Chapter Thirteen - As the Night Passes
“Curious. So many centuries have passed, yet they live as though they’ve not aged a day.” It shouldn’t be possible, she realized now that her own eyes saw it for themselves. But while the scientist in her was excited, she had other business today. It would have to wait for another time.
Reluctantly, Twilight set about cleaning up after the mess Trixie had made. Once she had, she carried the unconscious mare back into her wagon to tuck her into bed. There would be a better time to speak than this. She quickly penned a short letter explaining what Laughter was and what it did and then placed both it and the note atop Trixie’s wardrobe, careful not to touch any of the magical artifacts littering the wagon. The collection had her salivating a bit, in truth. There were so many, and she didn’t know what any of them were. Trixie hadn’t even placed any additional security on them to ward off inquisitive horns!
But they, too, would keep for another time. Starting this friendship off with an invasion of privacy would hardly get Twilight anywhere with a mare who already openly professed to hating her. So she forced herself to willingly step outside the wagon. After checking her spellwork no less than six times to be sure she wouldn’t accidentally kill herself, Twilight pushed a sizeable fraction of her total magic into a teleport.
Thus did Twilight reappear inside the ruins of the Old Castle inside the Everfree Forest where Celestia had set up a safe teleport point. She could already feel Magic’s call beckon her onward, and Celestia’s own magic thrummed with power all around her. Up ahead, she spotted the source of both along with Moon Dancer. As she’d expected, they were busy working on setting up the trap for Luna. It was, for anypony else, the very definition of overkill, but at best it would hold Luna off for a few critical seconds.
Twilight trotted forward carefully. None of the enchantments present were armed and ready, but she nonetheless felt uneasy walking through them. She pushed them from her mind as best as she could as she greeted the other two ponies present. Moon Dancer looked a little worn down, which she’d expected. Even only handling the administrative side of things for the most part, her job wasn’t easy to just pick up and run with. Celestia, on the other hoof, wore a look of concentration. When she finished casting the current spell she was working on, it faded into a warm and welcoming smile.
Once all greetings had been exchanged and Celestia had extracted a lingering hug, Twilight asked, “So how is everything going?”
“Well,” Celestia summarized simply. “Nothing of particular interest has happened in your absence.” She said that like it was a bad thing, and for an immortal, perhaps it was. “I arranged for Lyra Heartstrings’s full citizenship, but the remainder of that mess remains unresolved as of yet.” After a moment of consideration, she added, “Cadance may wish to speak with you about her project.”
Twilight made a mental note to visit the entire family when she eventually stopped by to chew out Shining for the part he’d played in Loyalty’s awakening.
Moon Dancer’s horn dimmed until the magic at its tip faded away. “Everything is correct.” She returned the instructions for the trap to Celestia for further work. After adjusting her glasses, she asked, “How are the Elements coming along?”
“Good,” Twilight replied perhaps a little too quickly. “Good. I actually just finished awakening the last one.” With a little prompting from Celestia, she elaborated. “Sweetie Belle bonded with Generosity. That’s the filly you met when I was in the hospital. That settled me on taking her on as a student.”
While Celestia smiled waned a little at hearing all that, she didn’t comment. Twilight didn’t ask. She’d already told herself whatever criticisms were surely running through Celestia’s mind anyway.
“Pinkie Pie ended up with Kindness. I think she and I will be all right.” And in all honesty, after today, Twilight felt that might actually be the case. “We just needed to set some boundaries.”
“Such as leave the scalpel at home?” Celestia teased.
Moon Dancer looked between the two of them. Without context, she had no idea why they were laughing.
Unfortunately, that brought Twilight to the next Element. Her face warped into a scowl. “Shining sent Sergeant Flash Sentry to Ponyville.”
“Oh dear.” Celestia recognized the name, it seemed.
