Aaron cycled hurriedly down the department’s driveway, instinctively weaving between the innumerable bumps and potholes with the skill that only years of practice can bring. He had meant to be in the lab half an hour ago, but once again he had managed to sleep through his alarm. Still, the experiments rarely started on time, and he saw no reason why they would manage to do so today.
Narrowly avoiding crashing into one of his old lecturers, he jumped off his bike and stumbled to a halt by the bike sheds. He rammed it into one of the metal stands and loosely wrapped his lock around the front wheel, then headed down towards the side entrance.
The inside of the building was air-conditioned at all times; anywhere with this many machines and computers running continuously had to be in order to avoid things melting. Nonetheless, the fatigue from the ride over had just started to hit, so Aaron pulled his hoodie off and stuffed it into his backpack.
He waved to a group of other postgrads as he passed them in the corridor, and as usual none of them made any comment about the stylised unicorn pattern on his shirt. Not living in America had a number of distinct advantages, and one of them was that very few people recognised or cared about My Little Pony merchandise.
When he got to the stairs, he headed down to the basement and pulled out his keycard. He waved it in front of the reader and pushed open the door into the lab.
“Hey, Aaron’s here!” another student called as he walked in. “We can get started now!”
“Morning, Sam,” he replied. “I take it we’re still waiting?”
“Geoff’s in there right now getting the covers back on. We’ve been realigning the mirrors since eight.”
“Thanks to your wonderful supervisor deciding he needed to recalibrate the lasers last night!” Geoff called from the next room. “I’m going to have some words with him about time management when he gets in.”
That sounds about right, Aaron thought to himself. “I’ll go get set up then,” he said. “Glad I didn’t miss the big show.”
He walked through to the computer room where his terminal was and threw his bag down on the desk. He logged in and opened up his emails, glancing through the list to make sure there wasn’t anything important. Then, looking over his shoulder to check that no-one could see his screen, he opened up Twitter to check if anything interesting had happened overnight.
~ ~ ~
A quarter of an hour later, a buzzer sounded in the other room, and Aaron locked his computer and went through. Geoff was just closing and locking the door to the spectrometer room. It was a heavy reinforced door, standard for the basement labs, not that they were expecting anything dangerous to happen.
The lab itself was a mess, as it always was. The various workbenches around the room were covered in notepads and numerous pieces of machinery in different states of disrepair. Moving a box of transistors out of the way, Aaron carefully extracted his lab notebook from one of the piles and made his way over to the control console.
“Right,” Sam said, standing up from behind the console, holding a clipboard in his hand. “Chamber sealed, emergency cutoffs tested, everything’s ready. Beginning test-run seven, with projected peak power of... ninety kilowatts. And when this baby hits eighty-eight, you’re going to see some serious—”
“Monitoring microphones are active.”
“Let’s hope not,” Aaron laughed. “I had plans to live through the day.”
“Why must you always ruin my hopes and dreams?” Sam sneered dryly. “Well, I guess we might as well get going.” He sat down at the control desk and turned the ignition key.
Aaron walked over to the monitor bank to have a look at the remote camera feeds. He was really only here out of curiosity; his job was to process the data that came out at the end, so he didn’t actually have anything to do with the actual running of the machine.
Technically their machine hadn’t actually produced any data at all yet. They were building an entirely new design of spectrometer, which would one day actually be able to capture real-time footage of molecules moving in a material. It was fascinating work, and numerous papers about the potential uses had been published already, but there was a lot of work between here and there. Right now, they were still in the process of ‘stimulating stable harmonic waves in a coherent proton beam’, according to his thesis title. Needless to say, this was not a simple task.
“Are we getting any echoes this time?” he asked.
“No, the beam looks stable at the moment,” Sam replied. “Take a look.”
Aaron leaned over sam’s shoulder and looked at the narrow peak on the oscilloscope’s screen. “Still a bit broader than we’d like,” he commented.
“It’s getting better, though,” Sam replied.
Aaron turned back to the camera feeds. The monitoring windows on the spectrometer were starting to glow a warm orange as the machine’s interior heated up.
“Wait a minute,” Sam said, confused. “We’re getting splitting now.”
“I bet it’s interference from the mains again,” Aaron said. “I’ll go check the cables.”
“No, I double checked this morning,” Geoff said, getting up from behind his desk and walking over.
“And it doesn’t look like mains signal,” Sam continued. “I’m seeing... a six-fold splitting. That’s weird.”
“It still looks stable, though,” Aaron said. “Geoff, do you think we should shut down...”
He stopped when he noticed that one of the camera feeds was showing static. He reflexively tapped the screen with his finger, but it stayed blank. A moment later, the other cameras also shut off.
He nudged Sam’s back. “Better disconnect. Something’s not—”
Suddenly there was a huge explosion in the spectrometer room, shaking the heavy door on its hinges. The power went, and everything in the room shut off, the continual hum of cooling fans being replaced by the deafening blare of the emergency alarms and the roar of the sprinkler system. A few seconds later, they faded as well, as the emergency generators gave up.
The three of them stared at the door in shocked silence. The only sound in the room was the occasional clatter of something falling off a shelf in the next room. Cautiously, Geoff began to approach the door.
“Shouldn’t we evacuate?” Sam asked.
“Probably,” Geoff replied absent-mindedly. “There’s no way we were using enough power to cause an explosion like that.”
He leaned his head up against the door. His expression grew even more perplexed as he listened, then he pulled his head away and looked back at the others. “It sounds like there’s something moving in there!”
Aaron and Sam exchanged confused glances. The lab was completely sealed; even the small windows, which were now the only light source in the room, were sealed shut. It was almost impossible for an animal to have got into the lab, let alone survived that explosion.
Aaron was about to go over to the door himself, when there was another loud bang. The animal, or whatever it was, had thrown itself hard against the door from the other side, visibly denting the thick metal. The three of them jumped and stared at the damaged door in shock. Through the gaps that had formed along the bottom of the door, Aaron could clearly see that there was something moving in the next room, but he couldn’t make out what it was. It must have been enormous though.
“Shouldn’t we evacuate?” Sam asked again.
Geoff nodded dumbly in response, but the three of them continued to stand there, watching the door intently, unable to persuade themselves to move.
Suddenly, a brilliant yellow aura, bright as the sun, surrounded the doors, flooding the room with light. Aaron stood mesmerised for a moment, then he saw that the doors were starting to buckle outwards, and dived behind one of the workbenches.
An instant later, there was a massive outburst from behind the doors, and they flew off their hinges, flying clear across the room and impacting against the wall next to him. Aaron stared at the heavy sheets of metal as they tipped over and fell to the floor with a loud crash. He sat still, catatonic with shock.
Then, through the confusion, something wormed its way into Aaron’s mind and drew his thoughts back. He could hear a voice. It was saying — no, shouting — something. He tried to place it, but couldn’t think of anyone he knew who sounded like that. It sounded strangely familiar, though.
His ears were ringing, but words started to filter through to his brain.
“Where am I? What have you done? I demand an explanation!”
The voice continued, clearly confused and angry, but met with only shocked silence. Aaron tried to make himself small, terrified by the power in the voice. Then something clicked in the back of Aaron’s mind, his brain trying to persuade him of where he recognised the voice from. Numbly, he stood up and turned to face the source. When he saw the figure before him, his mind shut down, giving up any hope of clinging to sanity.
Celestia climbed through the air away from Canterlot, heading towards the mountain peaks which sat high above the city. Glancing back over her shoulder, she saw the sun sitting high in the sky. She was running late, but matters of state had a habit of overrunning.
Soaring between the great peaks, she could see her destination ahead, a collection of wooden huts nestled in a small valley high in the mountains. She had decided that it would be prudent to perform their experiments in as isolated a location as possible, as they had no idea what the outcome would be.
She had not been leading the research herself, having other matters to attend to, but she had followed it closely from its inception. If they were successful, this day would go down in history, and their understanding of the very nature of the world they lived in would change forever.
However, there was another simple reason why this task must be performed by somepony else. A specific six ponies, in fact.
As she landed on the snow-covered heather, a young purple alicorn emerged from one of the huts and cantered over to greet her.
“You made it, Princess!” Twilight Sparkle said as she approached. “You’re right on time, I think we’re nearly ready to get going!”
Celestia smiled. “Please, Twilight. You are a princess as well now. I will not ask you again.”
“Sorry, Celestia,” Twilight said, blushing. “I’ll remember next time, I promise.”
Nodding appreciatively, Celestia continued walking towards the huts, and her student trotted along next to her. “Have you managed to narrow down the spell, yet, Twilight?” she asked.
Twilight’s demeanour shifted instantly, the joy of research overtaking her. “I think we have,” she said. “I had to spend the whole week reading over Starswirl the Bearded’s entire collection on the Elements, but I think I’ve finally found what I was missing. It was staring me in the face the whole time, I just needed to switch the—”
“May I see it?” Celestia interrupted.
“The spell. May I have a look.”
Twilight laughed. “Sorry, Prince... Sorry, Celestia. It’s been such a busy week, I kind of get carried away sometimes. Here,” she said, levitating a clipboard out from under her wing. She passed it to Celestia, who caught it in her own magic and read the words which had been scribbled on the parchment. It was a mess, covered in notes and corrections, but four short lines had been underlined at the bottom of the page. Celestia read them carefully.
“This does indeed look promising,” she said at last. “You have made me proud once again.”
Twilight blushed. “Thank you. But I couldn’t have done this if my friends weren’t here to help.”
Celestia chuckled, imagining how much assistance her five companions would have been able to provide in writing the spell. Twilight was the third most knowledgeable pony in all of Equestria on matters of magic, after all, and had a unique aptitude for learning new spells as well. But Twilight was right, nonetheless. By their very nature, anything concerning the Elements of Harmony required friendship and companionship. She had learned this long ago after seeing Starswirl’s repeated failed attempts to divine their nature.
“Speaking of your friends,” Celestia said, “I assume they will be joining us soon?”
“They were just finishing lunch,” Twilight answered. “They’ll be out in a few...”
Right on cue, the door to the nearest hut opened, and four ponies emerged. Two of them, an orange earth pony and a white and purple unicorn, were absorbed in an argument.
“Now ah never said ya wouldn’t be allowed to design it, but...”
“Hmph. I simply cannot understand how you could say such a hurtful thing. My skills not being required, indeed. I ask you! Who could possibly be more qualified than...”
“Consarn it, Rarity, will ya let me finish!” Applejack shouted. “Did ya design our Elements of Harmony?”
“Well, no,” Rarity conceded. “The necklaces formed by themselves.”
“Ya see? That’s my point. There mightn’t be anything to design. Ah’m sure the princess would let ya help if there is, though.”
“I should hope so, too.” Rarity adjusted her mane victoriously, while Applejack just shook her head in amusement.
“But, um, we’re not even sure if anything will happen today,” Fluttershy said quietly from behind them. Applejack was about to reply, but was interrupted by Pinkie Pie suddenly springing into the air.
“Oooh! I hope we do though! It would be so totally awesomely incredibly amazing if we did, and then we’d get to go and make another friend and then they could join our group and then I could throw a party for them and everypony would be invited and then we could Princess! You made it!”
She changed subject so fast the others nearly got whiplash, and then she bounded off to welcome the new arrival. The other three, also realising that Celestia was there, followed her over.
“Greetings, my little ponies,” Celestia said as they approached. “I trust you are all rested and ready for the task ahead?”
“As we’ll ever be, Princess,” Applejack said, lifting the rim of her hat. “We’re just waitin’ fer Rainbow Dash to get back.”
“Yes, where is Rainbow Dash?” Celestia asked, turning to Twilight.
“Oh, she was going to get the snow cleared ready for the experiment,” Twilight said. “I expected her to be done by now, though. I wonder what’s taking so—”
“Looklooklook! Here she comes!” Pinkie shouted, bouncing into the air and pointing off to the south, where a blue streak was flying through the sky towards them with impossible speed. Just as it reached the valley, there was a deafening boom and a burst of rainbow-coloured light washed over the valley, blowing all the snow clean off the ground. The six ponies braced against the wind, then looked up as Rainbow Dash arced across the valley, leaving a beautiful rainbow behind her.
A few moments later, she landed on the ground next to them and wiped the sweat off her forehead. “Hey there, Princess,” she said, nodding towards Celestia. “Princesses,” she added, snickering and bowing to Twilight.
“Bit excessive, don’t ya think, R.D.?” Applejack said, kicking Rainbow Dash in the side.
“Hey, it got the snow cleared, didn’t it,” she retorted. “And in under ten seconds, too! I can’t help being that awesome, A.J.”
“Well, now we’re all gathered,” Rarity said as she fixed her mane, “shall we get started?”
“Yes, let’s,” Twilight said, looking excited again. “We’re as ready as we’re going to get, and I really want to see what this spell does.”
She led the other five over to a circular area, about sixty feet across, which had been cordoned off in the middle of the camp. Next to the railings, there was a small table with a purple chest lying on it. Twilight lifted its lid as she approached, and levitated five necklaces out, passing each to its bearer. They fastened the Elements around their necks and stepped into the enclosure, spacing themselves evenly around the perimeter.
Twilight then lifted her crown out of the chest and placed it on her head. Holding her clipboard in front of her, going over the spell one last time, she entered the circle and walked to her position in the centre.
Celestia kept her distance, watching them from the edge of the camp. The magic of the Elements of Harmony was far beyond hers, and she would not be able to contribute anything to the experiment. This was something that only those six ponies had the ability to do, and she was eager to see the outcome.
“Alright, one final check,” Twilight said, flipping the page on her clipboard. “All Elements of Harmony present and accounted for, spell written, checked, double checked, triple—”
“Can we get going already?” Rainbow Dash called impatiently from the circle’s edge.
“We need to follow proper procedure, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight responded. “Everything needs to be properly documented so that—”
“Yeah yeah, egghead stuff, I get it. Just hurry up, okay?”
Twilight rolled her eyes, and went back to her checklist. When she was confident that everything had been checked the requisite number of times, she levitated the clipboard back to the desk.
“We’re ready now,” she called to the assembled ponies. “Everypony hold your positions, no matter what happens. Just let the spell work.”
Her friends nodded, and Twilight closed her eyes. Lighting her horn, she recited the spell which she had now committed to memory.
“United together as part of this world,
Our intentions combined, our purpose the same,
Gath’ring the six, we seek out another,
Part of the essence from whence we all came.”
Twilight’s horn pulsed for a moment, then faded again. She ran over the spell again in her head, trying to think if she had said anything wrong. Each word had been chosen carefully, the spell a result of a year of research and careful study. She was certain it was correct.
Opening her eyes cautiously, she glanced around the circle, seeing the uncertain glances of her friends. Just as she opened her mouth to speak again, however, the Elements on her friends’ necks began to glow.
The six of them rose into the air, each surrounded by an aura the colour of their Element. They let it happen, familiar by now with the experience of wielding the Elements. Beams of multicoloured magic flowed round the circle, binding the five together in a ring around Twilight. Then, at once, beams of pure white magic burst from their necklaces, converging at the tip of Twilight’s crown. Merging together in a single great column, they shot upwards into the air, forming and pouring into an enormous vortex high above the valley.
The vortex’s power seemed to drown the rest of the world out, everything beyond the valley falling dark and silent. It roared chaotically above them, bands of light in all colours of the rainbow twisting within it.
The vortex pulsed, a burst of energy washing over the valley. The elements released their bearers, and the five friends fell back to the ground, dazed and confused. Picking themselves up again, they looked to the centre of the circle, where they expected to see Twilight, but they realised that she was still hanging in the air, slowly being drawn upwards towards the vortex.
“Help me!” she called. “This isn’t supposed to be happening! Something’s got me!”
“What’s happ’nin’, Twi?” Applejack called, straining to be heard over the roar of the vortex. “Are ya sure this ain’t what the spell’s s’possed to do?”
“No, this isn’t right!” Twilight called back. “This isn’t the Elements’ magic! It feels wrong!” She twisted and turned in the air, flapping her wings hopelessly, but the unknown force continued to draw her up away from the ground. “Get me down!”
Rainbow Dash leapt into the air and flew up to Twilight. Pushing and pulling with all her strength, she tried to force her friend down to the ground again, but the magic pulling her up refused to let go.
“She won’t budge!” Rainbow Dash shouted. “Fluttershy! Get up here and help!”
Fluttershy squeaked nervously, but lifted off into the air. Together, the two pegasi tried to force Twilight down, but to no avail. She continued to rise inexorably towards the churning vortex above.
“It’s... too... strong!” Rarity grunted as she tried to pull Twilight down with her own magic. “What do we do?”
Twilight twisted round in the air and found herself looking up at the vortex, which was drawing painfully close. She could feel the tidal forces from its magic washing over her.
Then suddenly, Celestia was above her, floating between her and the vortex, her wings spread wide. Her horn glowed with magic, and she shouted down to the ponies below.
“Everypony stand back!”
The other five darted out of the enclosue, those on the ground vaulting the fence at the edge. Celestia focussed her magic, and formed a great translucent shield between her and Twilight. With all her strength, she pushed the shield down, fighting against the strange magic. But the magic pulling Twilight up remained unperturbed, and the force of the spell rebounded at Celestia, throwing her upwards. She span uncontrollably through the air. As she flapped her wings, trying to regain control in the woefully confined space, one of her wingtips brushed the edge of the vortex.
There was a deafening crash, and in an instant the vortex, and the princess, was gone. The world flooded back into the valley. Twilight, now free of the spell that had been holding her, flew back down to the ground and stared in disbelief at the empty sky.
Celestia’s head span. Sounds and images billowed past her, a bewildering spectrum of scenes filling her mind. Strange, impossible places appeared in her head, before melting away to nothing again. She searched desperately for something familiar, something from home to pull her back.
...purpose the same,
Gath’ring the six...
The words of the spell echoed in her ears, running through the endless soundscape. They carried her, holding the threads of thought together. Twilight Sparkle’s voice shifted, changing, becoming unfamiliar, but the words stayed constant. Her only link to home, she clung on to it, letting it guide her.
...the essence from whence we all came.
Then the world went dark. She became aware of solid ground again, rolling under her. She hit something, and the motion ceased. For a moment, her world was silent.
Harsh, unfamiliar alarms screamed in her ears. The hot air burned in her nostrils as she breathed, and freezing rain poured over her. The experiences piled onto each other, overloading her senses.
As quickly as it started, everything stopped again. The noises died, the rain stopped. The air, cooled by the downpour, was still and calm. Celestia lay on the hard ground, recovering her senses.
She cast her memory back, trying to remember how she had ended up here, but her mind was reeling, overwhelmed by the last few... it must have only taken seconds, if any time had passed at all, but it felt like hours ago when she had been standing in the snow—
The experiment! The memories came flooding back in a torrent. She remembered Twilight Sparkle and her friends, the mountains, the spell, the vortex...
Something had gone wrong. It must have. A mistake in the spell perhaps? No, when Celestia saw it, she had known it to be correct. Their research had produced so many clues, and each corresponded perfectly to that precise wording. And she had no doubt in Twilight’s spell-casting ability, of course.
Perhaps some external influence, then? Surely nothing could be so powerful as to hijack the Elements of Harmony, though. And even then, why? Who would go to so much effort in an attempt to foalnap Twilight?
She needed more information. First of all, she needed to know where she was.
She cautiously opened her eyes. After what had just happened, she had absolutely no idea what she was expecting to see. What she found was a wall, plain and unadorned, built from large grey blocks. It lay inches from her eyes, filling her entire view.
Turning her head downwards, she saw her body, thankfully still with her. To her side, the ground was pressing against her. It was an unfriendly grey like the wall. It felt like stone, but was clearly artificial.
Carefully, she picked herself up, the room shifting to its proper alignment as she righted herself. Her hooves slipped on the wet floor, but she managed to get a stable footing and lifted herself into a standing position.
The room rocked back and forth lazily as she looked around, examining her surroundings. It was small and cramped, clearly not intended for living in. There were no light sources apart from a row of narrow windows just below the ceiling. From the look of the other side, she was underground.
Something fell to the ground behind her. Turning at the sound, she saw a cardboard box lying upside-down on the floor, strange metallic objects rolling across the floor around it. It must have fallen off one of the shelves which lined the walls. She examined the other contents of the shelves; there were more small boxes, filled with objects she had never seen before. Some looked like insects, but they were oddly angular, and had certainly never been alive.
There was something... wrong about this place. Everything was artificial. There was no nature here. No life. In a profoundly unsettling way, the whole place felt dead. Something was missing, but she couldn’t quite figure out what.
She found her eyes scanning the shelves again. This time, she noticed racks of tools. There were heavy metal clamps, hammers and other blunt objects, and many devices that she couldn’t recognise.
In the centre of the room was an empty table with a hard metallic surface, easily large enough to hold a pony. Celestia realised with a sinking feeling that the room looked unnervingly like an operating theatre. The only difference was the chaos of the room’s contents, and the charring on the table and walls. It looked like something had exploded in here very recently. These details only painted an even bleaker picture of the room’s purpose.
Shaken and confused, her mind filled with theories as to why anypony would be brought here, each worse than the last. Starting to feel nauseous, she leaned against the table and drew long, deep breaths. So much had happened in such a short time that she couldn’t think straight. All she knew was that she had to get away from this place immediately.
Her eyes found the doors at last. They looked strong, probably reinforced, but that was of little consequence to the most powerful pony in Equestria. Foregoing rational thought, she charged across the room, throwing herself at the doors. They buckled, bending outwards, but the hinges and lock held.
Through the gaps that had now formed around the door, she became aware that she could hear voices, but she ignored them. Escaping this room was her first priority. She would consider her captors afterwards.
She stepped back and took a moment to examine the doors more carefully. Their security was entirely mechanical: thick metal sheeting, strong hinges, a physical lock. There was no sign of enchantment.
They co-opt the most powerful magical artefacts known to ponykind, and attempt to foalnap one of the most powerful ponies in history, and they don’t enchant the door? Celestia paused for a moment, perplexed. Either they were grossly negligent, or they had never expected Twilight to…
She stopped herself, refusing the entertain the thought. The feeling of urgency rising again, she lit her horn, charging her magic. Focussing on the weakened doors, she fired a burst of pure force at them, tearing them from their hinges and throwing them across the room beyond. She raised her head high, threw her wings open, and stepped over the threshold, preparing to confront her captors.
Celestia had expected guards, security ponies, or even just a lone arrogant tyrant. In any case, something to direct her anger at. Instead, she was met by a deserted room, dark and wet like the one before. Her eyes darted around the room, searching for anything hostile. She had been assaulted, and she had mentally prepared herself to fight back. The lack of opposition was almost disappointing, but thoroughly disconcerting.
Something moved behind a table to her right. She spun her head round to the source of the sound, and saw something moving in the reflection on a metal cabinet.
“I know you’re there!” she called. “Show yourself!”
The creature’s head inched out from behind the table, before retreating hastily upon seeing her. She barely got a glimpse of it, but could see that it was not a pony.
“Are there more of your kind here? What do you want with us?” She tried to sound confident and forceful, but her mind was reeling, trying to keep a grasp on the situation, and it began to show in her voice.
She folded her wings away again. They had seen her now, so the show was unnecessary, and her wings were only getting in the way in the cramped building. Lowering her head to the level of the creature she had seen, she moved slowly towards its hiding spot.
“I am stronger than you, and will use force if necessary!” she shouted. “Surrender at once and state your identity and purpose!” No response came, but she pressed on. “Where am I? What have you done? I demand an explanation!”
The creature remained silent, not responding to anything she said. She was nearly at the corner of the table, when a noise from her left caught her attention. She lifted her head up and turned towards it, finding herself looking directly into the eyes of another creature.
She could see its form much more clearly this time, but did not recognise the species. It stood on its hind legs, like a minotaur or a diamond dog, but curiously it did not have a full covering of fur like most species she knew, covering itself using clothes instead.
The two of them stared into each other’s eyes for a long time. Celestia tried to get a read of what the creature was thinking. Its expressions were hard to read – its eyes were far too small – but it appeared to be staring at her in disbelief.
“You were expecting somepony else I assume,” she said. “You should know that attacking anypony under my protection is a serious mistake.” She advanced, raising to her full height again. “This could be considered an act of war. Identify your race and affiliation immediately.”
Its mouth opened and closed wordlessly, failing to form any sounds. Celestia’s eyes narrowed as she waited impatiently for a response. She started to get a nagging feeling in the back of her head that this entire situation didn’t make sense. A part of her wanted to just leave immediately, to find an exit, fly away, and find her way home. But these... whatever they were... were a potential threat, and she was obligated to ensure that any threat to her nation was properly dealt with.
“Princess?” the creature eventually managed to say. He seemed to be responding instinctively, only half-aware of what he was saying. She sincerely hoped that these creatures were not always so slow.
“You know of me, then?” she replied sternly. “Hardly surprising if you have attacked my nation, but then you know of my capabilities. If you wish to remain unharmed, you will tell me why you have brought me here.”
“Brought you here?” he echoed. “We... we didn’t.”
Celestia cocked her head, taken aback. “Explain.”
“It was an accident... Nothing was supposed to happen... There was an explosion...”
He was telling the truth. She still had trouble reading his expressions, but her magic could sense his sincerity.
She recalled the room that she had been in. It was certainly true that there had been an explosion in there. But what had caused it? If the room was not an operating theatre then what were they doing?
Before she could enquire further, new priorities seized control of her mind. She realised that she was no longer a captive here. If they were not hostile then she could leave, find somewhere familiar again, and return to investigate once her head had cleared. The urge to be far away from this inexplicable place took over, and she started edging towards the exit.
“You are not holding me captive?” she asked. The creature shook his head, his eyes still fixed on her.
She marched towards the exit. “Then I am leaving,” she said. “I will be back to determine what happened here, but first I must first return to Canterlot.”
“But... that’s impossible.”
Stopping just before the door, Celestia turned and faced the creature again. Things were making less and less sense by the second, and everything this creature said just compounded the problem. She longed to leave and be rid of this madness, but something about his tone compelled her to investigate further.
He seemed to be slowly regaining his faculties now, looking around the room. Celestia realised that this was as much of a mystery to him as it was to her, although she was not sure why. The other occupants of the room – two of them, she now realised – also began to recover, lifting themselves out from their hiding places and staring in utter disbelief at her. She ignored them, focussing on the one that was speaking to her.
“What do you mean by that?” she asked. “You said that I wasn’t a captive.”
He shook his head again. “But... Canterlot doesn’t exist. It’s made-up, a story, like you are.” He looked down at his chest, and Celestia noticed for the first time that, on the garment he was wearing, there was a picture of a unicorn. One whom she recognised.
Her eyes darted back and forth between the creature’s face and the image of Rarity that he wore. Celestia had seen similar sorts of outfits worn by the Equestrian youth – hats, capes and the like – showing the images of Daring Do or other fictional heroes. He seemed to think that she, her entire kingdom, and all her friends, were characters in some story as well. How could they know such specific details about her life without knowing that she really existed?
Suddenly, it dawned on her. She knew why everything felt so dead, so wrong. There was no power in the air, or in the ground. Apart from her own spark, there was no magic at all in this place.
The world’s own innate magic should be present everywhere, the ever-flowing lifeblood of the entire universe. The world should have been falling apart without it, but here it was, oblivious to such a fundamental absence. This couldn’t be her world. It was impossible.
She felt ill. No longer caring about explanations, she just wanted to get away. She leapt towards the doors, kicking them open with her hooves.
She wanted to be rid of anything from this world that she couldn’t manage without. Jolting her head backwards, she cast a spell over her shoulder into the room, then without a second glance charged along the dark corridor towards the light at the end. The doors at the far end swung open when she hit them, and she stumbled up a narrow flight of stairs into the open air. She leapt upwards, unfurling her wings, and was gone.
~ ~ ~
Aaron stared in disbelief at the doors. You’re dreaming, he thought to himself. He couldn’t see any other explanation for how he could have just had a conversation with Princess Celestia. She was a fictional character, and, importantly, she was physically impossible.
He couldn’t even remember what he had said to her. He had been too distracted, trying to reconcile his understanding of the universe with what had been standing in front of him, to even listen to his own voice.
It couldn’t have not happened either, though. He knew for certain that what he had just seen was Princess Celestia. He had seen the evidence for himself, and he was a scientist. If a theory disagrees with the evidence, then the theory is wrong.
There was no theory here, though, just simple obvious facts. Fictional creatures by definition didn’t exist. Aaron started to fear that he may go mad if he thought about this too much.
“What just happened?” Sam said from behind him.
“I have absolutely no idea,” Aaron replied, his eyes not moving from the door.
Geoff walked back over to the entrance to the spectrometer room and peered inside. “That must have been quite some explosion,” he said. “Blew the doors clean off their hinges.”
“I guess the pressure wave got the door to the corridor, then,” Sam added, making his way over to examine the exit.
“The spectrometer's just... gone,” Geoff said. He was staring blankly into the next room, scratching his head.
Neither of them seemed to remember what had happened. Aaron was about to question them about this, then thought better of it. If they really didn’t remember anything, then he’d just sound mad, saying he’d talked to a winged unicorn princess. Perhaps he had imagined it, after all.
He could vaguely remember an odd feeling filling the room as Celestia left, though. Had she done something to wipe their memories? Odd that she’d leave him alone, though.
He made his way over to the spectrometer room, hoping to find anything to indicate either way. The entire room was a mess. The explosion, whatever had caused it, had thrown everything around on the shelves, and the huge spectrometer itself had indeed disappeared. The table was completely empty. Had it been destroyed in the explosion? Or was there really something more happening here?
