The Eternal Night
Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria, there was a King and a Queen who ruled together and created harmony for all the land.
King Apollo, the winged unicorn stallion, had a blazing golden coat and a shining mane, and his eyes twinkled with laughter and hope. With his unicorn powers, he raised the sun at dawn. Queen Selene, the winged unicorn mare, was as pale and pearlescent as moonbeams, and though she rarely spoke, her words were always graceful and well-chosen. With her unicorn powers, she brought out the moon to begin the night.
Thus, the two maintained balance for their kingdom and their subjects, all the different types of ponies, for a thousand years. But as time went on, the aging Apollo and Selene sought to retire from the busywork of the monarchy, favoring a life of quiet contemplation. The time came to pass their cosmic duties to their two young daughters, the princesses Celestia and Luna.
The two young ponies were taught to harness the tremendous magical powers at their disposal, and Princess Celestia took on her father's task of raising the sun, while Princess Luna took on her mother's task of raising the moon. The regal sisters took to their tasks well, and for a long time it seemed harmony would be maintained.
But secretly, Luna became resentful. The ponies of Equestria relished and played in the day her elder sister brought forth, but shunned and slept through her beautiful night. Still, the younger princess kept her grievances to herself...which might have been her worst mistake, since those ill feelings grew and festered in her heart.
✶ ✶ ✶
Even with her training, it still took Princess Luna a fierce amount of focus and effort to raise the moon. Her deep-blue horn briefly blazed with energy, and the young mare gritted her teeth in concentration, sending her magic into the dusky sky above. Just as the last glow of sunlight receded behind the hills and out of sight, the moon began to rise, pushed by her power along its heavenly path.
Luna peered outward from her balcony over the hills. Only the tip of the crescent was visible, but she knew it was moving correctly in its path. One by one, the stars twinkled into sight in the sky, which was growing an ever-deepening purple. Luna let out a deep breath, and smiled inwardly. Another successful evening begun, as steady as clockwork. Her own mother couldn't have done it better. And yet...hardly anyone would see it. Virtually none of the kingdom's ponies were even awake for more than five or six hours every night. If only the night could be longer...
Luna's thoughts were jarringly disrupted by the refrain of a ballad being sung just beneath her balcony. She irritably focused her attention on the singer, a unicorn stallion she'd seen before. He was nothing special, some no-account simpleton from Trottingham or some other unimportant place. Oblivious to her, he continued his sappy little serenade, using his horn magic to pluck at the strings of a rickety old lute.
Luna scowled and called out: "You're singing to the wrong princess, you foal! Go away!"
The singer stopped and focused on her for the first time. He blinked and then smiled sheepishly. "My apologies, Princess Luna. Could you, um, maybe go find your sister?"
"I'll do nothing of the sort, Starbuck," scoffed Luna. "Princesses don't do favors for commonfolk like you. If you wish to court my big sister, then go find her in Canterlot. During the day. When I'm not busy performing my duties."
The stallion snickered. Luna narrowed her eyes at him. "Does something amuse you?"
"Is my singing that bad? Celestia never complains."
"Yes, she wouldn't." Luna rolled her eyes. "She's all sunshine and rainbows. Anyway, please leave me be. You're annoying."
"I think you're jealous. Aye, I'd bet on it."
"And what would I possibly be jealous of?" Luna felt her face flush slightly. "Jealous of the fact that my sister's in love with the most ordinary, roughshod pony in Equestria?"
"Something like that." Starbuck smirked. "Which reminds me, how are things going with your own search?"
"That," Luna said flatly, "is none of your concern. I think I can see why my big sister likes you so much -- you're both full of yourselves. Now please, begone."
With a laugh, Starbuck galloped off. Luna let out a sigh.
That stallion was so irritating. Celestia had received dozens of suitors, most of them ponies of noble pedigree, and Starbuck hadn't even been among them. Yet somehow he'd captured her heart, to the point that Celestia was making all sorts of unscheduled excursions away from Canterlot. She'd never told Luna that that was she was doing, but it was quite clear. Neither Father nor Mother were pleased with Celestia's choice, and yet they tolerated it.
Luna forcibly banished away any further thoughts in that direction. Her thoughts as of late had been increasingly dark, and she didn't like it. She turned and left the balcony, returning to her chambers. Her room was a study in shadows, all of its decorations in velvety black and deep blue. Luna gazed at the reflection in her ornate, oblong vanity mirror. The mare in the mirror was barely visible in the gloom, and for a moment -- just an instant -- the shape seemed to be something else rather than hers.
"Soon," she said, "I will make my choice. And it will please the King and Queen well indeed."
✶ ✶ ✶
It was said that in her youth, Princess Celestia would frequently slip away and make furtive little forays to the principal towns surrounding Mount Destrier, always in the guise of a commoner. She was fascinated by the lesser ponies and their day-to-day toils, and the great bonds of friendship they formed. Celestia believed there was great magic in such simple friendships, magic that perhaps rivaled that of the monarchy. It was on one such of these trips that Celestia met the unicorn named Starbuck, who might have been the great love of her life … if not for the tragic events surrounding the Summer Sun Celebration.
✶ ✶ ✶
The next day in Trottingham, a young mare trotted through the marketplace. She was somewhat remarkable in appearance; for one thing, she possessed both a unicorn horn and pegasus wings, and even beyond that she was quite beautiful, but nopony noticed these things for more than an instant. Passersby would glance at the princess and perhaps squint momentarily, but their thoughts of curiosity would quickly be swept away by the magic surrounding her. If they remembered her at all, their memory was of just another mare. Celestia didn't like using disguises such as this, but she wasn't confident enough to just appear as herself among these folk. She'd noticed early on that they didn't quite behave the same way when royalty was about.
Celestia was inspecting the hoofcrafted wares at one of the marketplace stalls when something sharply poked her side. A unicorn's horn. Celestia stiffened and her eyes darted to the offender. His face was half-obscured under a hood, and he smiled a wicked smile.
"Hello, love," the offender said. "Up with your hooves. How's about you give me all your pretty baubles, mm?"
"You'd best reconsider," said Celestia, "I can have the town guard here in a moment!"
The horn poking her side shimmered. "And I'll turn them all into toads and salamanders!"
Celestia squinted at the offender, then whirled quickly, hooked her horn under the rim of his hood and swiftly pushed it back. Revealed, Starbuck grinned his lopsided grin at her. "Well, it was worth a try."
Celestia chuckled. "Would you really turn ponies into toads and salamanders?"
"Of course not. Or rather, I don't think I could." Starbuck tapped his horn. "It can do a few party-tricks, but this thing's mostly for show."
"So why are you pretending to be a thief, instead of doing business here?"
Starbuck sighed and smiled. "My Lady, there's not much business in Trottingham for a mapmaker. Certainly not in the marketplace."
"Why not join another trading ship? I know you'd make a fine navigator."
Starbuck gently nuzzled the princess. "And then I'd never see you, now would I? Weighing anchor, living port to port...no, I think I'm done with all that."
"But..." Celestia glanced at Starbuck's gray flank. His mark was the Northern Star, the indelible sign of his talent.
"Well," said Starbuck. "My mark might be what it is, but that doesn't mean I always have to do what I'm good at."
"You really should come live in Canterlot," Celestia said. "My father has a magnificent orrery and a library filled with books. I could commission you to draw a Royal Map of the Kingdom -- an official map! I could even get you a dragon assistant! I know you would be happy."
"I don't think the King and Queen would be pleased to see rabble like me living in the palace."
"They love me, and so they will honor my choice," Celestia said, her voice filled with serene confidence she didn't entirely feel.
Starbuck looked at Celestia a bit more seriously now. "And what about your little sister?"
Celestia lowered her voice so that only Starbuck could hear. "Starbuck, I love you. And I am a Princess of Equestria. If you joined me, together we'd find a way to make it work."
Starbuck sneaked in a quick kiss on Celestia's cheek. "I love you too, you mad filly. I suppose if you can move the sun through the sky, then you can do just about whatever else you wish, eh? What do you really need me for?"
"There's much I can do, it's true. Still, I'd rather not do it alone."
✶ ✶ ✶
When Apollo and Selene announced that Luna was open to suitors, unicorns and pegasi from across Equestria and beyond flocked to Canterlot. Countless highborn stallions stood before the King and Queen and pleaded for Princess Luna's hoof in marriage. For their part, Apollo and Selene approved of many of the suitors, and eagerly looked forward to Luna's choice.
But in the end, Luna could not choose one. She met with each of the suitors and did her best to feign interest, but her heart seemed to be elsewhere. The King and Queen were inwardly despairing that Luna would find nopony, but then one last suitor arrived, a dark horse with a white mane. His name was Corona, and he was a noble of the nearby land of Cavalis. His flank mark was an eclipse surrounded by four stars, and he had a fierce countenance and a deep, commanding voice. As an offering, Corona presented to the King the finest treasure of his land: the Elements of Harmony, five precious stones which gleamed with legendary power. It was a most gracious gift, and even Luna was impressed.
Yet still, she hesitated.
✶ ✶ ✶
"If it please Your Majesties, here is my offering: the legendary Elements of Harmony." Corona's horn flashed, and the five stones winked into being before the throne. "Relics of the age when the land was still young, before the mountains were raised and the seas filled, the age when magic flowed like rivers and the stars had no names. If your daughter graces me with her hoof in marriage, the Elements shall be yours."
