"The sweetness! The sweetness!" groaned Pinkie Pie, rolling back and forth on the hospital bed.
A handsome brunette-maned stallion dressed in a white coat was at her side in a heartbeat. As soon as he saw her queasy face and the listlessness of her usually poufy mane, he cried out, "I need 10 CCs of hotsauce, stat!"
A nurse galloped into the room and poured a bottle of hotsauce into the drip beside Pinkie's bed, while the doctor slipped the end of the tube into the little pink pony's mouth. Almost immediately Pinkie stopped groaning and, sucking on the tube like a baby would a bottle, she quickly fell asleep.
The doctor swept the sweat from his mane as he and the nurse looked at each other in relief. But suddenly there was a commotion in the corridor outside, and the two poked their heads out of the door to Pinkie's room, and saw a unicorn, an earth pony, a pegasus and a little dragon, all being led along the corridor by an orderly.
The doctor arched his eyebrows at the orderly, who looked at him apologetically.
"These are friends of Miss Pie's, Doctor Feelgood," she said. "They insisted on seeing her."
"Oh doctor, is Pinkie alright?" demanded Rarity, running up and throwing her forelegs around the doctor with tears streaming down her cheeks. "I had no idea that chocolate poisoning was something that could actually happen to a pony!"
"Your friend is doing fine," said Feelgood, gently extricating himself from the weeping unicorn. "Her sweetness-savouriness levels were knocked out of balance by a rather prodigious amount of chocolate. We're administering hotsauce at the moment to help bring them back to normal, and I'm glad to say that it's proving a very effective therapy."
"Is it okay to give her a look-see, doc?" asked Applejack, who had taken off her hat and was clutching it to her chest, squeezing it fitfully.
"Of course," said the doctor. "But please don't wake her. She needs all the rest she can get at the moment."
He opened the door a crack, and Applejack, Spike and Rarity all peeped inside. Pinkie was still asleep, a bubble of hotsauce expanding and contracting in one nostril. The pinkness had returned to her pale coat, and her mane was slowly beginning to curl back into its boisterous poufiness.
"As you can see, she's on the road to recovery," replied the doctor. "The hotsauce has done its work, but she'll need to go on a strict diet of salty snacks for a few weeks. Her tastebuds will be back to normal in no time, although I do suggest that she stay away from sugary snacks for a while."
Rarity and Applejack looked at each other then turned to the doctor.
"We'll... try our best, doctor," said Rarity.
It was then that Feelgood looked past Applejack and Rarity at the little dragon, who was trying to coax the pegasus out from behind a potted plant.
"Is something wrong, my dear?" asked Feelgood, stepping toward Fluttershy with a reassuring smile on his face.
Fluttershy started at the doctor's voice and started to shiver.
"We ain't sure exactly, doc" explained Applejack. "It seems she got awful scared by somethin' she saw in Princess Luna's private gardens."
"It wasn't something, it was somepony," said Fluttershy. Duke Darkmane!" Even mentioning his name made her go 'eep!' in fear. "Oh, he was soooo scary!"
"It can't have been Darkmane, darling," said Rarity, stroking the pegasus' mane with a forehoof. "Don't you remember what Princess Luna said? He's been gone from Equestria for over a thousand years!'
The doctor nodded sagely. "Well, it must be said that some of the Princess's associates can perhaps be a little too much to ponies of a fragile temperament," he said. "Moon-bats, shadow-spiders, and what have you. Any one of them might have been responsible. We often have cases of ponies suffering from post-scare spookiness syndrome."
"Is there anything; you can do fer her, doc?" asked Applejack. "The poor thing's got a powerful case of the trembles!"
With a kindly smile on his face, Feelgood took the still-shivering pegasus's hoof in his own and patted it. "I prescribe a nice lie down and a hot cup of herbal tea," he said. "Nurse, I need 30 CCs of camomile tea, stat!" He turned to the others. "And perhaps watching tonight's aerobatic display will help take her mind off the scare. The roof has an excellent view. The orderly will show you where it is. And please don't worry - your little pink friend will be fine."
"Thank you doctor," said Rarity, not completely reassured.
Feelgood nodded. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to check on another patient." With the nurse at his side, he walked purposefully away down the bright white corridor.
"Your friend is in very good hooves," explained the orderly as she led them in the opposite direction to the stairs leading up to the roof. "Doctor Feelgood is an expert in cases of overeating like this one. Why, we even have one of the Wonderbolts in here at the moment." She shook her head and sighed. "Such a sad case - much too much pie!"
As Twilight galloped down the corridor, the shouting of the ancient pegasus guard was cut off abruptly by the door closing shut with a resounding boom. She felt the magical wards reasserting themselves, sparkling into existence like a hidden star-field behind her.
But it wasn't the only source of magic the unicorn could sense. Ahead of her, she could feel the powerful aura of multiple spells, rainbow magic at its most potent, burning like dozens of captured stars. Her own connection to the rainbow magic still lingered, making her hypersensitive - but Twilight suspected that even without this increased sensitivity she would have been able to feel them.
