My heartbeat quickened as we walked into the ruined hall that was lined with what had once, no doubt, been very impressive stained glass windows much like the ones in the palace, but now had fallen into disrepair. The stone floor, somehow free from the invading plants of the Everfree Forest, was fairly intact, which I regarded with some suspicion. The roof had even fallen prey to the ravages of time, being absent in many places. However, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of majesty from the building; for being abandoned for so long, its smooth stones still radiated a sense of presence.
However, the feature that dominated the room was a proud, time-weathered display on which five spheres sat. Somehow, when I saw them, a shudder of excitement ran from the tip of my horn to the end of my tail. An almost ethereal feeling hovered about the room. These could only be the Elements of Harmony, hidden away like the sun behind a bank of clouds, ready to burst forth and bring light to the land once more.
“Woah,” Rainbow Dash breathed.
“Come on, Twilight,” Applejack said, “Isn’t this what you’ve been waiting for?”
I stepped forward. “The Elements of Harmony... we found them!” My hoof twitched, desiring to dash forward and make sure that we had in fact found the instruments of our salvation. Everypony was counting on me; after all this time of having others clear the way for me—even if they had helped me through things I never could have overcome alone—it was time to do my part.
Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash each grabbed an Element in their hooves and carried it down from their platforms. Fluttershy, of course, treated it like a delicate egg, but Rainbow Dash's quick movements betrayed a sense of impatience—or, perhaps, rashness. “Careful, careful...” To my relief, they set the precious objects on the floor without incident.
“One, two, three, four... there’s only five!” Pinkie Pie said, casting a curious but neutral glance in my direction.
“Where’s the sixth?” Rainbow Dash said.
I crouched down, inspecting the closest stone, hoping some answer would reveal itself through its magic. To my disappointment, no such answer appeared, but I wasn't clueless. “The book said: ‘When the five are present, a spark will cause the sixth element to be revealed.’”
“What in the hay is that supposed to mean?” Applejack asked.
These didn’t exactly look like powerful magical artifacts, so maybe they just needed a jump start? “I’m not sure, but I have an idea. Stand back: I don’t know what will happen.” The others backed away.
I lit up my horn, screwing my eyes shut in concentration. If a spark was all that they needed, I could provide that. Elemental spells had never exactly been my forte—Princess Celestia had said something about getting to those areas of magic a few years down the line—but with any luck, a little static would be all I’d need. Even a filly could manage that.
“Come on, y’all, she needs to concentrate,” Applejack said as I heard her lead the others out, their gentle steps sounding more like tiptoeing to me.
I reached out with my magic, willing a spark to come forth. All I needed was to get things started. A huge wellspring of magic started to form in front of me—such a powerful force could only be coming from the spheres! I opened my eyes, only to see a whirlwind surrounding them. “The Elements!” I jumped in without thought to consequence or result; losing them was not an option.
The small maelstrom spat me out in the ruins of a grand throne room, filled with decayed remnants of a long-dead reign. At any other time, the historian in me would have been leaping for joy at the prospect of cataloging and recording everything I could observe, but to call me “a little preoccupied” at the moment was the understatement of the century. Right now, I didn't care about the classical pillars, the weathered dais, or the scuffed stone, worn smooth from centuries of hooves walking over it. I only had eyes for Nightmare Moon, the Elements floating around her in her mane! She cackled as lightning struck all around her. A gasp escaped my throat; the Elements were still inert.
I had to do something, or all of Equestria would be lost. I settled on one thought: Nightmare Moon appeared to have quite a flair for the dramatic, as her actions tonight had shown; if I played into her classical pride and lured her into a showdown where I'd be woefully outmatched, I could catch her off-guard and reclaim the Elements. She wanted to prove her power—if not to me, then to the rest of Equestria—so a direct challenge, no matter how ridiculous on my part, would be a temptation she wouldn’t be able to pass up. Part of me whispered that I still didn't know what the sixth Element of Harmony was, but instinct told me that the sixth element would take care of itself. Somehow. At this point, I had to make do with what I had.
I narrowed my eyes, scraped the floor with a forehoof like the knights of yore, and snorted in challenge. I just had to appeal to her pride...
Her eyes narrowed, and her mouth turned down in a frown. “You're kidding. You're kidding, right?” she asked, flaring out her wings in unconscious answer. To my delight, she dropped the Elements, playing directly into my hooves. Despite her words, I knew she'd take the bait. It was in her nature, and her body was already getting ready for it. She had to take the bait. It was my only chance; if I was wrong, I’d be in for a world of hurt.
I lit up my horn in preparation for my little gambit and charged, my hooves racing over the time-worn smooth stones of the floor as I prayed she was as stupid and vain as I thought she was.
