Chatper Thirty - Perpendicular Perspectives - Between Enemies
“Oh no…” I sighed to myself. It was that memory.
I backed off from the window I’d just touched. The rather cheery image of a ridiculous filly Luna and me mid-tackle atop a cloud concealed the deeper secrets contained within this memory.
“What is it this time?” Cadance asked, her eyes studying the window while her face grew ever more confused.
“Oh, no way!” Dash said. Somehow I could hear her intention to use this as embarrassing blackmail material later. “Is that Princess Luna?”
“Well, yes. We were making fun of…er…”
Cadance, the pony we’d been joking about, turned her head away from the window to look at me. “Of what?”
“Nevermind,” I said. “It’ll make sense in context. Long story short: my dream, my rules. But this memory was from…the last Hearth’s Warming you and I physically spent together.”
Eyes narrowing, Cadance asked, “And how much of that disaster was Nightmare Moon responsible for?”
“Luna didn’t do anything. It was all my fault. It was an accident, but I could’ve stopped it from ever happening if I hadn’t been an idiot.” I pulled my gaze up from my hooves. “Before you watch it, I want to apologize in advance for what I had to do.”
“Just watch it,” I interrupted. “I was stupid, and that’s no excuse, but everything will make sense in context.”
Cadance hummed in annoyance, or maybe even in anger, but she did as I asked. Her hoof came up to the window. The usual second passed, then two, and the third. And then her hoof came off the window.
“I’m…I’m done.” Before my brain could catch up with what Cadance had said, she continued, “I can’t – I can’t do this anymore.” Cadance turned to face me, tears at the edges of her eyes. “I can’t watch your memories anymore, Twilight. It’s like watching a disaster unfold. How can you not see that Nightmare Moon is dragging you into the darkness?”
“Wha…” There were too many objections vying for my attention, but one came out right away. “I told you that was all my fault. Everything was my idea. You must’ve seen that.”
“And that’s what’s so horrifying!” Cadance cried. “Twilight, they were your ideas. They came out of your own thoughts. Normal ponies don’t think like that. Normal ponies don’t attack their family. When you were just a wee filly, you never would’ve thought of such things.”
Alright, alright. Calm down, Twilight. If you let your emotions get the better of you, too, you and Cadance would just start yelling at each other. You had to keep it together for her.
“Cadance, I really am sorry for what I did. If I’d been smarter, you and I never would’ve been put into that position.”
Sniffling, Cadance said, “I – I don’t – don’t even care about that. What you were planning to do to me – to us…”
That drew a wince from me, but Cadance had to know I hadn’t wanted to hurt her. The original plan, as unpleasant as it was, had been in the memory. It’d just been so much safer for me if nopony had discovered I’d left home. I couldn’t have known in advance that things would work out even if Cadance and Celestia knew I’d vanished, and maybe it wouldn’t have if I’d done it under different circumstances than the ones I’d left under.
“You understand!” Cadance’s voice cracked as she shouted.
“No, Cadance, I–”
“I know you’re not a monster,” Cadance interrupted. “I know it. You’re not like Nightmare Moon, but she’s turning you evil with smiles and kind words.”
I sighed inwardly. “Cadance, I know the difference between right and wrong. I know I’ve done things I wish I hadn’t. But I didn’t have a choice. I don’t regret them. I’ve always tried to minimize the damage, and I always will. Unlike you and Celestia, Luna and I haven’t been allowed the luxury of operating overtly.”
Cadance opened her mouth to object, but I beat her to the punch.
“I mean overtly in regards to your opponent. It didn’t matter if you leaked information to me. You two held all the cards. But if I leaked information to you, it was game over. Can we at least agree on that? From my perspective, at least?”
“It wouldn’t excuse anything.”
“It’s not like I enjoy straddling the line between good and bad. There has always just been too much at stake for me.”
“And for Nightmare Moon,” Cadance retorted.
This was completely unfair and not an argument I’d normally use, but it’d probably get through to Cadance.
I unfolded my wings. “Look where we are, Cadance. We’re in the Æthereal Realm. I’m all but an alicorn now. Even if I had no connections to Luna at all, do you think Celestia would have ever let me have this?”
Cadance took a couple seconds to react to the change in topic, but she replied, “Those are Nightmare Moon’s words, not yours.” Her eyes momentarily darted toward the window next to us.
“No, they’re not. I may not have thought much about it until recently, but I always knew the answer to that question. Honestly ask yourself, do you think Celestia would’ve let me chase my love of magic all the way here?” Sunset had been slapped down hard when she’d tried.
“Well…” Cadance hesitated, but she did agree with me in the end. “No, probably not. I mean, I don’t really know, but I guess I am only the third alicorn.”
An extended moment of silence passed as Cadance contemplated something or other.
“But Aunt Luna didn’t ascend ponies, either. Nightmare Moon wouldn’t have let you do this if she had a choice. You’re just a tool to her.”
I shook my head. “You’re wrong.”
I interrupted Cadance’s interruption. She was going to misunderstand if I didn’t explain.
“I am Luna’s tool, but I’m not just her tool. She’s my friend, and I’m hers. Whatever use she makes of me, she wants me to be better off afterward.”
“That is a horrible definition of friendship.”
“It’s not a definition; it’s a corollary.”
“It’s still horrible.”
