Amidst dim candlelight, a single unicorn sat with his head bent down, eyes shut. He sat alone at the edge of a still pond, his reflection dancing in the water. The pond was nestled deep within the Everfree Forest, where the darkened trees with their gnarled branches surrounded all sides like silent sentinels.
While most of Equestria had just shifted into spring, the Everfree was still gripped by clinging bits of winter. Snow covered the ground, and there was a lingering chill in the air. The unicorn’s hot breath left puffs of steam to curl and rise for a few seconds before disappearing into the night.
For a long while, the unicorn had sat in utter silence on the edge of the pond with only a few nearby candles for company. The light from the tiny, flickering flames fell upon his coat and mane, which had been dyed from its natural color to a pitch black. Even his cutie mark had been covered by the dyes, his flank appearing utterly blank.
Only the quiet sounds of the forest were audible. There was the creaking of the trees, the shifting of the pond water, and the occasional buzz and chirp of insects. In all, it was a scene of tranquility, and it was just what the unicorn needed to prepare for the task of the evening. Yet, as he took in another deep breath, hoofsteps began to echo across the trees.
“Nexus, we’re ready when you are.”
The black unicorn, Spell Nexus, took in another breath, and his turquoise eyes opened as he turned to look at the pony who had approached him from behind. “I will be along shortly.”
The pony who had interrupted gave a nod before disappearing back into the forest. Nexus waited for the hoofsteps to fade into silence before lighting his horn. His magic flowed freely, and he used the mystic energy to reach to his side and levitate a number of items into the air. He then looked skyward, fixing his gaze on the moon.
“Our queen, guide me this night, for it is beneath this full moon that our efforts come to fruition.”
Nexus spoke the words slowly with a voice that carried the tone of a pony well practiced in preaching, whose words could inspire loyalty and devotion. It was a voice that had drawn great minds and strong bodies to the cause, though at the moment Nexus spoke only to himself as he lowered his head and touched a hoof to his chest.
“Let me be merely a vessel for your will and strength until the deed is done.”
The levitating items drew close to him and began to circle slowly. There was a cape, midnight blue in color, with white stars all across its surface that billowed as it moved through the air. Along with the cape were pieces of armor, all comprised of a grayish-purple metal. There were horseshoes, a neck brace, and lastly a chest plate which had a turquoise crescent moon set into its center.
“Let me bear your mane,” Nexus spoke as he drew the cape over his back, “both powerful and beautiful, a depiction of the endless sky. Let me stand in your uniform,” he continued as the armor began to secure itself to his body, “in the armor that pays tribute to your image and greatness. Let me be your agent this night, for it is you I serve above all others.”
The final piece of armor levitated towards Nexus: a helmet made of the same metal as the chest piece. The unicorn guided the helm carefully, bringing it down his horn until it fit snugly onto his head. “May your power be with me, for, tonight, you shall breathe and taste the cool night air for yourself. You shall look upon the world with eyes of your own, and no longer will you be forced to share a body with a weak foal as you have in the past. Tonight, you shall be your own mare, never again to be threatened by the Elements of Harmony.”
Nexus rose to his hooves and looked at his reflection in the pond. He now appeared the ultimate doppelganger of his mistress, and, like any eager acolyte, he was ready to bear witness to her power and knowledge. Through the efforts of him and his group, they would see their queen rise again. Yet it was only he that was allowed to look so much like the queen, to lead the spell that was about to be cast. It was his place of honor, one nopony would steal from him.
“Tonight, Nightmare Moon, your followers shall grant you a life of your own, and the tyrants of sun and moon shall fall.”
Mentally prepared, Nexus turned from the pond and began to walk into the forest. He followed a trail that connected to a nearby clearing, which came into view quickly. The clearing was occupied by several unicorns, pegasi, and earth ponies who were moving back and forth across the space as they constantly checked their work.