The grin of a predator watching a mouse struggle under the weight of a claw came over her face as she leapt down. She galloped toward me, a confident leer etched into her features. It was a struggle to keep a victorious grin off my face; all I had to do now was work my magic. And I could do magic.
Just before I would have collided with Nightmare Moon, I blinked across the room in a quick teleport to reach the Elements.
The sudden, unfamiliar lurch of teleportation came over me, and my head swam for a moment. I had fooled Nightmare Moon, but a canny opponent like her wasn't about to let me have more than a few moments to act.
A hard object poked me in the side. “Oh, was that supposed to be clever?” Nightmare Moon's silky voice rolled over me as my pupils shrank to terrified pinpricks.
I glanced up, grimacing at how quickly she had moved; no doubt she had teleportation magic of her own. A dark field surrounded me, hurling me backwards into one of the room's pillars.
I screamed, forgoing words in favor of a primal expression of pain as I heard a few sickening cracks from my back. I squirmed as she held me fast against the pillar with magic so powerful, my own was as a mouse before a lion. Tears welled in my eyes as I found myself pushed further and harder against the unrelenting stone; my spine flared with needles of pain as Nightmare Moon held me several meters off the floor and walked slowly, leisurely to me.
She looked up at my miserable form. “So you are Twilight Sparkle...” she mused.
“You... you know my name?” I coughed out. My throat grew tighter and tighter; darkness crept into the corners of my vision. I had to fight! If I let Equestria down, I could never live with myself. In vain, I tried to nudge a hoof forward. It spasmed but broke free, wiggling under my command. Nothing was going to stop me: not pain, not a renegade princess, not anything.
Nightmare Moon proved me wrong by sending a few thousand volts of electricity straight into my horn. My screams of agony echoed off the walls; my tears sizzled the moment they fell from my eyes under the strength of her assault, and the nauseating smell of burning hair filled my nostrils. My once-victorious hoof, thoroughly beaten, went limp.
“But of course. Only a foal would fail to examine every last pawn before challenging one such as Celestia.” She tilted her head and arched an eyebrow as a contemplative tone entered her voice. “I wonder what she imagined a puny little pony like you could do?”
At that moment, the concerned cries of the five ponies who had accompanied me echoed up the staircase at the room's rear. I opened my mouth, ready to scream out a warning, but a fresh wave of electricity and the glare of the insane mare before me put a stop to that. “You won't... get away with this, Nightmare Moon.” My throat was scratchy, raw, but I refused to let her have the satisfaction of seeing me broken. “Equestria... Equestria will never accept you... as its ruler.”
“On the contrary, my little pony,” she said, grinning a grin that looked as cheerful as the gates of Tartarus, “I think you'll find that bowing to me is altogether rather pleasurable.”
“Never.” I spat the word with all the fury and indignation I could muster. Unbidden, Princess Celestia’s gentle, smiling face came into my memory. This pony... this monster stood there choking me to death and thought that I would join her cause? “I'll never join you!”
Her grin widened. “Whoever said you had a choice in the matter, my little pony?”
I coughed up a little blood, which I noted with satisfaction landed on one of Nightmare Moon’s hoofguards, although her gaze never left my face. “What the hay... is that supposed to mean?”
My only answer was a sinister, toothy grin that filled my fading vision as I blacked out.
I regained consciousness in a giant, well-ordered library with a ceiling so high I couldn't see the top. The floor was simple, no-nonsense cobblestone; the architect had had the good sense to let the books do the talking. I rose to my hooves, peering around at the endless expanse of solid wooden shelves and rows of books. “How did I get here?” My voice echoed off the bookshelves that rose dozens of feet into the air, offering me no answer. I took a tentative step forward, feeling the orderly stone under my hooves. Whoever owned this library could only be described as “meticulous.” Every shelf was filled with books that looked familiar and tidy, and not a speck of dust was on the vast majority of the shelves. My heart swelled with pride for the librarian, whoever she was.
A clattering noise aroused my attention as my ears perked up. Another noise, this one more identifiable as a dull “thud,” sounded off in the distance. Was someone knocking books off the shelves? I charged in the direction of the noise, which grew only more violent as I drew nearer, as though the vandal had heard my approach and was trying to shove as many off the shelves as he could before I stopped him. There would be no mercy for anyone harming a defenseless book.
I rounded the corner of a lavender-colored bookshelf, only to see a perfect double of myself, sitting in a pile of books and scribbling in them furiously with dozens of quills. “What are you?” I blurted.