“I admit it’s a bit cynical, but it’s accurate. I can make predictions of Luna’s – no, all my friends’ behavior with it.” I quieted the little voice telling me this was a horrible, unfair argument as I added, “And it’s historically true, too. Luna guided me all the way here. My flares are gone. I’m safe. Everypony around me is safe. And – and you’ll never have to bury me.”
Cadance paled, and her jaw worked ineffectually.
Finally, whispering into my hooves, I finished, “I don’t know where I’d be without her…” Other than not existing, but if Luna had decided all those years ago after having me made that she actually didn’t want me, I honestly had no idea what would’ve happened to me or where I’d be now.
An old question I’d asked Pupa resurfaced into my thoughts. If Luna hadn’t been there for me…
No, I didn’t even want to think about that anymore. I wasn’t as immortal now as I wanted to be, but I was pretty close.
Into this heavy silence, Dash interjected, “Uh, hey, you two. Maybe we should just move on? I mean I don’t know what you’re really talking about–”
I swatted Dash’s hoof away from my memory. I’d only shared it with Cadance because it concerned her and had Luna behaving like a proper mentor in it. It wasn’t like I was showing Cadance my entire life, just small parts of it.
“–but you’re sorry for whatever, right, Twi?”
A moment passed before I answered, “I am.” Not that I would go back and change my actions.
“And you’re not gonna do any of it again?” Dash continued.
“No, not likely. Not unless circumstances require.” I brought my gaze back up to Cadance’s. “I won’t let anypony die.”
I saw Dash nod to herself out of the corner of my eye. For whatever reason, she looked pretty proud of herself.
“Right, and Twi was raised to be a princess, and make hard decisions, and see that everything gets done no matter what, and stuff like that.”
After a brief pause, Dash added, “You know, probably. Twi is kind of tight lipped, which I guess is important for princessing, but it’s also really annoying.”
I spared just enough time to glance at Dash and roll my eyes.
“Anyway, no offense, Princess, but you kinda seem too nice for that. I mean, Alicorn of Love and all that. You’re probably not really in the right profession.”
In what was probably the most patient voice Cadance could possibly bring to bear at the moment, she said, “Rainbow Dash, I know you’re just trying to help, but–”
“Argh.” Dash’s wings rubbed furiously through her mane in frustration. “Why do I have to do this horsecrap? Look, you two love each other. Just hug or something.”
Hugs didn’t solve everything, Dash.
“Cadance,” I began, “I really am sorry for every abuse I’ve taken or thought of taking with our friendship. I never would’ve done any of it if I weren’t convinced it was important. Whatever you think of her, Luna is important to me. I couldn’t risk her freedom or her life.”
I fell to my haunches and took one of Cadance’s forehooves in two of my own.
“I trust and love my big sister Cadance, who just wants the best for everypony.” My weak smile faded into a frown. “But you’re also Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, niece of Celestia. I couldn’t trust her not to trust Celestia, the aunt who could afford to be in her life. Trust is… I need…”
Wait… Ugh. If I could get a headache in the Æthereal Realm, I’d probably have the worst one of my life right now. It just occurred to me that Celestia was my foster, adoptive Aunt – and my adoptive aunt-in-law after Cadance married Shining – something like an estranged sister-in-law with how close I was to Luna, and my foster grandmother.
Stars, and we were probably distantly related genetically through somepony in Luna’s family, separated by a couple dozen generations. Just imagining the royal family tree was–
No, not thinking about it right now. I pulled my gaze back up from where it’d fallen and resumed the infinitely more important task before me.
But I closed my mouth just after parting my lips. There had to be a better way to phrase this for Cadance. She didn’t really have the experience to relate to what I was trying to get across.
Maybe this was one of those things I was trying to do backward again. There were two special ponies who always at least knew something about what was going on in my life, after all.
“I told Mom and Dad about my trip. And they always knew about Luna. It wouldn’t hurt them, or me, or Luna for them to know, so they always have.”
A second or two passed in silence as I waited for Cadance to ask the next obvious question. During it, I kept hoping Cadance wouldn’t think to ask about my potential long-lost sister. I held no answers there, only questions.
“And Shining?” Cadance asked exactly the question I’d wanted her to.
I shook my head. “Like you, he had a conflict of interest. He’s a royal guard. I don’t know what choice he would’ve made in the end” – but I hoped it would’ve been me – “but either way, telling him would have cost him either me or his honor, pride, loyalty, et cetera. I couldn’t do that to him, let alone the other risks involved.”
I let Cadance mull over my words for several seconds before I continued.
“And if he didn’t choose me, even if he reconsidered one second too late, I would’ve lost everything: Luna, my ascension…my magic.”
That elicited another wince from Cadance, unfortunately. I hadn’t meant my apology to make Cadance feel guilty. That sort of defeated the purpose.
“Cadance” – her gaze refocused on mine – “I’ve always known I was going to have to make up Hearth’s Warming to you, and I promise I will. I’ll spend centuries apologizing if I have to, because you’re worth it. We’re worth it.”
I bit my lip and emphatically did not add, “That is if I’m still alive after everything is said and done.”
“You can be upset with me. I’ll understand. I’d have to be crazy to hold that against you when I give Luna’s grudge a pass.” And that wasn’t even considering my own. “I just want you to see me for me. I’m not being tricked. I don’t need rehabilitating, and I don’t need to be dragged out of the ‘darkness’.”
