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Eyes open, little one...
Twilight sat up with a jerk. “Agh!”
The last thing she remembered was finally slipping between the sheets of her bed in the library, being lulled to sleep by exhaustion and the rhythmic sound of Spike happily snoozing in his basket at its foot...
Cold, broken stone digging into her back made it clear that was no longer the case. Twilight rolled to her hooves, casting her head left and right, drinking in her surroundings desperately. Mouldering stonework, collapsed walls, shattered ornamentation—
“The...Temple of Two Sisters...” she murmured, eyes widening in shock. “But how did I...get here?”
Overhead, the collapsed ceiling revealed a black sky lit brilliantly by a thousand thousand stars, each twinkling in the heavens like a jewel. Though there was no moon, the whole place was lit by some strange luminesence that allowed her to see, a strange pale light that reflected off objects strangely. The shadows it cast were deep pools of utter blackness, almost runny and liquid like fresh inkstains.
The unicorn took a few tentative steps forward, hooves clapping on the broken flagstones brightly in the unnatural stillness. There was no wind, no sound of the forest outside, nothing—it was eerie.
“Welcome back, Twilight Sparkle,” a voice called from behind her, as if from a great distance. It was calm, but filled with amusement at Twilight's confusion—but the young mare was in no place to notice this. She knew that voice, and it chilled her to the bone to hear it once more.
Twilight spun, her breath catching in her throat and barking out in a terrified yelp as she fell over backwards. There—mere inches away, looming over her like a living shadow—was Nightmare Moon, returned to her full and dreadful glory. Her black coat blended into the deep shadow around her such that it seemed like she was a protrusion of the darkness, only bound into shape by her gleaming silver armor and bright, baleful eyes, whose reptilian pupils were focused, terribly, on the little unicorn in front of her.
“N—no!” Twilight moaned. “That's imposs—”
Nightmare Moon rolled her eyes. “Please, spare me the hysterical denials. They do nothing to change the fact of my existence, but do make you seem extremely foolish...”
Twilight rallied quickly, setting her hooves apart and frowning. “But you're...gone! The Elements of Harmony drove you out of Luna! I saw it happen!”
“Yes, they did,” Nightmare Moon replied, face impassive. “It was a great inconvenience, I assure you. It has been many years, has it not, since we last met face-to-face?”
“How did you bring me all the way out here? My friends will find me—”
Nightmare Moon frowned. “Don't think so...four-dimensionally. You insult yourself.”
Twilight paused, turning this over in her mind for awhile. She looked around herself tentatively, occasionally jerking her head to turn a wary glance back at the huge black shape in front of her. “This...this is a dream,” she said, eventually. “I'm...a lucid dream. A true dream—this is really me, and really...you.”
“Yes,” Nightmare Moon replied simply.
“But I was just with Luna...you...she...” Twilight stammered, desperately. Luna had seemed so happy...
For the first time, Nightmare Moon expressed some of the immense anger that very clearly lurked behind her facade of imperious arrogance. “If you think I require the little princess to exist, you are gravely mistaken,” she hissed, her eyes making her seem more viper-like and dreadful than ever. “I have no more interest in the princess of the moon.”
Twilight's ears pricked up. “Really?”
“Yes, really. Don't be foolish.” Nightmare Moon leaned forward, her irritation suddenly replaced by a greedy smile. “I'm here for—to talk to you, Twilight.”
“Just talk, huh?”
“Oh, certainly!” Nightmare Moon said, grinning horribly. “You! Twilight Sparkle, the Element of Magic, a humble young unicorn, who defeated me in what was quite nearly the height of my power! You had help, of course, but having strong allies is a form of power in and of itself.” Nightmare Moon trailed off, face fading into a lazy grin as she stared over Twilight's head at nothing in particular. “Not one I myself wield for the moment, of course...”
Twilight set her face in a firm expression of determination. “If it's a rematch you want, then...then so be it—”
Nightmare Moon's attention snapped back to the smaller pony in front of her, and Twilight was overcome with the horrible sensation of being enveloped and consumed by her gaze. Some tiny, buzzing part of her mind that retained function in the sudden, icy chill of Nightmare Moon's displeasure momentarily wondered if this was what it was like for the amoebas and paramecia on the far end of Twilight's microscope lens.
The creature laughed, bright and cruel, as Twilight shied and quailed from that horrible gaze. “You are a feisty little creature, aren't you? I can respect that...and believe me, there is much in me that wishes to fight with you once again, now that you are stripped of Celestia's weapon and your allies. I have a great desire in me to avenge my...indignity.” She leaned forward, eyes turned into razor slits. “Your bravery does you credit...but don't tempt me, filly.”
Twilight's heart was pounding in her chest. She wasn't sure what would happen if she was wounded in this dream, but she wasn't particularly eager to find out, either. “W-what do you want, then?”
“To talk, Twilight. To...yes, reward you, in fact.”
“Oh yes,” Nightmare Moon said, her sly smile returning. The creature began pacing around Twilight, the shadows around her licking at her heels, clinging to her silhouette like a viscous, oily fluid. “You've impressed me, Twilight. You showed bravery, cleverness, and determination; I appreciate that in a pony, even if she's an enemy. You set Luna free from me, which not many ponies would have been able to do even with the Elements of Harmony...”
Twilight shuddered as she felt Nightmare Moon's gaze roam up and down her body; somehow the unicorn could sense that much more than her physical self was being given a once-over. She almost felt nauseous as the corrupt power flowed over her and through her.
“You're just impressive in general,” Nightmare Moon concluded, in a rather suggestive tone of voice.
Twilight sniffed haughtily, although the effect was somewhat ruined by the way she was huddling into herself. “I don't want anything from you.”
Nightmare Moon clicked her tongue in a somewhat patronizing way. “Tsk tsk tsk. I haven't even made an offer yet. Please don't insult me by suggesting you know enough about me to guess what I can offer you.”
“It's not that you can't offer me something I want,” Twilight snapped, “it's that it's you doing the offering.”
For one dreadful moment, the huge creature paused, one of her reptilian eyes lingering on Twilight, white-hot with anger. The unicorn actually flinched, fearing the impending sensation of some terrible doom, but then the moment passed and Nightmare Moon gave her a broad grin and resumed circling her like a hungry shark.
“You wound me, you wound me! I come to make amends and acknowledge your prowess and courage, and you can’t see past our differences! A hard sell, then...well, that'll happen.”
Save for the terrible hoofbeats, silence reigned for a great while. Twilight found her mind focusing on the strangest things about this strange limbo she found herself in; her exhaled breath clouding up in the air, for example, even though she didn't feel cold. Similarly, Nightmare Moon's hooves clapped against the stone, there was no echo. And though she did not actually have to breathe, Twilight found herself unable to take deep breaths, instead taking terrified, stressed gulps of air through her nostrils.
Eventually, the creature paused, giving her a smug look. “I have watched you for a long time, Twilight Sparkle,” Nightmare Moon said, conversationally. “I know you fret about...well, mortality. I can't say I blame you, not having to worry about it myself...”
Twilight was stunned. “What? I never—”
Nightmare Moon gave her a patronizing look, waving her head very slightly as her horn glowed. Above them, an image of Twilight Sparkle stared out at the sunset from one of the second-story windows of the library. On a table behind her, freshly printed photographs from her brother's wedding, gleamed in the sunlight.
