything is so confusing and noone understands you? I’ll make you have it bad. You think you’re not a kid anymore? Great, then you’re ready to take some real pain,” he continued passionlessly. “And no, not real pain like the one you just felt. Even realer pain. Inner pain. You understand?” He was whispering into her ear now. “Total pain straight from the heart.”

For a reason she couldn’t quite understand, Celestia didn’t struggle; instead, she let her eyelids droop, and the tension leave her muscles. “That’s how your story will end, right?” she said quietly, as coherently as she could. “Total pain.”

“Exactly,” he whispered. “You’re a clever filly. I never said anything different. You learn quickly.”

“Will you tell me the ending,” she said breathlessly. “I want — to know — the ending.”

“Not now. The story isn’t finished yet, you see. In a way... it is still being written.”

He suddenly let go of her and whirled around. He had heard something; and so had Celestia. She perked her ears. Somewhere, from far, far away, music seemed to reach her ears, strange, otherworldly music. She instantly knew that she had heard it before. But where?

“What is it?” she managed to ask.

He looked irritated. “Apparently it’s your song. We all have our songs, don’t we?”

“You too?”

“No,” he conceded. “I just like to mess with other ponies’.”

And shoving her onto the ground, looking behind him, he leapt off into the abyss below, a skewed grimace fixed on his face. When she approached the cliff and looked down, he was gone. Everything was frozen and unmoving, even the blades of grass; almost as if the world surrounding her was nothing but plastic props. She looked at Luna. Luna looked real. She turned her head. The music grew louder, as though it was coming closer, slowly at first, then ever faster.

“What is that?”

A sleek silhouette was visible in the brightly lit sky. The silhouette of ... a bird?

It approached. The music grew louder. The sky ever brighter, blindingly, searingly.

Celestia narrowed her eyes and straightened up.


When she awoke, it was still darkest night. The image of an immobile, icy Luna frozen in memory had remained with her; her heart beat furiously, still astir with the intense heat she had felt afterwards.

She got up. It never occurred to her how alone her chamber felt now that her sister wasn’t in it anymore.

Taken by a caprice, without thinking about where she was going, she opened the door into the completely silent corridor. On silent hooves, she made her way down towards the other end; but without realising it, she had sought somepony else. Indeed, a door was open to the right, a thin beam of feeble, polychromatic light spilling out onto the corridor.

With trance-like security, she directed her steps towards the door and tipped it open. Inside, there was Acier, sitting at the low, wooden table. He barely lifted his head when he saw her; apparently, he wasn’t surprised by her appearance. He was drinking from a big stein of beer. That was extremely unusual; after all, Acier claimed not to have drunk for decades.

“Things are different,” he said, as if he had anticipated her question. “Things have changed. That’s why I drink again.” He gave her a weak smile, which she didn’t return.
“You mean they have changed back to... back to the way they once were?”

“In a way,” he said darkly and looked at the table. “But not quite.”

But as she looked at him, he didn’t seem to have changed at all, and she saw in him a companion from her childhood. That was why she didn’t ask the one question she had had on the tip of her tongue and tucked under her wing. That’s why she didn’t ask if it had been him. Not because he would lie anyway; for some reason, she was convinced he would tell her the truth. No, rather because at the same time, looking at him and recognising the same Acier she had always known, she felt his proper answer would be no; but if she had asked them and the real Acier said yes, then she would have preferred to sustain the memory and not have asked at all.

And so she said nothing. He looked at her. She looked back at him, but her gaze was hardening again. Did she really want to deceive herself like that?

“Acier,” she said. “Can it happen that ...” She stopped a moment to consider her question. “Can it happen that, with one and the same pony... you love one part about them, and hate another... as if they were not only one pony on the inside, but two or more?”

“Of course,” he said. “That happens all the time. And sometimes it’s hard to tell those ponies apart. Sometimes it’s hard to tell why we hate somepony so much who would have deserved better. And then again, sometimes it’s hard to tell what exactly we love someone for. Because that’s what love is all about, right? It’s not just the sum of its parts.”

She hesitated for a moment and looked at him; he looked more like his old self than ever, and didn’t seem to have aged by a day; only the dark bags under his eyes had grown heavier.

“And could it be ... that you only love the memory of someone? That you only love the pony they once were, and think you still find it in them, even if that has long since gone?”

She thought of Luna. She didn't want to think of Luna, but she did.

“Yes,” he said slowly, and this time, there was a longing in his voice. “Yes, that can happen. After all, we carry our past selves with us, everywhere, and it can be very hard to untangle the past from the present. Sometimes it seems to us that the two are one and the same. Even when the person has changed. I'm - I'm not sure if you understand what I'm saying.”

She nodded slowly. He shook his head, as if to rouse himself from his own thoughts, then looked up at her. She looked towards the floor.
“Have you ever,” she started, “have you ever broken a promise you made?”

“A promise. A promise to whom?”

“I dunno. Anyone.”

“Well, I have. That happens. Ponies break promises all the time. The easiest to break are the ones you make to yourself.” He nodded towards the glass on his table. “And then, there’s the kind of promise you make to someone else, but they’re too close to you. It feels as though they’re a part of you. That can be very dangerous, ‘cause then, you think you’re only hurting yourself. D’you get what I mean?”

“No,” she said honestly.“

He nodded. “That's as it should be. I honestly hope you never will." He sighed. "Why are you asking me all these questions?”

Because I don’t have anypony else to ask.

“Just... no reason,” she said. Her voice sounded as strange as the day Luna had betrayed them all. “No, no reason.”

There was a moment of silence.

“The day when the guard and the Lieutenant were attacked,” she blurted out suddenly, “you were near the place where it happened, weren’t you? I heard you talking with mom before.”

He looked surprised. For a moment, it looked as though he wasn't going to answer. But he did. “Yes, I was.”

“Then was it you who—”

He gave a deep sigh, and a tired gaze that she had great difficulty interpreting. “Things change, you know, Tia.”

“You’re right,” she said, as he did not budge against her stare. “You’re right, they do change. And don’t call me Tia.”

Why was she protecting him?

You care, you lose.

And then, feeling more lost and alienated than before, she left the room.

She peered out of one the corridor windows. Hadn’t there been another feeling in her dream? Hadn’t it been not only hopeless?

Somewhere far off in the distance, a narrow beam of red stood out against the pitch-black night. The moon's crescent faded into the dawn.

The day of the Gala was there.

To be continued. Next chapter: The Song of the Stars.

Thank you, dear reader, for sticking with this tale. I hope you enjoyed this chapter. As things become more and more complex, I'm doing my best to keep it all together. As you can see, the story is nearing its apogee. In fact, the rest of it is already written, and will now be tweaked and adjusted to try and do justice to the sad fate of Celestia and Luna.

Many thanks to RiffraffsElbow (and Mystic!) for helping edit this story!

As always, I am looking forward to your comments and criticisms. Thank you for reading!

The Song of the Stars

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Chapter 5
The Song of the Stars

« ... what good is there in trying to change it? »

In Canterlot, that great city hewn into the foot of a mountain, where the roofs were golden domes and the streets paved with marble, autumn had finally found its course. The streets were wet, covered in a thick blanket of slick leaves of brown and red. Cold gusts of wind blew through the forlorn streets and drove away the last remnants of summer warmth. The new day had just begun, and the sun’s light was still cool and bluish.

But the wind wasn’t the only thing roaming about the streets. A beige pony traversed them with hushed, but confident steps. He was wrapped in a dark red, satin cloak that obscured view of his features and cutie mark. A brown saddlebag was slung over his back. The stallion’s way of walking was rather peculiar: he would stumble forward a few steps, not without a certain slant towards the facades on the right; then he would stop for a few seconds, looking around erratically before hushing on, this time with a left-hand slant. But even in spite of his confused pauses, there was no doubt that he knew exactly where he was heading. He never backtracked on his choices, never turned back, never lingered at street crossings. As he stumbled on towards its centre, the city became denser, the houses prettier and more ostentatious.

Finally, he came to a halt at a crossroads framed with timberwork facades. He perked up his ears.

From somewhere not too far away, muffled voices were carried over by the wind; not just a few, but by the sound of it, hundreds and hundreds. They came fitfully, rhythmically, like chants, as if there were a giant crowd of ponies united all in one place. The stallion knew that these sounds were wafting over from Canterlot Square. He smiled contently, and a mean glint flared in his eyes.

He slowly turned around. Instead of continuing on the main paved road, he opted for a narrow alleyway to the right, moving eastwards away from the centre.

When he emerged on the other side, he had found what he was looking for: an old, once-impressive, now defunct infirmary. A weathered red cross, feebly glowing with a slowly dimming luminescent spell, marked it clearly as such.

He took a moment to marvel at the building’s downtroddenness, no doubt having expected something more impressive in its place. The big wooden entrance door was barred and sealed — it seemed clearly shut down. But the stallion knew better. After a moment of glaring at it, he unceremoniously yanked himself up onto all four hooves and made a leap through the window to the top left, shattering it in the process. The clang resounded conspicuously in the empty street, muffled only slightly by the cover of wet leaves.

For a moment, he clambered triumphantly in the windowframe, slowly pulling himself up into the room with abnormally strong forehooves. His red cloak dangled off of him into the depth below. But before he had made it all the way in, he froze, pricking up his ears once more.

“Hey!” a male voice shouted below.

The stallion stopped struggling to get up and turned his head, somewhat unwillingly, to face his interlocutor below: a lone, low-ranking, young sergeant, fully clad in golden armour marking him as a member of the Royal Guard. Under the armour gleamed a cutie mark that apparently depicted a blue ball lightning. A large silver bow, accompanied by a quiver, hung from his side. A golden ring was attached to his left forehoof. His face was cut out starkly, if slightly round, with an oversized horn on top, and his eyes were narrowed suspiciously. His chest seemed broader than his entire torso.

“Come down from there!”

Awkwardly suspended in the windowframe, the cloaked stallion twisted his face into a strangely lopsided grimace. His tongue made a sound as if he had popped a gum bubble. “Uh, hey there!” he half-shouted downwards, his expression unfazed. “Coming down right now is a bit inconvenient, you see, because I really need to get in there! So, uh, sorry!”

