One part of growing up is realizing that the idols you've constructed of gold are merely gilded granite.
Excerpts from the Candid Sayings of Celestia as recorded by her friends
The nature of Celestia's stay among the unicorns had shattered that evening. Phantom motioned to two of the others to take her away before he turned to his own path. They used their bodies to press Celestia back, shouldering and nudging the mare the other direction. She resisted as water resists a brush, holding still and trying to seep through the cracks, all to keep her eyes on the silver light of magic that took Luna away. But Phantom's unicorns won out and she lost track of where the light faded.
Her heart sank deep into her chest, finding a hole in her stomach to settle. Dread and fear raced through her mind and chased away clear thought. Too sudden, too fast did everything change, too much to know where to resist and where to comply. Celestia let herself be guided for that lack of knowing what else to do, and her chaperonesthat title unbefitting them now, were they even friendly?took her into a tiny, dark room where they stayed and watched, trading shifts through the night. The herd had to sleep , after all.
But Celestia found none. Curled into a tight ball atop her bed, she clutched the mattress of leaves between her forelimbs and stared into empty space, shivering. The first night she ever spent truly alone; her insides ached at that fact with a visceral intensity, almost physical, as if her flanks had been slit open. In the open fields of the forest, Earth ponies always slept next to one another. Coming here, Luna had always been at her side. Luna was gone, now. Life as she knew it gone, with a threat than hung over her head like a boulder. Slavery, her father had called this feeling, stripped of choice to go home, forced to compliance. She longed for another, longed for Luna, to be here to ease her suffering. Occasionally, she cooed softly to herself to nurse the pain.
Confused, tired, and scared, Celestia could only wallow as the hours passed, each one feeling as if she was slowly mauled. After a time seeming an instant and eternity all at once, the curtain parted and Phantom Spell stood at the door, sunlight streaking in through the cracks.
"Get up." His voice had an unusual wariness, confidence that she'd follow orders lost and replaced with an edge of threat.
Without hesitation, Celestia got to her hooves and headed to the door in a determined trot. Phantom came as a relief, ending the hell of the night. She'd meet his challenge head on and take her first steps through this new situation. In grim silence, she watched and he led.
Their hooves pounded across the dirt and over the roots of the forest floor, each one having their own reason for the impatience gait. Phantom took a route leading to one of the larger tree-homes of the unicorns, composed of six or more converted forest woods. As a student, Celestia never ventured inward, having no business to be at the meeting hall of the craft leaders . But as what she was now, whatever that might be, she'd make her debut.
Phantom filed in and held the curtain. Fearless, Celestia hopped over the threshold and into the magically lit interior, though as her eyes adjusted to the paler light, she hesitated. The hall reminded her of an oversized classroom, same sloped floor, same indentations for seats, only the focal point was the dead center of the room rather than one side. However, what made her hesitate was that it was filled to capacity. Most were varying degrees of old, when compared to herself. Mares, stallions, coats of all natural colors, and many speaking in a turmoil that hushed and died at her entrance. All eyes turned to her, and her pink mane, and her pure white body. Celestia shrank back from their stare. Her head lowered and her hind quarters bumped against the wall at her back peddle.
"Forward, filly." Phantom's harsh tones cut the silence and echoed off of the walls.
Taking a hesitant step, she felt every grim face follow. Mane drooped forward, she did her best to hide behind bangs of hair.
"To the center." He directed in that same tone and Celestia took a seat on her haunches there.
Off to the side, Phantom gave a nod. The lights dimmed, the crowd disappeared behind a veil of black, all except the center focal point, and one lone mare hoisting a bright, white light high toward the ceiling.
Celestia considered her old as well, though not as old as some. An unadorned tan coat with brown hooves, mane, and nose prompted Celestia to dub her Sandy. Sandy's horn shimmered with a faint magenta from the hoisted light and continued to shimmer subtly as she questioned. "Would you please state your name?" Like her coat, her voice was plain, though nasally in delivery.
"C-Celestia, daughter of Whip Scar and Lightning Kick, sister to Luna." Curling her tail close to her body, she scanned the darkness, trying to make out any sort of shape.
"Please, pay attention." The brown mare said with polite insistence. "Now, who are Whip Scar and Lightning Kick?"
"My . . . parents," She hesitated, unsure of what exactly was being asked. "Earth ponies from the herd that brought me."
Whispers passed back and forth around the room. The mare looked off to the side for instruction, then focused back on Celestia. "Such things are impossible. Unicorns aren't born from full blooded Earth ponies. Now, tell us what you know of your birth."