Lastly, I added, “I just want you to be upset with me. I just want the chance to apologize to my sister, not to have her shift the blame to somepony else. Is that…” I clung onto Cadance’s hoof extra hard. “Is that too much to ask?”
It really wasn’t, right? Cadance should be upset with me personally, not Luna. Seeing somepony in a new light can be hard, and this wasn’t exactly an improvement for me, but that should make it all the easier. It was always easier to dislike somepony you loved than to love somepony you hated.
So why wasn’t Cadance saying anything? I could understand if it took her a few days to fully process it, but surely she could say something. A yes, or a no, or even an ‘I don’t know’ would be wonderful. Instead, she just kept staring at nothing, her mouth moving a tiny bit every second or so.
It wasn’t like I was asking her to forgive me. I hadn’t even asked that much of her. All I wanted was her anger, or sadness, or whatever she was feeling right now directed toward the pony who deserved it.
Cadance fell to her haunches, and her other forehoof came up to steady my own shaking ones. She wore a sad smile on her muzzle.
And she still wasn’t saying anything.
“What is it, Cadance?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Cadance replied, her voice brittle and breaking. “I think we should spend more time together, just the two of us.”
“Wha…” How had Cadance come to that conclusion? “I – I would love to, but…why?”
I could see Cadance reaching for a lie. It was written all over her face as always.
“I think we need time to get to know each other. And this time no secrets, no aunts, no responsibilities. Just us.”
“That does sound nice.” Nice enough even that I didn’t really care to try and find out what Cadance was really after with the suggestion. “Maybe we could wander the moon together. My tour guide was busy the last time I was there. Oh, or maybe we could go visit Draconia. If you wouldn’t mind if I brought Spike with. Or–”
“Anywhere would be fine. But I – I need to go.” Before I could get a word in edgewise, Cadance whispered, “I’m sorry.”
And then Cadance disappeared. She’d faded out of existence over a fraction of a second, and I’d missed most of it as I’d blinked. I nearly fell onto my face with her sudden disappearance, having lost the support her hooves had offered.
“Uh, Twi, where did she just go?”
I grunted as I got back up onto all four hooves. “Probably back to the Physical Realm. I guess. I don’t know.” Cadance could be on the Nebulous or in another galaxy for all I knew.
“Right… Well, should we get going?”
“Yeah,” I sighed. If I hadn’t already gotten through to Cadance enough to at least set her to thinking, I probably wouldn’t be able to at all. This was a pretty horrible parting of ways, but I didn’t see what more I could do without letting her cool off first.
And based on my best guess, we likely only had ten minutes or so of walking left at this point, which wasn’t much time for concluding remarks anyway. And I still hadn’t come up with anything I could really call a plan for escaping Celestia. I had more options now as an alicorn than I’d had before, but I still didn’t like my chances.
Waiting out Celestia probably wasn’t a good idea either. We could probably stay safe here in the Æthereal Realm for weeks, but by that point, there’d be no way we could leave safely. There’d be a thousand and one traps and wards waiting to snare us the moment we reappeared. If we left now, we might have a chance. There’d probably only be a dozen…
I sighed again. Then together, Dash and I began the last leg of our journey.
After I finally felt ready to, I pulled my hoof off what was probably the last of Sunset’s memories.
“Huh,” I whispered to myself. It wasn’t really all that important, but I hadn’t expected Sunset to know dark magic, too. Unlike me though, she fueled it with fear, not anger.
If the memory hadn’t already told me, it wouldn’t have been hard to guess what fear Mother used for her dark magic. She really had loved Celestia like a mother and hadn’t wanted to lose her, even when their relationship was stressed to the breaking point…
“Of course I did,” the voice of Sunset in my head told me. It wasn’t just a whisper or a feeling anymore, but a proper and distinct personality. I knew it was really just me talking to myself – I’d checked, just to make sure, and it couldn’t tell me anything about Sunset I didn’t already know – but I’d even managed to get the cadence in her voice right. “She practically raised me, you know, and I barely ever saw my own parents. We lived so far apart.”
Ignoring Mother, I turned my attention down the path of wisps. There were no more memories in sight further along, and I was fairly sure it had an appreciable incline.
“Let’s get going,” I said to Dash. “Do you remember the signals we talked about?”
Dash groaned out another, “Yes.”
“And you remember everything I told you about using your horn?”
“Oh my gosh, Twi! Yes!”
I checked myself before shouting back. With Fluttershy at stake, I knew Dash was taking this seriously. I just wanted her to be pedantic in her preparations for once. We only had one chance to make good our escape.
The rest of the climb went by quickly, and looking back, we had definitely climbed. At the peak, the wisps abruptly fell downward and the path ended. The edge wasn’t frayed, but it certainly didn’t look like a natural break either.
“So what now?” Dash asked. “Do we jump?”
I tested a hoof over the edge. Like much earlier, some wisps came out to meet it.
“Probably not,” I answered. I wished Cadance were still here; she would know what to do. Luna had only told me to follow my memories, and now I had no directions left.
“Oh my gosh!” Dash shouted all at once from behind me.
I spun around to discover a blue…swirl, for lack of a better word, the same color as Dash’s coat orbiting around her increasingly fast. And then it split into two swirls, orbiting Dash like electrons.
Before I could say anything, a lavender light of my own popped out of my chest and did the same.
“Get ready!” I shouted, unable to control my volume. “This is probably it!”