The other me looked up, and I got a closer look at her. Her eyes had a strange, catlike shape in their pupils, and her grin was downright malicious, creating a jarring feeling; I did not look like that. She stood, never allowing her quills to stop their frantic editing—she had to have as many as eighteen books at a time in her grip! Despite her sinister appearance, I couldn't help but be impressed by her degree of control. “Oh, I’m just the librarian.” She giggled at my confused expression.
My eyes were drawn to another oddity on her body: her cutie mark, which was exactly identical to mine save one detail: overlaid over my own starry cutie mark was the image of a glowing moon. Looking at it made my eyes glaze over as my gaze stayed there, unable to tear my sight from this strange cutie mark. It took a deliberate, almost desperate effort to look away; I couldn't help but wonder if I had a touch of Marecissus in me. “What... why do you look like me, then?” I said, still woozy from whatever strange fugue had come over me after staring at her like that. A slight blush came over my cheeks as I considered how I must have looked: I met a mare, and immediately stared at her rear. What was wrong with me?
“Oh, do I? I’d hardly noticed,” she responded with a widening grin.
“What is this place, then?”
“Look around you, sun-lover. Where are you now? Apply that brain of yours... or is it just empty space under your horn?” She raised a hoof to her mouth, suppressing a snicker. This pony, whoever she was, was much ruder than I, at any rate. “I’m the new caretaker for this place. I’m just... making a few changes.”
I bristled at her remark about my intellect, but took her advice and took in my surroundings a little more thoroughly. Meanwhile, the eerie doppelganger continued her frantic work. Nothing new presented itself to me physically, but a certain feeling hung in the air, as though I'd been here hundreds of millions of times—as though I knew the stacks' contents by heart. My eyes wandered upward to the bookshelf across from us; it bore a familiar sunburst motif. Despite the bizarre situation I found myself in, I couldn't help but smile. Every library could use a shelf devoted to Princess Celestia. The shelf's simple, unadorned placard read “Memories of the Summer Moon Celebration.”
“Huh?” I murmured. “That's not right.”
“It is now,” she whispered from behind me.
“What?” I turned, suddenly filled with a feeling of intense dread. All the books she'd been scribbling in were re-shelved, and her quills were stuck in her mane. On a sudden thought, I looked to this bookshelf's label. It read “Early Foalhood.” “Wait...”
Suddenly, it all added up: the familiar feeling from the books; not feeling lost, although I’d never walked these halls before; getting an even more protective feeling about the books than normal; feeling disoriented when I stared at a distorted reflection of myself; and most of all, the library layout.
“Step away from my memories.” I growled and pawed at the ground, determined to restrain her.
She broke into a run. “No can do!”
I did a quick teleport, estimating her approximate position, and appeared right in front of her in a burst of magic. Her eyes widened in surprise, and it occurred to me where I'd seen such slitted pupils before: Nightmare Moon.
“I'm just making an improved you, Twilight. It’s for our own good!” she cried. She leapt into the air, snarling, and as I braced myself for impact, she lit up her horn and teleported past me. Her rapid hooffalls sounded behind me, mocking my incorrect choice.
I sprinted after her. “I doubt it. I like me just the way I am. Now undo whatever you've been doing!” Putting on all the speed I could muster, I lunged at her oh-so-close tail, desperate to knock her concentration off so I could undo the changes to the books... to my very memories.
She danced out of the way, snickering as I slammed into a bookshelf. “Poor little sun-lover, so desperate to get a piece of herself,” she sang, cantering away as my vision spun and her figure faded from sight.
“W-what?” I asked, my cheeks flushing. “That’s not... I mean, I wouldn’t want to...”
The image of her face, drawn into a coquettish smile, appeared before me. “Oh come now, Twilight. There are only two we’ve ever loved... ourself and the princess.”
“You leave Nightmare Moon out of this!” I clapped my hooves to my mouth as my cheeks burned.
Laughter, malicious laughter, sounded all around me as her face faded and her voice echoed from all around me, wavering in tone from high to low. “Oh, what princess was that, moon lover? Feeling a bit... confused?”
“I... I meant Princess Celestia!” My words lacked conviction even to my own flaccid, drooping ears.
“If you say so...” Her mock concern faded into peals of insane laughter that buffeted my huddled form from every direction, echoing like the taunting jeers of my classmates from the painful days of magic kindergarten.
I hauled myself to my hooves, heaving with exertion. I sped off, listening for the intruder's steps, which always seemed to be just around the next corner. My teeth ground together; there was no time for this foolishness. “Come back here, you tease!” I cried.
