Author's note: This is a sequel to an earlier story of mine, "Petriculture." I highly recommend reading that story first. It can be found here.
As the last guest filed out of the palace’s great hall, Pinkie Pie finally allowed herself to sit down on her haunches. “Ugh... that was so boring.” It was like the Grand Galloping Gala, but worse: despite how dull the Gala had been, at least she’d been allowed to try and liven things up a bit. This was different, however: this was a gathering meant to welcome some high-profile diplomats from the Griffon Kingdom for some sort of trade negotiations, and thus there had been very strict rules of decorum to follow, since offended diplomats tended to be difficult to work with.
It was the sort of responsibility that Pinkie had never expected would come with being the Element of Laughter. Technically, the position carried no ceremonial duties, but for this gathering, all the technicalities were being ignored. Apparently, the logic went as follows: the Elements of Harmony were important ponies, which meant that their presence made this event an important party, and because the important party was being held for the diplomats, that implied that they were important, and it was super-important for important diplomats to feel important (especially when they were griffons).
However, all the efforts to avoid offending the guests of honor couldn’t make up for the fact that Pinkie was starting to feel offended by the idea that this snoozefest could be referred to as an actual “party.” Plus, as she’d tried to explain, there wasn’t much point in letting the Element of Laughter attend a party when she wasn’t even allowed to make anypony laugh. The Equestrian diplomatic team responded by giving her a list of preapproved jokes which were guaranteed not to cause any of the griffons to storm out of the room in a huff.
Of course, Pinkie Pie also thought that referring to these alleged witticisms as “jokes” was really stupid, since in her opinion, jokes were supposed to be funny. For example, the first one on the list went as follows: “Why did the griffon cross the road? Because there was an annoying twit trying to have a stupid conversation with her on the sidewalk when she had better things to do.” Still, when Pinkie had tried that one out on the head diplomat, he had burst into uproarious guffaws (which only reinforced her conviction that griffons had a really weird sense of humor).
Her only consolation had been that she hadn’t had to suffer alone, as her friends had also been dragged into this pit of tediousness along with her. Even Rarity, who had a much higher tolerance for this kind of soirée than the others, had tired very quickly of it, mostly because she had been placed in line immediately after Pinkie. She was therefore required to listen to each of Pinkie’s “jokes” twice, since the immediate repetition of a bon mot to someone else was considered to be a high form of praise in griffon culture. But at least Rarity could take some solace in the fact that she had an excuse to wear the Element of Generosity for the entire evening. In fact, all of Pinkie’s friends were wearing their respective magical necklaces (or tiara, in the case of Twilight Sparkle), because they were the closest things they had to uniforms, and griffons were generally impressed by uniforms.
“I presume you’ve had a long day?”
The pink earth pony twisted her head around to see Luna, Princess of the Night, standing over her with a bemused look on her face. She sighed as she flopped onto her back. “I guess you could say that. I never thought that I’d be so happy that a party had ended before.”
“Surely, you are exaggerating.”
“No, I’m not,” Pinkie replied.
“No... indeed you are not, for if it were otherwise, you would doubtless have exhorted me to refrain from referring to you as ‘Shirley.’”
“I can’t ever remember being so bored in my life.”
“Have you tried using your imagination to make things more interesting?”
“Yeah, but it didn’t really work very well.”
“Truly? I would think that of all ponies your imagination would be the most vibrant.”
“Just because I used to be an imaginary friend, that doesn’t mean I’m actually good at using my own imagination. After all, when I lived in Twilight’s head, she did all the pretending for me.” This was true enough—in fact, if it hadn’t been for her stunningly lame imagination, Twilight Sparkle probably never would have questioned her made-up cutie mark story in the first place. “I mean, when you’re an imaginary friend, you don’t really need to imagine how the real world would be, you know, different. You just change things in the pretend world, and see what happens. It’s like when I tried to make imaginary friends of my own; I couldn’t figure out what they might look like, since I had problems with making changes without actually being able to see what it would look like in the real world. So, I just grabbed a bunch of stuff that I found around Sugarcube Corner, and just made up some personalities to go with them.”
“Very interesting.... And may I ask why you desired imaginary friends?”
“I... I thought I needed them at the time. I don’t really like talking about it very much.”
“I see. Well, be that as it may, I am certain your life has been made easier now that you no longer need to obscure your genesis.”
This particular assertion was quite true. As Pinkie Pie explained to the Princess, she and her friends had decided that the best course of action would be for her to inform all of the ponies who needed to know about her past—specifically, the Cakes, the staff at the Ponyville Hospital, and the Cutie Mark Crusaders, whom the earth pony felt were owed her actual cutie mark story. As far as everypony else was concerned, Pinkie neither publicized nor hid her history, informing only those ponies who politely asked her about her origins. The usual reaction to this information was a few seconds of shock, generally followed by immediate acceptance. In this, Mr. Cake’s response had been fairly typical: “That... explains a lot, actually.”
Unsurprisingly, there was no perceivable change in the relationships Pinkie Pie had with her closest friends, with the possible exception of the ones who lived in the town library. The few times Pinkie had tried to refer to Twilight Sparkle as her “mother” had gained her little more than the unicorn’s mild irritation. Upon learning this, Rainbow Dash had naturally encouraged her friend to continue, until Twilight reminded the pegasus that she could be thought of as the earth pony’s metaphorical father. Still, the librarian seemed willing to let Pinkie Pie refer to her assistant as her twin brother, if only because Spike seemed to be quite enamored of the idea of having a twin sister.
Perhaps the most noticeable change, however, was the sudden boost in Pinkie Pie’s willingness to talk about ideas that were much more cerebral than the planning and staging of parties, brought about by the fact that she no longer felt any need to hide her ability to do so in the first place. She had, after all, been created to be Twilight Sparkle’s friend, and the unicorn’s ideal friend would no doubt be somepony with whom she could share an intelligent conversation about her often esoteric interests. That, however, didn’t make it any less surprising when Pinkie’s friends realized that she was just as intelligent as her creator; the earth pony simply had a smaller knowledge base, since her attention had always been more focused on making friends with others, rather than studying facts and data.
This, however, suited Twilight just fine; she now had somepony with whom she could discuss the finer intricacies of magic, because even if Pinkie Pie wasn’t acquainted with all the minutiae, she still had a firmer grasp of magical theory than the overwhelming majority of other earth ponies (and pegasi and unicorns, for that matter). Granted, the pink pony rarely used technical terms in these discussions—she still referred to Twilight’s instruments as “science-y stuff”—but it was enough to give the unicorn the confidence to renew her studies of her friend’s unique abilities.
Indeed, the pair had already made several important contributions to the burgeoning field of Pinkiology. To begin with, they had firmly established that Pinkie Pie was an earth pony (physiologically speaking) and that she could and did use earth pony magic. Second, her more unusual abilities, such as her Pinkie Sense, didn’t appear to use any variety of magic that was detectable by current methods, although Twilight had posited a possible connection between Pinkie’s ability to pop out of all sorts of random places and her own exceptional teleportation skills.
However, the most glaring question of all still remained unanswered: How had Pinkie Pie left Twilight Sparkle’s mind in the first place? Obviously, the burst of magical power that had flooded through the unicorn’s body after Rainbow Dash’s first Sonic Rainboom had something to do with it, but the actual means by which a white pegasus in Twilight’s head had appeared as a pink earth pony on the outskirts of Ponyville eluded all attempts at explanation. In recent weeks, it seemed to be affecting the unicorn’s behavior, as her enthusiasm began taking on the obsessive qualities that had caused her so many problems in the past. Still, despite the setbacks, Twilight seemed quite certain that a solution would present itself—it was just a matter of knowing where to look.
Pinkie Pie had just finished explaining this to Luna when her Pinkie Sense suddenly kicked in. It was the sort of thing she would have ordinarily called a “doozy,” except that the word “doozy” didn’t accurately represent how completely and utterly wrong it felt. It started with a weird tingling in her spine that rapidly pulsated from her neck to her tail, making it seem like her backbone had a severe case of nausea. From there, it spread downward towards her hooves, giving them that “pins and needles” feeling that she got whenever she slept on her legs wrong, and upward towards her ears, which began feeling uncomfortably hot, as though they were locked in tiny saunas. And when the bizarre sensation had finally passed, the earth pony was left with a disgusting aftertaste in her mouth, like moldy strawberries topped with sour cream.
This wasn’t the first time it had happened: that had been several months ago, soon after Twilight had begun investigating Pinkie’s manifestation in earnest. However, the sensations had never been this strong before. She hadn’t yet figured out what they meant. Her first thought was that it was because Cranky Doodle Donkey had actually shown up at one of her parties, but that theory had to be junked when it recurred a week later. Besides, as far as she was concerned, Cranky showing up at a party was a good thing, and Pinkie Pie couldn’t see how this could be anything but bad.
She looked around the grand hall, now almost entirely empty save for her friends and Princess Luna. Well, all but one of her friends. “Hey, guys?” she suddenly asked. “Where’s Twilight?”
“She an’ Princess Celestia went off ta talk about somethin’ or other,” Applejack replied. “Knowin’ Twi, it’s prob’ly some sorta obscure magic thing.”
That might have been an acceptable explanation, were it not for the fact that Pinkie already knew what the conversation was about; earlier, Twilight had told her that she was hoping that a conversation with her mentor would break whatever mental logjam was preventing her from cracking the code of Pinkie Pie’s existence. It certainly didn’t seem like a proper doozy... but given how bad this one felt, the earth pony eventually decided that she couldn’t risk being wrong.
“Guys? We need to find Twilight. Now.”
The subsequent search of the royal castle proved fruitless—after searching every room, corridor, nook, and cranny in the vast building, there was no sign of Twilight Sparkle or Princess Celestia to be found. Pinkie Pie even managed to coax Luna into checking her sister’s bedroom, only to learn that it, too, was empty. This, however, did nothing to discourage the pink earth pony, who was growing increasingly convinced that the mega-doozy meant that something was wrong with Twilight, and the rest of her friends were simply swept along in the current.
It wasn’t too long before Pinkie hit upon the idea of checking the Canterlot Library, since the abundance of resources available there made it an ideal place for two scholars to discuss magical theory. She and her friends raced towards the building, pausing only briefly to allow Princess Luna to raise the moon before beginning their search anew. It didn’t take long before they heard the sound of two familiar voices raised in heated conversation emanating from a small study near the Star Swirl the Bearded wing. As the ponies entered, Twilight Sparkle was in the middle of a discussion about magic with Princess Celestia, which, in and of itself, was not particularly unusual. What was unusual was how confrontational the librarian was being with her mentor.
“Can’t you at least give me a starting point?”
“I’m sorry, Twilight, but that’s just not possible.”
“What’s going on?” Pinkie Pie asked as the remaining ponies filed in behind her.
Celestia sighed as she realized that the disagreement she’d been having with her student had attracted spectators. “Twilight Sparkle’s continued research into your sudden manifestation has stalled, and for whatever reason, she refuses to believe that I am unable to help her.” Her voice had a somewhat weary tone, as if she was getting a little tired of making the same excuse over and over.
“There must be something you can do!” her student insisted. “You know more about magic than anypony else I know.”
“And yet I do not know everything. Twilight, perhaps you should set this matter aside for a few weeks. Your anxiousness is clouding your judgement.”
“This is too important. If I can figure out how I made Pinkie Pie appear in the real world, it could revolutionize magical theory.”
“Indeed it would, which is why I probably would have begun investigating the matter myself, were it not for the fact that I haven’t the faintest idea where to begin.”
“But... but there must be an explanation....”
“I know that you’re frustrated, Twilight, but I assure you that I know nothing about the matter that can help you.”
“Oh, come on, don’t give me that! You have to know something about how I manifested Pinkie Pie. You did the same thing when you created Discord, didn’t you?!”
Celestia froze on the spot as her eyes widened in shock. “What did you say, Twilight?”
The unicorn’s breath had already gotten noticeably faster, as if she had realized—too late—that she’d just made a huge tactical error. She swallowed hard and answered, “I said that you created Discord the same way.” Apparently, Twilight had decided to pretend that her statement had been intentional, rather than make a futile attempt to worm her way out of it.
The white alicorn’s eyes narrowed to slits. She didn’t break eye contact with her student as she spoke to her sister: “Luna, lock the door.”
The Princess of the Night did so swiftly and wordlessly, much to the distress of the Elements of Harmony, who were already reeling from Twilight Sparkle’s initial assertion. “What in tarnation—”
Celestia abruptly interrupted Applejack’s display of confusion. “The subject of this conversation will not leave this room. Understood?”
The farm pony nodded slowly, allowing the Princess to return her attention to her student.
“Twilight, how could you possibly know anything about Discord’s origins?”
“Well, uh, Pinkie Pie figured them out.”
The room’s attention shifted to the earth pony in question. “Uh, well, I guess that’s sort of true,” Pinkie admitted. “I mean, I figured out that Discord used to be an imaginary friend like me in, like, three seconds. Really, you all would have figured it out too, except you didn’t know that we could even exist in the first place.”
“I see,” Celestia said. “And how exactly did you conclude that I created him?”
“Um, actually, I never said you did. I told Twilight that I thought he must have been created by somepony like you—a really skilled magician with a playful personality. I never thought you were the one who really did it. So... um... if it’s alright to ask....”
“Yes,” Celestia said quietly. “I did. I didn’t intend to... not really. Unfortunately, I was still quite young and foolish at the time, and the actions I took after he appeared...” The Princess trailed off, as if she had suddenly realized that she was getting carried away by her memories. “Never mind. I refuse to speak about that matter any more than is absolutely necessary, and there are more pressing matters at hoof.” She turned back to her student. “Twilight Sparkle, for the past thousand years, the only ponies who knew Discord’s true story were Luna and I. During that time, I have never told a soul about it, and Luna was unable to do so, due to her exile. So, I ask you again: how could you possibly know that I was the one who created him?”
“I... I didn’t,” the purple unicorn finally answered. “It was just a hunch based on Pinkie Pie’s theories. I just threw it out there to see how you’d react.”
“I might accept such an answer, if I didn’t know that you’d never be the type to play that sort of mind game.”
“I never woulda thought Twilight would be the type to get up in Princess Celestia’s face like this,” Rainbow Dash muttered. “Something weird’s going on here...”
The rest of the ponies in the room, however, didn’t seem to be paying the pegasus much attention.
“In any case,” Celestia continued, “I couldn’t help you if even I wanted to, because I never fully understood how it happened, and after Discord’s defeat, I decided to avoid it entirely.”
If this information was intended to mollify Twilight Sparkle, it failed spectacularly, as the purple unicorn’s eyes widened in horror upon learning of this wanton discarding of knowledge. “You... you can’t be serious! You could have been on the cusp of discovering an entirely new field of magic, and you just walked away?!”
“Were I to learn what happened and write it down, I could run the risk of somepony intentionally creating an equally dangerous ‘friend’ in the future. You must understand, Twilight, that there is no way of knowing whether Pinkie Pie’s relative mental stability is normal for beings like her and Discord.”
Her student, however, didn’t seem to hear her. “You just walked away....”
“My first commitment is to the safety of my subjects, not to intellectual pursuits,” Celestia said in another attempt at clarification. “This was an unfortunate necessity.”
“You... walked away....” Twilight repeated, her voice sounding more hollow.
An uneasy silence settled over the room for nearly a minute before Rarity dared to break it. “Twilight, darling, are you going to be alright?”
The librarian didn’t answer her friend and chose instead to shift her focus to the other royal in the room. “What about you, Princess Luna?”
The Princess of the Night seemed taken aback by this. “Me?”
“Yes, you. You saved your research about this, right? You aren’t the type to just cast off information like that.”
“M-My research?” the younger Princess said with a bewildered stammer. “How could you—”
“Enough!” Celestia interrupted with a shout. “Twilight Sparkle, this conversation is over. I may be willing to accept that you’d guess that I created Discord, but there is no conceivable way you could have guessed that my sister was involved. But this, too, is irrelevant, because Luna didn’t play any part in Discord’s manifestation—she just assisted me in refining his original personality. After his appearance, we were far too busy dealing with the chaos he caused to worry about what caused him.”
“Actually, sister,” Luna interjected, “I did undertake some research in the brief window between Discord’s appearance and his subsequent usurpation. It’s very much unfinished, mostly because I hit a metaphorical wall within a few weeks, but I thought that my notes might be useful if he ever escaped from his prison. I did, however, take precautions to ensure that they could not be used without authorization.”
Celestia looked absolutely flabbergasted. “What sort of precautions?”
“I cannot say, sister.”
“You do not trust me?”
“Of course I trust you. However, at the moment, I do not trust Twilight Sparkle.”
“Sister, do you seriously think that I would be willing to trust anypony with any information I would hide from you? No, I assure you, there is no way your student could have possibly known about my notes through any conventional means. Perhaps she has simply been astronomically lucky with regards to her presumptions, but I doubt it. If she’s anything like I was at her age—and she is—she would not be this confrontational about the matter unless she was already certain she was right.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Twilight said defensively.
“Don’t play games with me,” Luna replied with a scowl. “Of all ponies, I should think that I’d be the last you could fool.”
“Um... what’s going on?” Fluttershy asked meekly, but nopony bothered to answer her.