The corridor she galloped along was clearly ancient, with its high vaulted ceiling and walls decorated with abstract designs which were a feature of the earliest works of pony art. It reminded her of the Temple of the Sisters, the Princess' ancient seat of power, but whereas that place had been a ruined shadow of its former self, this one was immaculate - the white cobblestones under her hooves sparkled as if newly polished and not a single cobweb or speck of dust was to be seen on any cornice, wall or window. Twilight had the oddest feeling of having travelled back in time.
The corridor was not long, and it soon finished in an archway which led into a great hall like a vault. Twilight galloped inside, but she came to a halt almost immediately and stood gaping at the strange array of objects that met her eye. The walls on either side of her were spotted with alcoves, each of them holding a different item, either hanging from the walls or resting on an engraved pedestal.
Twilight's curiosity got the better of her, and she stepped up to the nearest alcove. In it was an antique suit of armour, but it had been so carefully maintained that its surface glowed as if it had been just newly cast. It was huge, big enough for an alicorn to wear, forged out of bronze and inlaid with gold, complete with a visored helm decorated with a crest of blue. But Twilight's eyes were drawn straight to the curved blades jutting out of the armour intended for the forelegs - swordgreaves, the ancient weapon of ponies long ago.
Twilight gasped. She had read of such things, but she'd never seen them in real life. The blades looked razor sharp still, curved and cruel. She shivered at the thought of how they would have been used in the great Griffon Wars by heroes like the mighty Paragon.
She continued along the hall. More and more items appeared - a banner, emblazoned with the ancient version of the solar emblem, used by the Princess during the Hundred Days of Darkness; the mighty figurehead of a ship, a seapony carved out of wood who seemed to be cleaving the water before her; a great four-bladed star-sword, intended to be wielded by a unicorn's telekinesis, and many more things beside.
But not everything was martial in its character. Here was a great ball-dress, of the finest silk, that shimmered with different colours depending on the angle at which Twilight viewed it; here, on a little silk pillow on a pedestal, was a withered bouquet of what had perhaps been roses. And here was a little mirror that Twilight stopped to glance at, the sort of mirror that any filly would have for doing her make-up.
She tried to imagine Celestia doing her make-up, and she couldn't. But the true nature of the mirror was soon revealed. As soon as she came close enough, it flashed to life, and images appeared on its silvery face - images of Celestia and Luna.
Twilight's eyes went wide. They looked so young! Of course, both of the alicorns were blessed with the extreme longevity of their kind, and looked forever youthful, but there was something different about the Celestia that appeared in the mirror. Twilight couldn't quite put a hoof on it as the images flashed by, one after the other - Luna and Celestia at a ball, Celestia eating cake while Luna made funny faces behind her, the two of them posing for a formal photo with other alicorns Twilight didn't recognise - and then it struck her. Celestia looked just like Luna - that same carefree, playful, almost foal-like demeanour. Her eyes were the same eyes that Twilight loved so deeply - kind and wise and gentle - but there was an irreverent sparkle to them, a mischievousness she had only ever seen in Luna. Here, in this little hoof-mirror, Luna and Celestia truly looked like sisters.
Twilight looked about her in confusion. What was this place? Everything was a keepsake from some earlier time, and it was almost as if it was a museum - but one dedicated to a single pony, Celestia herself.
Twilight felt suddenly like an invader, as if she had barged into somepony's bedroom by mistake and was going through her most precious items.
She knew she had tarried too long. She broke into a gallop, no longer even glancing at the multitude of objects that she passed, and soon the hall finished in a single, corniced archway that led to an ever larger hall.
On the threshold of the archway, Twilight stopped and looking through it. Dozens of mirrors were arrayed along both walls, leading far off into the distance. They were all the same sort of full-body mirror that would not have looked out of place in any mare's bedroom: the glass oval-shaped, the golden frame and stand intricately decorated with delicate filigree.
She sensed powerful magic glowing within them. In the magical spectrum, they shone like beacons of starlight, as bright as stars that had fallen to earth, and pulsing like living, beating hearts.
Twilight stepped through the archway. Celestia was nowhere to be seen, but the hallway extended off into the distance, so far that Twilight couldn't see the end of it.
She must be somewhere ahead of her.
Twilight glanced at the mirrors uneasily as she passed them. Ancient and potent magic throbbed deep within them, but it wasn't that that so unnerved Twilight.
It was the fact that although their glasses shone pure silver, they reflected nothing.
Twilight stopped. She took a step closer to the nearest one to get a closer look, telling herself that all she wanted to do was make sure that it wasn't dangerous - but as she brought her face close to it, a sudden spark of magic leaped from between her horn and the silvery surface, and the mirror flickered to life.
A flurry of images flew across the glass, so quick that they were a mere blur of colour, and Twilight could catch only little of what she saw. Was that - was that a pony? And that - a landscape, the surface of the sea?
