That You Might Live
"How are you feeling today, big sister?"
"You were speaking more freely to me yesterday, sister. I thought we'd start again. I know things are so different between us now, but you must try. I'm doing all I can to help you, you know. To do my duty."
"Are you hearing me?"
"I hear you, little sister."
A deep sigh, filling the room and all the spaces in between. There is so much said here but little truly meant.
"Well, things are better today anyway. I'm trying to take over more responsibilities as princess. I sent the unicorn Twilight some tickets for the Grand Galloping Gala under your name. Two should be enough; does that not seem adequate? Fillies usually try to get dates for these sorts of things."
"Luna, you look so beautiful today."
"…Yes, Celestia. And so do you."
Today Celestia and I strolled in the gardens.
She looks so majestic when she walks. I let my eyes wander while we trod up the path, and the gardeners pause in their work and cock an ear and an eye our way. A nod to both of us in terms of general direction, I suppose, but she alone truly captures their attention. What is it about her that makes her so irresistible to them, even now? I try to imitate her careful gait, but wind up trailing listlessly behind, stumbling over a stray pebble near the wisterias. Embarrassed, I glance around to see who had been watching, but all of the gardeners who happened to be nearby became suddenly and intently interested in the thing closest to them. A black colt trimming rosebushes inspects a beetle with a reverence usually reserved for gods. A painted mare near the fountain appears determined to stare the marble into cleanliness. They would never laugh in my face; they would dare not, likely out of fear rather than respect.
They must all despise me. Perhaps their blank expressions are not the expectant, respectful demeanors of waiting servants, but merely masks for a darker hatred within. Perhaps they think I am now somehow inadequate for the position of Princess of Equestria. And perhaps I am only paranoid.
But things change, things fall apart. I too was once respected and loved, and a demon of jealousy clamped its jaws tight around my body and tore me to pieces. I was once a figure standing tall next to my sister, and now I am the nightmare lurking in the shadows. Yes, the demon once seized me up, but through the courage of six fillies and my sister herself, I was offered salvation and redemption. For a fleeting moment in time, I thought things could be the way they once were.
But it would seem that there is no end to this downward spiral. There is no fanfare welcoming me back to my royal seat. I drag my exhausted body around the castle, a spectral mare who wanders the corridors insomniac, and there my regal sister sits proud and strong, fairly shining with the energy of the sun. She sits on her throne and she is beautiful and loved. And perfect.
I must try harder. I must do better.
Once again, I am alone. Once again, I must face a terrible guilt.
"It was out of the blue, that's for sure. A griffon wanting a visa for extended stay in Ponyville! I remember when griffons once passed through these lands freely, but there was some sort of shift, wasn't there, big sister? That part was a little hard to…figure out. The memories come so fast sometimes, and the triggers are the oddest moments or phrases."
"It's true, the griffons grew cold toward us. Everything changed when the moon took you away."
"Celestia, now you know that's not the way things went. The demon seized me up, and I asked you to banish us both together because you didn't have the finesse at the time to separate us."
"The moon took you away from me, Luna. Why did you have to go?"
"Now Celestia, please don't make this out to be like I was taking a vacation. I know you must have told yourself…things…to overcome the grief of my departure, but this cannot go on. If I'm to get through to you and reconnect as a sister, we must promise one another to see things the way they are. I am not angry with you, and I never was. Do you know how much I missed you? Seeing you again…at the castle, it was…"
"That place is haunted with the memories of the past."
"And we'll face them together, as we always have."
"Are we going to read again together today?"
"Oh damn, I forgot the books. Goodness—pardon me, I didn't mean to swear. I'm just so frustrated lately. You're not easy to emulate, you know. This entire royal charade just leaves me fatigued. But in any case, I'll have to ask Owl to keep an eye on this griffon, just in case. She wrote that she was visiting a friend, but apparently griffons can't be trusted the way they once were."
"That's too bad, Luna. I had wanted so badly to finish that chapter."
"…I'll come back later, then."
I think I've gotten the hang of things now. The palace servants were starting to get suspicious when the other princess and I had holed up together in the library for hours on end, ignoring paperwork and appearances and what-have-you, but I think things are, for the most part, back to normal. I wanted to make sure things were as normal as they could be between us before we returned the monarchy to its dichotomous state.