She tittered. Once again, that damnable voice echoed all around me, seeming to shift in pitch and tone with every moment, as though the speaker had given up trying to sound equine and had instead chosen to speak in a tone born of madness. “Oh my, Twilight, just what sort of mare do you think we are? We don’t like persistent ponies... or do we?”
“You are not me!”
Her laughter sounded once more, this time ice cold and clinical, the mortician about to dissect a member of the dearly departed. “Come closer, Twilight, and I’ll let you have all of me you want.”
Fresh shudders came over me. I slowed, realizing that the elusive steps had faded into silence. My ears swiveled and flicked, trying to detect any hint of masked breathing or the scuffling of a hoof on stone.
My head swam for a moment, and the scenery around me wavered. Panic gripped me as I considered what it could mean that my consciousness was fading while I stood in my own mind.
“You're losing yourself, Twilight Sparkle...” My own voice faded away, its growl fading into silence, and with alarm, I realized that I had no idea who had said that: the imposter throwing her voice or me.
“Ugh... no, not yet... I need to fix this.” Summoning all the will I had, I forced myself to keep moving forward. More than anything else, more than anypony else, I had to cling to my trust in Night—Princess Celestia. I sucked in a shuddering breath and leaned against a nearby bookshelf for support, bracing myself against the swirling, taunting colors of gentle night gathering before my eyes.
Princess Celestia had made me the mare I was through years of guidance, and she needed me now. No one else could save her: not her guards, not her councilors, not her country. Only I could do this. “I won't let you down, Princess Celestia. This I swear... I'll be there for you this time,” I whispered, feeling an inner fire burn within me. I shook my head, banishing the colors and feeling vigor flow back into me.
Try and stop me, Nightmare Moon. I could take anything she could throw at me. Instilled with confidence, I took another step closer to a diminutive, disused bookshelf marked “Friends,” where I was sure the mockery of me was hiding; I had just heard a book fall, released from her careless grip.
I crept closer, confident that she couldn't hear me. Her breathing was sharp and ragged, stirring up dust; why, she might as well have been broadcasting her location for all to see! For this exact reason, I circled back around; nopony would fall for such an obvious trap, least of all me. Since she obviously had some magical ability, she was trying to trick me while she teleported away and flanked me.
I turned around and doubled back, eager to beat her at her own game. I crept low, remembering one of the how-to guides on sneaking I'd read when I was a filly enamored with tales of donkey ninjas. Slow steps. Relaxed breathing. Patience. Wait for your opponent to make a mistake, and then move. It was this philosophy of watching and waiting that allowed her to make the first move; that was my mistake.
A hoof rapped on my back, eliciting a wince as my sore back screamed in protest. “Oh my, Twilight, I thought you wanted to make the first move?” my own voice asked. My blood ran cold; I had tricked me. No... she had tricked me. She was not me. She was not me.
I rolled to my hooves and spun, only to see the smirking doppelganger right in front of me. I opened my mouth to scream defiance, but she used the moment to dart in and kiss me.
I froze up in shock. I wasn't sure how I felt about kissing other mares, but it felt completely wrong to have my own tongue probing my mouth, rolling over each and every tooth like a desperate, writhing worm, eager to bore further and further into the rich soil I provided, regardless of how I felt on the matter. I tried to pull away, feeling weak as a newborn, but she wrapped a foreleg around me and held me close. The longer I stayed like this, the weaker I felt, like I... she was drawing something out of me. With a magical shove, I broke away. My heart pounded; my breaths came in short, sharp gasps. “What... what are you doing,” I said rather than asked. At this point, it really wasn't even worth guessing at her motives anymore. She could only be a product of Nightmare Moon, sent into my mind to confuse and distort my memories. My vision blurred in front of my eyes, as though to drive home the point.
“Aww, but Twilight, we've always said we didn't need anypony but ourselves. Don't you trust yourself?” she asked, taking a step closer as her reptilian eyes shone with false emotion. It... it had to be false emotion. Although maybe I did have my best interests at heart after all. I shook my head, trying to clear my muddied thoughts.
I drew back. “Well, it's true that I trust in myself... but don't... don't say 'we.' You're... not me...” My voice trailed off, my pitiful attempt at assertion ending on a choked note.
“Then shut up and trust this.” I stared as my own horn glowed on that victorious face, and as my horror grew, she pulled me in for another vampiric kiss. As my lips brushed against mine, I whispered, “Don't worry. I'll take care of everything for us. Trust me.”
“N-no... stop...” I moaned, trying to pull away from myself. A wave of revulsion, like a thousand parasprites marching just under my skin, swept over me. This was wrong. I shut my eyes and looked away, determined to at least rid myself of the sight of my own vile face.