Twilight immediately said, “It’s fine.” It really wasn’t, but she would deal with it. Flash was a guard. To survive under Shining’s watch, he surely had to have a proper sense of fealty to the crown. She could work with that in this situation.
“What am I missing?” Moon Dancer asked.
“In the interest of getting to bed at a somewhat reasonable hour,” Celestia began, “I think it best not to get her started.”
Twilight snorted. She wouldn’t waste that much time on a mere nuisance. “Laughter went to the Great and Powerful Trixie.”
At the mention of the only pony to get herself expelled from the School for Gifted Unicorns in decades, Celestia perked up a little. “Trixie? Is she well?”
Moon Dancer, who had attended the school in the same year, had a decidedly opposite reaction. “Is she still a danger to herself and everypony around her?”
“Well…” Considering that Trixie had just drunk herself into a blackout, Twilight couldn’t honestly say she was well, but she’d clearly polished her magical skills since leaving school. “I suppose she’s doing all right on both fronts,” Twilight ultimately decided upon. “And she kind of despises me. For unclear reasons. I may need you…” Celestia might not be the best intermediary, on second thought, considering whose school Trixie had gotten thrown out of. “I’ll figure something out. If nothing else, we won’t be lacking for conversation material.” She wanted to know everything about those magical artifacts Trixie had: what they did, where they came from, how she’d acquired them.
“Might I suggest you start with politely asking why she dislikes you? I find these sorts of grudges tend to stem from simple misunderstandings.”
“Like with Luna?”
Celestia winced. “Like with Luna.” Her gaze drifted up to the moon. “Sometimes simple things cut deeper than anything.”
“I see…” The last time Twilight had tried that, Trixie had challenged her to a duel. Still, if Celestia said to give it another shot, she doubted it would hurt to make a second attempt. “Well, that’s all I had. I just thought I’d stop by and let you know all of the Elements are awake.”
Celestia held her wing wide in invitation, and Twilight stepped into it for a farewell hug. “Come visit again soon. We all miss you.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” It was only twenty more days before the solstice, a mere four weeks, a moon and some change. It was so little time to prepare, but it also felt like such a long time to wait. Maybe she and the other bearers would benefit from some time apart on occasion. They did have a movie night scheduled. She could make time to attend that, at least. Perhaps Sweetie Belle might like to come along. She’d have to give that a little more thought.
“One more thing,” Celestia said. She lowered her voice. “I’ve yet to tell anyone about my sister’s dreamwalking.”
Twilight quickly tallied up everypony she’d told. Beyond Celestia herself, there was only Sunset, Sweetie Belle, and by extension, probably the Crusaders. Pinkie Pie might know given that they roomed together, but that was it. “Any particular reason why?” She’d kind of assumed Shining would know when she’d asked him to start vetting ponies now that they knew Luna existed.
“For the same reason I never insist on the changelings openly integrating into Equestria.”
Ah. Rampant suspicion and fear. Such things had happened to other governments, Twilight knew. “Fair enough,” she said as she broke away. “I have little to no control over what her own friends and contacts do, but I understand your point.”
After exchanging her final goodbyes, when Twilight turned to leave, Moon Dancer stepped forward and offered to see her out. Then once they were out of earshot, Moon Dancer finally spoke what was on her mind.
“Twilight, Princess Celestia isn’t… She’s not doing well.”
That much was obvious even from that brief exchange. “Yeah, I noticed.” Twilight risked a glance back at Celestia, who had already returned to her own work. “Please just keep looking after her. I hope to have some good news for her soonish unrelated to the Elements. Don’t mention that to her, though. I don’t want to get her hopes up in case it doesn’t work out.”
“Will it really help?”
Twilight nodded. If she could get Luna to talk to Celestia, even to just consider it, however much it hurt one or the other, it would be good for them both. But speaking of whom, it was time to face another night in Luna’s company.