"Wait," interjected Apollo, leaving the throne to inspect the stones more closely. "Are there not six Elements of Harmony? I see but five."
"The sixth is a complete mystery," said Corona. "nopony knows how to draw it forth, if it even exists. With ancient artefacts such as these, much of the lore is esoteric. However, this much is known: they are sources of great magic, and formidable weapons, should Equestria ever fall under siege."
"nopony would lay siege to us," said Queen Selene. "Equestria has seen peace for a millennium. Strange that you would even suggest such a thing."
"Your Highness, it was mere presumption on my part. Please, forgive my idle speculations. Let us return to the matter before us: your daughter."
"Please don't talk about me as if I weren't here," muttered Luna under her breath. Her parents and Corona glanced at her.
"It is a wondrous gift," Luna said. "What else do you offer? We have not had time for a proper courtship...I don't really know you. You are highborn, yes?"
Corona turned his gaze to Luna. There was something a bit cold about it, as if he were appraising her. "I am a noble steed of Cavalis. I would treat you with all the honor and respect accorded a princess such as yourself."
"You...wouldn't ever leave me alone, would you? I don't like being alone."
"Luna!" said the Queen. "Why do you ask such questions!"
"Please, let Your Highness not be vexed by her daughter's questions; they are quite valid. No, my dear Luna, I would never abandon you; I would be by your side and at your call throughout the long nights. It would honor me to be the stars to your moon."
Luna blushed slightly at that, but still she hesitated. Apollo stepped forth to speak for her. "Lord Corona, your words and gifts are well-received. You are dismissed; Luna's answer shall be forthcoming."
"Your Majesty. Your Highness. My most humble thanks for this audience." Corona bowed, and his horn flashed again. The Elements of Harmony winked away, presumably to whereever Corona kept them. The stallion made his exit, head held high, a confident smile on his face.
Once Corona had left the throne room, Selene spoke to the pegasi guard. "Please, faithful servants: we must have words with our daughter."
The pegasi left in silence, and once the doors were sealed, Apollo and Selene both faced their daughter with expectant looks.
"I...don't know," Luna finally said. "He's highborn, and...eloquent? And those are nice gifts. I just..."
"Oh, by all the falling stars," Apollo said, "How many scores of suitors have come here and sought your hoof now, Luna? Are you so fickle that none of them catch your fancy?"
"Soft, Apollo," chided Selene. "You do not always know a woman's heart, or her will."
Apollo drew a heavy, somewhat dramatic breath, then flared his nostrils and let it out. The King's patience was short. Luna's mother had told her stories of Apollo in his fiery youth, when nothing could have stayed him from his course.
"I want to choose one," Luna admitted. "I just don't know if any of them will love me. They all want a princess. I just want...oh, I don't know. I don't have the words."
A deep frown crossed the King's bright face. "Selene, it seems only you can counsel Luna in this matter. I will leave it to you to convince her of the obvious."
Luna knelt and cast her eyes down as Apollo departed. The Queen knelt as well to gently nuzzle her daughter, and offered a reassuring smile. "Luna, you know your father means well, even behind that stern, proud face. He wants you to be happy. We all do."
Luna met her mother's gaze. "I was so certain of what I wanted, Mother. I don't know what's changed."
"Seeing those suitors before you is quite different from entertaining the notion, it is true," said Selene. "If you are reluctant, there is no shame in it. But there is nothing to fear, my child."
"It's not that," Luna said, shaking her head. "It's..."
"Please, Luna, tell me. I want to see you happy...and I want to put this matter behind us. What vexes you so?"
"It's Celestia!" Luna finally exclaimed. "Her and that lowborn Starbuck! How can you and Father allow them to carry on like that?"
"We do not approve of Starbuck," Selene said flatly, "And we believe that in time Celestia will come to her senses and abandon both that stallion and her fascination with the commonfolk. Yet what does this have to do with you, my dear?"
"I..." Luna was having a difficult time admitting it, even to herself. "I'm jealous of them. It's foolish, I detest Starbuck, and yet...I can't help it! He's vulgar and boring, and still he makes her truly happy! It's another thing Celestia gets to have that I don't!"
"Are you jealous of her for any other reason, Luna?" Selene's expression was knowing and sympathetic, but at the same time a bit removed. She understood Luna very well, yet she was always the Queen first and foremost. "Perhaps something to do with your duties? Remember that I too raised the moon and brought the night. I too know the long silence and the solitude. But because I love your father so very much, and because I know how important harmony is to this land, I let it be. That which another possesses will always seem sweeter than what is within your grasp, even when all things have their place. Trust in your mother, Luna."
"What do you think I should do?" asked Luna, even though she already knew what the Queen would say.
"I think Corona would be a fine choice," replied Selene, "And know that I shall respect and abide by your decision regardless."
Luna nodded. She was silent for a long while, then stood up. "I'm ready."
✶ ✶ ✶
And so it came to pass that Luna, Princess of Equestria, accepted Lord Corona of Cavalis as her groom-to-be. Much rejoicing was had in Equestria at this announcement, for an heir to the throne and the inheritance of the cosmic tasks was now guaranteed. The Elements of Harmony were placed in the castle of the royal pony sisters, and Corona lavished numerous other gifts upon Luna and the entire royal family as well. For a brief time, Luna was happy.
It would not last, however. Time and again, Luna witnessed Celestia slipping away in secret from Canterlot, and she began to follow her sister surreptitiously. She would watch from a distance as Celestia and Starbuck met, and it would sting her when Celestia would laugh merrily at the bawdy, uncouth jokes Starbuck would make. Envy gnawed at her when she saw Starbuck nuzzle at Celestia. Lord Corona was attentive and proper and followed protocol...but he would rarely show Luna any sort of affection, and certainly not in the company of others. Luna tried to hide her inner despair and frustration, but with time it became clear on her face.
Perhaps the creatures of Equestria sensed that the harmony in the land was beginning to fall out of balance. The ponies tossed and turned in their sleep, plagued by dreams which their waking minds dismissed. Maybe one or two with keen eyes noticed that the moon seemed to proceed slower across the sky during those summer nights, as if the force that drove it along its path was weakening. Perhaps some felt a chill in those evenings, despite the summer warmth. Deep down, everypony knew something was wrong. Yet it was impossible to say what, and so Equestria carried on, preparing for the very first Summer Sun Celebration, little knowing what it would bring.
✶ ✶ ✶
"I sincerely hope you didn't decide to host this celebration in Trottingham just for me," said Starbuck. "This hamlet hardly seems fit for royal folk."
Celestia trotted leisurely around Starbuck's messy shop, admiring the various maps he'd drawn. "Nonsense! It will be perfect. Ponies from across the land will visit, Trottingham will receive plenty of much-needed business, and best of all, for once I won't have to hide behind a disguise during my visit. It will be splendid!"
Starbuck used his horn, unrolling a half-finished map of Equestria and tugging his feathered quill out of its inkwell. He drew the tip of the quill across the scroll, filling in details. "By the way, how is the royal family?"
Celestia glanced back at him with a knowing smile. "How is Luna, you mean."
"Never one for small talk. So I understand she's betrothed to that tall, dark lord from Cavalis. What's his name again?"
"Corona, yes." Celestia nodded. "She's troubled, but I have faith in her -- I know Luna will rise above it. Luna often spoke of finding a noble steed, and now she has one. I am certain love will blossom in time."
"Celestia," Starbuck said carefully, "Please don't misconstrue my words, but...are you saying that because you truly are certain, or because you want it to be so?"
The princess closed her eyes, turning away. "I want her to be happy."
"But there's always more than just that, isn't there?"
Celestia was silent.
Starbuck finally said it. "If Luna and Corona are wed, then that rather lets you off the hook, doesn't it?"
"That's not what this is about! I really, truly want her to be happy, Starbuck!" Celestia's voice rose just a little, and Starbuck felt a tiny little shiver. He often forgot that she was a very, very powerful pony indeed, despite being young.
"I love you," Starbuck said, "And I only speak such honest things because I love and respect you so much. Surely you know that."
His words sort of hung in the air. They'd sounded better in his head, really. Starbuck picked up the quill with his horn and resumed adding to the map.
"Have you ever wanted to see the lands beyond the sea?" Celestia asked. "I understand no pony has ever completely mapped them."
"I suppose," Starbuck replied. The truth was that he very much wanted to see those places, although he'd long ago resolved it wasn't worth the trouble. "Why do you ask?"
"My father has long spoken of a royally-backed expedition, to open trade routes and scout for a new Equestrian colony. They would need a navigator."
Starbuck chuckled. "And I suppose you would go as the King's ambassador, and we'd have us a majestic, romantic sea voyage. Sounds brilliant, my lovely mare. Of course, without anyone to raise the sun, I reckon it would be a very dark journey."
"I can still raise the sun at sea," Celestia said. "What would you say, my love? I know you're not happy here."
"I'm happy with you." Starbuck grinned at her. "And when you're not here, I make do. Your family, your country...they need you, Celestia. You can teach them so much. Luna needs you, too, if you truly want her to rise above her troubles. One of the reasons I love you is your strength, your willingness to carry such a great burden. I think you would move both sun and moon if you had to. Don't tarnish that image."
Starbuck went to Celestia, and they kissed.