My voice sounded in the small space between us, rolling over me in a hypnotic, soothing melody. “Look at me. Look at yourself.” Despite my best efforts, I turned back and looked into the depths of those half-lidded eyes. “We've only needed us. Always.” Her hoof brushed the side of my face, a lover comforting a lover, and despite my horror, an electric thrill ran down my spine. Her eyes—my eyes—were so inviting. “Our whole lives, all we've needed are us and our princess. Right?”
“Right,” I mumbled, feeling my eyelids start to droop as my words rolled into my ears. “Always the princess.”
I chuckled, feeling the foreleg holding me shake from my own laughter. I looked into my own slitted eyes and saw myself reflected in them; I had a point. The more I listened to myself, the more I seemed to be correct.
As I stared at myself, I said, “You see? Not so bad. Just accept me. Accept yourself. Who am I? Who are you? Who are we?”
I stared at the pony—at myself—inches from my face, whose hot breath continued panting its way onto my muzzle. “I'm Twilight Sparkle. You're Twilight Sparkle.”
As one, both of me said, “We are Twilight Sparkle,” and I felt at peace with the new serenity I had shown myself. Surrender could be such a sweet thing.
Then, I kissed myself, and as everything fell into the darkness of unnatural rest, only one thought stayed with me, fading in power as I pressed my soft lips into mine, destroying any will and conscious thought I had: Celestia. Celestia. Celestia...
I got to my hooves slowly, feeling very drowsy. I stood in the shadow of a familiar, ruined throne amidst a once-great hall in the middle of the Everfree Forest, and I had been... been... what had I been doing? My mind was shrouded in fog, as though thinking about anything was like looking up from the bottom of the ocean at a solitary pegasus high above the clouds. Something around my neck pulsed, bathing me in soothing mauve light.
Around my neck, I discovered a halter in the royal style, emblazoned with an image of a silvery moon against a dark background. My mind stirred at this sight, and as the emblem pulsed again with tinted light, the fog in my mind cleared. Of course: I was with my Mistress. The Mistress had been dealing with the rebel faction opposing Her.
The image of a white-coated, gently smiling face floated into my mind, delivering a lecture on the cosmos. Hadn't it been her sun-raising sister that I had been following? Celestia?
I swayed on my hooves, overcome by nausea. Although it was ridiculous to consider me being anything but loyal to my Princess and Mistress, a part of me still screamed that I had been tutored by that “Celestia” who had done so much to try to unbalance my Mistress' reign. I fell to the ground and writhed, feeling that traitorous part of me that was so willing to ignore everything my Mistress had done for me in favor of such a ridiculous idea burning like a terrible, corrupting disease in my mind.
Princess Celestia was my teacher. Princess Celestia was my teacher.
My Mistress was who I served. My Mistress was who I served.
I beat my head against a nearby wall in frustration, trying to drown out the disloyal voice. I would never betray my Mistress, but what if she was never my mistress at all? I shook my head, quickly, only to notice my halter flaring again. I closed my eyes, trying to shut out its harsh glow, even as I felt it wash over me and soothe my tormented spirit.
When I opened my eyes again, I was calm. No longer did impure thoughts cloud my mind; there was only love for my Princess: Nightmare Moon. I was a good, pure servant once more.
I climbed to my hooves, feeling myself rather short of breath from my ordeal. I looked myself over quickly, but aside from a lingering pain around my throat and a few scorched spots on my coat—thinking on them made my head throb, as though there were memories I couldn't quite grasp—I was fine.
The sound of heavy hooffalls echoed behind me, and I turned, uncertain of what I would see in this fearful place. However, to my delight, it was only the glorious visage of my Mistress, shaking some stone dust from five nearby piles of rubble near the throne from her hooves as she walked. I immediately bowed, as I was not worthy to so much as glimpse Her glorious mane. “Mistress, please forgive your lowly, unworthy servant who is not worthy to gaze upon Your...” My words sounded hollow, as though they were being fed into my mouth. The feeling sent a shiver from my ears to my tail. Could this be some side effect of whatever strange fugue had caused me to doubt my very memories? To make me think that the pony who had been a second mother to me and then a trusted teacher was somehow not deserving of my love and adoration? How absurd.
I blushed, feeling honored that She would remember the name of Her humble student, and rose to my hooves. “I... I am not worthy of your indulgence, Mistress...” I looked at the ground, still certain that I was unworthy of gazing at Her. As Her glorious mane snaked its way under my chin, forcing me to look at Her, my blush deepened and my tail raised of its own accord. Slightly, so it may have been mistaken for a nervous twitch.
