It started with a candle.
The night hushed Equestria, and the land fell silent. The chill autumn winds moved like a gentle whisper across the darkened landscape. It caressed the tips of the grass blades as it moved, passing over the empty meadows and abandoned fields without a trace. The villages that dotted the landscape sat confined in darkness. The fireplaces of Equestria were doused, and the lanterns unlit.
Nobody stirred in the dark. The field mice kept to their burrow dens and the wildlife hid deep in the shadows of the forests. Even the owls seemed deferent. The moon was full, and the creatures of Equestria knew better than to draw attention to themselves on the night of the full moon. Inside their huts and hamlets, ponies whispered amongst each other in conspiratorial tones, afraid of being overheard by the specter that now hovered above them. The few that slept at all had dreams that were fitful and disturbed.
Equestria stretched before the Mare in the Moon like a campaign map. The villages were small and insignificant. The fields, still rotting from the long dark she'd imposed, were empty. Plowshares and pruning shears littered the ground, discarded at the first hint of twilight. The roads that ran like veins over the surface of the land were lifeless, drained of traffic and travelers. All trade had been finished before the full moon came. She'd seen it starting to trickle to a stop as she'd waxed into her full glory. The rivers and streams continued to move, waves influenced by her gentle pull, but that was the full extent of her power over Equestria these days. The trees of the forest were naked; the leaves had fallen off long ago.
By all accounts, the mare noted to herself with a twinge of annoyance, it should've been wintertime. The cold and the long dark would've done wonders for her mood. It was the only time most ponies saw the stars. Yet the only place frost formed was in the long scar of the capital. The palace ramparts glistened with a gentle peppering of white. It was difficult to look at though. Even more difficult than it was to see the land without winter, so she diverted her gaze from her old home to look elsewhere.
The mare's gaze crossed the land, stopping to study the progress of her people. There was Trottingham, the town where they'd torn down her statue and trampled it into dust. There was Cloudsdale, still failing to keep up with its new duties after the disintegration of the heavenly capital. Neither satisfied her, and her eye settled on the newfound village of Baltimare. There her night guard had been exiled after being branded as traitors, stripped of their armor and their dignity.
Curious as to what schemes for coup d'état or defiance her loyal subjects had hatched in her absence, the mare peered closer to the town of Baltimare. All the streets were empty, all the shops and guilds closed. Even the taverns and inns had shuttered their doors. Her eye scoured the town for some sign of proud defiance from her loyal knights, but there was nothing. No hint of a hidden message, no cloaked figures or secret conversations, no rooftop paeans to their imprisoned princess.
She kept looking, there had to be something, anything. The tide rose with her interest, rocking against the recently constructed harbor. Nothing. The stone cobble streets of the meticulously planned town were empty. Something caught her eye, a message nailed upon the door of the town hall. Her hungry eye scoured it for information. The message was simple enough: By decree of Princess Celestia, winter was cancelled.
That was all there was. There was no hint of love for her left in Equestria. Even her most loyal subjects had rejected her, and all that remained was just the fear and a small notation that marked the end of her chosen season.
She was about to tear her eye away from the town when a glimmer caught her eye. It was such a tiny thing, but it was there. She could feel it burning away in the dark. There it was, a candle, glowing atop a small stone and moss hillside. The candle sat cradled in a holder, the handle gripped between the teeth of a young colt.
The colt peered up at her from behind the candle. The orange light of its flame danced above his muzzle as he stood atop the hill. He did nothing, just stood there. There might have been a slight tremor of fear, but it was impossible to tell.
The Mare in the Moon waited and watched. The candle burned and the wax melted. The child continued his vigil, staring down the Mare in the Moon with a peculiar expression. What was it? Defiance. It had to be. All of them, all of them feared her, even more then they loathed her. He wasn't afraid. He'd come out, on this night of all nights, her chosen night, to stare her in the face as he brought the fire of daylight to her domain.
Waves crashed hard against the Baltimare harbor. The child was too far inland and raising the sea that high was beyond her meager power. How dare he? It was bad enough to be humiliated like this, to be confined and stripped of her rights, her power, her title, her rightful rule. It was bad enough that they'd ignored her and now loathed her. Now there he stood. Some insignificant, nameless colt, taking the only thing she had left from her subjects: their fear and respect.