So, at least my reappearance afforded me some time. The other princess is ready now for more than just impressing everyone with her gracefulness and austerity on the throne. Though I've since toned down the austerity some. I think nowadays we're expected to be a bit more available to the common pony. I don't have a problem with this, naturally. As with all things, I am studious. I have my eyes and ears everywhere, and I rather enjoy some of the things they've been telling me.
The owls and bats have told me that in modern times, there are hundreds, even thousands of ponies out enjoying the night. A thousand years of progression and invention have made some necessities of sleep obsolete. There are even certain establishments that only open in the late hours, closing eventually sometime around dawn.
I visited one such place, making myself invisible to slip through the crowd. Eventually I just had to resort to traveling in this place, this Manehattan nightclub, as an ethereal mist, the ponies were packed in so tightly. I hovered near the ceiling next to the lights, watching the countless bodies undulating and rearing in their ecstasy. Flanks brushing with the most remote of strangers, the ponies moved to a pulsing music seemingly without end, and the flashing, colored beams gave the overall impression of a hallucinogenic dream. Their euphoria was contagious, and for several long moments I contemplated dropping among them to share in their selfless joy.
In the end, I left after an hour or so, my humming spirit making me a bit careless on journey's start, I'm afraid. Somewhere out there is a colt insisting to all his friends that he saw the spirit of Nightmare Moon appear suddenly out the back door of Platinum Hoof, stare him in the face for a good three seconds, and then explode into a shimmering powder, which then swept past him unceremoniously before disappearing into the crisp pre-dawn air.
"I'm glad you let me try raising the sun again this morning, Celestia. Doing both is so difficult for one pony to handle, even one of our kind."
"The sunrise. Your sunrise. Was it beautiful?"
"Not as beautiful as yours, of course."
"You haven't been to visit me these past nights."
"Ah, yes. Celestia, I have been out."
"Indeed. In spite of all the information you've given me of the past thousand years, there is so much more to learn by doing."
"Don't start that again, sister. We'll get along better by speaking more coherently. What's that you've got between your hooves there? Well, don't just point at it. Oh. Oh, I see. I can't believe you've kept my old stuffed mouse after all this time. Is he keeping you company down here?"
"Don't tease, Lu-Lu."
"We're going back to that now, are we? Well, and I have some news for you anyway. It's about your student, Twilight Sparkle. There, now that perks you up, doesn't it? It's a little embarrassing for me, I must say. Some unicorn brought a magic show into Ponyville and a couple colts woke up an ursa minor and led the poor thing back into town. Owl told me the two events are somehow connected, though he doesn't know all the details, but listen to this. Your student drove the ursa minor out completely alone, using some clever magic."
"Twilight is very good. I taught her personally."
"Oh, is that so? Another thing to prepare for, wonderful. My magic is just as good as yours, though, so I shouldn't really be straining to impress. Anyhow, the entire thing could have been averted if I had been summoned. In the old age, ponies knew to call on me if the star beasts were out roaming, but I suppose a thousand years of absence will make anyone forget about you. You could have taken care of it, I suppose, but that Twilight is so brave. I wonder what she'll do when that dragon begins his centennial migratory cycle. As I understand, there's a mountain near Ponyville that he's made a nest on."
"Twilight will know what to do."
"Of course, Celestia."
After many exhausting weeks of practice, I felt we were both ready, the other princess and I, to make our first royal visit together, to Ponyville.
I've said it again, haven't I?
The other princess.
Most ponies wouldn't know what to make of my use of such a title. I don't mean it badly. Things are just so difficult for me emotionally; I suppose it's only a defense mechanism…
But my timidity has shown through brilliantly once again today. And all this after the palace denizens had started warming up to my presence again, though this was more from my increased stamina than in my proximity, what little proximity I have to them. I've gotten to the point where I don't need to hide in the library or in the tunnels anymore; I can appear with the other—my sister, that is—as long as not so much is demanded of us. I can handle polite greetings, but big social events are still something that frightens me with the way things are. What if everypony were to look at me and know my terrible past as clearly as they know their own? There is no making amends to the things that have broken us all.
But today. Today, I almost did it.