“What does it matter if I’m playing games?” Twilight asked indignantly. “Especially since my mentor does it all the time.”
“Twilight, there’s no need to fling baseless accusations,” Celestia said in an attempt to defend herself, but her protégé was having none of it.
“They are not baseless! You’re always hoarding knowledge for stupid and pointless reasons!”
“If you’re referring to the incident with Philomena—”
“I’m referring to the fact that you didn’t tell me more about the Elements of Harmony before Nightmare Moon returned!” Speaking of which, the Element of Magic adorning the unicorn’s head started giving off a dim, sickly, barely perceptible glow. As Twilight’s irritation became more obvious, her body posture became increasingly intimidating, even to Princess Celestia, who rarely had reason to feel threatened by anypony.
“Twilight, if I had told you everything outright, you would have wasted precious time holding job interviews to find the Element-bearers instead of actually forming genuine friendships.”
Apparently, the unicorn hadn’t thought of this possibility, as it seemed to throw her off: “Well... maybe... but you could have at least let me in on your plans! If I had known that you weren’t going to resist being abducted, I could at least have been confident that you had some idea of what you were doing.”
Celestia had been surprised multiple times over the course of her conversation, but it was only this declaration that managed to render her speechless. “It... can’t... no....”
“I see that you have realized what has happened, my sister,” Luna said solemnly.
“Well, we haven’t!” Rainbow Dash said in an annoyed tone. “What is going on here?”
“It’s quite simple,” Luna replied. “It is conceivable, albeit very unlikely, that Twilight could have simply made educated guesses that my sister manifested Discord, and that I would have attempted to research the matter on my own. But when I returned as Nightmare Moon, I confronted my sister from within the privacy of her bedchamber, where I knew that no guard would ever dare to enter unbidden. Quite frankly, there is no possible way Twilight Sparkle could have known that Celestia offered no resistance—unless the Nightmare itself told her.”
The other ponies turned their attention back to their friend, hoping for some sort of denial, but where Twilight had previously stood, there was now nothing but a swirling, shimmering, lavender mist, punctuated here and there by the glittery sparkles that the unicorn left in her wake whenever she used her magic to teleport.
“No...” Applejack said in a pained, worried voice. “It... it can’t be. Not Twilight...” But as the mist began to coalesce into a solid pony, the unthinkable worries of the unicorn’s friends became impossible to deny.
Her coat retained its lavender color, and her mane and tail, while much longer, were still indigo with a distinctive pink stripe, but the rest of Twilight’s body had changed drastically. Where she had previously been about as large as an average mare, she was now much taller—about as tall as Luna, in fact. She also shared the Princesses’ elongated muzzle, neck, and legs, and therefore their svelte body shape. Her horn, too, was much longer and sharper. In fact, given that she was still wearing her tiara, one might think she’d become a royal alicorn were it not for her lack of wings. For its part, the Element of Magic was still glowing dully, although its intensity was now waxing and waning at regular intervals. But the most dramatic change was arguably the most subjective one; her eyes, normally bright and inquisitive, now looked cold and calculating. There could be no doubt; the Nightmare had taken Twilight Sparkle.
Pinkie Pie, like the rest of the ponies in the room, was absolutely stunned by this turn of events, though she couldn’t shake the odd feeling that she should have seen this coming. As each passing second made the tension more uncomfortable, the pink earth pony concluded that the first step she could take towards making up for her oversight was to break the silence, which she did by uttering one of the most blatantly obvious statements in the history of ponykind: “This... isn’t good.”
Pinkie Pie’s observation may have broken the room’s silence, but the tension was still there. After about twenty more seconds, the lavender unicorn (her friends weren’t quite certain what to call her at the moment) looked down at the floor, closed her eyes, and took several deep breaths. “No, we’re doing this my way,” she whispered to herself before opening her eyes and returning her attention to the others in the room. Her eyes seemed to have returned to normal—well, almost. The brightness had returned, but the calculating stare remained.
“Okay,” she finally said. “I’m sure you guys aren’t happy about the way this has turned out, but I’m going to take the fact that you haven’t done anything stupid like trying to bum-rush me as evidence that we can still work things out reasonably.” Her voice was hard and severe, but it was unmistakably Twilight’s.
Rainbow Dash’s response somehow managed to be even more brusque: “Oh, just shut up and tell us what you want... uh... what are we supposed to call you now?”
“Well, I’m partial to ‘Twilight Sparkle,’ seeing as how it’s my name.”
“But you’re in cahoots with the Nightmare. You can’t pretend you’re the Twilight we know.”
The lavender unicorn rolled her eyes. “I’m not pretending. Look, there’s more important things on the table than what name you should call me, so can we please stick to the stuff that actually matters?”
“As for what I want... well, there’s no easy way to say this, so I might as well be blunt. I think I should rule Equestria.”
“Of course you do,” Luna replied with a sneer. “Power is the only thing the Nightmare cares about.”
“This isn’t just about power,” Twilight replied. “Quite frankly, this whole incident has me convinced that I could do a better job than the two of you.”
“By hoarding knowledge, you’re stifling progress in magical development, and in so doing, preventing the kind of innovation that will raise the standard of living for all ponykind. I, on the other hand, am not afraid to let Equestria’s best minds push the frontiers of magic, nor will I let theoretical worst-case scenarios distract me from the potential good it can do.”
“And you somehow think that being made Princess of Equestria shall afford you the ability to change this?”
“Yes, but it doesn’t need to come to that. I’m not really interested in your titles—I only need your political power to move Equestria into a brighter future. I have no problem with the two of you staying on as semi-retired figureheads. In fact, it will probably make the transition process easier for the population as a whole.”
“Figurehead? Figurehead?!” Luna shouted, her volume approaching that of the Royal Canterlot Voice as her speech patterns reverted to those of the previous millennium. “We cannot believe thou wouldst take the Nightmare so seriously. It is but using thee to achieve its own ends.”
To Luna’s surprise, Twilight didn’t seem to thrown off by this. “You could very well be right, of course, but I’m also using the Nightmare to achieve my goals, so our relationship is quite symbiotic.”
It was at this point that Celestia intervened, raising a hoof before the confrontation between her sister and her Nightmare-drunk student could escalate to a full-scale argument. “Your idea seems... interesting, Twilight,” the Princess said in a tone so conspicuously even-keeled that one suspected that she was doing everything she could to keep from exposing her true feelings, “but now is perhaps not the best time for my sister and I to make a decision of this magnitude. After all, not only are we all feeling rather stressed at the moment, but there are many factors to consider besides the ones you have mentioned. I therefore suggest that you prepare a formal proposal, so that we can address our concerns in a more... systematic method. I further suggest that this be done a week from today, in Ponyville, away from the workings of Canterlot’s rumor mill. Is this acceptable?”
The unicorn thought about this for a second before she responded, “Only if I can keep the Element of Magic with me.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” Rainbow Dash shouted. “It’s not like you can use it! Without the other Elements, it’s just a tiara.”
“Yes, and without this tiara, the other Elements are just necklaces.”
“That is acceptable,” the white alicorn abruptly said in another attempt to head off an unneeded argument. “You may return to Ponyville to begin your preparations, Twilight.”
The unicorn’s eyes brightened as the corners of her mouth turned up into a smile. “Really? You’re going to give me a chance to get your job?”
“If your proposal is feasible, yes.”
“Oh, thank you!” Twilight said, practically bouncing over to her teacher and hugging her. “I promise, you won’t be disappointed. This is all going to work out great!” This sudden shift in the unicorn’s mood might have been heartwarming, except for the fact that the proposal in question was borderline treasonous. Before tonight, the other ponies would never have imagined that Twilight Sparkle acting like Twilight Sparkle could ever be so creepy.
“I do have one further request, though.”
“You do?” Twilight asked warily.
Celestia nodded. “It’s about Spike—I’m worried that all the political nuances will do nothing but confuse him if you try to have him assist you during your preparations. Perhaps he could stay at the home of one of your friends for the week.”
“I’ll do it!” Fluttershy shouted, before quickly retreating to her usual meek demeanor. “Um... I mean, if Twilight doesn’t have a problem, that is.”
Twilight seemed a bit confused by the request, but she soon assented. “Yeah... that won’t be a problem. I’ll see you later, girls,” she added cheerfully, before transforming once again into a lavender mist and floating out of an open window in the general direction of Ponyville.
Another silence fell over the remaining ponies. “Your majesty,” Rarity eventually said with a slightly flustered tone in her voice, “you cannot seriously be considering—”
The Princess refused to wait until the end of the sentence to give her response: “Of course not. There is no way that Luna or I would ever willingly surrender our rule to somepony under the Nightmare’s influence. In fact, I’m not even willing to let her take care of a single baby dragon, as you’ve just seen. I have simply bought us some time to form a plan.”
“Pfft,” Rainbow Dash replied with a dismissive wave of her hoof. “That’s easy. We wait until she shows up for her proposal thing, ambush her, grab the Element of Magic, and hit her with a rainbow. Problem solved.”
“I suppose that might work in theory...” Princess Celestia mused.
“Great! Then let’s get cracking!” the pegasus said with a smile.
“...but in practice, it leaves much to be desired.”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s true that in an emergency, the Elements can be used by ponies other than their designated Element-bearers, but their effectiveness is severely curtailed if the substitute isn’t a close relative.”
“So... Twilight’s mother, then?” Rarity asked.
“Actually, the process puts a lot of strain on the substitute’s body, so we’d need to restrict ourselves to relatives in peak physical condition.”
The fashionista suddenly looked extremely nauseated. “You can’t possibly be referring to... Shining Armor, can you?”
“I know the thought of potentially hurting one’s own sister is rather unsettling,” Celestia said. “Remember, I had to make the same choice.”
“Actually, I was thinking about how hideous he’d look wearing that tiara, but I suppose your point is much more relevant to the discussion at hoof.”
“Okay, so we team up with Shining Armor,” Rainbow Dash said. “But I’m willing to bet twenty bits that he won’t have a problem doing anything to help his sister.”
“It is true that he would not likely have a problem,” Celestia replied, “but whether he would consider his actions to be ‘helpful’ is a different matter entirely, as the Elements are not nearly as effective when being used by somepony else. When I took control of the Elements of Magic, Loyalty, and Honesty, I attempted to remove the Nightmare from Luna’s mind, but... it didn’t work. That’s why I had to banish her. I... ran out of options.”
“Couldn’t you, um, have just thought of something else, though?” Fluttershy asked timidly.
“I suppose I might have been able to, but there’s a rather big complication.”
“And, um, is it okay if I ask what it was?”
“Of the two of us, Luna is easily the more intelligent.”
Luna seemed to be somewhat embarrassed by this praise. “Sister, please, there is no need to prop me up this way.”
“There’s also no need for you to be so modest, especially since Twilight presents the same problem, only worse.”
“Worse?” Fluttershy asked nervously. “What do you mean?”
Celestia sighed. “Twilight Sparkle... is one of the smartest ponies I have ever met. She’s more intelligent than Star Swirl the Bearded or Clover the Clever; her intellect may even be superior to my sister’s; and she is most definitely smarter than I am. I simply have more knowledge as a result of being alive much longer than her. Up until now, her hero worship has prevented her from realizing this, but I think the Nightmare may have made the truth obvious to her. I’m... I’m worried that she’ll outmaneuver us.”
“That is not an unreasonable worry,” Luna added. “Clearly, either Twilight or the Nightmare has already considered the possibility that we may try something like this, or else she never would have requested to keep the Element of Magic in the first place.”
Celestia nodded. “When I had to deal with my sister’s rebellion, she quickly reduced my options to using brute force to banish her to the moon, and Twilight may have effectively taken away that option with her opening move.”
Applejack, however, had a straightforward solution to this problem. “Well, if the problem is Twilight’s brain, then I’m thinkin’ y’all oughta come up with some way ta undo whatever brainwashin’ magic the Nightmare’s usin’ on her. I’m sure she’ll come to her senses then.”
Princess Celestia looked crestfallen upon hearing this, and opened her mouth as if she were prepared to answer, but Luna interrupted. “Let me tell them, sister. It... might be easier to accept if they hear it from my mouth.”
“Hear what?” Applejack asked.
“It pains me to inform you that undoing the ‘brainwashing magic’ you speak of is impossible, because it doesn’t exist.”
“The Nightmare is like neither Discord nor Chrysalis of the Changelings, in that it does not use any magic to warp its victim’s mind. In order for it to do anything, in fact, it must have the willing cooperation of its host. Thus, it hovers in the back of one’s mind, picking and poking at all your wants and needs until it finds something that can be twisted into a lust for power. In my case, it was the desire for the love and respect of my subjects; in this instance, it appears that it is using Twilight Sparkle’s thirst for knowledge.”
“Couldn’t y’all just ignore it when it was talkin’ all them crazy things, though?”
“At first, yes. But it keeps repeating its lies, over and over, for days, weeks, even months, until one begins to wonder if they might be true. Thus, when the Nightmare makes itself known to the outside world, it is only because it has already convinced its host to adopt its goals. That is why my personality now is not all that different than it was when we first met, and why Twilight Sparkle still insists on being referred to by the name her parents gave her.”
Rarity looked as incredulous at this as everypony else in the room. “Surely the Nightmare’s influence must be enhanced with some manner of mind-altering magic. How else can the suddenness of Twilight’s corruption be explained?”
Luna shook her head again. “Actually, the Nightmare encouraged me to keep my resentment hidden from everypony else. Under its counsel, I devised secret tests for those around me, and it was only when those tests failed that I felt as though I had the ‘right’ to prevent the sun from rising. I presume it used a similar approach on Twilight Sparkle.”
Celestia readily confirmed this. “From my point of view, Luna’s transformation into Nightmare Moon was completely unprovoked, which was probably why it was so disturbing.”
Applejack was quite wary as she asked for a further explanation: “So, what y'all are saying is...”
“At this time, Twilight Sparkle genuinely wishes to rule Equestria so that she can gain access to whatever classified knowledge is being hidden from her, and the Nightmare is preventing her from seriously considering any other options through its continuous advocacy of a power grab. If we could remove the Nightmare from her mind entirely, she would no doubt come to her senses, as my sister did when you restored her, but we’d need the Element of Magic to be working at full strength, which would require Twilight’s cooperation, and our chances of receiving that are... slim.”
Rainbow Dash, meanwhile, was still thinking about more aggressive approaches. “Okay, so there aren’t going to be any easy solutions. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. I mean, you and Princess Luna have gotta be strong enough to knock her out, right? You do that, and then we team up with Shining Armor to banish her until we think of of a better idea. I mean, it’s ugly, but it’ll work, right?”
“That, sadly, is precisely what I was thinking,” Princess Celestia replied, “though it pains me to think that the Nightmare has once again cornered me into using brute force against a pony that I care about. Still, this plan is quite perilous; we may only have one chance to take her by surprise. And if we fail, we’re all in trouble, because when things don’t go the way Twilight Sparkle expects, she still has the tendency to panic and start behaving irrationally.”
“Like the time she thought you were going to send her back to magic kindergarten for being tardy with a friendship report?” asked Rainbow Dash.
“Precisely. The ‘Want It, Need It’ spell was bad enough, but when this plan fails—and it will—Twilight will actually have a legitimate reason to be afraid of me, which would probably make her dangerous even if the Nightmare hadn’t increased her magical power exponentially.”
The pegasus gritted her teeth. “Ouch.” Once again, the room went quiet.
Throughout all of this, Pinkie Pie had been uncharacteristically silent. When the conversation lulled this time, however, she finally decided to speak up: “No.”
Princess Celestia blinked in surprise. “Excuse me?”
“I just... can’t accept it,” the pink earth pony clarified.
Applejack sighed. “Look, Sugarcube, I know that bein’ Twi’s imaginary friend is prob’ly makin’ all this hard ta swallow, but we gotta face facts—she ain’t on our side right now.”
“Huh? Why wouldn’t I believe that Twilight had joined forces with the Nightmare? It makes perfect sense, and it explains why she’s been so obsessed with where I came from recently. The Nightmare obviously told her that the Princesses were hiding something, and Twilight hates not knowing answers when she’s certain they exist.”
Applejack wasn’t the only pony confused by this. “But... but you said you didn’t accept it,” Rainbow Dash pointed out.
“Yeah, but the ‘it’ in this case is the plan to banish Twilight. I mean, that was what you were just talking about, right?”
“Darling, none of us want to banish the poor dear,” Rarity said, “but that’s really our only option right now.”
“And I say it isn’t!” Pinkie retorted, stamping her hoof against the floor. “You haven’t even been talking about what to do for very long, and you’re just going to give up because your first two ideas don’t seem very good? That’s nuttier than Mrs. Cake’s peanut brittle! Although, now that I think of it, peanuts technically aren’t nuts at all, so that wouldn’t be particularly nutty. Ooh, but almonds are nuts! Let me see, what kind of candy uses lots of almonds?”
“Um, Pinkie Pie?” Fluttershy interjected sheepishly. “I... um... think you’re getting off-topic.”
“Huh? Oh, right. In any case, letting the Nightmare just take over Twilight’s head is stupid, dumb, and maybe even stupidly dumb, and I’m not gonna do it.”
“Pinkie, please be reasonable,” Rarity said in an effort to calm the earth pony down.