The unicorn blushed. “What does worrying about my social life have to do with—”
“Oh, don't lie to yourself,” Nightmare Moon said, sympathetically. “You're a busy mare! And so dedicated to your studies...there just aren't enough hours in the day for research, socializing, and relaxing. Especially with so many time limits looming over your head, and a library to catalogue, and a baby dragon to chase after. I believe you even said something along the lines of, well...'the old grey mare, she ain't what she used to be'..?” The huge black creature snickered.
Twilight looked away, guiltily. She remembered that night...it had soured the excitement of the wedding for her a little. Suddenly another little reminder that she was playing catchup, socially—Shining was only so much older than her, after all, and as they got further into adulthood the difference in age seemed less and less significant. When was the last time Twilight had been out on a date—a real date? Much less been involved with anypony nearly as seriously as her brother and Cadence were...
Uh, never. Never ever.
There'd been so much excitement during the actual wedding that Twilight hadn't had time to get morose, not least of all because she had finally had some time to catch up with the princesses and some of her Canterlot acquaintances, and she'd come home with her friends buzzing with enthusiasm about the whole experience. It had been pretty trying, after all, even the good parts.
Then the damned pictures had arrived while she was alone, coincidentally on a day when she'd decided not to join everypony else on a bit of a bar crawl, and Spike had been spending time with the Cutie Mark Crusaders of all ponies a lot more lately, and...
It was just coincidence, but she'd let herself be a bit bitter at...well, herself. A bit hurtful. A bit...regretful.
About not having enough time to do everything she wanted to.
“That was just a bad day,” Twilight muttered. “And how do you—”
Nightmare Moon scoffed. “What is a dream? What is a memory? Where does the flesh of the brain end and the transcendence of the mind begin? Is waking life the truth, or is all an illusion...?”
Twilight waved a hoof. “Spare me the existentialisms. So you've been spying on me...”
The creature grinned luridly at Twilight's irritation. “Forgive me for wanting to ensure that my rather shameful defeat and subsequent period of weakness were not merely a...fluke,” she said. “But you've done well since then. Discord, my word, and the Changelings...you've been a busy girl! Very accomplished, you should be proud! But even so, there's only so many hours in a day, yes?”
Amethyst eyes grudgingly raised to meet draconic sapphire-blue. “I suppose so.”
“Well then, there's only one solution, isn't there? Get more days,” Nightmare Moon said, nodding sagely. She waved a hoof and a drop of shadow leaked upwards, rolling slightly so that the inverse teardrop became a black sphere lingering over her hoof. With a smug grin and a flourish of her horn, the little sphere popped, revealing a large, roughly-hewn stone.
Despite herself, the unicorn leaned forward. “Is that—no, it can't be!”
“It is,” Nightmare Moon said, smugly.
It was light grey and slightly luminescent, spinning gently on its axis for Twilight's inspection.
“But the Philosopher's Stone is just a story...a metaphor for enlightenment,” Twilight murmured, staring at it wide-eyed.
The great black mare leaned down and gave Twilight a patient look. “You speak the words of the thousands who sought some comfort for their failure to create the Stone. 'Oh, it can't be real', they say to assuage their humiliation. 'It's symbolic', they weep, in denial of their own incompetence. But no, Twilight Sparkle, I tell you, they merely did not have the right knowledge, the right tools, the right...inspirations. But you could. I would give you this knowledge...if you desire it.”
Twilight stared at the Stone, almost completely ignorant of the leering figure above her, who stared down at her hungrily. The treasure sought by madponies for centuries, here before her! Even if she had never thought to seek it before, it was fascinating to behold. “And from the stone...”
“The Elixir of Life,” Nightmare Moon whispered huskily. “The wellspring of eternal youth. And what's more, you could share it with those you loved most, those closest to you...”
The sound of her voice snapped Twilight out of her fascinated trance, and her encyclopedic memory came to her rescue. “As long as I could keep making the Stone, and providing them with the Elixir—it doesn't even need to be addictive, so long as it is the only thing providing you with life. Or are you going to tell me that the curse of the Stone is also the grumblings of those who failed to create it?”
Nightmare Moon affected hurt. “Do you truly think I would I offer you such a flawed treasure?”
Twlight frowned at her. “Yes.”
The creature's terrible grin reappeared, broader than ever.
“But even if that weren't the case,” Twilight continued, tapping a hoof in front of herself thoughtfully, “I could never use it. I would have to make everypony immortal, eventually.”
“You think so? You're very generous with such a precious gift,” Nightmare Moon said.
“I could never just use it on myself, and watch my friends grow old and die around me knowing I could have prevented it,” Twilight said. “And they have their friends, too—and I'd never curse a friend of mine to be forced to lose somepony else they loved just because I don't know them well. And so on and so forth until eventually all of Equestria is eternally young—so do we stop having foals, then? Rob ourselves of the joy of bringing new lives into the world against the threat of overpopulation? No.”
“Who knows? It might not be so bad—”
Twilight's eyes narrowed dangerously. “It's one of the joys of being part of a living, breathing world, to live, bring about new and different life, and pass away again. Transience gives things purpose—just thinking about myself, nothing would seem pressing if I didn't know that someday I would be out of time. That awareness drives me forward—and while yes, it is a bit depressing, it also loses its meaning without inevitability. I hate to think of what immortality would do to, say, Pinkie Pie—her entire life is dedicated to making every moment special and precious, because it will never truly come again. But faced with an eternity of such moments, why bother? What's to celebrate? Or Applejack, whose existence revolves around the cycle of life, fruition, fading, and rebirth—since she, too, experiences this cycle on a much longer term, it has meaning beyond simply being the way food grows. I wouldn't dream of robbing her of that.”
Nightmare Moon regarded Twilight curiously, looking somewhat impressed. “You've given this some thought, even if you're being perversely romantic about the inevitability of death.”
“Thinking is what I do,” Twilight replied fiercely. “When I get upset about things I don't just mope. Don't think you'll get into my head just because you saw me ruminating over my brother's wedding photos.”
Nightmare Moon regarded the Philosopher's Stone thoughtfully for a moment, seeming bored, and tossed it over her shoulder. It fell into a pool of shadow—which, to Twilight's very nervous mind, seemed to reach up and grasp at it at the very last second—with a strangely liquid ploop sound.
“I should have known better than to think you'd be that...small,” Nightmare Moon said, sounding amused. “You see deep into the heart of things...but you never know. The hearts of mortal ponies are always fickle, especially amongst those cursed with a thoughtful youth...hmm.”
Twilight frowned. “Just...let me go. Get me out of here, alright? We've had our chat.”
Nightmare Moon rounded on her with viper swiftness, leering eyes wide. “Ah, you're right! A change of scenery, that's a wonderful idea. Tell me, what do you think of...this?”
The creature clapped a hoof against the floor, and there was a bright flash; Twilight recoiled, blinking against the sudden glare. As her vision cleared, she looked around herself in shock.
The mouldering hall around her was bright and shiny and new, filled to the brim with ponies. Daylight streamed in through the open galleries, which also allowed in a warm, sweet-smelling breeze that carried the chirps of birds and the whisper of wind through crisp, fresh leaves upon itself. Pure, clean water flowed from ornamental fountains, and wonderful statues lined the walls—brave heroes, famous lovers, allegorical figures, all clean and whole.
“That flash...the...time travel?” Twilight muttered to herself nervously. “But when?”