The sergeant screwed up his face at the unexpected response. “Well, why do you want to go in there in the first place? It’s a damn defunct hospital, buddy. So you better do as I say and get down here,” he asserted and stepped closer.

There was something akin to curiosity in the beige pony’s eyes as he looked down still dangling from the window, but not budging. “I already said I can’t. Does that mean you’re gonna make me, sergeant? With that big bow of yours? Are you any good at using it?”

The sergeant stared at him for a second, as though he was trying to figure out if he was being mocked. He clucked his tongue and bit his lower lip as he decided how to proceed. “I’m very good with my bow, you know. And you’re quite right, I might just want to use it on you.”

A complacent smile spread over the stallion’s muzzle. He seemed in the mood for conversation, and for some reason, he had little trouble staying effortlessly in place. “By the way, all alone? Have we lost our patrol, Sergeant?”

The sergeant ignored the comment. Without forewarning, with nothing but a barely audible hiss, he planted an arrow right next to the stallion’s face, into the house front. The stallion gave a start, unwittingly let go and tumbled down, crashing one floor below onto the wet pavement.

He looked around in disorientation. Then, after a forceful fit of coughs, he screwed up his face and laughed his strangely hissing laugh. “You took me by surprise, Sergeant! Now, if you allow me —” He shakily got back up on his hooves, under the watchful eyes of the soldier. Cursorily, he brushed off a few wet leaves from his cloak, which had still taken on an ugly smothering of dirt.

The sergeant grinned, barely able to hide that he was pleased with himself. “And now, you take off that cloak.”

“Oh, no, no, that wouldn’t be very — proper.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m all naked underneath.”

“You take it off now.”

The beige stallion stared back at the physically imposing soldier, apparently on the cusp of talking back, but then finally snapped out of it and fumblingly detached the soaked garment from his coat. It landed silently on the ground.

Narrowing his eyes, the soldier looked the stallion down. “You take that off, too.” He nodded towards the saddlebag that conveniently obscured the stallion’s cutie mark. When the stallion didn’t respond, the soldier took care of the problem by himself and, with an irritated nod and a glow of his horn, sent the bag flying. An oversized sweetcorn was revealed on the stallion’s flank.

Sweetcorn smiled graciously at the soldier, on whom the weight of his discovery just now started to slowly sink in. But instead of using that chance to escape, Sweetcorn just waited patiently, like a chessplayer awaiting his opponent’s next move.

The sergeant took a deep breath as he realised that the most searched-for criminal in Equestria stood right under his nose. He took a nervous look over his shoulder to find himself all alone with Sweetcorn, and finally, as he collected himself from the shock, tried to make his next announcement sound as official and intimidating as possible. A mean spark had crept into his eyes.

“You’re under arrest.”

Sweetcorn, still smiling broadly, raised an eyebrow. “Am I now?”

“You are,” the soldier says valiantly, the least bit more assertive.

“Well, I would love to be,” Sweetcorn smiled courteously. “I’d really love to be arrested by you, really, I really would. But you see, right now is just not a good time. I’m being a real busypony. It just wouldn’t be very convenient, you see?”

Anger entered the soldier’s expression, which left little doubt that he didn’t see. “Convenient? I’m not in the mood for playing games, chap —”

Sweetcorn recoiled, as though repulsed by the sergeant’s lax use of language. His vacantly smiling expression remained firmly etched in his face, like an all-too-understanding parent answering their five-year-old’s questions about the simplest of facts.

“No, uh, chap? I assure you that I haven’t got the slightest intention of mocking you. I’m just asking for a little cooperation on your part.” He scratched his head, as though an idea was forming in there. “And in fact, uh, maybe you could even help me with something else. A teeny-weensy matter where you might come in handy. How does that sound? I’m just asking because you were so great with that bow of yours.” Sweetcorn gave a praising smile.

The guard stared back at him, transfixed, a dumbfounded expression frozen on his face. Then he came to his senses. Apparently something had clicked into place in him, as he shifted gears and in one swift motion brutally apprehended Sweetcorn, twisting his hooves onto his back and shoving him onto the muddy pavement below. Sweetcorn, shortly diving up for breath, seemed only mildly annoyed. “Please, mister, you’re inconveniencing me. I have things to do, I’m a very busy pony, you see. If you could just arrest me, like, sometime later or never or—”

“If you could just shut up,” the soldier sneered, now revelling in having verified his physical superiority. For some time, the two rested like this, the sergeant’s face still ripe with incredulous glee at his own quick-wittedness.

“Well, how do we solve this problem?” Sweetcorn said softly after a while, as softly as he could with his snout pressed into the dirty street. “How about money? Do you want some? I’ve got money in that good ole bag o’ mine. How much do you want? A thousand bits? No, hang on, that’s definitely too much. Let’s say a hundred?”

“Do you really think that you can buy me with money? I’m a Royal Guard. You’re scum. I work for the Queen, and you’re a criminal.”

“A rather poor rationale,” Sweetcorn sputtered. “You know, some say that the queen is the criminal.”

“Are you talking about those minions of yours on the Square? Well, that’d be because you’ve told them lies and smears.”

“Oh, no, no, now you’re just doing wrong by me. I’m also concerned for you, you know. For your interests. Just speaking from a pragmatic perspective. Things aren’t looking up for the queen right now, there’s some bad guys out there who want to see her hurt. I assure you, that would be such a pity. But you know how quickly that can happen.” He pouted his lips.

“Not very quickly at all,” the soldier said. “She’s immortal.”

“Ah, immortal, maybe, maybe, but invulnerable? Who knows what ingenious schemes some of our more fickle fiends might come up with?”

“By fickle friends, do you mean yourself?”

“Right, right, that’s right. Army of one but growing! I wanna join my friends who are waiting for me on Canterlot Square, see, and that’s why I need you to cooperate right now. They’re really excited for me, you see. I might’ve told them that I’d drop by. And they’d be super disappointed if I didn’t show up, catch my drift?”

The sergeant stopped in his tracks. His eyes narrowed dangerously, like a snake’s.

“What’s the point? Do you really think there’s any possibility of cooperation here? Do you think I’m threatened by someone like you? Do you really think I’ll leave you untouched if you intimidate me or, worse, just pay me enough? This is all more personal than you want it to be. I’ve heard the stories of what happened on Canterlot Square during the Harvest Celebration. You’ve killed my brothers-in-arms, and no money in the world will be able to weigh up the pleasure of seeing you bleed.”

That notion seemed to almost amuse Sweetcorn. “Haha, that’s right! I did kill them! I’m not one to deny the facts. But make me bleed, you want to? Ah, but alas, Sergeant, the order is to catch me alive!” He fluttered his eyelashes.

“I wouldn’t be so sure.”

“Oh, but I am sure. Your namby-pamby queen would never issue a dead-or-alive for anypony. You see, that’s just not her style — no matter what the ramifications may be. She’s too sophisticated to have blood on her hooves. And of course, she knows that that’s exactly what I want. It doesn’t really matter, because she loses face in either case. Either she can kill me, then people will hate her for betraying her principles. Or she can leave me alive, then she’ll just look weak. Take your pick, she’s —”

Enough.” The soldier, having grown increasingly restless during Sweetcorn’s monologue, had kicked him violently. Sweetcorn fell silent and reflexively took a deep, raspy breath. His face lay flat in the mud now, but before he could regain breath, the sergeant laid one hoof on his neck, slowly pushing down.

Quietly, Sweetcorn started laughing. His entire body started to vibrate, to quiver, but all that came out was a raspy breath.

“What’s so funny?” the sergeant asks incomprehensibly.

“Chuckbolt,” Sweetcorn murmured, biting down hard onto his lips, as if giving away the punchline to a particularly funny joke. “That’s your name, isn’t it? That ring,” he went on, idly regarding the finely worked gold ring around the sergeant’s left forehoof. “It’s really pretty. It’s a gift from your fiancée, right?”

“Shut up.”

“What’s her name again, uh, Foxtrot, right? Isn’t she in the Fourth? That’s all the way across on the other side of the city. You must miss her terribly, mustn’t you?”

Chuckbolt’s grip slackened some. “How do you know that,” he mouthed.

“I can see it in your eyes,” Sweetcorn muttered softly. “And it would be such a terrible pity if something happened to her. It would be inexcusable. I’m sure you agree, don’t you?”

“You’re a total freak,” the sergeant said, now not without fear in his eyes.

“Well, there can be little doubt on that account.”

“You’re bluffing. You don’t really know her, do you?”

“Maybe I am, maybe I do. But if I am, then how did I know her name?” He cocked his head.

“You guessed,” the soldier said after a while.

“Not very likely, but possible.” Sweetcorn said cooly, following the soldier’s movements with his eyes and very lightly with his head.

“If you really know her that well,” Chuckbolt growled, “then tell me more about her.”

“Mm-hmm. Well, I’ve never been a good storyteller, as certain members of the royal family will certainly testify. Maybe I should speak in more concrete terms. Why don’t you open that saddlebag for me?”

He nodded towards the carelessly discarded, brown fabric bag in the mud. The sergeant eyed him suspiciously, but then got up reluctantly to check it.

Sweetcorn profited from the soldier’s absence merely to sweep back a loose streak on his forehead. His black pupils were merciless and tiny inside of his serpentine red eyes as he watched Chuckbolt bend over the bag.

The soldier opened it and reached inside with a hoof, retrieving a small and golden object from the inside. He frowned, then gave a start, stumbling back a few steps as he realised the nature of his find. The object fell to the ground with a tinny clank.

It was the counterpart to his own engagement ring, what seemed like the faint, but unmistakeable outline of a single, dried-out red droplet on its inside.

“Together till death us part?” Sweetcorn remarked drily. “Hopefully, that still means together for a bit longer, right? But that’s up to you, my friend. That’s all up to you.”

Chuckbolt, his back to Sweetcorn, stared at the ring now lying in the dirt. He had stopped breathing, blood rushing into his skull. He only had one sole instinct, orders be damned. One instinct, and one chance.

With his namesake swiftness, he reached into his quiver, mounted an arrow and bent his bow, then turned back and sent the arrow straight towards Sweetcorn forehead with surefire aim. Not even a split second had passed, and already, a triumphant smile spread over the sergeant’s face.