It didn’t work. “Reasonable?! I grew up in Twilight’s head! For years, it was my home, my school, my playground, and my lumber yard, all wrapped up in one!”
“Your lumber yard?”
“Trust me, it made sense at the time. The point is, you can’t expect me to just give up Twilight’s mind without a fight.”
Rainbow Dash still seemed skeptical. “Pinkie, we don’t have any way of getting through to Twilight.”
“Hmmm... well, we might not be able to get through to her... but maybe I can get into her!”
“I came from Twilight’s mind, right? So maybe I can go back in!”
“But... what good would that do?”
“Uh, hello? Imaginary friend, remember? You guys might be amazed by what I can do out here, but it’s nothing compared to what I did when I was still Surprise. I bet you I can handle the Nightmare from inside just fine.”
This plan, however, had a rather notable flaw, as Rarity pointed out: “Noble intentions are all well and good, darling, but do you have any idea how to actually get back inside her mind?”
“Uh... not yet, but I’ll figure out a way. I promise—cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye,” Pinkie said as she pressed a hoof against her left eyeball.
“No offense, sugarcube, but I ain’t sure that makin’ a Pinkie Promise ta figure out a way is gonna be enough,” Applejack said.
“That’s because you haven’t spent the last few months studying Pinkiology.”
“Not sure I’m followin’ ya there.”
The pink earth pony sighed. “Okay, you know how I said Twilight had gotten really hung up on how she actually made me appear? Well, when I realized that my usual tactic of asking if we could pretty please with with sugar and a chocolate-covered cherry on top move on to something else for a while wasn’t working, I decided to do some researching on my own. I figured that if I made some progress in some other part of Pinkiology, Twilight would be interested enough to have a look at it herself.
“So, after several rounds of eeny-meeny-miney-moe, I decided to focus on Pinkie Promises, and after thinking about my past experiences with them, I came up with a theory—or is it a hypothesis? I can never remember the difference, but Twilight says it’s important....”
“Uh, Pinkie, can we get back on track here?” Rainbow Dash asked.
“Oh, right. Sorry. Anyway, I got this idea. I’m pretty sure that I don’t use all of my abilities normally, because I want my friends to be happy, and if Discord proved anything, it’s that using imaginary friend powers all willy-nilly doesn’t really make anypony happy but Discord. I mean, I always knew that, but until Discord showed up, I didn’t really know that I knew it—”
“Oops. Sorry. In any case, it’s always seemed like I can do more things when I’m enforcing a Pinkie Promise, so maybe Pinkie Promises are a way that I let myself do more than I’m normally willing to let myself do.”
“Ah,” Luna said. “So, it’s like a limiting spell, then.”
“I guess you could put it that way.”
“A what now?” Rainbow Dash asked.
“When mages are worried about using too much power, they sometimes use spells to block them from using really strong magic right away,” Pinkie explained. “That way, they can’t use dangerous spells without first considering if it’s worth the risk, since they have to remove the limit before casting the spell.”
“So that’s what Pinkie Promises are?” Fluttershy asked.
“You don’t know?”
“Not really. I mean, I’m pretty sure, but I haven’t actually tested it yet, mostly because I don’t really like doing things as... um... systematically as Twilight,” she replied, having finally remembered the word her friend preferred to used to describe her research methods. “I’d rather jump right in and see what works.”
Celestia sighed. “Still, assuming that you are correct, and you can use your abilities to get back inside Twilight’s mind, how can you possibly face the Nightmare alone?”
“I’ll figure that out when I get there,” Pinkie Pie said dismissively. “There’s got to be an opening somewhere in Twilight’s head, because she and the Nightmare don’t seem to agree on everything.”
“What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you notice how Twilight was whispering about doing things her way? She had to have been talking to the Nightmare, which means that they aren’t actually cooperating completely. If they aren’t getting along, maybe I can convince Twilight to just reject it altogether, and if that happens, we won’t even need to use the Elements of Harmony at all!”
“You truly think you can come up with a workable plan in a week’s time?” Celestia asked.
“A week? Why do that when I can come up with one right now?”
“I beg your pardon?”
Pinkie reasoned if her Pinkie Promise idea was going to work at all, there was no reason to think that they’d have to wait for it to take effect. Thus, she would simply do a little investigating, and in no time, she’d know if it worked. All she needed was a volunteer—but her friends all seemed a little reluctant to help, mostly because Pinkie, unlike Twilight, preferred to work almost entirely from her intuition. That’s not to say that any of them claimed that the endeavor wasn’t worth risking a full night of sleep; the problems was that none of them was eager to be the pony to do it, given the risk of losing their personal privacy. Even though Pinkie Pie made a supplemental promise not to tell anypony about what she saw, it was only when Luna agreed to oversee the entire process that Rarity stepped forward to take on the responsibility while the others did their best to get some sleep after the stressful day.
The first attempt was the most straightforward one: Pinkie sat down, and tried to will herself into Rarity’s mind. It was... less than successful. Undeterred, Pinkie tried a variation for her second attempt: this time she put on a determined scowl and squinted while concentrating really, really hard on getting inside Rarity’s head. She even massaged her temples with her hooves for extra psychicness, but after five minutes, Rarity was getting tired of being scrutinized. “Shouldn’t we try something else, dear?”
“Um... like what?”
“Well,” Luna said, jumping into the conversation, “you’ve mentioned that your abilities appear to be intuitive in nature, so perhaps intense mental effort would be counterproductive.”
“Hey, that’s right! Thinking about it won’t help—so I’ll try not thinking about it!”
“Er... that’s not quite what I meant....”
But Pinkie Pie had already pulled a book about outdoor games off of the shelf and started reading. Predictably, one hour later, the earth pony still had no idea what was going on inside Rarity’s head (though she did learn all the rules for bocce).
“Awww... it didn’t work,” Pinkie said when the other two ponies had finally managed to get her attention. “And now I’m starting to get tired.”
“Actually, that might not be a problem,” Luna said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, when I spoke of the intuitive nature of your abilities, I was thinking that perhaps the physical realm is not the best place for you to exercise them. Tell me, are you familiar with the concept of lucid dreaming?”
“You mean where you know that you’re dreaming and can control everything? Sure, I do it all the time.”
“Ah, good. You have already learned the skill.”
“I didn’t learn how to do it. When I said I do it all the time, I meant that I literally do it all the time. As in, I’ve never had a dream that wasn’t lucid. I’m guessing it’s an imaginary friend thing.”
“I see... well, in any case, I suggest that you doze off for a bit, and try and project your essence into Rarity when you begin dreaming.”
“Okie dokie lokie!”
Soon after Celestia raised the sun the next morning, the remaining ponies shuffled back to the library, hoping for some sign of progress. However, when they opened the door to the room, what they got was a party cannon full of confetti and streamers and a pink earth pony bouncing off the walls in joyous celebration.
Princess Celestia smiled as she turned to her younger sister. “I take it that your preliminary findings are encouraging?”
“Indeed they are, else Pinkie Pie would not be throwing a ‘We’re-Gonna-Save-Twilight Party.’”
“You’ve got that right!” Pinkie said excitedly. “At first I tried trying really hard but that didn’t work. But then Princess Luna suggested I try to do it while I was dreaming, and then I fell asleep and I decided to go into Rarity’s head and I did and it was really great but I promised not to tell you what happened in there so I can’t tell you that part.”
“There is, however, a slight problem,” Rarity said with a yawn—unlike Pinkie, she hadn’t slept a wink all night.
“And what is that?” Celestia asked.
“Well, you see, every time she entered my mind, I noticed it. Granted, I might not have guessed that it was Pinkie Pie if I didn’t know what she was trying to do, but the fact remains that she was unable to go undetected. Given that Twilight knows almost as much about Pinkie’s abilities as she does, she might figure out what’s going on.”
“I’m already on it!” Pinkie replied. “We’ll just do it during Twilight’s presentation. She’ll be so focused on getting the Princesses’ job, that she won’t have time to worry about me. Plus, she’s probably going to go into so much detail that I’d fall asleep from boredom anyway, so she won’t notice when I zonk out at the table.”
“Uh... the table?” Rainbow Dash asked. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it seems that I’m going to need to be physically close to Twilight for this to work, which means I need an excuse to be in the room. So Luna figures that all of us should be there as part of an advisory committee, or something like that. Then, when I’m asleep, the rest of you can help me out by asking lots and lots of questions so I have as much time as possible to take care of the Nightmare.”
Rainbow Dash stared slack-jawed at her friend. “Are you seriously telling me that we’re going to save Equestria by listening to one of Twilight’s boring lectures?”
“Yup! It’s the last thing she’d ever expect. So? What do you think?”
The others remained silent for a few seconds, before Applejack finally spoke up. “Well, paint me red an’ call me Big Macintosh—I think ya’ll might actually be onto something!” The others agreed; obviously, there were a lot of kinks to work out, but for the first time, it seemed that the whole mess could actually have a happy ending.
The next seven days went by quickly—so quickly, in fact, that Pinkie Pie half-suspected that the Princesses were speeding them up just to get the ordeal over with as soon as possible. Of course, a more likely explanation was that between practicing her mind-jumping with Rarity, assisting Zecora in preparing a sleeping potion for her to use during the presentation, and helping her friends come up with appropriate questions to stall for time, she’d been so goshdarn busy that she hadn’t noticed the time passing. The earth pony did find herself in a bit of a panic mid-week when she woke up to find her mane disconcertingly straight as a result of all the additional stress; it had taken three pineapple upside-down cakes, four snakes-in-a-can pranks, Big Macintosh’s birthday party (celebrated two and a half weeks early), and a heaping helping of good old-fashioned encouragement from her friends to return the wayward manestyle to its usual delightfully poofy tangle.
At least Twilight herself was still being pleasant and polite to them when she wasn’t holed up in her library, finessing her presentation. Celestia had told them not to alienate her during the week, reasoning that the magic of their friendship with her could end up being what tipped the balance in their favor. This wasn’t all that easy, however, since the unicorn refused to leave her “Nightmare Twilight” form. She’d been telling the other residents of Ponyville that it was an accidental side-effect of a spell she’d been studying, and she had gotten mostly compliments in return, as well as a few suggestions that she try to replicate the results on other ponies who wanted their body shape to match the Equestrian standard of female beauty. These had all been declined, as Twilight explained that what she had done was “far too risky” for anypony else to try.
Still, despite the sudden change in the appearance of the local librarian, Pinkie and her friends had managed to keep curiosity about the matter to a minimum—even after Twilight Sparkle secured the use of the town hall with less than a week’s notice for the event. There had been a few murmurs when the Captain of the Royal Guard arrived in town, but Pinkie Pie said that “Uncle Shiny” was simply there for a surprise party for his sister. This, technically speaking, was not a lie, since the earth pony did indeed intend to throw a “Twilight’s Not Crazy Anymore” party, and the mare in question would definitely find it surprising.
That’s not to say that Pinkie was taking victory for granted: she knew that it wouldn’t be easy, and the fact that the Princesses had given her a very fancy-looking piece of paper that authorized her to “utilize all necessary means to neutralize the threat of the Nightmare” (which, when translated from legalese, apparently meant that she wouldn’t get in trouble for anything that happened in Twilight’s head) accentuated the gravity of the situation.
However, as she stood in the large pavilion with the Princesses, Shining Armor, and the other Element-Bearers, all looking quite resplendent in their respective jewelry and uniforms, Pinkie Pie couldn’t shake the feeling that there was still something far more important that needed to be taken care of before commencing with what she’d taken to calling “Operation Breaking Dawn.” She politely excused herself to use the little ponies’ room, not bothering to mention that she’d be making a detour to the small meeting room where Twilight Sparkle was getting ready for her most important lecture ever.
Twilight looked up from the copious notes splayed over a modestly-sized desk as she heard the door knocking. “Come in.”
“Hiya, Twilight!” Pinkie Pie chirped as she bounded into the room. “Ooh... this room looks nice.”
“Uh, yeah, the Mayor said nopony was using it, so I just decided to do my final preparations here instead of the library,” the unicorn replied with mild suspicion. “Is there something you need, Pinkie Pie?”
“Not really. I just wanted to wish you good luck.”
“Good luck? But I thought you didn’t want me to take over.”
“Well, I guess I don’t, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be happy if you fail.”
The statuesque unicorn sighed. “I guess that’s the best I can hope for. Nightmare thinks that the fact that Shiny’s here proves it’s all a trap.”
“That isn’t true,” Pinkie said. It may be a trap, but he doesn’t prove anything, she didn’t add. After all, Shining Armor was mostly here for the backup plan of grabbing the Element of Magic and performing a quickie banishment. “If he was going to do anything serious, he would have brought Princess Cadance along so she could power him up.”
“Uh huh,” her friend replied with a weary look in her eyes. “And the fact that you’re wearing the Element of Laughter is completely inconsequential.”
Pinkie was a bit taken aback by the sarcastic response. “Uh... well... I guess you could say he’s here in case things go really, really bad, but you have to remember, the Princesses have had really, really bad experiences with the Nightmare before.” She wasn’t supposed to have mentioned that, but the Princesses had said she could use “all necessary means” to pull this off, and telling Twilight the truth (or at least part of it) certainly seemed to fall into that category.
“I suppose you have a point,” Twilight said as she rubbed her temple.
“Stress getting to you?”
“Yeah, I guess it is. It’s just... this could really change everything. The imaginary friend magic, I mean. I can’t just let the Princesses keep sitting on this.”
There was a brief pause in the conversation before Pinkie Pie spoke up again. “You really do think this is the right thing to do, don’t you?”
“I can’t remember the last time I felt so certain about anything.”
The earth pony smiled. “It’s going to be okay.”
Twilight didn’t seem to know what to make of this. “What do you mean?”
Pinkie shrugged. “I mean that I think it’s all going to turn out okay, that’s all.”
“Why? Is your Pinkie Sense telling you something?”
“No. I’m just optimistic. You want what’s best for Equestria, and so do we, so it has to work out.”
Twilight sighed. “I hope you’re right.”
Twilight Sparkle was on a first name basis with every pony on the committee, but one would be hard-pressed to guess that as she nervously shifted her weight from side to side as they took their seats at the large conference table that had been set up for the occasion. Celestia and Luna in particular had disturbingly neutral expressions on their faces, likely acquired from years of practice dealing with recalcitrant nobles in the Royal Court. But this was nothing compared to Shining Armor, whose attempt to hide his disappointment behind the comforting smile he usually gave to his sister was a complete and utter failure. This was going to be a tough crowd.
Once everyone had been seated, the unicorn used her magic to distribute very professional-looking binders filled with facts, figures, and outlines. “Thank you all for coming here today,” she began. “I realize that recent circumstances have been somewhat strained, and your patience and understanding has not gone unappreciated.
“Throughout history, great advances in science, technology, and medicine have always been preceded by similarly great advances in magic. This is not only due to the great areas of knowledge that are opened by the study of magic, but also because new forms of magic can make formerly complex tasks simpler, thus giving innovators from all walks of life more time to devote to life’s difficulties. I believe that the investigations that Pinkie Pie and I have been conducting have placed us at the cusp of a new wave of discovery in a previously unknown field of magic; however, for various reasons, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna have seen fit to stifle these potential innovations.
“During this presentation, I will endeavor to demonstrate two basic points: first, that the administration’s current policies are ultimately detrimental to the wellbeing of all Equestrians, and second, that the current rulers have fallen into patterns of behavior which will make similar errors in judgment more likely in the future. I shall then explain why I believe that a better outcome will be produced if I am allowed to assume most of their duties, responsibilities, and privileges.”
Pinkie Pie nodded absently as Twilight began her sales pitch. Despite the unicorn’s nervousness, there was enough confidence in her voice that it just might have been possible for her to succeed in winning over the other ponies in the room if her proposal wasn’t so hopelessly flawed in the first place. A quick glance through the contents of the binder revealed that her entire argument hinged on the idea that Celestia and Luna were either unwilling or unable to learn from their past mistakes, combined with an implied threat of violence if Twilight didn’t get her way. There was virtually no way this argument could be effective, and thanks to the Nightmare’s influence, she was probably the only one who didn’t realize it.
As Twilight Sparkle began explaining the concept of a mage’s personal time as a limited resource in more detail, Pinkie Pie eyed the mug of hot cocoa that she’d spiked with Zecora’s sleeping potion. The second that the unicorn’s voice started taking on a “droning” quality, she quaffed the entire mug in three gulps, and within five minutes, she had drifted off.
When Pinkie Pie opened her eyes, she was standing in a narrow, slightly curved hallway, lined on both sides with two dozen rows of slate grey filing cabinets that went all the way up to the edge of an arched ceiling of grey stones and lit by floating, luminescent orbs that gave off a soft glow with an almost-imperceivable lavender tint. The corridor was long enough that its curve obscured any view of either end, at least from this particular spot. The earth pony (who, to her mild surprise, was still a pink earth pony, instead of a white pegasus) let out a sigh of relief. Between the ten years that had passed since she’d been here and the influence of the Nightmare, she was worried that she would arrive in Twilight’s mind and find herself unable to recognize her location, but this was quite clearly the part where the vast quantities of information the unicorn had gathered over the years was stored and organized, which she had grandiosely named the “Hall of Knowledge” as a filly.