Her eyes flicked back and forth, capturing more and more images as they flew past, until her head filled to overflowing with the images, and in a panic she realised that the mirror was doing something to her - filling her with thoughts and feelings and scents and sounds. She gasped, and tried to step away...
...but the mirror was gone, and she was on a ship. Salt spray splashed up at her as she looked out over the bow at a gorgeous, moonlit sea. Beneath her she saw the ship's figurehead of a seapony, cutting her way through the waves, and she felt a strange wave of déjà vu. There was a scent of tar in the air, and rope, and her own sweat and skin - but it wasn't her own scent that she recognised.
It was Celestia's.
She took a step back and raised a forehoof up to her face in a panic - and her heart started to beat rapidly when she saw the white coat clad in their golden greaves glistening in the moonlight.
Everything was so frighteningly real!
She felt the body she was inhabiting turnabout without her telling it to, and her stomach lurched - or maybe it was Twilight's stomach back in the hall of mirrors. She couldn't really tell anymore - she was being bombarded by the senses of two bodies now, and trying to process the information from both at once made her mind shift in strange and unpleasant ways.
She tried to will herself back into the Twilight body, but the magic resisted her, and so she tried the other direction, and found the resistance cease immediately. She was Celestia again, and she felt her mouth move as she cried out:
"Aye, yer Highness!" The reply came from a stallion from the stern of the ship. It was her old friend Seasalt, the Captain of the Silverwing. He clambered down the steps, limping with that old injury he'd received from being struck in the hind leg with the mainsail when he was a mere colt and new to the sea. He loved telling her the story. The clouds that were blacker than the heart of the Mara, and of the waves that had reached up to touch the stars and left the seabed bare, so deep that you could glimpse the depths of Tartaros itself.
"How many days are we from the shores of the Griffon Empire, Captain?"
"We be around two days away, Yer Highness, by my reckonin'," replied Seasalt. He gazed up at constellations hanging silent overhead. "Yon Minotaur's hand is still touchin' the surface o' the sea, but soon it'll be well above, and then we'll know that we'll soon be passing the Pillars of Abelard."
Celestia bit her lip. Her eyes carried her over the black, silver tinted sea to the distant shore where she had sent Verity as ambassador, as if staring and wishing would bring them closer.
Oh, why hadn't she gone herself? Why had she let Verity convince her to let her go?
It was all her fault.
She closed her eyes. The scent of Verity's perfume lingered at the edges of her memory, and she remembered their fateful conversation on the evening of her departure.
Verity's pink mane had fallen across Celestia's face as they lay together on the rug before the fireplace, and she'd pushed it away with a snort.
Verity had laughed at her annoyance. "Oh, you won't have to worry about my mane getting in your way for a while, Tia. You'll be able to read your reports from Aurora without disturbance."
"You know I don't want you to go," said Celestia, her voice tinged with anger, an anger that she'd decided she didn't want to hide tonight.
Verity had chuckled softly, infuriatingly. "It's the griffons I'm going to be dealing with, Tia. It's not like you're sending me to Tartaros to deal with the Mara!"
Celestia had said nothing, and for a long while they lay together in silence, Verity staring into the fireplace, herself tossing a scroll away and taking up another.
At last the subconscious frown on Celestia's face and the crinkling of scroll after scroll being unwound made Verity snap. She scrambled onto her hooves and exploded with days of pent up resentment.
"So that's the way it is, is it Tia?" she shouted. "I'm just for show, am I? That's all I'm good for," She kicked at the haphazard pile of scrolls on the far end of the rug. "To be the plaything of the Princess of Equestria. You know that the court is laughing behind our backs...."
"None of the Court would dare!" snapped Celestia.
Verity stared at her, mauve eyes flashing. "And yet they are saying it, Tia." Her voice became low and dangerous. "I'll prove them wrong. You'll see. I'll show you, too. The trade routes will be reopened. The Princess's pet will accomplish what your most senior diplomats could not."
Celestia had said nothing, and an angry silence had settled between the two of them. Verity knew she had won.
Verity always got her way.
Celestia hated that their last evening together had been such an uncomfortable one, hated herself for having let it happen that way.
She wished her mother was here.
"Yer worried about Lady Verity, Highness?" said Seasalt. It wasn't really a question.
"Not really," Celestia lied. "The griffons have been our allies for generations now. Besides, Verity has always been able to look after herself. I'm sure she's okay."
"Better to worry on the griffons' behalf," said Seasalt with a wink. "I've seen the Lady's anger. The violence of the ocean has nothin' on 'er."
Celestia laughed. "There is truth in that, old friend."
As she turned to gaze out over the water again, she suddenly caught sight of Twilight on the deck of the ship, standing in front of a mirror, and stepped back in shock. What in Equestria was Twilight doing here? Why was there a mirror on the ship? Had she forgotten the old sailor superstition forbidding one be brought on board?