But something unexpected had happened. His smile vanished and turn into panic as he saw what was happening in front of him: Sweetcorn, smiling idly, was contemplating the arrow, which was hovering in midair just inches from his face, like a mildly interesting television programme. Under the eyes of the shocked Chuckbolt, the arrow slowly started twisting and turning, and eventually, it had described a bow and assumed the shape of a heart, both ends bent towards the centre.

“I said now was an inconvenient time,” Sweetcorn said almost amiably as he watched the arrow.

“How are you doing that?” Chuckbolt asked, now panic in his voice. “You’re not a unicorn! How did you do that?”

“Why, with the magic of love,” Sweetcorn said drily, tossing aside the twisted arrow. “And no, I’m not a unicorn. I’m something greater than that. Far, far greater.” He turns back to the soldier.

“What do you want me to do,” Chuckbolt said meekly.

Sweetcorn looked him down appraisingly. “Come closer,” he whispered. They were almost snout-to-snout now. “You seem very anxious to kill me. You still want to kill me, right?”

“More than ever,” Chuckbolt mouthed, his lips quivering.

“All the better,” Sweetcorn smiled. “Today is your special day. Today you will get to. As a reward, since you’re so good at aiming that ... thing.” He nodded towards the silver bow. “And you proved it twice already. That wasn’t just idle bragging on your part. I’m impressed, Ser-ge-ant.”

Chuckbolt blankly opened his mouth. It was clear that he had stopped understanding the situation. He turned towards the shut-down hospital towering over them. “Why are you trying to break in there? What’s inside?”

He had already surrendered himself. Sweetcorn slowly got back up on his hooves, carefully brushing all the wet leaves from his beige coat as he spoke.

“Well, let’s find out, don’t you think? And as for the rest of our day together,” Sweetcorn said nonchalantly, gently taking the appropriate key off the sergeant’s chain, “we’re gonna have so much fun. We’ll be the bestest of friends. And we’re gonna make some new friends, too, right now. I would like to touch your forehead, and then it’ll be so gay.” Sweetcorn picked up the heart-shaped arrow and idly contemplated it. “And then, I hope you enjoy music, Sergeant. Because there’s a very special sonata on the program tonight. And now,” he gently touched the soldiers forehead with a hoof, “let me tell you a story...”

Above them, the sun was finally reaching its apogee.



Celestia, transfixed, stared out into the unfolding dawn. Images from her dream remained imprinted on her memory like fading negatives, just as the moon crescent started to blend into the sunrise outside. She sighed.

— Do you know that your mother hasn’t visited Luna once? You see, if her daughter’s sick, you’d think she’d drop by, would she not?

— We’re at a crossroads now, and both ways lead into uncertain futures. But we know that neither of these futures will be pleasant.

— I bet your sister remembers all her dreams, you know.

Your sister remembers all her dreams...

— I’ve had nightmares too, Tia. I have nightmares all the nights. Did you know that?

— No. What... what about?

— Canterlot, Luna whispered. Canterlot all empty and forlorn and dark. Not a soul. Not even me.

— Not even you?

— I stand beside myself. Looking from the outside in. And there is noone around, nopony, and the sun is cloaked. And I feel so horribly alone. Can you understand that?

Celestia covered her eyes. Light rushed in mercilessly, and with the inrushing light, the castle itself appeared to grow; the dark corridors seemed to expand against the influx of brightness like balloons filling with water. By contrast, Celestia herself felt ever tinier, ever more helpless.

She brooded, which was not at all her habit. So much seemed to hinge on this day, on this evening, but when she tried to imagine what was going to happen, her mind didn’t deliver any visual scenarios. The evening was a completely blank slate. And yet she knew that one way or the other, something was going to happen. Like a canvas to be painted had the idea of an image in it, but not the image itself.

The few moments of golden sunrise were coming to an end, and a wall of clouds pushed itself in front of the sun. Immediately, the light was gone and gave way to overcast sombreness. A light drizzle set in outside.

Celestia turned around and listlessly made her way towards the kitchen. Something most peculiar had happened over the night: leaf-green banners were now hanging throughout the castle, all of them carrying her mother’s crest, a stylised orb with a heart-shaped flame underneath. They resembled those at the Harvest Celebration just a week earlier. But these were wrought from more expensive threads that shimmered when the light met them, and the heart-shaped diamond at the bottom was an actual gem. Of course, decorating an entire castle overnight for an event such as the Great Galloping Gala was just a minor feat for Gaia. Celestia wondered if her mother had stayed up all night decorating. The very idea seemed absurd. But then again, she wondered whether her mother ever slept.

The image of her mother’s back against the stark light of the setting sun flashed back to her. She tried to remember where that memory dated from. Hadn't that been the day Sweetcorn had first entered the castle, shortly before? What had her mother been doing on that balcony? This castle is protected by more than just bricks. As long as one of us inhabits this castle, these walls will stand.

Had Gaia cast a protective spell over the castle?

There will be no punishment.

No punishment for Luna, who was getting lost in the hedged maze of her own mind, a dangerous place to be left alone in for too long. But what could Celestia do? Whenever she talked to Luna, all words spoken seemed to have to pass through an icy wall first that sucked any kind of warmth out of them, and when they reached the other’s ear, they sent shivers down their spines in their finality.

How much time had really passed since Sweetcorn had first made it into the castle, and since Luna...

Not much. Barely two weeks. Change had come quickly.

Breakfast was an insipid affair, as was lunch. Luna remained in the infirmary. Celestia didn’t admit it to herself, but Stronghooves’ snarky remarks had left her thinking. Why didn’t Gaia visit Luna? And what exactly was it that Luna was supposed to be suffering from? A cold?

Celestia didn’t see Stronghooves, whom she was growing ever less fond of, Acier or anybody else for the better part of the day. She did, however, frequently pass guards, who were pacing the corridors in self-importance. They were no doubt preparing for the evening. They greeted her only cursorily, with unbefitting aloofness; but Celestia hardly cared about that. In fact, that even gave her a strange sense of satisfaction. Unsure whether to try and stretch or compress time, she spent time at the library. But reading more than a page at a time turned out to be impossible.

Sooner rather than later, she gave up and aimlessly stared out into the drizzle outside. From the library window, you could see the hedged maze below on the castle grounds. When she set eyes upon it, an uneasy feeling immediately got a hold of her, and she hurried to avert her eyes.

The clock struck four. Celestia could neither bear to stay in the same place nor to walk for too long; but eventually, she surrendered and left the library to wander aimlessly around the corridors. She was maybe planning to go for a flight outside, in spite of the poor weather; maybe stretching her wings would do her some good.

But it didn’t come to that. In the corridor, she met her mother, who was just about to enter her bedroom. Her gold necklace sparkled with the heart-shaped diamond in its centre.

Gaia didn’t look the least bit surprised. She smiled serenely. “Tia. Why don’t you come with me?”

When Celestia stammered something indistinct, Gaia’s eyes lit up in amusement.

“The Gala’s approaching soon, you know. Three more hours. And I’m sure you don’t wanna go naked.” Gaia laughed. “I have something for you.”

Celestia gave her mother a questioning look. “What do you mean?”

“A dress, of course!” Gaia laughed again, her voice silvery, and the door to her bedroom sprang open. Celestia awkwardly followed her inside. Gaia, considering her shortly, opened one of her oaken cupboards.

Out of it, a white dress floated towards her, made of finest silk, with fine embroideries and reinforced lapels and seams out of a shimmering green. Celestia, who was wholly unfamiliar with like vanity, looked at it like a thing out of another world. But Gaia stared at it affectionately.

“It used to be mine, you know,” she said quietly. “Do you like it?”

“I — I do, it’s just —”

Gaia looked at Celestia with a strange and touching glint in her eyes, a stirring of memories that was visible even to the uninitiated. It succeeded in silencing Celestia, in any case. Slowly, Gaia made it float over to Celestia.

“It’s too big still,” she remarked. “If only by an inch. I’ll have to pin it up on you and then make some changes...”

Celestia frowned, but her mother insisted. That kind of closeness was very unusual, and Celestia was not sure what to make of it. She slipped into the oversized dress, and Gaia moved behind her, starting to put little needles into it that she retrieved from thin air.

“And Luna?” Celestia asked after a while, to disrupt the awkward silence while her mother pinned up the dress. Both of them understood the question.

“I’m not sure if Luna can come,” Gaia said quietly.

Silence and the rustling of fabric.

“Mom? Are you trying to keep Luna away from others?”

Gaia’s hoof slipped. Celestia felt her own heart pump furiously in her chest, blood rushing into her skull. She knew she had asked something very, very inappropriate.

For a long, long time, Gaia stared at Celestia, her pupils slowly moving downward. “No,” she said finally, but tentatively, as if a decision had snapped into place in her. “Of course not. I want Luna to come, too.”


The shortest moment of silence.


After a moment of hesitation, Gaia continued pinning up the dress. Celestia stood still and watched themselves in the mirror. She stared into her own deep violet eyes, and they stared back at her, wide open, all-seeing, but profoundly confused. Her gaze wandered down her seated figure, over her chest, where the white bistone brooch was sparkling as evidence of her bond with Luna, and onto her cutie mark, that eight-rayed sun supposed to stake out her destiny.

“I’m afraid of tonight,” Celestia managed to say.

“Oh? Why would you be afraid?” Gaia said placidly.

Wasn’t it obvious?

“Because of Sweetcorn. Who knows what he’s going to do tonight?”

Gaia calmly shook her head. “You shouldn’t be afraid of that pony. Nothing bad can happen to us here, you know. Not as long as we stay in this castle. I’ve seen to that.”


“I have my ways,” Gaia said simply and stared towards the sparkling, heart-shaped diamond on her chest. “Magic — very powerful magic. As long as one of us stays in this castle, it is safe.”

“But not all these nobles that will come today.”

Gaia sighed. “Don’t worry about it, Sunray.” And more quietly, she added: “They chatter too much anyway. They will be pleased to meet you, you know. And your sister. I’ve figured it might be time to acquainted them with you.”

Celestia wasn’t convinced. She wanted her mother to tell her more, to reassure her with actual information, but only empty phrases of confidence came back.

“Stronghooves told me he believes that Sweetcorn’s hiding in the Everfree Forest. Do you think that’s true?”

“Who knows...”

“Where they are building our castle.”

“Yes, where they are building your castle...”

“Why did you have it built in the Everfree Forest out of all places?”

