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In The Center of the Palace Hedge Maze

by GaPJaxie

It was spring when Luster Dawn asked her princess, “Where did you put Tirek, Chrysalis, and Cozy Glow after they were turned to stone?” And Twilight said, “In the center of the palace hedge maze.”

It was summer when Luster Dawn asked her princess, “Where did you put the Storm King after he was turned to stone?” And Twilight said, “In the center of the palace hedge maze.”

It was fall when Luster Dawn asked her princess, “Where did you put King Sombra after his final defeat?” And Twilight said, “In the center of the palace hedge maze.”

And in winter, that long winter, Luster Dawn went out to find them.

It was a lovely day to begin her journey: the sun shone bright, the air was pleasant, and many ponies frolicked in the palace’s other gardens. Past a mother and her foal, past a gaggle of young students, past a couple engaged in the most passionate of debates, past all these things she strode, until she came to the gap in the great hedge, which surrounded them all.

There were no guards, she saw. No warnings. No barrier to keep stray ponies from entering. And yet she appeared alone in her curiosity, as many a visitor or traveler passed the entrance by without consideration. Trepidation took hold of her, as it often does when one who prefers a herd must go alone. But she saw that the grass was well trampled and knew that many had come before her and would come after.

And so, she overcame her fear and stepped over the threshold. The tall hedges, sharp as a ruler and resolute as pines, blocked her view of the sun and muffled the sounds from the gardens behind her. She was in shadow, and the air became cool and quiet, and when she turned her head to gaze backward, she found that as she suspected, there was no going back.

From her saddlebags, she produced a pad of graph paper, a pencil, and a book on navigating mazes. With her horn, she conjured a magical ruler and tape measure. Thus armed for the journey, she strode forth into the labyrinth, and carefully mapped it as she went, with care to precisely represent every corner and curve.

She did not know precisely how long she’d been walking when two of her pencil lines crossed; when her map implied she should be rejoining a trail that she had earlier trod, but which was not in evidence before her. Yet, she felt it had not been long enough, that she had been walking only a short while. Of course, she had anticipated there might be some exceptional difficulties, some tricks beyond the obvious; but she had hoped her studies would have gotten her further.

“Difficult, isn’t it?” A deep, feminine voice interrupted her thoughts, and Luster whirled in place, tail strung out behind her with the force of her motion. Behind her stood a creature she had only ever seen in stained glass: the nefarious mare of darkness, Princess Celestia’s wicked counterpart, Nightmare Moon.

The sight of her froze Luster in her steps. The Nightmare towered over her as Celestia did, but while Celestia’s size was a source of comfort, security, and warmth, the Nightmare’s strength was for hurting. Her horn came to a sharp point, and her eyes were slitted, with the mein of a predator.

Yet, she laughed; so extravagant was her manner, so bold in every word, like she was on stage. “Cat got your tongue?”

“What are you…” A thousand questions ran through Luster’s mind, but all that emerged from her throat was a croak and a lame, “doing here?”

“Wandering the maze,” the Nightmare said. “As are you, it seems.”

“Do you know the way to the center?” Luster asked, and a strange series of expressions played over the Nightmare’s face, confusion, revulsion, scorn, and pity, all in the course of but a few seconds. By way of final answer, she pointed at Luster’s pad with the tip of a hoof.

“Did you really,” she asked, “think that would see you through?”

“It’s a maze,” Luster said, holding her pad to her chest like it was a child who needed defending. “I thought I could chart it out.”

“Hah!” the Nightmare’s voice boomed in Luster’s ears, so loud she wondered if the ponies in the distant garden could hear it. “You and a thousand other fools. Studies and notes may assist you, but they alone cannot vanquish this challenge.”

“Wait. Wait. No,” Luster said, taking a half-step back. “Princess Luna would not be wandering around the hedge maze dispensing advice to random travelers. This is some sort of illusion. You aren’t real.”

The Nightmare reached out with a hoof and touched the tip of Luster Dawn’s horn. “W-well,” Luster stammered. “A tactile illusion spell could-”

Carefully, firmly, with almost loving grace, the Nightmare lifted a hoof and slapped Luster across the cheek, striking hard enough to sting, but not quite to leave a mark.

“I’m afraid, dear Luster,” the Nightmare said, “that you have not grasped the seriousness of your situation.”