Assuming that the basic layout hadn’t changed, the various corridors would be arranged in concentric circles, with filing cabinets on one half, and bookshelves on the other. After picking a direction at random (counter-clockwise, to be specific), Pinkie Pie began walking towards the end of one of the hallways. As she did, she noticed that the soft indigo carpeting had been replaced by highly polished white marble, resulting in an audible “clack” every time one of Pinkie’s hooves touched it. This wouldn’t have been a problem, except that the pink earth pony was hoping to stay undetected for as long as possible. Fortunately, the Hall itself was empty at the moment, although occasionally Twilight’s pink aura would form around a file box, opening it and extracting a file, which would then float off down the corridor, which Pinkie assumed was the result of her recalling some fact or figure in the “real” world.
At the end of the corridor, there was a nave—or was it an apse? Either way, it was a really big room with an even higher ceiling than the shelving area. At one end was a pair of black marble double doors, carved with geometric designs that Pinkie was 95% certain had some significance for magic, science, or both. At the other end, however, there was normal-sized, unassuming wooden door, with a nearby bulletin board being the closest thing to a decoration it had. The pink earth pony walked over as quietly as she could, which was no easy task, given that the lack of carpeting had given this room in particular a very prominent echo. She quickly skimmed some of the reminders tacked into the corkboard: “Pinkie Pie’s birthday to be celebrated alongside Spike’s this year.... Purchase new encyclopedia for library.... Make no assumptions about Rainbow Dash’s personal life until she tells you.”
They were all interesting little glimpses into her friend’s current priorities, but it was the largest, most prominent notice that caused her the most concern: “Very important: Give friends a chance to accept Nightmare.” Pinkie Pie wasn’t sure if this just meant accepting the Nightmare as a pony, or if Twilight actually wanted them to join her in giving in to it. She hoped it was the former, but she was suddenly fearful that the latter was true instead. The earth pony pushed the idea away as the door opened, allowing a file of information to float inside. She slid a hoof into the door’s path to keep it from closing completely so she could take a peek inside.
There, she saw the same tableau she had just left: Twilight Sparkle was standing in the middle of the room, going over some obscure point of Equestrian history, while the Princesses listened intently and the other committee members attempted to do the same, while she herself was sitting at the end of the table, softly snoring as a result of her ostensible failure to pay attention. All the details were exactly as she remembered save one: the unicorn giving the presentation was not the tall, authoritative-looking pony whom they’d almost grown used to over the past week, but the normal-sized mare that they all knew and loved. Pinkie smiled as she closed the door, for two reasons. First, the Staging Room was exactly where she remembered it being, which meant that the odds were good that she’d still be able to find her way around the rest of Twilight’s mind. Second, and more importantly, she’d just confirmed that deep down, Twilight Sparkle was still the same pony she was before, and as far as Pinkie Pie was concerned, this meant there was still reason to think this situation could be resolved without anypony having to get hurt.
But before that could happen, she had to find the Nightmare, and Pinkie was pretty sure that if the Nightmare was in the Hall of Knowledge, she would have already shown up, if only to do that “mwa-ha-ha” thing that bad guys liked to do all the time. Since Twilight wasn’t going anywhere, that meant it was time to venture outside. She pushed the double doors open as quietly as she could (which wasn’t easy since her creator had always preferred creaky doors—she said that they “imparted gravitas” to any situation) and stepped forward to survey the mindscape.
Having grown up in Canterlot, Twilight Sparkle had chosen to organize her mind using a similar topography. Like the Royal Castle, the Hall of Knowledge was against the side of a mountain, albeit one that was neither as tall nor as steep as its real-life inspiration—more like a very ambitious hill, really. From there, a small city spread outward like a fan. Much like the building Pinkie had just left, it could be separated into two distinct areas, although the boundary between them was much more indistinct. On one side, there was the Imagination District, filled with laboratories, forges, and theatrical stages where all manner of speculation could be carried out, from wild fantasies to highly controlled thought experiments. Pinkie Pie had spent quite a bit of time there as Surprise; as an imaginary friend, it had been more or less her workplace for years.
Still, despite her desire to see what kind of improvements Twilight had made since she’d been there, Pinkie’s attention was on the Residential District, so called because that was where any idea that the unicorn deemed worthy of being “ponified” lived (well, that’s what Pinkie Pie called it—Twilight had always preferred the word “hippomorphization,” because it was very long and using it correctly in a sentence inevitably caused grownups to compliment her on being such a smart filly). The earth pony didn’t want to confront the Nightmare blind, and that was the part of Twilight Sparkle’s mind where she had the best chance to get information.
But first, now that she was definitely out of Twilight’s earshot, it was time to limber up a bit. After all, it had been more than ten years since she’d been in a mindscape, and going up against the Nightmare without making sure that she still had the old Surprise touch would have been downright silly. She decided to test her shapeshifting abilities, since those would probably be useful if things turned ugly. That wasn’t to say that she hadn’t done any shapeshifting since becoming an independent pony, but for the most part she’d limited herself to stretching out various appendages for dramatic effect as she’d done when confronting that minotaur who was bothering Fluttershy (and even then, the only reason she’d done so was because she thought Iron Will might have been another imaginary friend, since the only other one who had ever managed to get the demure pegasus to act like a great big jerky jerk-face was Discord).
Pinkie Pie found a secluded alleyway near the Residential District and began her old warm-up routine: “Flat like a pancake, round like a balloon, pointy like a pincushion, square like a cube.” The fact that “balloon” and “cube” didn’t exactly rhyme had always bothered her a bit, but she didn’t really have the time to dwell on revisions. What was more important was that she’d been able to shift her body into each abstract shape without any problems.
Next, it was time to try something a bit more complex. “Speed round! Pony, griffon, donkey, moose! Pony, griffon, donkey, moose!” she chanted as she transformed from a pink earth pony into pink everything-else-on-the-list in rapid succession. Thus satisfied, there was one more thing to check: Pinkie Pie concentrated, and soon her pink coat had lightened into a bright white, while her mane became a light yellow and her eyes and cutie mark turned a shade of purple that matched the violet streak in Twilight Sparkle’s indigo mane. Pinkie briefly admired her reflection in a nearby window. “This sure brings back some memories... but something’s missing.” A glance back towards the rest of her body made the missing “something” quite obvious. “Of course,” Pinkie Pie giggled as a pair of wings sprouted from her sides. “Silly me.”
She briefly considered taking to the sky, but Pinkie Pie ultimately decided against it, returning to her normal “pink earth pony” shape. After all, she was trying to avoid attracting attention, which was sure to happen if anypony saw Surprise flying all over Twilight’s mind. However, as she entered the Residential District, it seemed that all that caution might have been unnecessary. She’d only just noticed it, but every door she saw was closed and every window shuttered, with nary a pony to be seen. This was completely unlike Pinkie’s own memories, where ideas and imaginary friends mingled freely, always ready to exchange friendly words with each other—kind of like Ponyville, actually. But now, it was all just... empty.
The earth pony walked down a deserted street with increasing trepidation. Once or twice, she thought she heard a window slamming shut, but she wasn’t certain. Are they hiding from me? Or are they just hiding? Fortunately, as Pinkie turned a corner, she finally spotted somepony else: a tired-looking palomino earth pony pulling a cart of apples and wearing a rather distinctive hat. “Applejack?” she called out. “Is that you?”
The bleary-eyed farmer looked up as Pinkie Pie trotted towards her. “Wha?” she said as she made an obvious attempt to stifle a yawn.
“What are you doing here?” Pinkie asked with concern.
“Uhh... Just deliverin’ some apples.... Don’t worry none, I’ll be sure ta help you with your cupcakes later, just like I promised.”
This confused the pink earth pony for a few seconds, but she soon realized what was going on. She asked a question to test her theory: “Would you like some help?”
“Uhh... what? Help? I don’t need no help! I’m gonna prove to you an’ everypony else that I can do this on my own.”
That proved it. The pony in front of her wasn’t Applejack—it was Twilight Sparkle’s memory of Applejack from the time she tried to harvest her entire orchard by herself. As such, she wasn’t necessarily an ideal source of information, but Pinkie Pie wasn’t in any position to be picky at the moment. “So, um, where is everypony?”
Sleepyjack blinked a few times as she processed the question. “They’re mostly all inside their homes, probably. Nightmare don’t like it when we’re out without official business, like deliverin’ apples in my case. Speakin’ of which, what’re you doin’ out here?”
“Uh... actually, I need to talk to the Nightmare. Do you know where she is?”
“Last I saw, she was headin’ towards the edge of town.”
“Near the Dreamfields? What’s she doing there?”
But the memory of an earth pony didn’t answer this question, having fallen asleep standing up. Rather than wake her up, Pinkie Pie left the palomino mare to her light snoring and headed to the outskirts of Twilight’s mental city.
As one might expect from the name, the Dreamfields were the origin point for most of Twilight Sparkle’s dreams, since she’d never really gotten the hang of the “lucid dreaming” concept. Although they were flat and largely featureless at the moment, when the unicorn slept, the Dreamfields played host to some of the most bizarre and mind-boggling sights, sounds and experiences Pinkie had ever seen. The earth pony had more than once noted that the downside to only having lucid dreams meant that you could never allow yourself to be dragged through them by your mind. It sounded like a grand adventure to her, even if most ponies would disagree, preferring the control that came with lucidity.
The earth pony couldn’t really see her quarry anywhere, but the fact that the sky had suddenly become overcast by a blanket of dark purplish-grey clouds convinced her that something not-nice was a little farther out. As not-niceness was exactly what she was looking for at the moment, Pinkie Pie swallowed hard and ventured further out into the Dreamfields. Thunder rumbled ominously as the town receded further into the distance—clearly a warning to the normal residents, as far as Pinkie was concerned. She shivered slightly as the wind picked up. Twilight had never been this detailed when creating the weather inside her mind; it had to be the Nightmare’s doing.
She had almost decided to turn back when she saw it: a midnight blue, vaguely pony-shaped something off in the distance. This had to be it. As quietly as she could, Pinkie Pie crept towards the tall figure, who fortunately enough, had her back turned toward her. This was her chance: she had the element of surprise on her side, which meant that she might be able to put an end to this madness. The earth pony steeled her resolve, and stepped forward—only to be blinded by a flash of light as strands of dark blue magic formed a web-like net around her, completely hampering her movements.
A trap. Somehow, the Nightmare had realized she was coming, and had set a trap for her. Well, that, or she was really paranoid. Pinkie had no intention of staying to find out, but she discovered to her dismay that the magical net shared another property with spiderwebs: it was really, really sticky, and in all likelihood, no amount of shapeshifting could possibly free her from it. Then again, there was no way of knowing if attempting to do so would have done any good, since the flash had caught the attention of the Nightmare, who was now looking down at her with an expression of shock.
As Pinkie looked back into the helmeted face, there was little else she could do but smile weakly. “Umm... hi?”
“.... This will ensure that the transition will be accepted with a minimum of fuss from the general population,” Twilight Sparkle said as she concluded the first section of her proposal. Everything seemed to have gone well; at the very least, none of the ponies in her audience appeared to be angry with her, which was quite encouraging. She had been worried that the Princesses in particular would feel insulted that she thought them incapable of properly governing the ponies of Equestria, but it seemed like they were taking the points she had made seriously.
Still, this reception wasn’t the primary reason for Twilight’s optimism. No, her hopefulness stemmed from the fact that her plan to bore Pinkie Pie to sleep had gone off without a hitch—she hadn’t even needed to trigger the drowsiness enchantment she’d placed on the normally hyperactive pony’s chair that morning. Admittedly, it wasn’t exactly playing fair, but Pinkie was the one pony who possessed both the intellect and the knowledge to effectively challenge her claims about the potential benefits of this new branch of magic, and this issue was just too important to take any sort of risks in that regard.
“Now,” the unicorn said with the most authoritative voice she could muster, “I am ready to take your questions.” She scanned the table and stopped at the first raised hoof she saw. “Yes, Rainbow Dash?”
The pegasus coughed politely and took a sip from her glass of water. She then slammed the glass against the table, shattering it into dozens of shards as she pounded her hooves on the table. “That has got to be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!”
Oddly enough, the Nightmare didn’t really look all that different from the last time Pinkie had seen her, in the ruins of Old Canterlot. She had the same black coat, the same sparkly, translucent blue mane, and the same silver helmet as Nightmare Moon. In fact, the only thing that seemed to be different was her cutie mark: instead of depicting the moon on a starry splotch covering her hip, it showed a black circle that somehow had a white glow, and there was no unusually-colored patch on the coat surrounding it.
Of course, the earth pony had precious little time to dwell on this, as The Nightmare had used her magic to levitate the pony that had so rudely violated her personal space to eye level, giving Pinkie Pie a clear view of her scowl. “Well, this is an unpleasant surprise. I set my trap for a princess, and lo! I catch a peasant!” She squinted her eyes tighter together as her suspicion increased. “What are you doing here?”
“Uh... I’m just an ordinary memory. There’s... something you need to see, back in the Residential District.”
“Do not waste my time with such foalish games!” the black alicorn (or alicorn-shaped thing) roared. “The reminiscences of Twilight Sparkle go out of their way to avoid admitting that they are memories in conversation, in accordance with her preference that they remain ‘in character.’ More to the point, you are so saturated with the Element of Laughter that the mere act of suspending you is giving me a mild case of nausea! No, you are the true Pinkie Pie, and I shall have my answer from you: What are you doing here?”
“Uh, well, I’m kind of here to... um, stop you, I guess.” There didn’t seem to be much point in claiming otherwise.
“And who else is with you?”
“Nopony. I came by myself.”
“Balderdash! The Princesses know what I’m capable of, and they’d never send a mere earth pony to face me alone.”
“Hey! I’m no ‘mere’ earth pony. I used to live here.”
“Don’t change the subject! Who else is with you?”
“I told you, it’s just me—”
“Who else is with you?!”
Pinkie Pie sighed in exasperation. “Star Swirl the Bearded.”
“Do not jest with me. He’s been dead for centuries.”
“Yeah, well, you obviously didn’t want the truth, so I made something up.” At this point, logic dictated that the earth pony probably should have been more fearful of her safety, but she was too busy feeling irritated to give logic the time of day.
The Nightmare’s eyes widened; apparently, something about her captive’s demeanor had convinced her that she’d been telling the truth. “This is... preposterous! I am the Nightmare! I’ve convinced the Element of Magic to defect! How can they just... dismiss me as a threat?!”
As the rant continued, Pinkie Pie noticed that the magical aura around the Nightmare’s horn had started wavering in intensity, and as it did, it seemed that the “stickiness” of her bonds waxed and waned in tandem. The earth pony smiled, if only because there now appeared to be a way out of her predicament: good old-fashioned distraction, in the form of some conversation. “You’ll never get away with this!” In stories, that was always a good way to get the bad guy talking.
“Do you even know what I’m trying to get away with?” The Nightmare asked with a sneer.
“Um... taking over Equestria... so you can get Luna’s notes, or something.”
The sneer morphed into a smirk. “And why, pray tell, would I want Luna’s notes?”
“Uh...” This is not how Pinkie had thought the conversation would go. “I dunno. You... want Twilight to make you your own body, maybe?”
The Nightmare’s body quivered for a few seconds before she erupted in full-throated laughter. “You blockheaded simpleton! You really believe this was all about some thousand-year-old research? I shared a mind with Luna for an entire millennium! I not only know the contents of her notes, I know what she left out of them. And before you attempt some feeble attempt at indignation, you should know that I have already informed Twilight Sparkle of their details, so any accusations to her of hypocrisy on my part shall fall on deaf ears.”
“But why did Twilight ask the Princesses for help?”
“Because she needed to see for herself that they wouldn’t be willing to provide it, unlike me. The only reason we aren’t in power now is because Celestia was willing to humor her student by pretending to take her offer seriously. No matter—once the Princesses reject her, all that obnoxious hero worship should cease to be an obstacle.”
“Wait... you’re expecting Twilight to fail?”
“Of course I am! At the end of the day, Twilight is still threatening to use violence, and for some bizarre reason, as far as Celestia is concerned, that invalidates her student’s entire argument! I only assented to this travesty because the Princesses were short-sighted enough to let Twilight Sparkle keep the Element of Magic.”
“But... if that’s the case, wouldn’t it make more sense to be nice to the Princesses so they’d be willing to help Twilight make you a body?”
“I do not need anypony to make me a body!” the Nightmare shouted in what Pinkie Pie now recognized as the Royal Canterlot Voice. “I have better things in mind,” she added darkly.
The other committee members had eventually gotten Rainbow Dash to calm down, although she was still glowering at Twilight Sparkle. Rather than make some snarky comment, the unicorn decided that the most diplomatic solution was to pretend that the outburst hadn’t happened. “Yes, Shining Armor.”
Her brother leaned forward, thoughtfully bringing a hoof to his chin. “Well, Twilight, it seems that you’ve put a lot of thought into maintaining domestic order, but what about foreign affairs? A lot of Equestria’s treaties are in the form of contracts with Princess Celestia, and I know that more than a few parties would jump at the chance to declare them void because she’s no longer a head of government, even if she remains a head of state. How do you plan on dealing with them?”