A pure white glow emanated from Dash’s chest and slowly lifted her into the air, growing brighter all the time. Moments later, the same happened for me. The feeling was not unlike being held in somepony else’s magic.
My eyes slammed shut as Dash’s light intensified to a blinding level. I could only assume the same happened to me as well when the light fighting its way through my eyelids doubled in intensity.
A steady crackle of raw power built up until I felt myself being torn apart again, exactly as I had when I’d first come to the Æthereal Realm.
This was it! This was it! Oh my gosh!
The next thing I knew, my wings felt heavier, and I was being assaulted by some new sense. I hadn’t even opened my eyes yet, and I still couldn’t feel my horn and magic properly. They were there, but…different.
But the new sense, I didn’t know how to describe it. There was a whole lot of whatever it was I was sensing around me, and three somethings in particular stuck out to me. Two were close by, both blazingly…bright, I supposed was the word, although one was far brighter than the other and sent another weird feeling through…itself? Or me? What?
But there was another, far smaller, but still appreciable ‘light’ rather far from me, and it was surrounded by seven smaller sources.
And now that I’d had a little time to adjust, I could tell there were another seven whatevers near me. Six were together, vaguely in a circle, and a seventh one was just beside the really, really, really bright one. It didn’t hurt the way staring at, say, the sun would, but if I knew how, I’d want to wince away from–
My eyes snapped open, as did that other, new sense that I had. And when I connected what I saw with my normal sight and where that overwhelming source of whatever was, I knew what was going on, even as I panicked. I could sense magic passively.
The elements were tucked away on the bridge; those were the six dim magical sources I’d noticed before. Dash must’ve been the other intense source. She’d been moved to her bedroom. Probably. It was the right area. I didn’t care right now.
In front of me sat Celestia at the table I’d intended to bring up to the bridge. Chamomile was nearby without the sweater she’d had on earlier, and she was pouring a cup of tea placed in front of a vacant cushion.
I could feel a cold sweat building all over me, and my knees shook as I took stock of my situation.
Celestia opened her mouth, and her magic swirled in my magic sense, reaching out to some unknown purpose.
I readied myself as best as I could, summoning my own magic. I wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
“Argh!” I shrieked. Celestia hadn’t done anything, but a familiar pain wracked my head. I fell to my knees, unable to keep my balance.
I turned my magic sight onto myself, and I let out a weak gasp at what I saw. My magic was burning away and trying to regenerate, both at an insane pace. And I was pulling in magic from ill-defined sources around me somehow, but that was being singed away, too.
Chamomile’s magic spread out through her wings and launched out all around them, rushing closer to me. But it stopped soon after, and I heard her hooves fall back to the floor.
After both my whimpering stopped and my magic stabilized, I finally heard Celestia speak.
“I am terribly sorry, Twilight Sparkle, but we need have one of two long overdue conversations. The antidote is in Dame Chamomile’s delicious tea, but you will need to drink several cups for it to be effective.”
Out of the corner of my eyes, I caught Chamomile mouthing, “It’s true,” to me.
“You force fed me unicorn bane?” My voice came out hoarse and barely above a whisper.
A sip of tea separated my question from Celestia’s response. “Again, my apologies. I teleported it into your stomach upon your return. It was the only way I could be sure you would not slip out of my hooves before we had a chance to speak. I know it is quite rude to show up to a parley–”
I rose my head up just to let it slam back down into the ground. I’d left the parley illusion up, forgotten about it, and hadn’t told Chrysalis about it.
“–with ill intent, but I suspect you can at least understand the necessity. Knowing you, you forgot about your request as you ascended.”
Chamomile mouthed an apology to me this time. How much information exactly had Celestia already extracted from her?
My legs didn’t exactly take to the task well, but I rose to my hooves.
“You don’t know me,” I grunted. It wasn’t as hard to talk as before, but Luna had been right, even if she’d understated it, and Sunset’s memories couldn’t have prepared me: unicorn bane was unpleasant.
“Perhaps not as well as I should, but perhaps more than you know.”
Oh, horseapples. How much of my life had Celestia spied on? How much did she know? Obviously she hadn’t known enough to stop me from ascending, but…I didn’t even know anymore. I might be in an even worse situation than I’d thought.
“At any rate, we have plenty of time to get to know one another now, do we not?” Celestia continued. Her hoof extended toward the empty cushion in front of me. “Would you care to take a seat?”
Hesitantly, I said, “I guess.” It wasn’t like I gained anything from standing on weak legs. And if there really were an antidote in the tea, I absolutely needed it. I didn’t want to wait out this poison; I didn’t even know if my dragon magic would help flush it out of me.
I wobbled forward, prompting Celestia to ask, “Would you like assistance?”
“No,” I snapped. Celestia could’ve just put me on the cushion to begin with. These stupid little games to emphasize how in trouble I was weren’t needed. I wasn’t an idiot.
As I sat down, or rather collapsed down, I finally noticed the elephant in the room, so to speak.
“Why on Equus did you bring that with?” I asked, my head pointed toward an oversized bronze statue of Luna in her youth.
Celestia quietly set her teacup down before she turned to face the statue. I could tell she was using earth pony magic to move the cup with her hooves. It felt distinctly different from unicorn magic. More…mechanical than flowing?
Maybe that wasn’t the right way to say it. More rigid? That was closer to the mark, but still not perfect.
“I recovered this from Mona.” Celestia finally answered, a faraway look in her eyes. “That it survived all this time was a surprise to say the least. I wonder how much else I can recover.”