She drew back, alarm plain on Her face. Quickly, however, Her expression returned to one of entirely deserved superiority, and She drew near once more. “I hadn't realized her feelings for my sister were that strong... I may have to adjust the enchantment,” my Mistress murmured.
Now that I was permitted, my dreamy gaze lingered upon my Mistress' perfect face, taking in everything about Her dark, beautiful expression. “Sorry, Mistress, what were you saying?” I slurred, intoxicated by Her hot puffs of breath on my face. She had never been this close to me, and I found Her otherworldly scent—like a particularly cool morning dew, chilled by the blessing of night—intoxicating. A slow, dreamy smile came over my face. Although I knew there was probably important business at hoof—crushing those who would threaten Equestria's perfect state of eternal happiness, forever shrouded in a pristine night—all I could focus on were Her deep eyes, which no doubt saw through to the foalish state of my thoughts. She was clever like that, perfect like that, sharp like that; if I grew up to be even half the pony my Princess was, I could die happy. She was the mold I wanted to cast myself in. Ever since I saw Her raise the sun at the... a buzzing entered my ears.
“What was that, Twilight?”
A small, electric thrill went through me again just to hear Her saying my name. Apparently, I had spoken my heresy aloud, which tempered my enthusiasm with a revulsion of shame. “I'm... I'm sorry, Princess...” I tried extra hard to bring out the respectful capital in apology. “My mind's kind of loopy tonight. I don't know why. Too many hours studying under you, I suppose...” I sighed, a schoolfilly gazing at an innocent crush. How very like Her: She had far more pressing concerns, and when I showed a hint of very fragile, innocent mortal weakness, She tried to help. How magnanimous. How empathic. How like the princess who ruled over that which gave us light...
The buzzing grew louder, becoming a sharp keening in my ears. Why did I keep associating Her with the sun? I whined, a puppy desperately trying to hide wrongdoing from its mother.
She quirked an eyebrow almost to the ridge of her helmet, and for a brief, horrifying moment, I was sure I had disappointed Her. Had this all been a test? Was I about to fail?
Luckily, faint calls of my name from several ponies came from a spiral staircase at the other end of the room and distracted us both from my failures. My little headache grew more insistent upon hearing them, and I clenched my head between my forelegs to block it out.
Nightmare Moon, true ruler of Equestria, my Mistress and teacher, reached down and smoothed my mane. Heat rose to my cheeks; She was touching me! “Don't worry, Twilight. I know you must be confused. Just trust in what you know to be the truth, my little pony.” She directed my gaze with a tip of her mane to the moon sigil I wore. “Know that you are my most valued subject... and student, Twilight. I will not let these ponies, who are bent on ruining everything you and I hold dear, have their way.” She stood and pointed an accusing hoof at the doorway with perfect dramatic flourish, sending my heart aflutter with renewed admiration. “I, Nightmare Moon, shall protect you. Hide thyself in the darkness that is my domain and trust in me.” She turned and grinned the grin of a predator setting a trap for rebellious prey. “I will not fail Equestria.”
My mouth moved, but I failed to form words. To avoid looking like a more foalish foal, I nodded vigorously and jumped into a shadow from a nearby pillar to watch my Mistress defend Equestria firsthoof. I bit my lip, holding back a squee of anticipation. Although She rarely displayed it, accounts of Her battle with the traitorous Princess Celestia told of powerful magics She subdued her with before She banished her to the moon. To see such amazing magic for myself was a dream!
The buzzing in my head grew to a shrieking that threatened to split my horn. Why would Nightmare Moon banish Celestia to the moon? Had She not sent her to the sun to sit amidst her own element and think on her crimes?
I shook my head, dismissing the conjecture. Of course my Mistress had banished Celestia to the moon; where better to keep an eye on a powerful enemy than one's own seat of power? I stuck my muzzle in the air with swelling pride; logic had defeated foalish emotion once more. At this, my treasonous confusion waned, becoming little more than an annoying whisper in a sun-loving voice that amounted to little more than nothing. Satisfied that I had dealt with my own issues, I turned my attention to the door to see my Princess deal with Equestria's.
A group of five ponies had advanced cautiously into the room: a cyan pegasus with a prismatic mane and tail who looked ready to destroy anything that looked at her crossways, a yellow pegasus who trembled with every step, an orange earth pony wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a serious expression, a pink pony with a goofy smile on her face, and a white unicorn who clearly used a great deal of hair care products every morning. I felt I knew these ponies, although I'd never seen them before. Since they were rebels, had I suppressed the memory of meeting with them? The memory surely would have been something I'd felt ashamed about, owing to my strong loyalty to the Crown of the S—Moon, so it made some sense. Idly, I swatted the air around me with my tail, as though I could dispel the resurgence of my bout of confusion. If only I could make myself—body and soul—the perfect student for Her. But, I lived, so I was flawed.