That one had Twilight stumped—she really hadn’t thought about how she’d deal with the rest of the world. “Er... that would have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, of course, so unless you give me specific examples, I doubt I could give you an adequate response. That being said....”
Pinkie Pie was now thoroughly confused. Better things? What could that mean? Something wasn’t adding up, and whatever it was was likely to remain un-added as long as she continued to be levitated in front of an angry... whatever-it-was. Since talking about the Princesses seemed to be the best approach to weakening the Nightmare’s concentration so far, she decided to push the matter farther.
“Which one were you expecting?”
“You said you were trying to trap a princess. Which one did you think was going to show up? I mean, both of them are kind of busy talking to Twilight right now.”
“Humph. It matters not which one arrives—I have contingency plans in place for either.”
“You do not truly believe that I would tell you, do you?”
“Eh, it was worth a shot. Still, I don’t know why you expected one of them to show up now. That seems kind of silly to me.”
The Nightmare sighed, apparently deciding to humor her captive. “Once Twilight’s efforts failed, the only way they would have to ‘save’ her would be to enter her mind themselves. Luna knows a spell that will allow a pony to enter another’s dreams, but that requires the subject to be asleep—or so I thought. Apparently, she’s modified the spell so that it works even when the subject’s awake, though I still don’t know how you entered through the Dreamfields without me noticing.”
“She didn’t do anything and I didn’t come in through the Dreamfields. I did it myself.”
“What? But... you’re an earth pony! You and Twilight determined that conclusively!”
“Yeah, but I’ve still got lots of imaginary friend powers, too; I just normally keep them locked away so I don’t use them by accident. Twilight didn’t learn that because you were too busy making her obsessed with how I got out of her head.”
“But... you... I... how....” The Nightmare was really getting flustered, and it seemed that her magical grip was slipping. It was time for Pinkie to make her move.
Gathering up all of her willpower, she flung herself into the air, snapping the magical bonds that had held her in front of the Nightmare. She vaulted over her adversary’s head, twisting her body 540° as she did so (because why not?) before landing her hind legs on the Nightmare’s croup. “And she sticks the landing!”
“What?! How could you possibly have done that?” the Nightmare exclaimed as she twisted her head around to view the increasingly obnoxious pink monstrosity. “Twilight Sparkle has delegated absolute control to—”
The nominal despot’s rant was cut short when Pinkie Pie smooshed a hoof into her muzzle. “I just booped your nose,” she said cheerfully. “Your argument is invalid. Ooh, and your helmet’s pretty, too.” The earth pony reached out, swiftly removed the silver headgear, and before the Nightmare could react, Pinkie Pie had shoved it onto her own noggin. “Hey, guess what? My head’s the same size as yours! Well, that, or my mane is even poofier than I thought—”
“Cease this insolence at once!”
The force of the Royal Canterlot Voice almost knocked Pinkie Pie back onto the ground. “Hey, didn’t anypony ever teach you to say... please...?” The earth pony’s voice trailed off as she looked at the Nightmare’s uncovered face for the first time.
The corners of the black alicorn’s mouth curled up into a smug smile. “Finally, some respect. Now, you shall listen to me, my little pony—hey!” But the earth pony was already galloping back towards the Residential District as fast as she could, with the Nightmare’s helmet still on her head.
“....then let me put it this way: What will you do if your studies indicate that this new field of magic is, in fact, too dangerous to be useful to the general public?”
Twilight breathed deeply. “Well, Rarity, I suppose I’ll have to seal the results and keep information about my findings restricted, since I’d be obligated to maintain public welfare.”
“But is that not precisely what you are accusing the Princesses of doing? How can they be unfit to rule Equestria if you would do the same thing were you in their position?”
“The context of each action is what is applicable here. In the theoretical example you speak of, I would still have taken my studies as far as they could go, and records would still be available for other ponies to continue my work later, provided that they demonstrate an appropriate level of responsibility. On the other hoof, the Princesses....”
Gotta get to Twilight.... Gotta get to Twilight.... Gotta get to Twilight....
Pinkie Pie had realized something very important during her conversation with the Nightmare, although she couldn’t quite explain it yet. Still, she was fairly certain that if she could show Twilight what she’d learned, Twilight could easily handle the why. Of course, this task was complicated by the fact that the Nightmare was chasing after her, Tartarus-bent on getting her helmet back. Fortunately, Pinkie had already thought to transform back into Surprise; Twilight had originally made her faster than any pegasus in recorded history, which gave her a top speed that was almost two-thirds that of Rainbow Dash’s. That said, the Nightmare was no slouch, either, and if she was to pull this off, Pinkie Pie would need much more prep time than her meager (and possibly nonexistent) speed advantage could provide. She needed a diversion—and she knew just what to do.
The pegasus rocketed into the center of the Residential District, nearly upsetting Sleepyjack’s apple cart (although Sleepyjack herself continued snoozing). When she reached a large intersection, she stopped and turned around to face the black mare who was closing in on her. The Nightmare landed in front of her with enough force to crack the cobblestones beneath her hooves. “You think the mere presence of bystanders will convince me to forbear my wrath?”
“You have four bears?”
“What?! No—” The Nightmare cut herself off with an irritated groan. “I shall not fall into these foalish traps of yours. Have you any last words?”
“Actually, I do.” The pegasus took a deep breath and shouted at the top of her lungs: “Hey, everypony! It’s the Nightmare’s birthday!”
The Nightmare might have responded to this, were it not for the deafening wall of exuberant shouting that materialized as hundreds of Pinkie Pie memories exited their hiding places and swarmed the autocratic mare in the biggest group hug that their real-life counterpart had ever witnessed. “Cease this at once! All memories are to stay inside unless they have official business!”
“Duh!” replied a voice from somewhere within the pink mob as a conical cardboard hat was strapped onto the alicorn’s cranium. “And since it’s your birthday, that means that you officially need a party!” To her credit, the Nightmare did attempt to make an irate, cynical reply, but she was drowned out by a series of twenty-one party cannon salutes.
Pinkie-Surprise saluted her adversary as her counterparts dragged her away for the impromptu festivities. “Have fun!” Once the Nightmare was out of sight, the pegasus took off and headed into the heart of the Imagination District.
As it turned out, Twilight Sparkle had indeed redesigned her creative hub over the years. Before, its design was fairly similar to that of Canterlot’s central marketplace, albeit with fewer stalls and more buildings, but now, everything was decorated with whimsical-looking machines that seemed to be powered by a combination of magic and steam, sort of like the Flim Flam Brothers’ mechanical cider machine thingy. Still, the general layout hadn’t changed, which meant it was no time at all before she’d found her destination, still situated next to a large concert hall: the Art Studio. Hopefully, it wouldn’t take too long to find the supplies she needed.
“....with minimal changes to the tax code. Yes, Applejack?”
“Well, quite frankly, Twi, I’m a bit concerned about whether or not y’all’re up ta runnin’ Equestria. I mean, sure, you’re great at makin’ sure that everythin’ gets done, but when it comes ta decidin’ just what needs doin’, yer a little hit-or-miss. Remember the time-travel thing? Y’all were so busy runnin’ all over Equestria gettin’ things done, that it never occured to ya that the right thing ta do might be absolutely nothin’ at all. How do ya plan on takin’ care of that?”
The unicorn briefly considered quibbling over whether the farmer’s example truly supported the point she was trying to make, but she elected to let it slide. Instead, she nodded sagely as she answered: “While I admit that there might be some rough patches at the beginning, I’m certain that I’ll be able to figure out the rest after some trial-and-error. It’s simply a matter of figuring out how the lessons of the past can apply to situations that may arise in the future.”
Applejack, however, wasn’t buying this. “Twi, do ya’ll really think that smarts are the only thing a pony needs to run Equestria?”
“Well, no, but—”
“Sounds to me like ya do, because that’s the only reason you’ve mentioned for why you’d do a better job than Celestia an’ Luna. But if just bein’ clever fixed everything, then there’s a certain showmare who would never have gotten her cart smashed under the foot of giant space-bear a while back.”
Twilight Sparkle looked nonplussed. “I hardly think I merit that sort of comparison with Trixie.”
“You certainly seem to think you’re Great and Powerful, though,” Rainbow Dash muttered almost inaudibly.
Pinkie Pie hovered in the nave of the Hall of Knowledge, admiring her hoofwork. While in the studio, she’d gotten slightly distracted by a rough draft for an as-yet-undrawn sketch of Spike’s pet phoenix, Peewee, which would doubtless be amazing if Twilight ever found the time to develop the skills needed to accurately translate her mental image to a physical piece of paper. In any case, Pinkie had been forced to simplify her plan a bit, since she couldn’t expect her mnemonic counterparts to hold the Nightmare at bay forever, no matter how awesome their party was—in fact, given that raucous noises from the general direction of the Residential District were no longer filtering into the Hall, it seemed that time was running out. Luckily, there was just one thing left to do: get Twilight’s attention.
A quick peek into the Staging Room revealed that the unicorn was still deep in discussion: at that moment, she appeared to be answering a question from Fluttershy, though what ursine chiropractic had to do with taking over Equestria was anypony’s guess. Unfortunately, this meant that Pinkie would have to exercise the “all necessary means” clause to get her friend’s attention, and this time, Twilight Sparkle would find it much more unpleasant.
The temporary pegasus sighed as she got ready to make her friend’s presentation rather difficult to finish. She muttered a brief apology to the ceiling, and then she then took off down a row of bookshelves, holding out one of her forelegs so she could easily push all of the contents onto the marble floor. After a dozen or so passes she refocused her attention on the filing cabinets, where most of Twilight’s mental activity seemed to be focused. Pinkie started opening drawers at random, scooping up the contents and flinging them into the air. Soon the hallway floors were a cluttered, disorganized mess. Honestly, it would have been fun, except that Pinkie Pie knew that fastidious librarian would be absolutely furious with her. She made a mental note to offer her assistance in cleaning up the place, assuming that everything turned out the way she hoped it would.
“....Yes, Princess Luna?”
The Princess of the Night absently flipped through the pages of her binder as she asked her question. “I can’t help but notice that you are presuming that our cooperation will be sufficient to get the general populace to accept you as a ruler.”
Twilight Sparkle wasn’t quite sure where this was going. “You’re saying it wouldn’t?”
“I’m saying that I’m not certain you understand why my sister and I were granted the authority we have in the first place. Because we assumed control of the cycle between day and night, we have a huge effect on agricultural production, which made our cooperation in nearly every large-scale endeavor a virtual necessity. Now, you may be given all of our authority, but can you gain the respect needed to wield it without our assistance?”
“You’re asking me if I can raise the sun and the moon, correct?”
“More or less.”
“Well, you’ll be pleased to know that I’ve done my calculations, and I think I’ve developed a spell that will allow me to accomplish this, if necessary, so long as I have access to the extra power that Nightmare is providing me.”
“I see. And would you care to explain the theory behind this spell?”
“Of course. You see... I... uh... there’s something... about a disk... or maybe a ring....”
“Are you feeling alright, Twilight Sparkle?” Celestia asked with some concern. She, like most of the others in the room, couldn’t help but notice that the Element of Magic was once again emitting a dull glow, which could only mean that something was happening beneath the surface of Twilight’s mind.
“I’m... I’m fine, I think. I just need a chance to collect my thoughts, that’s all. Would it be alright if we took a short break?”
“That seems reasonable. Will thirty minutes be sufficient?”
“Um... yeah. That should work.”
Twilight Sparkle stood in the small washroom, staring at the somewhat dingy mirror as water flowed in the porcelain sink. The librarian-who-would-be-princess pressed a hoof to her temple, trying to figure out why her tremendous capacity for storing information was suddenly failing her, but her attempts to reason her way back to a calmer state were doing little more than giving her a migraine. “What is wrong with me?” she groaned. “And more importantly, why did this have to happen at the worst... possible... moment...?” Her voice trailed off as she noticed the sickly glow emanating from the Element of Magic’s jewel. Apparently, something was happening, and the Nightmare was somehow involved.
Twilight needed to get to the bottom of this, and she needed to do it now. Settling back on her haunches, the unicorn shut her eyes and imagined that she wasn’t sitting on the floor of a claustrophobic washroom, but on a sort of theatrical stage. When she opened her eyes again, she had returned to her original size and shape, and there was a tremendous racket coming from the wooden door behind her, which was no doubt the source of her present difficulties. The unicorn marched quickly towards the door and flung it open, intent on reigning in whatever madness was going on in a swift, orderly fashion.
This intention, however, was completely derailed in less than a second. “Sweet filly Luna on a pogo stick! What... why... what happened to... huh?!” Twilight hadn’t seen a mess like this in the Hall of Knowledge since... well, since before she’d decided to organize her thoughts into the Hall in the first place. Papers, files, and books were strewn about the hallways, and it sounded like there was somepony who was in the process of making things worse. “Who is doing this? Show yourself!”
Twilight Sparkle wasn’t sure who to expect—perhaps a rogue memory, or maybe the Nightmare engaging in some frantic search for an obscure bit of trivia. However, she most certainly did not expect to see a white pegasus with a blonde mane poking her head out of one of the hallways and chirping a jaunty greeting. “Hiya, Twilight!”
“Surprise? How can you be here? I haven’t thought of you as an imaginary friend since Pinkie Pie... showed up....” Twilight Sparkle’s eyes went wide as her friend’s sudden nap suddenly seemed more conspicuous than fortuitous. “Pinkie Pie! What are you doing here?!”
“I’m trying to get your attention, duh,” Pinkie replied as she landed and transformed back into her standard pink earth pony form.
“I’ve been doing some Pinkiology studies on my own,” she replied, as if that was a sufficient answer.
“I don’t believe this! This was all just a setup?”
“Look, Twilight, if you’ll just listen—”
“Why should I listen to somepony who would just invade my mind the way you did?!”
“You mean the Nightmare didn’t invade your mind?”
“That’s... I mean... arrgh!” Twilight let out a noise that sounded like a mix of a groan and a scream. “Alright, you listen to me,” the unicorn said as the lighting in the hall grew more noticeably purple. “You are going to tell me everything. I want to know what you’re doing here, why you’re wearing Nightmare’s helmet, and every single detail of all the other ploys the Princesses are running. And you’re going to start by explaining what that bucket is doing over the front door!”
Luckily, Pinkie Pie didn’t need to answer this query, as the Nightmare picked that moment to burst through the hall’s double doors, upending the bucket perched above and sending several gallons of white paint cascading onto her head. As the alicorn sputtered in an attempt to spit out the paint that had entered her open mouth, Twilight stared at her in complete and utter shock.
Before either Pinkie Pie or the Nightmare could react, the entrance of the Hall of Knowledge had slammed shut and locked, a marble slab rose out of the floor to cover the door to the Staging Room, iron bars materialized and closed off the corridors, and the lighting had turned an even deeper shade of purple. Twilight Sparkle glared at the other two ponies in the nave. “Neither of you is going anywhere until I figure out what’s going on here.”
Technically, of course, this wasn’t necessarily true; from her practice sessions with Rarity, Pinkie Pie was pretty sure she could leave whenever she wanted by waking up in the real world. However, doing that now would probably result in Twilight believing whatever the Nightmare told her about the incident. “Okay. What do you want to know?”
“How did you get here?”
“Short answer? Imaginary friend powers.”
“Uh-huh,” Twilight replied skeptically. “And the long answer?”
“I Pinkie Promised that I’d figure out a way in here, which allowed me to access more of my imaginary friend powers.”
“Surely you aren’t going to believe that!” The Nightmare interjected as she attempted to return her coat to its original black color. Her ethereal mane had quickly reacquired its deep blue tint, but her head remained stubbornly white, which meant that she still bore an uncanny resemblance to Princess Celestia.
“I’ll decide what to believe later,” Twilight snapped. She returned her attention to Pinkie Pie. “So what exactly was the point of trashing everything?”
“Um... didn’t I say it was to get your attention? I definitely should have mentioned that.”
“That’s why you were sent here?”
“What? Oh, no. I was sent here to deal with the Nightmare. You know, because I grew up in your head.”
“And... what, you wanted me to witness your confrontation?”
“No, we already did that part. I just wanted you to see what I saw when I took her helmet.”
“And that is...”
“That she looks like Celestia, obviously.”
Twilight raised an eyebrow. “That’s it? That was the plan?”
“Uh, actually, there wasn’t a plan. Nopony knew what was going on in here, so I’ve been winging it.” Pinkie Pie paused, and suddenly broke into a fit of giggles strong enough to have her rolling on the floor, clutching her barrel as she attempted to regain her breath. “Heeheehahaha! Winging it!”
“She’s a madmare,” the Nightmare declared. “There’s simply no other explanation.”
“No, she isn’t.” Twilight replied wearily. “She’s spent some of her time here as a pegasus, so she probably just thinks her unintentional pun was amusing. Besides, the way you keep trying to get me to preemptively dismiss what she has to say is just as suspicious. Why do you look like Princess Celestia?”
“Mere coincidence. Blast it, how am I supposed to get this... gunk off?!”
“I got it from the Art Studio, which means it came from Twilight’s mind, so she can make it go away whenever she wants,” Pinkie answered.