Gaia bit down on her lower lip, and her gaze clouded almost unnoticeably. “I have my reasons. Memories tie me to that place.”

The Everfree Forest isn’t like other forests. It’s ... not normal. I know the place. It’s scary.

“Which ones?”

Gaia fell silent again. Apparently, she had decided that she had answered enough bothersome questions. She stared at her daughter in the mirror and smiled faintly.

But Celestia still wanted to know more. For a moment, she hesitated, but then she couldn’t help blurting it out.

“And Acier, where will he be, is he going to be here in the castle? I think that —”

“I said not to worry about tonight,” came the serene, but definite reply. “Besides, he is a friend.”

When Gaia was done, she stepped back, and the dress floated over to Celestia, who made herself slim to slip into it. It was as white as herself, absurdly reminiscent of a wedding dress, but simpler, less adorned, and light and breezy; a gold buckle held it together on her chest, just underneath the bistone brooch. She felt her mother’s gaze on her, vague pride in it, but as she stared into the mirror, she looked like a complete stranger to herself.

You’re so pretty, so graceful. Like a large and noble swan.

She sighed. She wasn’t comfortable, it felt too fake; but for the moment, she partook in the pretension, and smiled back at her mother. Sure, it was pleasant to let go of reality for an instant, to forget Canterlot, to forget Sweetcorn’s threat, to forget that there were realities and responsibilities out there. But it was also dangerous. Her smile hardened as her dream image of Sweetcorn came back to her. The pain, that all-consuming pain, but then...

“What’s on your mind, Sunray? You look so troubled.”

Celestia closed her eyes. “I just ... I just had a strange dream tonight. Just a silly ... it doesn’t matter, anyways.”

“Dreams matter,” her mother said earnestly.

Celestia gulped. “Well, it was... nothing, really. But at the end, I had this extremely hot sensation, as if my entire body was just ... just bursting with warmth. As though something tried to break free from me. And then, behind me, I heard this mellow cry, like an owl’s, but more beautiful, warmer, more ... harmonious.” She opened her eyes again and stared at herself. “Actually, do you remember ... the day when we and Luna tried to catch a phoenix? You probably don’t, it’s so long ago and you are so busy and ...”

Her mother put a hoof to her mouth. “Of course I remember,” she breathed. “Phoenixes are very rare, you know. Very, very rare.”

Celestia nodded. “When I turned around —- in my dream — I saw that same phoenix behind me, appearing on the horizon and moving towards me. It was the very same, without a doubt, it had the exact same silver lining on its wings, the exact same pattern.”

She didn’t mention that that had been in the Everfree Forest, nor that Luna had figured there — least of all Sweetcorn.

Gaia said nothing, but simply stared at Celestia’s reflection in the mirror. Celestia kept her eyes directed towards the ground. Then she shook her head. “And then, there was this giant flame, and... it’s hard to explain, but it felt like it came out of my own body, but at the same time from the outside, and when I looked at the bird, it was just ... just a heap of ashes.”

For some reason, that memory instilled a sense of shame in her, as though she had done something dishonourable in her dream and was now provoking her mother’s disappointment. But Gaia just looked on. A needle hovered between them, a thin, spring-green aura keeping it suspended in mid-air.

“I don’t know, I guess I was just wondering... if that’s ... if that’s a bad sign.”

“A bad sign,” her mother mouthed. To Celestia’s surprise, a faint smile appeared on her lips. “The music,” Gaia said slowly. “Did you hear the music?”

Celestia nodded. Of course she had heard the music. She felt the press of her mother’s hooves on her fur.

“What was it like?”

“I can’t really describe it. How do you ... how do you describe a piece of music you’ve heard in your dreams? A colour you’ve seen, or a particular smell? I wouldn’t really know how.”

“But the feeling doesn’t go away,” her mother asserted. Her voice was feeble. “What did it feel like?”

“Warm,” Celestia said decidedly. “It was bliss. Every single note was in its proper place. The music swept you away, carried you to higher places, like... like giving you a peak of something bigger. Like a sampling of eternity. It was pure cadence, you know... harmony.”

For a moment, they rested immobile, her mother’s hoof resting on her chest. Then Gaia spoke.

“Close your eyes.”

“But —”

“Just do it.”

Celestia did it.

As she saw only the red of her own lids, she felt something metallic and cool brush against her fur, at the height of her chest. She opened her eyes. Her mother had taken off her own collar with the heart-shaped diamond and laid it around Celestia’s neck. The instant the diamond made contact with her fur, she felt a strong shiver run through her entire body, as though she was connected to a dormant source of boundless power, to a current of nascent potential; as though it tickled something that had always been latent in her.

There it was. The Eternal Flame.

Celestia stared at her own reflection. Her smile had disappeared, while her mother’s had grown more pronounced. Instead, confusion had grabbed hold of Celestia.

“Now you look like a real Queen,” Gaia said airily.

Celestia looked herself down, her lavender eyes wide open. The gold necklace fit her neck almost perfectly — she had grown, there was no doubt about it. It flowed over her chest, an elegantly cursive contrast to her white fur, and the large, heart-shaped diamond went with her white coat. In fact, the collar looked so in place as if it had always been there. That was what threw Celestia off.

“No,” she said slowly. “I can’t wear that.”

“But it fits you beautifully,” her mother said serenely.

Celestia shook her head. “It’s yours. You can’t let me wear that. You’re the queen.”

Gaia’s smile grew fainter. Celestia was sure to detect the slightest trace of disappointment in her eyes. But before either of them could speak again, the door flew open, and both mother and daughter whirled around.

Stronghooves stood there, panting, and his eyes flickered briefly over both of them. “My Queen,” he said gruffly and made his way into the room. “He’s been seen in Canterlot. He’s been seen this morning. Sweetcorn has tried to break into a hospital!”

Gaia stared at him for a while. It was impossible to tell what was going on between her the black in her eyes, impossible to see the stirrings of her mind; too profound were they, too deep, like the surfaces of completely stagnant lakes.

“A hospital?” she repeated. There was something moony about her voice. “Where is he now?”

“I don’t know! In any case, he’s been stopped by a member of the Guard, some Chuckbolt, and that guy is missing now, not a trace, nada, nil! His patrol can’t make heads and tails of it. And what’s worse, my Queen, Sweetcorn is freely roaming about Canterlot and spitting you in the face. You know what’s going on on Canterlot Square, right? Hundreds of ponies assembled there, waiting for their messiah, and apparently there’s a rumour going around that he’s gonna show up there this evening! We can’t let that happen, we need to —”

“Smoke and mirrors,” she said serenely. She seemed to look right through Stronghooves. “A diversion from the Gala. He wants to distract our eyes.”

“I don’t even care at this point,” Stronghooves spat. “I’ve got enough of this pointless risk-taking. All I want is that scoundrel dead, no matter what it takes.”

“No matter what it takes?” she said quietly.

“And if I have to burn down that city,” he ground out, “to weed him out, I will. You know how to smoke out out rats, don’t you? Set aflame their burrow, and they’ll come out coughing sooner rather than later.”

“Permission to burn down Canterlot denied,” she said, without raising her voice. “And permission to attack either Sweetcorn or any pony on that Square denied. You know that’s not going to happen. You don’t have my permission to attack now, and you won’t ever have it.”

Stronghooves looked as if somepony had just stolen his presents from under the tree. “This guy has attacked one of my soldiers! You think you can just let that happen? There was a red line right there, and he’s crossed that line! Do you really wanna wait until he gets his minions riled up too? We need preemptive action now. I don’t think you understand the seriousness of the situation!”

“No, I’m afraid you don’t understand,” she said quietly. Her deep eyes seemed to stare right through him, into a distant reality somewhere far behind them. Celestia looked at her mother, trying to scrutinise her mother’s gaze, but her iridescent green pupils were impenetrable. When she spoke again, her voice was wistful. “Grace.”


“Grace,” she repeated, her face blank.

His face contorted in something akin to rage, and his regular features were suddenly a lot less handsome. “Grace,” he said incredulously. “If you call suicide grace! If you’re staying lax about this right now, you’re opening the floodgates onto a very, very slippery slope! It’s going to snowball against you quicker than you can stake off your power! Majesty, I’m sure your intentions are laudable, but this is not the time for world-weary idealism. That kind of misunderstood clemency doesn’t come for free. On the contrary, it comes with a very high price tag indeed!”

“Your problem,” she said quietly and stared directly at Stronghooves, “is that you know perfectly well about price tags, but you have no idea what it means to pay a price.” Her gaze darkened. “That is all I have to say on the matter.”

Momentarily, Stronghooves was on the verge of opening his mouth to argue further; but then, in a startling movement, he slammed his hoof onto the table. Celestia flinched, but Gaia simply looked at him, a vague challenge in her eyes.

“As you wish, Majesty,” he said, after he had regained composure. “If that is what you want. But under these circumstances, I cannot vouch for your safety anymore.”

Gaia looked at him as though she had never been asking that of him. “These walls are thick,” she said airily. “You don’t need to worry about my safety. Just give it time, and it will all come by itself.”

He looked at her, seething, then turned away and simply stomped out of the room. Celestia glanced at her mother, as if asking for permission. When she divined a nod, Celestia followed Stronghooves outside, timidly trotting after him for a few steps.

“Your mother is losing grips on reality,” he growled at her when he saw her. “She’s losing it. That’s not gonna end well. Some things just have to be done, and she just needs to give me the goddamn command already. It’s just a goddamn word!”

“To her, it’s more than a word.”

“To her, it’s just a word. To me, it’s more than a word. It’s me who needs to send his soldiers out there, after all.”

“But I don’t get it,” Celestia said. “Why was he trying to break into that hospital?”

“Heaven knows what that guy is up to. These freaks don’t think normally. In any case, he needs to be stopped at any price, whatever the cost, or the damage incurred will be far greater,” he barked. “All that I know is someone needs to take things into hooves here, and quick. This can’t go on like this. Someone needs to get real. Someone needs to make decisions. That world-weary idealism won’t do your mother much good.”

She stopped trotting after him. The words had reminded her of something that somepony else had said to her, not all too long ago. He noticed she wasn’t following him anymore when he nudged his head, and stopped shortly to cast a glance back at her. He looked her down.

“Well... see you later, Princess. At the dance.”