With a sigh, she closed her eyes and did her best to search her memories. Lightning and Whip had told her the story long ago, and the details had to be collected and pieced back together.
"Shaman?" Sandy repeated when Celestia came to that part. The mature mare raised her eyebrows. If she did not know the Shaman herself, she at least knew the word's meaning.
"Yes, she visited my parents and gave them a message. That I had been touched by the stars."
"And did she explain your horn?"
"Horn?" Celestia shook her head. "I was born without one."
Whispers and murmurs doubled, someone laughed and a loud hush was given. Celestia frantically looked left and right, trying to make out anything among the darkness.
"I'm afraid that's impossible. Continue, please, with your next earliest memory."
Celestia sighed in frustration and began to relate her life story as best she could recall. Perhaps in the telling, some may be convinced and release her sister. But periodically, especially on the subjects of the stars, horns, or her parentage, Sandy would interrupt and calmly stress that such things just didn't work that way. Each interruption threw Celestia off balance again in her recall.
The back and forth lasted hours. Fatigue set in from lack of sleep and blurred her concentration. Thoughts became fuzzy and her eyes burned. Losing attention, Celestia got lost in a daze and wondered when the questions would end, or if it would drone on for yet hours more.
Finally, Phantom raised the lights and stepped past Sandy. "That will be enough for today. Celestia is past usefulness here." With a gesture, he motioned for Celestia to follow.
Groggily, she stretched stiff limbs and swayed as she got to her feet, following with lids that occasionally closed in an inescapable desire to nap.
She snapped awake from her sleep walk, with a mane frizzed in surprise to find Phantom glaring at her. "Huh, wha-!?"
"Despite your predicament, you still share our protection, our food, and out shelter. As such, you will be expected to share in labor, like all others. Until you are made well, I will dictate your tasks. I need not remind you what refusal will cost."
"No, sir." Her gaze fell away, thoughts carried on fatigue and daydream.
"Today, I expect you to till these earth paths." With a gesture of his nose and pointing of his horn, he singled out several winding trails where horseshoes compressed dirt. "Make it appear as no pony has tread over the forest. Make it disappear and keep us hidden and safe. Food will be brought shortly."
Without a further word, Phantom trotted away, returning to the craft hall.
Celestia gave a broad yawn at his back, half in need and half in contempt. When she closed her mouth, she froze an instant, noticing that the chaperones two mares who whispered to each other but spoke seldom to her had seen the act.
Fine by her, she thought while drawing will into her horn. Needed the time to think anyways.
The task moved at a snail's pace. The forest was complicated in its chaos, several times did one of the chaperones point to a mistake she missed in tired inattention. Pausing, she rubbed her eyes. The sun traveled lower on the horizon but would not set for some time. Upturning dirt and rearranging plants took little energy or concentration, so she reserved as much of her mind as she could to assessing the situation.
She wanted Luna back.
That was the thought that kept returning. She wanted Luna back, and wanted to take them both home.
And to nap, though that was more an immediate concern. She kept circling back over those few facts, fatigue ever growing.
By an act of mercy, the Sun when it finally set and Celestia whispered thanks to the sky turning orange. They finally led her back to bed and she collapsed into the soft leaf mattress, nuzzling it like a friend. Yet, it was not a friend. Celestia slept, but only in fits. Anxious feelings jolted her awake several times, and she clutched the bed tight between her limbs as she tried to fall back into dreams. Until then, she passed time in thought. Celestia knew what she wanted. Knew her situation. Now, she merely had to plan to reach her goals.
The tasks Phantom set her on would work to her benefit. The unicorns had to care for Luna. At the least, taking water and food to wherever they hid and imprisoned her. With an ear to the ground and a careful eye while she worked, Celestia could construct a mental map of where mysterious food was going and what different trees were being used for. That would narrow down where they kept her sister. Just like looking for Ebon.
It seemed reasonable enough. With that in mind, she drifted off.
Phantom Spell woke her again the next morning, and the day unfolded much as it had before. This time, the meeting hall was nearly empty. Far fewer old ponies sat and watched, though what few were there still disappeared all the same when Sandy hoisted her light.
"Tell us again of your earliest memory."
Already feeling the routine and bored with it, Celestia drew on her vague recollections of yesterday, and rushed out the same answer. "I chased a colt in a game, yelling that I was a dragon"
"Stop!" Sandy's nasally voice cut her off, then resumed in polite insistence. "Dig deep, reexamine your memories, and tell us again without drawing on what you said yesterday. Add to it what you can."