✶ ✶ ✶
Starbuck and Celestia walked through the silent, dark town square. Not a single pony saw them. It was the eve of the Summer Sun celebration, and per tradition, all the ponies were off carousing until dawn. The moon hung above the faraway hills, yellow and full and huge. It loomed over the nighttime landscape like a baleful eye.
Celestia whispered a soft farewell to her stallion, then spread her wings and soared away, beginning the flight back to Canterlot. Starbuck watched her go until she was only a tiny speck in the distance.
Then he spoke. "Well. Are you going to show yourself?"
Nothing but the faint buzz of crickets answered him.
"Come on," Starbuck said. "This horn does have a few talents. I know you're there."
More silence. Then a dark shape stole out of the shadows, taking form as it stepped into the moonlight, approaching him.
"Are you here for another serenade?" Starbuck smiled. "No, I suppose not."
"Why wouldn't you want to go on that sea voyage?" Luna asked, approaching him slowly. "That sounds like fun. Why wouldn't you want to follow your dreams?"
Starbuck's smile faded somewhat. "And I suppose you could be the royal ambassador on this little trip, instead of your sister. Right?"
"I didn't think you cared about me, Starbuck," said Luna, "But I overheard the things you said to my sister. I was wrong about you. You might be ordinary and roughshod, but you do care about more than just yourself and Celestia. It makes me happy to know someone else cares about me."
"Your parents care for you," said Starbuck. "And so does your sister."
"You don't know what it's like." There was an ugly edge in Luna's voice. "I don't think they really do care. And I know Corona doesn't really care about me. He looks at me like I'm a statue! He never kisses me -- not like --"
Starbuck felt a vague unease. Luna's words were troubling enough, but there was something else. Perhaps it was just a trick of the moonlight, but her deep indigo coat seemed darker, almost black, and her eyes seemed to gleam with their own strange light. Starbuck took an involuntary step back.
"Why is it that Celestia caught your eye and not me? Am I not royal enough for you?" Luna leaned in close. "You care about me too, don't you? Don't I deserve to be happy as well? Don't I deserve to be loved?"
"Of course you do, Luna. But you can't go weighing your happiness against that of others, or else it'll never be enough. You have a good heart; I see it clearly. You're better than this. Don't you dare let jealousy rule you. You're a princess, you --"
But Luna silenced Starbuck, pushing up against him and kissing him fiercely. Starbuck blinked, then tensed up and pushed the little mare away. "Luna! Don't do this. Please, don't."
Tears began to stream from Luna's eyes. She looked at him imploringly, opened her mouth as if to speak, then galloped away. Starbuck went after her, but Luna spread her wings and took to the air.
"Luna!" he cried. "Wait! WAIT!"
But she was already high in the sky, silhouetted against the moon. Luna glanced back at him one last time. Starbuck saw something chilling then, a sight he would remember for the rest of his days.
Luna's pupils had become slits, like those of a cat.
✶ ✶ ✶
"I suspected I might find you here," remarked Corona, stepping out onto the balcony. Luna stood there, gazing at the moon. She did not reply.
"You really ought to return to the castle," said Corona. "It's inappropriate to leave during your shift."
"My sister does it all the time," Luna whispered icily. "Why don't you go away?"
Luna turned to him, her eyes shining coldly. "I said, go away. I wish to be alone...and you're annoying."
Corona showed no sign of surprise or anger at her words. Instead, he smiled. "Well. My little pony has finally begun to grow up."
Luna brushed past him, returning inside. The Elements of Harmony were faintly glowing in their stands, but other than that and the moonlight, the room was shadowed. Deep-purple velvet curtains were perpetually drawn over the arched windows. She preferred it that way.
Corona followed her. "I saw it in you the moment I first laid eyes upon you, but you've kept it hidden. Now, finally, you can't deceive yourself anymore. This is who you truly are."
"I don't know what you're talking about, and I've had a terrible evening." Luna's eyes flashed. "You shouldn't make me angry, Lord Corona. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."
Corona chuckled darkly. "If you don't believe me, Luna...look in the mirror. See the look upon your face, the fire dancing in your eye. Oh, I know what troubles you, and you're quite right. You're right about all of it. I would not have chosen you had I not perceived your potential. The trembling, lonely little filly is only the exterior; within is far more."
Luna sneered at him. She moved towards the mirror, but stopped short of it, caught by a moment's hesitation. But why would she be afraid of her own reflection? What was there to fear? Yet her heart was pounding.
"They've kept you locked away, like a pet in a gilded cage," hissed Corona. "You're alone, wondering why you received so little recognition for your toils, while they all dance in the pretty sunlight. Laughing, playing, loving one another. Isn't it time you claimed what you deserve?"
The moonlight shining into the room from the balcony dimmed, as if the moon had become obscured. The glow from the Elements of Harmony faded to nothing. There wasn't a sound from outside; even the crickets had stopped. It was as if all of Equestria were holding its breath in the dark. Luna looked to Corona, and she could dimly see him grinning wickedly.
"What's happening?" she whispered.
"Look in the mirror," commanded Corona with furious glee. "LOOK! SEE YOUR TRUE SELF!"
Luna shut her eyes tight and went to the mirror, then opened them. Even though it was dark, she could see her reflection, lit by the greenish glow from her own eyes. It wasn't her anymore, and yet it was. The creature looking back at her was the pitch-black hue of midnight, and there was no more fear or doubt on her face, just heartless determination. Princess Luna was gone.
"I have a new name for you," said Corona. "I think you will adore it."
✶ ✶ ✶
Six hours later, hundreds of ponies gathered in Trottingham's town square. They were all somewhat weary from the night's long revelry. Nonetheless, they watched the still-dark skies with eager eyes. There was a surprising number of clouds for a summer morning, although the resident pegasi of the town were quietly doing their best to clear them.
A makeshift stage had been built up by the townsfolk, festooned with decorations and banners bearing the royal colors. Behind it stood the entourage from Canterlot, awaiting the precise moment as laid down by decree. Somewhere among them was Princess Celestia, although she could not be seen from the audience. The crowd waited, breathless, for the ceremony.
Starbuck groggily made his way through the crowd, trying to get to the entourage. "Please, make way. Let me pass! I must speak to the Princess! Get out of my way!"
He made it right up to the backstage area, but the pegasi guards blocked his way, holding up their hooves and stepping directly in his path. Starbuck flared his nostrils. "I have urgent business with Princess Celestia! There's something she needs to know!"
A squat little dragon fellow squeezed his way between the pegasi guards, shuffling up to regard Starbuck sourly. He was no more than two feet tall and a vivid orange color, with purple spines. "Can I help you, sir?"
"Who are you?" Starbuck stared down at him quizzically.
"I'm Gill, the personal assistant to Her Majesty the Princess." The little dragon put sharp emphasis on each word, as if he were pronouncing a decree. "Any and all requests, missives and queries must go through me."
"Listen, you little lizard, we don't have time for protocols and pretty words," said Starbuck. “I need to speak to the Princess before she gets busy with the sun-raising. It concerns her sister."
"I'm terribly sorry, sir, but Princess Luna is no longer entertaining suitors."
"No, look, just...just tell her Starbuck needs to speak with her, immediately." Starbuck stamped his hoof. "She knows me. PRINCESS! Princess, here!"
Celestia stood at a distance, being groomed for presentation. She heard Starbuck and turned to look at him, but one of her aides whispered in her ear. The Princess gave Starbuck a quick apologetic look, then ascended the steps to the stage. She couldn't break her role at the moment.
"No! Celestia!" Starbuck struggled against the guards, but they held him fast.
"Sir, I believe the Princess has given you her answer," said Gill. "If you want to submit a formal request for audience, I can cough up the proper forms. Otherwise, please take your place in the audience, and enjoy the sunrise."
Starbuck glared at the guards and the obnoxious little dragonling, then relented and rejoined the crowd.
With a blast of trumpeted fanfare, the town magistrate took the stage. "Fillies and gentlecolts, as Magistrate of the humble hamlet of Trottingham, I decree the beginning of the first annual Summer Sun Celebration!"
A wild cheer went up among the assembled ponyfolk.
"And now it is my great honor to introduce to you the ruler of our land, the very pony who gifts us with the sun each and every day, the noble, the wise, the purveyor of harmony for all of Equestria...Princess Celestia!"
The Princess took center stage, wings unfurled, head held high. If the first cheer from the crowd was loud, the second was almost deafening, as everypony paid their respects to the lovely princess. Starbuck supposed most of them had never seen a royal pony before, let alone the princess herself. She certainly presented herself differently under the scrutiny of her subjects than when it was just the two of them. Here, Celestia stood proudly, almost statuesque, as the audience shouted their praise and stamped their hooves in applause. A pair of young pegasi flew onto stage to hang a garland of red and white roses around Celestia's neck.
Then, Celestia's horn gleamed. A hush fell over the assembly almost at once, followed by a murmur of excited anticipation. All eyes turned to the east. Starbuck glanced eastward as well, but then he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. He turned westward, then piped up. "Your Majesty! Your Majesty, look! The moon hasn't set yet! Something's wrong!"
"Quiet down!" one of the ponies in the crowd hissed at him.