The locals knew it as the Temple of the Ephemeral Moon. Legend had it that when the clock struck midnight and the stars aligned, it appeared deep within the misty forest under the light of the full moon. Few ponies had ever seen it, and nopony had ever managed to enter it, for those who tried found it to be not a temple but a fortress. Then, before anypony more qualified could be summoned, it disappeared back into the darkness of the night.
To Chrysalis, it sounded like somepony’s unmaintained illusion spells were malfunctioning. She might assign a few members of her hive to fix that while she was here.
“Your Majesty, we found something.”
Chrysalis paused in her inspection of the protections surrounding Princess Luna’s ancient workshop. “What is it, Pharynx?”
“A local. He met with a mare passing through town around the time when the staff disappeared. She introduced herself as Lulamoon.”
Lulamoon? That couldn’t be right. According to the histories Chrysalis’s mother had left her, the last Lulamoon had died years before Princess Luna’s banishment. A pretender? It was possible, she supposed. Having the wit to recover the Night Guardian Staff didn’t preclude anyone from presumptuous behavior liable to set an angry alicorn on them. But perhaps a line of Lulamoons endured in secret to await their princess’s return. If they passed the title down to a worthy successor…
Chrysalis supposed it didn’t really matter right now. It could be a red herring for all she knew. There would be time to determine such minor details when she eventually found the person – she wasn’t ruling any species out yet – who’d stolen the staff. “Why did Princess Celestia not hear this stallion’s story?”
“He moved away. When she came looking, he must have slipped through the cracks. He’s only recently returned to Hollow Shades.”
That was bad luck, but Chrysalis understood. A sovereign only had so much time to spare for such projects. Such was the magic of delegation. Without the burden of secrecy, she could perform a full investigation. She’d have to request Equestria’s census data for Hollow Shades and have someling pore over it. A quick thought over the hive mind sent one of her changelings off to complete that project for her. It was good to be queen.
Finishing her inspection of the wards, enchantments, and other protections placed over Princess Luna’s workshop took a few more hours. She found nothing there that Princess Celestia hadn’t informed her of, nor had anyone made any modifications to them. That could mean too many things for her to reach any conclusions, so she paid it no mind and finally entered.
Books, trinkets, artifacts, weapons, armor, paintings, sculptures, and every manner of fascination littered the shelves, tables, walls, floors, and even ceilings. Some of it was broken junk fit only for research. Most sat idle, either disabled or no longer functional. But the rest? They went about whatever they were designed to do: strange devices that, lacking context, glowed without meaning; a set of boots that emitted puffs of short lived clouds; a magically isolated orb of softly swirling dark light which all but screamed evil and corruptive; a clock that stopped ticking when observed.
As she explored, Chrysalis only found more and more treasures lost to the world. An entire hall had been dedicated just to enchanted mirrors, although only one, a massive crystal mirror, appeared fully intact and potentially functional. In another room, three of the legendary Mage Meadowbrook’s eight enchanted items sat openly and unadorned in plain sight! Had she only discovered this workshop before the traitor revealed the hive to Equestria, she would have stripped it bare and never looked back.
With some amusement, Chrysalis considered that the real reason Princess Celestia had never sent Twilight here years ago to search for the staff was not to hide Princess Luna’s existence but because she would never be heard from again. Or worse, she might realize she served the wrong princess. How strange it was that the elder sister had borne the Element of Magic when the younger seemed more well-suited at a glance. Perhaps Magic is a mistranslation from Pre-Discordian Ponish? It doesn’t exactly fit with the other five Elements.
Chrysalis finally came upon where the crown jewel of this collection was supposed to reside. Of all the treasures someone might take, only it was missing. That spoke of a thief acting with either haste, ignorance, or purpose. The first seemed unlikely, as Princess Celestia hadn’t mentioned rushing to the workshop in an attempt to stop a burglary. The second she doubted, for who would have the magical skills necessary to enter this place uninvited and not recognize any of the other priceless artifacts on display?