Who was Twilight?
You were Twilight, she heard a voice say. Once, in the future.
She closed her eyes and remembered. Twilight remembered. She was Twilight and not Celestia, and in a sudden panic she strove to pull herself out of that time, that memory. She could almost see the hall of mirrors again, almost remember her search for Celestia, the desperate search she had to...
...find her. Where was she? Where were they keeping her?
Desperation rose in Celestia's heart. Desperation and rage, a black, consuming rage that choked at her like a living thing.
The marble floor of the citadel clattered beneath her armoured hooves as she galloped down the corridor that she knew must lead to the dungeons. Giselda had told her she was being held there.
She would not tolerate her imprisonment for one second longer.
"Where is Verity?" shouted Celestia, the Royal Canterlot Voice resounding off the walls and echoing along the corridor, dislodging mortar and sending it showering down. "Bring her to me, or I shall tear this sun-forsaken citadel from its foundations and send it plunging down to Tartaros!"
Her shouting had alerted the Griffon Elite that the Suzerain had sent in pursuit of her. She could hear their armoured claws clattering on the marble floors growing louder both before and behind her. Black glee rose in her heart at the sound.
The squad ahead of her arrived first, unhappily for them. The vanguard of heavily-armed griffons burst out of a side-corridor just in front of her. Torchlight glistened on the serrated beak-pieces of their helms and their razor-sharp pinion blades, already plunging down towards her neck as they threw themselves at her...
Her swordgreaves flashed, and the first griffon was cut down, skidding past her to slump in a heap of feathers on the floor. The second received the full force of her hind hooves in his face, shattering his helm and sending him spiralling back down the corridor. The two behind him flew at her next, squawking horribly, but she sent them spinning back with a blast of telekinetic force to smash against the walls of the corridor like dolls.
"Bring her to me!" screamed Celestia again. The other squad was already behind her, but they were hesitating, horrified at the sight of the alicorn in the depths of incandescent rage. Celestia's horn glowed white-hot, and the corridor's mighty stonework shuddered and cracked as she brought the full might of her magic to bear. The roof collapsed, and the rear-guard of the squad were crushed beneath the falling masonry, and the two that made it through, swinging their bladed-wings and snapping their beaks at her face, quickly fell to her swordgreaves.
She turned, and galloped past the bodies of the first squad she had defeated, the acrid taste of blood...
... on Twilight's tongue. She's bitten her lip as she'd fought the griffons in her rage.
No, Celestia had.
Twilight pulled away again... and this time she broke the connection. She careened backwards and slumped back onto the cold floor of the room, the mirror in front of her flashing and flickering, before finally falling back into its original dull silver.
She could barely see it through the tears in her eyes.
The hatred that Celestia had felt, the glee, all of it she had felt as well...
Twilight stared at the mirror, and turned to go... but then she leaned forward and inexorably touched her horn to its surface once more.
She had to know.
Flying behind Ditzy Doo in formation, the amateur aerial performance team cut through the cold night air above the mountain tops, a glowing V against the dark sky.
The blonde-maned pegasus shook her head, and for a moment her pupils straightened out and she was able to focus upon the castle that had appeared ahead of them, its fairy-lights nestled in the blackness of the mountains.
"Canterlot!" she cried. Her heart began to beat rapidly. "Where's the moon?"
On her left, the purple-maned P shouted back over the noise of the air sweeping past them as they flew. "It's right behind us!"
Ditzy glanced behind her, and the sight of the growing disc of the moon made her heart skip a beat. "Then we're going to have to go straight into it!" she shouted back. "Q, P! Initiate 'Rainbow Falls'!"
The two pegasi on either side of her saluted and peeled off while Ditzy kept a level course. The rest of the V broke into three columns to follow them, the one behind Ditzy far shorter than the other two. Then the two columns following the P and Q split once more, into three this time, until there seven equal columns of pegasi flying in perfect parallel with each other towards the rapidly approaching castle.
On the roof of the Royal Canterlot Hospital, it was standing room only as everypony well enough to watch the spectacle had come out in force. Rarity, Applejack, Fluttershy and Spike had squeezed themselves through the crowd and were squashed up together against the balustrade.
Rarity, exasperated, pushed back against the crush of ponies surrounding them. "Please, not so close, darling! There's more than enough room for everypony!"
Applejack, chuckling, leaned across and pulled the unicorn in front of her, sheltering her from the crowd.
"Comfy?" asked the earth pony, taking the opportunity to slip a foreleg around her friend's waist where nopony else could see it.
Rarity blushed fiercely. "Why y- yes - thank you, Applejack."
Suddenly, there was an excited cry of "Look!" as a nearby stallion, dressed only in a hospital robe and leaning precariously over the side, pointed his foreleg towards the western horizon. "Here they come!"
"And not a moment too soon," said Applejack, squinting into the distance. "The moon's comin' up mighty fast, by mah reckoning."