I scheduled an official visit to Ponyville, hoping that the motion would be recognized as a step forward for me. Ponyville was understandably thrilled, and Celestia seemed pleased, though at times she's been like a puzzle I can't quite piece together. But the stress of helping both the other princess and I to prepare for the journey took an unexpected turn on me, and I realized my error in calculation. I might have been used to our calmer, daily activities, but as for official royal work I still had a lot of stamina to build back up before I could support us together.
So once again, I retreated to my library, swaying back and forth in a dizzy trance as I drunkenly hid myself in the shadows to a silent cacophony of disappointment and bitterness. Ah, but perhaps I'm putting thoughts into the servants' minds again. Enough of them, and enough of this worrying. The other princess is my eyes today.
Or so I thought.
My sister's journey to Ponyville showed me another side to this mad sickness I feel inside. The farther away she gets, the emptier I feel. It got to the point where I was almost unconscious, and I lay down flat on the cool floor of the stacks to sate my feverish shivering. As it were, when the other princess reached the edge of Ponyville, greeted by the most bizarre thing either of us had seen in a long time, the other princess resorted to inventing some horseapple story about being needed in Manehattan in order to return to my side. And there's that language again. Being alone on the moon does quite a number on one's social etiquette.
And my, but the ponies in Ponyville are so strange.
"I can't believe you accepted the letter in person, big sister. You just swooped down from the sky like Skinfaxi and landed right on the balcony and took the letter. Probably scared everypony to death, and that poor baby dragon!"
"It all seems so far away now."
"Yes, well, perhaps you weren't there in spirit. Things are done in the heat of the moment, I understand. But really, you ought to—I ought to, rather—be more careful of how things are done in public. I suppose my excitement was rather contagious, so partly it must be my fault how you acted. I was just doing so well getting us both to go out together, the other pri—oh, I'm even doing it right to you now. How shameful of me…"
"I'm not angry with you, Luna."
"…Thank you. I never tire of hearing you say that. I want you to know that."
"I love you, Luna."
"And I love you, Celestia. Do you know, today I still couldn't manage to make a bolder appearance. I wanted to be near you so that I wouldn't feel so drained, but the magic binding us is still so heady. I wasn't really…all there, so to speak."
"Yes, yes. I know what you're thinking. But just you wait. When the Grand Galloping Gala comes, I'll be in a proper princess's place, greeting all the ponies there."
"You may have opportunity to fulfill your place sooner than that."
"What's that? Celestia, tell me what you mean. Are you remembering something important? Don't look at me like that. Celestia, don't look at me with those horrible empty eyes! You must come back!"
Well, I humiliated myself again, but only before myself, where nopony sees. Except Owl, my constant friend, but he remains as non-judgmental as ever, left over from my personal zoo a thousand years ago. Some animals I magically altered in my youth to develop sapience and longevity. While many escaped or were let loose upon my banishment, he must have escaped and bided his time somewhere in Equestria. It was the most heartwarming thing; my first night back in Canterlot, I heard the whisper-swish sound of his feathery wings and there he was perched on my back as I retreated to my old quarters, just as he did before.
Today, as always, he said nothing of my failures. Sometimes I do wonder what he thinks, but then again I'm probably better off not knowing. Not many ponies know, but birds are incredibly volatile little things.
The other—my sister and I were supposed to attend a flying competition in Cloudsdale, and after months of more stamina built up I felt I was ready to take on the task of a public appearance. And this time, I didn't disappoint anyone—at least, not yet. I did actually leave with my sister and we did actually arrive at Cloudsdale together to sit in the royal box seats. Nopony seemed to notice me—to the point where my royal presence was not formally announced or otherwise—which provoked a strange mixture of emotions in me: equal parts indignation, sorrow, and total relief.
The festivities and the competition itself seemed to be going smoothly, and I allowed myself to feel some public contentment at last, for I was sure this was an auspice of things to come. Alas, for me it seems even the best of auspices shift into omens.
It happened during the final competition, when two ponies were made to compete together in order to save time. One pony sported the strangest looking wings, wings that bore the distinct color of magic about them, which should have been the first indication of things to come. The ponies flew well enough, each ignoring the other, but when I thought things were finally about to end, it happened. I should have expected it. After all, I did invent that spell.
The unicorn filly drew too near the sun, and with a flash her wings were turned into little more than ash and smoke. Crying out, she began to plummet towards earth, and I could only watch in horror. I looked up at my sister, and she gazed at me as though in a trance, as though looking to me for direction. What will you do, Luna? Prove your worth!