“I wasn’t talking to you, you cheeky little foal! And give me back my helmet!” A blue aura surrounded the silver headgear and lifted it off of the earth pony’s head, but it abruptly disintegrated and was replaced with a pink aura as Twilight took the helmet herself, as a parent might confiscate a toy from two squabbling foals.
“Not until I know what’s going on,” the unicorn said, her irritation growing somewhat. “Pinkie, why did you take the Nightmare’s helmet? You aren’t the kind who’d play keep-away with somepony else’s things, even if it’s a pony you don’t like very much.”
“Eh, it was a spur of the moment thing. I figured it was enough payback for the trap.”
“Yeah, she was out in the Dreamfields laying traps or something. I think she thought one of the Princesses was going to come in here to save you or something.”
Twilight Sparkle shot a glare at the Nightmare. “You were laying traps in my mind?”
“It... it was just a security measure. And given that I caught an intruder with one, I’d say it was justified.”
“But you didn’t think anypony could enter Twilight’s mind when she wasn’t sleeping.” Pinkie’s eyes went wide as she had a sudden realization. “Oh! I bet you found Twilight when she was asleep! After all, if Luna knew the spell, so would you, right?”
The temperature seemed to increase as the unicorn’s glare morphed into a scowl. “You told me that you’d been lying dormant in my mind since our confrontation in the old castle.”
“I... I was speaking poetically,” the Nightmare said. “My mist form isn’t visible when I don’t have a host, so I had to search you out. It was only after I had entered that I began waiting for an opportune moment to make my presence known to you.”
“I see... and when, exactly, were you planning on telling me about those traps?”
“At the end of your proposal, if there was time.”
“If?” Twilight clearly did not like the implications of the qualifier.
“If you fail to persuade the Princesses—which would appear to be a foregone conclusion if this little stunt is any indication,” the Nightmare responded as she threw an accusatory glance towards Pinkie Pie, “—you might very well need my immediate assistance. Indeed, the possibility was high that I would not have a chance to inform you of my plans before the trap was sprung by an intruder, which, I remind you again, is precisely what has happened. That my original intent of using them to alert you while you were dreaming proved not to be germane to the issue is ultimately irrelevant.”
The unicorn turned her attention back to Pinkie Pie. “Do have anything to say to this?”
“Um, yes, actually. Did you finally get the hang of lucid dreaming?”
The Nightmare groaned. “More palaver! I submit that if this earth pony was truly as well-intentioned as she implies, she would provide you with forthright statements, rather than a stream of non sequiturs.”
“My question is totally, completely, 100% sequitur! Back when I was her imaginary friend, she was never lucid while she was dreaming, which means that she wouldn’t be behaving rationally enough for a warning to make any difference. And trying to wake her up wouldn’t work, either, since the only pony who can wake up Twilight Sparkle from inside her head is Twilight herself, and why would she decide to wake up if she didn’t think she was asleep in the first place? She only wakes up when her subconscious decides she’s had enough sleep, or if something or somepony in the real world interrupts her. You’ve been living in her head for months, if my Pinkie Sense is anything to go by. There’s no way you couldn’t know that! That means that the reason you’re giving for setting traps in the Dreamfields is a big ol’ load of hooey, unless Twilight can do lucid dreaming now.” Pinkie Pie turned to her friend for a confirmation or a denial.
The unicorn sighed. “I can’t. And furthermore, I still don’t behave particularly rationally in my dreams, because the rules keep changing.”
“I still say that making an attempt to alert you would be a reasonable effort. After all, many ponies occasionally achieve lucidity by accident. In any case, I still would be notified, and I am quite capable of confronting Celestia on my own.”
“Actually, you still haven’t explained why you look like her,” Pinkie Pie retorted.
“I believe I did. It is a phenomenon known as ‘coincidence.’ It’s certainly a far more believable scenario than the Princesses sending you into Twilight Sparkle’s mind without a plan.”
“She has a point,” Twilight said. “Do you have a better explanation?”
“Well, yeah,” Pinkie replied. “The Nightmare’s appearance can’t be a coincidence, because she’s a shapeshifter.”
“What— No, I’m not!” the Nightmare protested.
“What do you call it when you turn into mist, then?”
“That’s... merely an incorporeal form. Just because I have multiple forms doesn’t mean I have control over what those forms look like.”
“Luna didn’t have trouble doing it on Nightmare Night. Since you were together for a thousand years, I figure that means she learned it from you, or you learned it from her. But we don’t have to get all snippy about this, since you taught Twilight how to do it. So,” she said, turning to her friend, “how much control do you have over your appearance?”
“Uh... well, it’s just a matter of converting excess magic into mass or vice versa, so theoretically I should be able to transform into any shape, if only for a limited time, but at the moment, I have a lot of difficulty pulling off any shape that isn’t some variation of ‘unicorn.’”
“And why’s that?”
“That’s simple enough: Nightmare told me that I just needed more... practice....” Twilight Sparkle’s eyes widened.
“Well, isn’t that interesting? Now, I’m just a simple country earth pony,” Pinkie Pie said as she strolled over to the Nightmare with a noticeable swagger, “but it seems to me that one thousand years would give a pony an awful lot of time to practice.”
“Whatever your perception may be, you have still not offered an alternative that is superior to my explanation,” the alicorn replied icily.
“Hmm....” The earth pony paced around her opponent thoughtfully, squinting her eyes and occasionally cocking her head to the side.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for the Nightmare to become irritated. “Have you anything to say, or not?!”
“Actually... I think I do.”
“You think you know what’s going on?” Twilight asked.
“I wouldn’t say that I know; it’s more like a hunch, really. But my hunches have had a pretty good track record lately.” The earth pony walked back to her spot between the Nightmare and Twilight, and began to relate her theory—no, wait, her hypothesis.
“Well, the Nightmare obviously thought that one of the Princesses would come into your head, because she got really, really offended when she realized that I was here all by myself, like I wasn’t any sort of threat to her, even though she knows perfectly well that I used to live here when I was your imaginary friend, since she’s spent the past few months getting you obsessed with how I got to the real world. Actually, now that I think about it, I’m feeling kind of offended myself. I mean, even in the real world, my imaginary friend powers are nothing to sneeze at, but she just went and launched, like, a massive snot rocket all over them. You know, the runny-nose kind that are all slimy and germy and gross and—”
Twilight Sparkle looked mildly nauseous as she cut off her friend. “Okay, first of all, that’s disgusting, and second, you’re getting off topic.”
“Huh? Oh, right. Anyway, she also got really ticked off when I mentioned the possibility of you making her a body of her own. I mean, she even went and did the Royal Canterlot Voice thing. Then she said she had something better in mind, or something like that. I wasn’t really sure what that meant, since she was doing that really quiet bad-guy muttering thing that mustache-twirling villains do when they’re making vague references to their evil plans.”
“And the fact that she was muttering to herself proves that I shouldn’t trust her?” Twilight asked skeptically.
The Nightmare’s momentary burst of confidence upon hearing this question was crushed moments later when Pinkie Pie answered, “Don’t be silly. You shouldn’t trust her because she’s been lying about her real intentions.”
“Think about it: she set up traps to catch one of the Princesses while you were asleep. And, because you don’t really think straight while you’re dreaming, she could fight Celestia—specifically her, since she didn’t mention anything about confronting Luna a while back. She told me she had contingency plans for both, so I’m guessing she would have held Princess Luna’s consciousness hostage in your brain to try and force Celestia to show up. Well, that, or she was gonna send her back with a message that said Princess Celestia was a big bedwetting doody-head or maybe something else that wasn’t very nice. Anyway, if the Nightmare wins the fight, she gets something ‘better’ than her own body as a prize: Celestia’s body. Then, she wouldn’t have to spend any time earning anypony’s respect, because she could just steal Princess Celestia’s life, and pretty much everypony loves her, except for the ones that don’t. In other words, I guess what I’m saying is that the Nightmare looks like Celestia because she wants to be Celestia.”
“This is utterly absurd!” the alicorn cried. “Even if I wanted others to believe I was that condescending elitist, it would only be because it’s a convenient shortcut to getting things done.”
This seemed to confuse Pinkie Pie, who scratched her head and scrunched up her nose. “Really? So what are you gonna do?”
“This has already been answered for you: Celestia’s errors need to be corrected.”
“That’s what Twilight wants. What are you gonna do?”
“I... er... I will ensure that proper respect is paid to those who have earned it.”
“That’s what Luna wanted. What are you gonna do?”
The mare began sweating, which finally caused a few strands of her black coat to emerge from beneath the white paint. “I... um... well... that is....”
The earth pony’s smile wasn’t exactly smug, but it had that I’m-gonna-win quality that made ponies who were losing so ticked off that they didn’t need to use bug repellent. “You haven’t thought that far ahead, have you? Because taking over Celestia’s body has been your goal the whole time.”
At this point, Twilight Sparkle interjected herself into the conversation once again. “This is an interesting theory, Pinkie Pie, but why would the Nightmare go to all that trouble? Why not just enter Celestia’s mind?”
“My point exactly!” the Nightmare exclaimed with a relieved look on her face. “There is no reason to assume that my actions were not a good-faith effort.”
Pinkie Pie didn’t even blink: “Luna told us that the Nightmare can’t do anything without her host’s cooperation. If she tried to go straight into Celestia’s mind, she’d get absolutely clobbered, because Celestia controls everything that goes on in her own head. But if the two of them faced off in somepony else’s mind—more than likely yours, since it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to go to the trouble of setting up traps in your dreams if the Nightmare wanted to do it in Apple Bloom’s head—that would be a different story.”
“But why would she want to face Celestia while I’m dreaming? I can’t help her then.”
“You’re in charge, remember? If Princess Celestia entered your mind, she and the Nightmare couldn’t fight without your permission—but would you really give it?”
“Well... no, not unless all the other avenues had been exhausted.”
“But what if you were in the middle of a dream? Would you be willing to let the Nightmare just do whatever she wanted if you were too busy dealing with giant mutant three-toed sloths who were trying to flood Canterlot with chocolate syrup?” Twilight Sparkle had had that one multiple times when she was a filly.
“Uh... I guess... well, maybe. I mean, it’s... it’s not so bad,” the unicorn replied as she tried to process this information. “I’d be happy to keep Princess Celestia in my mind while the Nightmare got everything taken care of.”
“And how long would that take? What would she be taking care of?”
“Well, she’d be helping me take care of Equestria, I guess.”
“So, it would be for a really long time, then.”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“Which means that it would basically be like a role reversal thing for them.”
“You could put it that way.”
“Do you really think the Nightmare would risk the chance of Celestia getting you to change your mind the same way she got you to change it?”
The unicorn didn’t respond right away—at least not verbally. Then again, the sudden chill that blew through the Hall of Knowledge from no discernible origin, further scattering the papers that littered the floor, would have made any answer redundant.
“Would you let her live?” Twilight Sparkle finally asked the Nightmare with a stone-faced expression.
“I... I’m not sure I comprehend your meaning.”
“Princess Celestia. If you fought her, and you had the opportunity to show her mercy, would you let her live?”
“I should think that scenario rather unlikely, given the amount of power necessary to—”
“Answer my question!”
“Ah, well...” the Nightmare seemed to be racking her brain for an adequate response. Eventually, she settled on a qualified rejection: “If the situation you describe actually came about, I believe that the mere fact of Celestia’s entrance into your mind would be adequate evidence that she poses too great a threat to our plans to allow her consciousness to continue existing.”
Twilight Sparkle listened carefully to this justification, but it was abundantly clear that she found it wanting: “‘Our’ plans? ‘Our’ plans?! You don’t have any plans, or you would have been able to answer Pinkie’s question! Well, now I’m asking you: what exactly do you plan to do in Celestia’s body that I can’t accomplish with your assistance?”
“I... I can....”
“She can be Celestia,” Pinkie Pie stated, “but you would never even want to try.”
“Is that it? This is all just an elaborate plan to... to commandeer the Princess’ body?!”
The Nightmare was sweating profusely now. “Well, uh, as you said, this is a symbiotic relationship. We’re helping each other reach very different goals—”
“We agreed that nopony was going to be hurt unless it was necessary!”
“But... but you saw how intransigent Celestia was being....”
“That doesn’t justify trying to destroy her consciousness!”
Even though the Nightmare’s appearance hadn’t changed, she somehow seemed a lot smaller than she had five minutes ago. “She probably would have invaded your mind anyway.”
“Only because you would have forced her hoof, and even then, she’d only be doing it because she wanted to help me! You... you just don’t get it! It doesn’t matter that we’ve been arguing. It doesn’t matter that she won’t help me. It doesn’t even matter that I’d do a better job of ruling Equestria! Princess Celestia... she’s my friend... one of my best friends... and you wanted to kill her. You’ve been trying to murder my best friend and you tricked me into helping you!”
Pinkie Pie had seen Twilight get angry before; the unicorn’s initial attempt at studying her Pinkie Sense had proven so frustrating that she briefly expelled a considerable amount of raw magical power, creating the illusion that she had burst into flame for nearly five seconds. But this... this was nothing like that. This was... well... it was scary. Twilight Sparkle’s facial expression suddenly shifted from “indignant” to “neutral.” For nearly a minute, she just stared at the Nightmare, as if she was waiting for the alicorn to react. For her part, the Nightmare couldn’t seem to do anything but stare back into her ally’s eyes, which now looked as cold as they’d been on the night of her argument with Celestia. Speaking of which, the room’s temperature had dropped considerably, and soon all three ponies could see their breath fogging in front of them. Pinkie Pie briefly considered trying to break the silence, but she held back when she looked at Twilight’s face once again. The unicorn’s eyes, though they might have possessed a calculating gaze, were starting to water up. Eventually, a single tear escaped from its duct and ran down the side of the librarian’s muzzle.
And then all Tartarus broke loose.
Technically speaking, none of the scenery in Twilight Sparkle’s mind was “real,” at least in the sense that most ponies used the word. The ground, the buildings, the plants, the sky, and even the memories and ideas that populated this world were all figments of the unicorn’s imagination—that is to say, allegorical constructions meant to increase her mental efficiency so she could use her prodigious intellect to its full potential. This fact was of small comfort to the Nightmare, however, as it turned out that getting heaved against a massive pair of allegorical marble doors with enough force to shatter their hinges still managed to produce a very real sensation of excruciating pain, particularly in her now-dislocated left wing. The sudden temperature change from the frostiness of the Hall of Knowledge to the early-summer warmth of the “outside” was mildly disorienting, but the alicorn somehow managed to get to her feet just in time to once again make eye contact with her assailant.
“I... I’m s—” The Nightmare was unable to finish her sentence, as Twilight Sparkle chose that moment to unceremoniously slam her into the side of a building. Somehow, the black mare managed to stay on her hooves, but only by leaning against the wall.
“You’re sorry? Is that what you want to say? Sorry for what? For trying to murder Celestia? For lying to me? Or are you just sorry that you got caught?” The unicorn’s words only added to the pain that the alicorn felt—quite literally, as the air around the Nightmare grew more uncomfortable and restrictive as Twilight’s anger continued to grow.
The Nightmare tried to respond, but all that came out of her mouth was a series of ragged breaths. Eventually, she managed to squeeze something out: “You said that you were willing to take drastic measures.”
“I’ve been trying to to convince the Princesses to step down and let me rule Equestria. How is that not drastic?!”
The lull in the onslaught gave the Nightmare a chance to regain some of her haughty demeanor: “I was referring to more than the mere expenditure of political capital.” A more perfect illustration of how judgement can be clouded while under duress would be difficult to imagine.
“Political capital? Political capital?!” Twilight Sparkle’s horn glowed as she hurled the alicorn in the general direction of the Imagination District with enough force that she had to break into a full gallop just to make sure that she didn’t lose sight of the object of her wrath.
Ironically enough, the Nightmare landed on the cobblestones next to a marble fountain shaped in Princess Celestia’s likeness. Before today, Twilight Sparkle had assumed that the black mare’s willingness to leave it undisturbed was evidence that, despite her hostility towards her rival, the Nightmare harbored some level of respect for the Equestrian royal. Now, however, it was abundantly clear that the Nightmare’s appreciation for the artwork came from pure vanity: when she looked at it, she saw a monument that could be repurposed to celebrate her own greatness.
The unicorn continued her ranting as if nothing had happened. “You think that all I’m doing is cashing in on some... some bank account of goodwill? I’ve been risking more than my reputation; I’ve been putting my friendships with the ponies I care about the most on the line! Not just Celestia and Luna, but also Applejack! and Rainbow Dash! and Rarity! and Fluttershy! and Pinkie Pie!” As she rattled off each name, Twilight repeatedly slammed the Nightmare into the ground, a wall, or any other surface that looked solid enough to cause significant trauma. It was far more satisfying than making a checkmark on a scroll with a quill. “They’ve trusted me for so long, and you convinced me to take that trust and completely rip it to shreds! I may never fully repair the damage I’ve done to our relationships. The magic of friendship is one of the most meaningful things I’ve learned from them, and I’ve thrown it all away—do you even understand how important that is?!”
The Nightmare lay on the ground, breathing heavily. Even if she could stand up, she hadn’t bothered to try; instead, she raised her neck, looked Twilight Sparkle squarely in the eyes, and in a voice of complete and utter resignation, answered: “No.”