Hmm, I wonder if our thief is a thief at all. If there truly is a Lulamoon running around with some measure of legitimacy, that would explain why only Princess Luna’s favorite toy is missing so near to her return.
Of course, even a hostile, powerful mage with the Night Guardian Staff in their possession could be a very large threat all on their own, no alicorn required. Chrysalis stopped to reevaluate the wisdom in letting Ocellus wander freely, but she was well protected where she was and didn’t seem to have any intention of leaving. Unless something changed, Chrysalis felt no need to explicitly restrict her movements.
“Hmm?” A thick book lay carelessly discarded on the floor nearby with a depiction of the Night Guardian Staff in view. Chrysalis picked it up, read a bit of it, and laughed. Penned by Luna, the collection of research notes was probably the closest thing that existed to a manual for the staff. Everyone always threw out the manual, didn’t they?
At any rate, now that Chrysalis had determined that the workshop was safe, relatively speaking, to enter and explore, she called the changelings who’d accompanied her here to come join her. Then she instructed for word to be spread through the hive that they were to keep their eyes and ears peeled for any sign of a Lulamoon running about Equestria.
Then with all that out of the way, Chrysalis turned her attention to the thousands of artifacts and books surrounding her. She couldn’t take anything without it being missed and the perpetrator obvious, but nothing stopped her from gleaning what knowledge she could with the time here she had available.
Twilight successfully made her way into her dreamscape with little difficulty. It’d grown easy with a little practice. Perhaps a second after she did, she heard a soft flump, and upon realizing that it was Luna’s journal falling, caught it before it tumbled off the couch onto the floor. She doubted it could be damaged without specifically unraveling whatever twisted dream logic protected it, but books were always to be treated with the utmost respect – even the Inspiration Manifestation.
After a full minute had passed by the clock – a properly functioning while sleeping dreamwarming gift from Seabreeze – Twilight gave up waiting for Luna to notice her sleeping state and left for her library. She shelved Luna’s journal there where she could keep an eye on it and then returned to work on the lesson plan for Sweetie Belle she’d started last night.
Not long later, Twilight’s eyes drifted back toward Luna’s journal. A frown overtook her as she stared at it. Writing her own journal to protect against memory loss or alteration had been one of the most motivating reasons she’d held when she’d decided to learn how to enter her dreamscape. With all the chaos in her life as of late, it’d slipped her mind entirely. She looked back down at her lesson plans, then back at the journal.
Priorities, Twilight. You have enough to keep Sweetie Belle occupied for now.
Sighing, Twilight dreamed up a pair of journals. In the first she would record her life story as she remembered it up to the present. That would have to be a slow, incremental process. She was by no measure an old mare, but she’d crammed a lot of life into her early years. She would probably need a separate series of logbooks entirely to record her work as the archmage when she got to it, but for now, she labeled the journal and set it aside.
To the second journal, Twilight added an amusing title: Friendship is Magic. She chuckled to herself. It was an ancient pony idiom from before Discord, one which had endured through the fall of civilization, and it seemed only fitting. She was, after all, attempting to power a set of Pre-Discordian magical artifacts with friendship. In this journal, she would record her life from when Spike first brought her The Tale of the Royal Pony Sisters up until the solstice and her confrontation with Luna. She would need to remind herself to remain relatively objective multiple times, she was sure. For her purpose, her opinions were as important to record as facts, but she might turn to venting if she treated this too much like keeping a diary.
And thus Twilight began writing, fully engrossing herself in her work. Her time in Ponyville remained fresh and unspoiled. Beyond the magical enchantments she used to improve her long-term memory, the last couple weeks had been filled with remarkable events and new experiences, many extraordinarily frustrating. She doubted she’d forget them anytime soon. The stampede in particular, now that she’d gotten to it, had a strange mixture of random chaos, irritation, and the joy of meeting Sweetie Belle.
Twilight did not shriek. That would be silly. Nor did she have a teleport on the tip of her horn.
