Chapter 9 - Nightmares
Luna swept down to a graceful landing far inside the specially-prepared hideaway. She lowered her wind-swept charges gently to the floor of the cave.
Rainbow Dash was shaking her wings out. "Can somepony PLEASE tell me what the BUCK just happened?!" She was glaring at Luna with a little more hostility than was strictly allowed, but Luna didn't care. There were far more important things than royal protocol right now.
"Twilight Sparkle has embraced The Lunacy. It has been poisoning her thoughts for weeks, and she has succumbed. Wait!" she said, seeing the looks of despair. "Celestia and I have a plan. We have not told Twilight Sparkle of this. The Night Mare... Well. Whatever Twilight Sparkle is now, she retains her old memories. We could not risk her knowing of this plan, though she seems to have guessed an essential part. She wants to kill you to stop you from using the Elements of Harmony against her."
From amidst a sea of shocked and worried expressions, Fluttershy walked up to the Princess of the Night. "Can we save Twilight?" she asked, not a flicker of fear or shyness in her voice or on her face.
Luna frowned down at the yellow pegasus. "I am not sure, Miss Fluttershy. We will do anything that can be done to save Equestria." She looked up. "I must return. A battle may shortly take place, and I must help." The briefest flicker of terror crossed her face, but was quickly dispelled. "There is food and water, plus comfortable bedding. Please, do not leave this cave. It is a sheer drop outside, and the entrance is difficult to see. Celestia or myself will return as soon as we possibly can. Do NOT leave the cave!" she shot at Rainbow Dash, who looked defiant. "We cannot risk Twilight Sparkle finding this place. Not only are you here," she said, pointing with a silver-shod hoof at a small, plain-looking wooden chest set up against one of the rough walls, "but also the Elements that each of you bear."
"The Elements of Harmony are here?" Rarity exclaimed, walking over to the chest and magicking the lid open. Five beautiful necklaces gleamed back at her from inside.
"Do not put them on. They, and you, must be kept safe for the moment. Twilight Sparkle may be able to sense your whereabouts if they are activated." Rarity slammed the lid of the box and muffled a gasp. "If Twilight Sparkle finds either you or the Elements, Equestria will be lost. Celestia has the Element of Magic. We are going to try to force it onto Twilight Sparkle when we have you all with us, and hope that the magic of the Elements does the rest."
"So, you and Princess Celestia are going to try to capture her?" Fluttershy asked. "And then you'll come and get us?"
"We will certainly try." A look of hopeless terror momentarily clouded the alicorn's eyes. "Her powers may be beyond us, and if so, the world will end. We will surely try. Now," she added sternly, "stay here, stay hidden, all of you. One or both of us will return. I must go. I have no more time!"
Ignoring the clamouring protests, she wheeled and flew back up towards the cave entrance.
Luna couldn't possibly think of how she would help in the battle that surely awaited her. Twilight Sparkle would simply have to look at her, and she would flee. She could not face The Lunacy. The fear... The fear was far too great.
Were she to still have the powers of The Night Mare, she might be able to do something. But those powers were gone. Too dark to begin with. And completely gone.
She could get them back...
If she succumbed...
She had no jealousy left in her. Her little ponies loved and enjoyed the night she made. They honoured her with one of their most beloved nights of celebration. Were she to fall to jealousy again... Even if she triumphed, would she not just try, once again, to bring forth eternal night? No. Too dangerous. Far too dangerous. And utterly impossible. She felt not a scrap of jealousy, not over anything.
Fear. She had fear. Fear for The Lunacy. She could fall to her fear, but how would that help? She would be afraid, far too afraid to do anything. She would run. She would probably use her dark powers to run to the moon and hide. But Twilight Sparkle could teleport to the moon unaided. And now... The Lunacy would follow her there, and find her in her terror. She could not fall to her fear.
Was there any hope?
She hated The Lunacy. Far more powerful than her fear was her hatred for the thing that had taken her will, had made her overthrow and imprison her sister, had made her bring about her first fruitless attempt at endless night. She hated it. She could face it in hatred. She wouldn't be a risk to Equestria. She hated only The Lunacy.
Luna examined her soul as she flew towards Ponyville. Besides The Lunacy, what did she hate?
Nothing. Hate was not in her nature. She was not born to hate. She was born to love, care, guide, rule.
But not to hate. The only hate she felt was for The Lunacy.
She could do this... To save Equestria... She would do this.
Luna released her instinctive alicorn restraint and began examining her darkest emotion. She let it seethe and boil.