A sudden rise in the sound and enthusiasm of the murmur to her left made Twilight turn. Moving through the crowd, side by side, were the familiar, tall figures of Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, smiling and nodding happily to everypony around them. They stopped in front of Twilight, who looked around desperately for Nightmare Moon, seeking some explanation, but the creature was nowhere to be found.
“Thou...thy visage seem'th...familiar, my little pony,” Celestia said, peering down at the unicorn with a curious, but pleasant expression. “Some cast of thy face, or thy Mark...I hath seen thee before, I’ll place my oath on it. Mayhap in dreams, or some fancy...”
“What? Do I? Oh,” Twilight replied, anxiously, not really thinking about what she was saying as she looked about desperately for any sign of the Nightmare, or some other escape. Based on her mane, and the way she was speaking... “I'm somepony you're going to meet in the future.” The response was automatic; Celestia asks, Twilight answers. Even if it's a Celestia from a thousand years before Twilight had known her.
Celestia's eyes went wide with amused delight. “I shall meet thee in the future, you say? How curious! I had thought to make thy acquaintance anon. But mayhap thou judg'st the day has not yet come for us to meet, and this is but some wayward interlude, an accident to be regretted! Who am I to gainsay thee but a mere Princess?”
At “princess”, Twilight turned a terrified gaze up into the younger Celestia, whose bright-pink mane billowed in the gentle breeze blowing through the Temple. A crowd was gathering around them to observe the strange confrontation, and the unicorn felt herself sweating as she was put on the spot.
“Oh dear, I, er...”
“Indeed, I am Princess Celestia, my little pony,” the younger Celestia said, smiling brightly. Twilight recognized the delighted look on her face; this was clearly the most interesting thing that had happened to her in recent memory. “When shall we meet, then? For truly said, I am now most eager to do so.”
“Er...one day...” Twilight stammered, clutching at the truth reflexively, “One day, you'll, um...look up at the south tower. And you'll see...a great dragon.”
“Tower?” Luna asked curiously. “What tower? We hath not any towers...and dragons! Attacking us? A grim vision!”
“No, nothing like that. He's friendly, er mostly. And about the towers, there's none here, but, er, you will have some. Soon. In time. Yes,” Twilight said frantically, nodding furiously and grinning like an idiot. The princesses were looking at her with extreme curiosity. “And when you see the great purple dragon—”
Celestia raised an eyebrow. “Purple? An odd hue, for—”
Twilight looked down at herself. “You think so?” she asked, desperate to latch onto any rope dangling in front of her as she struggled to keep her head above conversational water.
To her shock, Celestia actually blushed bright scarlet and covered her mouth with a hoof. “I cry pardon, stranger! I meant nothing by it! Thy coat is most fair, and suits thee well—no offense was meant!”
“Don't, er, worry about it.” Behind Luna and Celestia, a far-too-familiar face rolled its eyes. Twilight pointedly ignored her and grinned up at Celestia manically. “Er, anyways...yes. When you see the great, er, purple dragon...go to the tower. There we will meet, for the first time.”
The princesses looked to each other, then back at Twilight. “Is this thy prophecy?” Celestia asked, giving her a scrutinizing look; again Twilight sensed that more than her physical self was under inspection.
“Er...” Twilight's gaze flickered momentarily to Nightmare Moon, who lingered behind the princesses, apparently invisible to everypony else. The creature gave her an enigmatic smile and made a circular motion in the air with a hoof to indicate Twilight should keep speaking. “Yes. Yes it is.”
“Then may it be so,” Celestia said, a wry grin on her face. “Though a thousand years pass between then and now, I shall await thee with eagerness—”
A great rumbling suddenly thundered through the Temple, making the assembled ponies cry out in distress. The sisters looked to each other in alarm.
“I know not,” Celestia said, firmly. “But we must investigate, I daresay. Let us away, sister...”
“See you in a thousand years, I guess,” Twilight said glumly. Celestia gave her a bright, amused grin and took off with Luna as another tremor shook the ground, strong enough that Twilight had to scramble for her footing.
There was another clap accompanied by a flash, and the starlit, mouldering ruins surrounded Twilight once again.
“Ha! Wonderful!” Nightmare Moon gloried. “Prophesying yourself...you really have an instinct for this sort of thing! Very well done!”
“You must be joking!” Twilight exclaimed. “We weren't actually...back in time, were we?”
Nightmare Moon just grinned.
Twilight stared at her, mind racing. Celestia certainly hadn't mentioned anything like this before...but then again, a thousand years plus is a really long time to remember a minor incident like that, even for her...
“Interesting, wasn't it?” Nightmare Moon asked, her voice silky and dark as shaved chocolate.
“Yeah,” the unicorn replied dully. Had she changed the past? Had this already happened? That had lasted a lot longer and gone a lot further back than when she had sent herself back in time to warn herself not to be worried about the fact that she'd come back in time...
Nightmare Moon inspected a hoof idly, smiling smugly. “They never do end up figuring out what happened to Palatlantis, you know.”
"Palatlantis?” Twilight exclaimed, eyes wide.
“Oh, certainly. Those two get distracted deflecting the tidal wave, of course, so they missed their chance...” Nightmare Moon turned a vicious grin on Twilight. “You would not be so burdened...”
Twilight’s mouth made an “O”.
Before Twilight knew it, Nightmare Moon had circled around behind her, almost enveloping her with her massive form, one wing outstretched as if to embrace her. “So, want to go back? Or is there somewhere else I could interest you in? Perhaps El Destrier, in the height of its majesty, when gold was so plentiful that foals' playthings were made of it?”
Twilight yelped in terror, scurrying out of the creature's near-embrace as Nightmare Moon snickered darkly.
“No, no...I've got it all wrong, don't I?” the great black mare murmured, her cheshire smile creeping across her face into a terrible leer. “You want to go to those places now, when they're all rotted out and filled to the brim with booby traps and dangers, like that mare in those insipid novels you got that fool pegasus addicted to...” Without warning, a hat just like Daring Do's popped into being on Twilight's head, and she thrashed and whimpered at the shock of the sudden pressure, yanking it off her head and stomping on it desperately as Nightmare Moon howled laughter.
“What is this? Is this some kind of game to you?!” Twilight shrieked.
“Forgive me, I'm afraid I've always had a playful streak. It's a side effect of near-omnipotence, you know.” Nightmare Moon said, with a grin. “And why not? I'm in such a good mood! You and I are going to have such fun together, Twilight.”
“What are you talking about?”
Nightmare Moon straightened up, looking serious but amused. “I'm offering you a chance to visit all the vanished places in the world, all throughout history, whenever you want to see them! To meet all the important ponies you've spent your life reading about! I even know a few places so hidden and forgotten, Twilight Sparkle, that I daresay neither Celestia nor that poor filly, Luna, remembers them. Just say the word, and your eyes will bear witness to ponies and places nopony else has ever seen, or ever will again!”
“I—” Twilight began, an automatic refusal leaping to her throat, but she stopped herself. “What is this all about? What do you want for this...?”
“I told you before! It's a gift, Twilight...you impressed me. You continue to impress me. You're smart, courageous, powerful...you deserve it. You beat the monster and now the monster's powers are at your disposal.”
Twilight frowned. “Don't think you can flatter me into trusting you.”