I fumbled with my now considerably larger wings to pick up the teacup in front of me. I’d never exactly developed Dash’s or Fluttershy’s level of dexterity with them, but I should be able to manage this. I’d have tried using grip magic myself, but I figured even earth pony magic would set off another poison attack.
However, apparently, I was wrong, since Celestia said, “You should try using your hooves. Unicorn bane is aptly named. It does little to limit other types of magic, although you would be unwise to use pegasus magic or changeling magic.”
As skeptical as I was of the advice, I didn’t see much of a point in lying about this. Mother told me I was being stupid, too, so I went ahead and tried.
My hoof came into contact with the cup, and I reached out to it the way I’d been taught. My hoof tingled, and the cup wasn’t exactly steady, but they came up together. I managed to down the entire contents before I set the cup back down.
“Well, I must admit I’m impressed,” Celestia said.
And I didn’t care. I cut off my glare before it could really get going.
“What were you expecting from the Alicorn of Magic?” I grumbled. At the same time I motioned for Chamomile to refill my teacup, and Sunset said, “I told you I could do it, Sunbutt.”
“A fair point. I imagine you will have far less trouble than Cadance.” Celestia chuckled before adding, “My sister wasn’t exactly a natural flier herself. She flew too low over a forest one time, and a tree spontaneously came to life and tried to grab her. Instead of just flying up, she plummeted straight into the ground. Heh. I had to pull her out of–”
“Shut up!” I screamed. How dare she speak about Luna like that! “I don’t want to hear this from you, you sororicidal mule!”
Celestia’s expression inverted, and her voice boomed and reverberated about the room in the way only one-hundred story tall adult, male dragons should be able to speak. “Twilight Sparkle, I never tried to kill Lulu!”
I wished I could return the favor, but without magic, I could only manage a regular scream. “Yes. You. Did! Saying ‘purify’ doesn’t make it any less murder!”
Did – did Celestia just snarl at me? What? I’d almost thought that was physically impossible for her.
“I think,” Celestia began, each word slowly and carefully chosen, “we both need to calm down.”
My eyes narrowed, and somewhere in the background of my thoughts, Sunset warned me to be careful before I set myself and everything around me on fire, although without flares to trigger the effect, I doubted I’d ever do that again.
That aside, did Celestia honestly think she could convince me she was anything less than an attempted murderess?
“Please, sit down,” Celestia added. “I would rather not end this conversation here.”
I complied with a huff, regular dragonfire bursting out of my nose with my snort. As much as I didn’t want to listen to Celestia, I didn’t want to fight her even more, especially while poisoned. But poisoned or not, simply put, I’d lose. Again. I hadn’t even had a chance to fight back after returning to the Nebulous before I’d gotten knocked out.
Taking a deep breath first, I reached out with a hoof and fiddled with my teacup. I put a little too much force into my – I shivered at the strange sensations coursing through me – grip and cracked the cup. It wasn’t leaking, so I wasn’t going to say or do anything about it.
“Fine,” I mumbled into my tea.
Celestia took that as her cue to speak. “Thank you. Twilight Sparkle, as well read as you are, there are things that you do not know, things that you could not know.”
Said the pony responsible for censoring most of those things. I was so close to saying that to her face, but I just buried my muzzle in more tea instead. Even in this situation, Chamomile’s best was delicious, and the antidote was apparently tasteless.
“When I defeated Discord with my sister, Luna” – Celestia put the oddest emphasis on those last three words – “we also restored much of the world to its rightful state. However, the Elements of Harmony are neither omnipotent nor omniscient; much of Discord’s fouler magics remained in the world.”
Oh no. Was she seriously going to try this on me? Cadance, sure, but me?
“Luna and I tried our best to eliminate them, but always there was one we missed, one we overlooked. Possessions were not uncom–”
“Oh, don’t even try!” I checked my voice before I started off another shouting match and decided to pretend Cadance hadn’t already given me this talk. “That is the lamest excuse you could’ve possibly come up with. What, was it some nightmarish moon spirit nopony had ever heard of before that just so happened to infect Luna, hence the name Nightmare Moon?”
Did Celestia understand just how utterly ridiculous that sounded? Something ‘possessing’ an alicorn, even a young alicorn, was the stupidest, most transparent lie I’d ever heard, disregarding all the other objections I’d brought up with Cadance.
“‘Oops, I spilled a glass of milk.’
“‘Don’t worry, it’s not your fault. You were just possessed.’
“‘Oh good. I wouldn’t want to take responsibility for my own actions when I make mistakes.’
“‘I’m glad you feel that way, because I’ve always wanted you out of my way. And since you’re an evil spirit, who cares what happens to you.’”
Finished with my little skit, I looked back at–
Oh my gosh! I was halfway to my hooves before I stifled my instinctive desire to flee. Celestia’s smoldering glare pierced right through conscious thought and reason to strike directly at my sense of self-preservation.
The room darkened as Celestia spoke. No, the sun darkened. Once upon a time that would have terrified me, but now it – no, it still terrified me. I could feel my legs shaking beneath me. I didn’t know how many more cups of tea I needed to drink, but I needed my magic right now.
“–you have never watched your sister fall into darkness. You have never felt that magnitude of loss. To lose the one constant in your life, it is a pain nopony should ever have to bear.”