Luna arched her eyebrows. “–evening. Not expecting company?”
“No, no.” Perhaps the chime announcing visitors should be a little louder. “Just got a bit distracted. I put your journal over there on the shelf.”
Following Twilight’s hoof, Luna found the book in question and took it back into her magic. She seemed satisfied by whatever inspection she performed of it. “Thank you for taking care of it.” After a short pause, she continued, “I realize you woke prior to my full breakdown, but I nonetheless apologize for losing my temper in front of you again.”
Twilight delayed her response to consider which direction she wished to proceed. There were so many possible avenues, and it was at times like these that she wished she had Celestia’s gift for conversation and influence. Then again, if her ultimate goal was to befriend Luna, all she could really do was be herself and maybe temper some of her snark.
“I’m fairly certain bottling up your emotions is what got you banished,” Twilight decided upon.
“While I have long ago admitted such was a contributing factor, I make no excuses for the flaw in my temperament now.”
Twilight bit her tongue to deliver a properly measured response. “There’s a difference between not getting angry and hiding that anger.”
“Point,” Luna allowed after a few moments to likely reflect upon her exact wording.
And with that concession, Twilight continued, “I don’t expect you to be anything but a pony. I’m the shoulder Celestia cries on. I can handle being the mare you scream at.” She snorted. “I foresee several shouting matches in our future if, come the solstice, you win your little spat with her.”
Luna scrutinized Twilight with a wary, skeptical eye. And she had good cause to do so. Twilight hadn’t exactly weathered the storm well the last time she’d lost control.
No sense in not addressing the elephant in the room. It might even flatter. “You know how when you know a spell really, really well and you put it down for a while, it takes a little effort to get back into practice?”
“Yes?” Clearly, Luna had no idea why that mattered.
Although she was sure she would never hear the end of this, Twilight said, “It’s been a while since I last dealt with an actual threat.” Pinkie Pie and Lyra were merely the tip of the iceberg. “I’ll get over it.”
It took a few seconds, but only that. “Twilight Sparkle,” Luna said, fighting off a fit of laughter, “are you telling me you forgot how to have courage?”
“What use is courage to a mare living in a world of insects?” Luna seemed like the sort to appreciate a good boast.
And indeed, Luna laughed now without restraint. She tried to form words a few times before giving it up as futile. It wasn’t precisely the intended result, but Twilight supposed it would do. When she finally settled, she fell silent for a time to merely breathe and catch her breath, little giggles escaping her from time to time as she did so. It gave Twilight a moment to think in which there was no expectation for her to speak. In it, she realized that Luna had opened herself, logically speaking, to the first phase of Operation Reconciliation, the name Twilight had just now given to her backup plan. She just needed to figure out how to word it.
“Ah, dear Twilight, I foresee far fewer shouting matches in our future than you, I believe.”
“Hmph.” That would do as a prompt, however, so Twilight seized the opportunity. “There’s an easy way to achieve that.”
Luna dryly observed, “Quite a few, actually. Alas, easy and disagreeable oft go hoof in hoof.”
That deserved a good roll of the eyes. “Quite. Regardless, you’ve repeatedly identified your lack of emotional control when it comes to Celestia as a flaw of your character.” Twilight pressed on despite the hardening of Luna’s eyes. “If you want to fix that, why don’t you just go hash out your differences with her right now. I already told her you’re dreamwalking, and I assure you, she regrets everything that happened between you.”
“A moment, please,” Luna said darkly. She moved to leave the library. “I need a visceral aid.”
Twilight swallowed, deeply unsettled by what the pun implied, but didn’t protest Luna’s departure. It was no short length of time in which she left the tower. Twilight tried to get some work done, but on each attempt, she only ever managed to write a few words before she inevitably became distracted. She really tried not to imagine what Luna intended to return with, but that wasn’t how her mind worked. What nightmare fuel would Luna drag into her dreamscape? Not that it helped, but the imagining, she knew, would be so much worse than the actual event.