Celestia sighed at the task and searched her mind. "Sunny day, I was just a little filly and chasing a colt, Painted Hoof I think was his name . . ." And from memory again, she began to relate her life story.
Startled, she bit her sentence off.
"Are you sure you didn't see a horn on Luna's head?"
"Very," Celestia gritted her teeth. The interruptions were already getting under her skin.
"I am sure such a detail is easy to miss. Please continue."
But even as Celestia did so, Sandy questioned the veracity of almost everything, interrupted her even more than yesterday. To make matters worse, Sandy began to give suggestions to the story, ones she hinted were more plausible, but not going so far as insisting. Everything ground to a halt every time she yelled, "Stop!"
And on and on it went until Celestia began to mumble her answers in sleepy exhaustion, only half listening.
"That will be enough for, today." Phantom stepped forward, raising the lights. "She has use elsewhere." He guided her out of the hall, leading her to a new chore. "Tree mending." He gestured to a thick trunk that housed a few rooms and a path to the canopy. "This one has over grown its last correction and is now at a risk of being found. When you are done with this one, there are others. Corona Blaze will show the rest." Without saying more, he left her to the chaperones.
The pattern repeated. A new day rolled around. A day after. A day after that. Sandy questioned her in the morning over her past and Phantom took her to some new task in the afternoon. Each time the sun fell, Celestia added to her mental map and tried to think of more ways to narrow where Luna was hid.
The pattern repeated. And grew worse. Sandy threw Celestia off balance more and more with interrupting suggestions, and the process wore her down. Phantom's task became more and more challenging as he tailored better to her level of skill. The map grew in size and complexity as she added location after location. Sleep alone seldom brought rest.
Celestia shrieked in frustration, a high pitched, girlish screech that hurt her ears as it was loosed. Hurtling the bed against the wall of her room, she screamed again. One chaperone tensed, and the other started awake. Tears streamed from her eyes and Celestia buried her face in her forelimbs. It's hopeless. Her mental map descended into fog. The details converged, mixed, became blurred. Too much to recall, too much to keep track of, it all slipped beyond her tired grasp. The despair wound its way around her heart and sank it low. I'll never see Luna again, I'll never see home again. She bawled and felt like a tiny foal. The tears soaked her cheeks and her hooves and came unending as her voice descended into sobs and sobs carried her into another night of restless sleep.
Luna kicked and squirmed against the bindings that dragged her away. The magic-imbued roots only tightened under the struggle, painfully grinding bone on bone. Mouth pinched shut, her screams of fight came as perturbed squeaks. Summoning a spell, she sent a surge of will to her horn only to find it impeded part way there.
"Sun and Moon!" A pony cursed but she couldn't arch to see who. "She won't hold still."
"Quickly. Phantom Spell can't suppress someone of her power very long." Silver Spear's voice. Calm in delivery and matter of fact in tone.
Doubling her efforts, Luna kicked and screamed anew, surging more will to her horn and lashing out in all directions. An alien touch brushed her forehead, a nearly gentle thing. Gasping, she screamed again and heard her voice ring clear. "Noooo!"
Luna flew to her hooves, her breath panting under the exertion. The binds were gone. The hold on her magic as well. A shining blue light from the will channeled to her horn illuminated a plain and comfortable room. A bed sat at one side, sizeable and sewn with more leaves than others she had seen. Water collected from rain fed into a bowl via hollowed bamboo, smelling natural and refreshing.
The curtain to the door rustled, sunlight washed in. Silhouetted except for his gray horn, Silver Spear peered in, resolute. Seeing the midnight blue unicorn, his features softened with calm. "Luna, you are awake." He was soft-spoken and quiet as a small stream broken over a rock.
"Yes," Luna nodded, chest still heaving. "I am." Gathering her composure, she sat on her haunches and brought her tail to her side.
Turning to look outside, his horn took on a brighter glow, levitating a bowl and sending it inside as well as holding the curtain aloft. "You are likely hungry. It's been some time since you last ate." Fashioned like a large bird's nest but built from living wood, leaves still budded at the bowl's edges.
Blue eyes shimmered in lust of what she saw. Apples tucked inside, a fine variety of leaves tossed in a salad with hay sprinkled on top. Her stomach growled with the thought of hunger and she looked to Silver with embarrassment.