The single eye of the Mare in the Moon glared down at him. The boy was none the wiser.
Time passed, and the colt committed an even grander crime in her eyes. He put down the candle, curled up besides it, and fell asleep. The warm orange flame washed over him like Celestia's sunlight, a protective blanket to ward off the Mare in the Moon and her hidden night terrors. She was powerless to stop him. His dreams were untroubled. His mouth hid a secret smile.
The Mare in the Moon sunk down beneath the horizon and hid behind the breaking dawn.
Work and time healed the scars of the land. The little ponies cut away the dead flesh and encourage the growth of a new Equestria. The rotten fields and withered trees were cleared, cut down and burnt in bonfires or ground into fertilizer for the fresh crops. Cloudsdale stopped being a refugee camp and started being a weather capital, and flights of pegasi could be seen leaving and returning every day. They crisscrossed the land, spreading much needed rain and sustenance. Soon, the only evidence that the long dark had taken place was the scarred remains of the capital, and the scattered, aimless clouds that were all that remained of its heavenly sister city. The evidence was gone, but the memory remained. Equestria still shuttered itself off on the nights of the full moon.
Time didn't pass for the Mare in the Moon as it did for them. What was time to a celestial body? The scars and pockmarks that marked the moon never healed, never faded. While Equestria slowly refilled itself, the moon remained empty. The mare slumbered away in the shadow of the horizon. During the peak of the waxing moon her eye opened, and she watched the march of progress in snapshots, gapped by weeks of progress. Her sleep was long and heavy, her dreams dark and empty, and when she woke it was often only with groggy half-awareness that she watched. She wanted to sleep away the years, remain forever in the blissful dark, where she didn't have to confront an Equestria that felt no fealty towards her. It would have been easier.
Instead the nights came long and tiresome, and she would inspect each new work of her people with measured interest. During the nights where she was waxing into awareness she could sometimes see them working, toiling at their reconstruction efforts, or camping out along the long trade roads. They were like little insects from her lofty perspective, scurrying about building colonies. She didn't know if being able to watch them it was a blessing or a malediction. Sometimes it felt like both.
Baltimare expanded. New rough cut houses went up at a rapid pace and boats for fishing and trade were constructed with intense precision. There was no sign of her former guardsmen. She didn't know whom they worked for or what they did. She didn't see the young colt that'd defied her for the rest of the year. Perhaps his parents had scolded him into submission. In a way, she was pleased. At least they still feared her. At least they would still remember through that fear.
With that thought, she closed her eye and slumbered once more.
She awoke to the glimmer of a dozen candles, shining out from atop the hill outside Baltimare.
Some said Celestia's cruelty was hidden in the exile itself: to be torn away from Equestria and forever separated from the herd, an easy target for predators that hunted the heavens. They speculated it was only a matter of time before a Leo or an Ursa Major would catch up to the moon and devour the defenseless mare trapped within. Others said Celestia's cruelty was wrapped in the length of the endless sentence, the mare trapped in solitary confinement for the rest of her days. Not even the heinous crimes of the Mare in the Moon could justify such a terrible fate. Both stories were base falsehoods. The mare was quite safe within her prison, and Celestia hadn't chosen the means or the length of sentence. The elements worked as they saw fit, chaotic and whimsical as all primordial magic.
Celestia's cruelty was far more insidious.
Celestia cradled the moon in her grip. She made care not to drop or shake her sister. Each rising was as gentle and as calm as the last. On the nights when the moon was waning and the mare slumbered her dreams were undisturbed by her sister carrying her unconscious form to the top of the heavens. When the moon was waxing and mare within was awake and aware of her sister's work, the movements came with careful, comforting strokes across the lunar surface. When the eye of the Mare in the Moon settled on the hovel of a mining town where Celestia had taken her new residence, the older sister would be there, standing on the balcony of her hastily constructed estate, smiling up at her.
That was Celestia's cruelty. The way she pretended she still loved the Mare in the Moon. The way she pretended she cared.