She hated The Lunacy.
Hated what it was doing to Twilight Sparkle.
Hated what it wanted to do to Equestria.
Hated what it had done to her, most of all.
Luna concentrated very hard on just how much she hated this monster.
Deeper and blacker and colder than the lowest pit of Hell, a hatred to crack the very world rose through her, consumed her.
The night sky flashed brilliant white to match her unquenchable fury, then the moon and the stars winked out, leaving only a blackness above as profound as the hatred in her heart. Straight ahead, a distant fireball blossomed into the sky. She streaked towards it with the strong, powerful beating of wings as dark as the night around her.
Four best friends sat facing each other in the gloom, the one solitary lamp brightening their moods as much as the cave. Fluttershy was off in a corner seeing to Spike. The little dragon seemed to have come out of his shock for the most part, and he and the buttercup-yellow pegasus were talking quietly together.
"This is hopeless," Rarity said. "Hopeless. Princess Luna thinks it's hopeless. Did you see the look on her face?"
"Yep, Ah did. Don't rightly know what ter do about it, though. Ah hope Big Mac got Granny and Applebloom away okay." Applejack shook her head sadly. "Ah wish Ah wuz with them. Ah wish we were all together. All mah family, and all mah friends."
Pinkie Pie seemed to have gone into shock, her poofy mane looking ready to collapse at any moment. Her family was far from Ponyville, but this, right here, was the only fear that the otherwise impossibly-cheerful pink earth pony could never face. The loss of a friend. The last two weeks had been bad enough on her, but with what was going on now... She choked out a sob as her chin slumped all the way to the floor.
Rainbow Dash didn't have anything to say. She was a pony of action, not used to just sitting around on her butt and letting everypony else have all the fun. Then she realised that there might not be anything less fun than whatever was going on back in Ponyville, her adopted home. She'd moved there, just like Twilight, and she'd found friends there, also just like Twilight. And now one of the best friends she would ever have was... What? Fighting the Princesses? She shook her head.
Over in the far corner, Fluttershy stood up, nodding with thanks at the baby dragon.
"Good luck. You're gonna need it," he said worriedly.
The yellow pegasus turned around and walked away from Spike, who looked like he was curling up for a nap. She headed straight towards her childhood friend, the most reckless pony she'd ever met. Fluttershy was feeling reckless too.
"Rainbow Dash? Let's go. We've got a job to do."
Celestia slammed through the side of the quaint town cottage. Before the rubble had even started to fall, she burst up through the still-collapsing roof and seized the Thing around its neck with all of her considerable magical might. The monster sucked and pulled at her spell, strengthening it beyond measure. The scattered and broken wreckage of the town began to smoke and flame from the sheer magical force she was exerting. Gasping with the effort required to maintain such an immensely-powerful spell, she managed to choke out "Twilight! Please! Fight it, fight it!"
The whole world twisted as her telekinetic grip was broken as easily as spider-silk. White-hot tendrils of fire snaked around her, crushed her, held her immovable. The Thing had her, had her in an obscene parody of a lover's embrace. She felt hot teeth grate her cheek. The Thing hissed into her ear. Its voice, harsh and cold as the roots of a mountain, almost stopped her heart.
"Twilight Sparkle is dead. As is Equestria. As are YOU! WHERE ARE THE BEARERS?!"
Sudden vicious lashes of deepest midnight ripped and clawed at the Thing. Celestia wrenched herself free from the weakening grip, spun, kicked the monster with the force of thunder. Then, a gentle hoof on her shoulder. A smooth, silky, confident voice. A voice she hadn't heard for more than ten centuries.
"Please, Big Sister. Allow me."
Night Mare Moon launched herself at the Thing with all the power of a thousand years of hatred.
Without stopping to even ask herself how Luna had done it, Celestia turned and flew to the main bridge out of town to shepherd the evacuation personally.
Vice-like blazing fire wrapped around Night Mare Moon, and she felt herself spun upwards, around, over the top of the Thing which held her. It slammed her down. She smashed into a two-level house with enough force to shatter it into dust. She roared up out of the shallow crater she had made, forcing the white-hot fingers off her hide with her own tendrils of blue. Darting forwards out of the slackened hold, she grabbed the monster's face with a cloud of blackish-blue magic, and twisted, hard, down and to the side, then let go. The Thing spun down, colliding with a windmill. It vanished, thrashing, inside the structure.
Night Mare Moon grabbed the large pavilion in the centre of the town square. She pulled, strained, tore the building from the ground. Flourishing it high, she smashed it down onto the collapsing, burning windmill with the force of a furious demon.