“Oh don't be like that,” Nightmare Moon said, suddenly behind Twilight once again in the space of an eyeblink. Twilight spun awkwardly and fell on her rump, scrambling away from the terrible grin of the Mare in the Moon. “I can tell you're tempted...be bold! Take risks! What would a brave pony like Rainbow Dash do?”
“She'd buck you in the teeth!”
Nightmare Moon's laughter, smug and wild, filled the ruins, its lack of echo when Twilight's brain screamed that it must have to cause one making it sound even more otherworldly and terrible. It stopped, dead, when Nightmare Moon finished, with a rather exaggerated and grave sense of finality.
“She would regret it,” the creature said, with dreadful seriousness despite her grin. “Now, Twilight. Together, let's leave this dream. There's a whole world, across time and space, waiting for you to see it, record it, share your observations, your insights, your singular ability to bring the truth about the past to the future. Come on. No need to linger here.”
Twilight got to her hooves and took a few deep breaths, watching Nightmare Moon warily. “No,” she said, finally. “No. I don't need you to do those things. I don't want to just be shown these things...that's cheating. Ponies who do a lot of hard work and research deserve to make those discoveries. If I want to find El Destrier, I'll start in the palace archives—”
The Mare in the Moon shook a hoof and clicked her tongue at Twilight. “You, of anypony, should know that research is always less rewarding than you hope at the outset. And more importantly, there's so much out there it is just impossible to know about, anymore...lost civilizations, forgotten artifacts...”
Nightmare Moon waved a hoof and produced a magnificent jeweled golden goblet from thin air. “This, for example, hasn't been seen in centuries in your time. If you found it, brought it back to Celestia...” Nightmare Moon trailed off, her tone and facial expression implying that the limit of Celestia's gratitude was measured by the upward bounds of Twilight's imagination.
The unicorn peered at the cup, but it seemed to blur and glare in Nightmare Moon's hoof, making any details on it impossible to make out. “What is—”
“Ah, well, I'd hate to ruin the surprise; I'll let her tell you that herself when you present it to her. But I promise you, only I can help you find it now. The thief who stole it, centuries ago, was rather good at hiding his loot away. Shame he wasn't equally good at not getting caught in landslides...”
Twilight's eyes raised. “Landslides...! So he was in the mount—”
“Ah ah ah!” Nightmare Moon chided, as the goblet vanished in the air before her. “Now, now, none of that. No need for guessing games, little Twilight. Let me just show you this one, as a sign of good faith. The next one...well, I'll just fill in what details are missing from the records...you'll do most of the work, and benefit from some extra guidance. Any time you want. My pleasure.”
Much to her horror, Twilight had to quickly clamp down an impulse to agree to this. The cup, the cup! It had been magnificent, and the scholar in her, as well as the part of her that was immensely curious about her mentor, was burning with the need to know what it was and why Celestia would prize it so highly. It was so damned tempting—just this once, this one time, she would let Nightmare Moon show her where to go, where to dig, and then—
And then she wouldn't be able to resist the need to ask for help again, would she?
Sure, she'd tell herself that she would never consult Nightmare Moon again. But then, the next time her research hit a wall...
It was why she had always resisted just asking Celestia for help any time there was a problem. She'd never said so, but Twilight suspected Celestia quietly respected this independent streak; Nightmare Moon almost certainly wouldn't. There'd be many more conversations like this one, where the dark alicorn would slither through the shadows, whispering and scheming...
“If...if I want to impress Celestia, I prefer to do it on my own, thank you,” Twilight said, trying to push the seductive gleam of the chalice out of her mind's eye. “In any case, I'm too occupied for archeology at the moment. I have a much more important research project in Ponyville. It's clear to me that it's going to take the rest of my life, and much more—”
Nightmare Moon's eyebrows rose in realization. “Oh that's right,” she said, smacking her forehead with a hoof theatrically, her shoe and helmet connecting with an ethereal bell-like sound that made Twilight's teeth buzz. “I'll forget my head next...your research into the magic of friendship!” To Twilight's shock, she actually gave the unicorn something like an apologetic look. “Please forgive me, I'm getting forgetful in my old age...”
“Oh yes, Twilight,” Nightmare Moon said, nodding seriously. “When the stars first burned in the heavens above what you call Equestria, I was already ancient...”
“You don't look it,” Twilight replied, taking some refuge from the immensity of this statement in sarcasm.
Nightmare Moon smiled humorlessly. “You're too kind.”
“Yes, well,” Twilight said, for lack of anything better to fill the dreadful stillness of the dream-limbo. “Er...yes. So anyways, my studies into the Magic of Friendship...I'd better get back to them, if you'll excuse me...”
“Oh, Twilight, Twilight! Please, don't think I'm not capable of helping you with that as well!” Nightmare Moon said with a grin. “On the contrary, I'd be thrilled to!”
Twilight gave her a wry look. “You? Come on.”
“I understand where you might be skeptical,” the creature said, raising a hoof to her chest with a somewhat self-deprecating expression. “I'm not exactly a pony's pony. Not really a pony at all, of course.”
“What with the conquering Equestria and plunging it into eternal night...?”
“Oh, that,” Nightmare Moon said dismissively, waving a hoof. “That was all Luna. Jealous of her sister, you know...things got a little out of hoof. She and I had a conversation just like this one, and she didn't show half the wisdom or discretion you are. I may not have made a wise decision speaking to her, honestly...look at the state I'm in.”
Twilight snapped a hoof on the ground. “Don't you dare blame her for the things you made her do!”
The Mare in the Moon's eyes glittered dangerously for a moment, and her grin grew into a terrible leer. “Your loyalty to your friend does you credit...but I think if she were here, being honest, she would be forced to agree that I never made her do anything.”
“We'll see about that.”
Nightmare Moon raised an eyebrow at this, cocking her head slightly. “Ah. See...see...”
“Yes, see,” Twilight snapped.
“Now has it ever struck you as inconvenient, Twilight, how ponies are forever hiding things from one another? Now, now, calm down, let's talk this out rationally,” the creature added smoothly, as Twilight's eyes narrowed irritably.
Grudgingly, Twilight grunted an affirmative. “It's...annoying, certainly. What's your point?”
“Annoying, yes! I've certainly always thought so, too,” Nightmare Moon said, as if merely speculating idly on the subject with a friend. Twilight frowned at the familiar tone, which the creature seemed to find amusing. “Always trying to outwit one another, driving themselves and everypony around them mad hiding little secrets or foibles from one another. It's dreadful, really it is. And it only gets worse, and more dangerous, when the lies and foibles get bigger and bigger, don't you agree?”
“What are you going on about?”
The Mare in the Moon gave Twilight a patronizing look. “How I can help with your friendship research, Twilight. And with more besides.”
Twilight gave her a skeptical look. “I'm not sure there's much you can do to teach me about friendship.”
“That's very true, I admit. But you're not listening; I said I'd help your research,” Nightmare Moon said, leaning in conspiratorially to speak into Twilight's ear. “Those little lies? The really annoying ones...? I know ways that they can be...detected.”
The young mare recoiled so she could look the creature in the face. “What? Are you serious?”
“Oh, that's simple! I can do much more than that!” Nightmare Moon declared. “You're a clever mare, after all. I'd happily share secrets with you that would give you sight-beyond-sight and true vision. Touch a thing, and you could see who had been using it; look at where a thing was, and you could witness it being taken. Hear a lie, and see in your mind the truth of things, the real truth.”
Twilight's mouth worked open and closed a few times. “Detecting lies with magic...”