It was a lie of course, which is why it was no surprise to find her sitting atop her balcony on the chosen night, a lit candle at the table besides her tea. She was assisting in the destruction of the one thing that remained for the Mare in the Moon, the one little piece of solace that kept her warm as she drifted through the sky: the fear of the people. Her one little insurance that she'd never be forgotten. It was to be expected that Celestia would want to erase her, to wipe her shameful little secret of a sister from the history books, the one who was never quite able to measure up to the full majesty of the elder sibling. It was to be expected that she would assist with the spreading plague of light that marred the Mare in the Moon's chosen night.
Hers was the only light in the little mining hovel of Canterlot, but it wouldn't be the last. With Celestia's encouragement, it would spread even quicker. Baltimare filled to the brim with little points of light, as the glow of the many candles reflected off the cobblestone streets. Hundreds of ponies stood out in the streets in her night, unabashed, unafraid, and undeterred. In Trottingham they circled around the empty place where her statue once stood, their candles illuminating the broken stand and the defaced plaque. Even in Cloudsdale a few pegasi stood atop their clouded rooftops, candles at the ready, as though they were weapons with which to marshal.
The Mare in the Moon's hold on Equestria was slipping before her very eye. She had to do something, anything. She called to the sea, and it answered, but the tide only rose high enough to lick the edges of the Baltimare beaches. Failure. She wished for hooves so she could slam them against her prison bars in frustration. Equestria came to life before her in the night and there was nothing she could do to stop it. The moon remained desolate.
There was a fissure.
She started as the crack seemed to blink into existence. The Mare in the Moon never sensed it before. Had it always been there, just hidden within a magical blind spot? Certainly, Celestia would've sealed it if she'd known it existed. That both of them would miss such a thing was unlikely. She probed it experimentally with her magic. It was tiny, but it was there, a hole in the ebbing flow of magic that held her. Perhaps it had been there all along, too small for Celestia to perceive. The elder sister had never been the best at magical finesse, though no one but the two of them would ever know that little fact. Perhaps it was a trap, something for Celestia to tell how eager her little sister was to escape.
What could she do with it though? If it were a trap, chipping away at it would be futile. If it weren't a trap, it would only be a matter of time before Celestia noticed and sealed it. Even with all her power, the small size of the fissure would keep her from using it to smash through. There had to be something she could do with it though, something that her power and finesse could accomplish with even such a limited opportunity.
Below her, pinpricks of light burst from the land, as though it were attempting to mimic the stars above. The candles were being lit. Equestria was once again beginning its new festival of defiance. An idea occurred to the Mare in the Moon, and she felt a cold smile begin to grow inside her.
The streets of Baltimare filled as the ponies surged out into the night. Their candles, lanterns, and torches were at the ready. The chill night air of the newly reinstated wintertime was no deterrent. The chatter of their excitement over the burgeoning festival of light formed into an indistinct chorus of voices, after all, it had started in this very city, and now it occurred throughout Equestria. Webs of light spread across the landscape and entire cities exploded into brilliant white clusters of light.
One little colt followed his father into the street. The pair carried matching candle-holders in their mouths, the candles already lit. The boy was a little disappointed that their grandfather wouldn't be joining them, but the old stallion was far too ancient to stay up half the night. Whatever sadness gripped at his hooves, it was quickly washed away by the sight of the myriads of lights shining in the dark. The lights glittered and reflected off the cobblestone streets like diamond shards. The tradition the colt's father started blossomed across the city, and all their friends and neighbors joined in. The candle holder hid the boy's secret little smile.
They joined the crowd, father and son, at a slow clip. The crowd mingled and moved in an assured manner. No one bolted or fled, no one quaked or quivered. The only ponies hidden within their homes were the old and the infirm, denied the privilege of the night by circumstance rather than fear. Ponies smiled and shouted warm greetings as the pair passed through the city, headed towards the stone and moss hill where the tradition had started so long ago. It was covered in a thick blanket of snow now, but that wouldn't stop the father and son from scaling it to hold their candles up to the Mare in the Moon.
Stops came often as every once in a while some pony or other would decide they really needed to shake the Father's hoof. During this time when the colt was forced to stand and wait, he shifted his weight off and on his different hooves and tried to listen to someone warbling a ballad about the events of this chosen night, so many years ago, when the mare had been exiled to the moon. The words were indistinct, and the singer was tone deaf, but it was easier than listening to his father try to speak through a mouthful of candleholder.