The ground had been cleared of snow, though a few piles were left dotted about the space. On both the exposed ground and on the piles of snow, there were wooden bowls filled with oil soaked powders. Paint had been employed to draw arcane lines of power, and cloaked pegasi worked in the air above to push clouds together to hide the clearing from prying, skybound eyes.
All the ponies Nexus saw wore the black cloak of the order, except for three who stood giving orders: a pair of pegasi and an earth pony. They, like Nexus, wore the honored armor, though he alone wore the flowing, starfield cape and the helmet. Only he had the honor of wearing those vestments.
“How close are we, Night Wind?” Nexus asked as he approached the trio.
“Cloud cover is almost complete, and the pegasi only need a few minutes to get their bowls,” the dark purple pegasus answered, staring back at Nexus with her turquoise eyes. Such eyes were a sign of the order, a blessing that granted not just their majesty’s regal turquoise eye color, but also enlightenment.
“Good,” Nexus said before turning to the earth pony. “Stonewall, do you have the items?”
“They have not left my sight since our departure from Canterlot, Nexus,” the earth pony replied, motioning to the bowl that was currently resting on his back.
“And, Gray Gale, is our special guest awake?”
“Oh yeah, she just woke up,” the gray pegasus answered, “And boy is she scared!”
“That’s because you told her Stonewall would snap off her horn if she tried to escape,” Night Wind snipped.
Gray Gale shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly. “Hey, it kept her from trying anything.”
“She couldn’t try anything even if she wanted to. She’s got an anti-magic brace on her neck.”
“You have all done well,” Nexus spoke, stopping the argument before it could go any further. “But now we must all take our places. Stonewall, take the sacred items to the center of the ritual. Gray Gale, Night Wind, prepare your torches and head to the sky.”
The three nodded, moving to their assigned tasks while Nexus turned his attention to one side of the clearing. There, lying on the ground, was a mare who had her hooves hogtied with rope and a cloth bag over her head.
Treading carefully, Nexus moved between the wooden bowls and approached the hogtied pony. Her violet coat was dirty from lying on the ground, and her dark purple mane was a rough mess. The sight of her like that made Nexus smile, and, once he was close enough, he used his magic to remove the bag on her head and reveal her terrified eyes.
“I’m so happy you were able to join us this evening, Miss Sparkle.”
“Who are you? What are you going to do to me?” Twilight Sparkle asked in a panicked squeak, just barely managing to find her voice. She struggled at the ropes around her legs and tried to use her magic to escape. However, not only had she been physically bound, but the metal brace secured around her neck kept her from making use of her magic.
Nexus laughed a little to himself and used his magic to pick Twilight off the ground. “Inquisitive, though I should expect no less from Celestia’s star pupil,” he said with a smug superiority. He then turned and began walking towards the center of the clearing as Twilight floated behind him. Ahead of him, the earth pony Stonewall had set up a metal pedestal, upon which he had placed the wooden bowl from his back.
“What we have planned for you, Twilight Sparkle, is very simple. As to who we are… well, consider us simply the loyal servants of Equestria’s true queen, her regal majesty Nightmare Moon.”
“Are you crazy!?” Twilight asked while she twisted around in Nexus’s magic, continuing to try and free herself. “Nightmare Moon is gone. How can you serve somepony who is gone?”
“It is much easier than you think, Miss Sparkle. I will not, however, spoil the surprise. For the moment, all you need to know is that your… contribution is appreciated.” At that, Nexus replaced the bag on Twilight’s head. He secured it tightly before placing a sound dampening spell across the fabric which muffled Twilight’s continued protests
Leaving Twilight floating and thrashing in the air, Nexus walked over to the metal pedestal. He examined the contents of the wooden bowl set upon the tall, narrow metal table, and his eyes gleamed in anticipation. Inside the bowl were curled shreds of what looked like paper. They were black in color with a big, turquoise crescent moon adorning the largest of the pieces.