“And illusions, of course. Such magic would have been useful with the Forgotten Folk—the ones you called changelings—wouldn't it? You could have resolved that entire situation much faster, I daresay, with a minimum of fuss. Spared your brother the headache, and Celestia the...humiliation of defeat.” Nightmare Moon's tone sunk into one of deep, deep satisfaction at this last statement, and she quickly cleared her throat as she caught Twilight giving her a suspicious look. “Old grudges run deep, Twilight Sparkle.”
“So you see where I am perhaps suspicious of your assertions of goodwill.”
Nightmare Moon gave Twilight a wry look. “Forgive me for saying so, Twilight, but while you may have defeated me, she has submitted me to humiliation after humiliation. You've earned my admiration and respect, as a mortal creature who was so bold and daring as to face me; she, my permanent enmity as a fellow being of eternity...it's complicated.”
Twilight frowned. “Still, I—”
“Enough, Twilight, enough,” Nightmare Moon growled. “I'd find your ingratitude insulting if it weren't so obviously spoken in ignorance. Now, consider what I'm offering you—nothing sinister! I'm offering you magic to see the literal truth of things. What could be more honest than that?” The creature grinned hugely in a truly terrific display of affected sincerity.
“Oh, no,” Twilight said, quickly. “I know this one. I know where this leads! Suddenly, Twilight Sparkle can't be fooled, nothing can be hidden from her. That's not finding the truth, it's betraying everypony's trust!”
Nightmare Moon smirked. “Is it?”
“Yes. The foundation of friendship, completely gone—”
“Come now, don't exaggerate. You don't need to prove your virtue to me,” the Mare in the Moon said, with a soothing tone Twilight found repulsive. “Surely at least once, your friends lying to you, or concealing things, has risked your friendship with them or put everypony in danger...made things harder than they had to be, at least.”
Twilight frowned. “That's when we need trust the most. If somepony is so screwed up about something that they're hiding it, or lying about it, they need to know they can trust you so they'll open up about the truth, and you can resolve the situation together. I don't need any magic for that except the Magic of Friendship.”
“So don't use it with your friends—”
Now it was the unicorn's turn to roll her eyes dismissively. “Or my friend's friends, or ponies they know, or on anypony because the first time it comes out I can just know the truth, see into people's minds and learn their secrets, nopony will ever, ever trust me again. Now instead of lying to me, they'll just avoid me—I have enough problems with that as it is, I don't need anymore, thanks.”
Nightmare Moon sighed. “That sounds like more of a problem with you than with the magic. It's a poor craftspony who blames her tools—”
“There are some tools that do more damage when they perform their task than it's worth. When somepony has an infected cut, I need not lop off the limb—that would quickly and effectively end the risk of blood poisoning, but it means his limb's off. The slower treatment of medicated ointment and hygiene may not be as strictly efficient or immediate, but...”
The creature's smile froze in place, and a long pause ensued; Twilight had the idea that she was thinking up a new argument. The unicorn took the time to notice the unnatural way Nightmare Moon didn't move even slightly until she wanted to—no shifting of weight or fidgeting, just stock-still, like a statue waiting for some malign magic to give it motion. But the eyes—those dreadful, unnaturally bright blue eyes—burned with dreadful intelligence and intent.
Nightmare Moon stirred, her arrogant smile animating again. “Perhaps you underestimate your own capacity for discretion—”
“Nope.” Twilight shook her head firmly. “Nopony could resist the temptation to just know. Learning to find things out properly, quickly, and with tact is a lifelong journey which I am dedicated to.”
The dark alicorn's smile froze again, and she cocked her head. “I'm not going to pretend that power isn't best placed in the hands of the responsible, Twilight, so you—”
“The most responsible thing to do with power you don't need is to reject it,” Twilight recited, although she couldn't recall from where. It seemed like something Celestia would say.
Nightmare Moon's eyes narrowed. “The very second a situation crops up where this would have saved somepony's life, you will regret—”
“That is a regret I'm willing to live with,” Twilight replied coolly, “Should it ever come to be.”
Nightmare Moon had made a mistake freezing like that; it had given Twilight time to rally emotionally and intellectually, and now she was dedicated to rejecting whatever Nightmare Moon offered until the creature grew tired of it and let her go, or a method of escape became apparent. Although this was, of course, placing a lot of faith in Nightmare Moon not just killing her out of spite.
Twilight grimaced. She really, really, wished she hadn't just thought that.
The Mare in the Moon gazed at Twilight for a long moment through slitted eyelids, stirring occasionally. Twilight forced herself to just sit there, letting the creature try to stare her down. She remembered a little mental exercise Celestia had taught her as a foal to help her get over her fear of being the focus of public attention: Be glass, little one, and let their gazes pass right through you, not touching or hurting you in any way...
“You are admirably disciplined, despite your fear,” Nightmare Moon said, calmly.
Twilight smiled very slightly and nodded to accept the acknowledgment. “That is when discipline is required most, don't you think?”
“Mmm,” the dark mare hummed, eyes half-closed and gazing into the middle distance, apparently thinking about something else.
“Is that all? Are we done here? Can I go?”
“It occurs to me,” Nightmare Moon said thoughtfully, turning her eyes on Twilight suddenly, “that I may have made an error.”
“Several,” Twilight said, indulging a streak of bold defiance that suddenly swelled in her, “But foremost among them was—”
“Offering you things you already have, or have no need of,” the Mare in the Moon interrupted, sharply. “I admit, I was...well, I thought too little of you! I didn't consider with whom I was speaking.”
Twilight began backing away as Nightmare Moon began prowling forward, closer and closer to her.
“You don't want a stone that makes you immortal, you're far too wise for that. Well done! Celestia should be proud. Nor do you need to have your achievements given to you...you've learned the joy of doing hard work. Again, wise...”
“Er...thanks?” Twilight stammered, her confidence melting in the face of Nightmare Moon's dreadful, inevitable approach.
The dark alicorn's face seemed calm, but she wore the tiniest little smile, a smile only worn by predators right before the deadly strike, and both Twilight's animal instincts and thinking mind begged her to flee it. Something about this place, though, some strange distortion of space and time, seemed to make her efforts to escape futile.
“And of all the things I could have offered you...magic, to see the truth? Why would I offer somepony something that makes all the hard work they've done and skills they've learned irrelevant?” Nightmare Moon was shaking her head in a way that clearly said “I can't believe how stupid I've been”.
Twilight tried to think of something to say, but all that came out was a little squeak of terror as her back struck the mangled, crumbling pedestal of some long-ruined statuary. With terrible speed, Nightmare Moon was upon her, leaning over her so close that Twilight could feel her presence, a constant pressure of contained power aching to get out. It was...reaching out to her, trying to draw her in, an effect enormously exaggerated by the hypnotic effect of those terrible, draconic eyes, which were so alien and unfeeling but utterly fascinating...
“I should have been offering to help you solve your problems,” Nightmare Moon whispered into Twilight's ear.
“You mean like how I'm about to be brutally murdered in my dreams by a creature who I all but killed and has no reason to do me any favors whatsoever?” Twilight whimpered.
Nightmare Moon’s face lit with dark amusement. “Ahah. You haven't been listening, Twilight...I'm trying to pay you a favor! I like you! You just keep impressing me...”
There was some vestige of insane courage left in Twilight that made her say, “Don't suppose you're impressed enough to let me go?”