“This is going to be expensive...” Geoff said from the door. Aaron nodded, but he wasn’t really listening. He had reached the far side of the table now, and was staring at the floor. There was a small amount of soot on the ground. It had been disturbed by the water from the sprinklers, but it still looked like something large had rolled across the floor through it.
The fallen box caught his attention, and he went to pick it up. As he bent down towards it, though, he saw something unexpected lying among the other boxes under the shelves. Checking that the others couldn’t see, he pulled it out from the mess.
It must have fallen off when she fell, he thought to himself. He still couldn’t fully accept that it had happened, but the evidence was beginning to win him over enough that he was willing to consider the possibility, in theory. He sat down on the floor, staring at the ornate golden tiara in his hands, and tried to figure out what to do next.
The explosion threw the research group into chaos. The primary spectrometer had been lost, and it would take time for the backup unit to be brought out of storage and set up. Then there would be endless rounds of tests to make sure it didn't explode again. It would be a long tedious process, slowing work down for everyone except the engineers.
As a result, Aaron suddenly found himself with a lot more free time. His supervisor had promised to get him something to do while they reset, but that would probably take at least a week, if not longer, to organise.
Once the on-site medical officer had confirmed that none of them had been injured, Aaron had walked straight home, managing to completely forget that he had a bike with him. He needed a lie down, but not because of the explosion.
The next day passed by in a blur. He went about his daily routine on autopilot, while his brain continually swung back and forth between acceptance and disbelief. He kept an eye on the news – and pony blogs – watching for any reports of unexplained sightings. There was a short article about the explosion at the university, but that was about it.
By the following afternoon, he started to feel stifled. There was so much on his mind that he couldn’t bear sitting around in his cramped college room waiting for something to happen, so he swung his backpack over his shoulder and set off, walking into the countryside.
The university was right on the edge of town, and after ten minutes he was walking through fields. He knew the area well, as he liked to go for walks there if he ever had a problem that needed mentally working over.
Eventually, he came to the edge of the farmland and climbed over the fence bounding the fields. He walked down a shallow incline to the stream at the bottom. The stream was a particularly secluded spot, with the fence on one side, and a small patch of woodland on the other. The only sounds were the water, the birds, and the occasional cow in the distance.
Sitting down by the water, he opened his bag and lifted out the item which had been weighing down so much on his thoughts. He set the tiara reverently on the grass in front of him and stared at it.
It was strange how real it looked. It was unmistakably Celestia’s tiara, with the solid golden frame, and the huge purple gemstone mounted in the centre. But at the same time it looked completely different. There were intricate patterns of lines and spirals radiating out from the gem, etched into the metal. The borders were studded with dozens of tiny diamonds, each unique and expertly cut, and the surfaces were completely smooth and polished to perfection.
This was not a cartoon object, a simple unadorned vector graphic. This was a magnificent artefact which any collector, brony or not, would likely pay a fortune to own. It would never fit a human’s head of course, but its decorative or material value would still be through the roof.
He had thought briefly about how easy it would be to sell such an object, if he were to find himself in permanent possession of it. Its value would certainly make it worth his while.
But he never truly considered that an option. The tiara represented something else, much more valuable than any amount of money. Somewhere out there was its owner; she was an impossible creature, and Aaron would give anything to meet her again.
He almost felt like he knew her as a friend, knowing so much about her life. It was a peculiar feeling. She was in a way a celebrity to him, but he had never thought of it in such real terms before. Now that she actually existed, he wasn’t sure how to approach her.
That problem was likely academic, though, as he had no idea how he would ever track her down. It had been over a day since he had first seen her, and she could easily be hundreds of miles away by now. There was always the possibility that she may return to the lab eventually, but she had apparently been keen to hide any traces of her presence, so he didn’t expect that to happen soon, if at all.
With no other possibilities available, he had kept the tiara with him at all times since then, carrying it around in his backpack, in the irrational hope that it may draw her back. He had no idea how that could happen, but it’s not like having it with him would make a difference if it didn’t.
He sat there for the better part of an hour, just thinking about everything, and eventually the evening drew in. Mentally exhausted, he collapsed back on the ground and looked up at the clouds, glowing orange in the sunset. He wondered if she was up there, somewhere amongst the clouds, looking down on the world, and maybe even on him.
~ ~ ~
Maybe quarter of an hour later, the sound of a twig snapping caught his attention. He sat upright and stared into the trees across from him. In the pale evening light it was hard to make anything out in the gloom of the woods, but he scanned the tree-line looking for the source of the sound. He quickly found it.
She was there. Celestia stood motionless between the trees, watching him. Her mane flowed in waves down her neck, casting a cool white glow on the trees around her.
They stared at each other in silence for what felt like hours. Aaron tried to figure out what she was thinking, but her expression was unreadable. She was a completely different pony from the one he had seen the previous morning. The initial shock must have worn off enough for her to regain her natural composure, and she held herself with practiced grace. He suspected that she was holding something back, though. He doubted that she could be that calm in her current situation.
He stood up and was about to walk over to her, but she shook her head, telling him to stay away. Her horn began to glow a soft yellow, and a similar aura surrounded the tiara. It picked itself up off the grass and floated slowly over to Celestia. Setting it carefully on her head, she turned away, walking back into the woods.
Aaron stood for a moment, stunned, then jumped across the stream and ran into the woods after her. It was impossible to see anything amongst the trees, though, and there was no sign of the light from her mane. Sensing that it was a lost cause, he turned and went back to the stream to retrieve his bag.
~ ~ ~
Against all the odds, she had managed to find him. He had no idea how. But in doing so, she had given the two of them a small connection, a piece of common ground. Aaron hoped this might be enough to allow a third meeting.
He was starting to hope so out of more than just curiosity. Something seemed off about Celestia. She had been understandably shaken during their first meeting, and that could excuse her hostility. But the pony he saw looking at him from the trees was not panicked. Instead, she was almost acting too calm. She was hiding something.
Aaron felt an obligation to try and help her. He was probably the only person on the planet who even knew she was here, so she effectively had no-one else to turn to. He also worried that he may be in some way responsible for her being here in the first place. He could tell that it would take a lot of work to reach her, but it would be well worth the effort.
With no other plans, he returned to the stream the next afternoon. He took a book and a packed tea, and waited there until sunset, hoping that she may return as well.
By the time it became dark, he hadn’t seen any sign of her. The skies were clear, so she couldn’t be anywhere up there. He wondered if she was hiding somewhere in the woods, although there were plenty of other places nearby for her to be. In any case, he decided not to go in and look for her. She had seemed reluctant to have him approach the day before, so he figured it would be best to let her make the first move.
He did the same the next few days, waiting by the stream all afternoon. A few times he heard sounds in the trees again, but never caught a glimpse of her.
Four days after their last encounter, on Saturday morning, he did a thorough check of local news sites again. The complete lack of any signs of her had started to concern him, and he hoped nothing had happened to her. He found the idea of anything harming somepony as powerful as Celestia unlikely, but he wanted to be absolutely certain.
Not seeing anything, he set out for the stream again, planning to hold at least one more watch before giving up trying to force a meeting. The sky was completely overcast, so there was plenty of cover for Celestia to hide in, both on and off the ground.
Sitting down on the grass, he pulled his book out of his backpack and opened it on the bookmarked page. It was one of the many textbooks he had been meaning to get round to reading, but he had made remarkably little progress over the last few days. Looking up every time there was the slightest sound from nearby made it hard to concentrate for any period of time.
After reading for an hour or so, he decided to take a break. Closing the book, he got up and walked over to the stream. He was absent-mindedly kicking at the stones by the water when he heard a voice from behind him.
“You know me.”
Turning around, he saw Celestia lying on the grass, only ten metres from where he had been sitting. He hadn’t heard her arrive, but figured she must have flown down from above.
“I do,” he replied after a few moments.
She nodded contemplatively. “I would like to know how.”
Aaron took a step towards her, then paused. When she nodded in consent, he continued forward and sat down by his bag again, facing the princess. At least the doubt had disappeared. It was hard to say that Celestia didn’t exist now that she was sitting in front of him, holding a conversation with him.
“It’s... difficult to explain,” he began.
Celestia chuckled. “Take your time, please. I am not in a hurry.”
“I suppose not,” he said, shrugging. “I’m not sure where to begin. I suppose you haven’t heard of television?”
“I have not,” she replied, shaking her head. “I assume from your previous comments that it is some form of fiction, though.”
Aaron tried to think through past episodes to find a helpful reference. Then one scene from season two popped into his head. “Oh! You’ve seen film projectors, though?” Celestia nodded, so he went on. “Well, it’s sort of like that. It’s a way of telling stories, or showing news, or things like that.”
Celestia stayed quiet, letting him speak. He gradually explained the history and setting of the show to her, as well as giving a brief description of the brony fandom. She listened intently, absorbing every word.
As he spoke, Aaron found himself studying her appearance. He realised that he hadn’t had a chance to properly look at her since they first met.
Like the tiara, which she now wore along with the rest of her matching regalia, she had an air of overwhelming reality. He could make out every individual hair of her smooth white coat, every barb in the feathers on her wings. She was a living, breathing creature, with strong muscles moving under her skin as she shifted on the grass.
Despite his limited knowledge of anatomy telling him that she didn’t make sense, he found himself instinctively accepting every strange feature as if it were completely natural. Most prominent was the fact that, unlike every other mammal on the planet, she had six limbs. Her wings should have clashed with her forelegs, but everything fitted together perfectly, adapted to their presence. Aaron could even make out, through the skin and muscle at the base of her neck, the protruding ridge of a keel bone for anchoring the flight muscles. He had some zoologist friends who would kill to see an x-ray of her.
Her face also caught his attention. It seemed to lie somewhere between that of a character from the show and a real horse. While her eyes were by no means as large as they would be on the show, needing to actually be able to fit inside her head, they were still much wider than on a real horse, and much more human as well. Her muzzle looked natural, except that it was articulated so that she could speak.
He tried to find the right words to describe it all. It wasn’t like in films, when a real horse’s mouth might be animated with CGI and would always look... wrong. The only way he could think to describe it was that everything looked right. Through all the differences, Celestia’s character shone through. It was unmistakably her, sitting before him in the flesh.
All the anatomical peculiarity could be explained away by parallel – or maybe convergent – evolution in the two worlds. Even her horn was physically believable. What he had trouble getting his head around was her mane and tail. Long strands of hair hung from her crest and dock, flowing away from her as if caught underwater. They were all the colours of the rainbow, and emitted a faint aura of light. At some point that he found impossible to pin down, the hairs faded away into a formless haze, which ebbed away into the surrounding air like mist. It was like nothing he had ever seen.
Eventually, his explanation of the show reached something of a conclusion. They sat silently for a while as Celestia considered what she had been told. Once she had, she looked up again, looking back at him.
“Thank you for sharing this,” she said. “It has been most enlightening.”
“I’m glad to help,” he replied. “I hope this isn’t too stressful for you.”
“You needn't worry about me, I will cope,” Celestia said, beginning to stand up.
“Wait, before you go,” Aaron said before she could leave. “Now that I’ve answered your questions, would you mind if I asked you a few things?”
She paused, then settled down on the grass again. “Certainly. What do you wish to know?”
Aaron scratched his head awkwardly. He had been asking himself these questions all week, but now he had a chance to get answers, he was afraid to ask. He hoped he’d want to know the answers.
“On Tuesday, in the woods, how did you find me?” he asked.
“I didn’t,” she replied. “I found my tiara. It belongs in this world as much as I do. I was able to sense the small amount of magic it has in it, and followed that. I was concerned when I realised it had been moved, but it was... a relief when I saw it was you who had it.”
Aaron was surprised to realise that he had been right about the tiara. But her response led him to his next question.
“Why me?” he asked. She turned her head on its side and looked at him quizzically. “I mean, why can I remember you? Neither of my friends could remember ever seeing you, but...”
“Ah,” she said, almost sounding embarrassed. “That was... a momentary lapse of judgement.”
“Lapse?” He blinked in surprise. He had not even considered that she might say that. “I think I prefer it this way, to be honest.”
“Consider this, though,” she replied. “I never expected to see any of you again. I could tell that I wasn’t supposed to be in this world. I hoped I would be able to find some way home, but above all I wanted some peace. I took their memories of me to try and avoid attention. From what you had said, I knew that I would not have any peace here if word of my existence spread.”
Aaron nodded. It was still quite unsettling, but he could at least understand her concerns. “So why didn’t you, er, take my memory as well?”
“Because you knew me,” she said, shrugging. “You knew about my home, and my life. You are a connection back to Equestria, and I hoped that this may prove useful in time. But I still took a great risk in trusting you with the secret, especially as I had no reason to believe we would ever meet again.”
“Lucky that I found your tiara, then,” Aaron said.
“Yes, it gave me the opportunity to find out more about this world. That was as much as I could hope for. I admit, however, that I am still unsure if I made the right decision.” She stopped speaking and looked at him, deep in thought. Aaron could sense the finality in her voice.
“So what now?” he asked. “If I’ve served my purpose now, is it my turn?”
Celestia didn’t respond, simply staring at him.
“I see,” he said. “Well, for what it’s worth, it was an honour meeting you, Celestia.”
He closed his eyes and waited for it to happen, wondering what it would feel like, and how much he’d still remember of the last few days. A few moments passed, then he heard a rustling noise, and a breeze blew past him. When he opened his eyes, Celestia had gone. He definitely still remembered her, but she was no longer sitting in front of him. He looked up, and saw her climbing towards the distant clouds.
“That went... well,” he said to himself. Still, it was a start.
Celestia lay near the edge of a large cumulus cloud, her wings spread open, taking in the warmth of the sunlight. She let her mind wander, drifting back to her home, remembering the voices of all the ponies she knew.
Assuming time passed the same in Equestria, she had been gone for nearly a week now. Her thoughts dwelled on her sister, Luna, who would now be fully in charge both of the nation and of her sun.
Her sun. The great sphere that circled Equestria each day was hers to control, and had been her constant companion for her entire life. The powerful magic burning in its core fuelled the planet, spreading light and life across the land.
But it was different here. As far as she could tell, this world’s sun served the same purpose, but she couldn’t fathom its mechanisms. On her first night here she had reflexively tried to reach out to it and lower it below the horizon, but had quickly realised her mistake. This sun was much more distant, both literally and figuratively. Like everything else in this world, it had no magic in it, and was unable to respond to any of her commands. It had been a strange experience watching the sun set without her for the first time.
Fortunately some things were the same. The grass and other plants felt and tasted like Equestrian plants, so at least she would not starve here. Even the clouds responded to her magic to an extent.
She idly examined one of her golden horseshoes. Along with her tiara and peytral, they were the only parts of Equestria that had come through with her. She had left them on since she had arrived, even while sleeping, telling herself that they might get lost or stolen if she didn't. But she hated to be parted even for a moment from her only link to home.
Well, nearly her only link. The creature that had brought her tiara back knew so much about her and her nation that she couldn’t help but be intrigued by him. She regretted that she still didn’t know his name, or even his species for that matter.
Twice now she had thought to sever her connection to him. Even if he acted as a friend, she had felt it was dangerous to trust her safety to somepony (something? she mused) whom she knew so little about. But each time something in her head had told her not to.
Fortunately he had shown no sign of being a threat. In fact, he seemed to be putting a lot of effort into reaching out to her, perhaps even trying to help her. As far as she could tell, he had come out to the same spot each day for the last week in an attempt to find her.
So today she had decided to return the favour. Flapping her wings to clear away the thin layer of mist that was forming around her, she looked over the cloud’s edge towards the ground. The stream by which they had talked lay below her, and she watched the fields beyond, waiting for any sign of him. She had no idea if he would make an appearance, but she had nothing else to do, so it was worth a try.
~ ~ ~
Aaron headed back the next day. Their last meeting had ended a bit oddly, but it had least been friendly, so he had hope that the next would go better. Now that talking to her was a definite possibility, he had thought ahead and brought a few provisions. The crate he was carrying made it difficult to get over the stiles, though.
As he crossed the last field, a shadow swept across the ground, drawing his attention upwards. To his surprise, he saw Celestia spiralling down towards him. She must have been waiting for him this time.
“I wondered if you would come again,” she said as she landed on the ground next to him. “I feared you may not want to after the way I left yesterday.”
Aaron realised he had no idea what to say. He had tried rehearsing greetings on the way over, but his tongue froze now that she was actually here again and he just ended up staring at her for a few seconds.
Just before the silence became awkward, Celestia nodded down towards the crate. “I see you have come well prepared,” she said.
“Oh, right!” Aaron replied, the query jolting him back into gear. “I just brought a few things I thought you might appreciate. Er, shall we go over to the stream? I could do with sitting down.”
Celestia nodded and they turned and walked together across the field. After a few moments, she turned her head to look at him.
“I must apologise, but I have yet to ask your name.”
“Oh!” Aaron reflexively went to shake her hand and introduce himself, then remembered the crate he was carrying. Then remembered that Celestia didn’t have hands.
“My name’s Aaron,” he said. “Aaron Joseph Wright. Aaron’s fine, though.”
“An intriguing name,” Celestia said thoughtfully. “Its meaning isn’t immediately obvious.”
Aaron thought for a few moments, puzzled by the statement, then realised what she meant. “Human names don’t tend to mean anything particular,” he said, “at least not in the same way that a lot of pony names seem to. Wright means that one of my ancestors was probably a shipbuilder or something like that, but that would’ve been a long time ago. No idea if Aaron means anything.”
A moment later they reached the fence, and with a single flap of her wings, Celestia jumped over it and landed on the other side. Aaron shifted the crate awkwardly in his arms to try and get a hand free, but then a yellow aura appeared round it as Celestia lifted it over the fence for him, placing it on the grass.
“Thanks,” Aaron said as he climbed over. The two of them sat down on the grass next to the crate, and Aaron started fishing around in it, pulling out a Thermos flask and some cups and plates.
“May I ask what you have brought?” Celestia said, watching him unpack.
“Well,” he replied, “I thought that as you’ve been stuck out in the countryside all week, I’d bring some tea—” he indicated to the flask, then reached back into the crate and removed a flat, square cardboard box “—and a cake.”
He lifted the lid to reveal a huge Victoria sponge, and held back a laugh as Celestia’s eyes lit up at the sight of it.
“That is certainly appreciated,” she said, her eyes fixed on the cake as he started cutting slices. “I have been surviving well enough on grass and plants, but living in a castle for so long can spoil a pony. I am beginning to miss the luxuries.”
Aaron held up a plate and fork, and Celestia took them in her magic and began to eat. He cut himself a slice and poured two cups of tea, then reached back into the crate. This time he pulled out a tablet PC.
“I thought you might want to see this as well,” he said as he turned it on. “This is a computer. It’s... well, I guess it’s what we had to come up with to get by without magic. But I’ve got every episode of the show loaded on here. I thought you might want to see one.”
Celestia’s eyebrows raised as she examined the device, watching the images flash across it as Aaron scrolled through the different videos.
“I would be very interested to,” she said. “Do you have any recommendations?”
Aaron thought about it for a moment. He had decided beforehand that starting from the beginning may not be such a good idea; he wasn’t sure how much Celestia would want to watch an episode about Nightmare Moon. In the end he decided to just go for his own favourite episode. It would work well for showing Celestia her own cartoon self as well.
“Well, I quite like this one,” he said, picking it out of the list. He propped the tablet up on the crate as the episode started.
“News from northern Equestria! Er, your Highness.”
“I remember this,” Celestia said, watching the small screen. “This happened nearly three years ago.”
“Wow, really? It only aired about half a year ago here. I mean, it was probably written longer ago, but...”
He trailed off when he realised that Celestia wasn’t listening anymore, and was watching the video intently. He sat back and returned to his cake.
~ ~ ~
By the time the second part had ended, they had managed to finish the tea and cake between them. Aaron began to pack the cups and plates away, while Celestia sat still on the grass, deep in thought.
Watching her out of the corner of his eye, Aaron tried to imagine what she was thinking. Her demeanor of impenetrable grace, no doubt the result of thousands of years of princesshood, remained in place however, so all he had to go on was what he thought he would feel in the same situation. And that was useless as well; this whole thing was somewhat beyond his experience. He wished that she would give something away. It was hard to know how to deal with her when she insisted on remaining so distant.
“That was fascinating,” she said eventually. “Everything happened exactly as I remember it happening, and I could recognise everypony I know. Even Lieutenant Stronghoof looked and sounded correct. That was the guard in the opening,” she said when she noticed Aaron’s confusion. “It was strange seeing everything drawn in such a simple way, though. Very different, but exactly right at the same time.”
Aaron laughed. “I know that feeling, as it happens. To me you’ve always been a cartoon character. Looking at you in real life, you look so different, but you’re definitely you.” He picked up the tablet and started scrolling through his video library again. “Do you want to watch any more? The batteries’ll last a while yet.”
Celestia thought for a moment, then shook her head. “No, thank you. It was certainly interesting to see, but I think I will leave it at that.”
She stood up and looked towards the sky, then turned back to face Aaron. “Before we part company again, perhaps I can do something to repay you for the kindness you have shown me.”
She knelt down on the grass again and lowered the wing nearest him, gesturing towards her back with her head. He stared at her in disbelief.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Not at all,” she said. “That is, if you are willing.”
“Er, well, I...” he fumbled with his words, then shrugged and walked over to her. He started to lift his leg over her back, then hesitated, trying to work out how you were supposed to sit on a winged horse.
Celestia chuckled and looked round at him. “Just sit forward and keep a tight grip on my neck,” she said. “And don’t worry about my mane. It should stay out of your way.”
Intrigued by the last part, he lifted his leg over and sat on her withers. He reached forward and held his hand up to her mane, and was amazed as it simply flowed round his arm, like a stream around a rock. It was so light that he could barely feel it against his skin.
He wrapped his arms around her neck, gripping it tightly, and anchored his feet at her sides as well as he could manage. Once he settled, Celestia stood again and leapt into the sky, tearing away from the ground.
~ ~ ~
Aaron’s eyes were clamped shut. He had to force back a scream as the sudden acceleration left his stomach on the ground. Once the force reduced, he opened his eyes slowly and tried to look around. Celestia’s neck was right in front of him still, but in all other directions he could just see murky grey.
“Where are we?” he asked, but before Celestia could answer, they burst out through the top of the cloud into the clear sky beyond. Aaron dared to look down for a moment, and saw the ground spiralling away from them at a phenomenal rate, behind the receding cloud and Celestia’s huge wings.
“Wait a minute!” he shouted over the wind rushing past him. “The crate! My tablet!”
“Don’t worry, they’re safe.” Celestia replied. She levelled out, and they soared through the air high above the ground. Looking over his shoulder, he could see the city spreading out into the distance away from him. The modern buildings of the university were clearly visible in the foreground, the stark contrast against the ancient town centre even more noticeable from above.
“This is incredible!” he shouted. “And I don’t think I’ve ever used that word so correctly!”
“Do humans ever come up this high?” Celestia asked.
“Higher than this!” Aaron called back. “Aeroplanes, helicopters, hot air balloons! You must have seen some aeroplanes flying overhead! This is a first for me, though!”
“Are you enjoying it?”
“Are you kidding? This is terrifying! It’s the best thing I’ve ever done!”
Celestia looked around at him with a wry smile. “Shall we have a bit of fun, then?”
“What do you—”
Before Aaron could finish, Celestia twisted her wings, going into a long corkscrew roll. He was thrown sideways by the sudden movement, but managed to keep hold of her. She pulled out of the roll upside down, so that the earth hung high above them, then swung into a backwards loop, flying round until they were heading upwards towards the sky once more. Aaron was close to screaming again, but didn’t dare close his eyes in case he missed anything.
Celestia closed her wings against her back, going into free-fall. For a long while Aaron was weightless, and severely regretted eating so much of the cake. They rolled unguided through the air, the world spinning around them in a dizzying display, and then they began to fall towards the ground. Celestia straightened herself out, minimising her air resistance, and before long they were hurtling towards the ground at near terminal velocity.
Aaron opened his mouth to call forward, but the wind snatched the words out of his mouth before he had a chance to. They passed through the cloud again in a fraction of a second, and suddenly the ground was ahead, rushing up to meet them. At the last moment, Celestia opened her wings and pulled out of the dive, dodging the ground with only metres to spare. The sudden change of direction forced Aaron’s rebellious lunch back down, along with all the blood from his head.
He shook himself, trying to overcome the light-headedness, but just as his head cleared, his eyes went wide as he saw the tree-line speeding towards them.
“Don’t you dare!” he shouted, but in vain. Celestia dove into the woods, spinning and weaving between the trees. She held her wings close to her sides as branches whipped past and were pulled clean off the trees. Within seconds they emerged from the other side of the mercifully narrow wood, and Celestia spread her wings again, pulling up and disappearing into the sky once more.
~ ~ ~
A minute later, Celestia was circling calmly in the sky just above the clouds. Aaron had just about recovered his senses when she started to spiral gently downwards. She slowed to a hover just above the cloud’s edge and lowered herself gently through the surface, kicking up swirls of water vapour as she did. Once she had settled, she lay down in the mist and folded her wings away.
“You could’ve given me more warning,” Aaron grumbled.
“Don’t worry,” she said, chuckling. “I ensured that you were safe the entire time. You can get off now if you wish,” she added, looking back over her shoulder at him.
“Are you sure?” Aaron said, looking uncertainly down at the cloud below him. The one which he had just flown through a minute ago, as he recalled. Even though Celestia was happily sitting on it, it looked about as solid as, well, a cloud.
“I cast a cloudwalking spell on you just before we landed,” she replied. “I have done the same with your crate, as you can see.” She nodded to her side, where his crate was indeed sitting.
“I carried it up and left it here as we passed,” she explained. “I figured it would be safer than leaving it on the ground. If you are unsure about the cloud, you can hold on to my wing as you dismount,” she added, opening one of her wings out beside her.
Still unconvinced, Aaron took hold of the edge of Celestia’s wing, leaning on it so it was supporting his weight. He then slid slowly off her back, lowering his feet further into the cloud. They had already gone a good distance in, with a thin mist blurring his view of the world beyond, and his feet met no additional resistance for a disconcertingly long time. But eventually they did come up against a remarkably solid, albeit spongy, surface.
Once he was sure it would support him, he let go of Celestia’s wing and lowered himself into a sitting position. He pushed his hand down, feeling the cloud push back against him. There was an unnerving lack of visible surface, everything below just looking the uniform pale grey of the cloud.
“How is this even possible?” he asked, prodding the cloud with his finger.
“Pegasus magic is able to sense clouds,” she explained, “and it generates a form of levitation spell when we get close enough, pushing against us as if it were a solid surface. I do find it harder to maintain at times here, as I am unable to keep the clouds as dense as usual, but thick enough clouds will still support my weight happily.”
“Wait, I’m confused,” Aaron said. “If your magic still works, why doesn’t that?”
Celestia opened her wings, swinging them back and forth a few times, and the layer of mist around them blew away, revealing the sky above. Without the vapour sitting above it the surface below looked a lot more solid, but still with very little in the way of discernable features.
“My magic still works,” she said. “I can still interact with and manipulate the clouds as usual, but...”
She paused, her wingtips flicking at the vapour that had begun to encroach on them again.
“The natural magic present in Equestria’s environment doesn’t exist here. While I can shape the clouds as I see fit, there is nothing to keep them that way. Without constant maintenance, they just spread out again and any form is lost.”
Aaron waved his arm through the cloud, watching it move with him.
“Wow, I hadn’t realised how much things could be different here,” he said.
Celestia nodded. “There are many differences. Some are obvious, like the different geography, or the animals. But unless you know what it’s like to feel the world’s magic flowing around you, you can never truly appreciate what it means for it to be absent.”
Aaron stared at Celestia. For a brief moment, he thought he could see through her calm facade to the pony hiding underneath. He even thought he saw a tear forming in her eye before she blinked it away. He held a hand out, placing it on her shoulder.
“You must miss Equestria,” he said.
She lowered her head. “I do... wonder how they are managing without me. They are more than capable of keeping going, of course. My sister, along with Twilight and Cadance, are all capable leaders. But watching over the nation has been my entire life. I wonder how they have explained my absence to my subjects.”
She paused for a moment, then looked up again and turned to face Aaron, smiling calmly again. “But I imagine I will get to see them again eventually. If Twilight can work out how to reverse whatever sent me here, they may still be able to bring me home.”
Aaron removed his hand. He realised that he had never even asked her how she thought she had ended up here, but now it had been mentioned, he had to know.
“What did happen?” he asked. “On your end, what did it look like?”
Celestia looked away for a moment, then shifted her weight, moving round to face Aaron. He moved back, giving her more space, and got into a more comfortable sitting position.
“We were performing an experiment,” she said once they had settled. “The bearers of the Elements of Harmony, Twilight and her friends, were attempting to cast a new spell which they had designed.”
“You were doing an experiment as well?” Aaron asked. “That can’t be a coincidence.”
“Yes, I realised that the place I first met you in must have been a research institution once I had a chance to consider it,” she replied. “I do not know how the two are linked though. Your work may merely have provided some form of anchor for what brought me here, rather than being a part of the cause.”
Aaron nodded. He had been trying to think how their work could have caused this, but if the effect had come from Celestia’s side, the connection could be as simple as bad timing. He was relieved to think that it may at least not be their fault.
“But you clearly didn’t expect this,” he said. “Did the experiment go wrong?”
Celestia considered it for a moment. “It must have,” she replied. “There is no way that this could have been the intended outcome.”