“See you later,” Celestia mouthed, but didn’t feel like it at all.

She remained planted on the spot. As Stronghooves disappeared around the corner, Celestia realised something for the first time. In her heart, there was a tinge of yearning, less profound, maybe more flippant, but a yearning nonetheless.

“Tia,” her mother called out. “It’ll be time soon... the dress.”

Celestia looked toward the ground. Maybe her mother really was losing her grip on reality, she thought darkly.


The Gala was to start at six, still during bright daytime. And to be sure, slowly after five the guests started to trickle in, the usual crowds from Canterlot: befeathered, bespectacled, suited ponies, whose noble name meant everything to them; a tiresome march of self-decadence and hubris. The conceitedness was palpable, and Celestia knew she wasn’t really one of them — and neither was her mother, and, of course, Luna.

She greeted. She knew how to greet. Empty words, shaking hooves, a mechanical smile. Every single couple of glammed-up nobleponies she greeted, engaging in shreds of idle chit-chat, sometimes acknowledging polite comments about her dress. To cancel those out, there were some snide remarks about Luna, too, and whenever she heard them, it felt like she had bitten on something bitter. One of the guests actually asked her if she had already awakened — easily the height of indiscretion.

Eventually, they entered the throne hall, and like that day of the Harvest Celebration, Celestia felt that strange tingling of predetermination again; as though everything was moving on a preordained trajectory, mechanically, without pause, without intervention. She, too, played her part, and she wondered how long it was before it was all going to come down. Her mother disappeared somewhere, and Celestia was left on her own. Golden decorations were affixed everywhere: the same coats-of-arms as at the Harvest Celebration, showing her mother flowing around a now golden Earth sphere. For a moment, Celestia’s eyes drifted towards the giant stained windows; where there were still two alicorns, one spring-green, one wintery blue, chasing each other endlessly.

The ponies themselves she barely noticed. Instead, her eyes turned towards the guards that were on watch at every window, every entrance, forming a circle around the entire room. There was at least one guard for every two guests, all of them vigilant and ready to draw their swords whenever necessary. Celestia stared them over. Their expression was indifferent. It struck her as strange that their sight did not seem to disquiet the guests in the slightest.

The music began to play, a fully decked-out orchestra of at least a dozen ponies positioned on a sidestage, with the big centre-stage that had been erected reserved for allocutions. Hundreds of couples began to clumsily sway to the rhythm of the music. But before she could spent much more thought on that, and just as the lofty music was reaching its first crescendo, she saw that Stronghooves was already approaching her. He was clothed in his golden armour, just like before; if more polished. Apparently, a suit would have diminished the majesty of his appearance.

He smiled shrewdly.

“May I have this dance?”

She hesitantly nodded, but without giving him all of his attention. From the corner of her eye, she had watched the doors open again and Acier slide into the throne hall. There was something different about him: he carried a saddlebag she had never seen on him before. She pushed the thought from her mind and returned Stronghooves’ look. There was something undeniably elegant about the general’s movements, or maybe that wasn’t the right word — more of a notion of strength in his weakest gestures. She didn’t admit it, but it made an impression on her.

He looked at her, his fake smile still on his lips. She had no doubts that it was inauthentic, had no illusions about its pretentiousness. But right now, she might even have preferred the inauthentic and unreal to the reality she would have to face again soon enough. Not taking off her eyes, she let him lay his hoof around her and pull her closer. There was no hesitation in his movements, no awkwardness;. everything about them seemed purposeful, yet nonchalant. She let it happen.

The orchestra started playing a slow piano piece. It was supposed to be romantic, but the longer they danced, the more it seemed to Celestia that it represented all the sadness in the world. And the longer they danced, the slower everything around her seemed to become. Every note hit on the keyboard, however subtle it was, reverberated with jarring volume in her ears, as if her skull was the string being hammered. And still, she couldn’t take off her eyes from his own steely-blue ones, and then she wasn’t sure what was going on inside her anymore and only felt intense alienation and detachment. The sadness of the music was only outside of her; she soon preferred to feel nothing at all, surrendering herself to the slow movements of the waltz he so confidently executed. Everything around her grew ever more unnatural. She felt like a fish out of water, and yet she still tried to swim, flapping her fins uselessly, and catching no breath at all. She mechanically returned Stronghooves’ look, trying to find a connection somewhere between her and the outer world.

From the corner of her eye, she watched Acier make his way over to Gaia, who had put on her own winning smile now and was talking to a group of wigged ponies in expensive dresses. Celestia felt a strange rush of affection towards her mother, just for a second. Then it was gone again. When Gaia saw Acier, she turned around and frowned. He whispered something in her ear. Celestia narrowed her eyes, trying to stay atop the scene as well as she could. What was in Acier’s saddlebag?

The piano music grew ever slower, ever more supplicating. Celestia frowned. What was going on? She grew distracted, and her partner noticed it: he tried to compensate for her limpness, but soon became frustrated. Patience wasn’t Stronghooves’ strong suit. Gaia’s expression changed. There it was again, that strange mixture of obstinacy and defiance that was so characteristic of her, and cold, latent anger. Once again, Celestia felt very sympathetic towards her mother. Gaia’s words floated to her consciousness: Be careful with Stronghooves. I know what you’re looking for in him, but ... but he can’t give it to you. What had she meant by that?

She found it ever harder to keep going. She simply couldn’t concentrate on both, couldn’t operate her brain and her emotions at the same time. Maybe that was where the disconnect came from? Thoughts belong in the head, feelings in the heart, movements in your hooves, but right now, she had to pick one. Everything seemed to weigh down on her, push down on her neck, about to snap it. What was going on there? What had Acier said to Gaia? Was he trying to manipulate her? She grew suspicious and worried. She saw something else, vaguely in the distance, a small, blue figure. She craned her neck.

“If we are going to dance, then we dance,” Stronghooves said, still the same stupid smile on his lips. But it was intended as an order, not as a suggestion. She was just about to retort something when his remaining colonel with the greasy-smooth black mane, Benedict, fought his way through the crowd of dancers himself, a strangely misplaced image because he was in full military armour, while all the ponies were in dinner suits and dresses. He darted a look at Celestia, then leaned in to whisper something in Stronghooves’ ears.

Celestia had let go of Stronghooves and eyed him suspiciously. But Stronghooves seemed unfazed.

“Hang on, hang on, I’m sure it can wait until I finish my dance with this lovely lady!” he said jovially. Once more, he tried to lock hooves with Celestia, but she backed off. “You can finish your stupid dance yourself,” she said. “This isn’t what I want.”

She left him standing open-mouthed and made her way through the crowd. Dancing couples were all around her, swaying like a single giant body in tune with the music that still seemed unnaturally loud and sad, and somewhere in there, there was a vaguely discordant note, one that the others didn’t seem to pick up on, but that became more jarring with every step she made through the crowd. But Celestia walked on determinedly.

Luna looked so alone amongst them all: pressed against the wall, lost in a world she couldn’t quite comprehend. Celestia knew that most of all. She knew how much it had cost Luna to show up here, with all these ponies, and she knew that Luna had done it as a favour to Celestia. But when she approached, that invisible wall between them was still there. Their eyes searched each other, but there was a distance between them that tore at Celestia’s heart. How much older her sister looked! Her mane had changed: it was a deeper shade of blue now, and if you looked close enough, you could divine the sparkling of stars in them.

Luna had made it.

Wordlessly, Celestia extended a hoof and gently pulled Luna towards her. She seemed different, freer, less bent than she had when she’d been in the infirmary. Celestia huddled against her sister, laid one hoof on her shoulder, and like this, they started to sway with the music, a clumsy waltz, less purposeful than her dance with Stronghooves, but every bit more meaningful. Luna closed her eyes and laid her head on Celestia’s shoulder. For a split second, even though Celestia must have imagined it, it looked as though Luna had leaned her head in a little too far. Celestia grew acutely aware of the abysmally black, polished bistone brooch on Luna’s chest. It was cold to the touch. The sisters’ eyes remained interlocked, a current running between them of a quality Celestia hadn’t known before; there was a challenge between them, too. Luna soon looked down.

They stopped. Celestia, blinking her eyes as though awaking from a trance, realised that the musicians had stopped playing. Gaia was on stage, and all eyes were on her. The link lost, Celestia and Luna awkwardly separated and turned their heads towards the stage, too.

Her mother looked down upon the crowd, and while her gaze was alert and calm as ever, that dangerous sparkle of defiance lay in it, too. From the corner of her eye, Celestia saw that his lieutenant was still whispering something in Stronghooves’ ear, whose expression had darkened and lost all of its pretentious elegance. Acier looked towards the queen. All guards present seemed extremely tense.

“Thank you all for being here tonight,” Gaia called out, her voice ringing out crystal-clear. “I appreciate it very much. I also appreciate your attention as I am going to make an announcement.” There was grim decision in her eyes, and as her gaze wandered over the crowd, it rested on Celestia and Luna.

“Celestia, Luna, please come up here.”


Within fractions of a second, every head in the hall turned towards them. Celestia’s face was red-hot in the face of the sudden attention, but that was nothing compared to Luna’s reaction. Luna was already enormously uncomfortable being unrecognised in a large crowd of ponies who took no notice of her, but the intense scrutiny from hundreds of eyeballs was too much for her. Confused, she looked all around her like a hurt animal; when she saw that all looks were on her, she drooped her head and started quivering violently, as if she was cold.

Why was their mother doing this?

But now, there was no running away, however much Luna might have wanted to.

Doing her best to cut a fine figure, and with her best impression of gentility, Celestia mildly nudged Luna towards the stage. Her heart beat in her chest as everyone in the hall made room for them, but she didn’t show it. She hid it, now under her own fake smile, and the most heart-wrenching thing was that it worked flawlessly, effortlessly.

They climbed on stage. Celestia glanced at Luna, whose eyes were affixed somewhere in the distance. Almost as if she tried to pretend she wasn’t really there, not seeing anything at all. But her hooves, which were still quivering violently, were proof that she was. A few whispers spawned in the crowd about Luna’s state of unease, and soon, all the eyes were on her. The whispers spread, a jarring, hissing sound in the complete silence. Celestia ground her teeth. In this moment, there was nothing, nothing she wished for more in this world than that these vain well-dressed gossipmongers would keep their stupid mouths shut, that they would stop blathering about things they didn’t understand and avert their gazes. But no royal power could bring about that.