"Oh, how beautiful!" gushed Fluttershy, who was sipping her hot tea and was already feeling much better. The pegasi looked like stars that had been knocked out of their place in the heavens and sent dancing along against the blackness of the sky.
"What's happening? What are they doing?" asked Spike, jumping up and down against the balustrade - but it was too high for him to look over.
Applejack chuckled, and grabbing him by the scruff of the neck with her teeth she threw him up onto her back.
"Thanks AJ," said Spike, holding onto her withers.
"Oh, look!" cried Rarity, pointing into the sky. "Something's happening!"
"Rainbow lights on!" cried Ditzy.
The pegasi leading the columns all flicked a switch on their harnesses, and Ditzy too, and the lights on their torsos changed from plain white to a different colour of the rainbow. Every pegasus along each column quickly did the same, one after the other, so that to those watching it seemed as if a rainbow had blossomed suddenly into life overhead.
Far below, the crowds filling every open part of Canterlot cried out in amazement as one at the gorgeous sight, and the joyful roar rose up into the sky, so loud that it made the air around the fliers shimmer and vibrate.
Ditzy's heart swelled. All those shouts - Canterlot was shouting for them!
A tear appeared in one golden eye - but she blinked it away.
"Now!" she cried. "DIVE!"
And with that Ditzy, stretching her wings out straight and dipping her head, plunged straight down, spearing through the chill night air, spinning precipitously down towards the castle, and every colour of the rainbow followed her.
Celestia knelt in the sand, the gritty wetness freezing cold against her knees and legs. In front of her, Verity lay on the beach where she had brought her after carrying her from the citadel of the griffons. The Royal Chiurgeon, a white-coated unicorn wearing half-moon eyeglasses, was busy examining her, his horn glowing as he scanned her body from ear to tail.
Verity's once-gorgeous mane was stuck to her coat, matted and covered in soot, and it seemed as if every ounce of colour had been drained from her, all but her mauve eyes. Clear and pure, they glinted with teasing amusement as they looked up at Celestia.
"I knew you'd come for me," whispered Verity. "I knew you couldn't let me do anything my own."
She raised a trembling forehoof to Celestia's cheek and touched it.
From somewhere behind her, Celestia could hear the roaring of fire and the sharp cracking of windows bursting from the heat as the citadel of the griffons burned.
Smoke coursed across the beach, burning her eyes, but no tears came.
"Don't talk," Celestia pleaded with her. "You need to rest." She turned to the chiurgeon, who had just that moment completed his examination. Celestia's eyes were desperate, but his stoic face gave nothing away. He merely placed a foreleg on her shoulder and led her a short distance away.
"Will she be alright?" demanded Celestia. "What did you see?"
"The curse that Lady Verity has been placed under is severe," said the chiurgeon, his face's stony wall crumbling suddenly. "It is some of the most deadly griffon magic I have ever seen. And," He slipped the glasses from his face and rubbed his eyes. "And I'm afraid that it has almost run its course." He grimaced. "There's nothing we can do except make her comfortable."
Rage welled up within Celestia, black and hot, like a dark flame which had been smouldering within her had suddenly caught light once more, an unfocussed rage, directed at herself, the griffons, the chiurgeon, everypony. She brushed the chiurgeon aside, and brought her own now-glowing horn down over Verity.
"Tia," whispered Verity, the admonishment clear even in the weakness of her voice.
Celestia allowed the fullness of the Rainbow magic to envelope her. As her sight shifted into the magical spectrum, Verity's outer form dissolved away to reveal an intricate living mosaic of light. Usually, every living thing's spirit glowed pure white with the Light of Creation that gave them life coursing within them - but a baleful blackness was rapidly spread across Verity's, blotting out the light.
Desperately bringing her magic to bear, Celestia channelled light from her own body into Verity's, and for a few moments the blackness melted away. But it quickly spread back across her, like ink spilling across white cloth.
Celestia's eyes began to glow white as she channelled more and more magic, pouring it into Verity, dissolving the blackness away, only to despair when it straightaway flooded back, over and over again. Her chest heaved with the effort, and her control over the flow of rainbow magic powering through her began to slipping away.
But then she felt the touch of a cool touch of another's coat against her own, and she broke the connection. Verity was hugging her close, her forelegs wrapped around her neck.
"Shhhhh," she whispered. "Stop it, Tia. You'll hurt yourself." She smile was wan. "You always blame yourself for everything. You might be Princess, but you're not responsible for everything, you know."
Verity's forelegs were so painfully light, almost weightless, around her neck. Celestia brought her wings around to cradle the pink-maned alicorn's trembling body.
"Thank you." She sighed, curling her neck around Celestia's.
Tears coursed down the Princess' cheeks, wetting the pink mane that surrounded her like a halo. "Verity..."
"Thank you, Tia," Verity said again, softer this time. "Because of you I know at last what it feels like to be happy."