“Why not? What was supposed to happen?”
“The intended purpose of the spell,” she said, “was to reveal the seventh Element of Harmony.”
Aaron stared in surprise back at her. “Seventh? I thought there were only six!”
Celestia shrugged. “So did we, for many centuries. Prior to my sister’s fall much research had been put into the nature of the Elements. The original five were discovered many aeons ago, and we were able to use them to defeat Discord, but we knew that they were not the complete set. The five each represent virtues, foundations on which harmony can be built. But we realised that there must be a sixth, representing some aspect of the universe itself, to fully bind them together and unite them as one.”
“Magic”, Aaron said.
“Exactly. It eventually awoke within Twilight Sparkle, and she soon fulfilled her destiny by fully uniting the six Elements together.”
Aaron massaged his forehead with his hands, working through all the information in his head, and fitting it in with what he already knew from the series.
“But where does the seventh Element come in?” he asked, lifting his head up again.
“We realised that it must exist not long after my sister’s return,” Celestia continued. “The castle where Nightmare Moon was defeated had been considered off-limits since Discord’s defeat long before, and had largely been forgotten. After Twilight and her friends managed to make it there safely, bringing its existence back into the public eye, a few academics from Canterlot University became interested. They led an expedition there, and managed to recover many valuable artefacts, including the contents of the library.
“Among the many documents was a wealth of lost legends and old research into the Elements. With the added perspective of all our work from the intervening centuries, we began to see new information buried within it. The clues pointed to the existence of another, seventh Element, representing something fundamental to the structure of the universe, perhaps even more so than magic itself.”
“A few sources provided speculation as to its identity. Some early texts gave it names such as Inspiration, but all later clues pointed to... Is there something wrong?”
Celestia paused, because Aaron had buried his head in his hands again.
“It’s just,” he said, almost laughing. “Well, Rarity’s Element was called Inspiration in early scripts for the show, before they changed it to Generosity. I only found out about that a few weeks ago.”
Celestia thought for a moment. “That is a curious coincidence. But as I was saying, later clues indicated that the seventh was far beyond the level of the original five, something much more fundamental. Other names were suggested by some sources, and I had begun to believe that it would represent Life itself. I had hoped that the spell may finally be able confirm this.
“But as I say, the spell failed. They cast it, and... and this happened.”
She closed her eyes and her horn started to glow. After a few moments, Aaron began to hear sounds in his ears, voices calling over a loud roar.
“This isn’t right! This isn’t the Elements’ magic!”
“She won’t budge!”
“It’s too strong! What do we do?”
“Everypony stand back!”
There was a loud crash, then the noises stopped and Celestia opened her eyes. “The magic of the spell was drawn into some sort of vortex, and it began to pull Twilight in as well. I tried to stop it, and ended up getting caught myself. The next thing I knew I was lying on the floor in a room I had never seen before.”
She stopped, closing her eyes once again, and took a series of long, deep breaths.
“This cannot be what was supposed to happen,” she said, her eyes still closed. “Instead of discovering a new form of magic within my universe, I was sent to another, one in which there is no magic at all. There are no Elements of Harmony here, and there never have been. Quite simply, we failed, and I have no idea why.”
Aaron thought over everything he had been told. It was a lot to learn in such a short space of time, but he had to admit that it all at least seemed to make sense.
“You seemed to be saying that the research you were working on wasn’t completely consistent,” he ventured. “Do you think it was missing something? Or maybe something was wrong?”
She opened her eyes and looked at him again. “Perhaps,” she said. “It is the only explanation that I’ve managed to come up with thus far, unless it was somehow caused by interference from your experiment.”
“I doubt it,” Aaron said. “But I suppose it’s possible. And when you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains...”
“...however improbable, must be the truth,” continued Celestia. “Have even the Fetlock Holmes books made an appearance in the series?”
Aaron shook his head, laughing. “Not exactly,” he said.
They sat in silence for a while, and Aaron reflected on everything he had learned. This was part of the reason he had wanted to meet Celestia; there was so much she could teach him. She had knowledge of an entire other universe, with its own physical laws and mythology, and the chance to learn about it was fascinating. She had told him so much, going back millennia to events fans could only speculate about, but still she must have only scratched the surface.
He imagined that a number of fanfiction writers would be overjoyed to hear all the information he had been given. Still others would be as likely to tear their hair out. He would have to write it all down when he got home. He would be Earth’s foremost authority on Equestrian history! Somehow even more so than the writers themselves it seemed, which was a difficult concept for him to get his head round.
“Anyway, I should not keep you too long,” Celestia said, interrupting his thoughts. “I had better take you back down to the ground.”
Aaron nodded, then shifted carefully over to the crate. “Before you do, though, there’s one more thing I wanted to give you.”
He pulled out an old mobile phone and held it out for Celestia to take it from him. She picked it up with her magic, and examined it carefully.
“This is a telephone,” Aaron said, “one of my old spare ones. You can use it to contact me, from anywhere, at any time. I thought that it might be useful, just in case something happened.”
Celestia stared at the small device, considering it for a long while.
“That is very thoughtful,” she said. “You will need to show me how to use it, though.”
Aaron gave her a quick demonstration of how to use it, and how to speed-dial his own phone. Once she had confirmed that she was able to work it, Celestia locked the phone and levitated it round behind her, stowing it somewhere by her wing. Aaron tried to look round and see where it went, but by the time he did it had vanished.
“With any luck I will not have much need for it,” Celestia said, “but it is a sensible precaution. Thank you, Aaron.”
“So, do you want to meet up again at any point?” he asked. “I need to go into the lab tomorrow morning at least, but—”
“Thank you, but I can manage by myself for now,” she said. She shifted around for a few moments in the silence then added, “But perhaps we should arrange to meet again in a week or so, just in case something happens.”
Aaron nodded, sighing in relief. “Well, the battery on your phone should last for about that long if you don’t use it, so... unless I hear from you beforehand, how about next Saturday, in six days’ time? Same place about midday?”
Celestia nodded, then shifted around, lowering her wing again. “Shall we get going, then?”
Aaron climbed onto Celestia’s back again. “No acrobatics this time, though,” he said as he grabbed hold of her neck.
“As you wish,” Celestia replied with a smile, then she picked the crate up, spread her wings, and lifted herself gracefully out of the cloud.
Aaron sat in the empty computer room, staring at his monitor.
He was vaguely aware of the noises coming from the next room as the engineers replaced the doors. He also had a feeling that he was supposed to be reading the article that was open on his screen.
Trying to get back into the swing of things was tricky. Whenever he attempted to get any work done, he would then remember what had happened two days ago, how he had sat on a cloud with a fictional character and discussed the workings of an entirely different universe. It was hard to see his own work as important after that.
No-one would mind if he just left and went home. They had already put his odd behaviour down to lingering shock from the explosion, and his supervisor had made it very clear that if he needed time to recover, then that was perfectly fine. But he felt that he needed to be doing something.
He glanced at his phone, lying on the desk by his keyboard, for the fifth time that minute. Not surprisingly, Celestia hadn’t rung yet. He could always call her of course, and...
And what? Every time he thought about it, he never got any further than that. What would he even say?
Hi! You’re physically impossible, and I need to know everything about you! Even in his head he couldn’t say it without sounding stupid.
You’re taking this too well. I wish you would react more logically to this whole thing. He had enough trouble talking with friends about emotions, let alone a princess he’d just met. And how were you supposed to complain about someone being too happy?
He didn’t feel like he should be making the next move anyway. Whatever her true feelings were at the moment, she quite obviously didn’t want him going out of his way for her. She wanted to have some space, and some time to herself. He couldn’t say he blamed her.
Feeling restless, Aaron picked up his phone, locked his computer, and left the lab. Trying to go and find Celestia was pointless, and he knew that, but some fresh air would do him good.
He climbed up the stairs, headed along the main corridor to the entrance, and stood there staring out at the light but persistent rain that was falling outside.
Maybe not, he thought as he turned and headed back to the lab. Hopefully Celestia had managed to find some shelter as well.
~ ~ ~
A light rain fell across the fields beyond the woods. Celestia lay under the cover of the trees, watching as the water fell from the sky.
The weather had been so pleasant over the last week that Celestia had almost forgotten that it must rain here occasionally. The clouds had the same untamed air to them as those in the Everfree Forest, so it was likely that the weather patterns here were just as changeable.
Given this, Celestia had decided not to do too much flying today. It was a pity; she had spent the previous day exploring the surrounding world, and in that one day she had discovered just how much there was to see here.
The land was so different; scenery changed from one form to another gradually, grassland transitioning to shallow valleys before rugged hills rose up, in places forming the foundation of mountains. In Equestria, everything seemed much simpler, the different biomes lying right next to each other in places with no need for the vast stretches of middle ground in between.
The humans’ influence was everywhere. Celestia had found she needed to maintain a perception spell at all times just to ensure that she wasn’t noticed. She still kept clear of the various towns and villages just in case, but even between the settlements themselves roads and railways criss-crossed the land with extraordinary density, most having at least one person travelling on them at any time. There were some quiet corners which she could explore in peace, but they were remarkably small and infrequent.
Everything still had the quiet, dead feeling to it, lacking as it was any natural magic. But once she had grown used to the strange sensation, Celestia had come to find that it only added to this world’s charm. Without that fundamental force which Equestria was so dependent on, this world instead had its own distinct ways of functioning, making even the most familiar of objects subtly different and fascinating to study.
But despite all she had found – quiet moors, wooded valleys, secluded waterfalls – she had returned to that same small patch of woodland for the night. It was the only place in this world she had any connection to, so in a small way it felt like home to her.
Now it was acting as her shelter from the rain. Ponies were naturally outdoor animals and never shied away from a light rain when it was scheduled, but Celestia had to admit to herself that once more her royal habits were getting the better of her.
Still, maybe if she was going to be here for a while, she should try to get more used to such things. Standing up and dusting herself off, she walked out into the rain and headed off along the stream.
~ ~ ~
The rain ran cleanly off her coat, kept out of her wings by the natural oils on her feathers. But it gradually began to saturate her mane and tail, and they hung heavily from her, the weight of the water interfering with their natural flow. Not wanting to spoil them on the muddy ground, Celestia reined in some of the magic that maintained them, and the ethereal flows receded back into fine strands of pale pink hair which lay flat against her body in the rain. The trick felt a lot easier than she expected, and she wondered if this was a reaction to the absence of ambient magic, making it easier to pull her own back in.
The rain was cooler than the showers she was used to, but she found the experience very pleasant. It felt different from Equestrian rain, the droplets much more unevenly sized and spaced, yet another subtle but intriguing variation. She would have to start making notes of everything she found here; the amount they could learn about the workings of their own world beneath the magic was unimaginable.
After she had been walking for a while, long after the woods had faded away and been replaced by rough hedgerows, A distant sound caught Celestia’s attention. It was impossible to identify over the continual patter of the rain, but it felt very familiar.
Trotting along the by stream in the sound’s general direction, she listened intently, her eyes scanning her surroundings for any sign of the source. When she heard it again it was coming from over the hedge to the left of the stream, close enough to be right in the neighbouring field.
She slowed to a walk and approached the hedge, climbing up the shallow incline away from the stream. Her heart jumped when she saw the creature in the field.
It was another pony! No, not a pony, she corrected herself. It was a full-sized horse, like those from Saddle Arabia, built much more on her own proportions than other Equestrians. He was cantering in bursts around the otherwise-empty field unperturbed by the rain, snorting occasionally in enjoyment, or at least something which resembled it.
She watched the chestnut stallion for a long while, excited to have finally met one of the race on which she had been modelled. Either they were very rare in this world or she had just been unlucky, but she had yet to see any horses or ponies in her limited explorations.
It was strange to think that this stallion, so familiar in comparison to the humans who lived here, was still just an unthinking beast, lesser even than the smallest creature in Equestria. She was modelled on them so there must be similarities, but how deep would the differences run? Would they ever be able to communicate with each other? Could he even recognise her as one of his species?
As if answering her question, the horse stopped in his tracks, having seen her watching him over the hedge. He stared at her, his hooves shifting continually on the ground, his ears pointed intently towards her. Celestia tried not to meet his eyes, not wanting to scare him away.
He cantered back and forth across the field a few times, watching her uncertainly. Noticing how he always stayed within the field’s boundaries, Celestia realised that he must be domesticated. He wasn’t a wild animal after all, but a pet, looked after by humans. Was this the case for all horses? Perhaps that was why she had not encountered any before.
Eventually, he came to a halt in the centre of the field and stood facing her. After several seconds, he shook his head, throwing some of the water out of his mane, and took a few steps forward.
He came to a stop again, watching her. Celestia wondered if this was meant as an invitation, and started to open her wings in order to cross the hedge. The stallion immediately backed up, whinnying in surprise, his ears folding back against his head, then he turned and bolted for the far end of the field.
Celestia silently cursed her foolishness. Aaron had already told her that winged horses didn’t exist in this world. She stowed her wings again and jumped carefully over the hedge, trying to appear as unthreatening as she could under the circumstances, then stood still at the edge of the field and waited.
He was galloping back and forth again, staying close to the far edge of the field maybe a hundred yards from her. He didn’t seem to be trying to find a way out though, and kept looking over at her, his ears fixed again on her. Celestia wondered if he was testing her, trying to work out whether or not she was friendly. In an attempt to reassure him, she lowered her head slightly and relaxed her ears, letting them turn out to the side. It felt like she was trying to learn an entirely new language, communicating without using words.
She waited patiently over the next few minutes, trying to act casual, until the stallion calmed down and again started to approach her. He must have been curious about her as well, if he was willing to give her a second chance. Cautiously, Celestia took slow steps forward, watching for any sign of discomfort from him.
Perhaps I was quick to judge, she thought to herself as they moved slowly toward each other. He may not have the same level of sapience as her, but he was clearly an intelligent being, showing care and caution, signs of emotion, and even a limited ability to communicate. He wouldn’t be writing a novel any time soon, but Celestia could understand why humans would enjoy the companionship of one of these animals.
She also couldn’t help but think to herself that he was a magnificent specimen, beast or not. He was taller even than her, though not by much, and had the heavy build of a strong worker. His think chestnut coat was expertly groomed, no doubt well looked-after by his owners. While his coat and mane colours matched exactly, he had a distinctive white stripe running right down the middle of his face, matching the feathering around his hooves. Both of these features intrigued Celestia, being practically unheard of in Equestria.
But then she supposed that many things considered commonplace in Equestria would stand out like a sore hoof here. If the fauna she had seen so far was anything to go by they had nowhere near the same variation in coat colours here, and she had already noticed how Chestnut was lacking a cutie mark.
So you’re naming him now? she thought, chuckling at herself. Well, he probably wouldn’t mind, at least.
While she had been thinking, the two of them had managed to draw quite close to each other, each taking turns making gradually longer advances. Celestia now stood only a few yards from him, as he continued to shift around uncertainly. Trying to interpret the various signals she had been getting from him, she made her best attempt at seeming welcoming and non-threatening. She relaxed her face, pointing her ears forward in his direction, and held her wings as close to her sides as she was able to, making sure not to move them just in case.
Apparently satisfied, Chestnut approached her and sniffed inquisitively at her horn for a few moments. The feel of his nose against it tickled, and she had to work hard to avoid giggling. He then lowered his head, holding his muzzle up to hers and blowing through his nose onto her. Celestia was momentarily taken aback by his impertinence, but figuring it was intended to be friendly, she returned the favour.
That seemed to have the desired effect, and he relaxed considerably. She had finally managed to break the ice and gain his trust. His nervous restlessness appeared to be replaced by a more excited energy, and she wondered if this was from meeting somepony new, or just from finding something strange to play with.
Chestnut then ran off, cantering in a wide circle around her. After circling her twice he came back over to her, snorting and digging at the ground.
He seemed to want her to do something, but she had no idea what. When he set off at again, she decided that it was at least worth a try and cantered off after him, chasing him across the field. This wasn’t exactly what she would normally consider a pleasant bonding activity, but in spite of that she found herself enjoying it.
Chestnut was clearly enjoying himself as well. He zig-zagged around the field, playing with her, daring her to catch up with him.
As she ran round the field, Celestia felt deep, suppressed emotions welling up inside her. Buried somewhere beneath the princess, behind the character she had been given, was the spirit of a real horse. That original concept which had given form to her race lingered, still very much a part of her.
She could feel the mud flying out from beneath her shoes as she cantered across the field. It splashed up against her, dirtying her pristine white fur, but she didn’t care. The rain ran in streams across her face, but she barely noticed it, too caught up in the moment. She relished the feeling of the raw physical power flowing through the muscles in her legs, so very different from the magical energy she was more accustomed to.
As new, hidden parts of her started to emerge, she began to understand Chestnut better. The nuances of his body language opened up to her like a book, and she began to spot the subtle tells of his emotions. For a moment it reminded her of the empathic connection Equestria’s magic gave her to its residents, and the thoughts of home filled her with warmth.
Then, during her moment of distraction, Chestnut paused briefly and kicked his legs back at her. She saw the playful intent, but her own instincts took over and she leapt into the air away from him, hovering above the ground.
Seeing this, Chestnut whinnied and bolted for the back of the field again, leaving Celestia hanging in the air, cringing at her faux pas. She turned and glided back out towards the stream, settling down just beyond the hedge and looking back to into the field. The stallion was galloping around, neighing in confusion, seeing her flying having been a bit too much for him to understand.
“And I was doing so well,” she said to herself as she walked away from the field, back in the direction of the woods. The rain had eased up now, so she let her mane down again. It felt strange having the hairs lying so close to her skin, and she was much more comfortable with it in its natural state.
As for Chestnut, she started wondering if perhaps it had been unwise to try and approach him at all. Given how different they were it was a miracle that he had been so receptive. But when she had seen him she had felt so insatiably curious that she couldn’t resist at least trying. It was just a shame that he was so difficult to communicate with.
That sounds familiar, said a voice in the back of her mind.
Celestia soared high above the landscape in the evening light. Now that the past few days’ rain had died down she was finally able to explore again, and the princess had taken full advantage of this opportunity.
One of the many new places she had come across was a narrow wooded valley; a deep gulley cut into the earth by a small stream. Something about the harsh terrain and ancient, twisted trees had reminded her of the Everfree forest, and the familiarity had been strangely comforting.
Partly because of this, and also just to get a bit of variation, she had decided to return there for the night. Banking left, she spiralled slowly down towards the valley below her, slowing to a hover above the treeline and lowering herself through to the woodland floor.
If anything, this spot was much more suitable for her than the woods she had been sleeping in over the past few nights. It was a lot further from the nearest settlement and the landscape was much less passable, so the odds of a human discovering her during the night was significantly reduced. It wasn’t too isolated, though; it would only take about an hour for her to fly back for her meeting with Aaron the next day.
As she walked through the trees, looking for somewhere to settle down, she began to wonder what she was even going to do when they met again. It wasn’t like she needed his help to survive, after all. She had managed so far, and she refused to believe that she’d need to do so for much longer. Twilight and the others would find her eventually.
It was getting close to two weeks, though, and there had been no sign of rescue yet. What would happen if rescue never came? She realised that at some point she would have to start considering what to do in the long term. Perhaps she would eventually have to reveal her presence here. That would take a lot of careful planning, though.
And what about Equestria? What effect would her absence have there? Of course the nation had managed with only one ruler before, but the ponies were still only just beginning to accept Luna back. Things would not be easy, at least at first.
Drawing her thoughts back to this world, Celestia spotted a patch of soft moss nestled in a gap between two large rocks. It was almost completely dark now, so she settled down on the makeshift bed and closed her eyes.
As she was drifting off to sleep, she heard the sound of a branch snapping in the distance. She chuckled to herself; sleeping in the company of wild animals had taken some getting used to. One morning she had woken to find a spider crawling across her nose; hardly a pleasant experience, but the reminder of how out of place she must seem – a princess sleeping in a forest – had still amused her.
As the woods went quiet again, the silence disturbed only by the quiet babbling of the stream, she curled up and let herself fall asleep.
~ ~ ~
Celestia was in her bedroom in Canterlot castle. Rolling over on the soft bed, she looked at the carriage clock on the mantlepiece and saw that it was nearly ten in the morning. She had overslept!
She leapt out of bed and stumbled out onto the balcony, but the sun had already risen. Luna must have decided to do it for her.
Going back inside she went over to the dresser to prepare herself for the day, but for some reason her tiara was missing. A bit confused, she went over to the door and headed out into the rest of the castle.
The corridor was long and deserted. The sun’s light shone in beams through the windows along the left-hand wall, in a peculiar contrast to the dark banners bearing the sign of the moon which hung on the other wall.
She walked along, trying to remember the way down to the dining hall, but the corridor seemed new and unfamiliar. There were numerous doors along the right-hand wall, but the signs on them were all in a strange, angular script she didn’t understand.
“Good morning, Celestia,” Prince Blueblood said as he emerged from one of the doors further along. He walked up to her and gave a small bow. “It’s wonderful to have you back,” he continued. “I was concerned that our little squash tournament would have to go unfinished!”
“Good morning, Blueblood,” Celestia replied with a nod. “Have you seen my sister?” she asked.
The prince looked over his shoulder uneasily, saying nothing for a few seconds. “She is hard to see,” he said, turning back to face her. “I think she may be in the dining hall, though. You may still catch breakfast if you hurry,” he added. “The chef made pancakes today!
“Did you hear that?” he said suddenly, his composure changing in an instant. He stared in shock at something behind Celestia. She looked round to see what it was, but there was nothing behind her. She turned again, and the rest of the corridor was deserted as well.
She continued down the corridor, which seemed to stretch on forever. It was definitely Canterlot Castle, but she couldn’t place it anywhere.
Then she heard laughter echoing from an open door ahead. She cantered down to the door and ran through, and found herself standing in the castle’s grand dining hall.
The long table running down the centre of the room was overflowing with food: plates piled high with toast, croissants and pancakes, huge bowls of fruit salad, a spectrum of jams from orange to crystal berry, and massive pitchers of ice-cold fruit juice. Celestia suddenly realised how hungry she was. It felt like she hadn’t eaten in weeks.
“Auntie! You're back!” Princess Cadance called from further along the table. She and Shining Armor were sitting there sharing a bowl of strawberries.
Cadance jumped up and ran over to give Celestia a hug. “I missed you,” she said, smiling up at her aunt. “It’s been really quiet without you around. Come and have some breakfast,” she said, leading Celestia back over to the table. “Chef put on a special selection for you.”
She led Celestia to a place that had been set across from her and her husband. Laid out on the table was a plate of turf, with a bowl of heather and a glass of muddy water next to it.
Celestia stared down at the uninviting selection, giving it a wary sniff. Her stomach gave a deafening growl. She glanced back along the rest of the table, which was suddenly completely empty.
“Are you sure you should be eating that?” Cadance asked. “It doesn’t look very good for you.”
“I am a pony,” Celestia said, sitting down defiantly. “I can manage perfectly fine on grass.”
“Are you sure?” Cadance persisted. “You don’t look very well.”
Shining Armor chuckled. “Twily’s been really excited since you got back,” he said. “It’s a good thing she managed to find your mistake in the spell.”
“My mistake?” Celestia asked. “But I—”
“And who’d have thought the seventh Element would turn out to be that?” he continued, laughing. “It’s so obvious when you think about it now!”
“Turn out to be what—”
“Of course, we had to make the bearer a prince,” Cadance said dismissively. She gestured over to a tall stallion who was standing against the far wall.
“Good morning, Celestia,” he said.
“Good morning, Chestnut,” she replied.
“He’s been great to have around,” Cadance continued, “now that you’re not ruling over Equestria any more.”
Celestia looked back at Cadance. “What do you mean?”
Blueblood sat down next to Celestia and started helping himself to a bowl of fruit salad. “Well, you were managing so well on your own we decided we would do the same,” he said. “You left Luna with a lot to deal with, so we’ve all been helping out, but I don’t think the kingdom’s ever been stronger than it is now!”
“Where is my sister?” Celestia asked.
The other occupants of the room shared confused glances.
“She was in court last time I saw her,” Cadance said uneasily. “But she’s hidden at the moment. You shouldn’t disturb her.”
Celestia got up and walked back to the door. “I don’t care,” she said. “I wish to speak with my sister, and—”
“Did you hear that?” Shining Armor said.
“Hear what?” Celestia asked. She looked back at the dining hall. Cadance and Shining Armor were alone again, and were staring up at the ceiling in shock. She followed their gaze, but couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. When she looked back down again the dining hall was empty and silent.
Celestia was starting to feel impatient. Nopony seemed to want her to see Luna. Why were they keeping her from her own sister?
She made her way over to the door, opening it and peering out into the corridor. It looked the same as before: long and empty.
She raised her hoof to step across the threshold, but was pushed back when Twilight Sparkle arrived in front of her, followed by a pair of guards. They pushed her back into the dining hall and locked the door behind them.
“Where are you going, Celestia?” Twilight asked, her voice stern.
“I wish to speak with my sister,” she replied.
“You know you can’t do that,” Twilight said, shaking her head. “She’s not here right now.”
“I was told she was—”
“Oh, I’m so glad you’re back,” Twilight said, suddenly excited. She ran forward and gave Celestia a hug. “It’s great that you were able to find a way back all on your own!”
Celestia backed away, looking down at Twilight in confusion. “But I thought you repaired the spell!”
“What do you mean?” Twilight said, laughing. “Why would you need my help with anything? Or anypony else’s, for that matter?”
“Where is my sister?” Celestia asked again.
“She’s away,” Twilight responded, walking past Celestia and heading over to the dining table. “She’s behind the wall. You won’t be able to talk to her.”
“But I need to speak with her!” Celestia shouted, slamming her hoof down on the table and knocking over Twilight’s juice.
Twilight looked back up at her with a sad expression.
“Please, Celestia,” she said. “Some things just aren’t possible. You’ll have to let go eventually.”
“I’m not ready yet,” Celestia sighed. Her body started to feel heavy, her legs buckling under her.
“Did you hear that?” Twilight asked. She looked round in confusion, then stared down at the floor.
Celestia looked down as well, but still couldn’t see anything.
When she looked up the long table had disappeared. Everypony was in the dining hall again, circled around her. A large number of guards joined them in the circle, completely cutting her off from the door.
“You should not be here,” Blueblood said.
“It’s dangerous,” Shining Armor continued.
The circle started moving in towards her.
“But this is my home!” Celestia shouted, whirling around in panic.
“This is not your home,” Twilight said.
“You should leave,” Cadance added.
There was the sound of a twig snapping behind her. Celestia spun round, searching for the source of the alien sound.
“There it was,” the group said in unison.
Suddenly there was a distant explosion, something hit her side, and a blinding rush of pain tore the dream apart.
~ ~ ~
“…true true friend helps a friend in need…”
Aaron lay in bed and fumbled around in the dark, knocking things off his bedside table as he tried to find his phone.
“Who on earth would be calling at this hour?” he grumbled. Eventually he found the phone lying on the floor by his bed and held it up, shielding his eyes from the glow of the screen as he tried to read the caller ID.
“‘Spare phone’,” he read. “I don’t think I’m calling myself—”
Realisation dawned and Aaron sat bolt upright, suddenly wide awake.
“Celestia! Is that you?” he said, trying not to shout, as he answered the call.
“Yes, Aaron, it is,” she replied.
“Where are you?” Aaron asked. “I’m hearing a lot of wind.”
“I am flying.”
There was a long pause as Aaron sat waiting for Celestia to say something. Eventually he gave up and asked, “is something wrong?”
There was a sigh from Celestia’s end. “I believe I have been attacked,” she said.
Jumping in surprise for the second time that minute, Aaron leapt out of bed and woke his laptop up, hurriedly searching through news sites.
“By who?” he asked, still trying not to shout out and wake his housemates. “Where were you?”
“I was sleeping in woodland a little way north from here,” she explained, “when a number of humans – two I think – fired something at me. I do not know why, but—”
“…Evidence of illegal poaching on the moors,’” Aaron said, reading from a news article he had just found. “Why didn’t I check for that?” he groaned, burying his head in his hand.
“Do not blame yourself, Aaron,” Celestia said. “I would prefer to look after myself, and not have you worrying over me.”
Aaron wasn’t listening, and was busy digging through his cupboards. “Do you need any first aid?” he said. “I think I’ve got a kit in here somewhere, and… and I could bring a tent with me, maybe. Poachers wouldn’t attack a camp site. I could get to where we met in about an hour, and—”
“Aaron, please,” Celestia said, cutting him off forcefully. “I assure you, I am fine,” she continued. “My magic protected me from being injured, and I will be fine until we meet tomorrow. I do not require assistance.”
Despite being unable to see her, Aaron found it hard to believe Celestia. He could hear her laboured breathing, and she did not sound okay. She was holding something back… again.
“This is getting ridiculous,” he said, sitting down and massaging his forehead with his free hand. “Celestia, If you’re not hurt, you don’t need anything, and we’re meeting tomorrow anyway… then why did you call me?”
Again, there was a long pause, but Aaron waited this time. Eventually, Celestia gave a deep sigh and said, “your company would be appreciated,” before hanging up.
About an hour later, a full rucksack on his back and a small tent under his arm, Aaron was making his way back across the starlit fields. As luck would have it he was a member of the university’s outdoor society, so he already had everything he needed to be able to spend a few nights in the woods.
Hopefully Celestia would be there already. There was a chance that she may not have arrived back yet, but if it took her more than an hour to get back that would be cause for concern in itself.