“I want to announce,” their mother called out with merciless clarity, “that contrary to any rumours or false information you might have heard, contrary to any idle speculation, contrary to any unfounded gossip, my two daughters will inherit me and occupy their own thrones.”

The room was dead silent. Stronghooves had shoved his way to the fore and was now beckoning at Gaia, a thoroughly enraged look on his face. She glanced at him, but continued speaking. “They will have their own castle in the Everfree Forest, and they will rule over this land together. Princess Luna, who will occupy the Throne of the Night —” she looked at Luna, who was still looking towards the ground and shaking violently, “and Princess Celestia who will occupy the Throne of the Light.”

Celestia’s face was red-hot. She had never felt so exposed, and Gaia’s words fell flat on the crowd, who just stared blankly towards the stage. If this was to be their debut, it was thoroughly miscarried.

“And I also want to stress,” Gaia went on, “that there is no danger, that everything is under control, that everything —”

“My queen,” Stronghooves shouted at the foot of the stage. His patience was at an end. Every single eye in the hall turned towards him. “You need to come with me, now.”

For a moment, Gaia stood idle. There was something in her eyes that Celestia couldn’t quite fathom; something breaking, going amiss. Something going lost that broke her heart, too. A conclusion that she didn’t quite understand, but whose weight affected her mother to no end.

Stronghooves glanced dismissively at Celestia and Luna. “Maybe you two should come, too.”

And then, as if he couldn’t help himself, Stronghooves turned back towards the crowd, apologetically extending his hooves in an avuncular gesture, a flashing smile at his disposal. “Ladies and gentlemen, there is absolutely no reason to let your merriment be ... interrupted.” His eyes were a steely cold, and they scanned over the room with merciless efficiency, no doubt looking for someone in the crowd.

Celestia looked back anxiously, and there in the crowd, she made out Acier. And she was absolutely sure that Acier had met Stronghooves’ gaze and replied with a grim, sharp nod, as if to take up his challenge.

Stronghooves shepherded them into a small chamber going off from the stage, a rarely used small study equipped with an oaken desk and red carpet. It gave off a rather sinister feel. Early evening sunlight crept in through a narrow stained-glass window with a checkerboard pattern.

Gaia, strangely unfazed, sat down, and she looked like an enormous, supple wild cat as she wrapped her tail around herself, her eyes sparkling serenely.

Her calmness could have been no greater contrast to Stronghooves’ infuriation. His eyes had shed all false gentility and seemed to shoot lightning now. Celestia wondered how much of that was due to her sudden departure from his side on the dance floor, but he didn’t deign to look at her, instead focusing Gaia with a highly inappropriate, but barely contained anger — and a threatening sense of complacency.

“Things have gone down on Canterlot Square,” he barked. “If I remind you, just as I predicted. And at last, we’ve found this Chuckbolt.”

Celestia bit down on her lips. “What happened?”

“I’ll tell you what happened. This guy, Sweetcorn, he had it all planned to perfection. It was all orchestrated. A perfectly rehearsed piece of theatre.

See, I don’t know how he did it, I don’t know how he found them, but suddenly, these two earth ponies come on stage on the Square. You remember those stallions that were attacked like a week ago near the Everfree Forest? In the midst of the night? It made quite a splash back then. And well, there they were. Out of nowhere. Can you imagine what they were called? Knot and Burlap!” He laughed incredulously at such crude names. “Well, apparently, they’re well-known within the movement. So, these two stallions climb on stage, people recognise them. The crows goes dead quiet. The duo passionately tell a little story to the crowd, who’s all ears.” He glares maliciously at Luna, whose regard is glued to the ground. “A pretty bad story. People get pretty upset. Really upset. And then —” he stares at Gaia — “something goes wrong. Extremely wrong.”

“Well, what?”

“This Chuckbolt has been on the balcony of the city house, clothed in his royal golden armour, visible for all to see. And what does he do? He takes his bow and he takes them out. Both of them. He just shoots them like that, from at least a hundred feet of distance. One after the other, with the accuracy of a sleepwalker.”

“But my mother had given explicit orders not to shoot—”

“Well, of course she has, but for some reason or another, he just threw her orders to the wind. I don’t understand his motivation, but that is what happened. Shot them right there in front of everyone. Bad timing, I’d say. When people on the square realised what had happened, all hell broke lose. All restraint gone, of course. First they all go for that Chuckbolt. Then they all go for my other soldiers. My soldiers have to defend themselves, of course. I hope you know what that means.”

“Civil war,” Celestia mouthed, her face pale. Gaia’s eyes were somewhere off in the distance, as always.

“But I don’t understand,” Celestia said confusedly. “What did these two stallions tell them? They were the ones who got attacked near Everfree Forest? Where did they come from all of a sudden?”

“Well, apparently,” and now Stronghooves glared maliciously at Gaia, “the Queen has tried to keep these ponies locked away in a safe location, in a fake hospital, isn’t that right, my queen? Because she knew they had an explosive story to tell. Unfortunately, Sweetcorn seemed to be a step ahead. He knew where they were and he dug them up. That explains the incident from this morning, I guess.”

Celestia shook her head. “What story did they have to tell? About how they were attacked?”

Stronghooves eagerly embraces Celestia’s nosiness as he talks himself into a fury. He shoots a gaze at Luna. Gaia’s eyes rest on him, serene as ever, and finally, he meets the queen’s eyes, almost emitting a challenge.

“My Queen,” he goes on. “These two stallions have asserted in front of the entire crowd that it was your daughter, your designated heiress, Princess Luna, who has violently attacked him and his companion on Canterlot Road.”

Crisp silence fell. It was unbearable before it had even properly begun. Celestia felt a strange prickling sensation encroach on her insides. An unbearable lightness that seemed to choke her from the inside.

Gaia didn’t look surprised in the least bit. In fact, she looked so detached that she might not even have been there right now.

“And you knew that, didn’t you?” Stronghooves said quietly, observing Gaia’s every gesture. “You knew that it was your daughter. That’s why you put her victims into that fake hospital. Right? To sweep it all under the carpet.” There was something in his eyes that Celestia hadn’t seen there before — incomprehension, repulsion. But Gaia didn’t respond.

Celestia slowly, very slowly, turned to look at her sister. Luna had her eyes glued towards the ground.

“I can’t believe this,” Stronghooves asserted. “How do you expect to pull through if your daughter goes around attacking ponies? We have a big public relations problem on our hooves, that’s for sure. Well, I’m sure I don’t have to spell it out for you,” he sputtered, “but there’s a few things that need to be done immediately. We have to fight back. We kill Sweetcorn the second he shows up. We —”

His voice rose as he talked himself into a rage, but to Celestia, it seemed to become quieter, farther away, and she turned to Luna. It was as if they were encapsulated in an isolated bauble, shielded from the outside world.

“Is it true?” Celestia asked quietly, certain that Luna could hear every word. “That’s what you’ve been doing all these nights? But no, no, it can’t be true, right? Because why would you. Because why would you?”


“I — I’ve — I listen to — to the song of the stars —”

For some unexplainable reason, that phrase short-circuited something in Celestia, and she snapped at her sister.

“Luna, there’s no such thing. Okay? Stop saying that. There is no ‘song of the stars’, got it? We’re not foals anymore, we’re going to be queens, grow up! This has long stopped being child’s play! There’s no Father Hearth, there’s no easter bunny, and most of all, there’s no song of the stars!”

The words had come out much, much harsher than she had intended to, but now that they were out, she couldn’t take them back. They were hanging in the air like heavy clouds before a downpour. Immediately, tingling feelings of self-hatred and regret spread through her. She bit down hard on her tongue and looked at her sister.

“Why don’t you talk to me?” she asked quietly. “Why don’t you talk to me? I don’t know what’s going on with you anymore if you don’t talk to me. I just don’t know. I don’t ... I don’t know you anymore.” She fought back her tears, she couldn’t cry, not here, not with her mother and Stronghooves around.

She suddenly realised that Stronghooves had stopped talking and was eyeing the two of them. Gaia still smiled serenely. Luna looked horribly wrenched.

“Either way, Majesty, you need to make a decision, Majesty,” he growled on. “And now. It’s hell down there. People won’t take kindly to the queen’s daughter going around attacking earth ponies, that much is clear to you, right? That is just the opportunity the mob is waiting for! Violence is erupting on the square! If you don’t want to fight back, then there’s only one way. You need to distance yourself from her. And you would do well by it. She’s just no longer tenable, if you understand what I mean. But if you kicked her out of the castle and dissociated yourself from her, maybe we could still turn things around...” He glared maliciously at Luna, whose eyes were invisible under her mane as she kept her head down.

Celestia felt like throwing up.

For a while, all was quiet. Only traces of Stronghooves' words reverberated faintly.

Gaia’s unfathomable green eyes stared at him for a second as though she was looking right through him, then she turned to look at Luna, a weird sparkle in her eyes.

“Luna, please come here,” she said quietly.

Luna raised her head and looked at her mother. The gaze the two exchanged was of the strangest kind, a kind that Celestia had never seen before: there was a question in it, a challenge, even, but it came from both of them; and somewhere in the middle, these challenges met and cancelled each other out, to bring forth a sort of unwitting attraction. Luna timidly approached. Celestia bit down hard on her tongue.

Her mother looked at Stronghooves, as though daring him to look away. Then she lifted her hoof and laid it around Luna. Luna shivered, and she closed her eyes. Gaia lowered her head, until Luna’s forehead and hers touched. For a few seconds, they stayed like this, but then Gaia opened her eyes and looked at Stronghooves once more, defiance stowed away deep inside her gaze.

“Come here,” she said again.

Luna exhaled softly, but did not move.

“I love you, because you are my daughter. Do you understand? You’re not going anywhere.”

By way of a response, Luna gave a quiet whinny. But her mother hadn’t really asked her. She had addressed her words to Stronghooves, whose eyes remained blunt and unmoved.