"No, listen to me! I know the movements of the sky, and that moon should have set by now! I'm telling you! Celestia, I think something's happened to Luna --"
What happened next happened so fast that it left Starbuck momentarily reeling. There was a deafening boom of thunder, and a bolt of lightning blasted right out of the sky onto the stage, setting it afire. Celestia had jumped back, but the bolt had struck precisely where she had been a second before. The crowd broke into panic, ponies scattering in all directions. Celestia used her magic to extinguish the fire, but chaos had already broken out. Thick clouds began to condense all over the sky, blotting out the stars. Amidst all the confusion, Starbuck saw Celestia straining with effort, her horn glowing brightly, but there wasn't so much as a glimmer in the east.
And then came the laughter. It echoed across the town square, seemingly coming from all directions. It was a mare's voice, malevolent and gleeful. There was something horribly familiar about it. Starbuck had a sinking feeling about what was going to happen next, although he also knew he was powerless to stop it.
The wind was blowing. It picked up quickly, spinning up dust and debris around the town square. A sort of vortex was forming, a miniature tornado of black, swirling clouds that touched down close to the stage. The pegasi guards herded tight around the princess, forming a protective barrier. The laughter was now clearly originating from the dark whirlwind, which finally began to evaporate. From it emerged...
"...Luna," Starbuck whispered in fear.
But it wasn't quite Luna anymore. This pony stood taller than Luna, a study in deep purples and blacks and shadowy blues. Starbuck saw the same slitted pupils as before. It was if Luna's form had been twisted into that of a predator, yet it was unmistakably her. There was no denying what had happened, as monstrous as it was.
Without thinking, Starbuck rushed at her in a fierce gallop. He charged his horn with raw energy, head down, aiming for her. He didn't know many spells, but maybe he could just hit her with something simple --
Magic lightning arced right out of the dark mare's body, blasting directly through Starbuck. He'd never felt anything so agonizing in his life. Every muscle inside him spasmed at once and he hit the ground with a scream, writhing involuntarily.
"STARBUCK!" Celestia shrieked.
"That foal should have stood back. Now he is but the first example." The dark mare advanced on the stage, a miasma of shadow swirling around her. "Your reign is at an end, Celestia. You were never worthy of the power and glory you were given, and now you are undone. Kneel before me, daughter of Apollo, and acknowledge my might! KNEEL BEFORE NIGHTMARE MOON!"
Starbuck strained to raise his head, fighting the pain coursing through his body. "Luna..."
"I will not kneel to you," said Celestia. She gestured the pegasi guard aside, and they reluctantly let her out of their circle of protection. "I don't know what's happened to you, Luna, but you must stop this."
"THERE IS NOPONY HERE BY THAT NAME!" boomed Nightmare Moon, her voice reverberating off the buildings surrounding the town square.
"No," said Starbuck. He propped himself up on his forelegs and struggled to rise. "It's still you, Luna. Even if something's corrupted you somehow, it doesn't change who you are. And who you are is a kind, loving pony who's lost her way --"
"SILENCE!!" the Nightmare bellowed, her voice so loud it hurt Starbuck's eardrums. "YOU WILL BE THE FIRST TO DIE!"
Another lightning bolt shot towards him, but at the last moment, something deflected it. Starbuck saw the lightning harmlessly dissipate in a brief sparkle of magic. A shimmering glow surrounded him, a spell of both healing and defense. He could feel the pain easing off, just a little. On the stage, Celestia's horn gleamed. She was protecting him!
"You will not harm him," Celestia said, her voice calm yet commanding. There were tears standing in her eyes. "You must stop, Luna."
"Oh, then tell me, Celestia: why is this pony so important to you? Could it be, perhaps, that you love him? That the princess herself loves a commoner?” Nightmare Moon looked to the other ponies cowering around them, and she grinned viciously. "Did you hear that, loyal subjects? Your beloved princess has broken the rules of royalty and abused her power! Do you not see how grievously she's failed you all?"
"Yes, I love him." Celestia looked to Starbuck. "With all my heart. I kept it a secret, but now I wish I'd told everypony. I will say it without shame, without fear. I love you, Starbuck."
And despite the pain he felt, despite the terrifying situation they were in, Starbuck smiled at her. "I love you too."
Fury contorted Nightmare Moon's features, and she let out a wordless, keening wail of rage and frustration. The swirling miasma around her flickered and rumbled, then a huge blast of dark energy hurled itself towards Celestia. It was met with an equal blaze of light from Celestia's horn, and the ground itself quaked with the force of those colliding, dueling powers. Sparks shot from the horns of both the royal sisters, and stray bolts of energy shot outward in all directions from the focal point. Both of them strained and stood their ground, but it seemed neither would prevail.
Starbuck looked to the top of Mount Destrier. Against the night sky, there was a golden flash as something bright approached. It was Apollo!
"Father...!" Nightmare Moon saw the King, and her concentration wavered. Celestia's energy overtook hers, and with a concussive burst, the dark mare's power was momentarily disrupted. Apollo was gliding down towards the scene, his own horn glowing an almost fiery color, his face hard and angry. Nightmare Moon reared up in fear, then her body seemed to dissipate, unraveling itself into mist. The dark mare's form became vague, then insubstantial. Now there was just a swirling, serpentine curl, which quickly streamed away in retreat.
Thunder rolled in the distance, and the thick clouds blotted out all sight of the sky. At last, it began to rain. First in small drops, then in an increasing deluge.
It was as if the heavens themselves were weeping.
✶ ✶ ✶
"This is my fault," Celestia said. "I drove her to this. Please, Father, Mother...let me go alone, and set this right."
"Now is not the time to place blame," Apollo answered. "Your words are noble, my daughter, but you are unlikely to prevail against Luna alone --"
"Prevail? Of what do we speak, Apollo?" interjected Selene. "Have we turned against our own daughter? Is our only course to destroy her?"
The King, Queen and Princess were assembled in the throne room, along with Starbuck and Corona. Starbuck paced nervously, while Corona simply brooded in one spot. The pegasi guards had been dismissed; what was being discussed was far too sensitive to risk word getting out.
"I have no desire to hurt Luna, my love," said Apollo. "Surely you know that. But you also know that this has happened before."
"Begging your pardon, Your Majesty," interrupted Starbuck. "This has happened before?"
Apollo and Selene both looked at Starbuck uncertainly. They seemed reluctant to elaborate.
"I know of what they speak," said Corona, "But it is a closely guarded secret."
Starbuck knelt before the royals. "I swear on all the stars I steer by, and on my own good name, that I shall not betray the trust of the crown. I would know this secret if Your Majesties see fit to place their divine trust in me. There, that good enough?"
Apollo scowled. "You know, we still haven't ascertained if you didn't have some part in this debacle, Starbuck."
"Begging your pardon, Your Majesty, but not a moment ago you said now is not the time to place blame," Starbuck answered. "I gave my word, and Celestia can vouch for me."
The King grunted. "Very well. We cosmic ponies, who possess both wings and horns, are elevated far beyond normal ponykind. We wield great power and thrive for millennia, yet we are not gods; we are flawed souls just as you, subject to the same whims and follies."
The Queen spoke up now, her voice heavy with sorrow. "Ancient tales tell of cosmic ponies whose powers became corrupted and turned on them, warping their very shapes and making them frightening in aspect. According to legend, wars were fought amongst the stars between the pure-hearted and those who had fallen, and in the end, the fallen were sealed away in the far reaches of the cosmos itself. It is why there are so few of us today."
"Do the legends speak of any corrupted ponies who were able to right themselves?" asked Starbuck.
None of the royals spoke. The answer was obvious.
"Celestia, you don't believe it's a lost cause, do you?"
"I don't know, Starbuck." Celestia's voice was so choked with emotion that Starbuck regretted putting her on the spot. "I truly don't know."
"Lord Corona, did you see any signs of this?" Starbuck turned to the dark stallion. "Anything at all?"
"I was just as taken aback by this transformation as all of you," Corona said. "I knew Luna was jealous of some of the inequities she perceived in her role, but I scarcely imagined it would come to this. Of course, the last to see her before her change was Starbuck, I believe?"
"And what're you suggesting?" Starbuck stamped his hoof. "That I corrupted her somehow? Sorry to disappoint you, but you're far overestimating my magic ability. The most I can do is a few tricks, my lord."
"What if it wasn't a matter of magic? What if it were simply a matter of power driven by a wounded heart?" Corona slowly circled Starbuck now, gaze fixed upon him. "You said she was upset, did you not?"
"Enough." Apollo slammed his hoof down, and the loud clop was enough to make them all flinch. "For now, we must focus upon the facts and lay out a course. Call in the messenger."
In scuttled Gill, the little dragon looking more intimidated than anything else. He cleared his throat, then coughed up a flickering magical flame. The flame quickly condensed into the shape of a bound scroll, which Selene took with her horn and unsealed.
"Pegasi flyovers report a thick forest has sprouted around Luna and Celestia's castle," Selene said, reading from the scroll. "Strange noises have been heard and fantastic, dangerous beasts of great size have been sighted. Even the trees seem to have frightful faces and reaching, clawing branches. Even teleportation seems to be unpredictable in this region. The calm at the eye of the storm activity is centered on the castle..."
"...which means she's there," said Starbuck. "She's waiting for us."
"I will go," said Apollo. "I am the most powerful in Equestria; I will subdue her and bring her back. We needn't waste our soldiers and guards for this task; only a cosmic pony's power can even hope to match another of its kind."
"Father, no!" Celestia cried. "Let me go! This land needs its king!"
"But this land also needs at least one of its princesses to carry on the line," said Corona. "Let me accompany the King. I will defend him from peril."