This was definitely not how he would have liked their next meeting to have happened, but was having mixed feelings about their conversation. On the one hand she had still been hiding things from him, staying reserved and enigmatic, but at the end she had finally accepted his offer of help. Maybe he was finally getting through to her. It was a shame that it took her getting shot for this to happen, though.
And then there was a chance that she was actually hurt, despite her insistence otherwise. He couldn’t say exactly what, but something had sounded off in her voice this night had clearly had an effect on her.
When he reached the tree-line, he pulled out a torch and started looking around between the trees for signs of Celestia. It didn’t take long for him to give up on that method; whether she had arrived back before him or not there was no way he was going to be able to find anything in the dark.
“Celestia?” he called. The sound was quickly swallowed up by the trees, drowned out by the rustling of leaves in the breeze. There wasn’t any response at first, but after a few moments there was a faint pulse of light deeper into the woods.
Keeping the torch out to avoid tripping on any roots, Aaron made his way towards the source of the light. Half a minute later he passed under a hole in the canopy. The hole looked unnervingly recent, as if something had fallen through the trees not long before. The twigs and leaves scattered across the ground gave a similar impression.
The trail of debris led Aaron a little way further into the woods until he found a small clearing, and Celestia.
She looked awful. she was lying on the ground on her side, visibly exhausted, her wings lying limp and her chest rising and falling as she drew deep breaths. Her once flowing mane was now just a mess of tangled pink hair, and the feathers on her wings were bent out of place with leaves and bits of mud clinging to them. She looked even worse for wear than she had after arriving at the lab.
For a good minute Aaron just stood and stared, dumbfounded. Given that she had been shot less than two hours ago she could have been in a much worse condition, but he still wasn’t quite prepared to see Celestia in such a sorry state. He knelt down next to her, placing a hand gently on her neck.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
Celestia opened an eye and looked up at him.
“I have felt better,” she said, laughing weakly. “I had assumed my magic would protect me from injury, but it appears that some of my flight feathers were damaged. A number broke off as I was landing, and I lost control.”
Aaron glanced back to the damaged trees, then at Celestia’s wing. There was quite a large gap visible where a number of feathers were missing.
“Is there anything I can do?” he asked. “I brought the first aid kit, just in case.”
Celestia closed her eye again, and with a groan moved her wing to the side. Aaron stood up and walked round to get a better view of her; just by the wing’s joint there was a patch of grazed skin, still red and sore.
“That’s where it hit?” he asked. Celestia nodded. Aaron knelt down and looked more closely at the exposed skin.
“I guess you were at least part right about your magic,” he said. “This could have been a lot worse. I think I should clean this up a bit, though,” he added. "In case it gets infected."
Celestia raised her head and opened her mouth as if to protest, then closed it and lay down again.
“If that will help, then please do,” she said instead.
Aaron pulled the rucksack off his back and removed the first-aid kit. It was a fairly small kit, but it did include a bottle of rubbing alcohol and some sterile cloths.
“I’m sorry, but this is going to sting a bit,” he said as he unscrewed the cap on the bottle. He poured a small amount onto a cloth and placed it as lightly as he could onto the wound.
Celestia immediately tensed up, whinnying loudly. Her wing reflexively flared out, knocking Aaron backwards onto the ground.
“Sorry,” Celestia said. “It’s a long time since I was properly injured last, and I wasn’t quite prepared.”
“Er, that’s okay,” Aaron said as he picked himself up, rubbing his chin where the wing had made contact. “Maybe we should talk about something,” he suggested, “to take your mind off the pain?”
Celestia shrugged. “Anything in particular?”
“Well, what exactly happened to you?” he asked as he moved slowly back towards Celestia and started brushing dirt away from the wound before starting again.
“I was asleep and two poachers shot me,” Celestia replied. “I don’t think there’s much more to say.”
“What happened after, though?” Aaron asked, trying to keep the conversation going. “What about the poachers?”
“I did not hurt them, if that is what you are wondering,” Celestia replied. “But I… I panicked and wiped their memories of the entire night. I seem to be making a habit of this. After that, I left to return here and made contact with you.”
“Even though you didn’t want my help?”
Celestia chuckled. “I guess my subconscious is somewhat more sensible than I am,” she said. “But could we talk about something else, please?”
Aaron nodded, but his mind immediately drew a blank. He scanned around the area to try and think of something else to talk about, and his eyes eventually found Celestia’s regalia, lying in a pile by one of the trees. The horseshoes looked rather scuffed and dented from the combination of two weeks’ continual use and the crash, but the tiara and peytral were still in immaculate condition, just like after the explosion.
“Your tiara,” he said, latching on to the thought. “It doesn’t look like the fall damaged it at all.”
“Enchanted dragon-forged alloy,” Celestia explained. “It’s the toughest – and most expensive – material known to ponies. Nothing less than a fully-grown dragon would even be able to scratch it.”
Aaron paused and raised his eyebrows. “That’s… impressive,” he said.
“When you live as long as I do, durability is something of a necessity,” she commented, before hissing in pain as Aaron placed the cloth on her again.
“Sorry,” he said hastily, moving back in case she lashed out again, but the princess managed to keep her limbs under control this time. “It doesn’t seem to have worked for your shoes, though,” he mused as he returned to his work.
“They are made of a softer material,” Celestia replied. “If my horseshoes had no give there would be no point in wearing them.”
Aaron thought about this for a while. Although, or perhaps because, it was all just minutiae, he realised once again that he was probably the only person in the world who knew these facts about the world of Equestria. These details had likely not even crossed the writers’ minds, not being important to the plot in any way, so the knowledge had effectively never existed in this world before now. But as far as he could tell it all fitted in, as if it had always been true.
“So the tiara’s protected by magic?” he asked. “Is that permanent, or does it have to be renewed?”
“Eventually, yes,” Celestia said. “But unless I’m planning on fighting any wars in them the spells will likely last a long time yet.”
“I was wondering about that,” Aaron said. “The part about spells not lasting forever, I mean. It sounded like you were expecting your magic to protect you completely, but apparently it hasn’t. If magic doesn’t last forever, can your own supply run out?”
Celestia gave a pained chuckle. “Until today I would have said no,” she replied, “because it never has before. But you can see my current state better than I can. I wasn’t able to deflect the attack completely, and it’s taking all I have just to keep these small wounds safe. I doubt this will drain me completely, but until the wound heals I will be severely limited. I have even had to let my mane down to compensate.”
Aaron looked over at her tail, which was lying across the ground a few feet from him. He ran his hand across it, but it just felt like normal hair, not the strange ethereal flow he had felt last time.
His scientists’ instincts took over, and questions immediately started forming in his head as he considered these new points. Instead of getting lost in all the details though, he decided to start with more general questions.
“So why would it run out now?” he asked. “Where does the magic even come from?”
Celestia shifted a bit on the ground, lifting her head up so she could see Aaron to give him a weary look.
“We could talk about something else if you prefer,” he said, raising his hands defensively.
“No, it’s okay,” she said, laying her head on the ground again. “While I would much prefer to have conversations like this with a clear head, the questions need to be answered now more than ever.
“But these are not easy questions,” she continued. “We have struggled to find answers to them for many centuries.”
“Why is it that hard?” Aaron asked, surprised.
“Studying the flow of magic in Equestria is a remarkably delicate process,” Celestia explained. “It would be like trying to follow the path of a single raindrop during a hurricane; there is simply too much happening in the background.
“We have managed to make some progress, however,” she continued. “It is clear that everything in the wor… in my world has some magic in it, and nopony is completely certain where it comes from. But we do know that when a pony uses magic it comes from within them, and is not drawn in from the outside world.”
“But surely it has to come from somewhere,” Aaron said.
“What makes you say that?”
Aaron shrugged. “I guess it just feels right,” he said. “Like energy and momentum and things like that are conserved, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some sort of law of conservation of magic. So all magic that a pony produces would have to have come from somewhere… Food,” he finished, the idea falling together in his head.
“That was my guess as well,” Celestia said. “Like everything else in the world, plants contain magic. When we eat them we absorb that magic so it can be used later.”
“But there’s no magic in the plants here,” Aaron added.
Celestia nodded. “Exactly,” she said. “I’ve been surviving off what I had when I arrived, but it would appear that my reserves have been running down over time. Eventually I will run out entirely.”
“I think I’m done here,” Aaron said as he started packing the first aid kit away. Celestia started to pick herself up, rolling into a sitting position and letting her wings lie across the ground at her sides.
Aaron put the rolled-up tent down on the ground in front of Celesta, using it as a makeshift seat. “What happens when it does run out?” he asked.
Celestia shrugged again, raising her head in thought. “I am not certain,” she said. “Magic deficiency is not unheard of, but it is always as the result of some other condition. Obviously I will lose the ability to cast spells, and I will likely be unable to fly as well.”
“Why not?” Aaron asked, looking round at Celestia’s wings. “The damage doesn’t look good, but it doesn’t look permanent either. Won’t it heal?”
Celestia shook her head. “Unfortunately it takes more than just wings for a pony to fly,” she said. “For a normal pegasus like Fluttershy or Rainbow Dash to create enough lift to get off the ground, they would need wings rivalling my own. And as for me and my sister…”
She shifted her weight again, moving round to give a clearer view of her torso and wings.
“I am a little above something which scholars refer to as a ‘loading threshold’,” she continued. “If I had wings large enough to carry my entire weight, they would be too heavy for me to use. Without pegasus magic to reduce my weight while in flight I would be effectively grounded.”
“Wow,” Aaron said, staring blankly into the distance. Feeling restless as his mind swam with even more questions, he occupied himself unpacking the tent and putting the frame together. “Does that ever happen?” he asked.
“Occasionally,” Celestia said. “Sometimes a severe illness or injury can end up taking all of a pony’s magic to heal. Until it passes, the pony is left unable to use their magic for anything else. Cloudsdale’s hospital in fact needs to have a reinforced floor to stop patients falling through,” she added.
Aaron nodded, but continued to put the tent up in silence as he thought. Celestia, meanwhile, just sat and waited patiently. Once the tent was finished, Aaron went back and sat on the ground in front of her.
“You know, the way you describe it, it almost feels like magic is there to fill in the gaps in your world,” he said.
Celestia turned her head sideways in confusion. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“Er, I’m not sure how best to put it,” Aaron continued. “But it sort of feels like pegasi were designed with undersized wings, and then magic was used in to explain how they can still fly.”
Celestia nodded, considering the idea for a while. “I think I understand,” she said. “Certainly some aspects of magic were always part of the writers’ intent, but the concept has expanded to cover any additional inconsistencies – to fill in the gaps, as you say.”
“Yeah, something like that,” Aaron replied. “I’m not sure I’d call them inconsistencies, though; that feels a bit unfair. Artistic license, maybe?"
Celestia nodded, but didn't respond. Aaron could see that she was deep in thought as well.
“I guess this must be quite strange for you,” he continued. “From your point of view all this has been true for thousands of years, if not more, but from my point of view nothing in your world has existed for more than a few years. A few decades at most.”
“It has indeed taken some getting used to,” Celestia said with a nod. “But at the same time it has been a fascinating experience. I have learned a lot about my own world just from studying this one.”
She then yawned. As he watched her, Aaron smiled as the sheer surreality of the situation dawned on him again, before being overcome by the irresistible urge to yawn as well.
“I think I could do with getting some more sleep,” Celestia said. “My night so far has been disturbed, to say the least.”
“Yeah, me too,” Aaron said as he stood and went back over to where his bag was lying. “Well, I’ll be right here if you need anything,” he continued. “If not, I’ll see you in the morning, I guess.”
Celestia nodded, then started moving round into a sleeping position. Aaron threw the bag into the tent and started to crawl into the cramped space.
“Aaron,” Celestia said from behind him. He paused and turned round, finding her with her head raised up, looking back at him.
“Thank you,” she said.
They looked at each other in silence for a few seconds, then Aaron nodded his head in response and turned back to enter the tent.
At the source of the stream was a small pool, where clear spring-water welled up through the rocks below. The pond was completely still, sheltered by the tall trees which surrounded its banks, and its surface shone in the early evening light.
The stillness was disturbed for a brief moment as a stone skipped across the water before sinking under with a small splash.
Aaron stood on the bank, a small collection of flat stones in one hand. He threw another one out over the water and it bounced across, falling in just a few feet short of the far bank.
He glanced back at the trees, where he had left his belongings. Beyond them he could see Celestia walking amongst the undergrowth, looking for plants to eat. While he had enough supplies with him to last a few days before restocking, she had chosen to continue living off the land for simplicity.
It was strange seeing her like this. Her tiara still sat proudly on her head, and it was hard to ignore her wings and horn, but with her mane still short she looked almost like a real horse.
Her magic was beginning to return, though. It was a lot weaker now than it had been, and the only visible change was a very slight buoyancy in her mane and tail, but it was no longer solely occupied with tending to her injuries.
Neither of them had talked much about the incident since it had happened, even though nearly two days had passed now. Aaron was glad to see her becoming more comfortable with having company, but he had decided not to push too hard in case it just upset things again. And just being able to spend a few quiet days exploring the countryside had been a welcome holiday.
He then looked up at the sky. The light was starting to fade, and they would need to get moving soon if they were going to get back and find a spot to camp. He decided to give Celestia a little while longer, though.
~ ~ ~
Five minutes and numerous thrown stones later, Aaron heard hoofsteps behind him. He turned round and saw Celestia walking over.
“Ready to head back?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you,” Celestia replied, nodding. “I have enjoyed this. The peace and quiet has given me time to think.”
“About anything in particular?” Aaron asked.
“Everything, really,” she said. “This experience has given me a lot to think about, and I fear I have been ignoring it. There are many questions to answer.”
“No doubt,” Aaron said. “Well, if you want to talk about them, I’d be happy to listen. I guess you don’t get much peace in Canterlot,” he added as he skimmed the last of his stones across the pool.
“Indeed not,” she said, stepping forward to the water’s edge and looking down at her reflection. “I am allowed to take sabbaticals as I require,” she continued, “but with so many ponies depending on me it can be difficult to find the time.”
“I guess Equestria has the advantage that you've got your friends around you, though,” Aaron said.
Celestia nodded but didn’t answer, just continuing to stare at her reflection.
That was a stupid thing to say, Aaron thought, scolding himself mentally as he turned and went over to pick up his belongings. When he reached the rucksack he knelt down and started to make sure everything was secure, but got distracted when he noticed Celestia’s regalia piled up by one of the trees. He hadn’t even noticed that she wasn’t wearing them when she came over—
There was a loud splash from behind him. He turned round and saw Celestia in the middle of the pond, rolling around in the water.
“Having fun over there?” he called.
She rolled over to her front again and threw her head backwards, splashing water everywhere. She shook her mane, and the spray of water droplets trailing from it almost made it look like its old, full self again.
“I couldn’t resist,” she called back, “and I have not had many opportunities to bathe properly over the last few weeks.”
Aaron laughed, then glanced up at the sky. It was starting to turn purple as the sun set. Part of him wanted to move on so he could set up the tent in the light, but at the same time he didn’t want to disturb Celestia. Seeing her actually happy had unfortunately been a rare occurrence for him. He sat down on his rucksack and watched as she swam back and forth in the shallow pool, occasionally ducking her head under and throwing water across her back.
“We should get going before it gets dark,” he said after a while. “Unless you want to just camp here tonight.”
At this comment, Celestia paused and looked up. She glanced off down the stream, thinking, then turned to Aaron.
“I think I would prefer to head back,” she said, and she started climbing back out of the pool. As she rose out of the water she spread her wings and shook them, spraying a fine mist around her and filling the air with rainbow patterns.
“That’s just showing off,” Aaron said, laughing. “Are you ready to go, then?”
Celestia nodded. “Just about,” she said. “I just need to get dressed.”
They gathered up their belongings, Aaron helping Celestia dress to avoid overusing her magic. They then headed off back in the direction of a path that cut across the fields towards the woods.
Aaron looked sideways up at Celestia. She was still smiling, fortunately. Now’s as good a time as any, he thought to himself.
“How are you doing, Celestia?” he asked carefully.
Celestia paused for a moment. Aaron watched her, wondering which way this would end up going.
“I’m doing well, I think,” she said eventually.
“You think?” Aaron responded. “Anything you want to talk about?”
Celestia chuckled. “I know what you’re trying to do, Aaron,” she said. She paused and looked down at him. “But as a matter of fact, there is,” she continued.
“Like I said, this experience has raised many questions,” she said as they started walking again. “Questions about this world, about my world, and indeed about myself. There is one in particular that has occupied my thoughts over the last few days.”
“Did you want to talk about it?” Aaron asked.
“Yes, and I was wondering if you could tell me what you think the answer is.” She turned and looked down at him. “Do I exist?”
Aaron thought for a few moments, scratching the back of his head with his hand. “I’m not sure how to answer that,” he said uncertainly.
“But the thing is,” Celestia continued, “you already have. It was one of the first things you said when we met. You told me that I was made up. That I was a story.”
Aaron was slightly taken aback by the comment. He could barely remember what he had said back then, and, while it was technically true, it didn’t feel like the right thing to say now.
“That’s not what I meant,” he said. “I was trying to say that—”
Celestia waved a hoof, cutting him off mid-sentence. “Please,” she said, “don’t try to side-step the subject. That is what I am trying to avoid. If it makes the question clearer, allow me to tell you about somepony I know.”
Aaron looked up curiously. “Anypony I’ve heard of?” he asked.
“I doubt it,” Celestia continued. “Her name is Rosepetal. She owns a small florist’s shop in Las Pegasus. Although she is skilled at her art she has never gained a huge amount of attention. She has no grand destiny, no great purpose to fulfil, but she is happy in her life.”
Celestia went silent again. Aaron waited for her to finish the story, but she just continued walking quietly.
“I’m not sure I follow,” he said eventually.
“That is because she actually has nothing to do with this discussion,” Celestia replied. “In fact, she is not even real. I have never met a florist called Rosepetal; I just made her up. She is nothing but words from my mouth.”
Celestia stopped again and turned to look at Aaron. “But this raises a problem,” she said. “At one time that is all I was as well. Here and now it does not seem strange to say that Rosepetal does not exist, and not too long ago you would have said the same of me. But now you have met me, should this change your answer?”
Aaron’s head began to hurt. He had had various conversations remarkably similar to this one before and was familiar with the problem, but that didn’t make it any less tricky. Over the years, as science advanced, humanity’s understanding of the universe sometimes shifted to the point that entire concepts had to be redefined. It was like how the discovery of thousands of objects looking like Pluto had effectively broken the existing notion of what a planet was.
“I see your point,” he said. “Where should you draw the line between fiction and reality?”
“And if there is no line,” Celestia added, “then is the concept of ‘reality’ even meaningful any more?”
Celestia started walking again, and Aaron followed closely behind, trying to get the concept of reality to align properly in his mind.
“I guess ultimately it might just be up to us to define reality,” he said. “The word, I mean. For instance, maybe you only became 'real' when you crossed over to our world.”
“But if I return,” Celestia continued, “do I stop being real then? And what if you accompanied me as well? Would you still be real?”
“Okay, yeah, I guess that definition doesn’t work,” he conceded. “It’s certainly interesting to consider, though.”
“Indeed,” Celestia said. “It raises another issue as well, but I am hesitant to mention it.”
“You’ve got me curious now, though,” Aaron said. “What is it?”
Celestia paused for a moment. “Two weeks ago, I discovered that the world I had lived in for my entire life was actually part of a story told in this world. I have believed for thousands of years that my world was real, never having any reason to doubt it. So what is there to stop the same being true of your world?”
Aaron stopped walking and glanced around nervously, half expecting to spot a TV camera. “Ok, you’re right,” he said. “You shouldn’t have mentioned it.”
The conversation reached a natural pause and Aaron looked around again, suddenly realising where they were. Instead of following the drier path across the fields that he had been aiming for, they had ended up walking along the bank of the stream again.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “How did we get here?”
Celestia had walked up to the wall by the stream, and was looking around for something. “That was my fault,” she said. “I decided to make a slight detour. There is somepony I thought you could meet.”
She started trotting away along the wall, and Aaron had to run in order to keep up with her.
“What do you mean, ‘meet’?” he asked. “I didn’t know you had met anyone else.”
Celestia then came to a halt and looked over the wall into one of the fields. Aaron stopped next to her and followed her gaze, seeing a horse cantering around near the far end of the field.
Celestia shook her head and snorted. Aaron did a double-take at the action; that was the most horse-like mannerism he had ever seen her use.
This seemed to get the horse’s attention, and he turned and cantered over to them. He headed straight for Celestia, and Aaron was momentarily worried that he was going to vault the wall and attack, but instead he slowed to a standstill just on the other side, eyeing the two of them inquisitively.
“Who’s this?” Aaron asked.
“This is Chestnut,” Celestia answered. “I met him a little under a week ago, and have managed to gain his trust after visiting a few times.”
She bowed her head slightly and the horse did likewise. He then walked up to her and they nuzzled against each other. A wide smile spread across her face, and Aaron found himself smiling as well, but something did concern him.
“I hate to have to say this,” he said, “but you know he’s not like Equestrian ponies right? He hasn’t tried to—”
Celestia snorted with laughter, causing Chestnut to start slightly. “Don’t worry,” she said. “He’s been a perfect gentlecolt. I appreciate your concern, but I can look after myself. Besides, I suspect that he’s been gelded, poor thing.”
She then gestured towards Aaron with her head and Chestnut looked over, eyeing him cautiously.
“Go on,” Celestia said. “Say hello.”
“Er,” Aaron responded, feeling slightly imposed upon. “I’ve no idea what I’m supposed to do,” he said.
“Neither did I,” Celestia said. “It took a bit of trial and error to get it right at first. Particularly error,” she added. “He did not take kindly to my wings.”
“I can imagine,” Aaron said. He raised his hand over the wall but hesitated. He was wary about trying to touch an animal that could probably seriously injure him by accident, but when he looked round at Celestia she looked so eager for him to make friends with Chestnut that he continued anyway.
He moved forward slowly, holding his hand out towards Chestnut, and the stallion took a step towards him in response. But as Chestnut lowered his head towards the hand, Aaron changed his mind and stepped back.
“I’ve never been good with large animals,” Aaron said to Celestia.
“You’ve been fine with me,” Celestia replied, smirking.
“That’s different,” Aaron said defensively. “You’re not… I mean he’s… Chestnut’s not… You know what I mean.”
Celestia laughed as he fumbled with his words, but her attention had turned back to Chestnut. The two of them were looking at each other, moving around as if they were communicating. Aaron couldn’t help but feel left out of the conversation.
“I hadn’t thought of this,” he said. “I didn’t even consider what would happen if you met a real horse. Are they very different here?”
“Less than you might expect,” Celestia replied, not turning away from Chestnut. “I was surprised by how quickly I learned to communicate with him.”
Without warning, she tensed her back legs and leapt over the wall, joining Chestnut on the far side. The stallion reared up in excitement, and the two of them set off at a canter around the field.
Aaron watched them from the wall, a pensive expression on his face. This was quite a surreal sight – more so than everything else from the past two weeks. It was great to see Celestia enjoying herself, for whatever reason, but it still felt a bit odd. He couldn’t tell if it might be jealousy, feeling left out as the two of them played with each other. Or was it just that it was so strange to see a princess galloping about a field?
What was strangest, though, was seeing the transformation she went through. It was remarkably subtle, just small features of her behaviour shifting, but she looked more and more like a real horse by the second. This was even stranger than when she was eating earlier; now he thought about it, that had been more like she was pretending to be a horse. This was something much more real. She really was a horse, and it fitted her perfectly.
After a while, she turned and galloped back over towards the wall, leaving Chestnut cantering idly at the end of the field. As she approached the horse gradually faded away again until Princess Celestia came to a halt in front of him.
“You look like you’re enjoying yourself,” Aaron said.
“I am,” Celestia said with a wide smile. Here eyes were practically glowing, and she was bouncing around restlessly on her hooves. “I know he’s not a true replacement, but he reminds me of Equestria, and it’s nice to feel that connection again.”
“That’s good,” Aaron said. “You know, I could go and…”
He trailed off as Chestnut appeared next to Celestia again. The stallion was pawing at the ground with his hooves and shifted around, clearly indicating that he wanted to play again. Celestia looked back and forth between him and Aaron indecisively.
“I could go ahead and set up camp if you want,” Aaron said. “If you want to stick around here, you can.”
“I don’t want to be an inconvenience,” Celestia said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Aaron said. “I don’t want to get in your way if you’re making new friends.”
“Thank you,” Celestia said, “I appreciate…”
She stopped, suddenly looking thoughtful. Turning round, she looked back at Chestnut, watching him silently for a long while.
“Are you okay?” Aaron asked.
She stayed silent, just watching the horse cantering back and forward. When she turned round again, Aaron was surprised to see that her face had gone back to its old, inscrutable expression.
“I am fine,” Celestia replied with a nod. “But I think it best that we make our way back. I would not want you to have to wait up for me.”
Before he could protest, she leapt over the wall again and started to walk back along the stream towards the woods. Aaron stood for a while, unsure what he had just seen. He glanced back at the stallion, who was still cantering around by the wall. Chestnut probably had as much idea as he did what had happened.
“Celestia! Wait!” he called as he ran after her. When he caught up, she looked round at him, greeting him with a surprisingly warm smile.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked.
“I am fine,” Celestia repeated.
“Honestly, you can stay if you want to,” Aaron said.
“No, I would prefer to return,” Celestia said.
“This isn’t because I mentioned your friends earlier, it it?” he asked. “I know it must be hard being separated from them, but—”
“It is not that,” Celestia said, shaking her head. “I am just tired after a long day, and think we should get some sleep.”
“Come on, Celestia,” Aaron persisted. “A minute ago you were running around a field, and now you’re just ‘tired’? There’s something else going on.”
“I am fine,” she said again. “Look, Aaron, I am grateful for your help and your company, but you do not need to pry into every aspect of my life. Please.”
Aaron buried his head in his hand, trying to keep hold of his impatience, but he had had enough at this point. Holding his hand out in front of her, he drew Celestia to a standstill and stood in front of her.
“Look, this is starting to get old, so I’m just going to say it,” he said sternly. “I’m trying to help you here, but there’s nothing I can do if you’re not going to let me. I wish you would just talk about things with me instead of trying to hide them all the time. I thought we were making progress, but now you’ve gone and shut up again just because… actually, I have absolutely no idea why this time.
“I get that you don’t want me to worry about you, but if you keep acting like this I’m going to worry anyway. The only person I’m trying to help here is you. Please, don’t make this hard on yourself. Just tell me what’s wrong.”
They stared at each other in silence. Aaron suddenly became aware of the fact that he had just raised his voice to a very powerful magical being, and winced as he started to worry how she might react.
But she didn’t get angry. She just stood there quietly, her face eerily still. When she finally spoke her voice was perfectly level, held with a calculated calmness.
“I can’t,” she said.
“Why not?” Aaron asked, trying not to shout at her. “Don’t you trust me yet? And seriously, who am I going to tell?” He held his arms wide, gesturing to the empty countryside that surrounded them. “I haven’t even told anyone you exist yet!”
“You don’t understand,” she said. “I just… I can’t!”
Aaron immediately regretted deciding to do this. Celestia’s entire demeanour was shifting again, but there was nothing natural about this change. She still held herself tall, but she was starting to shake as if her legs were about to buckle. She began to truly look her age, her wings sagging and her face falling, losing all expression.
Aaron held a hand out towards her, but she shied away from it, shaking her head.
“I… I’ll see you back in the woods,” she said, before galloping past him and heading along the stream into the distance.
~ ~ ~
Aaron dropped his rucksack and sat on it, holding his head in his hands.
What just happened? He thought to himself. He had hardly expected a warm reaction, but still…
He sat there for ages, unable to work up the courage to follow. The final rays of sunlight disappeared behind the horizon, and as he watched the sun set Aaron started to worry that he had lost Celestia. It felt like such a petty thing to think; he had always sort of hoped that she would leave eventually, that she would be rescued and return to Equestria. But he felt like he had managed to make a friend in her, and he didn’t want to be the one to destroy that. Especially when he was just trying to help her.
Nearly half an hour later, he finally stood up and started to make his way back towards the woods. He had no idea if he was even going to be able to sleep now, but maybe then he would have time to work out what he would say to her in the morning. It wasn’t going to be easy, but for both of their sakes he needed to try.
Aaron lay still in his sleeping bag, staring up through the branches at the distant stars. He had managed to find his way through the trees to where they had been sleeping the night before and, sure enough, Celestia was already there. But by the time he had found her she was already asleep, or at least pretending to be, so he decided to forego putting the tent up to avoid disturbing her.
He could hear her, just a few yards away from him, her breathing slow and uneven. Aaron wondered if she might be dreaming, and wondered what could possibly be going on in her head. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good.
Had he actually managed to break her? The thought that he had triggered this, and that he might have destroyed the friendship they had been building, was terrifying. Particularly after he had tried so hard to help her.
But at the same time it was a wonder that this hadn’t happened sooner. After everything that had happened to her in such a short time she had every right to be upset. Most other people – or ponies – would have been driven mad by what she had seen.
He thought about going over and talking to her, but two things held him back. For one, he didn’t want to wake her when she was sleeping in case it just made things worse. For another, he had no idea what he could say. So many things could be affecting her right now, and he didn’t know which to address or how.
Figuring that trying to sleep was futile, he got out of his sleeping bag and started to walk off through the trees. He needed to think, and he always thought best when he was moving. If he was going to stand any chance of helping her, he first needed to work out how.