“No, not without giving you a gift, first, Twilight. You deserve it,” Nightmare Moon whispered, her voice dusky and seductive. “Let me help you with your problems. I was on the right track, at first, but just fell into old habits like the old nag I am. I should have paid you more attention, not thought about what ponies in general want. You’re special! Can you ever forgive me?”
Twilight's whimpers as she hunched as small as possible against the pillar, eyes clenched shut, apparently passed as a “yes”.
“Ah, good. Let me help you...with this.”
There was another snap of hoof on flagstone, and Twilight's eyes slammed open. She was freezing!
This was not something you'd expect from the heavy eiderdown comforter on top of her, but she might as well have been frozen in a block of ice instead of lying in her bed at the library. The comforting sound of Spike snoring at its foot was noticeably absent, but outside the window—
Laughter. Giggles. Hushed voices—
It was Rarity and—oh, dear, and Applejack.
And they'd been drinking.
“Oh, no...not again,” Twilight moaned.
Ever since they'd been rescued from that damned mountain, they'd been finding their courage together at the bottom of several bottles and their solace separately on the shoulder of Twilight Sparkle. There was only so many times Twilight could listen to the two mares she's almost immediately flipped head over hooves for when she first arrived in Pony—
Twilight's face screwed up in confusion. It'd been a long time since she'd worried about that. She was happy they'd finally found each other but would admittedly be happier when they stopped getting caught up in each other's issues and just settled d—
Her reflections were interrupted by a great whooping outside as Rainbow Dash tore through the air, followed closely by...Spitfire? Or Soarin? Twilight only got the briefest glance at the blur as it passed her bedroom window, and blue was the only color she could make out as the two streaks hurtled into the distance, one multicolored, the other a thunderous cloud.
“Ow!” Twilight said, bringing a hoof to her chest irritably. There was an...ache, almost a literal pain, as if her heart were—
Outside, Fluttershy giggled brightly. Twilight could almost hear her furious blush as somepony handsome and gentlecoltly asked her out.
“Ah! Mnnnghh...” she moaned, as a stab of pain lanced at her heart. It didn't help that the bed was freezing—
Despite the pain, Twilight rolled her head and looked out the window in incredulity. Were those wedding bells? It was nighttime, but--
“Owww!” Twilight shrieked, as each clap of the bell made the angry spasm in her chest throb agonizingly. She could barely feel her hind legs, but if that was because of the pain or because of the cold, Twilight couldn't say for sure. Maybe a bit of column A, a bit of column B...
“Is the bed a bit chilly for you? Move over a bit,” somepony said. Such was her pain that Twilight immediately obeyed the voice, which seemed to cut through the giggles, whooping, and bells, dulling the ache in her chest.
Immediately, blessed warmth filled the bed, and Twilight gasped at the suddenness before relaxing with a huge sigh.
“Much better, don't you think?”
“Oh yes, it's—” Twilight replied, unthinking, as she turned to look at—
“I'm not sure who else you were expecting,” Nightmare Moon said, with a smug grin.
“Agh!” Twilight shrieked. “Get out! Get out get out get out!”
“Very well...if that's what you desire...”
Nightmare Moon made a motion that might have been a shrug and rolled out from under the comforter. Immediately, the bed was icy-cold again; Twilight began shivering uncontrollably.
“What...what have you done to me...?” Twilight managed to moan, between chatters.
The dark alicorn clicked her tongue, shaking her head sadly. “You just seem determined to blame me for everything.”
“Sorry, I couldn't quite hear that,” Nightmare Moon said, conversationally.
Twilight howled as the noises from out her window returned, louder than ever, making the pain in her chest flare into an incandescent, thought-annihilating agony. There was nothing but the pain, making her curl up into a tight ball as she clutched at the furious knot in her chest, fighting an intense urge to start pounding on her breastbone to try to crush the rogue organ causing it.
She didn't even notice the cold fading, and the pain lingered long after the sounds that seemed to cause it faded even from echo. As she became dimly aware that the world around her still existed, Twilight felt a firm embrace around her; she knew who it must be, but...it seemed to be driving away the pain, and the cold...
“Do you understand what's happening to you? The cold bed? The pain your friends' romances causes you...?” asked a voice which, Twilight dimly recalled, was not one where sympathy was usually found.
“Yes,” Twilight rasped. Even speaking hurt, everything did—but still she spoke, and shrugged off Nightmare Moon's hoof, rolling to face the creature. She was smiling arrogantly, as usual. “Go 'way.”
“Now, Twilight, we wouldn't want that pain and cold to return, would we?”
Instinctively, despite herself, Twilight shook her head and moaned, hating herself for it.
The black alicorn leaned forward to regard Twilight seriously. “I know that pain all too well. I can make it stop, Twilight Sparkle. That pain you feel? The ache? The absence? I can satisfy it. I can make all this just...stop. No more waking up in the night feeling lonely. No more little punches in the gut when you realize you're the only hen on hen night. No more worrying that Shining Armor's the real smart one in your family, with a foal on the way. No more loneliness, even in your dreams...”
Twilight was too burned out to resist the sarcasm, but also too burned out to express it. “Ah. Gotta, gotta, get a date, to resist temptation...save the day...”
“Oh, don't be a fool, Twilight,” Nightmare Moon said with a huff. “I'm offering you a quick and easy fix for everything. Your big problems. Not only does the pain go away, but so does the distraction. No more worrying about this, so you can turn your attention to bigger issues—”
“Maybe I want...to focus my attention on this kind of...issues...sometimes,” Twilight managed. “There's...fun parts...”
“Ah,” Nightmare Moon said, suddenly looking extremely canny. “Well...I say satisfy--”
Twilight's eyes opened wide. “No!” She began struggling to force her muscles to obey her command that they help her flip over.
“Oh, Twilight, Twilight...is there really much of a difference between this,” Nightmare Moon said, as Twilight turned her back on the creature, “And this?”
Twilight looked up and stared, mouth hanging open in horror.
Princess Celestia stared back at her, smiling beatifically.
“Yes,” Twilight murmured. “Difference.”
The princess' face screwed up in an extremely unfamiliar expression of patronizing amusement. “Is there really?” she asked. “In the dead of night, and you’re lying there, all alone, and you wish wish wish...wouldn’t it be better for there to actually be something waiting for you? Only for you...?”
Twilight tried to reply, but the ache in her chest began to throb noticeably as the thing wearing Celestia's face leaned forward to nuzzle her. She even smelled like her, sweet and fresh and alive, like wet earth after rain...but there was the very slightest hint of some malignance that could not be ignored or denied in it. “No...not this...”
“Oh yes, Twilight, even this. This, the thing you think is the darkest, most desperate secret of your heart...the thing that you know makes you act so silly around her...even this can just...not be a problem anymore. The pain of desiring something that can never be, an absence that you feel even though it has never, ever been filled—that is your pain. No, our pain, Twilight, I know it too well. Gone. Gone forever. It could not be a problem anymore every night for the rest of your life, if you want,” the Celestia said, with a rather suggestive grin.
“Maybe you’d prefer something in black, though,” a cruelly smiling Luna added.
“Or this! You know you totally want to,” said a Rainbow Dash, with a smug grin.
“Or this!” something that looked like Pinkie Pie exclaimed. “We'll have a blast!”
“Or this,” a vision of Rarity purred, as Applejack's doppelganger let her mane down.
“Eeyup,” said somepony like Mac.