I sat back and stared, unconsciously fading into the backdrop using a low-level invisibility spell that I hardly need to spare a thought to in order to evoke its cloak.
The Wonderbolts sprang into action hardly seconds later, but of course they would be thwarted. It was only through the efforts of the Element of Loyalty—Rainbow Dash, her name was—that the unicorn was saved, and at the last moment, too. Any longer and I would have been forced to power up the levitation spell I had cast on her without effect from the moment she started her fall. I was waiting, waiting for the point of no return. At that moment, I knew I would save this innocent filly from falling to her death if it meant exposing everything I am.
Once again, I am spared from revealing my true nature.
"Celestia, there are Diamond Dogs running about Equestria. A group of them abducted a filly from Ponyville, one of the six, you know, the Element of Generosity. Rarity. Of course the whole thing is blown over by now, but I'll have you know that's just a disgrace. I don't mean to be harsh, but when we ruled together before those mutts weren't allowed paw or tail across the border. They destroy the ecosystem of whatever country they infest, and frankly, they could be charged with tampering with government property as well as kidnapping and enforced servitude, to start with. Those magical gems are a product of our country's magic output, and it's terrible the way you've let them run wild like this."
"Dogs…never heard of them."
"You have indeed, do not play coy with me today."
"Gems? They want gems?"
"Of course, Celestia dear. They're Diamond Dogs. The breed is positively insane over them. I think that breed might be an offshoot from some other precious stone-obsessed magical creature. I picked back up on my species research again and I've got quite a nice theory on the origin of magic dogs."
"Don't know, myself."
"Yes you do! I'm so sick of you treating me like this! Why must you act as though I'm not here half the time, and then senile when you do notice me? This isn't fair, Celestia! It's not fair…not fair."
"Luna, don't cry. I love you, Luna. I'm so sorry."
"I can't keep doing this, sister. One day I'm just going to be rent apart."
I had to get away. So I left the other sister—I mean princess—oh, hell with it—I planned to fly out to a pony settlement named Appleloosa to investigate some sort of alleged settler-native conflict that the tarantulas and desert owls had been chattering about. These days, I rely on information mostly from them, humoring the messenger ponies who report these sorts of things usually. The lower animal form network is so much more efficient.
To be concise, I left the other princess saying she was immersed in an intensive magical trance and could not be bothered for an indefinite period of time. I figured this would give me a week or so to do my business and come back before anyone, including Celestia, became suspicious at my absence. The sister might complain a little, but she knows better than to pry before I'm ready.
I went in full form for the first time since the Incident, donning my magical breastplate and hoof guards that had come to be identified with the demon. Dressing alone in my chambers, I stood before the mirror and watched myself transform into the spectral Queen of the Night, turning slowly twice to examine the body I had not seen in so long. It was too bad for the negative association, for this form was my favorite of all. Regal, imposing, but so obviously Princess of the Moon that Celestia found the image amusing for a time, as I recall. Hers isn't much better, if you ask me. Our natural bodies are so much more comfortable. Transformations always have an itch to them.
But this form was bound to get me listened to, or at least noticed. I felt a bit pathetic, resorting to theatrics to force ponies' attention, but in a few decades everything might be back to normal and I could stop pretending. For all my planning and stress, the situation worked itself out in the end, for which I was grateful. I am a firm believer that the ruling party should stay as aloof as possible, including dealings with domestic squabbles. If ponies—and bison—are left to their own devices and can solve such problems, I am happy to remain circling the far reaches of the troposphere, looking down to Equestria as a goddess does to her creation. Of course, all parties involved either ignored or were ignorant of the obvious problems that would ultimately arise with the continuing expansion of ponykind, but that won't blow up for years. Better to enjoy things in the present for some, I suppose.
The pink one seems to be relatively musically inclined. Very relatively.
"So that's what you've been doing all week, Celestia. Though I don't know why I bother, no one really extends you personal visits, either. Everything's always a circus. Speaking of, you're going to Ponyville today. There's going to be a tea meet-and-greet sort of thing. I suppose it'll be fun."
"I'm sending Philomena with you. She's been under the weather recently and I think if she's worn out from an excursion then she'll die faster. I feel terrible every time I say something like that, but that's just the way it is. Phoenixes only molt naturally every fifty years or so, and I'd rather like to see her in her prime again. How unlucky I returned right in the middle of a molt."