~ ~ ~
Not long after, he passed close by the spot where Celestia was lying again. He paused for a moment, and as he watched her, her chest rising and falling unsteadily with each breath, he felt something he would never have expected to associate with the princess.
She was the great Princess Celestia, co-ruler of Equestria, guardian of the sun. By all counts she was – or at the very least used to be – the most powerful individual he had ever known. Her presence alone was enough to inspire awe and reverence in other ponies, and she was loved and admired by all who knew her.
But at this moment, as he watched her, all Aaron could feel was pity. She had seen so much, and lost so much. And now she lay here, a mere shadow of her former glory, slowly falling apart and apparently struggling to hold herself together. He started to doubt if he would ever be able to help her.
The sound of his name made Aaron jump. His tongue froze in his mouth, taken by surprise.
“Aaron, I know you’re there,” Celestia said.
With a sigh, Aaron walked over to her and sat down on a patch of moss by her neck. Celestia didn’t look round at him, staying curled up on the floor.
“Did I wake you?” he asked.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Celestia replied.
Aaron placed a hand on her neck, stroking her mane softly.
“I’m sorry about earlier,” he said. “I shouldn’t have been so harsh.”
“No, you said what needed to be said,” Celestia answered. “It was I who reacted poorly.”
“You’ve got every right to react how you want,” Aaron said. “After everything you’ve been through, I’m not going to hold it against you.”
Celestia lifted her head, looking round at him. “That’s exactly the problem,” she said. “I'm not reacting properly. I just don’t know how.”
“How to do what?” Aaron asked, perplexed.
“After everything I’ve been through,” she continued, “everything I’ve seen, everything that’s happened to me just in the last two weeks, I should by all rights have lost control a long time ago. But I haven’t. Because I’ve forgotten how.
“I’ve lived for millennia, and I’ve seen so much in that time. I’ve seen empires rise and fall, nations invaded and plunged into total chaos, I’ve seen my own sister descend into evil, and been forced to fight her myself. And that's just what you already know about. Plagues, natural disasters, civil war; Equestria has a long history and it hasn't always been so peaceful. But throughout all that I have learned to always stay strong. I had to, for the sake of the nation. If their leader lost her mind, what hope was there for them?
“But now I’ve become stuck. I’ve kept the act up for so long that it’s the only thing I know. Part of me wants to let it all out, to scream to the heavens and never stop, but I just can’t. I don’t know how.”
Celestia fell silent, staring at Aaron. Her face was drawn and cool, but he could sense the fear in her eyes.
He tried to find the words to respond, but nothing came. Before now he had always admired Celestia for her restraint. She definitely had emotions, but she never let them get the better of her. She never lost control. He had always assumed that this was a blessing.
“There are things that I need to do,” she continued. "Things that I need to say. But I simply don't know how. I think that for the first time in centuries I truly have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I am having difficulty even saying this, but… Aaron, I need your help.”
He listened in amazement. The words were so at odds with her expression. She sat in front of him, completely calm, as if there was nothing wrong at all. But despite this she was asking him – begging him even – for help, trying desperately to free herself from the prison she had built herself.
The only clear tell he could see of what was truly going on was her eyes. Her pupils were wide as saucers, opening up to an endless black chasm. They quivered back and forth as water rippled across their surfaces.
“I… I have no idea how,” he said. “I’m not a psychologist, and I don’t know if any psychologist would even be qualified to deal with this, and…”
He started to ramble in a panic, but the words caught in his throat as Celestia’s eyes continued to burn into his mind. They were impossible to ignore, and as saw the longging in them he wanted nothing more than to help her in any way he could.
He searched his mind desperately for anything that might help, but this was completely unlike anything he had ever had to deal with before. It felt like she was stretched to breaking point, the last two weeks’ events slowly taking their toll on her, and he needed to be careful. She wasn’t just an egg that he could hit and break open. He needed to find some way for her to let him in without hurting her too much more.
He thought back to the only times he had ever seen her drop her calm façade. The only time she had ever even come close to losing control was in the lab, as she tried to deal with her instinctive need to defend others along with the suuden discovery of her isolation. She had still managed to regain control before the end even then, but it had taken all that just to bring her remotely close to the edge. Now she actually wanted to cross that linr and let herself lose control for once. Maybe that itself would make it easier.
There was no way this was ever going to be pleasant, though. He could only think of one option that even had a chance of working, and in any other situation he wouldn’t even have considered it. But desperate times called for desperate measures, and Celestia was certainly desperate.
Placing a hand carefully on one of Celestia's forehooves and looked her in the eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can try to help, but I don’t think you’re going to like it.”
Celestia sighed warily. “At this point, I’m not sure I care,” she said.
Aaron took a few deep breaths, steeling himself, then shuffled back into a sitting position. Once he felt ready, he looked back up at Celestia.
“I don’t know how easy this will be, or if it’ll even work,” he said, “but I want you to think of somepony that you hate.”
“What?” Celestia recoiled slightly at the request. “But I could never hate any of my subjects!”
“Just bear with me,” Aaron said. “It doesn’t have to be major, just any disagreement. I just need somepony you’ve ever felt the urge to yell at. You don’t have to tell me who it is,” he added.
Celestia went silent, her eyes darting back and forth.
“If this isn’t working, I can try something else,” Aaron said, but Celestia shook her head. She looked up at the sky, deep in thought, before looking down again with a sigh.
“No… I think I’ve got somepony,” she said. “But why am I doing this?”
Aaron stood up and started to pace back and forth in front of her. “Just keep them in your mind,” he said. “Imagine it’s them that you’re talking to. Hopefully it’ll make this easier for both of us.”
“Make what easier?”
Aaron stopped and looked down at the princess. He clasped his hands behind his back and stood tall, trying to sound as imposing as he could. “Tell me what went wrong,” he said.
Celestia paused in confusion. “What went wrong?” she echoed. “You mean with the experiment?”
“Yes, with the experiment,” Aaron retorted harshly. “How could the casting of one simple spell have been such a huge failure?”
“In fairness, the spell was anything but simple,” Celestia pointed out.
“Was that the problem then?” Aaron asked. “The spell was too complicated, and mistakes were made?”
“We made no mistakes!” Celestia said. “Everything about the spell itself was right. It was checked so many times. It should have worked.”
“So it was the casters’ fault?”
“No, never!” Celestia stood up, towering over Aaron, but he stood his ground. He could see the confusion on her face, but tried to ignore it as he kept up the act.
“Twilight Sparkle would never miscast a spell!” Celestia shouted. “She is my most faithful student, and the most talented pony I have ever met! She would never make a mistake!”
“So it was one of the others, then,” Aaron said, waving a hand dismissively.
“Don’t speak of the bearers of the Elements of Harmony like that,” Celestia said. Her eyes narrowed and her voice went quiet and cold, anger starting to well up inside her. “And they played their part perfectly,” she continued. “Twilight carried sole responsibility for the casting, and this cannot be her fault.”
Aaron turned away from her, and began pacing back and forth across the grass.
“You admit that Twilight Sparkle was the only one in a position to have caused this,” he said, “and yet you refuse to admit that this is her fault. I think that you are letting your personal feelings cloud your judgement.”
“My personal feelings are irrelevant,” Celestia said.
“On the contrary!” Aaron shouted, spinning round to face her and jabbing an accusative finger towards her. “Your feelings have everything to do with this!” he continued. “You gave sole responsibility for your own safety to a pony who clearly can’t be trusted with it just because—”
Suddenly Celestia let out a loud neigh, rearing up on her hind legs and throwing her wings out at her sides.
“For the last time, Twilight Sparkle has nothing to do with this!” She shouted as her hooves crashed to the ground again. “Stop throwing blame around at other ponies just because you can’t face the real problem!”
It took all of Aaron’s strength to face up to her, but he wasn’t going to give in now that they were so close.
“Just tell me what the real problem is, then!” He shouted back.
“You know the problem well enough!”
“Then tell me whose fault this is!”
“This is your fault, Celestia!”
There was a deafening crash of thunder as bursts of lightning briefly filled the clear sky above them. For a few seconds a fire bright as the sun burned in her eyes.
“You continue to insist that you’re infallible!” she yelled, bearing down on Aaron. “You refuse to ask for help from anypony right up until you haven’t got a choice! You jump blindly into situations you can’t handle without even considering the consequences! And now because of your carelessness, you’re trapped somewhere where you’ll never be able to help anypony again! So then what do you do? You hide away in your own head, refusing to admit that you have a serious problem! You’re absolutely pathetic! If you were anypony else, I’d… I’d…”
She froze, panting heavily, staring down at Aaron with a look of fury frozen on her face. Aaron backed away from her, bracing against a tree, reeling from what had just had happened. He had known she had a lot to get out of her system and had prepared himself for it, but he had never expected this to happen.
Slowly the look on her face began to melt. It shifted to confusion, her eyes searching desperately for something, but soon passed through into exhaustion. Her entire posture collapsed, and her head fell forward with an almighty groan. Aaron caught her and held her close to himself, stroking the back of her neck.
“You’re not pathetic,” he said.
Celestia fell to the ground, rolling over onto her side. Aaron sat down with her, letting her rest her head on his lap.
“I am pathetic,” she said. “Look at me. I’ve faced down monsters in defence of my nation, but when it’s me that needs help, I just can’t. I was too stubborn, and I let myself be broken just to protect my pride. I’m hopeless.”
“That’s not true,” Aaron said. “You’ve let other ponies help you on loads of occasions. What about Nightmare Moon? Discord? Chrysalis?”
“Who?” Celestia asked, opening one eye and looking up at him.
“Chrysalis?” Aaron said. “The Changeling queen?”
“You mean Princess Cadance’s wedding?” Celestia gave a spluttering laugh. “You saw what happened there,” she said. “That’s exactly what I mean. I assumed I would be able to defeat her on my own, but she struck me down with a single blow. I was a fool to try and face her alone.”
“But what happened then?” Aaron continued. “You asked Twilight and her friends for help. I think it’s clear to everyone that you trust them with your life. You have a lot of friends that you trust.”
“I don’t have as many friends as you think,” Celestia replied.
Aaron shook his head. “I find that hard to believe,” he said. “And I don’t see how you couldn’t consider Twilight a friend. You were very clear in your defence of her.
“By the way,” he added, “you know I wasn’t actually trying to blame Twilight for what happened. As far as I can see this was just an accident. And I certainly don’t blame you for it.”
“That’s just because you don’t understand,” Celestia replied.
“You’re right," he said. "I don’t understand. It would help if you explained.”
“No it wouldn’t.”
Aaron sighed, massaging his forehead with his hands. “Yes it would,” he said. “I’m your friend, and I want to know.”
Celestia shook her head, then slowly picked herself up off the floor, walking off into the trees. She came to a stop a few yards from Aaron, but didn’t turn round to look at him.
“You aren’t my friend,” she said. “It just doesn’t work that way. It can’t. You think I asked those ponies for help, but did I? In truth, I never gave them the choice. I repeatedly put them in situations where they had no choice but to do what I wanted. I used them, over and over again.
“If I could have done what they did myself, I would have. There should never have been any need to involve them, but the Elements of Harmony refused to work with me. They turned on me when I banished my sister; they demanded a sacrifice in return for their power, and I just threw the most promising pony I had ever met at them. I even tricked her into recruiting the others that would have to join her! I used them like I would a weapon! Does that sound like a friend to you?”
She dropped her head down, sighing. “Now I’m stuck here because I pushed them to test an unknown spell without any knowledge whatsoever of what it would do,” she said quietly. “I put others in danger to satisfy my own curiosity, and I can only hope that nopony else was harmed as a result.”
Aaron stood up, carefully approaching Celestia. He held a hand out and placed it on her back, but she swatted it away with her tail.
“You don’t honestly believe that, do you?” he said.
Celestia refused to respond, turning her head away so she couldn’t see him.
“Celestia, look at me,” he said sternly. She turned her head slightly, looking back at him out of the corner of her eye. Aaron could see tears running through the fur on her face now.
“How can you even think that?” Aaron asked. “You’ve acting like it’s a bad thing that you’ve got friends! You’ve even managed to blame something for it!”
“You don’t know what it’s like,” Celestia replied, her voice beginning to crack. “You might live for a century at most, and you’ll never have to carry the fate of your entire world on your shoulders. I’m not supposed to have friends; I know I’d just lose them eventually. I’m not happy with what I’ve done, but I had no choice.”
Slowly, cautiously, Aaron moved forward until he was in line with Celestia’s bowed head. He knelt down so that his eyes were level with hers, but avoided making eye contact.
“Just listen, okay?” he said. “I don’t care what you’ve been telling yourself all this time, because I’ve seen how you act around Twilight and her friends. Tell me again the last thing that happened before you came here.”
Celestia gave a deep sigh. “Twilight was being drawn into the vortex,” she said. “I tried to stop it.”
“Of course you did,” Aaron said. “You put yourself in harm’s way to protect her. Why would you do that if you didn’t care for her?”
Celestia didn’t say anything, and didn’t even move, so Aaron pressed on.
“You never used Twilight Sparkle, or any of her friends,” he said. “You just helped them fulfil their destiny. Every single time they entered the fight willingly, sometimes even when others tried to stop them. Everything you did was to try and help them, and they would have been seriously hurt, or worse, if you hadn’t.”
“You’ve done nothing wrong,” he continued, cutting her off. “Twilight and the others are your friends, and I’m sure they would forgive you for what you did without a second thought if you just talked to them about it. There’s nothing wrong with feeling guilty, of course; in fact it says a lot about your character that you do. But you should let your friends help you when you feel like this, not distance yourself from them because of it.”
Celestia nodded weakly.
“What about now?” Aaron asked. “Be honest with me. Be honest with yourself, even. Think about Twilight and her friends, and tell me how you feel.”
Celestia sighed and closed her eyes. She remained still for a long while, and Aaron waited patiently while she thought.
Eventually she opened her eyes and turned her head to look at Aaron. She blinked the tears away, and almost managed to smile again.
“I miss them,” she said. “The letters I received from them would always be a welcome break at the end of a long day. I miss hearing their stories, and I miss talking to them. I just wish I had got to spend more time with them.”
Aaron smiled, and Celestia managed to return it. “Of course you do,” he said. “You’re lucky to know them, and there’s no shame in recognising that.”
Celestia nodded. “I’m just worried that I’ll end up hurting them,” she said.
Aaron gave her a comforting pat on the cheek. “And that’s what makes you a good friend,” he said.
Aaron then stood up and started to lead Celestia back to where they had been lying.
“You’re right,” he continued. “I can’t understand what it’s like to be you. But I know what I’ve seen. Whatever you tell yourself, it doesn’t change the fact that you are capable of making friends. And you clearly enjoy doing so, as well. I don’t think you should deny yourself that, particularly as you know better than I do how important friendship is.”
Celestia nodded, wiping her face dry with her foreleg. “Thank you”, she said.
“Are you going to be okay?” Aaron asked.
“I’m not sure,” Celestia replied. “I can’t promise anything, but I have a lot to think about. Maybe I will be eventually. But I guess this is what I really needed, just to talk about everything with someone.”
Aaron sat down on his sleeping bag, and Celestia lay down facing him.
“I’m sorry I put you through all that,” Aaron said. “I thought you just needed to shout at someone for a while; I honestly didn’t realise how much you were hiding.”
“That' because I've had a lot of practice,” Celestia said, laughing weakly. “I’m curious, though,” she continued. “What made you think that would work?”
“I remembered the first time we met,” he said. “That was the first time I saw you properly lose your cool.”
“That was different,” Celestia said. “I was confused, disoriented. I was not in my right mind then.”
Aaron shook his head. “I think it was more than that,” he said. “From what I can remember, you thought you were under attack.”
Celestia thought about it for a few moments, then chuckled. “I perceived you as a threat to Equestria,” she said. “Looking back, it’s hard to imagine why, but…”
“But you thought ponies were in danger, and you wanted to defend them,” Aaron finished. “You’re capable of anger for the right reasons, and I thought I might be able to use that as a starting point.”
Celestia nodded. “Well, thank you,” she said. “I didn’t enjoy it, but I’m glad it happened, I think.”
“And I’m glad I was able to help,” Aaron replied.
With a second nod, Celestia lay her head down on the ground and closed her eyes. Aaron followed suit, crawling back into his sleeping bag. As he was making himself comfortable, Celestia sat up again and looked over at him.
“I want to do something,” she said. “Something to honour my friends.”
“Like what?” Aaron asked.
“I don’t know,” Celestia replied. “I just feel like I need to do something to show that I haven’t forgotten them. And to apologise, I think.”
Aaron nodded. “That sounds like a good idea,” he said. “Let’s talk about it in the morning.”
Celestia nodded in agreement, then lay down to sleep. Aaron did the same, leaning back on the soft ground. The sound of Celestia’s breathing was soothing now it was steadier and calmer, and five minutes later he was fast asleep.
From his seat on the wall, Aaron watched Celestia running happily round the field in the afternoon sun. Chestnut was there as well of course, but he had stopped for a bit and was currently eating grass near the field’s border, leaving Celestia to enjoy her freedom.
It had been her idea to come back and see Chestnut again, saying she owed him an apology for her behaviour the previous day. Aaron had obliged, and was glad that he had. The way she behaved around Chestnut had seemed strange the day before, but now it was very satisfying to see. She was, temporarily at least, relinquishing control and letting her instincts take over. And she was doing so knowingly and willingly.
Aaron wondered if this was what had set her off the day before – the sensation of not being entirely in control having been too far from her usual nature for her to feel comfortable with. She seemed to be willing to let it happen now, though, which was gratifying to see. He wasn’t yet sure if she was completely comfortable with it, but really he would have been more concerned if she was so soon.
When he thought about it, this was probably the ideal way for her to start her recovery. It was clear that she had been deliberately holding herself back for a very long time, so there were going to be a lot of things that she’d have trouble learning how to do again. But what she was doing now was just simple, ingrained instinct. She didn’t have to learn this; once she gave it the chance it was coming back to her as naturally as breathing.
Whether or not this would work in the long term, Aaron was glad to see her making a concerted effort. The very first thing she had done on waking was to ask him to look after her tiara and peytral for the day, leading to him having spent the afternoon carrying two priceless artefacts round in an orange carrier bag. It seemed that she wanted to spend the day not as a princess, but just as Celestia.
After a while she paused and lay down on the ground, rolling around in the grass, and Aaron took the opportunity to go over and talk to her. He jumped down from the wall and walked over towards her, keeping a wary eye on Chestnut just in case he started to come over.
“You’re looking well,” he said as he approached.
She rolled onto her front, stretching her forelegs out in front of her. “I feel well,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve felt this well in a long time, but I never realised why.”
“I’m glad you got something good out of last night,” Aaron said, sitting down next to her. “I must admit that at times I was worried I was just making things worse.”
Celestia chuckled. “Actually, so was I,” she said. “But then I slept on it. I slept soundly in spite of – or because of – everything, and now I just feel… freer. It helps just to know what my own problems are.
“And now I hope to be more honest about how I treat others,” she continued. “I owe it to them to at least try.” She glanced over at the stallion standing nearby. “To start with, I think I’m now willing to admit my feelings for Chestnut.”
Aaron nearly choked in surprise, but Celestia raised a hoof to her forehead shaking her head in embarrassment.
“That could have been worded better,” she said. “I simply mean that I enjoy his company. If he were an Equestrian pony I would call him a friend – but yesterday I was hesitant even to go that far.”
“Is that anything to do with why—”
“—why I left so suddenly?” Celestia finished. Aaron nodded.
“In part, yes,” she said. “I had never really considered what he meant to me; I think I was too distracted by everything else to think about it. But then yesterday you referred to him as my friend, and it was then that I realised. I then started to feel the usual concern that being his friend would only hurt one or both of us. Given his… different nature, I decided then that the best thing to do was to just leave and not see him again. It would have been easier than maintaining a pretence that he may not even be aware of.”
“Well, I’m glad you didn’t run off entirely,” Aaron said.
“As am I,” Celestia replied with a smile.
“I hate to spoil this,” Aaron said, “but we probably shouldn’t hang around too long in case Chestnut’s owner appears.”
Celestia nodded and started to stand up. “You’re right,” she said. “And I was thinking we should move on soon, anyway. I want to prepare myself for tonight.”
“Do you know what you want to do, yet?” Aaron asked as they walked back towards the wall.
“I think so,” she replied. “I want to give them something in thanks for everything that everypony’s done for me over the years but that I’ve failed to fully appreciate. I don’t have much to give at the moment, though.”
“I’m sure whatever you do will be great,” Aaron said.
“Thank you,” Celestia said. “I do hope so.”
They reached the wall. Celestia lifted Aaron’s rucksack across with her teeth while he climbed over, then jumped over herself as he picked the rucksack up and put it on his back.
“Do you want to go anywhere in particular?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I think I know a good place.”
“Shall I leave you to it? If you want privacy—”
“No, I’d like you to be there as well,” she said. “It would be nice to have a friend with me.”
They shared a smile. Celestia then turned and started to walk slowly upstream. Aaron caught up to walk alongside her, and they continued on in silence for a while.
Aaron looked back up at Celestia as they walked. Her mane had almost entirely lost its buoyancy again, and he imagined that her magic was probably nearly gone. It was strange; it felt like, the longer she was in this world, the less she looked like the character he knew. But he liked the change. He had got to see another side of Celestia, and would never regret the experience.
Eventually they reached the trees again. Aaron followed behind as Celestia climbed through the uneven terrain, still following the stream, until they reached the banks of the pool.
“This is the place?” Aaron asked.
“Yes,” Celestia said. “It doesn’t hold any special significance in and of itself, but I like the peace and beauty. It will work well for what I have in mind.”
“It’s nice,” he said. “Well I’ll leave you to it, then. Let me know if you need me to do anything.”
Walking over to a tree, he put his rucksack down and pulled a book out of one of the side pockets, sitting down to wait.
~ ~ ~
Celestia looked round the patch of flat earth by the pool. There wasn’t a huge amount of space, but she didn’t require much for what she intended.
She looked up at the sky. The sun was approaching the western horizon now and would begin to set soon. A crescent moon was already visible in the sky, sitting high above the trees to the east. It was getting close to the right time, but she would give it a short while longer before beginning.
Instead she turned and walked over to pool, bending down and examining her reflection in the flat surface.
If your kingdom could see you now, Celestia, she thought, laughing to herself as she examined how much the last few weeks – in fact just the last few days – had changed her. Her mane was short and coarse, unrecognisable in comparison to its usual form, and her fur was messy and covered in dirt from rolling around in the field earlier. If she weren’t an alicorn, nopony would have ever guessed that she was a princess.
Slipping off her horseshoes, she waded in to the centre of the pool until she was up to her back in water. She rolled gently back and forth in the cool waters, washing all the dust off and letting the currents smooth her fur down. She intended to make this a sacred place, and wished to show it the respect it deserved.
Relaxing her legs so that she was floating on the pond’s surface, she lay her neck down across the water. She drew long, deep breaths in through her nose, clearing her mind and letting everything that had been weighing her down evaporate away. The continual noise of her thoughts that had been with her for two weeks died down, and she just lay there listening to the songs of the birds in the trees.
She could have stayed there forever, just soaking in the sounds of the world she was in. But she had come here with a purpose, and she knew exactly what she wanted to do now. Taking a deep breath, she lowered her head below the water’s surface and looked round the pool’s bed at the collection of stones of various sizes that lay there. Eventually she found one which felt about the right size and picked it up with her teeth, carrying it up out of the water and placing it on a large, flat rocky surface which lay nearby.
She repeated the process five more times, building a small circle of stones, then lay down on the rock with the stones in front of her. After glancing up at the sky for a moment again, she began the speech she had been mentally rehearsing all afternoon.
“My friends,” she said. “I have been blind. All my life I have been blessed by the companionship of so many ponies, but I have refused to let myself appreciate this. I starved myself of the friendship which I have always tried to protect and encourage in others, and in turn I have done you all a disservice. I hope you can forgive me for my foolishness.
“Everything I did I did to protect you all. Or that’s what I told myself. I thought that I was a danger to you all; that my position of power would only lead to me having to put others in harm’s way. And I thought that keeping my distance would avoid us having to one day feel the pain of being parted.
“But I should have seen through this. You all knew what I was, and yet you still freely offered me your friendship. You didn’t care about any of that, and wanted to know me anyway. It feels so obvious now; friendship is not broken by loss or sadness. It is in fact a support which helps you through them.”
She looked down at the six stones.
“And to you, the bearers of the Elements of Harmony, I offer my sincerest apologies. Over the years you have learned so much about the true meaning of friendship, and I have happily read every word of the letters you sent me. But I refused to listen. I thought such things were of no use to me, and failed to learn the same lessons that you have.
“I promise you that this changes from today. I will stop ignoring the true importance of the Elements. They are more than just a weapon; they are the fundamental basis of everything in Equestria and play a vital role in everypony’s lives, my own included.”
She then picked up one of the stones with her magic and held it in the air in front of her.
“Pinkie Pie, the Element of Laughter,” she said, a smile breaking out across her face as she did. “Such a peculiar Element for such a peculiar pony. Laughter is such a double-edged sword that it almost seems out of place in the group.
“But what laughter provides, quite simply, is escape. When you have the ability to laugh, or even to cry, or shout, then this gives you the confidence to open yourself up to others. And only when you do this are you able to let your friends into your life.”
Her horn pulsed, and the stone glowed cyan for a moment. She then lowered it and placed it with the others, picking up the second stone in its place.
“Fluttershy, the Element of Kindness,” she continued. “Yours is such a simple Element, and yet it has the power to calm monsters and turn the hearts of demons. I have never met a quieter, more reserved pony in my life, but on your own you have saved more lives than most others could ever hope to.
“The power of kindness lies in its ability to reach out to and touch even the hardest of hearts. One can offer kindness freely, even to those who don’t wish to receive it—” she glanced over her shoulder at Aaron “—and by doing so you show them everything they have to gain by returning it. It costs nothing, but its effect is priceless.”
Her horn pulsed again, the stone glowing magenta, and she swapped it with a third.
“Rainbow Dash, the Element of Loyalty,” she said. “You can always be counted on to help your friends when they most need it. The true value of friendship lies in the knowledge that, no matter how dark your life becomes, there will always be somepony willing to give you the help you need.
“Many ponies have pledged their undying loyalty to me over the centuries, and I returned the favour by always promising my loyalty… to the nation. I don’t know if that is enough, but sadly there are so many for me to care for; I fear that I still have my limits. But the least I could have done is promise my loyalty to those whom I call my friends.”
The stone glowed a deep red as she put it down and picked up the fourth.
“Applejack, the Element of Honesty,” she said, chuckling. “Perhaps it is you whom I should have listened to the most. A friendship is worthless if you can’t be honest with each other, and I have had difficulty being honest even with myself.
“Your family is one of the strongest I have ever known, and if they are all like you I can imagine why. Honesty builds trust like nothing else, and I want you all to be sure you can trust me. This is the first thing I must remedy if I return.”
The stone briefly glowed orange. She then placed it with the others and picked up a fifth.
“Rarity, the Element of Generosity,” she said. “You have a talent which could so easily lead to greed and selfishness. But at the same time you are blessed with a generous spirit which drives you to use this talent, along with your other gifts, for the benefit others instead. It is fair to say that the other elements would be worthless without yours. When you do something for a friend, you need to be able to do so selflessly, or the act has no value.
“I always thought I was acting to protect you all, but you never asked for that. In fact, none of you ever asked for anything in return for the help you gave me. I should have recognised this sooner.”
The stone glowed indigo, then settled down with the others. Celestia paused, closing her eyes and taking a few deep breaths. She looked up at the sky again, now a beautiful spectrum of colours running from deep blue through to orange as the sun set.
“And Twilight Sparkle,” she said, picking up the final stone, “you bear the Element of Magic. Your Element is so different from all the others, but that does not make it any less important. While the other five are a significant part of everypony’s life, yours is vital to the very nature of our whole universe.
“Life could persist without magic, as I have seen here, but it would never be the same. Magic lets us interact with our world in ways which would be impossible otherwise. It guides us, helps us fulfil our destinies, and gives us freedom and safety to… to tell our stories. It helps give our world its purpose.
“But despite all that, despite the power of your destiny, few ponies have modesty to match yours. I sometimes even have to remind you that you are a princess,” she added, smiling.
“I have known you for many years now,” she continued. “I watched you grow from a shy, timid filly to the most talented pony I have ever met. You have become the friend of many ponies, myself included, and it has been an honour to know you.”
The stone glowed pink, then faded. She then lifted the other five up again, holding them in a circle round Twilight’s. She stood and walked back to the pond, carrying the stones in front of her, and stood by water’s edge again.
“To all of you,” she said, “I give you my thanks. Not only for everything you have done for me but for what you have done for the rest of the nation, and for each other. I have no idea if I will ever see you again, but if I don’t…”
She bowed her head, closing her eyes. If she weren’t already wet she would have wiped her eyes dry.
“If I don’t get to see you again, then I want it to be known that I love you all. I should have told you that so many times over the past years. While I do not have a family of my own, I would say that I consider you all to be my daughters. I enjoyed the time we knew each other for more than I ever realised, and I can only hope that I will one day get to see you again.
“Whatever happens, you will live on in my memory for as long as I live. Unfortunately, I cannot say for how long that will be if I remain here, so in my stead I also offer you this tribute.”
Raising her head again, she hovered the six stones out across the pond, holding them just above the water’s surface.