Verity's embrace grew suddenly weak. Her forelegs slipped from Celestia's neck and she slid back onto the sand. Her eyelids slowly drooped and her body grew slack, just as if sleep had overcome her.
Celestia threw herself across Verity's body, encircling it with her great white wings, and then, at last, she broke inside, and wave upon wave of agonised sobs, welling up from an ocean of despair, wracked her.
The smooth stones beneath her grew dark, spattered with her streaming tears, and Twilight suddenly knew who she was and where she was again. Celestia was gone, but the agony stayed with her, the agony of loss and despair and regret, and the tears refused to stop.
Stumbling away from the mirror, she turned and fled.
Throughout the city of Canterlot, everypony gasped as the aerial performance team transformed into a cascading rainbow above them, and when it plunged down out of the sky and swept over their heads, they all cried out in delight.
On the roof of the hospital, the whole crowd ducked as the orange column, led by the purple-maned P, came down so low that their manes were swept up and set fluttering by the displaced air.
The rainbow danced back up into the sky, swimming gracefully against the darkness of the night like a tropical fish born of light. But then it split apart, and each of the columns of colour danced across the sky over the castle, tracing individual paths like lace-work, before gathering back together and bursting out again as individual star-points, like the blossoming explosion of a firework. Finally the columns came back together, and they spun in burning circles and zigzagged across each other's path, filling the heavens with brightness until every pony's heart overflowed with awe-struck delight.
On the roof of the hospital, everypony was gasping and ooo'ing at the spectacle above their heads, and none more than a certain little pink pony who had appeared amongst them, leaning against a drip with her eyes glued to the skies.
"Oooooooooo!" she cried as the fliers screamed overhead. "Woooooooooah!" she gasped as they doubled back.
Spike was the first to notice her. "Pinkie!" he cried, hopping off Applejack's back and running to embrace her.
"Spike!" cried Pinkie, hugging him back. "Oh, I'm so super-glad I didn't miss the whole show!"
The others stared at Pinkie in amazement, but then they too quickly gathered around, and as they hugged her and kissed her and bombarded her with questions, for a moment the spectacle overhead was completely forgotten.
"Are you feeling better, Pinkie?" asked Fluttershy, her eyes sparkling.
"Uh huh!" nodded Pinkie. "The doc said I could watch the show as long as I didn't overexert myself."
Applejack chuckled. "Ah'm sure you'll be bouncin' off the walls in no time, anyhow."
"Oh Pinkie darling," tutted Rarity. "I'm so happy you're feeling better, but do you really think you should be eating that cream cake in your condition?"
"Oh, don't worry," said the little pink pony through a mouth full of sticky cream. "The doctor gave it to me. He said it's made of tofu and ninety-nine percent sugar-free!"
Above their heads, the aerial performance team had regrouped and were now spinning around in a double-loop folded in upon itself.
"What's that shape they're making now?" asked Spike.
"That's the lemniscate, Spike," explained Rarity. "It symbolises infinity. I suppose it must be a reference to the Princesses' positions as eternal guardians of the sun and moon."
Applejack laughed and gave Rarity a friendly dig in the side with an elbow. "Without Twi here, I guess we do need somepony t' take up the slack and do all the explainin'!"
"Well I think it looks like a pretzel," said Pinkie, taking another bite of cake.
The pegasi suddenly broke up and again formed the rainbow, which burst up into the sky like a fountain's spray.
"Oh, and the rainbow is the source of the Princesses' power," said Fluttershy, almost back to her old self. The tea and the show, just as Feelgood had prescribed, had done their job, and the pink-maned pegasus was beaming widely. "Oh, it's soooo beautiful!"
"Ooh! Ooh!" cried Pinkie. The rainbow had split up again into individual fliers, who were now bobbing and weaving in between each other in a riot of different colours . "Now they look like a bunch of candies dancing!"
Spike chuckled. "Aw, Pinkie Pie. I think you're starting to return to normal already!"
Pinkie's smile froze on her face and she turned and grabbed Spike up in her forehooves and started to shake him.
"Spike," she whispered hoarsely, her eyes wild. "I need sugar, and I need it NOW!"
"Uh," said the little dragon, searching himself as his feet dangled in the air. He pulled out a little white lozenge and offered it to Pinkie, smiling nervously. "Breath mint?"
Twilight galloped headlong along the corridor, and the endless lines of mirrors flew past on either side of her. She kept as far away from them as she could, but they still flickered into life as she passed. With every rapid beat of her heart, a new splinter of Celestia's life leaped out at her, flashing momentarily within her mind before slipping away to be replaced by another.
"... we are here today to honour the memory of Equestria's greatest hero, Lady Aurora..."
"...I'm afraid she is gone, Princess..."
"...I hate you, Celestia! You and that brutal heart of yours! You're colder than any place in the Frozen North,...."
"...goodbye, my Princess..."
"...farewell, my love..."
"...never forget me..."
The mirrors flashed, and memories beset Twilight on ever side. But she shook them away. All she cared about was Celestia.