"I'll go too!" pledged Starbuck. "Luna was willing to listen to me before this all happened; maybe I can still talk her down."
"You stay out of this, commoner," Corona snapped. "You yourself said you know little magic...what good are you against such a foe?"
"Lord Corona! Don't speak to him that way!" said Celestia.
"I'll just, um. I'll just let myself out." Gill scurried towards the throne room doors as fast as his pudgy little legs could carry him.
"You've got a forest of monsters to get through before you get to that foe," said Starbuck. "And if Celestia goes, I'm going. If you don't agree, then lock me up in shackles, Your Majesties, because otherwise there'll be no stopping me."
"Celestia is not going," Apollo said. "There will be no argument."
"Father..." Celestia approached the King. "You trusted me with raising the sun itself. If I cannot stop you going, then I will be by your side. Two of us might prevail where one cannot."
"And if you had to destroy Luna, or be destroyed yourself, what would you choose? Tell me, daughter."
"What would you choose, Father?"
It was a bitter standoff. Selene stepped in between Apollo and Celestia, pushing them apart with her hooves. The two looked at her, then both hung their heads. Selene walked between them, and approached Starbuck. "Starbuck, will you take the oath of knighthood?"
"What?" everypony exclaimed, more or less at once.
"You present yourself as a commoner, but you are noble and courageous beneath that guise," said Selene. "I would that the crown recognize it, and that you recognize it as well. I would only trust a knight to defend my daughter and husband on this quest. If you are set on going, then do this for me."
"I..." Starbuck looked at Celestia, then shrugged and knelt before Selene. Apollo scoffed quietly, but said nothing.
"Repeat after me, Starbuck."
Starbuck repeated Selene's words:
"I hereby affirm my absolute fealty to King Apollo and Queen Selene. I swear never to give bad counsel, never to suffer turncoats amongst my herd, and never to look a gift horse in the mouth. With these hooves I shall do only good and just acts, uphold and perpetuate the Balance of Harmony throughout the land, and serve the Crown of Equestria with my very life."
Selene lowered her head and tapped her horn to each of Starbuck's shoulders. "I dub thee Sir Starbuck of Trottingham."
"Hm. It does have a nice ring to it," Starbuck said. "Guess I'll have to start being a bit more responsible now."
"What nonsense," Apollo muttered.
"I'm inclined to agree," added Corona. "Bit of a meaningless gesture. Why not knight that little dragon fellow, while you're at it?"
"Holy moley, would you do that!?" called Gill, who was listening on just the other side of the throne room doors.
"Go away, Gill," growled Apollo. There was a little gasp from behind the doors, the faint sound of little dragon feet quickly pattering down the steps, then quiet.
"Prepare yourselves and say your farewells. In one hour, we ride."
Starbuck wanted to go to Celestia, to comfort her, but it was not the time or the place. They exchanged glances wordlessly, and she offered the smallest of smiles, a wan expression all but lost in fear. It was hard to just walk away from that.
As they descended the spiral steps, Starbuck mused aloud: "Sir Starbuck. I wonder why the Queen did that."
"No doubt to create a false sense of reassurance on this fool's errand," said Corona, not looking back as he descended the steps ahead of Starbuck. "Or maybe Equestria is just desperate for knights."
"And what useful strategies do you have, Lord of Cavalis?" Starbuck snapped, his temper flaring a bit. "You don't seem to care a whit about what's happened to Luna, despite the fact that she's your wife-to-be."
"Ah, dear sad Luna. Lost to her own pain, fallen like so many of her kind. You heard the legend with your own ears; she will never again return to a pure state. I grieve for my lost bride, but I also look to the future." Corona looked sidewise at Starbuck. "There are still more princesses out there."
Starbuck said nothing in reply. He slowed his trot, letting Corona go on ahead. When Starbuck reached the base of the spire, he sought out Gill, who was lining up scrolls to send out.
"Say there," Starbuck said. "Sir Gill of Canterlot! Ha ha, just kidding. Seriously though, I think you'd make a fine knight."
Gill squinted at Starbuck. "I'm kinda busy here."
"So you are, doing all this important work for the King and Queen. Listen, I need you to do something for me, and maybe there'll be a tasty ruby or two in it for you if you do. Can you take down a special letter to Cavalis? It's urgent. This is what it'll say..."
✶ ✶ ✶
One hour later, the party assembled in Canterlot's Great Hall, accompanied by the pegasi guard. Apollo was clad in golden plate armor, looking even larger and more imposing than before. Celestia's armor was lighter and streamlined, and bore the royal colors of Equestria. Starbuck thought she looked rather beautiful that way.
"I am ready, Your Majesty," said Corona.
"Good to hear it." Apollo turned to the guards. "Seize him!"
Before Corona had time to react, the pegasi flung multiple golden chains onto the dark stallion, pulling them taut and forcing him down. Corona roared and struggled, but they held him fast. "This is an outrage! Apollo, call your guards off at once! I have done nothing!"
"You've done plenty," said Starbuck. "Hoodwinked us all rather well, I'm afraid. The King and Queen accepted your word because you presented gifts and the seal of Cavalis, a land with which Equestria has never had quarrels. But I contacted the real Lord of Cavalis and found out the truth. You tried to claim a false blood-right to rule, and then when that failed, you tried to stage a coup by misusing the magic of the Elements of Harmony. They defeated you and you escaped into exile, but now --"
"Allow me to finish," snapped Corona. "But now, imbecile, I hold the upper hoof. I control Nightmare Moon, and she controls the night itself. The royalty and guard of this land will help me retake Cavalis and make it rightfully mine, or else this night will last forever. And now that you're a knight of this land, Starbuck, I shall rather relish watching you fight unwillingly for my cause as well."
"Never," Apollo said. "You're dreaming. You're bluffing."
"Am I, you withered old sun-keeper?" Corona sneered. "Then test it. Let us wait and see what happens. How soon will it be before the last heat of the day leaves this land, and the rain turns to snow? I should like to see your loyal subjects crying out to their King for warmth and hope. When you rule over a frozen, dead waste, ask me again if I'm bluffing."
"TAKE HIM AWAY!" thundered Apollo. The pegasi guards tried to loop the chains around Corona, but the dark stallion just smiled. Abruptly, streams of bluish-white light seemed to jet out of his form, flaring outward violently. The chains holding him were altered, their substance changing from golden metal to black, and the pegasi were knocked back. Corona flexed his muscles and shattered the now-weakened chain links, the metal itself crumbling as it fell off him.
Apollo, Selene and Celestia all advanced on him, their horns sparking. Corona chuckled. "Against three cosmic ponies, I cannot prevail. Luckily, I'm full of tricks. Come find me, foals: I will be waiting alongside the Nightmare."
Corona's light became a blinding flash, and then he was gone.
✶ ✶ ✶
History does not record what took place in the forest surrounding the castle of the pony sisters, the forest known today as Everfree. Princess Celestia could not even begin to speak of it without weeping uncontrollably, and so that part of the legend only says that the heroes faced unnatural monstrosities. Corona had misused the Elements of Harmony to create a place where normal creatures turned fearsome and ugly, and hardened against normal magic.
Only one thing is known for certain, one thing that shall never be forgotten: the great sacrifice that was made there.
✶ ✶ ✶
Once, as a young colt aboard the good ship Percheron, Starbuck had been on deck during a terrible storm. The Percheron had bucked like a horse itself, threatening to fling everypony overboard as massive winds tore at her sails and choppy waters pounded her sides. Starbuck had held onto the rigging for dear life, certain that at any moment he'd be tossed overboard.
Now, that memory seemed comparatively calm.
The hydra was further away now but still chasing them, making enraged trumpeting noises that reverberated through the forest. The dragon was circling above, blasting the treetops indiscriminately with blistering jets of fire. The trees themselves reached with their branches and clawed at the ponies as they fled. The ground shook with every step of the Ursa Major, which was bounding ahead of them to cut them off. The bushes shivered, and Starbuck caught glimpses of the cockatrices slithering between the rustling leaves. The ground was becoming noticeably sloped as they galloped on, and Starbuck shouted to the King. "Your Majesty! There's a steep canyon ahead! We've got to be careful!"
The hydra's heads reared up above the treeline. Apollo let loose another of one of his sunbolts, which shot out of his horn and struck the distant target. The hydra roared, one head stunned, but the others kept focused on the ponies, and the beast kept its pursuit. The Ursa Major reached out with a paw that could have leveled a house, uprooting a huge swath of trees as it swung towards them. Celestia's horn shone, and the behemoth creature itself was hefted into the air. With great strain, Celestia flung the Ursa Major back, sending it tumbling down the slope. Apollo let loose multiple sunbolts, each one momentarily illuminating the forest as if it were day. The dragon swooped down low to take advantage of a break in the trees, firing a direct jet of flame at the ponies. The heat from it struck Starbuck like a wave, stunning him.
Starbuck cowered, but Celestia used her horn, diverting the flames before they reached the ponies. The trees around them ignited, their twisted faces becoming even more horrifying as they screeched and caught fire. At that moment the cockatrices leapt out of their now-burning leafy cover, lunging at them with shrill cries. With only a second to react, Starbuck suddenly recalled an old horn trick, one of the few he'd learned. He shut his eyes and focused his energy, remembering the disorientation spell.
Abruptly, the cockatrices staggered. A few even collided with one another. The disorientation spell had made them momentarily forget which direction was which, although it wouldn't last long. It was only dumb luck that none of them had been able to focus their petrifying gazes on any of the ponies.