Celestia’s magic slapped my hoof away from my teacup. Under her gaze, I shrunk down into my cushion with a helpless mewl.
“My dear little Lulu might appreciate a good fight more than she should, she might throw small tantrums, but she would never say the things she did to me that night one-thousand years ago. She would never have been so careless with the lives of the ponies around us. She would never have that crazed look in her eye, a look so far gone it gave me goosebumps.”
“Yes she would,” I whispered, just barely finding my voice again. I just barely managed to raise my head from the ground, letting me sit up with a little pride.
And that was enough. That little act of defiance gave me the warm feeling I needed to find my courage again. In a growing crescendo, I continued, “Luna was miserable. She was hurting. And she broke for a short while. I’ve been to Luminance, and unlike some ponies, I was invited. I’ve seen the madness you’re talking about. It was all her. Don’t you dare” – my teacup shattered beneath my hoof as I slammed the table – “try to say her problems weren’t real.”
The two of us held each other’s gaze for an unknowable amount of time, perhaps for all eternity. But…I was getting wet, and my cushion was growing soggy, which broke my concentration. I scooted my cushion awkwardly away from where my tea was spilling over the edge of the table.
The mood was horribly broken, but surely that was for the best. Both of our tempers were getting a little out of control again. I didn’t want to be a smear against the wall or a mindless, brainwashed puppet under Celestia’s magic.
Chamomile bravely stepped between the two of us to clean up and provide me with another cup. Granted, being off to the side wouldn’t leave her much safer if we came to blows, but it would at least help keep Celestia’s eye off her.
I managed a stiff, “Thank you,” simply taking the cup with telekinesis this time. It was a grating experience, my teacup was shaking, and I could feel a sharply growing pain in my forehead again, but my magic was working at least.
For a time, Celestia and I drank in silence. Her thoughts were as impenetrable as ever, even if her emotions had been coaxed into the open for once. Literally every part of Sunset within me was screaming that I was missing something important, that Celestia wasn’t telling me something, but Celestia was just trying to rationalize her actions as usual.
However, even that part of my mind locked up when Celestia actually sighed, and I could have sworn I saw a smirk pulling at her lips, like she’d won somehow.
“I would like to make a deal with you,” Celestia began, “an exchange of favors. Agreed in advanced with full knowledge of what each would entail, without trick or guile. Do you think you could trust me enough to be open to such things?”
I wanted to say no, but all of Sunset was screaming at me again. “Sunbutt keeps her serious promises!” And…a favor could be very useful. Could I trust Sunset’s trust in Celestia? I – I supposed Celestia hadn’t ever actually broken an explicit promise, at least not so far as I knew…
“Maybe,” I said. I felt the small cut I’d bitten into my lip heal nearly instantly, although the taste of blood on my tongue remained. “What do you want?”
“I need answers to a few questions, fully and in detail, regardless of whatever you must do to obtain them or what knowing them may or may not do to you.”
“In other words,” I began, fairly confident my guess was right, “you need somepony to talk to Luna for you. Otherwise you would simply take what you needed as you did with Pupa, right?”
Without hesitation, Celestia replied, “With all of Equestria at stake, yes, I would. I have unfortunately never quite grasped my sister’s gift for less intrusive interrogation myself, and even she has had trouble with changelings. It is extraordinarily difficult to know what they are truly up to, as I believe they have just proved today.”
Great. So Celestia hadn’t been fooled by the geases at all. Or else she’d pried the information out of Chrysalis or Chamomile. I couldn’t say I’d be surprised if so.
Either way, Celestia knew I cared enough about everypony here to protect them, and that meant she knew she had blackmail material if she lied about how long the geases had been placed. And she had a number of potential willing hostages. Everypony had agreed to come on this trip of their own free will, but no sane mare would trust the word of somepony who had placed a mind controlling spell on them in a hostile confrontation with the ever popular Princess Celestia.
Why the buck not? Life was too easy right now, what with Celestia trying to bargain for information.
“Do you have a list?” I asked, proud at how level my voice came out. I wouldn’t be surprised if Celestia had prepared one or several while waiting for me to return from the Æthereal Realm.
Celestia nodded. “Dame Chamomile, the third one, if you would.”
Ugh. I didn’t know what was worst, that Celestia knew Chamomile was my knight, that I was jealous somepony else was giving her orders, or that I was already thinking of her as my knight. They were all pretty bad. Chamomile didn’t belong to me.
“Here you are, Princess,” Chamomile said to me, not Celestia, a lengthy scroll held out with a hoof. So much for a few questions.
“Thanks.” I took the scroll with telekinesis, not trusting myself not to rip it to shreds in the unrolling process otherwise. It was worth the headache if it got Celestia off my ship even a second sooner.
I first took a preparatory breath. There was no telling what information Celestia was going to demand from me, but whatever came up, I couldn’t react to any of it. That could be the trap in and of itself.
Alright. I unrolled the scroll.
And I read, and read, and read. If I wrote full and complete answers to these questions, I’d be giving Celestia a novel. That said, most of them were…reasonably benign, if perhaps offensive, but I had to work hard not to pale at some of the questions. If I hadn’t already known their answers… I suppressed a shiver at the last instant.
I had a feeling saying, ‘I’m not comfortable answering some of these,’ wasn’t such a good idea either. I’d be all but admitting I knew the answer. And with a lot of those questions, I might as well have given the answer away for free. Simply being uncomfortable with answering, say, ‘Who killed Sunset Shimmer?’ gave Celestia free information.