"You're getting worse at this. I've been doing all I can, but I can't expend too much energy. The bond spell saps so much of my strength that I've little time to really attack the problem. Another case of curing the symptom and not the cause, perhaps?"
"You're killing me with this distant behavior, Celestia. You really are. What am I supposed to do when you're in here and when I'm out with the other you…I don't know what to do, sister. If you're still in there, you'll fight this. I'm still researching spells to reverse the one you did, but there's only so much I can do when I have to maintain the illusion. Tricking everypony has been tiresome. I almost want to call the whole thing off, but if there's a chance we can both get out of this with our reputations, I'll risk it."
"You seem different after I visit you in here, but I can't stand it. You're the real Celestia, but you're so much like her now that I almost can't tell the difference which is the spell and which is my sister. I don't mean that as a testament of my skills, mind you, it's just that you both have…those horrible, blank eyes. Her because she's not real and you…I think you're slipping away, Cel. Will I watch you vanish and keep up this charade for the sake of our dignity? Or will I realize I'm destroying both of us this way and tell the truth of what I let happen? Oh, Celestia, what will become of us?"
"Not you. Me. I did this. Don't blame yourself again. It was me."
"Celestia? Celestia, talk to me again! Don't go back into the dark! You have to keep fighting, you mustn't give in! Celestia!"
Far off, an owl cries out, screeching its namesake into the night air, terrifying its prey back into their burrows. These are the sounds of the night. Above, a shooting star darts across the sky, its afterimage burning a white line into the eyelids of ponies lucky enough to witness its tragically short lifespan. These are the images of the night. In the marshes, thousands of creatures murmur their songs to one another in a glorious insanity of noise. These are the voices of the night. Once such things were hidden to all but the most radical of ponies, but now her night is lanced open and displayed, dissected, to ponies no longer afraid to brave the dark. They can see the night, discern the night. She is reinstated as a princess with all her former power restored, and anypony has a right to look upon her and know all her secrets. She is Equestria.
Luna isn't as certain now if this was the change she wanted.
In a hastily refurbished bedroom in the abandoned ancient castle, a candle dies out, its flame extinguishing as it reaches the end of the wick. This is the sorrow of the night.
She's almost gone now. I rarely visit Celestia anymore, for I can't bear to see her once brilliant eyes glazed over from the horrific spell damage festering in her broken body. Even unfurling her wings causes her pain. In the beginning, we talked, though even then she was slipping. Now she's just a shell, a flesh-and-blood container of what used to be. I've kept up the other princess's illusion, and nopony knows yet of the things that have happened. If I have it my way, nopony ever will, not until after I die, if I am to be granted that sweet departure from this wretched life.
I blame myself for all of this, in spite of her last lucid remarks before she slipped into a magical coma.
Luna, I've just discovered the most wonderful spell.
The truth is, I don't know exactly what she meant. Did she mean the spell, or…before?
I know you've been trying so hard to educate yourself on what's been going on the past thousand years, but I found a way you can know everything instantly and you can focus more on the present without worrying about the time gap.
I don't know, big sister. Memory spells are only invented to show off the skill of whoever designed them, not to be used. Everypony knows how dangerous they are, even for us. If something happened to you, I—
Oh, don't be silly. It's me! What's the worst that could happen?
I don't know…
Please let me do this for you, Luna. It would mean so much if you would let me help you now, when I didn't before.
I…suppose, if it really means that much to you.
Did you blame yourself for Nightmare Moon, Princess Celestia, my poor, spell-damaged sister? Did you gaze up at my pearly orb and hate yourself for one thousand years for not stopping the demon of jealousy before it was too late? But demons won't go after something that doesn't have a weakness, sister. My jealousy was there to be fed on by whatever malicious spirit wandered past. Please don't blame yourself. We could have had so much to live for had we moved on, put aside the past and looked toward the future. Instead we busied ourselves with fixing phantom blunders and nonexistent grudges.
Owl has left me. He'd been spending more and more time around Ponyville. I suppose he tired of my emotional distance and sought out a new master. That's the trouble with owls, they're so unfaithful. All I have left is Philomena, who tries vainly to sooth my restless spirit with her music. Her loyalty astounds me.