"You may eat as you are ready." He simply stated with a nod of his head toward the bowl. "Were you hurt in the struggle?"
Luna bent to the bowl and took a large bite from the apple. Food still chewing in her mouth, she shook her head. "No,"
"You have been confined to these quarters for the foreseeable future." From Silver, the statement came as a mere fact, carrying no veiled threat. "There is an enchantment around the walls. I suggest you don't test it."
"Okay," Luna swallowed the bite she had taken. Her stomach replied with great satisfaction.
"You may be here some time." Silver quirked his lips as if addressing a problem. "Would you like some company?"
"No, thanks." Luna shook her head. Silver was no Crescent or Ebon and she dismissed the thought of asking for either of them. What she needed most right now was time to think.
Silver Spear gave a quick nod, accepting the answer. "If you require anything, a sentry will be at the door. Knock for him. The enchantment will otherwise contain sound." Closing the curtain, Silver's hooves trotted away.
Luna took a mouthful of salad and chewed with leaves sticking to her lips.
Where was Celestia?
She sent a bright yellow light into the room and floated it like a fairy, adjusting it so it could mimic the intensity of being in forest shade at high noon. Luna replayed the events of the night before.
Celestia had just revealed the uniqueness of her heritage. Phantom Spell reacted with disbelief, then . . . that's when the roots came out of the ground. In the struggle, things became disorienting. Next thing she realized here, she woke up here.
Calling new will forth, she shaped a spell to reach out and feel along the walls and enchantment. Like the antennae of an insect, the invisible fibers swept over the room and sent back a sensation, both tactile and magical. As Silver had said, a spell had been in place to confine her, her magic, and any sound she made. A strong, thick bubble, very elastic in construction but not invincible.
Forming a new spell, Luna shaped her will into a forelimb with a needle-like hoof and pressed it against the barrier's side. It flexed and held as expected. Gradually, she pushed the hoof deeper, until the magical construct threatened to tear under the pressure.
In the thinness of the stressed bubble, she felt the second spell. Yelping, she jerked back the forelimb and nearly knocked herself over with her own magic.
"Stars and Moon!" She gasped and worked herself back to calm. A binding enchantment layered over the barrier. If the barrier is broken, the spell will swoop in and bind her legs and feet. Undoubtedly, it'd alert the sentry and she'd be subdued before she could break free.
Mulling over the thought, Luna stood up and refreshed herself on the water. At the wall, a voice caught her ear.
"I don't get it." One chatty mare said outside the tree. "Why only that other crazy one? This one Phantom just keeps locked."
Luna sipped silently and kept her ears up and angled for the sound.
"Because Phantom has a system, he always does." A stallion. Could it be the sentries? They must be changing watch. "He's just made another to fix this problem."
"Only one of them. After that pink one is helped, we got her insane sister still locked away."
"What am I, a mind reader? I can't explain everything Phantom does."
The mare laughed. "Your innocent act won't work on me. I know how you are about gossip."
A pause. "Okay, fine. I may have heard something." The voice grew quiet and Luna used a little magic to draw the sound to her ear. "They say the pink one is the older of the two. Wherever she goes, lil'sis goes. So, they help Pinky, and Blues follows."
Luna slowly sat back on her haunches, realization dawning on her. Pieces fell into place, one after the other. While Phantom kept Luna safe-but-caged, Celestia was subject to this mysterious "help." A memory from the night before became clear. If you run away or disobey me, your sister will never be seen again.
"Stars and Moon." She spat and glared at the wall where the voices came from. Phantom was using their bond to manipulate each in their own way. A sick feeling gripped her stomach and she scooted the bowl of food off to the far side of the room.
"So, wherever Celest goes, her little sister follows?" With sound confined, no reason to not voice her thoughts aloud. "Let's see what happens when little sister cries for big sister."
Using the bed as a seat, Luna started to shape a complicated spell while musing in thought. Eyes closed, and lips moving silently, she planned her escape. The first part felt easy enough.
The binding spell that sat around the bubble. If she could bring Celestia here, her sister would have no problem destroying it from the outside and they could break free. All the defenses were facing the inward, it would be a cinch.
If she could bring Celestia here. That was a big if.
No magic, no sound, no way to signal. But, constructs could be flawed. Perhaps there was a weakness in the barrier she could exploit.
Luna turned her spells to feeling and testing her room, poking at the walls, prodding the enchantment's elasticity and thickness. Each time she felt she learned something new, she added more and more to a complicated spell she built up in the reserve of her mind.