“Into each of these stones I have placed a portion of my own magic, along with a trace of my memories of you. I leave these here as anchors. Whatever happens to me, or to our world, I will make sure that you and the nation whose spirit you embody will always remain real.”
Slowly, the six stones lowered through the surface, falling down to bottom of the pool again. Celestia stood still, watching as the ripples dispersed across the pond and faded away. The scene then descended into perfect silence, and she just stood there, drawing slow breaths.
She glanced over at Aaron. His book was lying closed on the ground by him, and he had clearly been listening to every word. He gave her a curious look, but she shook her head. There was one final thing she wanted to do.
She raised her head and looked to the heavens, fixing her eyes on the moon that now hung almost overhead.
“Sister,” she said. “You are the one pony I have always trusted completely. I have never called you a friend, but only because that doesn’t even come close to describing our relationship. We are counterparts, two sides of the same coin, and your existence is a fundamental part of my own.
“This is not the first time we have been separated, and the first contained some of the darkest times of my life. I worry that this isolation may in part have been what caused me to lose sight and retreat back into myself. I should have told you about all this before; maybe then I would have realised my problem sooner.
“I have already had to come to terms with losing you once in my life, but I don’t know if this will make it any easier the second time. However, I take comfort in the knowledge that you remain in Equestria to watch over our nation. I know that you are a capable pony, and that you will be able to give our ponies the leadership they need. Just… please don’t make the same mistake I did. While your ponies must be able to rely on you, remember that you can also rely on them. Don’t forget what they have to offer us.”
She lit her horn again one last time. Her natural golden aura turned a dark blue, before releasing itself from her grip and disappearing off into the sky towards the distant satellite.
“To you, I give the last of my magic,” she said. “It is a small token of my love, and I can take comfort in knowing that, in a way, you are watching over me from above.”
She looked down at her reflection in the pool, imagining for a moment that it was her sister looking back.
“I know what it can feel like to lose a sister,” she said. “Please, stay strong for me. I will try to do the same for you.”
She took a step back and lay down on the ground, closing her eyes. The world around her was peaceful, and she could feel it sinking into her. She felt like she understood her life better now, having seen it for what it was supposed to be. Whether or not her time in Equestria had come to an end, she knew that it had had meaning and value.
~ ~ ~
As she lay there in the peaceful dusk, she became aware of footsteps approaching, followed by something settling down on the ground next to her.
“That was amazing,” Aaron said. “Did you mean that bit about it being the last of your magic, though?”
Celestia sat up and looked round at him. “I did,” she said. “I realised that most of what I have used it for while here was running and hiding.” She looked up to the moon. “It is serving a much better purpose now.”
“Your magic was such a huge part of your life, though,” Aaron said.
“That is why it makes such a perfect gift,” Celestia replied. “I know my life here will be more difficult now that I don’t have any magic, but this would have happened eventually in any case.”
Aaron placed a hand on her withers, gently stroking the water out of her fur.
“If it helps,” he said, “I doubt you’ll be waiting here much longer.”
Celestia chuckled. “I can only hope so,” she said. “Not that I am criticising this world, of course; I have actually come to like it here. But—”
“—you miss your friends,” Aaron interjected. “You don’t need to explain that any more, Celestia.”
She smiled, for once just enjoying talking with a friend. Then she chuckled as something occurred to her.
“Do you remember our second conversation?” she asked. “And what I said before I left?”
“You were talking about wiping my memory, I think,” he said.
Celestia nodded. “Yes, that’s right,” she replied. “And the thing is, I very nearly did. But one thing stopped me. One simple, little detail. You called me Celestia.”
Aaron stared at her, confused. “That’s all?” he asked.
Celestia laughed. “I’m afraid so, yes,” she replied. “You see, few to no ponies ever call me Celestia, and I only recently convinced Twilight that she was entitled to. When you called me that, you reminded me of her for a moment.”
Aaron smiled. “I guess you missed her back then as well,” he said.
“Yes, I did,” she replied. “I just hadn’t realised how much yet.”
She then stood up. Spreading her wings out, she walked forward to the pool, savouring the cooling feeling of the evening air on her wet skin. She looked down at the still water again, and as she did so Aaron walked up next to her.
“I noticed that you missed one,” he said, holding up another stone.
Celestia looked down at it for a moment, then chuckled. “The seventh Element?” she said.
Aaron shrugged. “You said something for each of the other six,” he said. “I just wondered if you had any thoughts.”
“In all honesty, I have not spent much time thinking about it,” she said. “Everything else that has been happening has kept me distracted over the past few weeks.”
Aaron nodded and stuffed the stone into one of his pockets. “I guess there’s not much to say for something when you don’t even know what it is,” he said.
“Indeed,” Celestia replied. “It would have been nice to know more about it, though,” she continued. "Given how intimately I knew the other Elements, it seems strangely out of place.”
“What do you mean?” Aaron asked.
“I mean,” Celestia said, “that the first six Elements are such a basic aspect of our world that, when they were discovered, they all seemed instinctively right to my sister and I. Their magic was so closely connected to ours that, as we discovered them, it felt like we had always known them.”
“Have you ever felt anything like that for the seventh?” Aaron asked.
“Maybe,” Celestia said. “There have been occasional sensations, but it is impossible to tell if they were genuine without hindsight. As for now, though… well, right now I can’t feel anything either way.”
“Because of the magic loss?” Aaron asked. Celestia nodded. “Sorry, I didn’t think of that. But if you don’t mind me asking, what does it feel like?”
Celestia thought for a few moments. “It feels strange,” she said. “But in unexpected ways. Until now I’ve been seeing this world through the veil of my own magic. And, forgive me for saying so, it always felt slightly dead in comparison. But without that distraction I can now see your world simply for what it is. It is a wonderful sensation.”
“That sounds incredible,” Aaron said. “I’d love to be able to see what magic felt like, just to be able to compare the two like that. I guess this is giving you a lot to talk about with Twilight Sparkle when you see her again.”
Celestia nodded, but then turned to look at him, confused.
“There’s that tone of certainty again,” she said. “Is there something you know that I don’t?”
Aaron shrugged. “It’s funny, it only occurred to me while you were speaking earlier,” he said. “It goes back to the sixth Element.”
“Yeah. Like you were saying, magic is in a sense what holds the story of Equestria together. If something important were to suddenly go missing from that story, I imagine magic would do everything it could to bring that thing back.”
Celestia considered it. For all she knew he might actually be right. Aaron patted her on the neck and looked her in the eye.
“I bet that Twilight’s currently doing everything she can to bring you back,” he said, “and she’ll have the force of an entire universe behind her.”
Celestia smiled. “I had never thought of it that way,” she said. “I hope you’re right, but I suppose that even then it may still take many months, or even longer.”
“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see,” Aaron said.
Celestia nodded. She looked up towards the sky, watching as it slowly darkened. The stars were starting to appear now.
“I think I would like to spend the night here,” she said.
“I thought you might,” Aaron replied. “I’ll go get the tent out.”
Once Aaron had moved away, Celestia gave her body a shake to get rid of the worst of the remaining water. She then knelt down on the ground and sat there, watching Aaron putting the frame together.
I’ve been making friends, she thought to herself. This will take some getting used to.
After just watching quietly for a while, she lay her head down on the ground and closed her eyes, waiting to fall asleep. It occurred to her that, at this point, she had absolutely no idea what the next day would bring. But she was looking forward to finding out.
Celestia’s mind was at peace. She sat atop the tallest mountain in Equestria, the cool breeze playing through her short pink mane. Below her the great Citadel of Canterlot sat nestled against the mountain’s face, its golden spires gleaming in the afternoon sun.
The entirety of Equestria was laid out before her. She could see Ponyville, Manehattan, Las Pegasus, even the distant Crystal Empire, all so close that she felt she could just swoop down from the mountain there and then, and walk the streets among her fellow ponies once more.
A small twinge of pain entered her mind. She looked round and saw her wings; they were in a sorry state, all the feathers stripped bare of their tines. She wouldn’t be flying today.
But despite this a smile spread across her face. Her wings were dead, but she was not. And neither were the ponies below. She could see every one of them in her mind; she could remember their faces, their voices. They would always remain alive in her memory, and no doubt she would remain in theirs. She didn’t need to see them to know that she had friends.
It was selfish to think that they wouldn’t manage without her. They all had each other to share their lives with, to provide support and companionship. They had survived through greater losses than this, and Celestia couldn’t help but feel proud of the strength of her nation.
Perhaps she would return to them one day. Perhaps she wouldn’t. If it was part of her story to return, to descend down to the nation below, then she would welcome it. But if her place was elsewhere then maybe that was how it was supposed to be. She would let the magic of Equestria guide her as it saw fit.
She was not trapped here. Not really. She was the one who had been trapping herself.
The voices of her old friends came back to her. She heard them whispering in the air and felt comforted by their presence. There were so many of them, each belonging to a life she had had the honour of being a part of.
She marvelled at depth and scope of the story they all shared in. They brought life and hope to this strange world of fiction, and in turn passed it on to others. She may never understand what this meant, or why it was so, but a part of her didn’t care. As she looked down over the nation she didn’t see a book, or a painting, or a photograph. She saw a beautiful, living, vibrant world. It was a wondrous thing, and she didn’t need to know how it worked to appreciate that.
The word came out of the sea of voices, speaking directly to her mind. She knew the voice well, but couldn’t place it. It faded in and out, shifting in her memories, always staying just out of reach.
She stood and walked away from the mountain’s edge. She walked in all directions across the snow-covered peak, trying to follow the voice. As she moved she passed through memories, seeing long-lost objects from her life. They were simple things, insignificant objects, strewn randomly across the snowy ground. She knew only that they had a special place in her life, but the memory of why eluded her.
The voice came again, passing through her mind before disappearing into the distance. She turned, following its path. Stretching away from her through the snow was another trail of hoofprints. They were different from hers, smaller, and they appeared to cross her own track many times.
As she followed them, she could feel something in the air. The voices were fading, but something remained in their place. She could feel in the world’s magic a second spirit, as if somepony else was nearby. She could tell that she knew this spirit well.
“Hello?” she said, coming to a halt and looking slowly round across the small plateau.
“What are you doing here, Princess?” Twilight Sparkle asked from next to her.
Celestia looked down at her faithful student. She looked so young, even younger than when they had first met.
“I was looking for somepony,” she replied.
“Well, I’m somepony,” Twilight said thoughtfully. “Do I count?”
Celestia chuckled. “I suppose you do,” she said with a smile. “Now come on, Twilight Sparkle. As we are up here, I have something to show you.”
She led the young filly back over to the mountain’s edge and they sat down in the snow.
“That’s Canterlot!” Twilight said, looking down at the city below. “I can see my parents’ house!”
“And do you know where that is?” Celestia asked, pointing to another town not much farther away.
Twilight puzzled over the question. “I think I read about it in a book,” she said. “There aren’t many towns so close to the Everfree forest, but I can’t remember their names, and—”
“That is Ponyville,” Celestia said, cutting her off. “That will be your home one day,” she continued.
“Really?” Twilight said incredulously. “It looks so small.”
Celestia smiled. “Yes it is,” she said. “But at the same time it is so big. There are ponies there from all different walks of life, living and working together in harmony. You will make many friends in your time there, and you will learn so many things. You will find so much happiness, and in turn you will bring happiness to them.”
“It sounds wonderful,” Twilight said.
“It truly is,” Celestia continued. “But I should not be unfair. The same could be said for almost any part of Equestria. Each town and city across the nation has its own ponies, and while each place is different from all the others, they all have their own ways of bringing happiness to those that live there.”
The two of them shared a smile, then looked out across the nation in silence. This nation was truly a work of art, Celestia thought to herself.
“You still haven’t answered my question,” Twilight said after a while.
“What do you mean?” Celestia asked, looking down at her student.
“What are you doing here?” she asked again.
“I’m… I’m not sure I follow,” Celestia admitted.
Twilight stood up and cantered back across the mountain, bounding playfully in the snow.
“It’s great up here,” she said, “and the view’s amazing. But this isn’t where you want to be.” She stood still again, looking Celestia in the eyes. “So why are you up here, instead of down there with everypony else?”
Celestia spread her wings. “I cannot return,” she said, shrugging. “I did not choose to come here, but this is where I am now. And I am okay with that.”
“That’s silly,” Twilight said, giggling. “This is your dream, so can’t you go anywhere you want?”
“Unfortunately, no,” Celestia replied. “It may seem like a bad thing to say, but we are not always in complete control of our own destinies. Things sometimes just happen, and we have to accept this and deal with it as best we can.”
“Oh well,” Twilight said, sitting down in the snow and looking disappointed. “It’s a shame, I really wanted to go to the library today.”
Celestia laughed. She hadn’t seen Twilight this young and carefree in years, and remembering those times brought back many new memories. But as she thought about them, something that Twilight had said came back to her.
“Wait,” she said, approaching the young pony again. “Did you say this was a dream?”
Twilight looked back up at her with an expression like she had just been asked if the grass was green. “Well of course it is, silly!” she said. “Didn't you realise?”
Celestia looked again at her surroundings. Of course it was a dream. How could she not have noticed?
“I’m not really here,” she said to herself. “I’m not even in Equestria. I am still with Aaron, and I’m asleep by the pond.”
She looked back down at Twilight. “How did you know?” she asked. “How did I not?”
Twilight suddenly looked older. She was grown, a young mare now.
“Most ponies don’t know when they’re dreaming,” she said. “That itself isn’t unusual. But if I knew, then you must know on some level. I’m part of the dream as well, remember.”
“I don’t understand,” Celestia said. She walked back to the mountainside. “But does it matter?” she continued. “Can’t I just enjoy this place while I am here? Should I care that it’s a dream?”
Twilight shrugged. “That’s up to you, I guess,” she said. “If none of this is real, then you can do what you want with it.”
Celestia laughed. “‘None of this is real’,” she mused. “That seems such a strange thing to say now. Does all this actually exist, or is it just an image in my mind?”
Twilight walked up next to her. “You don’t know the answer to that,” she said, “and so neither do I. But there is some truth in every story, so you may find something you can use even here.”
Twilight didn’t respond. Again they stared out across the land in silence. Celestia could hear the voices again, quiet whispers carried on the breeze. She knew what they were now, just old memories in a dream, and as they flowed through her she could remember the scenes, the times in her life when she had heard each of them.
But now it had been brought to her attention, something was bugging her.
“I still don’t understand,” she said. “How did I know?”
Twilight shook her head. “You’ll work it out eventually,” she said. “The clues are all there. You just need to know what to look for.”
Celestia lay down and scanned the vista before her, looking for anything unusual. But everything she saw made sense in its own way. Everything was something from her life. Something from inside her own mind.
Still, something had broken through the illusion. Something had woken a part of her mind up, showing her what was really happening. Nothing from within the dream could have done that; it was all too simple. But what else was there?
Had some stray external sensation filtered its way in? She remembered her last dream, and the painful awakening she had received. But she hadn’t realised then until the very last moment. This was different; she still hadn’t woken up, but somehow she knew that she hadn't. Something set this dream apart from the last one. There was something new here.
As she thought about her last dream, though, one thing struck her. It wasn’t so much something that was new to this dream, but something that was missing from the last. Something so important to her, but which she had been unable to find. As if it was out of her reach.
The voice came again. It was closer than ever before and almost felt solid, like she could reach out and touch it. At last the memory came to her, and she knew whose voice it was.
There was the presence again, the spirit in the magic surrounding her. That was how she had known. It was such a familiar spirit, and the only one that had ever been able to enter her dreams.
Twilight looked over at her and smiled. “Go to her,” she said.
Her heart racing, Celestia stood again and spread her wings. The feathers returned immediately, her wings growing full and strong.
She looked down at the land below. It was so close, but this wasn’t the right time. Not yet.
Looking up at the heavens instead, she raised her wings above herself and prepared to climb into the sky, but paused. She turned to look at Twilight again.
“If you’re part of me,” she asked, “then tell me this. Do I know what the seventh Element is?”
Twilight shook her head. “Only you can answer that.”
She then smiled and turned, fading into nothing as she walked away.
Celestia looked up again and lifted herself off the ground. Pushing as hard as she could, she soared high into the sky, passing through the clouds in mere moments. The sky faded away to black as she rose higher and higher into the heavens.
High above her the sun hung in the sky, shining down over Equestria. Celestia summoned her magic, and at her command it rolled across the sky, sinking down below the distant horizon. The sky grew dark as it departed and slowly filled with countless stars. She turned to the east, and moments later the moon rose to take its place.
“Luna!” she called as she raced towards the distant sphere. “Luna, I can hear you! Where are you?”
Her voice was there again, so close it was almost deafening. Tears filled Celestia’s eyes as she darted across the sky, searching for it. She was so close now.
“Please, my sister!” She shouted. “Where are you? I want to see you! I need to see you!”
She stopped mid-flight and hung in the sky. Closing her eyes she searched her own mind, trying to find the origin of the voice. As she did so the entire world seemed to stretch to breaking point, like something was forcing its way through. She held on as best as she could, pulling the dream together.
“Please be you,” she whispered. “Please let this be real.”
Then suddenly everything snapped back into place. The world locked itself together again, and Celestia could feel the new spirit burning in her mind, filling it with a feeling of warmth and safety.
“I am here, my sister.”
Celestia froze, almost unable to believe it. She opened her eyes slowly, and there in front of her was Luna, wearing the happiest smile Celestia had ever seen. This was no illusion or manifestation. This was her sister, as real as anything could possibly be.
“Luna!” Celestia shouted, wrapping her forelegs tightly around her sister. “How did you find me?”
Luna returned the embrace, and the two of them hung there in the moment, tears streaming from their eyes.
“Please,” she replied. “There will be time for explanations later. Right now, all that matters is that you are safe.”
The passage of time slowed to a halt in Celestia’s mind, thoughts drowning in a maelstrom of emotion. Words lost all meaning as the dream-world dissolved into irrelevance around them. For an unquantifiably long moment all Celestia was aware of was the warmth of her sister, still held close to her. This was the closest to real contact with an Equestrian pony she had had in weeks, and the only clear sign she had seen that she would ever return. Any pretensions that she didn’t miss them were gone now.
Luna said something, but all Celestia heard was the sound of her voice. There was something impossibly comforting about just hearing it again. Given their past it almost seemed wrong to miss her so much after only being parted a few weeks, but Celestia knew there was more to it this time. It wasn’t just about Luna, but the entire nation – the entire reality – that she represented.
An overwhelming spectrum of emotions welled up inside Celestia. Accepting her exile had been one thing, but now, if there was any sort of connection again, if there was a hope that her exile may come to an end… Celestia had given up trying to pin down what she was feeling at that moment.
“You are safe, are you not?” Luna asked, possibly for the second time, genuine concern in her voice. “I was worried when we tried the connection that I would be unable to find anything, and then when I did it took so long to enter your dream, and—”
“Don’t worry, sister,” Celestia said, pulling her closer and cutting of her worried voice. “A lot has happened to me, but I am not in any danger.”
“Don’t tell me not… not to worry,” Luna sniffled. “It is all I have been doing for two weeks now, with no idea where you were or what had happened to you. I know better than anypony what can happen to a banished pony and… and I feared the worst.”
Celestia held her sister even closer, pressing the side of her head up against Luna’s. She could feel tears welling up in her eyes, but blinked them away. The rush of joy felt so freeing, so wonderful, but she wanted to savour this time with her sister and not lose herself in distraction.
“I missed you too,” she whispered.
There was silence again, their breathing the only sound Celestia could hear. Then Luna pushed herself away and looked up at her sister. She wiped the tears from her eyes and smiled.
“But I’ve found you now,” she said.
“Yes you have, little sister,” Celestia said, smiling proudly back. “How?” she asked. “Have you come through as well?”
Luna gave the question some thought. “No,” she said hesitantly after a few moments. “I am in Equestria, up at the mountain camp. I have not managed to reach where you are yet. In fact I do not even know where that is.”
Celestia chuckled. “It is something of a puzzle,” she said. “”But if you have got this far… have you managed to learn something new?”
Luna rolled her eyes. “Do you really want to spend this time talking about science?” she said.
Celestia shrugged. “I have to admit I am very curious,” she said, “and in truth I would just like to hear your voice, whatever you’re talking about.”
Luna nodded, chuckling, then turned and started walking across the snowy tundra that was now filling the dreamscape around them. Celestia caught up beside her, looking round at the familiar ring of huts that surrounded them.
“As you can imagine,” Luna said, “Twilight Sparkle has been studying the problem almost without ceasing since your disappearance. I have been doing my utmost to ensure that she gets some sleep as well, but we have all been eager to see you again.”
“I’m impressed by the progress you have made,” Celestia commented thoughtfully. “To have been able to get this far when less than three weeks ago we didn’t even know what had gone wrong in the first place? That is no small achievement.”
Luna stopped suddenly. “That is the odd thing,” she said, turning to look up at her sister. “We are yet to see any evidence that anything did go wrong. Twilight Sparkle tells me you yourself confirmed the spell’s validity, and to the full extent of what we have been able to determine, that analysis still seems to hold.”
Celestia raised and eyebrow. “I must admit I was finding it hard to accept that the spell was wrong,” she said. “But after what happened…”
She trailed off, looking back over at the centre of the encampment. She could hear the sounds of that day echoing in her mind still, but was missing all the understanding necessary to be able to explain it.
“So what has changed?” she asked, staring pensively at the air.
Luna stood for a moment, thinking. “I think it would be best explained by Twilight Sparkle,” she said eventually, releasing a pulse of magic from her horn. “Let me share some memories with you.”
Celestia felt the magic washing through the dream like a cold breeze. She let it through without resistance, awaiting whatever scenes it may bring, but after a few moments it was gone and the dream settled back down with no obvious change. She looked round trying to see any differences, but her attention was quickly caught when a large shadow passed straight over her head. It was cast by a second Luna, who swooped down over their heads and landed heavily on the snow a few yards away.
“This was barely a day after the first casting of the spell,” the original Luna said. “We still had no idea what had happened. As you can imagine, I was eager for any news I could get.”
Celestia moved forward slowly to observe the memory more closely. The newly-arrived Luna was ruffling her wings, apparently having difficulty stowing them properly at her sides. She looked in a poor state, like she hadn’t slept at all over the last day. She was visibly distracted, but walked resolutely straight towards Twilight Sparkle’s hut.
But as she approached there was a sudden noise over to the side of the camp. The calm of the mountains was shattered as Twilight almost fell out of the cafeteria hut in her hurry, her magic carrying a large cup of coffee on one side and trailing a long ream of paper on the other. Celestia reflexively braced herself, having seen Twilight Sparkle under the influence of coffee a few times before.
“Princess!” Twilight called as she ran over to Luna. “You’re early! I was just going over the results again so I’d be ready when you got here, then I realised I hadn’t had anything to drink yet today, and then when I was on my way over I realised I hadn’t—”
Luna held up a hoof. “Did you get any sleep at all last night, Twilight Sparkle?” she asked.
Twilight cocked her head. “Did you?” she replied.
Luna paused, standing in embarrassed silence, then sighed wearily. “Never mind,” she said. “More importantly, can you tell me yet if my sister is still alive?”
There was an uncomfortably long pause, Twilight’s eyes darting to the side as she searched for the right words. Even in the mountain air it felt like the temperature dropped a few degrees.
“I’m sorry, Princess,” she said eventually. “I can’t find any trace of her or where she could have gone.
“But I’ve no reason to think she isn’t alive!” she added hurriedly as Luna’s posture started to sag. “I’ve worked out enough to think she must be out there somewhere!”
Luna brightened up again, her expression lighting up with curiosity.
“You know what the spell does?” she asked.
“Well, yes and no,” Twilight said. She levitated the paper over to Luna, who took it in her own magic and examined the various graphs and tables sketched on it.
“I had to go over the readings we took in the initial run a few times, but once I saw the patterns it was obvious! It’s a textbook example, right out of Starswirl the Bearded’s ‘The Twelve Classes of Spells’! You see, the spell I wrote didn’t actually cause what we saw; it was just a petition spell!”
Luna raised an eyebrow but didn’t interrupt, so Twilight continued.
“I should’ve seen it earlier given how hard it is to forget the last petition I cast,” she said, flapping her wings demonstratively. “But what happened makes a lot more sense now! All I did here was ask – or petition – the universe for an act of magic, and it responded! That’s why I couldn’t control the vortex; it wasn’t being controlled by my magic any more!”
Twilight paused for breath, and Luna nodded with a rather dazed expression on her face. “So the words you wrote…”
“Aren’t actually the spell. Or at least not the important one. I think if we’re going to fix this, it’s the second spell – the ‘response’ – which we need to use.”
Twilight took a sip of coffee, then took back the paper and flipped through until she found another graph.
“I’m going to have to reverse-engineer the spell from the readings we took,” she continued. “We managed to get a lot of data while the spell was still active, and just looking at the graph, you can already see that—”
Luna raised her hoof again, cutting Twilight off before she picked up too much momentum. “I am sure it is very interesting,” she said, “but I am tired. Can you tell me how long it will take?”
Twilight shrugged apologetically. “I don’t know,” she said. “A few weeks, at best. Maybe longer.”
Luna kicked at the thin dusting of snow on the ground, deep in thought. Walking forward to her, Twilight put a hoof on the princess’s shoulder.
“If it helps,” she said, “What I’ve seen so far looks a lot like a teleportation spell. I’m sure she’s out there somewhere.”
The two of them smiled weakly at each other, then they began to fade away, the memory of that last smile lingering for a few moments in Celestia’s mind. She stood silently, staring at the empty space they had been occupying, the conversation playing over and over in her mind.
There was that strange feeling again; even though this was all new information, it immediately felt right to her. It was exactly like what she had felt when she saw Twilight’s spell for the first time. It was all correct, but she had no idea how or why she knew that.
At first she had just seen that feeling as confirmation that they were on the right track, that they were closing in on the seventh Element, and yet in all this time they hadn’t seen any sign of the Element anywhere. That this still seemed to be in some way the correct path just made her more and more confused now.
There was a noise next to her. She turned to see that the real Luna had joined her again.
“There was no mistake anywhere in the spell,” her sister said. “No faulty spell could have worked so perfectly.”
“What do you mean?” Celestia asked.
Luna shrugged. “A few weeks ago Twilight Sparkle managed to persuade the universe to reveal one of the most complex spells we have ever seen,” she said, “and she has spent the intervening time trying to reconstruct it based on indirect measurements of the spell’s effects. How long would you expect that to take, sister?”
Celestia considered the question; she could see where this was leading, though. “Even just the letter-writing spell I created for contacting Twilight took almost a year to construct,” she commented. “But given Twilight’s abilities—”
Luna chuckled. “Your pride in your student is well-placed,” she said, “but even so I would have expected it to take months at least. It…”
She trailed off, staring for a moment at nothing in particular, then was overtaken by a long, heavy yawn. She closed her eyes, massaging her forehead with her hoof, and lay down on the ground drawing deep, tired breaths. Celestia joined her on the ground; it was clear that, even though the two of them were technically asleep at this moment, Luna was completely drained. The last few weeks must have really been a burden on her.
Celestia was well aware that her younger sister had always been the more emotional of them; whether this was a good thing or not depended very much on the situation. She started to wonder how things would have turned out if their places had been reversed, and almost felt guilty that she hadn’t been feeling the same strain that her sister had.
“It just happened too easily,” Luna continued eventually, her eyes dreary. “Every time it looked like Twilight Sparkle was approaching an impasse the solution would suddenly present itself clear as the night sky. The spell is built like an instruction book. It is as if it wants to be cast.”
“Perhaps it is the universe that made the mistake then,” Celestia replied pensively with a slight smirk, “and it is trying to make up for it?”
Luna gave her sister a withering look, but as they looked at each other a smile broke across her face again and she started laughing, tears of exhaustion and happiness welling up in the corners of her eyes. Moments later they were both laughing happily, and Celestia was glad to see her sister loosen up again.
After a short while they both settled down into a quiet reverie, their heads resting against each other’s.
“Maybe that’s enough science for now,” Celestia said. “Instead, could you tell me about Equestria?”
Luna nodded, smiling. “Of course, my sister,” she said with a thoughtful expresison. “The nation is well, mostly unchanged since you last saw it,” she continued. “I would not wish to bore you with the details…”
Celestia jokingly gave her a disappointed look, and she chuckled in response. “Well, Cloudsdale lost control of a small thunderstorm near Manehattan last week,” she continued, “but there was little to no damage. Weather planning across the rest of the nation has paid off, however, and the corn exchanges are showing a good year for most crops. The rebuilding after the Las Pegasus earthquake last year is almost complete, but I have alas not had the time to make a visit…”
Celestia listened as Luna continued through a long list of minutiae about events across the entire nation. She closed her eyes, imagining for a while that she was sitting in court having the list of daily business read out to her. It was an indulgence, a brief moment of escapism, but well worth it for that simple feeling of familiarity.
She quickly noticed the common thread running through all the stories, though. On numerous occasions Luna mentioned how she didn’t have enough time to do something, having to cancel meetings or reschedule appointments on a regular basis. This hardly came as a surprise to Celestia, but she hadn’t been looking forward to confronting that issue.
Just a few minutes later Luna’s stories started to wind down, and the inevitable question presented itself in Celestia’s mind.
“Do they know what’s happened?” she asked. "Have you told our subjects?"
Luna sighed, scratching the back of the head. It looked like she had her own reservations about approaching the topic as well.