By now, the tears falling down Twilight’s face had grown into steady rivulets. “You... you’ve ruined my entire life, and that’s all you have to say for yourself? That you don’t understand?! That doesn’t even make sense! I want answers! What was the point of all this?!”
But it appeared that the Nightmare had given up; she simply stared at the ground, waiting for the inevitable, apparently taking some solace in the fact that she would at least be able to deny the unicorn the closure she was demanding.
“Fine,” Twilight said her pink aura charged up around her horn. “Nopony cares about you anyway. I’ll just get rid of you once and for all, and then everything can go back to normal.” The glow became brighter and brighter, to the point where it was starting to obscure the unicorn’s vision. It was time to end this. “Goodbye, Nightmare.”
“No! Stop, Twilight!”
Twilight turned around to see a white pegasus flying towards the two of them. “Surpr— I mean, Pinkie Pie, what are you doing?”
The pegasus landed and shifted back to her usual pink earth pony body shape. “I’m making sure you don’t make a mistake.”
“I’m not making a mistake. In fact, I’m making sure that the Nightmare won’t trouble anypony ever again.”
“Really? Oh, that’s good to hear. I thought you were going try to do something kooky, like killing her.”
Twilight looked confused. “That’s... that’s what I meant.”
Pinkie Pie blanched a little upon hearing this. “Oh. Then I guess it’s a good thing I showed up when I did, isn’t it?”
“What are you talking about?!” Twilight shouted. “You can’t possibly think that she deserves mercy, when she wouldn’t have given it to Celestia.”
The unicorn blinked away some of her rapidly drying tears. “But... but Equestria’s definitely better off without her.”
Pinkie Pie pondered this for a second or two before replying: “That’s probably true.”
“Then... does Celestia want the Nightmare brought to justice in the legal system?”
“Not really. After all, they said I could do whatever I had to do to ‘neutralize’ her, and I’m pretty sure that standing back and letting you take matters into your own hooves counts.”
“Then why are you defending her?!”
“I’m not. This has nothing to do with the Nightmare, and everything to do with you.”
“Twilight, killing the Nightmare might be a good thing for Equestria, but you wouldn’t be doing it for Equestria. You’d be doing it for yourself.”
“That’s not true....”
“Really? Because when you were shouting at her a while back, it sounded like you were only concerned with how she’s ruined your life, and how you are going to have to fix everything. Face it, Twilight. You only want to kill her because you’re angry at her, and I’m pretty sure that’s... well... murder.”
For a brief moment, the unicorn seemed to be thrown off by this accusation, but she managed to recover. “So what? It’s not like any jury in Equestria would convict me.”
Pinkie didn’t respond to this—not directly, anyway. “Have you seen your reflection?” she asked, pointing towards the fountain.
Confused, Twilight paced over to the pool of water and looked down, but the image she saw was not the exuberant face of Princess Celestia’s faithful student, but the cold stare of the tall, elegant unicorn who was in the midst of a power grab. Twilight Sparkle staggered backwards as she tried to make sense of this. “What... how... I don’t—”
“If you kill the Nightmare, you’ll probably get away with it. But... I’m not sure you can do it without destroying the Twilight Sparkle I care about.”
“But... I... No! No, I can’t second guess myself. This is... this needs to be done.” The mare rubbed her now-dry eyes with her hooves and returned her attention to the Nightmare, who hadn’t even bothered trying to get away. The alicorn just stared at Twilight apathetically. The glow returned to the unicorn’s horn. She gave a furtive glance back towards Pinkie Pie. “Aren’t you... um... aren’t you going to try and stop me?”
“I don’t think I could. It’s your mind, after all. Besides, you know her better than me. Maybe she really does have to go.”
Twilight sighed and returned her focus to her target. “Nightmare, you’re going to... to...” Why am I stalling? Like I said, it needs to be done! In fact, it would have been done already, if only Pinkie hadn’t butted in. Why can’t that stupid earth pony just—
A chill ran down Twilight’s spine as she realized where he train of thought was taking her. “No.... No!” The glow of her aura abruptly dissipated as the mare collapsed onto her knees. “How... when did...” Twilight Sparkle couldn’t form her sentence, but she didn’t have to; Pinkie Pie embraced her in the tightest, most loving hug she could manage.
“It’s going to be okay.”
Twilight Sparkle wanted to thank Pinkie Pie for being there, but she couldn’t. She wanted to apologize for letting herself get carried away by her emotions, but she couldn’t. She wanted to wake up and learn that this had all been a horrible dream, but all she could do was put her face into Pinkie Pie’s shoulder and let her tears escalate into shuddering sobs.
Twilight wasn’t certain how much time passed, but eventually, the tears subsided enough for her to speak again. “What... What am I going to do? I can’t— She can’t stay in my head, and if we use the Elements... she’ll just... she’ll just find somepony else and do it again.” When the earth pony didn’t answer, Twilight finally raised her head. “Pinkie Pie?”
Pinkie was looking straight into the Nightmare’s eyes with a strange look on her face. The unicorn had to blink away the last remaining salty drops before she recognized it as the rarest of all Pinkie Pie’s facial expressions: neutrality. “Do you... do you have an idea?”
“Not really,” Pinkie Pie eventually said. Her mouth turned up into its familiar smile. “I do have a hunch, though. I’m just going to need your help to make it work....”
“It’s been almost an hour.” Rainbow Dash hadn’t really needed to say this out loud, as everypony else in the room had been casting uneasy glances at the clock on the wall every few seconds, but the tension was getting unbearable. “Don’t you guys think we oughta do something?”
“Do you have a suggestion?” Rarity asked.
“Uh, well, maybe we could check to see if Twilight’s still in the washroom.”
“Fluttershy just did that ten minutes ago. Is there any reason to think that she isn’t still sitting in front of the mirror with her eyes shut?”
“Hey, a lot can change in ten minutes!”
“Maybe we oughta wake up Pinkie Pie,” Applejack said. “She mighta got caught in Twilight’s head. Maybe she’s in trouble.”
Princess Luna dismissed this idea. “I am quite confident that Pinkie Pie will have no problems exiting Twilight’s mind should the danger prove too great.”
“But what if the Nightmare’s gettin’ to her, too?”
Celestia sighed. “That’s a risk we took by attempting this. If the Nightmare manages to get the Element of Laughter to defect... but thinking that way helps nopony. Twilight gave Pinkie Pie an intelligence equal to her own, and it took months for the Nightmare to corrupt her. The chances of the same thing happening to Pinkie Pie in less than an hour are slim at best.”
“I wish Cadance was here,” Shining Armor said absently.
“You really think it’s going to take that much power to take Twilight down?” Rainbow Dash asked.
The stallion grunted in mild irritation. “I meant for emotional support. This isn’t easy, you know.”
“Of course I know,” the pegasus responded. “That’s why I’ve been trying to figure out what we can actually do instead of sitting on our docks.”
“Um, well, Pinkie Pie’s still smiling,” Fluttershy said, pointing at the still-snoozing earth pony. “That, um, that’s probably good, right?”
Princess Celestia sighed. “All we can do now is—” Her sage advice was cut off by the sound of slow hoofbeats from the general direction of the washroom. The committee members all turned towards the noise and saw Twilight Sparkle—not the glamorous, svelte unicorn, but the normal-sized mare they were accustomed to seeing—walk into the room with her ears drooping and her head hung low.
“Um, Twilight?” her brother asked. “Are you ready to continue?”
Twilight lifted her head and looked Shining Armor in the eyes. It looked like she’d spent a long time crying her eyes out, leaving her weary and emotionally drained, which was strange, because Fluttershy hadn’t seen anything like that when she’d checked on her only a few minutes earlier. “No,” she replied. The unicorn lifted the Element of Magic off of her head, and floated it over to the Princesses. “Here. I... I don’t....” Twilight Sparkle couldn’t seem to finish her sentence, so she just trailed off and sat on the floor.
Applejack walked up to her friend and put a foreleg around her shoulder. “You gonna be okay, Sugarcube?”
“I don’t know,” Twilight said, not bothering to raise her head. She let out a huge sigh. “It was all a lie. Pinkie Pie figured it out. I thought we’d formed a solid alliance, but it was all just an elaborate setup to replace Celestia. Believe it or not, she actually looks just like her, under her helmet. But I... I fell for it.”
“You were hardly the first pony to be deceived by the Nightmare,” Luna replied.
“Is that your way of telling me I’ve been pardoned?”
Luna raised an eyebrow. “What reason could we possibly have for pardoning you?”
Twilight sighed again; she should have known better than to think she could get away with something like this scot-free. “What’s my punishment, then?”
The Princess of the Moon chuckled. “You misunderstand, Twilight Sparkle. We have no reason to pardon you, because pardoning you would imply that you had committed a crime in the first place.”
“What?! But, but I tried to take over!”
“And instead of gathering an army and trying to stage a coup d’etat, or using the Nightmare’s power to commit some act of violence, you presented us with a formal proposal, which is precisely what we requested of you,” Celestia said. “It is no crime to obey the request of a Princess.”
“I suppose another way to put it is that there is no need to pardon you, but we do grant you our forgiveness,” Luna added.
“I... I’m not sure I deserve that.”
Celestia sighed. “Let me guess: you still think that you might be a better ruler.”
Twilight nodded, once again hanging her head in shame. “I... I was so sure I’d convince you to see things my way today, but... I don’t think I’ve ever failed so completely before.”
“I wouldn’t say that your efforts today were a complete failure.”
The unicorn looked up at her mentor, who had a familiar impish grin on her face. “What do you mean?”
“Twilight Sparkle, did you not notice that none of the questions we asked challenged the first part of your argument? That our main objection was to the idea that you were qualified to rule Equestria?”
“Um... now that you mention it... that was a little surprising. I was certain you’d try to defend your decision to abandon your studies.”
Celestia’s smile grew warmer. “I probably would have, were it not for the fact that you argued that point so persuasively, that my sister and I both agreed with you by the time you were finished. You were absolutely right, Twilight. It was a mistake to stop investigating Discord’s manifestation, and Luna and I should have given you all of the support we could provide. You changed our minds, which ironically demonstrated our fitness to continue as rulers of Equestria, by the terms you set forth in your own argument. As for your own qualifications, had you been trying to persuade us to appoint you as a chancellor, today would have been an unqualified success for you, but good advisors do not always make the best rulers. While I am certain that you would perform admirably when dealing with a dire emergency, I don’t think the daily slog of mundane politics would fit your personality very well.”
Twilight wasn’t entirely certain that she agreed, but then, she supposed she owed the Princesses a chance to prove their argument (especially considering what the alternative could have been). “So... what does all that mean?”
“It means that we intend to give you our full support,” Luna said.
“You... you really mean it?”
“Of course. We’ll even give you access to our research.”
“Oh... um, thank you,” Twilight replied uneasily as she pondered whether to tell the Princesses that she had never actually needed to see their research in the first place.
Celestia seemed to pick up on this. “That way, you can double-check to make sure that the Nightmare didn’t falsify anything she told you.”
“I see.” The unicorn hadn’t thought of that, either. “Well, in any case, thank you so much.” She finally allowed herself to smile.
“Of course,” the Princess of the Sun continued, “before we allow you to do so, we’ll need reassurance that the Nightmare has been dealt with.”
“Oh, right. Well, that’s sort of complicated.”
“Why would it be complicated?” Rainbow Dash asked. “Either you’ve already blasted her into smithereens, or you need our help to do it, right?”
“No. She’s still around. She’s just not in my head anymore.”
“Huh? Then where...?” The pegasus trailed off when Twilight Sparkle silently pointed a hoof towards the still-sleeping Pinkie Pie. “No way.... You’ve gotta be kidding me!”
Rarity’s eyes widened as she processed what this new revelation meant. “Darling, surely you don’t mean to say that you’re letting Pinkie face that... that monstrosity alone, are you?”
“It was Pinkie Pie’s idea,” Twilight Sparkle replied, even though she wasn’t entirely certain that this would assuage anypony’s worries. “Besides, we took some rather... drastic precautions.”
“Oh my...” Fluttershy said. “It... it wasn’t something dangerous, was it?”
“Well, we did have to essentially improvise a complicated magical spell, and that’s always risky. It appears that whatever Nightmare is, she has the same magical makeup of an actual alicorn: equal parts unicorn, pegasus, and earth pony. To keep her from being too powerful for Pinkie to handle, I split her magical essence and redistributed it between the three of us, which I’m fairly certain would have completely destroyed her if I’d tried it in the real world. I have her unicorn magic, while Pinkie Pie has her earth pony magic, leaving behind an extremely powerful pegasus who can’t take physical form on her own.”
“And she’s inside Pinkie’s head right now?” Rainbow Dash asked.
“I assume so. Pinkie Pie thought that there was something more going on, so she wanted the chance to figure out the truth.”
“Uh, the Nightmare’s a jerk, and she wants to hurt a lot of ponies. What’s left to figure out?”
The pegasus’ question was answered not by Twilight, but by a very loud yawn, as Pinkie Pie finally rose from her slumber. “Wow... that was an interesting dream,” she said to no one in particular as she stood up from her chair and walked towards the other ponies in the room.
“Did you manage to clarify what’s going on?” Twilight Sparkle asked.
“I’m pretty sure... I just need to ask the Princesses a few questions. Um, you guys don’t mind, do you?”
“Not at all,” Celestia said with a smile, as Luna nodded silently in agreement.
“Super! Well, most of these are related to back when you created Discord—”
“What?!” Shining Armor shouted, his eyes bugging out. “Your Majesty, is... is this...”
Celestia sighed. “Yes, it’s true, and I’m granting you a retroactive security clearance.”
“Didn’t y’all already know that?” Applejack asked.
“I was told he was an imaginary friend like Pinkie Pie... but....”
“Perhaps we should consider making this information public knowledge,” Luna said. “Otherwise, if Discord escapes again, he could use it to sow distrust among our subjects.”
“We can decide that later,” her sister replied. “There are more pressing matters at the moment. Please, continue with your questions, Pinkie Pie.”
“Right. Well, was ‘Discord’ the name you gave to him when he was still your imaginary friend?”
Celestia shook her head. “No. He chose that name for himself after usurping the throne. Before that, he was content with ‘Quigley.’”
“What does that mean?” Rainbow Dash asked.
“Nothing, as far as I know. It just sounded like a good name for an imaginary friend—Luna came up with it, if I’m not mistaken.”
“But he was the one who decided to change his name, right?” Pinkie Pie asked.
“That’s correct,” Celestia answered. “It was only when he refused to answer to the name I’d given him that we realized his coup attempt wasn’t a practical joke. Well, technically, I suppose it was, but his intent was quite serious.”
Rarity seemed a bit confused. “Pinkie Pie, what does this have to do—”
“Don’t interrupt her,” Twilight Sparkle advised. “At least, not until she’s done. Trust me, you’ll want to hear her out.”
“Thanks, Twilight,” Pinkie said. “Anyway, on to question two: did Discord look any different from how you imagined him when he showed up in real life?”
“Not really... I always wanted him to be a shapeshifter, and so I had several ‘standard’ looks for him, all of which were mix-and-match collages of various species. However, now that I think of it, his ‘normal’ form in the real world is essentially a mix-and-match of all the previous chimeric forms.”
“So, basically, it was Discord who decided what he would look like, what he’d be called, and ultimately, what he’d act like, right?”
“Yes... though I must admit that I’m not sure where you’re going with this.”
“Well, so far, that’s just like me, right? I picked my own name, and I don’t look like Surprise.”
“I suppose that’s true...”
“Great! That means you’re done for now. Your turn, Luna.”
The Princess of the Moon sighed in what appeared to be mild exasperation. “You needn’t draw this out with an extended interrogation; I can see where this train of thought leads. You are about to inform me that the Nightmare was my imaginary friend, likely forgotten for the same reason that Twilight Sparkle forgot about you when you manifested, are you not?”
“No,” Pinkie Pie answered, “and that’s the problem.”
“I... I beg your pardon?”
“Why? Did you commit a crime?”
“No, that was just a... never mind. Ask your question.”
“Okie dokie lokie! Why did you decide to study Discord’s appearance on your own?”
The alicorn shrugged. “Mere curiosity.”
“But why did you keep it secret? I mean, other than the fact that keeping things secret is usually a good way to keep other ponies from finding out about them, unless you’re not good at keeping secrets, in which case you would probably be better off trying to tell everypony, because—”
The alicorn cut Pinkie Pie off in an attempt to stanch the flow of words. “Do you genuinely not know, or are you just leading me to a predetermined conclusion?”
“Eh, a little from column A, a lot from column B, and maybe a pinch from row 47 up in the balcony for seasoning.”
Luna sighed. “Very well. The truth is, I cannot quite remember why I kept it secret.”
“But do you remember what gave you the idea in the first place? When did you actually start?”
“Well, it was soon after Discord—or rather, Quigley’s appearance. Celestia’s ‘research’ into the matter had mainly consisted of informal conversations with him, but I was very much interested in the magical theory behind it, particularly since so many of the ponies at court were talking about how impressive my sister was. However, after one unusually fitful day of sleep, I decided to begin pursuing my own studies.”
Pinkie Pie nodded sympathetically. “I hate it when that happens. It makes for really sluggish parties, which isn’t good, unless you’re throwing a party for a slug. Anyway, why couldn’t you sleep?”