Nexus then turned his attention to a dagger resting beside the bowl, picking it up with his magic. The blade was fine, sharp, and clean. It had never been used, although Nexus intended to change that. He turned back towards Twilight, who was still twisting, flailing, and shouting out muffled protests. He drew close, and, after lowering Twilight a little closer to the ground, Nexus proceeded to give the mare a swift kick in the stomach.
The kick quickly made Twilight stop flailing. She hung limply, trying to catch the breath that had been knocked from her lungs as Nexus moved in with the dagger. He drew the blade across part of Twilight's leg, leaving a very shallow wound. It was no worse than a paper cut, but Twilight still screamed. She screamed both from the pain and also in fear for her own life.
Nexus, however, showed no interest in harming Twilight further. He instead focused on the wound he had created. It had begun to weep blood, and Nexus set the dagger against it. He gathered several drops of blood on the blade and then placed it into the bowl with Nightmare Moon’s remains.
“Yes, steal the life from the blood of the bearer of the Element of Magic. Let it give you strength, so that you may shed the rest of her blood with your own hooves, ” Nexus whispered to the shreds, as if in prayer. He then levitated Twilight back to the edge of the clearing and dropped her unceremoniously at the base of a tree before he approached the metal pedestal. At the same time, the other cloaked ponies, as well as Stonewall, Night Wind, and Gray Gale, turned their attention to Nexus. They watched him, and they fell silent as he began to speak to them as a preacher would speak to his congregation.
“Brothers and Sisters, for nearly two years we have toiled in secrecy. We worked behind the backs of the guards and tyrant princesses, and we put our own safety at risk. Personal fortunes and countless hours have been spent to bring us to this point. But now we are ready; the spell is prepared. Tonight we, the Children of Nightmare, shall see our queen given life, blood, and form of her own!”
The rest of the cult ponies cheered and stamped their hooves against the ground in applause. Spell Nexus smiled, and he took in their joy for just a moment before he continued to speak. “Once, our queen and Luna were one and the same, but the Elements of Harmony could not destroy what our queen was. No, that power could only peel her away from the weak foal Luna; it could only trap her essence in these precious shreds. It was a horrible fate, but it is because of the Elements of Harmony’s inability to destroy our queen that we can stand here tonight.
“For it is tonight we give this essence of our queen life of its own. It is tonight our queen’s shackles to the meek Princess Luna shall be broken forever. And it is tonight that our campaign to retake Equestria begins!”
Nexus reared back and raised his voice to a triumphant shout. “Now lend your magic to the spell my brothers and sisters, for tonight, our victory is at hoof! For tonight, Nightmare Moon will be born anew!”
The cult cheered, sharing in Spell Nexus’s jubilation before quickly going about their work. The unicorns formed a circle around the clearing, and their horns glowed as the lines of paint they had drawn on the forest floor came to life with a blue incandescence. At the same time, Stonewall, one of the few earth ponies at the ritual, walked around the circle. With a torch in his mouth, he lit the bowls filled with oil soaked powders, causing them to flare with an eerie blue flame.
A similar scene was occurring in the air above the ritual. There, the pegasi cult members held more bowls of powder, keeping them aloft while Gray Gale and Night Wind flew amongst them. The two armored pegasi lit each bowl with practiced efficiency before joining Stonewall on the edge of the spell, where the trio would watch as it unfolded.
Spell Nexus himself watched all this, and, once all the bowls were lit, he waited until the air became sufficiently saturated with magic. He then used a spell of his own to take the fire from one of the bowls. He held the fire gingerly and carried it over to the ritual’s center slowly so that it wouldn’t die. Then, with a final pleased smile, he tossed the fire into the bowl containing the shreds of Nightmare Moon and the bloodied dagger.
The shreds burst into flame almost instantly, and Nexus quickly retreated to the edge of the circle to join his fellow unicorns. There, they all began to twist and form the magic in the air, working it like potters with clay. They shaped the free magic, molded it, and began to force it down into the bowl that contained the shreds of Nightmare Moon.