She knew she was not far away.
The Princess was walking slowly along the corridor, her head lowered and staring at the floor, and so she neither heard nor saw Twilight until she was right on top of her.
The little unicorn was galloping so fast that she almost careened into her, but at the last minute she came to a skidding halt, panting.
"Tia!" gasped Twilight, at last gathering enough breath to speak.
Celestia lifted her head at the calling of her name and turned. She stared at Twilight, her face expressionless, her eyes unfocussed, so utterly unexpected was her student's sudden appearance in this most private of all places.
After a while Celestia seemed to come to her senses and a look of surprise, and then horror, slipped onto her face.
"Twilight?" she whispered.
"Tia," Twilight gasped. She sank to the floor, sweat rolling from her, panting hot breaths that wouldn't stop her from saying everything she'd been rolling over and over in her mind as she'd galloped. "Please. Listen to me. I just-"
Celestia turned her face away, but not before Twilight saw the tears welling in her eyes. "Twilight, you... you shouldn't have come here."
"I'm sorry," she said. "I- I had to come. I have so many things I need to tell you!"
Celestia stood silent, unmoving, for a long while. At last she turned back to look at Twilight. Her eyes were red, her cheeks wet, and the words came with difficulty. "If it's about your friend Rainbow Dash, I already know. I saw the two of you-"
"It was a stupid prank!" said Twilight in a desperate rush. "Rainbow isn't my fillyfriend. There's nothing between us!"
Celestia took a sharp intake of breath, and for a moment she was speechless. Then she squeezed her eyes tightly shut, as if in pain, and left them closed them as she spoke. "It... it doesn't matter, Twilight. It... it was never really about you and her, anyway."
"What do you mean?" Twilight stepped towards her, but Celestia's eyes flashed open and she shied away.
"Don't come near me, Twilight, please!" The alicorn's voice almost broke. "I couldn't stand it. Not right now!"
"But Tia, I-" The words spilled out of her, and she didn't know what she was saying until she heard herself saying it. "I love you!"
It was as if Twilight had slapped the alicorn in the face. Celestia recoiled. She turned, taking a shaky and hasty step as if ready to flee away - but then she collapsed onto her knees. Fresh tears coursed down her cheeks, and she was wracked by sobs as she began to cry out breath after pain-filled breath.
Twilight stared at her dumbly. Horrified, horrified that her words had had such an effect on the one she loved.
It wasn't supposed to happen like this! No, not like this!
"Tia!" She took another step forward, but Celestia looked at her, her eyes streaming, pleading silently with her not to come any closer.
After an eternity that must have been little more than a handful of heartbeats, Celestia stopped crying. She raised herself onto her hooves, making no move to wipe her tears. Then, with great composure, she turned to Twilight and said, "Twilight, I... I must apologise for the way I'm behaving. I... I have not been myself, lately."
It was a strangely pat thing to say, and yet for Twilight it spoke volumes of what she thought was in the alicorn's hidden heart.
"Tia, I'm so sorry," she whispered. "I... I shouldn't have come here." She wanted to cry herself, but the tears wouldn't come, although her eyes burned. "I've ruined everything, haven't I?" She looked about herself in confusion, not able to look Celestia in the eyes. She needed to escape from this situation, from this maelstrom of feelings, and so she said the first thing that popped into her head. "Tia - what... what is this place?"
Celestia answered quickly, taking refuge herself in the change of subject. "I call it the Hall of Memory," she said. "I think I must have built it, sometime long ago. I can't remember building it, but I remember remembering..." She gave a joyless chuckle. "If you understand what I mean."
Twilight blinked at her in confusion "Tia, I saw... in one of the mirrors. I saw something that happened to you long ago."
"What did you see?" asked Celestia.
Twilight swallowed. "Your journey to the Griffon Empire. To save Princess Verity."
Celestia closed her eyes. "Verity. I... I know her name from the history books, but I don't remember her. But I remember remembering her, if you understand what I mean." A tiny wave of pain crossed her face and she opened her eyes again. "Something terrible happened in that memory as well, didn't it?"
Twilight nodded, a tear falling down her cheek.
"I- In a way, I am glad you saw that memory, Twilight," said Celestia. "It means you'll understand things a little better."
"But why did I become you?" asked Twilight.
"The magic in the mirrors is of my own making," said Celestia. "And was never intended to be used by a certain mischievous little unicorn." Her attempt at familiarity hung dully in the air, but she struggled on. "Sometimes I come here, to remember things. When I look into a mirror, the memories return to me. I can't change anything, and I can only watch. And feel. It is the tragic nature of the magic - and of memory itself." She sighed. "I'm sorry you had to go through that, Twilight. I would not wish many of my memories on my worst enemy."
Twilight said nothing, and merely blinked, her eyes again welling with tears.
"Come with me, Twilight," said Celestia. "I want to show you something." She turned and began to walk further along the hall and Twilight hurried to follow her.