She was so very wrong.
She heard it before she saw it. An icy chill settled deep in her chest. Her heart stopped.
“Let go of me already!”
Twilight reacted immediately. The dream warped around her will as dread and worry turned to white-hot fury. In but moments, she had her precious son wrapped up in her hooves while Luna slammed against a wall with all access to magic stripped from her. “How dare you! Spike has nothing to do with this!”
A half-mad cackle met the demand.
Twilight slammed Luna against the wall again, this time hard enough to crack even an earth pony’s bones. “This isn’t funny! What did you do to him?” She turned her attention to the dragon in her arms. He protested that he was fine when she fussed over him, but she wasn’t satisfied. “Well?”
“Would it matter if I said I was sorry?”
A thousand nightmares all plagued Twilight at once. She truly had no idea what Luna could do to someone while banished. Dreamscapes existed within one’s magic, so dreamwalking must involve a meeting of magics. If Luna could do that much, anything was theoretically possible.
“What did you do!” Twilight screeched as her thoughts converged toward worst-case scenarios.
“Heh heh.” The laughter was weaker this time, and from the way her eyes swam, Luna would likely have a concussion if any of this were real. “Autumn spoke truly. Cousins, indee–” She bit back the beginnings of a scream as Twilight skipped the middlemare and triggered her nociceptors directly to cause pain. When she could speak again, she said with shaking words, “Oh, Twilight, so much trouble over a doll.”
“A – a doll?” Even as she said the words, Twilight felt the Spike still wrapped protectively in her hooves crumble away into dream dust, and even that vanished without a trace. Her magical grip on Luna broke in her shock. He’d looked, and sounded, and felt so real, not a detail out of place. Luna must have taken the time to observe him in his dreams.
And as for the mare herself, she grunted as she hit the floor, but it didn’t stop her from rising to her hooves nor from stalking forward. “Was this justice, Twilight Sparkle?”
She heard the uneven four-beat gait of Luna’s hooves, unable to look at their source.
She’d never lashed out like that before.
“What did I do?”
She’d leapt straight to torture.
Luna drew near. Her voice lowered. “Should I toss you into an oubliette for a thousand years for this assault I provoked? Is that justice?”
Twilight knew the parallels Luna was trying to draw with this living analogy, but she couldn’t stop the tremors running through her nor slow her quickening breath long enough to argue back.
“It is my weakness to desire retribution as I pursue the nebulous concept we call justice,” Luna said with an air of finality. “As a pony who has lived a blessed life free of any true loss or suffering, the difference between the two can be difficult to understand.” She breathed deeply. “I shall leave you to your thoughts for the night.”
With the same uneven gait, Luna retreated toward the library’s entrance. Her hooves echoed heavily in the silence, each irregular beat a reminder of how they’d gotten that way.
Had that really all been her? Twilight didn’t have clean hooves. Years of fighting megalomaniacs and ponies who just wanted the world to burn had made sure of that. But she’d never once been so overwhelmed with anger. Was that what Luna had to deal with so often? Was that Sombra’s fault, or was it just nature? Was it something the fake Spike had induced in her, or was it, in fact, just her nature?
The library door opened. Twilight’s eyes snapped up to Luna’s ragged form. There was no blood. She’d been too clean and efficient for that. Any bruises would be hidden beneath her dark blue coat. But the bones out of alignment, those she could see. She knew what that felt like.
“Luna.” Twilight waited until the mare looked back her way. “I’m sorry.”
Luna’s frown remained unchanged. “I apologize as well. In this, I think we may call ourselves truly equal.” She turned away and then added, “I shall not forget that you have courage indeed, Twilight Sparkle,” as she departed.
The door shut. While it might have been implied in their last exchange, Twilight couldn’t help but note that neither of them had explicitly accepted the other’s apology.