Celestia, however, didn’t remain unaffected. Trying her best to keep composure, she turned away to walk out of the chamber, hoof before hoof, with painful casualness. She felt her mother’s eyes on her back, and maybe even Luna’s, but as the door to the corridor closed behind her, she wanted to remain unwatched. In the corridor, which was full with the muffled repercussions of loud music being played in the throne hall, she could no longer hold back her tears. They were breaking free like a pent-up river finally tearing down its dam. She hid in a dark corner, to cry, to cry, to cry until she was all dried up inside. Tears dripped down onto the bistone brooch on her chest, pearly white as the moon in a cloudless night, as innocent as a promise made years ago.

Where had it all gone wrong?

Where had it all gone wrong?

Where had it all gone wrong?


She had stayed cowering in the corridor for an indeterminate amount of time. She knew that ponies were passing by and that the door had opened. When she finally came to and had collected herself, she didn’t know how much time had passed. She tried to swallow her tears some and shakily tried to retreat to her bedroom. The music grew more quiet as she distanced herself from the throne hall. As she walked, she managed to regain more composure. She looked out of the windows she passed by: the evening sun was already dipping everything in a golden red. How much time could have passed? A quarter? A full hour? With every step, the sadness seemed to ebb away more and more. Maybe crying was cathartic.

But when she opened the door to her bedroom, her eyes lit on her bed. She froze. A single envelope lay there, of a simple white, unadorned and unsealed.

The envelope caught Celestia’s eye. She moved towards the bed and picked it up with her hooves. Telepathically, she severed the flap. It contained a two-page folded letter, and, telling by the bump on the outside, a small object of sorts. Breathlessly, Celestia took out the letter first.

It was composed in Luna’s narrow, slanted writing.

Dear Sister,

The stars have their songs, too.

Granted, it is harder to hear them. You need to listen carefully; their songs are of the quiet kind. Not like a day sings; theirs are chants without voice, tunes without sound. But if you take the time to listen closely, you will appreciate their beauty. A different kind of beauty, perhaps, an abysmal kind of beauty, possibly. But beauty.

I have been hearing their song for a long while now. I keep thinking back to the day where I first heard them. I must have been no older than six. Do you remember that summer day where you wanted to catch that phoenix with me? Maybe you don’t, but I do. I think a lot about that day, for some reason. Maybe this is where it all started.

You insisted on catching that stupid phoenix, and I said yes, just to please you. But the truth was that I was afraid. I didn’t really want to. I don’t like phoenixes; they scare me. They are too... too bright, too warm, if that makes any sense at all. They radiate heat. That drives me off.

Celestia stopped for a moment. Why did Luna remember that one day so vividly?

I am a creature of the night, that much is true, and I have no heat inside of me. It’s not in my nature to feel drawn towards this-worldly beauty. I know that phoenix made a big impression on you, but to me, that was the day I had a sad realisation, somewhere in the back of my heart.

That day, I run away, even though you told me to stay and catch that phoenix. It was just child’s play. But I ran away. I felt bad about that; I had promised to go with you and help you, but halfway through, I just felt my determination to stay with you slide away. I don’t know, it was a feeling I can’t really explain. Of course, that was a mistake. I had broken my my promise. A small promise, to be sure, but when the small promises don’t matter, what good are the big ones?

I ran away uphill. I was a scared child. I felt bad about that; but I thought, Luna, you told her you didn’t want to catch that phoenix. There’s no obligation involved. No promise broken. But of course, I was wrong. If the tiniest of promises do not hold, then what good are the big ones? I promised to stay and help you with your stupid little chase, but I got afraid, and I ran off.

It’s all so strange, Tia. How did it come to this? Aren’t we both daughters of the same mother? Why are we so different?

Why am I so different?

When I was almost back up at the castle, I looked down one last time. Mother was with you. She comforted you. I saw that she was wiping off your tears. Nopony ever wipes dry my tears, because I never cry in public. I always do it alone. I couldn’t do it for others to see. To do so would seem like imposing myself.

The wind was especially strong that day, and especially mild. If during all those years I have been here I have learnt something, it is how to listen. I haven’t learnt to speak very well. But I have learnt to listen. If you know how to listen, the wind can tell you all sorts of things. When I listened to the wind that day, I could hear the words that mother was whispering in your ear. You’re growing up, Tia. Tears of anger really don’t suit you. Grace, grace, grace, that is the most important thing you can share with the world. I’ll see you at dinner! I’ll see the two of you.

But who ever said that to me?

Your voices sounded so strange. So garbled, so distant, so distorted by the wind. They seemed to reach me not from the courtyard, but from some faraway planet. Was that really the world I belonged to anymore? When I heard your voices in the wind that day, it made me feel so weird. So displaced, in a way, and I could barely make out the words.

But I heard other voices, too. Didn’t the voices of the night speak to me so much clearer? Didn’t their songs soothe my soul so much more eloquently?

Was that where the first crack sprang?

I was confused. When we lay in bed that night, I was still confused. And I am still confused. I looked up at that magic ceiling above us, that window into endless space. I’ve always loved that ceiling. It makes you feel sheltered and yet part of some great totality. It tells you you are safe and protected, and yet as exposed to infinity as everyone else.

I asked you if you could sleep. You said no.

That was good, right? I also couldn’t sleep.

I asked you if you were still mad at me. You said no. That was good, too.

But I could tell you weren’t telling the truth.

For the next five minutes, I plucked up all my courage to say what I was trying to tell you. I struggled. I agonised. But you couldn’t see that, because you cannot see in the dark. Your eyes are not attuned to it. You only heard me say it, casually, like any other nothingness I blather. And even when I said it, you could not hear the desperation in my voice; because no matter how eloquently you can speak, you do not know how to listen, Tia.

I told you I was sad about you sometimes.

It wasn’t really what I meant to say. But it was the only thing that I managed to say. I just wanted to let you know that something wasn’t right with me. That I was confused. That maybe I needed your help.

But you were tired that night. I could tell there were other thoughts on your mind; surely thoughts of greater importance, of greater pertinence than your baby sister. And you were too weary to talk much about it.

I held my breath to wait and see if you would say something else.

But you wouldn’t.

I asked you to sing me a lullaby. You have such a lovely voice, Tia, have I ever told you that? So beautiful, so mellow and smooth. Like the phoenix’s call that you so cherish. I held my breath to hear your song better. I wanted to listen. I looked at the stars above us, and you started to sing.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star, time to fall asleep right now...

- That didn’t even rhyme.

- I’m not a poet.

One part of me laughed. It was just so silly.

But another cried. And it wouldn’t stop for long after you’d fallen asleep.

I’m so sorry that this is the only way I know how to speak to you. It’s my fault. Sometimes I think if I knew how to speak to you better, then this wouldn’t all be so frightfully convoluted.

And I do know you think I have to grow up. I know you think I have been overusing your patience for far too long now. I know you think I should be less of a hassle. And I’m trying to be, believe me. I’m trying.

I might lose something, but I gain something far greater. Far greater than you, than I — far greater than any of this. And far more horrible. I really can’t help it. It’s as if I feel unwittingly drawn into this big abyss; but it’s dark, and so I can’t see what I will find at its bottom. That’s always the problem, right? We can see the summits, in plain view, but never the abysses.

So that’s the lap that I will fall into. That is the place I’m going back to. Maybe not the best place to be. But the only one I can endure. Maybe I really belonged with you up there, on the summits, but my wings could never carry me very high.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star...

The stars have their songs, too, but they are of a different kind. Of the quiet kind. Quiet, but no less entrancing. You need to listen, and only then can you hear them.

As I am writing this, Tia, I am realising something.

No matter how mellow your voice is, the stars’ songs will always be more beautiful. The night’s voice will always be the more eloquent.

I guess we all do have tendencies, Tia. No matter how far we try to stray from them, we orient our lives willy-nilly towards a goal, a direction. I know you think that I must make a choice. But that is asking too much of me, Tia. I can’t make that choice. I cannot pick one over the other; night over day; me over you. That is asking too much of me. And so I surrender to the stream instead. Give in to the tendencies, get dragged along with the current. Because I can’t decide. I can’t even swim.

I don’t know where the current will lead me. But I know the voices. I know my cutie mark. I know my destiny. What good is there in trying to change it? Why don’t I finally go back to the darkness, where I belong?


That’s all I can say for now. I’m sorry this is so bad. I almost want to tear it up and throw it away.

In Love.


Celestia looked up.

Seconds passed.

The stars have their songs too... songs of a different kind. Of the quiet kind. Songs without tune... without words...

Gradually, a hollow pain spread through her chest, a strange warmth eventually permeating her entire body. It was numbing: a radiating, prickling heat, a hollowness that seemed to bite at her entrails. The room in front of her seemed to solidify and disintegrate. Her hoof was shaking. She dropped the letter.

With sore anticipation, she grabbed the envelope and shook it violently. Out onto the bedsheets fell a tiny, perfectly circular brooch. It was as dark as the night without light, without a moon.

She picked it up and held it into the light. Her own face glared back at her.

Through her torrent of tears, she suddenly realised that she was contemplating her next step. But not as a sister. As a princess.

It was at that moment that a thought formed in her head, a thought so large and so incredible that it chased all other distractions from her mind. A realisation. What if nothing was going to happen at the Gala at all? What if her mother had got it the wrong way around? If the sole purpose of Sweetcorn’s threat had been to focus the Queen’s and Stronghooves’ attention on the Castle, distracting them from something else that he had planned from the beginning?

Smoke and mirrors...

Wouldn’t that be just like him?

Wouldn’t it be just like him if he had foreseen Luna’s disappearance? Or caused it?

“The Song of the Stars,” she groaned. “The Song of the Stars...

She cast open her doors. Loud music immediately blared in. The entire castle seemed to have become one giant, obscene music box. She wasted no time galloping through the corridors, her golden metal shoes clacking on the marble floor, dashing towards the one door that she needed to be open right now. A guard, in his decorated gold armour, cast her a surprised look.

“Where is the Queen?” she shouted in passing. “I need to see her immediately! My sister is — ”

“The queen is not here,” he said.

She immediately froze and stopped in her tracks. “What?”

“The queen is not here,” he repeated, a disquieted look on his face. “Queen Gaia has left the castle. Didn’t you hear the news?”

Celestia felt all her newfound energy being drained out of her all of a sudden. “The news?”

“Well, he’s dead. Sweetcorn.”

Sweetcorn... dead? The words reached her mind slowly, like distant echoes through a solid brick wall, and she took her time in trying to put the pieces together. Sweetcorn — dead? It seemed impossible.