And, after a few anxious moments, Nexus saw what he had hoped for. The blood soaked dagger started to float above the fire, cradled by the energies of the spell. The blood was drawn up from the blade and formed into a single crimson sphere. The dagger itself was then launched clear of the spell with such force that its polished blade dug deep into one of the trees surrounding the ritual.
Then, with the dagger gone and the blood remaining, black smoke began to billow from the central bowl. The shreds of Nightmare Moon were starting to burn, and the smoke they released formed around the large drop of blood. The fires, smoke, and magic from the wooden bowls set around the spell were drawn in as well. Everything was swirling and orbiting the spell’s focal point, being drawn in like water in a whirlpool.
The drop of blood became encased in a black sphere, and that black sphere began to slowly grow. It drew in the fire and smoke and everything else, growing larger with each passing moment.
“Yes… it is working my brothers and sisters,” Nexus called out. “She is beginning to take shape. Our queen shall soon be—”
Many of the cult ponies jumped a foot in the air when a single bolt of lightning raced down from the sky and struck the very center of the spell, sundering the metal podium and wrapping the drop of blood, the shreds of Nightmare Moon, and the wooden bowl in crimson flames. At the same time, the cult’s carefully constructed cloud cover was blown back, and a full battalion of royal guards flew down from the sky.
“FREEZE! YOU ARE ALL UNDER ARREST!!!” several of the guards shouted as dozens of other gold armored pegasi landed in the center of the clearing. However, not a single pony froze, the cultists instead charged the guards, turning the once carefully tended clearing into a battlefield.
Yet, as the battle began, Spell Nexus stood flabbergasted. He watched as the center of the spell and the precious shreds of Nightmare Moon were destroyed. All their plans had been decimated by a single surge of magical lightning: lightning that could only have come from one source.
Turning his eyes skyward, Nexus glared at the next figure to float down through the hole in the clouds. With a single flash of her horn, the figure brushed away the cloud cover like froth from a cup of hot cocoa.
“Celestia,” Nexus forced out through gritted teeth as he locked his turquoise eyes on the sun princess. She floated down amidst the fighting, casting back anypony that dared attack her with barely any effort, and it enraged Nexus. Every fiber of his being wanted him to attack, to smite down Celestia for daring to interrupt the ritual, but he knew better.
“Don’t think you’ve won today, Celestia. You have merely delayed me at best,” Nexus hissed. He then barked at any cultists nearby, calling them to him as his horn began to glow. Together with Gray Gale, Night Wind, Stonewall, and a few dozen of the other cultists, Nexus cast his spell, and the group as a whole seemed to vanish into thin air.
“Have you apprehended all involved?” Celestia asked. After rescuing Twilight, she had taken her student home and sent her straight to bed. Twilight resisted a bit, but, after what she’d been through, it didn’t take much to get her to fall asleep. Celestia had then turned Ponyville’s Golden Oaks Library into a base of operations, keeping guard of her student personally while having her guards bring their reports to her.
“We have captured a great number, but we believe some were able to escape by using magic to disguise themselves,” the guard reported, head bowed respectfully to Princess Celestia. “We believe it was an invisibility spell, and we followed their tracks into the forest. Unfortunately, the tracks eventually ended. We are currently working under the belief that the missing cultists realized their mistake and corrected the spell so it hid their tracks as well. We are continuing to search the forest with the aid of the zebra that reported your student’s ponynapping.”
“Yes, Zecora. Please make sure that she is properly thanked for all she has done this evening. Also, please extend to her an invitation to the palace so that she may join Luna and I for dinner on an evening of her choosing.”
“Of course, Princess,” the guard answered as he raised his head. “Though, if I may ask, what do you believe these ponies were trying to do?”
“I do not know,” Celestia admitted. “All we were able to find out from the information we gathered prior to this night was that something was going to happen. Unfortunately, Twilight had her head covered by a thick sack for most of her ponynapping. She doesn’t know enough for us to ascertain this group’s purpose.”