The going was slow, and lasted the rest of the day. When she grew stuck or fatigued, she turned to her salad and ate, or refreshed in the water. At a regular interval, Silver Spear peaked in, checked her condition, and took the bowl to gather more food. Politely, she thanked him at each turn. For all his aloofness, Silver was diligent in seeing to her needs, almost managing to soften her disgust at Phantom's ploy.
When the cracks at the seam of the curtain darkened with nightfall, Luna extinguished her faux-fairy lamp and curled up on the leafy bed. Sleeping alone for the first time, she began to shiver and moan softly with unease, but constructing that spell kept her occupied until sleep whisked her away.
The next morning, she awoke with Silver bringing her breakfast. "You've been alone for a full day. Would you like company?"
The blue unicorn giggled to him with a smile. Only Silver Spear could managed to say those words in such a way that it did not imply flirting. "No, thanks. I'd prefer privacy, today."
The short stallion nodded and closed the curtain.
She spent the morning perfecting the spell she came up with the night before, drawing her will forth and letting it assume the intended shape. It was complicated. Very complicated. It needed to serve a variety of purposes at once and very specifically. First, the spell had to find Celestia. Luna shaped that aspect like lightning seeking the tallest tree from miles away in the sky. Knowing her sister well, she merely had shape it to strike her rather than a tree. Next, it had to draw them together. This part proved more challenging. The signal had to be invisible, and untouchable to outside harm in case a unicorn found it and tried to sever it. It also had to guide Celestia. She went through several ideas before settling on a root. A root sifted nutrients to a tree, likewise Luna could send messages along the tether. If she could "bury" it in the air, then it'd be hidden from attack.
One final problem. Getting it out the bubble without popping it. Feeling the barrier carefully, Luna tried to soak her spell in another layer of magic that would mimic the texture of the enchantment, like soaking a stick in water so it wouldn't burst a bubble it poked through.
Taking a deep breath, she summoned will to her horn. "Here it goes . . ." She brought the idea fully realized to that will, felt it take shape as she desired, then unleashed its reality-altering power.
Her magic arched like lightning, then grew like a vine. Reflecting off the bubble, it crawled across the wall, up and around, the tether disappearing in the wake. Eventually, it faded out, expending itself of all energy.
"Blast!" She eyed the wake in disappointment. "Something wasn't right."
With little more to do, she closed her eyes and felt along the barrier again. The day unfolded quickly in Luna's mind, full of more experiments and failures. And so did the next, Silver Spear always prompt with a delicious meal. But that was the only thing that went her way. Something about her plan wasn't compatible. She tried new aspects to her spells, substituting the lightning for a curious and slower dragonfly. The roots for spider-silk strands. Soaking the magic different shades of enchantment. Even adding what elements of harmony she could.
A deep sigh lifted Luna's chest, and she held her head low, thinking of no magic and no spells. Just a solemn emptiness that filled her mind. Like being submerged and staring into the abyss of a lake at night. Stillness.
"Was this hopeless?"
Silence answered her.
"This spell was perfected by a herd of unicorns and I'm trying to break it in only a couple of days. Am I a foolish foal?"
Soft quiet of the sheltered room.
"Perhaps it's time I ask Silver if he could bring Crescent here. If she still has her instrument. That'd be nice." She answered for herself. "Yes. Maybe I'll ask."
Rising onto limbs weak with lethargy, she walked for the door. But a little visitor caught her eye. "Oh, hello. I remember you."
A black and turquoise butterfly fluttered at the seam of the curtain, passing into the room.
"Come to visit me? I'm glad to see it." She smiled as it landed on her horn, investigating her with its curling mouth.
Luna's eyes widened into saucers and she inhaled a deep breath. "Oh, butterfly, you are a true friend!" With all the gentleness she could muster within booming excitement, she trotted to the center of the room, butterfly in tow. "I can't pass through the barrier, but Silver Spear has many times now in giving me food." She paused. "Do you know what this means, butterfly?" She grinned wide. "You can pass through the barrier as well."
Sitting down on her haunches, she lowered the insect to the remains of an old apple. It settled there, flashing its wings open and closed.
"A friend like you needs a name." Luna lifted a hoof to her chin. "How about," She pointed to him. "Flutter Brave. Because you will bravely carry my message to my sister." Unable to sit still for her excitement, she stood up and arched her tail proudly before leaning down to whisper. "Don't worry, Flutter Brave. I'll give you a little guidance and magic. Then you can signal my sister."