"We have to keep going!" shouted Starbuck. "Your Majesty, please!"
Apollo's armor was cracked, his body battered and bruised, but the King was standing his ground, laughing out loud. He fired bolt after bolt at the hydra, at the dragon, at the cockatrices, at any hostile target he could find. His whole body was glowing golden now, not just his horn, and it looked as if he were prevailing. "Come at me, you devils! Come and taste the sun's sweet fire! Who wants some next!?"
The Ursa Major was scrabbling back up the slope, violently uprooting and leveling trees in its rampage. Celestia was fighting to push it back, but it would not relent. Starbuck squinted and peered beyond the treeline, to where the slope gave way to the canyon. There was a rope bridge there, frayed but otherwise intact. Getting across it would stop the Ursa Major and the hydra, at least.
"Your Majesty, we've got to make it across the canyon! Please, come along!"
It seemed as though Apollo would not listen, and then the golden pony relented and galloped away, catching up with Celestia and Starbuck. The three of them sprinted for the edge of the trees, struggling to outpace the creatures behind them. The monsters pursuing them were letting loose savage howls, and the air was acrid and thick with smoke from the burning trees. Starbuck was the first to clear the trees, and he caught sight of a figure on the other end of the rope bridge.
The dark stallion leered at the heroes, then in a quick motion, bit through the ropes holding the bridge up. He kicked at the planks and the rope snapped, severing the bridge completely. Starbuck dug his hooves into the ground to try to halt his momentum, tumbling head over hooves until he was out of slope and he had one horrible, screaming moment of freefall. The canyon yawned beneath him as he plummeted, and then in one sweeping movement, Celestia was under him, stopping his descent. Starbuck had the wind knocked out of him by the landing, and he nearly fell off her, but Celestia held him tight with her magic. The cosmic pony flapped her huge wings and soared up out of the canyon, and Starbuck gave a whoop of joy as they escaped. In that moment, it was nice to just be alive.
The joy was short-lived. Celestia alighted near the edge of the slope just as Apollo arrived, and the various creatures chasing them were closing in. Smoke and billowing ash was coming down all around them. In a few moments, there would be no escape.
"Listen, you two!" said Starbuck. "Fly across the canyon and get to the castle. I'll stay here and buy you a few minutes!"
"NO! We are not leaving you!" exclaimed Celestia. “I will carry you!”
"Listen to me! You two have to go on! I'm an ordinary pony, I'll just slow you down!"
"You've never slowed me down," Celestia said softly. "You're the wind beneath my wings."
The monsters were mere paces away from them, and the fire wasn't far behind. Apollo looked at the two of them, then his horn flashed. Starbuck was abruptly teleported across the canyon to the far side. He swayed, momentarily dizzy.
"Fly to him," said Apollo. "Hurry! I will make my stand here."
"Father! No!" cried Celestia. "I won't leave you! Don't do this!"
"Do I have to teleport you as well? GO! I will join you!!" shouted Apollo.
"Celestia, my child. Hear me now; these are my final words to you. Legend speaks of a sixth Element of Harmony, said to be ever near to the other five. It will only appear to the just, so I believe Corona has not found it. If you can draw it out, you will have power over all of them. I know you will find that power, and that you will do what must be done. I believe in you. Be happy with him, Celestia, and look after my kingdom."
"Daddy..." Celestia's voice cracked. "I love you. Please don't leave me. I can't go on without you! DON'T LEAVE ME!"
Apollo nuzzled his daughter's cheek. "I shall live on in your heart. Now go! FLY!"
Celestia kissed her father, then spread her mighty wings and leapt off the cliff. It felt as though her heart were breaking. Behind her, she could hear the air crackling as Apollo prepared another round of sunbolts. He heard him laugh as the beasts confronted him.
"HAVE AT THEE THEN!" shouted Apollo triumphantly. "REMEMBER THIS MOMENT! TODAY YOU SEE THE TRUE SPIRIT OF EQUESTRIA!"
Celestia reached the other side of the canyon, landing roughly next to Starbuck. There was no time left. With her horn she created a deflecting bubble just big enough to shield the two of them, and then --
"NOW, BEHOLD! THE! DAWN!!!" boomed Apollo, with a final, victorious laugh.
And then there was light, boundless light, and heat even greater than that of the fire. The canyon was rocked by a boom bigger and deeper than anything Starbuck had ever heard, a noise that was felt in his bones just as much as heard in his ears. The whole scene was lit up as if the day had arrived. As if a miniature star had ignited into being on the cliff.
"What's happening!?" shouted Starbuck, his eyes shut tight. "Where's the King?"
Celestia did not speak. A shockwave of debris hit Celestia's bubble, rocks and boulders and bits of tree, and then the entire cliff face lurched and began to slide. The false daylight faded, and as he and Celestia struggled towards higher ground, Starbuck looked to where Apollo had been.
The devastation was staggering. The monsters had somehow survived, but all of them were battered and charred by the blast, and the ones that weren't laid out on the ground or falling with the rocks were retreating in fear. The place where Apollo had stood was simply gone, reduced to a huge blackened crater in the crumbling cliff face. Dislodged boulders and trees tumbled down into the abyss. There was no sign of the King.
They found a safe place where the ground was level and solid, and stared at the canyon.
"We have to go," Celestia said hoarsely. "We have to -- we --"
But the princess's legs gave way and she went down, her body heaving with sobs.
✶ ✶ ✶
They slept there, for neither had the strength to go any further.
Celestia cried in her sleep, and Starbuck pressed against her side and did his best to comfort her. The unmoving moon hung yellow and ugly and huge in the western sky, its light glimmering on the leaves of the forest. The endless night was growing colder and colder. Their breath was now visible on the air. Starbuck heard stirrings amongst the underbrush, but curiously, nothing more sprang out to harrow them. He didn't even see so much as a single creature. It seemed Apollo's sacrifice had been enough to tame the monsters of the forest.
"I'll defend her," Starbuck said to the silence. "I swore it, and I'll live up to that. I'll see this through to the end."
✶ ✶ ✶
It was impossible to say how much time had passed; Starbuck had stood guard vigilantly over Celestia for hours upon hours, but eventually even the stallion succumbed to fatigue and slept, curled around Celestia's body. When they awoke, the night looked just the same. The stars twinkled in the heavens, just as locked in place as the moon.
"Are you hurt?" Celestia's voice was controlled, resolute.
"Banged up. Nothing serious. Wait, Celestia -- you don't have to --"
But the Princess was already marching on. "Let's go, before anything else tries to stop us."
"Look, if you need a minute to -- I don't know, just --" Starbuck stammered. Celestia turned and kissed him deeply, eyes shut tight. It was a few moments before their lips parted. The princess rested her head against Starbuck's neck, and Starbuck could feel the beating of her heart.
Onward they went. It seemed to take an eternity to traverse the altered terrain around the castle. What Starbuck remembered to be small patches of trees had grown into unruly thickets, and shallow ponds had become marshes of thick, bubbling black muck. For hours or perhaps longer they trekked without stopping. Celestia's horn was steadily bright, providing both illumination and sufficient magical force to clear the deadfall and low-hanging branches around them. Starbuck wondered how much magic she had in reserve, but it didn't seem to matter. Her determination had become absolute, unswerving and wordless.
Fog was gathering. It covered only the ground at first, then gradually obscured the trees, and finally the sky. It was thick and earthen-smelling, and the dirt beneath Starbuck's hooves felt clammy and loose. The sensation was somehow gruesome, like the soil of a burial ground. Starbuck could see the hazy glow of Celestia's horn up ahead, and so he followed that. He didn't question how she could know which direction to follow in the fog; he just trusted in her.
She was getting rather far ahead, though. "Celestia, slow down, I can't keep up with you!"
And then, Starbuck realized, he couldn't see the glow anymore. The fog was so dense around him that he could barely even see his own legs and tail. The fog was moving as well, circling him in slow, patient curls. Starbuck took an uncertain step, then another, and called out again to Celestia. If she heard, she didn't reply.
Something else was wrong. It was as if the fog were creeping right into his mind as well, slipping over his memories, making everything dim and strange and forgotten. Starbuck shook his head, shook it again, closed his eyes and grunted, trying to stay focused. What was happening? Where was he? Who had he been following a moment before? It had been someone important, but...
The earth beneath his feet gave way to something else. Wooden planks. A deck? The fog thinned above, and Starbuck thought he saw masts and rigging, swaying gently in the mist. Was that the salty bite of sea air reaching his nose? What was happening?
Ahead were two shapes, gaining distinction and form as he trotted closer. One was a dark stallion, somehow familiar, with a pale mane.
The other was a ship's wheel...
✶ ✶ ✶
Celestia walked through the fog, the light of her horn flickering and faltering. It wasn't that she was running out of magic; it was...something else. There had been someone behind her, but she'd forgotten who it was. In a moment she forgot there had been anyone at all. Her horn's magic had been homing in on a specific place, but she couldn't recall where, or...anything...
She was in the palace. Luna stood before her, her beloved sister, and beyond Luna were Father and Mother, proud and lovely on their thrones. The bright light of the afternoon shone through the many colors of the tall stained-glass windows, filling the court with a spectrum of lovely hues. The noble mares and stallions were all gathered to honor the royal family, to celebrate and revel in the kingdom's splendor. Celestia smiled, and her sister warmly returned her smile.