“But it doesn’t have to be like that if you don’t want it to. It can. But it is my hope that in time, if not immediately, you won't need those lies anymore and can just accept what is actually happening. The point being that you don't ever, ever, ever need to feel this again,” Nightmare Moon said, tapping Twilight's chest with a hoof, making the battered unicorn wince. “That can go away. Just not even bother you anymore, in waking life or in sleep. There would be nothing nagging at your mind while you’re working, making you suddenly set down your book, feeling foolish and lonely.”
Twilight stared back at her, breath ragged.
The barest hint of the sounds outside leaked into Twilight’s ears, making her wounded heart ache. At the same time, the bed lowered a few degrees, enough that there was a terrible sense that it would just keep getting chillier and chillier...
“All you need to do is say yes. Nothing more. No confessions, no oaths, no pacts. Just let me help you.”
Twilight panted, holding Nightmare Moon's gaze, saying nothing. She was too weak to move, or flee...perhaps to resist.
“It's for your own good, Twilight,” the dark creature whispered. “I offer it freely. No more pain, no more feeling excluded, or like you're missing something in your life...it would be for both our sakes.”
Twilight said nothing, merely staring back into the ever-more-irritated expression of Nightmare Moon.
“You've said it yourself many times, Twilight, it's all foolishness and ponies letting their flanks do the thinking. Let your brain do the thinking, and accept this very neat way of managing it. You know you would be better off!”
Twilight was silent, eyes unmoving.
“Twilight Sparkle...” Nightmare Moon almost moaned. She wasn’t unlovely in that moment; suddenly all the darkness seemed alluring, the threat of her power intoxicating, the sense of her regality a desirable mystery. “I want this. What more could you ask for? A goddess is asking this of you. Wants this from you. I offer you more, much more, than she ever will and you know it! Doesn't that even entice you a little?”
Twilight blinked, and chewed her lower lip, but that was all.
“Don't be stubborn,” Celestia said, coyly. “It's unattractive...”
Twilight stiffened, eyes going wild.
“Just say yes. Nopony would blame you,” the Celestia said, leaning forward. Twilight could feel its breath on her lips—
“I would,” Twilight croaked. Her eyes flickered upwards, out the window, and she smiled, forcing her agonizing muscles to push her away from the other pony and onto the floor. Nightmare Moon reared up, face screwed up in anger, and turned to look at what Twilight was chuckling at in the window—
“YOU WILL KEEP YOUR HOOVES OFF OF TWILIGHT SPARKLE, DEMON, OR I WILL RELIEVE YOU OF THEM!” Princess Luna bellowed as she slammed into Nightmare Moon, her power blazing around her like a gigantic comet of divine wrath.
Suddenly they were in the ruins of the Temple of Two Sisters again. Luna, power still lit around her, was riding Nightmare Moon across the floor from the momentum of her attack, throwing up great chunks of stone and crashing through pillars and broken statues. Occasionally, a shriek of pain was heard from beneath her.
“My knight...in shining armor...” Twilight murmured through a lazy grin—
—and woke up.
Luna sat next to her bed, eyes closed, head occasionally twitching and lip curling, from time to time, into a sneer.
Twilight curled up, clutching herself, and began to feel herself tremble a little. The pain in her chest was gone—more accurately, it had never really been there—but a deep, gnawing hollowness in her guts stood in its place.
A flicker of motion attracted Twilight's attention. Hovering above her was an indistinct, hazy presence, which was slowly flowing away from her into the shadows in the corner of the room. As it gathered, it slowly took a more or less clear form, the dreadful silhouette of—
Two vivid blue, draconic eyes opened, and Twilight gasped.
You should have accepted my offer. We could have been so much together, Twilight Sparkle...
“I could...I could only have been less than I am now,” Twilight replied, as evenly as she could.
Do you think so? In time, you will regret your lack of vision...
Next to the bed, Luna's eyes opened like a thunderbolt. They were still blazing white with her awesome powers, and she turned her wrathful gaze on the hazy form in the shadows. “Begone!” she snarled. “Powerless thing, I cast you out from this place! Begone!”
There was a terrible, cold sound, almost like an electric arc experienced through the ears; Nightmare Moon's contemptuous laughter leapt along Twilight's spine, making her shudder uncontrollably.
A fond fare-thee-well to you, too, Princess of the Moon...we shall see one another again, in time.
“Let it be so, to your ruin! Begone!”
The shape dissolved away and flowed out the window, into the night.
Luna turned to Twilight, trying to smile. “How do you fare, my dear friend?”
“I've been better,” the unicorn admitted, in a tiny voice.
“Come,” the princess replied. “There is somewhere I think you need to be.”
"If you hadn't come..."
"Then you would have had to endure your suffering a little while longer. And would have," Luna added, in a voice that brooked no disagreement. "Now...please, Twilight, come to me."
Exhausted and disinclined to disobey in any case, Twilight rolled out of bed, got to her hooves and followed Luna to a dark corner of the room and let the dusky-colored princess wrap her wings around them both. Luna hummed sympathetically as the unicorn buried her muzzle in the princess' chest, a couple tears leaking from her eyes.
“Just relax, Twilight...” A sudden jerk, an upwards tug, and a gentle sensation of spinning...
In moments, it was over, and Twilight opened her eyes. Canterlot Palace gleamed even in the light of the moon, making Twilight blink irritably as the dark wings were removed from around her. They stood on the great balcony near the top of Celestia's apartments—if Twilight took an errant step backwards, she'd knock over Celestia's telescope.
Luna flapped her wings a couple times before folding them at her sides. “No ill effects, I hope? I'm so used to it, but I know you learned my sister's method—” Twilight shook her head, and Luna gave her a halfhearted smile before turning to the curtained doorway and twitching one of the heavy velvet curtains aside. Hesitating only a moment, Twilight followed her into the room.
Celestia's voice reached Twilight's ears as Luna passed the threshold. “Sister, did you find out where the Nightmare—” the princess began, but she stopped, her eyes wide with shock as Twilight slunk into the room behind Luna. Celestia was standing in the center of her little bedroom, looking exhausted; she'd been forcing herself to stay awake. But now, as Twilight forced her eyes to rise and meet the princess', her sunken eyes filled with tears. “Oh, no. No, no, no, not—”
“Princess, I had a nightmare,” Twilight whined, sniffing hugely. She felt like a foal, and in the chaotic haze of her mind, appropriate words seemed to just slip out. “Can I sleep next to...next to you tonight?”
Celestia rushed forward and clutched Twilight as the unicorn collapsed into her embrace, sobbing hugely. Hooves and wings alike wrapped around her in a warm, protective blanket of love. Twilight sobbed and heaved, unable to do anything but hurt.
“I'm so sorry!” she howled. “I...I...it was so scary...and she—!”
“Shhh, Twilight...just relax. It's over now,” Celestia said, soothingly. “It's all over. The nightmare is gone. You're safe...” The princess shushed and nuzzled Twilight as the unicorn cried and cried, finally letting the hysterical terror she'd been suppressing with adrenaline and raw nerve flow out of her in a torrent.
“It was always a possibility,” Luna said, looking out into the night out of respect for Twilight's privacy. “Twilight would be an appealing target—”
“Did she hurt Twilight?” Celestia asked, in a very stern tone of voice which actually made Twilight pause and look up at the princess. Celestia's face was as calm as ever, but her eyes were aflame with indignant rage.