As if I had little interest in the document, I tossed it onto the table just in front of me, still partially unrolled.
“Some of those questions were redundant or are invalidated by negative answers to related questions,” I commented.
And Cadance already knew the answers to a lot of them. I couldn’t even try to delay action on this exchange of favors because of that, or most of my bargaining power would vanish.
“Forgive me if that bothers you,” Celestia said with something that was almost a frown. “I remember Cadance once mentioned you had a strange mental tic with lists.”
I didn’t like the way Celestia had said that. It’d sounded like there was some deeper meaning behind it.
“There’s always a deeper meaning with Sunbutt,” Mother commented.
Still, it wasn’t like Celestia was wrong, at least when I was eight. Not that I wasn’t impressed she’d remembered that for so long. She must’ve gotten that piece of information from back when she was still considering making me her apprentice.
“Honestly,” Celestia continued, “I didn’t compose that scroll to leave you unbalanced. For completeness, I added everything that might need to be addressed, and personally, I merely would wish for time to recover between bad news and the details of it.”
For lack of any better words, I said, “That’s fair.”
“So then” – Celestia’s eyes met mine and held them there – “what would you want in exchange for this information?”
Well, what I wanted was obvious. “Stay away from me and mine in every possible conceivable meaning of those two words at all times, maintaining at least a distance of one AU.”
“I fear I would have to move the sun and moon a little too close to Equus to accept that deal.”
I raised an eyebrow. Was Celestia trying to inject humor into this situation?
Celestia mirrored my action almost perfectly, although it seemed she was a bit out of practice at moving her eyebrows separately.
“Unless perhaps you did not plan to return to Equestria?”
I wasn’t sure – it was far too subtle to be certain – but it sounded like hope and dread were both vying for control of Celestia’s voice.
“Of course I’m going to return,” I grumbled. I wanted to go home. “How about this, then? Promise not to mess with anypony’s mind ever, by your actions or through another’s.”
Celestia shook her head. “I could not possibly agree to that without having those answers first, as much as I wish I could.”
Yeah, right. You couldn’t possibly agree because you could never reach your goal if you did.
“Fine. Leave us in peace until after the Summer Sun Celebration is over.” Luna would be free by then, and all we really needed to win was peace until that moment. “And tell me what you plan to do once you have your answers. I won’t settle for anything less than that.” It was times like this that I wished Luna had forced me to go to Ponyville’s market to learn how to haggle.
After a moment’s deliberation, Celestia said, “Provided you leave me and mine in peace as well; you make a prompt effort to discover these answers; and after I have those answers, I have a chance to speak with your mentor directly before the summer solstice. If you can do that, then we have a deal.”
I fought off the urge to roll my eyes. “Yes, I’ll honor the spirit of your words if you honor the spirit of mine: no moving the solstice, no moving the Summer Sun Celebration, no shortening it, no interfering with Luna’s return, none of that.”
“You have my word,” Celestia said with a nod. “I left instructions for the flame sending spell with Dame Chamomile, as well as directions on how to reach both my flame and Cadance’s. If you cannot manage it yourself, Spike should prove able. Or you may always visit Canterlot Castle to speak to me in person.”
Yeah, like that was going to happen.
A tiny little smile snuck onto Celestia’s lips. “I must admit how impressed I am with your son’s growth and character since custody was returned to you. Given your circumstances, you have proven yourself a far better mother than I could have imagined possible.”
That compliment wasn’t exactly free of thorns, but it was still nice to hear. At least I was getting some respect for my accomplishments. And maybe Celestia’s words had stroked those little parts I got from Sunset, parts which would always want her praise.
“Thank you, Sunbutt.”
A moment passed in which Celestia and I were silent. Chamomile was silent, too, of course, but her silence was more of the jaw hanging open, I couldn’t believe you just said that variety.
And then it hit me that I’d just said something I probably really shouldn’t have. Celestia would’ve found out who I’d once been from Cadance or from a letter from me, of course, but I would’ve been long gone at either of those two points, not still in the same room with her.
“Sunset?” Celestia whispered.
I turned away from Celestia’s eyes before they had a chance to draw me in. Something about them felt like they were looking at more than just the normal visible spectrum. And even turned away, I could still feel them on me.
Magic swirled and danced inside Celestia to some unknown end. All I knew was it wasn’t forming a spell, at least not one from any type of magic I recognized.
“I’m – I’m not Sunset. I’m her…daughter.”
Celestia didn’t say a word, but she did stand up.
“Just go,” I said, my voice accidentally amplified by my magic. The sound of hooves came to an immediate halt. “If you want any of your answers, if you think your word is worth anything, then leave.”
Leaving me in peace most certainly included not inflicting emotional distress on me, too. It wasn’t exactly what we’d meant when we’d made our agreement, but it was certainly in the spirit of it.
I waited and waited and waited, and when nothing happened, I finally looked back up. Celestia was gone. I hadn’t even felt her use any magic. Had I really been that out of it? No, I was the Alicorn of Magic now; there should be no way I could miss a teleport.
Whatever. I lost interest in the problem. Unless she’d found a way to hide her magic from me somehow, Celestia was gone, and that was more than enough for the moment.