Luster’s heart raced, her breath came in quick gasps, and she took a half-step away from the giant of a mare before her. But panic did not overcome her, and even through a trembling jaw, she endeavored to speak clearly. “No. Nightmare Moon isn’t… wasn’t, a person. She’s just Princess Luna having a severe emotional breakdown. Maybe this is real, in some sense. Maybe you have the power to hurt me. But the real Nightmare Moon isn’t physically in front of me. This is one of the puzzles in the maze. You’re a challenge I have to overcome.”

“Oh, really?” the Nightmare asked, a wicked grin on her face that showed a jaw full of jagged teeth. “Then by all means, proceed.”

“Okay, uh…” Luster looked at the grass beneath her. “Nightmare Moon is, um. Is Luna. Having an emotional breakdown. Caused by her being jealous of her sister. Something she deeply regrets. And she nearly plunged all of Equestria into darkness. Um.” She flinched as the Nightmare continued to stare down at her; those cat-eyes, the line of drool emerging from between her sharpened teeth.

“Basically, you represent her mistakes.” And then Luster said, “Mistakes she regrets.”

Her last utterance produced an immediate reaction: a narrowing of the eyes, to the sharpest vertical slits, a pulling back of her jaw, a tensing in her hindquarters. The Nightmare leapt, teeth bared, ready to tear into Luster’s spirit, ready to fritter her life away, day after day, a voracity unceasing. Luster screamed, but just as those jagged teeth began to sink into her flesh, she yelled: “Mistakes she doesn’t regret!”

The Nightmare froze. Luster was left beneath her, held in her jaws, panting, wheezing, heart pounding inside her chest like a drum, and it took time for her to find her voice: “She stood up to Celestia,” Luster had to pause to gasp for breath, “and was respected, and… and important. And it felt good, because venting your rage on someone who deserves it always feels good. And she knows better now, and she feels guilty, and she never wants to be you again. But I think…”

Luster shut her eyes, for there was so much adrenaline in her blood that her torso was shaking, and she could find no other way to calm herself. “I think that sometimes, for her, you’re a happy memory.”

And when she opened her eyes, the Nightmare was gone, and her path connected to where her map said it should, crossing where she had already trod. Shaking, she came to her feet. “Mistakes that I don’t regret,” she said aloud to herself, checking where the Nightmare had touched her for signs of injury.

There was a mild bite on her arm. She wasted her late teens with that bird-watching phase. But otherwise, she was intact. To enter the maze thinking a book and a sheet of graph paper would see her through was indeed foolish, but the studiousness that had motivated it, the information gained, that was still of value to her.

“Mistakes I don’t regret,” she repeated, more firmly, and she strode forward along her path, continuing to chart as she went.

It seemed a very long time, until the lines of her pencil crossed again, though surely it had not been so long as that. And there in the path ahead of her was a stallion, a unicorn, his coat lemon-yellow, and his mane a dark blue. Upon his flank was depicted a star with a tail; a comet, she realized after a short delay.

“Uh,” he said, “hey. I’m Comet Tail.”

“I’m Luster Dawn,” she said. “And you’re another challenge along the way, aren’t you?”

“Um,” he said, chuckling. His voice was soft, but easy to understand, like a radio pony whispering into their microphone. “I don’t know what that means? But if you’re asking if I’m going to, like, get in your way? No. You want to get to the center, you go girl. To each their own.”

“Good,” she walked up to him, but did not stride past. “Is this like, a friendship problem? I have to show I’m a good friend by taking you with me?”

“Really got no idea what you’re talking about.” Again, he laughed. “But like, I’m lost too, so if you’re offering, I’d love to go with you.”

She invited him along, and the two walked side by side. Upon completing the previous challenge, the puzzle, the maze had restored itself to normalcy -- to what she had predicted upon her map. But as she strode with Comet Tail, her lines continued to cross, in ways that normal geometry should not have permitted.

“You’re really smart, aren’t you?” Comet Tail asked, a small smile on his face. “I mean, I know everypony calls everypony clever, because like, it’s just a nice thing to say. But I mean, no, really.”

“I uh…” she said, “I guess I’m a little… yeah.” A small blush came to her face, as she considered him and the puzzle “So, you say you’re not a magical challenge that’s part of the maze. But here you are, wandering around without any graph paper. How do you navigate?”

“By starlight,” Comet Tail’s horn came alight, and the rotating image of a star map appeared before them both. “I’m an astronomer, and I have a spell for determining my exact latitude and longitude based on the sky. It’s accurate down to the foot. I never need a map to go anywhere, I just know.”