Where shall I stand, big sister?
There is fine. I don't think distance really matters when we're this close. Now, what this will do is create a copy of my memories from the last thousand years or so and implant it magically into your mind, in a special place so it won't hit you all at once. You can access them like you do your own, but according to the notes you'll be able to distinguish them from your own original memories. Otherwise they'll work the same, being activated, so to speak, by relevant situations.
Do I really need this?
Little sister, please, I need—you do need this. It'll do us both good. You'll see.
I feel like I'm wandering in a dream, a true spirit of the night. Days and events and ponies pass before my eyes in a haze, everything mixed together in an ungainly stew. I do enough to fulfill my duty, and to direct the not-Celestia, the other princess, to fulfill hers as well, and allow the lot to filter right through my mind ignored. The only thing I look forward to these days is flying at night, alone, for Philomena prefers the daylight, funny that in choosing me as her master.
Are you ready?
She doesn't even eat anymore. She let me feed her in the beginning, because I wouldn't stand if she were to perish directly at my hooves. Now she won't eat, and she's beginning to develop pressure sores from lying prostrate in the same position day in and day out. I have tried researching in vain, desperately searching for a cure. I even sent letters to that Twilight Sparkle as a research partner, under the guise of a teacher introducing her student to new fields of study. But I have never seen anypony so spell-damaged in all my life. Celestia and I were always adventurous in inventing and trying uncommon spellwork, but the memory spell she used was so spotty in its ancient notes that even I would never have attempted it—I, the more magically radical of the two princesses.
As it is, even if there could have been a cure, surely there is no hope now. A slight initial problem in recalling certain events became a magical, degenerative amnesia that slowly consumed her mind. Now, she is little more than a brainless animal, stripped of her magic and celestial status. I am no medical expert, but even I can tell she is slowly dying. Perhaps some part of my big sister still remains, refusing sustenance and accepting her fate. I know that if it were me, I would prefer death to such an existence as this. I can barely stand the sight of this stranger wearing Celestia's pelt.
I would let myself go mad, except I know there is still a duty to the kingdom. Equestria will not understand our story, dear sister, and I can't fathom it myself. It is a story of mystery and intrigue, goddesses and their magical affairs, but most of all of two sisters too foolish to try simply understanding one another's needs from the start.
Do a countdown, will you? I want to be ready.
Three, two, one…
I know what I must do.
A magnificent pony princess stands vigil at the top of her pedestal, casting loving eyes down on her subjects as they mill about below, some beginning to form a line to shake her hoof. This is the Grand Galloping Gala, the biggest formal gathering of ponies in Equestria, and a princess's time to shine.
And shine she does.
Her coat has been shined to perfection, her decorations polished until it seems they produce their own light from within. Her horn juts out powerfully from out of her forelock; how can anypony not know that this is true royalty?
She has spent weeks preparing for this public appearance, and today is as good a day as any to show the results of her turmoil, to show that she is not to be feared or judged. She is the same as she always was. Where is the other sister? Away. This is what is told to the astonished public. Only one pony truly knows the answer to that question, and always will, for she is vigilant and guards her secrets with an iron hoof.
And, like a wave of blessings from after a storm, all is forgiven. The entire pony country mourns for the lost princess, and for a while it is as though each of them has lost a piece of themselves. More than anypony the six Elements of Harmony. It is to them the princess wants to tell the entire truth, surely they will understand. But it is not to be. One must uphold the dignity of the royal office. It is better this way.
A purple unicorn in a fluffy ball gown breaks away from the other equines, galloping up the steps with an adoring shine in her wide, violet eyes. She stops at the princess's forelegs and stares into the eyes of the princess, in many ways her princess, for there is a sense of ownership between them that an outsider to their relationship would not understand. They are close in magical ways far more meaningful than measures of distance. The gleam in this filly's eyes breaks the princess's heart, and while this isn't the first time she's regretted her decision, this time it is the most sincere. The filly opens her mouth to speak to her, and Luna's fragile spirit gives a great, heaving sob.
A/N: This came flying out of nowhere while I was drafting the Rarity story I have planned. Holy dang, I love writing depressing fanfiction. Thank the betas for this making more sense than it did originally, though. If you are at all interested in progress on that, or stuff in general, see my livejournal through the homepage link on my profile, because I solemnly swear that I will update the thing.