“Let me see.... Ah, yes! If I recall correctly, I’d had a particularly bad... nightmare....” Princess Luna’s voice trailed off as her eyes widened in shock. She staggered backwards and collapsed into a chair, disbelief plastered on her face.
“Um, Princess Luna?” Fluttershy asked. “Are you... are you okay?”
“She’s probably dealing with a sudden flood of long-forgotten memories,” Twilight Sparkle said. “I was like that when I saw my crayon drawing of Surprise.”
“Sister?” Celestia asked. “What happened?”
“It... it was shortly after I’d overheard some guards idly discussing whether you would be willing to use your newfound ability to summon powerful creatures to destroy Equestria’s enemies. When I retired to my bedchamber that morning I... I dreamed that you’d gone mad with power, creating fearsome beasts with your mind to crush all the ponies who would dare to stand in your way. When I woke up, I... I knew that you were nothing like the tyrant my mind had conjured up, but the imagery was so striking....”
“You didn’t want to take a chance,” Celestia said. If she’d had any sort of emotional reaction to this news, she was masking it quite well.
“That is... correct. The idea seemed to haunt my every waking moment, becoming more and more vivid even as it became less and less like you. I felt that I had to start making contingency plans, if only so I could ease my mind. I wanted to learn how you had manifested Discord, so that I might do the same if needed. I began role-playing potential interactions with this theoretical version of you, in case they became a reality. My obsession even continued after Discord usurped the throne—but after we used the Elements of Harmony for the first time, I suddenly couldn’t remember why it was so important.”
“In other words,” Pinkie explained, “the Nightmare wasn’t Luna’s imaginary friend; she was her imaginary enemy.”
“But... how did the Nightmare re-enter my mind without my knowledge?” Luna asked.
“Oh, goodie, I know that one! It’s simple: she never left it.”
“When I asked the Nightmare about it, she said that something... went wrong. I think it might be because you never thought of her as a friend. I don’t really know, though, so I guess that means there’s another thing for me and Twilight to investigate. But, whatever the reason, she knew that she should have been your friend. But there’s no way that was gonna happen, because, well, she was basically an evil version of Celestia, though she’s really more like you, because you didn’t know what Celestia would be like if she started doing evil stuff, so you just inserted parts of your own personality to fill in the gaps.
“So you pretty much rejected her the moment you created her, and... well... remember when you were asking about the time I tried creating imaginary friends of my own?”
“The reason I tried to do that was because I thought my friends had rejected me. Um... you see... ponies like me and the Nightmare don’t seem to handle rejection very well. I’m guessing that’s also what caused Discord to go the wrong way.”
“More or less,” Celestia confirmed sadly.
Pinkie Pie continued her conversation with Luna. “In any case, the Nightmare wanted to be your friend, but since you made her evil, she literally had no idea how to do that. She did know that you thought of Celestia as a friend, though, so she decided that meant that Celestia had to go, because she was the competition, or something like that. Since the closest thing to friendship that she understands is respect, she started planting the idea that Celestia didn’t respect you.”
“So that’s how Princess Luna got the idea to hold back the sun?” Shining Armor asked.
“No,” Luna answered with a regretful sigh. “The Nightmare was only trying to convince me that my sister deserved my enmity. I... I was the one who extended the idea to include every other pony in Equestria. I was the one who wanted to punish everypony for their insolence.”
“Right,” Pinkie said after several seconds of silence. “Anyway, once the two of you were on the Moon, the Nightmare hoped that she could finally be your friend... but you never really treated her like one, even though she was the only pony you had to talk to for a thousand years. You never recognized her as the alternate Celestia that you created. You... you didn’t even give her a name—she was just ‘the Nightmare.’ It’s like...” the earth pony trailed off, racking her brain for an example. “It’s like putting a lot of time and effort into a party, only to have nopony show up.”
“Uh, Pinkie, maybe you oughta stick with examples that everypony can relate to,” Rainbow Dash suggested.
“Why can’t you relate to that? After all, you’ve actually seen what I’m like when nopony shows up at one of my parties.”
Rainbow Dash’s eyes widened. “You mean, she went... um... loopy?”
“How else do you explain why she thought she could replace the real Celestia altogether? Indigestion? Wait... maybe it was! Luna, you didn’t happen to eat any stale moon rocks, did you?”
“Hang on,” Applejack said. “If the Nightmare wanted to replace Celestia, why didn’t she just pop up in the real world, kill her, and use shapeshiftin’ so nopony’d be the wiser?”
“Because right now, she can’t manifest herself.”
“An’ why’s that?”
“Well, although I’m not quite ready to rule out moon rocks completely, I’d say the most likely reason is because she doesn’t want to be herself. She wants to be Celestia. Look, you know how everypony is unique and special, even identical twins?”
“Well, I think that that might be really, really super important for imaginary friends. We’re special, too, but we have to create some of our own specialness to really be, well, real.”
“Uh... that ain’t makin’ much sense.”
“Think of it this way: Twilight Sparkle created Surprise, but I created Pinkie Pie. Part of that might have been subconscious on my part, since I don’t remember deciding to be a pink earth pony, but I was the one who decided that I would be an outgoing pony who would try to be friends with everypony I met, instead of a Grumpy McGrumpypants who doesn’t wanna spend any time with anypony. From what I can tell, it was kind of the same with Discord. But the Nightmare... she didn’t think she had to be special, because it looked like she could just take the place of a pony who already exists. But back when she wasn’t willing to be unique, she had no chance of becoming an independent pony on her own. So, ironically, the reason she couldn’t commit old-fashioned murder is because she wanted to commit old-fashioned murder. Um, that is ironic, right?”
“I’m pretty sure it is,” Twilight replied. “But... I can’t help but notice that you’ve been using the past tense when talking about Nightmare’s motives.”
“I did?” Pinkie Pie asked, her mood brightening considerably. “Yay! That means we’re getting to the good part!”
“Hold on a moment,” said Rarity. “Pinkie, darling, are you saying you convinced the Nightmare to change her mind?”
“Yepperoonie! Well, if by ‘changing her mind’ you mean ‘getting her to accept the inevitable,’ anyway. Basically, no matter what she does, and no matter how hard she tries, she’s never going to replace the real Celestia. For one thing, now that we know that that’s what she’s been trying to do, we can plan ahead for if she tries anything else. But more importantly—and getting her to admit this was the really hard part—even if she did manage to replace Princess Celestia, anypony who knows her would wise up pretty quick, because she just isn’t very much like her.
“Lucky for her, though, she has the chance to do things the right way. Which means (and this is the super-duper-awesome everypony’s-happy-now part) she’s agreed to give up trying to be Celestia, and she’s going to create an identity of her very own! Isn’t that great? I’m already making plans for the party: there’ll be cake and ice cream and a custom-made game of Pin the Tail On the Pony and—”
Luna looked incredulous. “And you managed to convince her of this in less than an hour?”
“But... but if she desired to be my sister as strongly as you suggest, that conversation should have taken a full day at the very least! There simply isn’t enough time.”
Pinkie Pie unsuccessfully attempted to suppress a giggle. “Why would time have anything to do with how long a conversation lasts? That’s just silly!”
“Um, actually,” said Fluttershy, “that sounds fairly reasonable. Well, to me, at least.”
The earth pony thus saw the need to explain her position in more detail. “Haven’t you ever noticed how time seems to speed up or slow down depending on what you’re doing? Well, it’s just like that when you’re completely inside somepony’s head—especially a pony like me who has lots and lots of practice with lucid dreaming.”
“Well, then... how long was the conversation?” asked Fluttershy.
“As long as it had to be. Which was... um... really long. But that doesn’t matter right now. The point is, now that the Nightmare’s accepted that she can’t do things the way she wanted to, she’s got a chance to do things the way she was supposed to. She’s going to be her own pony,” Pinkie finished proudly.
The response was less than optimal. “Are you out of your mind?!” Rainbow Dash shouted. “After all she’s done, why would we want the Nightmare to be loose in Equestria?”
Surprisingly, Pinkie Pie’s response was equally stern: “Because she wouldn’t be the Nightmare anymore. The Nightmare is just the result of Luna’s imaginary enemy trying as hard as she could to be the pony that her creator imagined her to be. It’s not her fault that Luna created her so she could plan for a worst-case scenario.” The earth pony’s voice cracked as she suddenly became emotional. “Can you even imagine what it’s like to be rejected the second you start existing? Or what it’s like to want a friend but have absolutely no idea how to actually be one? Because that’s what it’s been like for her.”
Nopony seemed willing to respond to this; Princess Luna in particular simply stared at her hooves. Pinkie Pie took this as a signal to continue. “Don’t worry. She’s not going to fool me—I know perfectly well that she could just be telling me what she thinks I want to hear, and that she might only want to change from a great big meanie to a greater bigger meaner meanie. But at least this way, she can’t say she wasn’t given a fair chance to do things the right way.”
Princess Celestia took care to phrase her response delicately. “I understand your reasoning, Pinkie Pie, but I think we’d all feel better if there was some sort of security measure beyond one of the Nightmare’s promises.”
“Oh, there is! You see, she didn’t just make a promise to be good: she made a Pinkie Promise, which means I get to use my imaginary friend powers to keep her in line. Basically, she’s going to be spending a lot of time as a physical pony, but if she starts acting nightmare-y, I can pull her into my head for a Time Out.”
“Um...” Fluttershy hesitantly objected, “but what if she turns into mist so nopony can see her?”
“Glad you asked! I decided that she should still be allowed to do that in case she gets too nervous, or if other ponies are mean to her because of what she’s done in the past—but the only place she can go is back inside my head. So there’s really no reason to worry about her escaping, because it’ll only be inscaping!”
“But... how do you know she won’t convince you that she’s right?” Twilight asked. “I mean, sure, you’re intelligent, but so are Luna and I.”
“True, but you two wanted respect and knowledge, which are things you can actually get by taking over Equestria. On the other hoof, what I want more than anything else is friendship, and at the end of the day, power won’t get you any real friends all by itself. Allies and yes-ponies, maybe, but not friends. And, well, if taking over the world can’t solve a problem, then the Nightmare doesn’t have any clue how to solve it. I really shouldn’t be calling her ‘Nightmare,’ though, since that isn’t her name.”
“It isn’t?” asked Twilight Sparkle.
“Nope! Not anymore. In any case, I think it’s time I stopped yammering and introduce you to my newest friend. Fillies and gentlecolt, I would like all of you to meet Penumbra!” Pinkie Pie made a flourishing gesture to the empty space beside her... which remained empty.
With a look of consternation, the earth pony smacked the side of her head with one of her forehooves. “Hey! That was your cue!”
After a few more seconds of silence, Pinkie rolled her eyes. “Look, I know it’s awkward, but I figure that’s going to be the case no matter what happens, so you might as well get this out of the way so we can move on to more important things, like your ‘welcome to existence’ party.”
Several more seconds seemed to indicate that The Pony Formerly Known As Nightmare was still reluctant to make an appearance. “Oh, no you don’t, missy! If I let you put this off, we’ll never get around to it. Abracapinkie!” This time, plumes of ash-colored mist formed next to Pinkie Pie, which then coalesced into a midnight blue pegasus with a wavy black mane that fell over her right eye, completely covering it. Her tail was similarly wavy, and like her mane, there were occasional white hairs throughout; one got the impression that if she stood in a strong wind, she would still bear a strong resemblance to Princess Luna, although her body shape was much more like those of average mares. Her cutie mark was no longer the image of a solar eclipse: instead, it was a simple white ring.
Upon noting this, Twilight Sparkle couldn’t help herself: “Um, I don’t mean to split hairs, but that’s an antumbra, not a penumbra.”
The new pony glared at Pinkie Pie. “I told you so,” she said simply in the same voice she had used as the Nightmare.
Pinkie sighed. “We’ve been over this: an actual penumbra looks too much like Luna’s cutie mark, and you’re supposed to be your own pony now, remember? Unless you want to change your name to Antumbra...”
“No way. I’m already sick of puns about me being somepony’s ‘Aunt Umbra,’ and I haven’t even heard any yet.”
“Then Penumbra it is, and who cares if your cutie mark isn’t scientifically accurate?”
“Twilight Sparkle, obviously.”
“Oh, she’ll get over it. Now quit talking to me and introduce yourself.”
The pegasus’ ears flattened, but she moved forward to the others. “Um... I’m... I’m Penumbra. And... I’m... I’m sorry about what I’ve done.” The recently-manifested pony was having great difficulty maintaining eye contact with anypony for very long, and in the case of Celestia and Luna it was impossible.
“Penumbra,” Celestia said in her most emotionally neutral, authoritative tone of voice, “you have committed crimes against the ponies of Equestria in the past, and not two hours ago, you were plotting to take my life. It is only because of the extraordinary circumstances of your personal history and the trust I hold in Pinkie Pie’s judgment that you are being granted clemency. Should you choose to squander it, mercy will not be shown to you again. Do you understand?”
“I... I do, Princess Celestia,” Penumbra replied, though it was quite obvious that she was still quite uncomfortable saying the name out loud, as if it was a treasure that she’d only recently accepted as being forever beyond her grasp.
That Celestia responded with a smile wasn’t surprising; the fact that the smile appeared completely genuine was. “Then I welcome you as one of my subjects, and wish you the best as you make a life for yourself in Equestria. I defer all matters regarding your supervision to Pinkie Pie. Luna, are you in agreement?”
The Princess of the Night finally raised her head from the floor. “Yes, sister, I am. And Penumbra...” Luna briefly trailed off as she looked into the pony’s turquoise eyes. “I must offer you my apologies. If I’d known what I was doing, I wouldn’t have made you so...” The Princess trailed off again, unable to think of a way to finish her sentence that wouldn’t sound insulting.
“I don’t blame you, Princess Luna.”
“No. Just Luna. You were a part of who I am, and at the very least, we should be on equal terms with each other.”
Hearing this, Penumbra gave a smile—not a smirk, but an actual smile. “Thank you, Luna.”
“Okay!” Pinkie Pie shouted. “That’s enough public mushiness for one day. It’s time for a pa-a-ar-tay!”
Dear Princess Celestia,
Hi! How have you been lately? Things have been super-duper here in Ponyville. Penumbra’s making a lot of progress in learning about friendship. Well, granted, right now, Twilight and me are her only really close friends, but I think the other Element-Bearers are starting to warm up to her, and I happen to think that’s really good. I mean, two months ago, she literally knew nothing about friendship other than the fact that other ponies seemed to like having it. Plus, the Cakes are getting used to having her around, and Pumpkin and Pound have really taken a liking to her. It’s too bad that she can’t get past the fact that they’re still kind of messy sometimes—she only just recently forgave them for pouring hot fudge in her mane while she was sleeping.
She still does have a few problems when she thinks she isn’t being treated fairly. You know, revenge-plotting and nasty stuff like that. Luckily, I’ve kept her from actually doing anything naughty so far. She still tries using the Royal Canterlot Voice to get her way, though, and I’m having a tough time convincing her to try being polite, because the Voice usually works really well.
That said, Penumbra was able to make up with Twilight Sparkle a lot faster than I thought she would (though you probably already guessed that from when I said they were really close friends in the first paragraph). Twilight said that she didn’t want to start making a habit of blaming Penumbra for her personal failures—after all, she really did want your job, and she still kind of does, even though she admits that you and Luna haven’t actually done anything that would justify her taking over. I guess that makes sense, but I like to think that another part is that Twilight couldn’t resist having another subject for the study of imaginaryfriendology (yeah, it’s a mouthful, but “Pinkiology” is a bit too narrow, and Twilight hasn’t thought of a more science-y word for it yet).
Speaking of which, we’ve found out something super interesting about the spell we used to de-power Penumbra’s Nightmare form in the first place. It turns out that you can’t completely separate the unicorn, pegasus, and earth pony magic in an alicorn, because it’s all mixed together. That means that what actually happened is that Twilight got most of the Penumbra’s unicorn magic, I got most of her earth pony magic, and she kept most of her pegasus magic, but we all have some of the magic from all three pony races. According to Twilight, that means that all three of us are technically alicorns now, although we’re so magically unbalanced that we’ll never look like you or Luna. Well, not without shapeshifting, at least. We haven’t told our friends about that yet, because we’re still trying to figure out what that actually means, though I’m hoping it means I can sleep over at Rainbow Dash’s cloud house.
Anyway... um... how should I end this letter? Oh, I know! A friendship report! Okay, let me think.... I guess this all proves that you can’t give up on friendship, even if somepony’s done something really, really dumb. I mean, you thought it was a good idea to stop studying Discord, Luna thought you might turn evil, Twilight Sparkle thought she could replace you and Luna as Equestria’s rulers, Penumbra thought she could just flat-out replace you, and I just called one of the rulers of Equestria stupid to her face, but there’s no reason why that should get in the way of friendship.
Um, I’m sorry if that wasn’t, you know, as deep and profound as you’re used to for these things. I kinda drew a blank there. And speaking of blanks, the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ anniversary is coming up soon, and I’m gonna throw them a big ol’ bash at their clubhouse, so I might as well invite you and Luna to come right now, rather than wait until later. Please RSVP through the mail, or with one of Spike’s belch-o-grams, whichever is convenient.