Luna turned and gave Twilight a brief look before responding. “Yes, I suspect so.”
“She...she...” Twilight moaned.
Celestia's attention, suddenly all warmth and sympathy, fell on Twilight in its totality. “Shhh. It's alright, Twilight. Don't—”
“No! I need to...I need to talk, I need to understand,” Twilight murmured. “She was just offering me things, but it was all so strange...she said she wanted to reward me.”
“She wanted to take you as her next host,” Luna said harshly.
Celestia looked up at Luna, starting to say something, but her jaw merely worked open and shut a few times as she looked from Twilight to Luna. She eventually took a deep breath and nuzzled into Twilight's shoulder gently.
“Me?” Twilight asked, incredulous. “Host? What are you—”
Luna clicked her tongue irritably. “She's a nightmare, Twilight. She needs somepony to act through to affect the real world...”
“But I’m just me!” Twilight moaned.
“You have always underestimated yourself,” Celestia murmured. “And you defeated her once. She’d remember you...”
“She offered me...just, you know,” Twilight continued, between sniffles, “Stuff, things. Experiences. The Philosopher's Stone, the power to travel to distant places and times...magic...”
Luna looked away again. “Yes.”
“She was looking for a way in, is all. Something she could use.”
“All of it—it would have been...”
“It would have been easy at first. No harm in it,” Luna said, not looking at her sister or Twilight. Her voice was bitter and mocking, although it was very clearly directed at herself, not Twilight. “Just fun, or something useful or interesting. And then, someday...someday you'd want more, and she'd say, well, that's a little bit much from our current arrangement. But you'd trust her a little—she loves to pretend to be misunderstood—or she'd let you think you were in control...so you'd agree to give her some access to yourself. So that she could act through you to give you what you want...”
“And she'd have me,” Twilight murmured.
Luna gave her a pained, sidelong look. “You barely even realize it's happening.”
Celestia's embrace grew tighter. “I'm so proud of you, Twilight...”
“She knows your heart,” Luna said in a nonchalant tone of voice, though she gave Twilight an extremely knowing look. “She's been watching you, hasn't she...?”
“Yes,” Twilight whispered.
“I'm sorry, Twilight...I should have suspected she would be. There's never been a more vindictive creature in the entire world, but I thought she'd leave you be knowing Celestia and I were both watching over you...but there you are, I wasn’t. I was hunting her...and she came upon you before I could stop it.”
There was a long silence, full of a great deal of contemplation.
“She said she never forces you to do anything,” Twilight said, unable to stop herself.
She immediately regretted saying it—Luna surely didn't want to be reminded of that! And what if—oh, dear, what if it were true, and Luna hadn't told Celestia—
But she needn't have worried. Celestia didn't round on her sister, and Luna only stiffened very slightly.
“She never lies, if she can help it,” Luna said, harshly. “Except by omission.”
“But that means—”
“She just makes things seem worse than they are, Twilight. She came to me after seeing how frustrated I was with how everypony loved Celestia so much...even before she started influencing me, I couldn't make myself relax, or see how people just treated me a little differently. Or how the things I did caused them to be nervous around me...all I could think about was how jealous I was. How much I wanted to be...beautiful, and powerful, and...” Luna cleared her throat. “I was easy prey, compared to you.”
Twilight said nothing; she just held Luna's gaze for awhile.
Celestia's immortal wisdom saw through this, though. “Twilight, the important thing is that you said no. No matter what else you felt, you said no.”
A tear leaked down Twilight's face. “No. I just never said yes.”
Luna stepped closer to her. “You faced a creature, a vision, whose only real power is corrupting the minds of ponies to evil—a skill she has honed over millennia, so that she can feed off their pain and sorrow. To deny her as she cuts straight to your heart and tempts you with the satisfaction of your dreams and ambitions...even just to refuse to accept them...”
“I almost did!” Twilight shouted suddenly, making the princesses start in surprise. “I wanted to! I so desperately wanted to. She was going to make it stop, make me stop feeling so foolish and so hurt, just because...just because...” She looked up at Celestia...
Who smiled down at her, in a sad sort of way. Celestia understood Twilight just about as well as anypony, and the unicorn wondered what her face revealed; she certainly wasn’t in control of it. Celestia’s eyes roamed her features for a moment, and then the elder princess sighed and spoke gently. “Because there's so much you fear you may never experience. Because you've been feeling unusually alone, what with one thing and another...”
Twilight's gratitude at Celestia's typically incisive understanding had never been more intense. She clutched herself desperately to her mentor, sniffling.
“She offered you...the opportunity to cut out your own heart,” Luna said, eventually. “She would have been that pain, that loneliness. A self-indulgent fantasy that would have become more and more exaggerated...soon, not only would you need nopony to love, you would need nopony else for companionship at all...”
“Your own friends wouldn't have known you,” Celestia whispered.
Luna closed her eyes, looking stressed. “There would only be you, and her, alone. She'd be all there was for you...”
Twilight shuddered. “And then...”
“And then she'd do whatever she pleased. You'd want to help her, your only friend, your only love, the only pony who meant anything to you...” Luna sighed. “I envy you, Twilight. You held out for so long; I was desperate to reach you, and she was fighting with all her strength to keep me out.”
Celestia's embrace once again tightened around Twilight. “When she could not tempt you with your ambitions, she preyed on your fears. You were already beaten and harassed and terrified...and still, you resisted.” She leaned down and kissed Twilight's forehead. “I'm so proud of you, Twilight.”
“If she comes back—” Twilight stammered desperately, but Celestia interrupted her with a gentle shush.
“I doubt she’ll return tonight, or anytime in the near future...If she comes back to you, you will have rested. We'll have...talked through things some more, helped you through the things that are troubling you. You'll be even more ready than you already were.”
Luna put a hoof on Twilight's shoulder. “But I doubt she will. I think you scared her...”
“She did say I impressed her,” Twilight grumbled, drearily.
“So you must be ready,” Luna said, firmly. “Now she has three poweful mares who have defied and humiliated her...” The younger princess gave Twilight a somewhat cocky grin, and Twilight blushed—she was being invited into pretty high company, there!
“She'll come for us, all three of us, again, someday. She won't let this defeat go,” Celestia added, her eyes meeting Twilight's in an expression of firm purpose. “She already tried to avenge herself on you for her last defeat by making you the next object of her torture, and on Luna, the Elements, and I...by stealing you from us.”
Twilight said nothing, merely weakly nuzzling into Celestia’s chest and humming gently. She was exhausted, terror and adrenaline having seeped out of her almost completely; now all she wanted to do is rest. She yawned, hugely, and the Sisters laughed together at her sleepy mumbling.
“We'll talk about this some more tomorrow. I think we have a great deal that needs to be made open. That is our greatest weapon against her,” Celestia said, adding something Twilight didn't quite catch about Spike and a message. Dully, she let herself be lead by the gentle pressure of Celestia's body into a bed—a blessedly warm bed—and immediately leapt into it and gratefully curled up. The last thing she saw was a great, white wing—in that moment, the most beautiful and elegant thing she'd ever seen—rise and wrap itself over her, gently squeezing her for the space of a heartbeat.
“Eyes closed, Twilight...you showed your strength beyond question tonight, and now your trial is over. Rest well...”
And so, curled happily into the princess' protective warmth, Twilight Sparkle drifted off into a deep sleep untroubled by nightmares.