The stops grew shorter and shorter as they approached the outskirts of the city. It still seemed like an eternity to the young colt before they escaped the cobblestone streets and began to work their way through the snow. He'd already gotten a chance to play in it, days before, when they'd still been clearing it out of the town, but he had underestimated how difficult it was to walk in. His hooves sunk deep into the white, and his leg muscles burned as he tried to keep pace with his father, who seemed to be having an easier time with it.
Once they started up the incline of the hill, the snow thinned, and the colt had a much easier time moving. He kept pace with his father with ease, and even was able to look above the older pony to spy the moon up above. It glowed with a magnificent luster. His mouth opened in awe, and the candle holder fell out of it, spilling the candle and its precious flame into the snow, dousing it.
"Dad! Dad, look! The moon. It's glowing." He stopped and pointed up above. He'd never seen it like that before. It was so bright and full, and the eye seemed to be looking down at them directly.
"I see, come on, to the top," the father replied, his voice muffled but still managing to keep the candle holder in his mouth. He would likely be annoyed to see that the boy had managed to douse his, but he hadn't seemed to notice yet. He too was distracted by the strange moon that awaited them.
The young colt scooped up the candle holder, which was now cold and hurt his teeth a little, and followed behind his father. The crest of the hill was not far, and they moved towards it with ease. The colt, eager to see, sprang up behind his father and darted around, charging to the top and bounding to the crest. He reached the top of the hill before his father.
A nightmare was waiting for him there.
All the lights went out in Equestria. All the candles flickered into darkness as they were discarded in terror. Every pony ran for their lives as a thousand nightmares whirled through the night. Laughing and giving chase. Fanged teeth and ravenous appetites nipped at the ponies' heels as they bolted into their homes and slammed the doors shut.
It didn't take long for Equestria to hide itself again. The nightmares whirled and patrolled, but there was no one to be seen. Even the owls had stuffed themselves into their nests, quaking at what might lurk in the night. She'd taken special pleasure in frightening the young colt that'd started the whole thing, chasing the crying, witless thing all way back to his home. The stallion who'd accompanied him had been powerless to stop the nightmare, and he too bolted home terrified. That would teach them proper respect for her night.
The Mare in the Moon could feel the fire of the sun's anger lurking beneath the horizon, but it didn't matter. This was her victory. The illusions that were the nightmares melted into smoke at the suns suggestion, and were whisked away in the winter wind. The fissure was filled, a spell sealing the crack and closing the Mare in the Moon once more within her prison. It didn't matter. She'd accomplished what she'd wanted. They feared her again. They would never forget her. They would never defy her so brazenly ever again.
That was what she wanted, right?
Equestria stretched before her, barren as the lunar surface. There was no one there at all. The night had been filled. Now it was empty, and she was alone once again. Her cold joy faltered, and the salacious solace of her minor victory that danced along her tongue turned as bitter and tasteless as dust.
The young colt peered out from the cracked door, his father hovering above his head. The thing, whatever it was, had given up chase. The moon was visible in the distance, the mare upon it watching, waiting. It no longer glowed. Its surface was dull and grey. The young colt's heart was still thrumming in his chest. Had it been her? Was that really what she thought of them? Was she really nothing more than another heavenly predator? That didn't sound like the stories his grandfather told. This must've been some kind of mistake.
"Dad," asked the young colt, grandson of the Captain of the Night Guard, "Is our princess ever coming back?"
The father, who'd believed in the tales his own father told, faltered. His head bowed, and he nuzzled his son's brow, happy that the child was safe. It was only now that he realized that he'd dropped his candle holder. He'd taken that candle holder to that hilltop for so many years. There he'd prayed for the return of the princess his father loved so dearly, to whom his father dedicated his life and fealty. The candle holder, the candles, and the many evenings he'd dedicated to trying to bring her back for his father were all lost. They were hidden somewhere in the white drifts that mimicked the lunar surface, swallowed by the cold cruelty of the night. It occurred to him that he wouldn't even try to find the candle holder when morning came. It was meaningless now.
"No," said the father, "No, I don't think she will."