“When?” was all she managed to say. “How?”

“Just moments ago. And I have no idea how or what exactly happened. Apparently, Sweetcorn showed himself to his supporters on Canterlot Square. But it’s chaos down there. Maybe someone shot an arrow at him. That’s all I’ve gotten out of the heat of the moment. The Queen has left instantly to evaluate the situation, last thing I’ve heard.”

“But I don’t understand,” she said. “What's... what's it like on Canterlot Square?”

“Well, what do you think it's like?” he said almost sympathetically. “Ponies are out of their minds.”

None of this made any sense, no sense at all, and Celestia knew it all too well. The thought that Sweetcorn could be dead seemed outrageous. She fumbled to piece everything together.

“What about my sister, did — did you see her?”

“No,” he said, surprised. Her mentioning Luna seemed to have put a distant thought in his head. “Your sister, isn’t she the one who —”

“No, no, she is —” She tried to comprehend the situation as quickly as possible, unable to shake the feeling she was missing something obvious, something significant. “Who gave my mother the news,” she asked. He looked surprised.

“The head of the guards.”

Of course.

She nodded slowly. “My sister is about to hurt herself, do you understand? And my mother might be the only person that can keep that from happening. I need to find her, you got that? That is the only, the sole priority right now. I need to find my mother and I need to find Luna. Am I making myself clear? Drop all the rest. I will go through that window there right now, and I will leave the castle and find them.”

“My Princess,” he said earnestly. “I have explicit orders from your mother not to let you leave the castle. Explicit and emphatic. I’m sorry.”

Her heart sank. Everything seemed to come together in this one moment of time; everything seemed to hang from the thinnest of threads, the Gala, her sister, Sweetcorn, Acier, and her entire future, too.

Her heart beat furiously in her chest, but to her mind had come a new, unforeseen kind of clarity, a super-real lucidity, that she had only felt once before: when she had found her way home that night after the Harvest Celebration. But this time, there was something different. This time she didn’t feel powerless. This time, she knew that everything depended on her actions, her decisions right now.

She opened her eyes again and stared the guard directly in the eyes.

“As Princess and designated heiress of the Queen,” she voiced clearly, “and therefore, as your superior, I hereby command you to step aside and let me pass unobstructed.”

She waited. She wouldn’t wait for long, that much was clear. But at that precise moment, Acier passed the corridor, a worn look on his papery eyes. He looked slyly from one to the other.

“Is there a problem here?” he said slowly.

“There is,” she said quietly, but distinctly. “There is a problem. And that problem,” she continued, staring him directly in the eye, “is you.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Tia, what —”

“Where is Luna?”

His eyes flashed, and he darted a quick glance at his subordinate. “I don’t know where —”

“Tell him to let me go,” she cut across him. “Tell him to let me pass and look for my sister.”

“I can’t do that, Tia. Your mother has asked that you not leave the castle.”

“Lies,” she breathed. The guard glanced uncomfortably from Acier to her, unsure how to react. “Do you think I’m stupid? Do you think I haven’t figured out what’s going on here? This is all a ruse, a trick, right? Nothing was ever going to happen at the Gala, these ponies were never in danger. That’s what your master wanted, right? Have my mother’s eyes off Canterlot?”

Acier said nothing and continued to stare at her.

“Open the saddle bag.”

There was a wary glint in his eyes. For a moment, he did nothing but stare back at her, his expression absolutely inscrutable. The music seemed to have stopped. The guard held his breath.

“Open the saddle bag,” Celestia said again.

Instead of doing as he was told, he tried to reason with her. “Listen to me, Tia. You mustn’t leave the castle, you hear me? This is very important. Your mother has personally requested that you stay here in the —”

“Do you honestly think I’m that naïve?” she hissed. Of course, neither of the two responded.

His gaze turned grim, but she paid no attention. Instead, her eyes were firmly glued to the saddle bag.

Her horn glowed faintly, gently, and the bag’s latch undid itself. As the flap opened, a blinding light emerged from the gap. Wordlessly, she unsheathed the entire collar, a broad gold band with a large, rough diamond in its centre, sparkling with all the colours of the rainbow.

“The Eternal Flame,” she murmured.

The guard looked at her with wide eyes. Acier’s expression was inscrutable: he seemed to look at her with a pronounced, impenetrable neutrality. But Celestia watched the collar float towards her, as though all by itself, even though it was quite clearly herself who made it hover. It had a spellbinding sheen to it. Before long, the collar had laid itself around her neck, all on its own — the place where it had quite clearly belonged in the first place, it bolted through her head. She couldn’t understand why she had refused to wear it earlier. It felt so natural. The electric shivering jolted through her as her fur made contact.

She opened her wide, magenta eyes and looked at Acier. Everything was silent. The music far away. He looked back at her, apprehensive, but his eyes wide open, the connection between the two unbroken for now.

“You go get General Stronghooves,” she heard herself saying to the guard, who instantly obeyed and, happy to find a way out, dashed off. “I think I can handle this one,” she breathed. She stared at Acier.

“Where is Luna?” she said again.

“I don’t know.”

“Where is my mother?”

“I don’t know, Tia.”

She nodded slowly. For a moment, the two rested silent, eye in eye. Then she heard hoofsteps, and Stronghooves appeared around the corner. His eyes narrowed as he found the two in a like position, and then grew wide as he saw the collar with the heart-shaped diamond around Celestia’s neck. “Princess?” he questioned, raising an eyebrow.

“He is to be arrested immediately.” She nodded towards Acier.

Stronghooves cocked his head. His eyes lingered on the collar around her neck for a second; then a thin smile spread over his lips. “It’ll be my pleasure, Princess.”

Acier suddenly moved as if coming to. “No, Tia, listen to me. You’re making a mistake. You mustn’t leave the castle. You mustn’t do this. Think of what your mother would do instead, think of grace and —”

“Yeah, well,” Celestia said loudly, “you can’t run a country on grace, love, or cotton candy, remember? Only swiftness and surreptitiousness ensure a quick and discreet victory, before the enemy even grows aware that she has nursed and harboured the assailant on her own demesne...” She gave him a skewed look, and only as he heard those words did a realisation seem to hit him. “Tia, no, I —”

But her patience was used up.

“I’m not a kid anymore. Stop wasting my time. Arrest him and let me be.”

You care, you lose.

“And I... I entrust with you the safety of the castle during my absence, General.”

“Oh, yes,” he said as he stared towards the collar on her neck. “Yes, my princess. You can thoroughly rely on me.”

“And now,” she said, more to herself than anybody else, “it’s time to fix this mess once and for all.”

Luna, she thought. I haven’t let go of you yet. Stay in place while I come get you out of trouble once more.

Without further ado, she jumped out of the open window into the onsetting dusk. She caught herself in mid-fall, spreading her large, powerful wings and sailing swiftly on the wings of the wind. She looked down towards the castle as it glided away, saw the two sisters chasing their tail endlessly on the glass-stained window of the throne hall. On the other side of it, the celebration was ongoing, a feeble, wrong celebration, that grew ever farther away very quickly. She distinctly felt the Flame on her chest, a warm and heavy feeling, empowering and foreboding at the same time.

A lot of conflicting feelings were pent up in her, and flying as fast as she could seemed to either alleviate or suppress those feelings as she channeled all her energy into her wings, beating them furiously, then laying them snugly alongside her body to spearhead towards Canterlot below like a large bird of prey.

Off, far off in the distance, the first gleaming rooftops were becoming visible, the outliers of the city.

Whatever had happened, she could still save Luna. She was sure of it. There was still time. Everything would be alright.

But as she approached the city of Canterlot, hundreds of feet below, and the rooftops and alleyways grew larger, she noticed something strange. At first, she thought she witnessed a fire on the ground, from where must have been Canterlot Square: a massive column of what seemed to be thick, black smoke was billowing up. But if so, this smoke really was extraordinarily black. Not grey, not dark, but pitch-black, no ember to shine through, as absolutely black as the night without a moon...


Her heart skipped a beat, her wings lost their graceful coordination, and she tumbled down towards the city, no longer any more agile than a boulder, her wings flapping about uselessly.

To be continued. Next chapter: The Descent.

It all comes crashing down...

Many thanks to my awesome pre-readers Mystic and RiffraffsElbow

The Descent

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Chapter 6
The Descent

I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night

Taught by the heavenly muse to venture down

The dark descent

And up to reascend

John Milton, Paradise Lost (III, 18)

Celestia was in free fall.

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

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

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

All is dark, she thought.


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

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

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

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

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

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

She gave a start.

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

“Luna,” she cawed.

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

“L-luna —”

But it wasn’t Luna.

It was Sweetcorn.

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

He was dead.

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

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

He did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hear what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She frowned. “Discord?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

« She’s your sister, Tia... »

« My sister... »

« Don’t be shy. »

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re Discord,” she said tonelessly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— You too?

— But why are you sad?

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

— But what happened to you?

— My sister’s mad at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A nagging thought...”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” the voice said cooly.

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

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

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

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

Yet of course, nothing had been certain.

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

“No.... stop...

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

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

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

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

No obligation involved. The inconsequential babbling of children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you kill this pony?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“H-horse’s tooth.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How — how did you win him over?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“B-but the letter in his chamber —”

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

Celestia fell silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smirked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

« Some thoughts are too powerful. Too consuming. »

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

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

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

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

« Where else do you have to go? »


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


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

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

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

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

“STOP HER before she kills him!”

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

« Don’t let them DO THIS TO YOU! »

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sweetcorn’s red eyes flickered up.

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


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

“Hello, Discord.”

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

So the penny has finally dropped?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panic ensued on the square.

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

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

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

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


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

“... I am ready.”

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

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

“I am aware,” she uttered finally.

Luna nodded slowly.

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


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

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

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

The end had come.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wh-what are you talking about?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very good.”

Sweetcorn’s demonic eyes lit up one last time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The glass shards fell to the ground.

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

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

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

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

“Hello, Sunray.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celestia turned her head.

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

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

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

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

“At the Castle of the Two Thrones — ”

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Don’t... don’t talk to me about fate.

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

Gaia’s gaze clouded.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“C-consistency in our tongues —”

“— truth in our hearts.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But innocence was finally, utterly dead.

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

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

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