Luster looked up at the sky and said: “It’s the middle of the day.”

“The stars are still there,” Comet Tail replied, with a soft smile. “You just have to look right.”

In time they came to a split in the path. Luster Dawn’s map said to go right, and Comet Tail said his senses commanded they go left. An argument ensued, intense and passionate, made deeper by Luster’s attempt to go with him, “because that’s how friendship problems get solved,” an offer he vehemently rejected. If she didn’t trust him, he said, he didn’t want her.

And they almost broke up then and there.

But in the end, she went left, trotting off the map, and out of the plan she had so delicately laid out. And though they walked together for a great distance, and over much time, it seemed to her that not a moment at all had passed before there came another voice.

“Can I have some water?”

There was a foal before her, a tiny little thing: a unicorn filly with a pink coat and a blue mane. She was standing right in the middle of the path.

“Okay,” Luster said, “this is clearly some kind of challenge. I mean, children aren’t just left wandering around. So this is another puzzle. Or some kind of test.”

The filly stared at her, then said, “The fountain is down that way, on the left,” and pointed back the way Luster had come. “Can I have some water?”

“It’s a long, long backtrack to the first left,” Luster said. “That is a big detour. Look, maybe you can come with me instead? I’m trying to get to the center of the maze, and there’s all these magical challenges along the way, and I—”

“No,” the filly said. “I’m thirsty now. We can do all that after I get water?”

And while Luster made other arguments, of course, she couldn’t leave a small child unattended, could she? And so she backtracked a great way, and went left, and found the fountain and let the filly take a drink. Then the filly said she was tired and needed to lie down, and they had to go find a place with soft grass. Then the filly was scared and ran off, and Luster had to chase her. Then she wasn’t scared and ran into a section of the maze filled with manticores, dragons, and wicked changelings, and Luster had to go and save her.

Until she realized she had no idea where she was. She was in the hedge maze surrounded on all sides by the towering plants. There was nothing about this in her book on mazes, she hadn’t planned for any of it.

And she was alone again. The filly was gone; Comet Tail was gone. She faced many paths, any one of which could have lead her somewhere wondrous. But she didn’t know which one to take.

She didn’t know how to start over, when her starting point was long behind her, and everything was different from how it should be. And the wound on her side, left there by the Nightmare’s teeth, started to bleed again. The seconds of her life, her hours, her minutes, days, weeks, ran out and down her coat, and stained the grass.

Until she felt the sunlight upon her once again, and looked up to find Celestia staring down at her.

“Princess Celestia,” she said, her voice choked, “I think I’m lost. I thought I had a way to get through the maze, but it didn’t work how I expected, and I went chasing things that seemed important at the time, and… and now I don’t know how I’ll get to the center.”

“Oh,” Celestia said, her voice so sweet, so sad, “my little pony; let me attend to that. You are in the palace gardens, not in Tartarus. Smell the flowers, feel the sunlight, and know this maze was meant to be enjoyed. Some may navigate it more skillfully than others, but it is assuredly not a race. And if I have scattered things throughout its twists and turns that seem important? Perhaps they are. I have lost many treasures here, and not just in the center. Pick whatever path brings you the most joy, and have no regrets.”

Luster looked left and right, taking in the many paths around her. “But they all look the same,” she said.

“Then I suppose you have no choice,” Celestia hauled her to her hooves, “than to act on your best guess. And if you are wrong? Make it a mistake you don’t regret.”

“Mistakes I don’t regret,” Luster said. And it was like she was back at the start of the maze, like all the youthful vigor of that early moment returned to her, and with a smile on her face, she charged forward.

Into adventure.

When the day grew long, when the light above the hedges began to fade and a chill was upon her flesh, Luster found herself facing the center of the maze. The path she was on no longer had any turns, any corners, any options, except to go straight ahead, to the space boxed in by hedges, which had no exits. And true to Princess Twilight’s words, waiting for her there was Tirek, Chrysalis, and Cozy Glow, the Storm King and King Sombra. And with them, she realized, was Comet Tail, who had gotten ahead of her after all.

She looked back and saw Princess Twilight behind her, but she did not think Twilight would be joining her soon. And she asked, “How’d I do?”

Twilight said she couldn’t be prouder.

In time, Luster stepped forward, into the center of the maze, and joined the others there. The winter passed, as Twilight knew all seasons must pass. As she’d known they would pass, when first she answered Luster’s question, in the spring so long ago.

And the winter of Luster’s life ended.