And for once, my brain and my body were in complete agreement. I collapsed onto the table with a thud, and soon after, I slipped and fell to the floor. But before I landed, Chamomile caught me in her hooves. She deposited me back on my cushion, and I whispered a quick thank you. I couldn’t give in to any kind of fatigue yet, mental, physical, or emotional. I still had things to do.
“Where are the elements?” I asked. Even as I remembered that I already knew, an extended hoof guided me to where they were tucked away.
It was actually a little hard for me to believe my brain was still working enough to worry about this kind of stuff. The elements were useless to Celestia now, so she had no reason not to use them to track me.
Granted she’d probably legitimately forgotten about them at the end, since she hadn’t hidden them away. I would’ve looked for and would’ve found them no matter where she put them anyway, but still, if I were her, I’d have given it a shot.
I teleported the elements outside the ship and casually flung them away. They were out of sight before I could even blink. That got me to smile at least. Being an alicorn was going to be fun.
As I set up all of the spells I’d need to scrub my teleport signature out of existence after we left, I turned to my temporary doctor.
“Yes, Princess?” she asked, snapping to attention with an almost infectious energy. I’d lost pretty much everything that was keeping me going.
“Can you make sure Dash doesn’t try to use any magic until I wake up? I don’t want her blowing up the ship or giving away our position.”
“Your will be done. Do you require anything else?”
Nodding, I said, “More tea. My head is still on fire right now.”
Chamomile held out the entire pot for me, and I took it without complaint. Before I began the process of downing it all, I asked, “What happened while I was gone?”
“Honestly, not much. The sun princess was rather polite.”
I swallowed an extra large gulp. “No surprise there. It’s kind of her shtick.” I’d actually gotten to see her yelling and angry. I kind of wondered how many ponies besides Luna could lay claim to that rare event.
“Yes, I could tell. She showed up about ten minutes after you left.”
Ha! I deserved an award for a pretty accurate guess on her travel time.
“When she first arrived, she didn’t so much dish out divine retribution as gentle slaps on the hoof, if even that. But she did remove the geases you placed on everypony, and then…”
“Yes?” I asked, although through the teapot, it came out more like, “Hmpgh?”
Chamomile picked up a book from the table and deposited it in front of me. The ship’s log really wasn’t something I’d wanted Celestia to get her hooves on, but here it was.
Hesitantly, I asked. “How much of it did she read?”
“All of it.”
I choked on my tea, descending into a coughing fit. “How?” I squeaked. I swore, if Luna had been holding out on me with a speed reading spell…
“I think she skimmed it for the most part. I couldn’t tell you what pages she read in detail.”
Ah. There must’ve been keywords Celestia had been looking for. That made sense.
After I nodded, Chamomile continued, “Once she’d finished with the log, she asked me for quill, ink, and parchment for those scrolls of questions. I still have the other three, if you want to see them.”
“Later,” I sighed. I didn’t have the energy for any actual thinking right now.
I downed the last of the tea and rose to my hooves. After testing some basic teleporting and finding the dull throb in my head bearable, I set about my next to last task for today.
More magic channeled through my horn than ever before, almost more than I’d ever dreamed possible, and I was barely even trying. There were no flares, no restraints, no worries. There was only more and more magic as it flowed in from nowhere all around me. I’d dare say I was even brighter in my magic sense than Celestia had been when she’d knocked me out.
Honestly, I didn’t even know where it was all coming from. It wasn’t my magic…unless I had so much now it couldn’t all fit in a Twilight Sparkle sized package. That was a crazy thought.
A hoof touched my shoulder, and Chamomile’s voice accompanied it. “Are you all right?”
Ah. I was laughing at nothing, wasn’t I? I hadn’t even noticed. That had to have been creepy.
All the magic I’d stored and shaped into a teleport, I released at once. The stars around us all moved in an instant, some moving very little and others making great leaps across the sky.
I really should have teleported us a few more times and changed our velocity randomly before arriving at the coordinates Luna had written to go to after ascending, but just one teleport was already asking a lot from me. We’d be safe enough. Celestia had left. We’d be safe at least until after I’d given Celestia her answers.
“Yes, I’m fine,” I said, finally answering Chamomile’s question, yet wobbling on my hooves.
But I couldn’t collapse yet. I had one last thing I wanted to do.
This was probably a little too complicated of a spell to do safely when I was this tired, but I wasn’t mortal anymore. If I messed up too badly, my body would just fix the damage done.
Huh. Was any alchemy permanent on me anymore? Was I going to look like Sunset when I woke up?
No, probably not. I still looked like me. I’d think regeneration would work faster than that like it had when I’d drawn blood from my lip, even for detail work like changing my appearance. And Cadance could cut her mane short and dye it if she wished, and she still molted normally.
If none of that counted as damage that needed to be regenerated, then what constituted ‘damage’ was probably flexible enough to let me change my genetic makeup to viable alternatives.
Besides, I was just going to change the pigments of my current mane and tail. It wouldn’t let me produce new hair with the same color, but as a temporary solution, it’d do. Later, I’d find two ponies with the colors to copy into my genes properly.
Magic washed over my mane and tail from the roots to the tips.
I didn’t have the energy or balance left to look at my tail, so I put together a scrying spell.
Ugh. With my usual pink and purple stripes replaced with red and yellow, I looked like Dash.
Whatever. I could fine tune the colors to better blend into my dark blue hair later. I was done with today.
“Oh, and Chamomile,” I continued, the last of my work done, “I really need a bed.”
I passed out.