"Isn't it lovely, big sister?" exclaimed Luna. "And just think, you've arrived just in time for the dance!"
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"She's called the Aethon," said the dark stallion. "The very first of a new class. Swifter than any ship on the sea, yet tough enough to handle all the ocean's fury. She'll take you anywhere you need to go, and she won't bend or break when the going gets tough. She was supposed to lead the fleet to the new colonies...but...well, it's such a shame."
"What's a shame?" Starbuck asked.
The dark stallion gestured to the ship's wheel. "She can't go without someone to steer her. We need a captain, yet no pony's up to the task."
"Well, I'd love to captain a beauty like this..." Starbuck patted the wheel, chuckling. "But I'm just a navigator, and I haven't even done much of that in years. I get lost in my own shop, practically. I mean, that's a joke, but..."
"That's too bad," the dark stallion said. "There's so much to see out there, so many unexplored lands to discover beyond the sea. Places where no pony has ever set hoof, where wonders and adventures await just over the next wave. Whoever commands this ship would be living a life most only dream of. But if you're just a lowly navigator, I suppose we'll just have to look elsewhere."
Starbuck gazed at the ship's wheel. "I..."
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"Have you met my fiance?" Luna giggled. "Celestia, this is Starbuck. Starbuck, this is my big sister!"
"It is a great honor, Your Highness." The stallion standing beside Luna knelt politely with a smile. "Your sister is truly a gracious and lovely mare, and I am blessed to have her love."
"The honor is all mine, Starbuck," said Celestia. "I think it's wonderful that you two have found each other! Luna deserves nothing but happiness."
"By the way, sister, who's accompanying you tonight?" Luna glanced behind Celestia. "Are you here all alone...?"
"Why, I...I think I had someone with me, but...well. How peculiar...I suppose I am here alone."
"Well, that's too bad! I wish you could join us out there, but this dance is for couples only! Maybe one of the nobles could dance with you...?" Luna gestured to the others gathered in the court, then grinned at Celestia. "Go on, ask one!"
Celestia looked to the nobles, but they were all paired off. The stallions regarded her with distant pity as they danced with their partners.
"Gosh, that's rude of them!" remarked Luna. "Well, maybe you could dance with one of your friends! They're around here somewhere, aren't they?"
"I don't think your sister has any friends," said Starbuck. "She's kind of solitary, isn't she?"
"Well, we can't just abandon her!" said Luna. "Will you dance with her, Starbuck? Please, go ahead! I won't be the slightest bit jealous."
Starbuck looked Celestia up and down, then turned back to Luna. "Yeah, I'm...just not really comfortable with that, Luna. You're the only one I really want to dance with, here."
"Why not me?" Celestia spoke up. Normally she kept such questions to herself, but she couldn't quell her curiosity. "Is there something wrong with me?"
"I don't know, Princess...it's just...you seem so lonely. And stuck-up. And full of yourself." Starbuck regarded her with open disdain now. "And all you ever do is push the sun around. I mean, what everypony really wants to see is Luna's beautiful night. Why do you even bother? Honestly, you shouldn't even show your face here. Luna's the only princess here anypony really cares about."
Celestia was shocked by what Starbuck said, and took a few steps back. "How...how can you say that? Luna, how can you let him say that?"
"Well..." Luna chuckled. "You know, it's really kind of true. Father and Mother and I always felt sorry for you, so we treated you nice, but...well, I hate to say it, but Starbuck's basically right. I don't know, Celestia, I mean...maybe you should just go."
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"Really, when you think about it, you probably won't have another chance like this." The dark stallion gently thumped the wheel. "Though perhaps maybe that's better. Maybe you're more comfortable living your predictable life in your safe little map shop, scribbling the outlines of lands you'll never visit, roads you'll never trot along, seas you'll never sail...and if some customer starts telling you about their adventure? You can just laugh at them and feel glad that you never took such foolish risks! And you'll live to a ripe old age. Isn't that what every pony really wants? A predictable life?"
"No," Starbuck said. "Never."
"Then seize that wheel, and set sail!" the dark stallion snapped, a note of impatience creeping into his voice. "Will you take hold of your destiny, or will you languish? You must make your choice!"
Starbuck looked to the hazy horizon, then to the ship's wheel, and he smiled. "Thank you. For the offer, I mean. But I'm afraid I have to say no. My mark may be what it is...but that doesn't mean I always have to do what I'm good at."
Corona bared his teeth. "You should have left it well enough alone. You should have been content with your delusions and miniscule dreams. Now, Starbuck...you will suffer."
And in the instant before the first of Corona's blasts hit him, the fog lifted and Starbuck remembered everything.
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Luna and Starbuck danced in the center of the court. All the other nobles were bedazzled by the graceful couple. Celestia couldn't even bear to watch. As the nobles stamped their hoofs in applause, Celestia walked slowly to the thrones, her head drooping. "Is it true, Mother? Father? Is that what everypony truly thinks of me?"
"Of course, Celestia," her mother said oh-so-casually, as if it were common sense. "Now get out of my way, you useless foal, you're blocking my view."
Celestia collapsed at the base of the throne, choking back further tears. Both her mother and father were staring enrapt at Luna, with bland, stupid smiles. Celestia looked to Apollo, afraid to ask. She thought perhaps her heart would break if her father said the same thing as her mother.
But then the King looked her in the eye. He wasn't looking at Luna anymore, and he didn't look blithely happy anymore. Tears glimmered in his golden eyes.
"It's a lie, Celestia," he whispered. "It's all a lie. I love you now and forever."
Celestia's eyes widened, memories rushing back to her. “Daddy...”
"Goodbye, angel," her father said, even as he faded away to nothingness. The dream shattered, and then came Nightmare Moon's piercing, furious scream:
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Wave after wave of blasting, burning energy scathed Starbuck's body. With the bluish-white light seething around his black outline, Corona resembled the eclipse that was his flank mark. The energy was more than just heat; it seemed to weaken Starbuck, sap his will somehow. Corona pounded him repeatedly with it, and when the dark stallion paused, Starbuck still managed to hoist himself up on his forelegs and grin his lopsided grin.
"How about this, eh? You're a reasonable horse. Let's forget all about this master plan of yours and just go have a couple of brews together, and talk it all out like civilized ponyfolk. No? Well...it was worth a shot.”
"Here's my reply," replied Corona, and another wave of blasts seared Starbuck.
"Really, is that all?" Starbuck said, laughing despite the brutal amount of pain his body was in. "Seriously, haven't you any other attacks? Are you really just a one-trick pony?"
"Better one good trick than a lot of useless ones."
"Well...I do know one more." Starbuck summoned what energy he had left to his horn, recalling just how to shape the spell. "Never been much good at it, but it's useful in a pinch. And I'd say this situation is fairly pinchy. Wouldn't you?"
Corona crouched, expecting an attack. Starbuck winked at him, and simply teleported.
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It was frustrating. The Elements of Harmony were right there, mounted on stone stands, but Celestia couldn't pay any attention to them. Every ounce, every fibre of her effort was flowing through her horn, manifesting as rippling white light which flowed like water and held back the roiling, bubbling blackness that Nightmare Moon fired continually at her. The chamber shook with the violent resonance of the two opposing magics.
"Why? Why did you have to come, sister? Why could you not leave me alone? Now Father is gone and YOU SHALL FOLLOW HIM!" screeched Nightmare Moon. "You brought this on our kingdom, you killed him!! Never me, it was all you! ALWAYS YOU!"
"You've broken the rules of all that we stand for," said Celestia. "And I will not let you destroy our land."
"This kingdom turned its back on me! You turned your back on me! You don't know what it's like to be alone, to be forsaken! BUT YOU WILL!"
"This isn't you." Celestia felt fresh tears sting her eyes. "I cannot believe this is truly you!"
Suddenly, Celestia felt Nightmare Moon's attack halt, and looked up. Starbuck had teleported into the chamber. He was burnt and battered, but still alive. Nightmare Moon was walking toward him.
"Hello, Luna." Starbuck grinned weakly. "Quite a new look you're sporting."
"Who did this to you?" Nightmare Moon asked. "Tell me now, foal!"
"Well, that would be your dreamy boyfriend. He doesn't play very nice. Did you know he's using you to get revenge on Cavalis? That's right, Luna … all that power, and you're still just a pawn."
"You're lying!" shouted Nightmare Moon. "Corona showed me who I truly am! He freed me!"
Celestia focused on the Elements of Harmony. Starbuck was giving her an opening, and she had to use it. She probed the artifacts with her mind. Where was the sixth? What had her father meant? They seemed inert, nothing more than ancient relics. There was magic, distant old magic, but how could she release it?
"Freed you, did he?" Starbuck said. "Looks more to me like he put you to work. You wanted to be happy, you wanted to be loved...do you have any of those things in this form?"
"I...I don't care what you say! You're working with my sister, trying to deceive me!" Nightmare Moon stamped her hooves. "If he hurt you, then it's only because you tried to interfere!"
Starbuck began to speak, but he was interrupted by the arrival of another. Corona laughed, planting his hoof atop Starbuck's back. "Silly me. I thought perhaps you had teleported somewhere smart, like far from here. Little did I think you'd send yourself, in your battered state, into the heart of battle. A very stupid choice, Starbuck."