Unbidden, as though to emphasize my weakness, my brain whispered names in my ear for each pony: Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, and Rarity.
“Where's Twilight, huh?” “Rainbow Dash” cried as she maintained a steady hover in the air. “What have you done with her?” Without waiting for a response, the foolhardy foal dove forward, only to be halted by “Applejack” grabbing “Rainbow Dash’s” long, vibrant tail in her mouth.
“Now, hold on there, Rainbow Dash,” she said through a mouthful of tail. “No need to go flying off the handle now.” Interesting: I did seem to know these ponies from somewhere if I knew their names. But from where? My brain itched—as though there was something that I really should have remembered—but the memory refused to surface.
“But... what if something scary happened to Twilight?” Fluttershy asked, daring to peek out from behind Applejack's rear.
My Mistress shot a scathing glare at the pitiful pegasus, who quickly yelped and ducked back behind Applejack.
“Oh, nothing 'scary' has happened to Twilight. She's safe and sound,” my Mistress assured them with a casual smile.
“Well that's good!” Pinkie Pie said. “I kinda figured we were in one of those scary-wary situations where suddenly everything's all darky and then you try to light a candle like FWOOSH to lighten the mood with flaming breath from hot sauce and somepony says, 'But Pinkie, that's not what that expression means' and then everyone has a good laugh at how silly that pony was for misunderstanding such a simple phrase!” As everyone stared at her, trying to process her rapid-fire rambling, she added, “I mean, what else would it mean? Of course ponies were having trouble seeing! Like, duh!”
“Er... thank you, Pinkie,” Rarity said. She turned to my Mistress, and in her audacity, looked Her directly in the eyes without permission. “Well then, er, Nightmare Moon, if our friend is alright, would you mind simply trotting her out here?”
My heart fluttered when she said the word “friend”—had I been her friend? Out of the aether, my pounding headache returned a thousandfold, as though part of me was desperate to break free of my own mind. I grit my teeth, determined to weather whatever weakness was making me doubt myself once again. I believed in my Mistress. I believed in Nightmare Moon.
Just as the pain became unbearable, the choker I wore pulsed with a soothing light, and the pain vanished. A slow, smooth exhale of breath I hadn't been aware I was holding followed. Those ponies were not my friends. I would never have befriended somepony who wanted to bring down Her Majesty and ruin Equestria. I put a gentle hoof to the necklace I wore. It bore Her very emblem, symbolizing Her trust in me; I had to be worthy of Her trust. I had to.
“In due time,” Nightmare Moon purred. “First I must ask something of you foals.”
They all tensed—even Pinkie Pie—sensing the dangerous undercurrent in her words. From the shadows, I smirked. They were wise to not underestimate her; it was a shame their wisdom did not seem to extend to whom to support as ruler.
My Mistress struck a dramatic, commanding pose, and my heart melted at the sight. She was just so perfect in every way: always strong, always in control, always kind, and always ready to help me.
If I could permit myself a touch of foolishness, I could almost call it admiration. No, admiration was too weak of a word. My whole life, I had known exactly who I wanted to be, what pony I wanted to emulate, what standard I strove for: I wanted to be just like my Mistress, the perfect princess Nightmare Moon.
One could even call it love.
Meanwhile, Nightmare Moon continued. “Will you swear loyalty to me as ruler of Equestria?” She gave them an imposing gaze, looking every inch the majestic royal prepared to offer magnanimous pardons to misguided idealists. How perfect, how without flaw, how noble She was!
“No!” they all chorused, determination carved into all their features.
I sagged. Were they really so stubborn?
“What a shame. Still, it was only a question.” My Mistress grinned anew. “I think you'll find that having me as your ruler is entirely more pleasurable than my sun-loving sister. Isn't that right, Twilight?” She cast a beckoning glance in my direction.
Nervous at being put on the spot, I walked out from the shadows, ignoring the astonished gasps from the five ponies. With precise purpose, I took my place next to Her and gazed out at the small band of rebels.
Applejack sputtered, her mouth moving faster than her words, “T-Twilight! You're okay!”
I shifted, uncomfortable at being addressed in such a familiar way by somepony who was anathema of everything I stood for and loved. “Of course I am...” I said, unsure how exactly to respond to such concern from a complete stranger.
“What's that weird thingy around your neck?” Pinkie Pie asked, pointing at my moon emblem torque.