“What about the spell?”
Celestia shook her head. “The spell is not something I recognize. If it is from a book or ancient scroll, then I have not read of it, but it could just as easily be a new spell. A ritual crafted for a specific purpose, though that purpose still remains to be unearthed. Make sure that the details of the spell itself remain preserved; it will need to be studied.”
The guard snapped into a salute. “Of course, Princess. We will gather any evidence at the scene and have it taken to the castle until such time it can be examined.”
“Good. I have no doubt that the spell’s purpose was dark, and I will not stand for my student being threatened,” Celestia said, her eyebrows furrowing with determination. “I want the truth of this revealed, Captain, with all haste.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
The unicorn guards searched the area, sweeping it with their magic to try and detect anything left behind. What remained of the wooden bowls were gathered, and any unburnt powder was collected together into a single bag. Everything and anything that was not natural to the Everfree Forest was taken from the clearing, though the guards did not extend their search into bordering trees and bushes once it became clear the ritual’s radius ended at the tree line.
All that was gathered was loaded into a waiting chariot, and, once the unicorns were finished, the pegasi hitched to the chariot took flight. They rose quickly into the sky before banking towards Canterlot. At the same time, the unicorns below began forming into a line while the lieutenant of the squad began to relay orders.
“All right, stallions, let’s go join the groups searching the forest for any of the cult members that might have escaped. Give higher priority to any that appear to be unicorns; one of them used some kind of crazy magic to get away, and we don’t want that to happen a second time.”
“Sir, shouldn’t some of us remain here, to guard the crime scene?” one of the soldiers spoke up, a newer recruit to the royal guard.
“No, these cultists are too careful for that,” the lieutenant answered his recruit. “If the zebra Zecora hadn’t witnessed Twilight Sparkle’s ponynapping, we wouldn’t have even known any of this was happening. That means these ponies planned all this without Princess Celestia or anyone in the guard finding out about it, and that means they’re not going to backtrack when they’ve got a battalion of guards hot on their tails.
“Besides that,” the lieutenant continued, “this isn’t central park in Canterlot. The Everfree is dangerous. There are monsters in here that could eat a pony twice my size in a single gulp, armor and all. This isn’t a place where we want to spend any more time than necessary.
“But, if you want to stay here and guard the scene of the crime, be my guest. Just watch out for the hydras,” the veteran guard concluded. He then motioned to the rest of the squad, guiding them out into the forest to join the ongoing search.
Only the guard who had spoken up remained in the clearing as the others disappeared amongst the trees. He remained there, for a minute, but then the lieutenant’s words got to him. He broke into a gallop, sprinted to catch up with his comrades, and left the clearing to once more succumb to the calm quiet of the Everfree Forest.
Yet, the magic that lingered in the air like a heavy mist began to shift, sparkling in the cool night air as it was drawn to one side of the clearing. There, hidden away by a bush a few feet into the forest, a black sphere lay amongst the dirt. It was the same sphere which was cast away from the center of the spell by Celestia’s bolt of lightning.
The tiny black ball was nestled into a crook of the cold ground, and from there it drew in the lingering magic like a magnet attracting metal. It pulled in the energy, and, with each ounce it absorbed, it grew larger.
Then, when the sphere had doubled its size, it pulsed. That pulse caused tiny drops of blood to weep from pores in the sphere’s surface. It was the blood that had been harvested at the edge of a dagger only moments before, but now it was black and gooey. The life had been drained from it, and it was now being discarded like trash.
With each pulse, the sphere excreted more of the dead blood, forming a smear on the ground. Then, when none of the used blood remained, the sphere’s pulsing shifted. It became the weak, but distinct, pitter-patter that lived in the chest of almost every living creature: a heartbeat. All the while, the sphere continued to grow larger, continued to draw in the magic of the clearing, and continued the process begun by the spell Celestia had interrupted.