"Wait!" Nightmare Moon advanced. "He's mine --"
"SILENCE!" Corona shouted, glancing off to the side momentarily. Nightmare Moon closed her mouth. Starbuck frowned, looking around to see what had caught Corona's attention.
Celestia turned to look at the others, then got in front of the Elements of Harmony. "You're finished, Corona! I've learned the secret of the Elements!"
"Oh, please. Dear, don't even try to bluff me. I'm far better at the game than you." Corona made his sideward glance again, just for an instant. "Nightmare Moon? Dispose of your sister, please."
"Time to end this!" Nightmare Moon charged at Celestia, letting loose another volley of dark magic. Celestia didn't quite meet it head-on, and she was knocked back by the overflow of energy.
"DO IT!" shouted Corona. "You hate her! You DESPISE her! You want nothing more than to see her ERASED FROM THE WORLD!"
And again came the sideward glance, and Starbuck caught it this time. Summoning strength he didn't know he had, Starbuck groaned and pushed and forced himself to stand on all four hooves. He hobbled over to Luna's ornate, tall vanity mirror. Every time Corona made that quick little glance, he was looking at Nightmare Moon's reflection in the mirror. Corona noticed what Starbuck was doing, but it was already too late.
Starbuck braced himself, took a deep breath, then pushed up on his forelegs and bucked the mirror, shattering the glass.
Corona and Nightmare Moon both screamed simultaneously as the link, the curse Corona had placed on her to control her, fell in a hundred glittering shards on the stone floor. Nightmare Moon staggered, dazed. Her monstrous form remained unchanged, but now she seemed uncertain. Celestia quickly diverted her magical energy directly towards Corona. He repelled it with his own, but it was enough to occupy him for at least a few seconds.
"Luna," Starbuck said. "You listen to me, and you listen good, all right? You chose to be jealous of your sister and her lot. Corona might've twisted you further, but you chose that path. If you want to, you can choose another one now. I believe in you."
"But you don't love me, and you never will," Nightmare Moon said. "You'll only ever love Celestia."
"Celestia has my love," said Starbuck, "But will you accept my friendship?"
"Your friendship...?" Nightmare Moon hesitated. "What good to me is friendship?"
Celestia's power overtook Corona's, and with a bang, the dark stallion was knocked off his hooves and slammed against the wall. But it was a momentary victory; Corona just stood up again, eyes blazing with hatred. "I...will never...be...defeated!"
"Sometimes a friend's what you need, not a lover,” Starbuck said. “Love's grand and beautiful and all that...but friendship can sometimes heal wounds that love can't. You might say friendship's like a kind of magic."
And suddenly, there it was.
Celestia closed her eyes, and it took surprisingly little effort. Just one little tiny spark. It leaped from her horn to the Elements of Harmony, and the Elements resonated as their ancient essence stirred. The sixth Element manifested in the air directly above the other five. Celestia opened her eyes and looked up at it, and it was no surprise to her that the stone bore Starbuck's mark.
"It's impossible!" shrieked Corona. "In all my years, I never found the sixth! How did you --"
"Don't worry," Celestia said. "You'll have plenty of time to figure it out."
The glow of the six Elements surged upwards, becoming a helical ribbon of multicolored energy. Celestia knew she was controlling it, and yet it felt like something much more was happening, something joyous and strange and beyond her ken. It was old magic, the kind not seen since the dawn of Equestria. The helix arched towards the ceiling, then curved downward, spiraling directly towards Corona. The dark stallion reared up and screamed, hurling a few more blasts towards the helix, but his power was nothing compared to the Elements of Harmony. The many-colored swirl of light encompassed him, muting his screams and curses, and then shot upward, taking him with it. The light punched right through the stony ceiling, then burst through the cloud cover, all the way up into the sky.
When it dispersed, there were four stars in the sky in a place where none had been before -- a new constellation in the shape of Corona's mark. The dark stallion's last howls echoed briefly in the chamber, and then there was silence. The usurper of Cavalis was gone.
But the story wasn't over. Nightmare Moon still stood before them, and the moon had not set. She panted, looking like the cornered animal she was, her dark power gathering around her now.
"Luna," Starbuck said. "It's time to change back. If you don't...you know what's going to happen."
"Don't you see, both of you?" Nightmare Moon backed towards her throne. "Even without him, this is me! This is my true self! Luna is the lie! I am Nightmare Moon, and nothing has changed!"
"Father was right." Celestia felt a pang of anguish. "He warned me it might come to this. He knew what had to be done...even if it breaks my heart."
"Wait a minute, Celestia..." cautioned Starbuck. "Let's just think about this a moment."
"Then do it, sister. You must, if you have it in you!" cried Nightmare Moon. "Do it, or I will shroud this land in eternal night! Do it, or I will destroy you!"
"Celestia, stop!" shouted Starbuck. “Don't do this!”
But it was already happening. The helix of light issued forth once more from the Elements of Harmony, and this time it curved towards Nightmare Moon. Starbuck tried to move, to block it with his own body, but he was too weak to get there in time. The bright rainbow of colors encircled Nightmare Moon, enclosed her...swallowed her up. Just before it swept her away, Starbuck and Celestia heard a voice from within. Luna's normal voice. She was sobbing, terrified.
And then the energy blasted a hole through the western wall of the chamber, shooting towards a place just above the horizon. It seemed to strike the moon itself, and Starbuck thought he saw the strangest thing. It seemed as though the patterns on the moon's surface briefly resembled something altogether different -- Luna's face, in profile. But then they were simply random forms once again.
The sixth Element drifted away from the other five. It moved to Starbuck, and a tiny spark, just like the one that had summoned it, shot from the stone to Starbuck's horn.
Then the stone was gone. The five remaining Elements lay still, just as they had for countless centuries before, and would for centuries to come.
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Epilogue: 1,000 Years Later
The Nightmare was finished, and the dawn had come at last.
Luna stirred, then opened her eyes with a gasp. Her thoughts were clear for the first time in ages, crystal-clear. Celestia stood before her, and behind her sister stood the six ponies who had saved her. A moment before they'd all been her adversaries, challenging her will and her fury. It had been just seconds ago, and yet it felt like a half-remembered dream ... a dream of madness. It seemed as if someone else had spoken those angry words, done those hateful deeds. But it wasn't; it was all her. Luna got to her feet, her heart heavy. The six ponies chosen by Celestia had shattered the thousand-year spell, but it changed none of what she'd done.
"Princess Luna," said Celestia, approaching her. Celestia was nearly the size of Apollo now, and just as imposing. "It has been a thousand years since I have seen you like this."
A spark of momentary panic shot through Luna. Celestia was going to imprison her again! The elder sister looked upon the younger with an inscrutable eye, and Luna quivered and fought the urge to run, to fly away. Instead, she knelt, head low, ready to accept whatever punishment awaited her.
Yet to her surprise, Celestia knelt as well. Now Luna saw her sister's face more closely. There was true compassion there, and sorrow; Luna just hadn't seen it before. She hadn't wanted to see it.
"Time to put our differences behind us. We were meant to rule together, little sister. Will you accept my friendship?"
Luna thought of all the things that had passed between them. It felt like another lifetime now. All the hurt, the petty jealousy, the twisting of her power into a form cloaked in hatred and darkness. Somewhere within her, even now, was the sorrow and frustration that had made her into the Nightmare.
But this was a new age, and perhaps a new beginning. The Nightmare was gone, and for the first time in a millennium, Luna felt like she could let go of all that. If she chose to. Her sister was so much older now, all grown up. As Luna looked into Celestia's eyes, she knew that Celestia had suffered just as much in her absence as she had. The hurt was there, etched deep, behind her mask of serenity.
Luna leapt forth to embrace Celestia, the tears flowing freely. "I'm so sorry! I missed you so much, big sister!"
Now Celestia wept as well, though they were tears of joy. "I missed you too."
Luna pressed close against her sister, feeling her warmth, the first warmth of another body in a thousand lonely years. The first warmth to reach her heart. No, that wasn't entirely true; another's warmth had reached her as well. Luna looked past her sister to the unicorn, Twilight Sparkle. Twilight smiled at her, and Luna returned the smile.
And just like that, all was well again.
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Drawn by the pegasi guard, the royal coach descended through the clouds with Celestia and Luna aboard. They would soon arrive at a new town near the base of Mount Destrier. It was called Ponyville, and it had not existed in the kingdom Luna remembered. It seemed a great deal had changed. As they drifted down through the clouds, Luna turned to Celestia.
"I know you have a great many questions, and there is much to tell you," said Celestia. "For now, let us join Twilight Sparkle and her new friends, and celebrate your return."
"Just one, big sister...what happened to Starbuck?"
"After our battle, Starbuck and I parted ways." Celestia sighed. "He did not agree with my sealing you away, and though he still loved me, he could not forgive me. I wanted more than anything for him to stay, but I knew he could no longer be happy with me...so I let him go. It was the price I paid for my mistakes."
Celestia wiped at her eyes. "But he fared well, Luna. He found himself a new ship and set sail, exploring and charting all the far away lands beyond the sea. He lived the life that his heart most desired...and when he was old he returned to me, with his wife and children and grandchildren. I promised Starbuck that I would always watch over his family and love them as my own, and so I gave them a home in the castle. They have dwelled in Canterlot for generations, and I still watch over them to this day."
"I want to meet his family," said Luna. "I want to be a friend to them."
Celestia smiled. "You already have, little sister. And I know you will be her friend."