I drew back, clutching at it for protection. Somehow, it felt wrong to have her even look at it. “It's a symbol of the trust and love I have for Her!” I hissed, once again stressing the respectful capital. I calmed myself, lowering my shaking hoof from the brooch. They seemed like rational ponies. Surely, at least one of them would have the sense to repent if I just explained things. I drew myself up, trying to look the perfect diplomat. “Look, I'm sure you all have your reasons for opposing Princess Nightmare, but please, I beg of you, reconsider.” She glanced at me askance as I said this, perhaps noting my unusual form of address in regards to Her. Somehow, staring out at these rebellious ponies, it seemed right.
“How do you know that, huh? Were you a spy the whole time?!” Rainbow Dash cried, pointing an accusatory hoof in my direction.
“A spy?” I shook my head. “No, I was never a spy.” I shifted closer to Her, and She wrapped a protective wing around me. I nuzzled into Her coat, blushing as I did so. I was a weak pony, but She allowed me my indulgences. I turned back to the five ponies, whose jaws were dropping lower by the second. “I don't know what your reasons are, but I know She can deal with them! She's always treated me well, even when I was a filly.” I sighed, awash in fond memories of my days spent under Her tutelage.
“I thought you said you were Princess Celestia's student?” Applejack asked.
“W-what? No!” I jerked away from my Mistress, fearful of Her wrath if She were to believe them. “Please, Princess! I was never... I wouldn't...” My mouth clamped itself shut before I could babble anything else.
“That's all I need to hear!” Rainbow Dash launched herself forward, but even as I felt Her tense up in anticipation, Applejack bit on her tail and held her back.
“Something doesn't seem quite right here,” Rarity said. “Twilight was bent on stopping Nightmare Moon's return, and without all of us, we wouldn't have gotten this far.”
“What... what do you mean?” My headache started to return, and my vision swarm. Somehow, flickers of these ponies—traveling with them, laughing with them—rose in my consciousness. What trickery was this? If I could have, I would have vomited; thinking such disloyal thoughts towards the great pony I'd idolized my entire life made me feel ill. My Mistress' gift to me, my moon torque, glowed, and for a moment, the feeling vanished. All was well again.
Moments later, the memories resurfaced, which made my nausea resurface, which made the torque glow again, which made the misery vanish, which made the memories resurface... “Stop it! Just stop!” I screamed, dropping to the floor in agony. “I don't want to be confused! I don't want to be wrong!” Tears fell from my eyes as my Mistress' gift, intended only to soothe my aches, reinforced the cycle of suffering. “Please...” I whispered, reaching a trembling hoof towards the dark figure of salvation above me. “Please... help me.”
She took my hoof with her own, causing me to shiver with pleasure in the midst of my agony. “I will.”
Such simple words, yet they held so much power. Even now, in the depths of my despair, weakness, and pain, here She was, ready to help me and support me, as She always did. I couldn't even imagine what would have happened on that day if She hadn't restrained my out-of-control magic during the exam. She had always been right there, ready to help a weak, clueless pony find her way in a big, complicated world; what had I done to deserve such indulgence? Truly, Her patience and kindness knew no bounds. Tears gathered in my eyes as I nodded with more gratitude than words could ever express.
“Hey everypony, look at that weird shiny thing coming from that moon thing!” Pinkie Pie said, pointing to the precious gift She had bestowed upon me.
“That must be what's making her act all funny-like!” Applejack said. “Come on, girls—we've got to help her. We're friends, aren't we?”
A cheer of assent went up from the assembled ponies, but my mind froze on that one word: friends. Friends. Friends? Did I have friends? Were these ponies my friends? My eyes widened, shimmering unbidden with fresh tears I couldn't explain. “Are... are they my friends?” I whispered. Something—the beginning of something great and terrible, a violent, coursing torrent of emotion—boiled up within me, like the precursor to a mighty storm that yearned to explode from my body and wash away everything before me.
“No. Now sleep,” my Mistress told me. She touched her horn to mine, and over the valiant cries of the rebel ponies charging, I fell into Her element: darkness, as feeling faded from my weary mind.
I opened my eyes and found myself staring at a wracked, bent-over form. The pony before me groaned. She was blue—a lighter color than the pony I revered—and her mane was not nearly as impressive, but save for those things and her shorter stature, I could have mistaken her for Her. Even their cutie marks were the same, which was not altogether unheard of, but this many similarities almost defied belief.
She looked up with world-weary eyes and chuckled: a tinny, wasted sound that felt almost insubstantial.
“Who are you?” My curiosity was going to get me in serious trouble one of these days.
Her sunken, dull, half-dead eyes regarded me with pity. “My name, Twilight Sparkle, is Luna. You've suffered a terrible fate, haven't you?”
Want to see how this crazy thing started? Take a look at the rough draft!