The wreckage exploded into fire, a white-hot blur shooting from deep inside the ruin, heading straight towards her at impossible speed. She used her magic to move aside rapidly, pivoted in the air, and whipped a hold around the slathering muzzle that was passing her by at thousands of miles per hour. She called upon all of her strength, and pulled.
The Thing, caught in its charge, flipped up behind the straining Night Mare Moon. She spun it up and back over her head, flinging it to the ground as hard as she could. It landed with an explosion of dirt, rock, fire and snarls. She didn't wait for it to get back up. She began seizing the largest, heaviest-looking, most solidly-built cottages and houses and shops and anything else she could see, spinning them around and around herself to build up their speed, then slamming them, one after another, onto the creature that she hated with all of her being.
The entire enormous pile of rubble and wreckage flew up into the air. She danced to the side. It spontaneously ignited into white-yellow flames, staying together in one rough, huge ball, then flew at her too fast for her to avoid. Suddenly glowing sunshine-gold, it was snatched from the air in front of her, swung through a wide arc, and smashed into the once-again airborne Thing with a collision that shattered the few remaining windows in the ruined, burning town.
Celestia had returned. Everypony must be safely away from Ponyville.
"Take the left! Get it! Hold it!" Night Mare Moon shouted, as she flew to the right through the still-falling wreckage.
"An' jus' where in the hay do ya think yer GOIN'?!" Applejack said heatedly. "We gotta stay in this here cave 'til the Princesses come an' get us!"
"There's something we have to do," Fluttershy said impatiently. "We have to save Twilight."
"We ARE savin' Twilight. Ya CAN'T leave," Applejack protested.
"We have to."
"Alright then, we're all comin' with ya!"
"You can't come," Fluttershy said. "You, Rarity and Pinkie have to stay here. You can't fly. We've got a long way to go and we'll be flying fast."
"Where are we going?" asked Rainbow Dash. Fluttershy ignored her.
"If you leave," Rarity said, "Twilight might find you. She... I can't believe she ever would, but she might hurt you. She... she did hurt you, Fluttershy dear, remember?"
"I'm not ever likely to forget it!" Fluttershy was starting to raise her voice. This was so unlike her, everypony took a small step back - a small flap back, in Dash's case. "It was MY fault that Twilight lost her temper! It was MY fault that she said the things she did! It was MY fault that she blew up the spa and ripped my bucking wing off! And it was MY FAULT that she RAN AWAY TO THE MOON! MY FAULT! NOT HER FAULT! I LET MY FRIEND DOWN!"
The other ponies were backing away in earnest now. Fluttershy was starting to get very, very angry.
"She wanted to spend time with me, but I was scared of her. SCARED! Of a FRIEND! Some friend I turned out to be! Well, I'm going to make up for that! Come ON, Rainbow Dash! We're leaving!" She turned to go.
"Fluttershy, wait! Where are we going?" Dash was as surprised and confused as she'd ever been.
"Luna said it herself!" Fluttershy was starting to stamp her rear hooves in agitation. "She doesn't think she and Celestia are strong enough to catch or stop Twilight! So they need help!"
"Help?" Dash was almost afraid to ask.
Fluttershy scrunched her eyes and pinched the bridge of her muzzle in frustration. "What's the only magical creature in all of Equestria that's as strong as an alicorn?!"
"Oh, no way. No way, Fluttershy. You can't be serious. NO! WAY!"
"Spike told me where to start looking." The faintest hint of her Stare glinted in her burning turquoise eyes. "Come on, Rainbow Dash, and try to keep up. We're gonna go catch some dragons."
The two sides were too evenly matched. The two sisters together could equal the ferocity of the Thing. The Thing could equal them. They slowly circled each other in the hot, turbulent night air. Celestia and Night Mare Moon kept their distance from the monster that regarded them now with a mixture of superiority and contempt. The bright, flickering orange glow from the ruins beneath sent vast shadows into the starless sky above the three alicorns.
"Very well," said the Thing. "I am forced to make some greater threat. You," it spat. A lance of white-hot flame stabbed out, faster than a lightning bolt. Night Mare Moon danced sideways to avoid it. "You desired Eternal Night. You shall have it." The towering flames surrounding it roared from bright yellow-orange to violent blue. "Bring me the Bearers, alive or dead, here, one hour, or I shall destroy the sun."
It twisted a roaring, spinning fireball around itself, then vanished with a concussion of light.