“I have not,” she said. “I had considered making it publicly known, but in all honesty I could see no good reason to do so. In the first few days we did not even know what had happened, so explaining it to the masses would have just spread confusion. Then as we gained a better understanding of the situation and a remarkably short time-frame began to present itself, I thought it would be best instead to just cover your absence until your return.”
“Our ponies would have wanted to help if you had told them,” Celestia said.
“Of course they would,” Luna replied. “They would have wanted to help rescue you more than anything else, but what could they have done? All that could be done was happening already.”
Celestia nodded. “I trust your judgement,” she said. “But it sounds like you’ve been spread thin. Surely somepony has noticed my absence.”
“A few have,” Luna said. “Mostly politicians working in the castle itself. I have just told them you are away on personal business, and that you will explain more on your return if you see fit.”
Celestia chuckled. “That could be interesting,” she said. “But I do worry about you, sister,” she added, turning to look down at Luna. “I hope you have not been overworking yourself, trying to manage more than you can handle without aid. I remember having to learn that lesson once myself.”
She reached out a hoof, putting it over her sister’s shoulders and pulling her closer. Luna leaned over, gladly letting Celestia support her weight.
“You’re exhausted,” Celestia said. “I’m glad this may be coming to an end, my sister. I made a vow to protect you, and when I return I can stop worrying…”
A strange feeling made her pause. She could feel Luna, still resting against her shoulder, shaking lightly as if she was crying. Celestia looked round at her sister, but there were no tears in Luna’s eyes. She was smiling back happily, and laughing.
“You should hear yourself, sister!” she said. “You were transported to goodness-knows-where by an out-of-control spell, you’ve been trapped there for two weeks, you’ve barely got any magic – yes, I noticed that, don’t try to deny it – and you’re still worrying about me?”
Celestia opened her mouth to protest but Luna placed a hoof over it, silencing her.
“That is what I always admired about you, sister,” she continued, still smiling brightly. “Always so quick to protect others without a single thought to your own needs. If you ever saw anypony hurt you would do anything to help them, no matter what the cost to yourself.”
Celestia laughed. “I think there is more truth in that than you realise,” she said.
Luna gave her a curious look, but dismissed it with a shrug. “Regardless,” she said, “I have missed having you with me so much. We will have you home soon, and then you can tell me everything that has happened to you.”
“Yes, I look forward to it,” Celestia replied with a smile.
And she was looking forward to it. She started thinking through everything she had seen over the past few weeks, and was glad to realise that most of the memories were happy ones – the days spent freely exploring a new world, the vast wealth of knowledge she had managed to glimpse the surface of, her time playing with Chestnut, even making a friend in Aaron. There had been plenty of low moments as well, but in a strange way it always felt like they had served some purpose eventually.
She could hear the words in her mind as she imagined the scenes, could hear exactly how she would tell her ponies about all she had seen. She had actually enjoyed her time here, and looked forward to enjoying it again by sharing it with her friends.
My friends, Celestia thought to herself with a smile. You’re learning.
And then there was that, of course. More than just what she had seen and done, there was so much she had learned. She had seen herself in a mirror, from a new perspective she had never managed to appreciate until then. She owed Aaron a great debt for helping her see it.
The thought of talking about it with others brought a small feeling of guilt; no matter what Aaron told her she would always regret neglecting so many over the years. But still, it would spoil the point of what she had learned if she didn’t talk about it with anypony.
And she had learned not just about herself, but about her entire world. Without a doubt that would be the hardest part to explain. The scientific community would be affected strongly by the implications one way or another; and it would eventually cause quite a stir across the entire nation. Only time would tell exactly how it would turn out, but she at least had faith that her ponies would be able to cope eventually. It would not have been the first time their world had been shaken by major revelations, and they had always powered through in the past.
But it was quite a tale in itself, filled with knowledge so incredible that she would never have been able to dream it up herself. It would be well worth it to tell it all to others just to be able to tell them about…
She blinked. For a few seconds she waited for the rest of the thought to come, but her mind had suddenly gone blank. There was so much to say that she couldn’t for the life of her think where to begin. If she just went from the start nopony would believe her; she’d had a hard enough time believing it herself.
And there were too many different interweaving strands to the story. To pick any one strand to tell would be to miss out so much else. She suddenly began to feel a profound sinking sensation, great walls of ideas rising up in her mind and trapping her in, no obvious route out presenting itself. She felt humbled as she saw for the first time the true scope of what she had seen and learned, and how great its implications could actually be. Had she really failed to—
“Are you okay?” Luna asked. Celestia, glad for the diversion, pushed the thoughts to the back of her mind to go over them properly later. She may have to talk to Aaron about it.
“I am fine,” she said, shaking her head lightly to dislodge her stuck mind. “I just have a lot to think about it seems.”
Luna nodded. “I can imagine,” she said. “Which reminds me; I never asked you where it is that you were sent to.”
“No, you did not,” Celestia replied with a chuckle. “But perhaps I will tell you one day.”
Luna raised an eyebrow, but did not protest. “‘A lot to think about’?” she said. Celestia nodded.
“That is likely for the best,” she continued. “I should not wait too long before returning to Equestria. But with any luck we will see each other again by the end of tomorrow.”
Celestia looked round in surprise. “That soon?” she asked. “I never even asked, I just assumed… I am really coming home? And as soon as that?”
“Twilight Sparkle has almost everything prepared,” Luna responded with a smile. “She wanted to perform a test run first before making a full connection, but now we should have everything we need. It is just a matter of resting and making final preparations.”
“And how will you find me?” Celestia asked, briefly having visions of a herd of ponies suddenly materialising in the middle of Aaron’s lab.
Luna chuckled awkwardly. “That is not entirely clear,” she said, “although I would say that Twilight Sparkle is confident that she will be able to do so. I won’t bore you with the details again, but we know the spell connects to a target by attaching to a physical object on the far end. It seems it could be anything, but we think your presence on the other side will provide some level of guidance.."
Celestia raised an eyebrow, puzzled by Luna's choice of words. "You do not sound certain," she said, and Luna shook her head.
"What solid evidence we have is far from convincing," she replied, "but that does not mean that I am not convinced. Sister, you have not yet seen Twilight Sparkle cast the spell itself. You have not felt its power as I have. I cannot give you any evidence other than to tell you that I know this will work."
Celestia sighed. She could at least empathise on that point; she knew that feeling well, that impossible sureness that a plan would succeed no matter how unlikely it seemed. It was the one thing which had given her the confidence to trust Twilight Sparkle with her sister's redemption all those years ago. Once more she could sense the signature of the Elements at work.
"Then I will trust you," she said, smiling down at her little sister. "And I will trust the spell."
She stood, and offered a hoof to help her sister up. Luna started making a move to leave then hesitated, her mouth opening like she were trying to say something. The two of them stood in awkward silence for a moment until, with a smile, Celestia stepped forward and wrapped a leg round Luna’s neck, giving her a hug.
"I know how you feel, little sister," she said. "But you do not need to stay for my sake. We will be together again soon enough."
"You are right, of course," Luna replied. "I can wait another day. I just—"
"I know." She stepped back again and wiped away a tear that was running down Luna's cheek.
"Will you be coming through tomorrow?" she asked.
Luna shook her head. "No," she said. "I considered it, but decided I should stay on this side in case I was needed in Canterlot. I have already taken up enough time trying to make contact today. Twilight Sparkle and her friends will be more than capable of handling it on their own anyway."
"It will be good to see them all again," she said, smiling as she realised that for one thing she genuinely meant it, and for another that she couldn't wait to see Aaron's face when she told him who was coming.
They nodded farewell to each other and Luna turned to walk away again, when something dawned on Celestia.
"Wait," she said. Luna came to a halt and turned to face her.
"How long have you been trying to reach me for?" she asked.
Luna looked down, dragging her hoof through the snow.
"Nearly five hours," she said. "We did not know when you would be sleeping, and it took a long time to break into your dream even when I found you."
"Five hours?" Celestia said, shocked. "You've been maintaining the spell all that time?"
Luna looked up, her expression suddenly defensive. "Before you say anything, they all volunteered to do so," she said. "I would not have done this if they had not been willing. We all…"
She bit her lip, defensiveness melting away into embarrassment, a warm blush turning her cheeks purple. "We just had to know that you were alive," she said.
Celestia smiled broadly, a single tear appearing in the corner of her eye. She closed her eyes, resting her head against her sister's.
"I'm so lucky to have you all as my friends," she said.
Neither of them said anything more, but Celestia was happy just in feeling her sister resting against her. Nothing more needed to be said.
Then there was a barely perceptible gust of wind, and she felt the weight disappear. A voice spread out into the dream-world, filling Celestia’s ears with faint whispers before dying away again. She opened her eyes, and Luna was gone.
~ ~ ~
I'm going home, she thought to herself.
She stood in the silence of the secluded valley, processing this thought. After all this time waiting the end was less than a day away. She would have to make certain that she was ready; not that there was a lot to do, but it just felt like she needed to do something to prepare for jumping from one world to another.
She would have to say goodbye to Aaron of course, she realised. He'd be happy, surely. He'd always wanted her to get home eventually, and until now he’d been the only thing that had made her believe she ever would. It should be easy to break the news to him.
Don't lie to yourself, a voice in the back of her mind said. He's going to miss you, as you will miss him.
"Great," she said to herself, lying back down on the ground and rolling onto her side. "I had to go and learn how to make friends."
A warm breeze blew past her, the hairs on her flank tingling in the sudden current, but she barely noticed it. For a moment she imagined she could hear her sister's voice in her ear again, bestowing calm on the dreamscape as per her nature. Celestia welcomed the illusion, taking deep breaths and trying to push the worries out of her mind.
It was hard though. The small idea had come completely out of nowhere, but in those few moments it had lodged itself firmly in her mind and now refused to be moved. She could imagine seeing the look of disappointment on his face when she told him, and the fear of hurting him in any way plagued her thoughts.
"Oh, I wish I knew how you'd react," she said.
"You could always ask," his voice responded from above her.
Celestia opened her eyes and looked up at Aaron, who was standing over her, looking down into her eye with a warm smile. She could still feel the cold of the snow against her side, though.
"I do know this is a dream," she pointed out.
"Then wake up and ask," he replied.
She sighed, laying her head back.
“I must sound like a little filly,” she said, “worrying about things like this. Is it foolish to be afraid of hurting his feelings, or to suddenly not want to leave when I’ve known him for so little time?”
Aaron sat down next to her and patted her on her neck. “You know what I think I’d say?” he offered.
“Does it matter?” Celestia asked. “You’re just my mind talking to itself after all.”
Aaron sighed. “This conversation would be so much easier if you hadn’t realised this was a dream,” he lamented. “Well, do you want to know what you think he’d say?”
Celestia sat up and looked straight at him. “Very well,” she said. “What would he say?”
“He’d be happy for you,” he said. “He’d want you to have what makes you happiest, whatever that may be.”
“But what if he—”
“Celestia, if he is your friend, he won’t mind,” he said.
“What makes you so sure?” Celestia asked.
Aaron moved round, sitting with his legs crossed and looking at her with a knowing smile. “You already know what,” he said.
On cue, voices from old memories played past her ears, reminding her of words she had seen years ago but could still remember with perfect clarity.
“Dear Princess Celestia, you should never be afraid to share your true feelings with a good friend…”
“…never lose faith in your friends. They can be an amazing source of strength, and can help you overcome even your greatest fears…”
“…rest assured that a good friend always has your best interests at heart…”
Celestia chuckled, smiling at the memories. She had read all those letters before, long ago, but for some reason they suddenly sounded different. It was as if they were talking directly to her now.
The warm wind blew past again, the dusting of snow on the ground blowing past in small waves. A pleasant shiver ran down her back and along the limbs of her wings.
“It’s okay to worry about your friends’ feelings,” Aaron said. “That’s what having friends is all about. This isn’t the last time you’ll feel like this, but you’ll learn to appreciate it after a while. You’ve learned a lot about friendship over the last few years; it’s time to start living it.”
Celestia smiled, a tear appearing in the corner of her eye. She had spent so much time training Twilight Sparkle that she had almost forgotten to listen to those lessons herself.
“But here’s the important thing,” Aaron continued. “He wouldn’t want you to be worrying over him and spoiling the moment for yourself.”
Celestia chuckled. She could understand why Starswirl the Bearded had had so much difficulty comprehending friendship. All those decades he spent trying to execute studies, run thought experiments, apply every academic tool in existence to the matter in order to unlock the true power of the Elements of Harmony, and he just ended up more confused than he had started, not to mention a little eccentric.
But then she had managed to learn one important lesson from him. Friendship was not something to be studied. It had to be lived. She had managed to avoid letting Twilight Sparkle make the same mistake, but had never even thought to try it for herself. The Elements of Harmony were no longer hers to wield, so she had never seen the point.
So this is where I am now, she thought to herself, the teacher becoming the student. When she returned she would have to start really listening to everything Twilight and her friends told her. There was so much she could learn from doing so; it was time she took advantage of this.
When I return, she thought again. When.
“There you go,” the image of Aaron said, patting her on her side as he faded away from the dream.
An irresistible smile blossomed across Celestia’s face as the thought finally sank in. The warm breeze returned, flowing through her, filling her entire body with happiness.
The thought spread quickly through her mind, bursting out in laughter and washing over the dream’s landscape. The snow melted away to nothing, and Celestia found herself surrounded by thick, luscious grass, wild flowers bursting forth and filling the scene with colour. She closed her eyes, rolling onto her back, and let her mind open up, lost in the moment.
The voices came back one by one; she could hear every one of her friends speaking to her as if they were standing right next to her. It was only a matter of time before she’d be able to hear them properly again. But soon even the voices faded away as her mind was filled completely with a single, wonderful thought:
Aaron woke to the now-familiar sight of the bright orange interior of his tent, the sunlight shining through the thin fabric and into his sleep-filled eyes. It sounded like it was raining outside so he rolled back over in his sleeping bag, feeling in no hurry to go outside.
He figured he deserved a lie-in in any case. It had been a long and peculiar day yesterday, not exactly taxing physically but still draining in its own way. It seemed to have gone particularly well for Celestia; she had clearly needed that little bit of closure, and from what he saw before he went to bed she had probably got some well-deserved rest as well.
Oh right. Celestia.
The rest of his brain woke up. Laughing at his own absent-mindedness, he rolled back over and started trying to fish a respectable outfit out of the tangled mess that was the inside of his rucksack. Celestia was apparently fine with rain but he felt guilty leaving her out on her own in it.
After dressing quickly he looked around for his raincoat. He found it folded up under the bag which still held Celestia’s tiara, pulling it out with only a small amount of irreverence.
Don’t start getting used to this, he thought. You do want her to get home eventually, remember.
But that train of thought had passed through his mind enough times already without getting any further than that, so he abandoned it and went back to getting ready. He opened up a cereal bar for breakfast and looked up at the tent’s roof…
…which was bone dry, not a single drop of water clinging to the fabric. Listening properly to the sound for the first time since waking up, he realised it didn't actually sound like rain. Something was going on outside, though.
When he emerged from the tent he saw the source of the noise immediately; Celestia was in the pool again – she evidently liked it in there – and she was throwing water everywhere as she jumped around, laughing happily. She was frolicking. He smiled as well as he watched her, having trouble keeping himself from laughing.
Suddenly she paused in her tracks, her head snapping to attention and her eyes looking round for something. After a few moments she turned, focussing on something below the water’s surface. She ducked down, emerging a second later with a stone held firmly between her teeth, and threw it over to the bank before going back to jumping around.
Intrigued, Aaron stood up and walked over towards the bank. “Celestia!” he called, waving at her as he got close.
“Aaron!” she called back. “You’re awake!”
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m looking for those stones I was using yesterday!” she said, pausing again and looking round for something apparently only she could see. Aaron stood scratching his head, bewildered. Celestia seemed to be a different pony every day. He wasn’t going to complain, though; for whatever reason she looked happier than he had ever seen her. It may well have been the sunlight glinting off the layer of water covering her, but she actually seemed to be glowing.
“What do you need those—” he started to ask, interrupted when she ducked her head below the water again without warning. She was gone for a second, completely submerged in the centre of the pool, then reemerged with a loud splash, throwing water everywhere. She had another stone in her mouth, which she carried out of the pond and placed on the ground, gathering the other five she had already retrieved and placing them all in a pile.
“Actually, how did you even find them?” Aaron asked. He couldn’t help but notice that the six pebbles still looked exactly like all the others strewn around the pond.
“If I’m honest, I’m not entirely sure,” Celestia said, looking over at him. “I can sense the magic I placed within them quite clearly still, so perhaps I don’t actually need to have magic of my own in order to sense it. I would not have guessed this previously, but the only other option I can think of is that I managed to pick up some new magic last night. As for why I need them—”
“Wait, slow down,” Aaron said, raising a hand in front of her. “What’s going on? Did something happen last night?”
Celestia froze, realisation dawning on her face. “Oh,” she said, “I completely forgot you didn’t know!”
“Don’t know what?” Aaron asked. “What happened?”
A broad grin spread across her face as she danced over towards him. “She found me, Aaron,” Celestia said. “My sister found me!”
Aaron stared back at the princess, completely at a loss for words. He glanced round the clearing, wondering if Luna was about to jump out at him from behind a tree. He could feel himself smiling as well – Celestia’s giddiness was contagious – but still his mind was just filling with questions.
“How?” he asked as he looked round. “How’d she even get here… wait a minute.”
He looked back at Celestia, who was still grinning at him, as the connections formed in his brain. “In a dream?” he asked.
Celestia nodded. “I have so much to tell you!” she said.
~ ~ ~
Half an hour and a considerable amount of storytelling later, the two of them were sitting on the pebble-strewn ground with the rather nondescript pile of stones sitting between them. Aaron was working his way slowly through a second cereal bar as he listened to the princess recount the story of what had happened to her the night before. It was certainly quite a tale to listen to, and just the fact that it had happened at all was fascinating in itself.
Getting to hear more about the spell that had brought her here was certainly exciting. It still left a lot of questions unanswered, and he could tell that these questions were on Celestia’s mind as well. But even with the mysteries everywhere the princess spoke with a simple, contented certainty in what had happened. Buoyed by her excitement she seemed so confident, so sincere in her understanding, that Aaron began to feel that it just didn’t matter if they didn’t know the rest of the details.
As the story drew towards the end with Luna’s departure from the dream, Aaron picked one of the pebbles up and turned it over and over in his hands, fancying that he might be able to sense some of the magic that apparently clung to it. He wondered which one the six this was, but they all just looked and felt like pebbles to him.
“So what do you need these for?” he asked when Celestia finished.
She looked down at the pile as well, and a faint yellow aura appeared around one of the stones, causing it to jitter around slightly on the top of the pile before going inert again.
“Reflexes are certainly hard to overcome,” Celestia commented, chuckling. “It would appear I have found some magic though, even if not enough to pick something up.
“As for the stones,” she continued, “I am hoping they will be used as anchors by the spell when the others cross over. According to Luna, the spell connects to a physical object on this side for guidance. It could be anything—”
“Like a spectrometer?” Aaron asked.
“For example,” Celestia replied. “I am hoping that, with the connection to Twilight and her friends that I gave these stones, they will be able to act as anchors in a more… controlled manner.”
Aaron looked down at the stone again. “So the spell will latch onto this and it’ll… what? Become one of the mane six?”
The idea that Twilight and her friends were going to be coming through was still sinking in really, but having spent so much time around Celestia had dulled the shock somewhat. It was going to take a lot to surprise him in future.
“Something like that,” Celestia said. “I do not understand the full process, but I believe so.”
Aaron continued turning the stone over in his hands, staring pensively at it.
“You have doubts?” Celestia asked on noticing his expression.
“A few,” he replied. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt that you don’t doubt it, but I guess it just seems a bit…”
“Convenient?” Celestia offered.
“Yeah,” Aaron continued. “You didn’t know any of this yesterday when you enchanted the stones, and now you think they’re a vital component in your return?”
“In a word, yes.” Celestia said. “I agree with you that it’s a remarkable coincidence. But it feels like this is the way it was meant to happen, if that makes sense.”
Aaron considered it. He felt the honest response was that it didn’t make sense, but then that was no reason to dismiss something.
“It’s happening again, isn’t it?” he said. “That feeling where you know it’s right even without any evidence, like you felt with the Elements.”
Celestia nodded. She too glanced down at the stones, thinking to herself for a few moments, then she looked up again. “Do you trust me?” she asked. “I mean, I’m asking you to accept all of this even when I admit that I can’t offer any evidence. I have only a feeling I can’t explain as proof for myself, and it’s a feeling you yourself cannot experience. So how can you ever accept this? Especially as you are a scientist.”
“I hadn’t really thought of it that way,” Aaron said, chuckling. “But to be honest I doubt you’d be lying about this after everything else that’s happened. I’ve had to accept a lot of impossible things recently, so what’s one more?”
“I’m not sure I would be able to have the same level of trust as you if our positions were reversed,” Celestia said. “On their own the facts of this situation just seem so implausible. I happen to have created exactly what I need just before my magic runs out without even knowing I need them, and then my sister makes contact with me just hours later? It almost sounds planned.”
“Like part of a story?” Aaron said with a wry smile. Celestia laughed.
“I don’t know if that was meant as a joke,” she said, “but yes, I suppose so. Thinking back over my life I can think of a few similar coincidences in recent years, and I suppose I might have an explanation for some of them now. But I’m not sure if the excuse of it being fiction should be able to apply to this case. If this was planned, then by who?”
Aaron nodded. Celestia’s suggestion that he was part of a story as well popped briefly back into his head, but he still didn’t feel like accepting that. It just felt like it raised more questions than answers. The only question it answered was one that could just as well be down to chance anyway.
And then there was the question of Celestia’s intuition. He could only think that was a type of magic in itself, and to the best of his knowledge there wasn’t any natural magic in this world, so what was triggering it now? It could of course have been a lingering effect from Luna’s connection. Or – he had to accept that it was a possibility – maybe Celestia was mistaken.
He tried to think what other unanswered questions he had. If he knew what the ultimate question was he might have more of a chance of finding a way to the answer. He drew a blank at first, but then one thing did occur to him.
“Do you think,” he asked, “that this might have something to do with the seventh Element?”
The question didn’t have quite the effect Aaron had expected. Celestia looked up quite suddenly at the mention, as if the seventh Element had managed to completely slip her mind again and she was only just remembering the original reason why all this had happened. She opened her mouth, and Aaron half expected her to just dismiss the suggestion, but then a troubled look appeared on her face and she closed it again.
She stood up suddenly and began walking around the clearing, looking around uncertainly as if trying to catch a glimpse of something. Aaron watched her for a short while in confusion, then stood and walked over to her.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I’m just not sure how to answer that question. I was going to say no at first – I had convinced myself by this point that this world and my journey had nothing to do with the seventh Element – but when I came to say it I realised that that no longer felt right.”
“Is this that feeling again?” Aaron asked, but Celestia shook her head.
“Unfortunately no,” she said. “Then the question would be quite simple. But in this case it’s just my own gut feeling. I thought the seventh Element couldn’t be here because there was no magic here. But now we’re discussing the idea of something controlling the events that have been happening here. That may not be the Element itself, but if this event is being controlled so deliberately, that raises the question of why I came here at all. It suddenly seems… inconsistent for it to just be an accident.”
Aaron raised his eyebrows. “I see what you mean,” he said. “That is a good question.”
Once again he felt the academic excitement of seeing an unanswered question and wanting to find an answer. Knowing Celestia was looking for the same answers, he decided to embrace the urge to investigate.
“Okay,” he said, “here’s another question then. If you aren't here to find the seventh Element, then why are you here? Maybe we can rule out some alternatives.”
Celestia stopped. “You know, you remind me of Twilight Sparkle sometimes,” she said.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Aaron replied, laughing.
Celestia smiled, then turned and walked back over to the stones. “Okay then,” she said. “Let’s think about this. At the very least it will be a good way of passing the time until they arrive.”
She sat down, and Aaron followed and joined her again on the ground.
“What do we know?” she said. “We know that the spell sent me here, and we believe that the spell was in some sense correct to do so. This implies that there must have been a reason.”
Aaron nodded. It was a start, although it still felt like they were making a few assumptions. “Was it right to send you, though?” he asked. “You said the spell originally targeted Twilight, right?”
Celestia raised her eyebrows. “That is true,” she said. “Perhaps it did send the wrong pony, and this resulted…”
She trailed off, and slowly a smile spread across her face. Aaron watched her, confused.
“Oh dear,” she said after a few moments, shaking her head. “I have nothing of respect for Twilight Sparkle, but as I think about it… If she had come here instead of me, this world would have driven her insane.”
Aaron considered it too, and for a moment lost the ability to stop himself laughing as he imagined Twilight going mad trying to find some kind of experiment she could perform to make sense of his world, especially if her magic started to run out. While he would have loved to meet Twilight, he could see that it was definitely for the better that Celestia had come.
“Actually,” Celestia continued, “I wonder if this was what was meant to happen all along. When I think back to the moment when this all began, I can’t imagine it happening in any other way.”
Aaron nodded. “You would’ve always tried to save Twilight?”
“Yes,” she replied. “As long as I was there on that mountain, this was the only possible outcome.”
“Because you would have always stepped in to protect your friends?” Aaron said, smiling knowingly. Celestia chuckled, bowing her head and looking sheepishly up at him.
“Well, we’re getting somewhere, I think,” he went on. “The spell was right to send you here, and it may well have been right to send you here. That just leaves the big question: Why?”
Celestia looked down at the ground again. Instead of waiting for her response, he continued, thinking out loud. “Has anything happened that seems like it could be the reason why you’re here?” he said. “Have you found something? Learned something?”
Celestia chuckled. “I have definitely learned something,” she said, looking up at him again. “And I think that if I have gained anything from my time here, it is perspective. I have had a chance to see myself, and my actions, in a new light. I have also learned a lot about my world, of course,” she added, “but in a way that almost feels secondary. I think I understand better now how I fit into my world – how I am supposed to fit into it. That is what I am most grateful for.”
She smiled a warm, contented smile. Aaron leaned back, savouring the quiet moment, listening to the birds calling in the sky above them. He was glad for what had happened as well. The pony he had met in the forest just a few weeks ago had been so enigmatic, so cold, so confused, and now she sat in front of him, the same pony in all other ways but bursting with an inner warmth that rivalled the sun.
“You must be really glad to be going home now,” he said.
“Indeed I am,” she replied with a smile. “That is where I belong. Even with everything there is in this world, it could never truly replace Equestria in my heart. I look forward to seeing my subjects, my sister and my friends again.”
Aaron nodded, happy to hear her say that. But still, as they looked at each other, he noticed a slight glint of hesitation in her eye. She saw him notice it, and looked away suddenly.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
“Perhaps,” she said. She looked over at him again with an uncertain expression. “I meant what I said,” she went on. “I am glad to be going home, and am grateful for everything that has happened here, but… Tell me, Aaron, do you or any of your colleagues study the origins of your universe?”
Aaron raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, a lot of us do,” he said. “Lots of people have theories about how it all started, but there’s only so much evidence to work with, and a lot of unanswered questions.”
Celestia nodded. “Imagine, then,” she said, “that one day a person came to you and told you they could take you right back to the beginning of the entire universe and not just tell you but show you where it came from, how it happened, and even why it happened.”
Aaron opened his mouth to respond, but couldn’t think what to say as the concept settled in. To be able to see how the universe formed right at the very beginning was the dream of thousands of physicists across the world. Just knowing that would answer countless questions about reality, including ones no-one had even asked yet. And as for knowing why… that question reached far beyond just physics. He could well believe that every human who had ever lived had asked that question at some point in their lives.
Celestia looked at him and nodded, his silence clearly all the response she needed.
“I have been given that opportunity,” she said, her eyes unfocused and staring through him at the world around them. “I know many ponies who would give anything to have this opportunity, and without my even asking it has been offered to me. I have learned much already, and while what I have learned is undeniably strange and unexpected, just knowing that it is the truth, and having been given the chance to learn it, feels like an honour.”
Aaron nodded, but couldn’t think of anything to say.
“And what is more,” Celestia went on, “is that I’m certain I have only scratched the surface. There must be so much more left to learn, and not just about my world, but about countless others. I am glad to go home, but… I worry I will regret leaving. Not spending longer here feels like a missed opportunity. I don’t know what invaluable knowledge I will be missing out on.”
The clearing fell quiet again, a cool breeze blowing past them, but the silence didn’t feel quite as comfortable this time.
“I see what you mean,” Aaron said. “If you go home now, who knows what you would have learned tomorrow.”
“Indeed,” Celestia said. “Part of me wants to trust that this is the right time for me to leave, but another part of me just wants to stay for as long as possible and continue to explore.”
She sighed, and looked down at the ground. Aaron could feel his train of thought breaking up, and stood up and began walking aimlessly round the clearing, hands clasped behind his head. Celestia had said before that the strangeness of what had happened had never really had a chance to settle in, and he realised that the same had happened for him. Only now did he realise quite how much all of this meant for Celestia, and how much she was giving up by leaving.
The whole experience had been very profound for him as well, although in different ways. Celestia, with all the knowledge of Equestria she carried, was herself a fascinating being, and he felt honoured to have had the chance to meet her as well. But if she were to leave now, how many questions would he never have the chance to ask her? He had never until that point felt quite so eager to ask her to stay.
“I’m sorry,” Celestia said. “I didn’t wish to make you uncomfortable. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
Aaron stopped and sighed. “No, it’s alright,” he said. “It’s just a lot to think about.”
He walked over and sat down next to her again. “I guess it’s best that we think about this before you leave, anyway,” he added. “If we want to learn anything more, now would be the time to do it.”