Celestia looked back at her, her expression unreadable. "I want you to know the truth."
Luna gasped with pain as she struggled to extricate herself from the colossal gravitational force of the moon. Over and over again she gathered just enough energy to lift herself off its brightly shining surface, but then the momentum of the great, glowing orb's flight would push her back down almost straight away.
Finally, with gargantuan effort fuelled by desperation, Luna peeled one foreleg off the surface and twisted herself around, so that she was pushed onto her back. The dark air now blew like a gale against her face, and she had to squint through the arcs of glittering moon dust and her own swirling mane to see the direction the moon was taking her.
When she recognised the sparkling lights and the black silhouette, her blood went cold.
The moon was headed right for it.
Panic gripped Luna, and she resumed her struggling, all the more desperate now. But there was no more strength left in her limbs. She couldn't even lift them now. It was as if she was irrevocably glued to the moon.
She stared at the rapidly approaching mountains, despair filling her heart. Oh, if only she were going to crash deep in the eastern ocean, or in a desert or the frozen mountains where nopony else would be harmed!
"Moon!" she cried. "Cease your momentum immediately! It is I, Princess Luna, who command you!"
But the moon, deaf to her pleas, flew onwards.
At long last the mirrors came to an end, although the hall continued on ahead of them. Twilight peered into the distance, but was soon forced to blink. She could see no end to it.
But this was the place that Celestia had intended to take her. The alicorn approached the final mirror on the left, and inclined her head towards it as Twilight came up beside her.
"Do you notice how this mirror is different, Twilight?"
Twilight looked, and she saw Celestia's and her own face reflected in its surface.
"It - it's just a normal mirror!" she said.
"Well, not quite," said Celestia. "It's just that it's still empty. Waiting for a memory to be placed in it."
"A memory?" Twilight whispered. "Like the ones I saw..."
Celestia nodded her head in the direction they had come. "In a thousand years, you can collect quite a few memories, Twilight Sparkle. Many of them happy, but many of them-" She closed her eyes. "-unpleasant in one way or another."
Twilight dropped her eyes to the floor. Verity's face had sprung up before them, unbidden, and Twilight again felt the cold wetness of sand beneath her knees, heard the crackling of the unseen inferno, smelled the acrid smoke wafting across the beach. It felt like a memory of something that had truly happened to her, rather than just the memory of something she had seen.
Twilight lifted up her face at last. "But why?"
Celestia did not smile. "The Princess exists to serve Equestria," she said. "She must be free of all uncertainty, all sadness and doubt, anything that might distract her. Her position is far too important for it to be at the mercy of emotional whims." Her expression softened for a moment. "Aren't there things you regret, Twilight? What is your own unhappiest memory? Bring it back, for just a moment."
Twilight saw her face staring in horror in the silvery face of the mirror as she remembered. A tear ran down her cheek.
She saw Celestia approach her from behind and rest her neck over her own. "Now imagine, my darling Twilight - imagine a thousand years of memories like that, five times ten as many."
"Tia..." whispered Twilight.
Celestia broke the embrace. "I'm not trying to escape from them," she said quickly. "I could just have easily erased them all from my mind, forever. But I keep them here, safe, to experience whenever I wish. I owe that much at least to all those with whom I've shared my life. But when I leave this place, the memories fade away, and I can forget again. I can again return to the perfect, serene life of Celestia, Princess of Equestria, the Princess that Equestria deserves." She grew suddenly angry. "Not the doubt-filled, mistake-prone, selfish, despicable weakling that I really am."
Twilight turned to her, her eyes desperate. "But Tia, I- I love you!"
Celestia lowered her head and stared at the floor. Tears were pouring down her cheeks, dripping onto the smooth marble.
"It... it doesn't matter, Twilight."
"It... it doesn't matter?" Twilight repeated in a whisper. "You... you don't love me?"
"I do love you, Twilight Sparkle," said Celestia. And for a second the words hung there, in an airy silence as beautiful and fragile as glass, and Twilight felt as though her heart would break in two. But then Celestia continued, her voice barely above a whisper. "But that... that just makes matters worse. What I did.... how I reacted when I saw you and Rainbow Dash on the battlements. The despair I felt. The horrible, horrible rage. It's the reason why I have to forget that love. I- I cannot allow that weakness to overtake my heart again."
"But love... isn't it more precious than that?" muttered Twilight. Knowing that Celestia loved her, too - it didn't spare her from the numbness she felt at Celestia's words. "Isn't it worth it, even though it makes us weak?"
"That is not a privilege I have," said Celestia.
Anger and despair all at once filled Twilight. "You... you're going to forget me? Trap your love for me in that mirror? Just like that?"
She took a step forward, but a mauve barrier of crackling magical energy flew up between her and Celestia, pushing her violently back.
"Tia!" screamed Twilight in despair.
Celestia turned away. "I hope that one day you'll be able to forgive me, Twilight."
And leaning forward, she brought her horn against the mirror.