“I suppose so,” Celestia replied.
Again there was a brief silence. Aaron thought for a while, wondering what would be the best question to ask her to make use of the remaining time. There were so many things he had wondered over the years, about Equestria and its ponies, and even about Celestia herself, but for some reason he couldn’t think of any of them. In the end, there was only really one question he could think of.
“What would you do?” he said. “If you did have unlimited time to explore this world, where would you go?”
Celestia raised her eyebrows. “Honestly, I don’t know,” she said. “I guess…”
She paused for a moment, and Aaron waited as she thought.
“I am almost afraid to pry,” she went on, looking to the side and out into the wider world, “but I suppose what fascinates me most is that somewhere out there there is a person, or indeed multiple people, who are the reason I am alive. If I could truly do anything in this world, what I would like most would be to meet them, to talk to them, and to understand the minds which shaped me. The opportunity to do just that would be worth more than the riches of Canterlot.”
Aaron smiled. “I’m sure they’d love to meet you too,” he said. “But you should be careful. You might not like everything you learned.”
Celestia shrugged. “I suppose you are right,” she said. “There is always that risk, and with something as fundamental as the reason for your own existence, it may be safer to just not know.
“But still,” she went on, “just knowing that there may be a reason is fascinating in itself. And not just for my own existence, but for the existence of every pony in Equestria, and even for Equestria itself. It doesn’t just exist by some random fluke. Someone, one day, consciously made the decision that it should exist.”
“And I think we can both be glad they did,” Aaron said, and Celestia smiled. She stood up, gave her back a stretch, and then looked up at the clear blue sky, lost in thought.
“Just think about it,” she said. “Imagine what it would feel like to talk to the person who first saw the value of your life and your world enough to actively bring it into existence. Imagine being able to learn their motivations, and what drove them in that moment. Imagine being able to track down the exact point when everything you know was created – that original thought, that founding idea, that singular spark of Inspiration—”
She froze suddenly. Aaron looked up at her in confusion, the word taking a moment to settle in his ears. Then, like a spring suddenly bubbling up out of nowhere, Celestia started to laugh.
Celestia looked round at him, a wide smile on her face. “No,” she laughed, “not just that. I can’t believe it took me so long to see this!”
“See what?” Aaron asked, Celestia’s infectious grin catching him again.
“This,” Celestia said, spinning round on the spot. “This world! This amazing, impossible world!”
She stopped and sat down again, looking happily off into the distance.
“I thought the spell had sent me to the wrong place because this world had no magic,” she said, “but I had just overlooked what this world does have. Remember what we asked the spell to do; we asked it to show us something fundamental to the existence and nature of our world… ‘…the essence from whence we all came.’ ”
“And it brought you here,” Aaron said, sitting down next to her.
“A world in which everything I know was imagined and created,” Celestia continued. “A world where thousands of minds have played a part in shaping and nurturing my own, driven by a shared spirit of imagination, inspiration, or whatever you wish to call it. That is why this world is so important! This is the world that gave me life!”
“…Wow,” Aaron said, lost for words. “You’re sure about this?”
Celestia didn’t reply, but he could see in the softness of her eyes a familiar look. He nodded in understanding. She was certain.
“So the spell did send you here to find the seventh Element after all,” he said, and Celestia nodded back.
“It was certainly one of its reasons,” she replied.
They looked at each other, and smiled, then something drew Celestia’s gaze upward. Aaron followed her gaze as well, watching as small clouds skudded across the blue sky and listening to the wind in the trees. His heart was racing; out of nowhere, and at just the right moment, the answer had come. He wondered if this was what Celestia’s intuition felt like; although he had only known it mere moments, something about it just felt… right. It was so simple, so perfect, he couldn’t imagine the answer being anything else now.
Whether or not his world had any magic, all of a sudden it felt like it did. He thought of the millions of people across the world, unknowing bearers of the seventh Element, creating new worlds and characters every day. Some of them, a few of whom he had talked to himself, had given the princess sitting next to him life, ensuring that, even if their world didn’t contain any magic, it could still exist somewhere.
This was world-changing knowledge – he knew he’d never be able to read a story the same way again – and wondered what, if anything, he should do with it. The seventh Element had apparently trusted him, as well as Celestia, with this information. Maybe it had chosen him for a reason, or maybe it hadn’t, and he suspected he’d never know for sure. But the question was if he was supposed to be a custodian or a preacher.
He turned to Celestia again. “What are you going to tell them when you get back?” he asked.
Celestia sighed. “I do not know,” she said. “I would love to tell my friends about this world, but… about what this world is? It seems wrong to say nothing, but still… the effects of telling them… Would it be right to disrupt the story by making this known?”
“I know the feeling,” Aaron said. “But I guess… maybe the seventh Element will give you some guidance.”
Celestia chuckled. “I hope so,” she said. “I suppose I won’t know for sure until I return. But at least I can return with an answer either way.
“Speaking of which,” she added after a moment, “I wonder how long it will be now.”
Aaron shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “It could be hours, I suppose. But if I was the one writing this story, it would probably—”
The wind changed direction suddenly. They glanced at each other, then looked down and saw a faint white aura clinging to the stones.
“I honestly wasn’t expecting that to work,” he said.
“We should probably move back,” Celestia replied. Aaron nodded, and the two of them stood up and backed away, eyes fixed on the stones, as the aura grew brighter and brighter. The wind picked up, rushing in circles round the clearing and pushing small waves across the surface of the pond. Aaron caught himself trying to work out what was causing the wind and what chose its direction, but then stopped as he remembered what was actually about to happen.
“Wait—” he said, suddenly nervous, but before he had a chance to say anything else a burst of brilliant white light pulsed out from the stones, filling the clearing and washing over the two of them. Aaron turned away, shielding his eyes from the light. Over the rush of the magic he heard a sudden, sharp intake of breath next to him; he opened his eye cautiously and looked up at Celestia, seeing her standing with her eyes closed and her head raised, her mane billowing out in the waves of magic, its familiar array of flowing colours filling the air around her. She took deep breaths, smiling as the magic rushed into her body, filling her again. Aaron stood silently, transfixed by the sight as the princess returned to her natural splendour.
Then, suddenly, it all stopped. The light faded away and the clearing fell silent again. For a moment Aaron thought it hadn’t worked, but when he turned to look back at where the stones had been he saw six familiar ponies standing in a circle, Twilight Sparkle in the centre with her eyes closed and her wings spread out at her sides.
She opened her eyes and looked round. “It worked!” she said, the exclamation prompting cheers from the other five. Rainbow Dash leapt into the air, flying excitedly in a tight loop over the others, but halfway through she skidded to a halt as she spotted Celestia watching them.
“Princess!” she said. The others fell silent, heads turning one by one. Then Twilight pushed out from the group and galloped over to Celestia, looking up at her with a surprised expression.
“Princess, you’re here!” she said. “I’m so glad we found you! How did you know where we’d appear?”
Aaron watched the two of them, numb with shock at the sheer fact of what he was looking at. Celestia looked down at her former student, equally dumbstruck, but something completely different was holding her words back. Tears were welling up in the corner of her eyes, and slowly a broad smile, the brightest Aaron had ever seen, spread across her face. Then, suddenly, she dropped to her knees and wrapped her forelegs round Twilight, pulling her into a tight hug. Twilight looked surprised for a moment, then hugged her back.
“We missed you too, Celestia,” she said.
“Equestria just isn’t the same without you,” Rarity added, as the others made their way over as well.
“You have managed without me, though?” Celestia asked. “My sister—”
“—has done ya proud,” Applejack said. “She misses ya more than anypony though. She’s been itchin’ ta see you again ever since last night.”
As Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash joined them as well, Celestia pulled them all in, wrapping her wings around them.
“I’ve missed you all,” she said. “I cannot tell you how happy I am to see you again.”
Unable to think of anything to say, and not wanting to spoil the moment, Aaron backed away from the group and sat down on the ground, watching them. After all this time it was finally happening and he had no idea what to do. But he couldn’t feel disappointed; the look on Celestia’s face as she embraced the five young ponies was…
Confused, he tried to count them again, then froze as he became aware of something next to him. Turning his head slowly, he found a bright pink face staring back at him.
“Pinkie Pie,” he said.
The young pony leapt backwards, gasping in surprise. “He knows my name!” she squealed. “How do you know my name?” she asked, jumping forward again and pressing her nose to his. “Are you a spy?”
Aaron looked over to Celestia for support, and found six pairs of eyes fixed on him, five in confusion, and one in amusement.
“Pinkie Pie,” Celestia said, standing and walking over to them, “all of you, this is my friend, Aaron.”
“Aaron!” Pinkie said, giving him a hug. “I always love making new friends! I wish I’d brought my party cannon with me now, we could’ve—”
“Oh, would ya give the poor fella some space?” Applejack said.
“Sorry,” Pinkie said, backing away.
“This is incredible!” Fluttershy said, poking her head out from behind Celestia and walking cautiously up to him. “I’ve never seen anything like you! I hope it’s not too rude to ask, but… um, what species are you? And where are you from?”
Aaron smiled. Finally managing to unstick his tongue, he gave her head a stroke and said, “Don’t worry, Fluttershy. I’m a human, and this is where I’m from.”
Fluttershy smiled. Twilight Sparkle walked up next to her, looking him over. He had been waiting for this; if anypony was going to have questions for him, it was going to be her.
“You seem to know a lot about us,” she said.
Aaron nodded. “Yes, I…” he said, but he paused when Celestia caught his eye. They looked at each other in silence for a moment, then he turned to Twilight again and said, “the princess has told me a lot about you.”
Celestia nodded to him in thanks. “And in return he has kept me safe during my time in his world,” she said. “I owe him a great deal.”
Twilight looked back at him, raising her eyebrows. “Then we all do,” she said. “Thank you.”
“I’ll say!” Rarity added. “Looking after the princess all this time? That was very noble of you.”
“Any friend of the princess’s is a friend of ours,” Rainbow Dash said, landing in front of Aaron and holding out a hoof. “Put it there.”
Aaron offered a hand reflexively to shake Rainbow Dash’s, but paused awkwardly for a moment, before offering a fist instead and giving a makeshift hoof-bump. The others laughed. Then, the group fell quiet, Aaron’s heart pounding in his chest. After a moment Applejack spoke up. “So, uh, what now?” she asked.
“That’s a good point,” Twilight said. “We shouldn’t stay here too long, just to make sure the spell works as safely as possible. It was a pleasure to meet you, Aaron, but—”
Aaron nodded. “I know,” he said. He then stood, took a deep breath, and turned to Celestia.
“Time to go home,” he said. “I’m sure you’re eager to see it again.”
She nodded. “I am,” she said. Then, stepping forward, she wrapped her wing around him and pulled him into a hug. “I meant it,” she added. “I owe you, and your world, more than I can ever give you.”
“Don’t worry,” Aaron said. “Meeting you was enough.”
Celestia smiled at him, and folded her wing away again.
“Well,” Aaron went on, “I guess it just remains to say… actually wait a minute.”
He paused, then turned and ran back to his tent. He returned a moment later carrying a large plastic bag.
“I almost forgot,” he said, as he pulled the tiara out from the bag. Celestia laughed, then took it from it and placed it on her head. He gave her the peytral and shoes as well, and watched as she dressed herself, fully returning to the majestic princess he knew so well. Then, as she finished, he knelt down and picked a random pebble up off the ground, dusted a few specks of dirt off it, and held it out to Celestia. She looked down at it, then back up at him with a small grin.
“To go with the other six,” Aaron said, “and to remember us by.”
Celestia chuckled, then took the pebble from him.
“Did he just give her a rock?” Applejack said.
“Looked like it,” Rarity replied. “Must be a human thing.”
“I bet my sister would like it here,” Pinkie pie added.
“Thank you again,” Celestia said, as she tucked the pebble underneath her wing. “Goodbye Aaron.”
“Goodbye, Celestia,” he replied, nodding.
Then, Celestia turned to Twilight Sparkle. “Are you ready?” she asked.
“I am,” Twilight replied. “Just stand in a circle with the others. By the way,” she added, “where is this place?”
Celestia smiled. “That is a long story, Twilight Sparkle,” she said. “Perhaps one day, when I am ready, I will tell it to you.”
Twilight gave her an odd look, but then the two smiled at each other, and Twilight nodded.
Aaron stepped back from the group as they got themselves in formation again. As he watched, he was glad to realise that he was happy to see her leaving. He was going to miss her, of course, but nothing could beat the look of joy he saw in Celestia’s eyes as she spoke with her friends. It had been a long, incredibly bizarre few weeks, but he couldn’t think of a better way for it to—
Celestia’s exclamation took them all by surprise. The group were all ready in the circle, but she had jumped suddenly, and was staring down at Twilight with an odd expression.
“Is everything okay, Celestia?” Twilight asked.
Celestia stood in silence for a moment, thinking. Then, she asked, “how many times can you repeat this spell, Twilight?”
“Uh,” Twilight said, taken by surprise by the question, “as many times as I want, I think. Now I’ve made the journey once, I could even target the same location again with ease. Why?”
Again Celestia paused, then, a smile forming on her face, she looked over at Aaron.
“Seriously?” he said.
“Come with us,” she said. “Just for a short while. It will be my way of saying thank you.”
The other ponies exchanged glances. Twilight looked up at the princess, who shrugged in response.
Aaron took a step back, the offer having completely caught him off guard. After everything else that had just happened, his first instinct was to politely say no.
“Uh, I’m not sure,” he stuttered. “I mean, I probably shouldn’t… it wouldn’t be…”
He scratched the back of his head awkwardly, trying to find the inevitable, obvious, sensible reason why he should turn her down, but he just drew a blank, and there was a voice in the back of his mind screaming that he should just say yes.
He could hardly believe that he was even considering it. But he was getting used to that feeling now.
“You know what,” he said, “sure. Why not?”
“The more the merrier, eh?” Applejack said, and the other ponies laughed. Aaron walked forward and joined them in the circle, and they all smiled back at him.
“Okay, if we’re all ready then,” Twilight said. She closed her eyes, the others following suit, and the Elements of Harmony started to glow, bright streams of magic pouring out from them and enveloping the group. For a moment, it seemed to Aaron that his entire world was filled with nothing but light. As the clearing faded from view, he looked over at the other side of the circle. His eyes met Celestia’s for a moment, and the two of them started laughing.
The main thoroughfare in Las Pegasus was busy, though no more so than usual. Ponies milled about in the street, going about their daily business and gathering with friends. Many spared a brief glance up to the sky as the ornate golden chariot passed overhead. It was always a nice diversion when one of the princesses visited the city.
Celestia sat in her carriage, taking in the sights and sounds of Equestria. She felt the sun shining on her face, glad to have the company of her old companion once more. She took comfort in the world’s familiarity, yet she saw it now through new eyes.
Looking down, she watched as the city rolled past under her. Easily the most prosperous settlement in all Equestria, it was truly a wondrous sight to behold. It lacked the regal grandeur of Canterlot, yet it sat like a gleaming oasis in the endless Neighvada desert, a vital transportation hub for trade across the entire region.
But as with anywhere in Equestria, what she loved most about the city was its ponies. Each one was an individual with their own personality, their own story to tell. There were so many that she could never hope to meet them all or hear every tale they had.
But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that they were here together, living their lives. They shared their stories with each other, bringing each other friendship and happiness. It didn’t matter that the world would never hear the stories of most of these ponies. As long as they were known to somepony, then that was what made it all worthwhile.
To some, these ponies would never be more than background, nameless extras in another’s tale. But there was so much more to them than that. There was so much depth to their world, so much hidden interest. Celestia had never truly understood how much this meant until now.
Now that she was in her own world again, she shared in their happiness. Their friendship flowed through the magic of the world, washing over her like a warm breeze. While she had in time got used to the quiet atmosphere of Aaron’s Earth, the presence of the magic surrounding her once more was comforting. She was home now.
She did not regret the time she had spent in the other world though. It had been difficult for her, being separated from those she knew and loved, even just for those few weeks, but she had learned so much in that time, about her entire world, and about herself.
The road rose up to meet her as her escorts brought the carriage down to land. They came to a halt in the middle of the street, and a small contingent of guard-ponies approached her as she disembarked.
“Princess,” the Lord Mayor said, bowing as she stepped out from amongst the group. “It’s a pleasure to see you as always.”
Celestia nodded her head respectfully to the young pegasus. “The pleasure is mine, your Excellency. It has been too long since we last met, and I must congratulate you on your new office. I cannot think of anypony better suited.”
“Thank you, Princess,” she replied, blushing, “but I never liked that antiquated honorific. Please, call me Aniseed, as you used to.”
The princess chuckled. “Gladly, my dear friend. I’m pleased to see that you haven’t let your status change you too much. And in return, please feel free to call me Celestia.”
Aniseed blinked, somewhat surprised by the offer. “Er, certainly,” she replied. “Shall we get going then? Your escorts can make use of the palace stables while they wait, if you wish.”
Celestia nodded to the four armoured pegasi and they took off, pulling the chariot away towards the city centre. Aniseed and Celestia set off in the same direction, followed behind by the mayor’s guards. The crowds on the street parted to let them through, some bowing to them as they passed.
“If I may,” Aniseed said as they walked, “I was a bit worried by the response to my request for a meeting last week: ‘All non-urgent requests are being held until further notice’. May I ask what was happening?”
Celestia sighed quietly. Inevitably her absence had not gone unnoticed, and she still felt sorry for having to leave Luna in charge of the entire nation while she was away. She had yet to decide how much of what had happened in the meantime she was going to make known, though.
“It was something of a personal matter,” she replied. “But don’t worry, Aniseed, I appreciate your concern and don’t mind you enquiring. I will say that for a number of reasons I decided I needed to take a few weeks’ sabbatical. There were certain things that I needed to learn, and to remind myself of.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Aniseed said, laughing. “What could there possibly be for you to learn?”
Celestia smiled. She had always admired Aniseed’s willingness to speak her mind.
“There is always something one doesn't know,” she replied. “Even in my position, both as a princess and as myself, I must always remember that I have my limitations. And being able to take time out to remind myself of them on occasion is immeasurably valuable. I advise you to remember this also,” she added, looking down at the young politician.
“Thank you, Celestia,” Aniseed replied. “I’ll make sure that I do. Now, I asked you to meet me out here because I thought you would want to see how the restoration after the earthquake’s been progressing since your last visit.”
They continued down the main street, and Aniseed told Celestia about the various businesses they saw, about the ones which had been hit hardest by the damage, and how their recovery was progressing. Celestia listened intently. She made sure to mentally note each detail; it was her duty as co-ruler of the nation to keep in touch with its residents and their problems.
On her request, they paused at a number of the smaller businesses on the way, so that she could meet the ponies themselves. As was always the way, everypony she talked to was both shocked and honoured to get to meet her, but she wondered if any of them realised how much she herself gained from the experience.
Eventually, they came towards the end of the commercial district, and Regents’ Park began to spread out before them, framing the magnificent mayoral palace and offices on the far side. Aniseed shifted the discussion to administrative matters, but Celestia had stopped listening, for something in the crowd around them had caught her attention.
A young, light-brown earth pony trotted through the crowds towards them, a basket of carnations in her mouth. Her pale green mane was tied back in a loose plait, fastened with a red bow matching the three rose petals that formed her cutie mark.
She passed unnoticed through the crowd, the other ponies paying little attention to her as she weaved between them. She walked past Celestia along the side of the road, then stopped and pushed open the door of one of the shops, carrying the flowers inside. Through the window, Celestia watched as she placed her basket on the counter and greeted her friends and coworkers warmly.
For a brief moment, Celestia couldn’t help but envy the simplicity of her life. This pony had no grand destiny, no great purpose to fulfil. But she never felt the need to ask if she had a reason to exist, and she was happy in her life.
“Is everything okay?” Aniseed asked from beside her.
“Yes, everything’s fine,” Celestia replied as she admired the immaculate floral displays in the shop’s window. She would have to check if her sister had managed to appoint a new palace florist yet.
Turning back to Aniseed she said, “If you don’t mind, though, I think our discussions can wait until we reach the palace. In the meantime, there is something I would greatly appreciate your opinion on.”
“Of course, Celestia,” Aniseed said as they began walking through the park again. “What is it?”
“How much do you value fame?” Celestia asked.
“I wouldn’t exactly call myself famous,” Aniseed replied. “Everypony here knows who I am, sure, but it’s my office they recognise. They know me as their Lord Mayor, not as Aniseed Crunch.”
“And you are happy with this?”
“Of course,” Aniseed replied, looking suspiciously back at the princess. “I stood for office because I wanted to help the city rebuild. I’m not doing this for my own gain. You’re not worried that the position’s getting to my head, are you?”
Celestia shook her head. “Don’t worry,” she said reassuringly. “This is not a personal criticism. I am more wondering how much it matters if a pony receives recognition for their life and their actions.”
“That’s... a tricky question,” Aniseed replied. They walked along in silence for a short while as she thought about it, and Celestia took advantage of the lull to admire the parkland that stretched out to either side of them, watching as foals played together on the grass.
“I guess I would say that it’s their actions that matter,” Aniseed responded after a while. “If they’ve earned the recognition then they’re welcome to it, but I don’t think that should be why they do what they do. I remember a travelling magician who came through town a few years ago. She seemed to want everypony to admire her, but that was all that motivated her. She never actually tried to help anypony, and all she got in return was thrown out of town.”
“So if you had a choice between being known and loved by millions, or living in peaceful obscurity, which would you choose?”
“Oh, the second one, easily.” Aniseed looked up at the princess. “Is this why you went on sabbatical? You wanted time away from your subjects?”
“No, it’s not that,” Celestia replied. “The two are linked, but not in that way. It is difficult to explain.”
“I won’t pry any more, then,” Aniseed said. “But like I said, I think what matters is what a pony does, and too much fame can get in the way of that. It’s hard to have freedom to do what you want, or what you need to do, when everypony’s watching you all the time.”
“Thank you, Aniseed,” Celestia said. “This has been most enlightening, and I appreciate your advice.”
“You’re welcome, Celestia,” Aniseed replied. “You know, you gave me so much help and guidance in my time as a councillor, I never expected to find myself returning the favour.”
Celestia chuckled. “And you did so admirably, Aniseed. Everypony has something to teach, and given my somewhat unusual position, it is useful to be able to see the world from somepony else’s perspective at times.”
They reached the palace, and the guards opened the gates to let them in. Before following Aniseed in, Celestia looked back over her shoulder at the city, and the thousands of ponies going about their lives.
Every one of them owed their existence to someone they had never met, living in a world they didn’t even know existed. But despite its origins this world had grown and become more than anyone, or anypony, could ever have dreamed. She may never understand exactly how these ponies’ destinies were tied to the will of the seventh Element, but perhaps it ultimately didn’t matter. Whatever the case, these ponies had been given the gift of life, and they deserved to be able to live those lives in peace, not as characters to be idolised, but simply as ponies.
Perhaps some things were best kept secret.
Her horn lit up, and a small object floated out from between the folds of feathers underneath her wing where she had been carrying it for the last few days. It was the pebble.
She turned it over in the air a few times, contemplating its rough surface. It would have been impossible to tell it apart from any of the other stones covering the gravel driveway.
What should I do with you? she thought. She could carry this with her for the rest of her life, guarding it along with the knowledge she possessed, keeping it as a memento of her time in Aaron’s world. But then she would always have her memories to remind her of those times. And besides, she already had a much greater memento, given to her by that world long ago. They had given her an entire world to live in. They had given her life.
Closing her eyes, she loosed her magic’s grip on the stone, letting it fall to the ground. There was a moment of silence as it fell, unseen, through the air, then a quiet clatter as it hit the ground. It was gone now, out of her custody. If she had looked down she would have been unable to find it again. It was a part of Equestria now, yet completely invisible. Just as the seventh Element should be.
Opening her eyes again, Celestia turned and followed Aniseed Crunch into her home.
~ ~ ~
The leaves in the trees were rustling in a cold, persistent breeze, but the surface of the pool remained still in the seclusion of the small clearing.
Aaron sat by the water’s edge, staring up at the clouds passing hurriedly past in the sky, turning a ball-point pen over and over between his fingers. He had been carrying the pen around everywhere for a few days now, although he was never entirely sure why.
It was a week now since he had come back to this world. He had spent maybe eighteen hours in Equestria, visiting Canterlot as a guest of Celestia. They had explained his presence as being a member of a distant, secretive race who had become lost, and the ponies had treated him with a mixture of curiosity and some admiration borrowed from the princess.
It had been an incredible experience; having received so many opportunities that he could have only dreamed of before then. Just meeting Celestia and Luna and getting to hang out with the mane six for the day was enough, but it was almost as if the other world was doing everything in its power to exceed his expectations. Numerous events were put on in honour of their “distinguished visitor”; a lavish banquet in the castle, a display and reception with the Wonderbolts, even a cello recital…
Celestia had told him how much difficulty she was having working out how to describe her experience to the other ponies, and Aaron was certainly able to sympathise. He was having enough trouble convincing himself it had all happened. What was most daunting, of course, was the scale of the story. This was not something that could ever stay restricted to the fandom. Plus, Aaron had a distinct disadvantage in comparison to Celestia of not already having universal fame in his world, and it would be a rather dizzying climb if he told people.
If they believed him.
Of course, he didn’t even have any evidence. Somehow the concept of taking photographs had completely passed him by. The only way anyone would ever believe it was if another pony came through, so the situation was entirely in Equestria’s hands now.
Aaron wasn’t holding any great expectations that that would happen soon. In their final conversation before Twilight brought him home, Aaron had definitely got the impression that Celestia was shying away from the option of sharing her story with more than a few ponies. All things considered, there was every likelihood that he’d never see her again.
Lying on the floor in front of him was his lab notebook. He looked down at it, opened it up to a random page and scanned slowly over the notes and sketches in it. He had read the whole thing through at least a dozen times that week, puzzling over the one final mystery that he had been left with.
He knew he would miss spending time with Celestia, and the occasional appearance in the show when it started again would hardly be the same, but still he found it hard to feel sorry for himself over this loss. After all, that he even had this to lose was a miracle in itself. The question would always be there though: of all the people in the world, why him?
He had first wondered if there was something in the experiment that he had missed, something which tied it to the other world, but he couldn’t see anything. There were a few small coincidences – the two identical access panels on the sides of the spectrometer that had always been “the wings” to everyone in the lab, a ribbon of wires by the data port that had a familiar looking colour scheme – but hardly anything that felt important. The most significant connection was probably himself.
Was it just luck after all? Something about that didn’t feel entirely satisfying, but at this point it was definitely the most probable explanation. He had just been in the right place at the right time, and Celestia had had the fortune to meet someone who knew her on arrival. It wasn’t very fulfilling, to think it was just sheer luck that had made things happen as they did, but at least it was an answer.
He lay back on the ground, idly balancing the pen on his nose. Above him the sky was starting to change hue as the sun began to set. The moon would be coming into view soon, carrying with it the only significant connection to Equestria that remained in this world. Celestia’s memorial to her sister, although having lost some of its significance on Celestia’s subsequent reconnection, still carried importance in Aaron’s mind. That may well be the only place where it held any power, as Aaron doubted that small burst of magic would be capable of actually doing anything, but to him that was all the power it needed.
But as he thought about it, he became aware again of the pen in his vision. It wasn’t exactly true that the moon was the only connection to Equestria after all; there was another which had existed long before he’d met Celestia.
Every event he had ever known to happen in Equestria before her arrival had begun its existence in this world, after all. Somewhere in the world was another pen which had played its own part in the birth of Celestia, and similar tools had given rise to every single pony he knew. More than that, countless authors and artists over the centuries had created an unknowable number of characters, each of which may well have their own lives out there somewhere in the vast library of realities.
But it was more complicated than that. It wasn’t just a simple matter of one reality creating another. Some strange force seemed to bind the realities together, each having its effect on the other in a sort of symbiosis.
What was this seventh Element? Was it simply what it sounded like – the combined creativity of every author throughout history? Was it simply a product of humanity?
Or maybe humanity was a product of the seventh Element. Everything Aaron had seen showed that it could effect events in this world as much as others, and it had to be more than just an abstract concept for it to produce something so tangible.
There was the chance that Celestia was right, and this was all a part of some larger fiction, events instead being driven by that world’s author. It wasn’t Aaron’s favourite theory, for obvious reasons, but it was always possible.
Of course, whatever the seventh Element actually was it did offer an answer to his question. Maybe the seventh Element had for some reason chosen him to play this part in the story. He felt a bit arrogant thinking that, but it didn’t exactly disagree with the evidence. Maybe he was just the right person to give Celestia the help she needed, and that had caused her to be sent “at random” right to him.
He had to wonder why any of it had happened at all, though. What was the purpose to the seventh Element revealing itself like this? Especially when it had done so to so few.
Aaron shrugged and sat up again, placing the pen down on top of the notebook and staring at it. All things considered, he realised that he didn’t really care what the answer was. The point is that it happened, and he had got to see – even be part of – the story. It didn’t particularly matter why the story was there, as long as someone had enjoyed reading it.
He continued to stare at the pen, lost in thought. It was capturing his attention like nothing else; something about an object so small – so commonplace – having such power within it was very profound to consider. It held the potential to make literally anything happen, and yet anyone could use it if they wanted to. Even he could…
An idea dawned in his mind. Not a very complicated one, but he soon found himself smiling. Things were starting to make a little bit more sense.
He picked up the pen, flicked through the notebook until he found a blank page, and started writing.