The polished orb on her bedside table flashed once like a riot control weapon, and Luna flung one foreleg over her eyes before she was even fully awake. The sudden stabbing pain made her want to hide under the covers, but she forced herself up, surging with panicked energy, because the Tartarus-bound thing would go off again in a matter of seconds. It had to be deactivated with a gentle tap from one’s horn, which seemed like a terrible oversight in design; wasn’t anypony else terrified they wouldn’t make it quite in time and get another eye-bleeding, headache-inducing flash at close quarters? Luna knocked an empty tea mug off her bedside table in her haste, but managed to tap the orb quickly enough.
Relaxing for a moment, she leaned back and rubbed the cloudy afterimage out of her eyes, grumbling. It would sound strange to say, but one of the hurdles of quitting the Tantabus was the lack of a natural alarm. She’d always instructed the creature to torment her until the sun was a half-hour from setting exactly, and it had obeyed. Celestia never understood until recently how Luna was always so punctual in the evenings.
Lacking a monster in her mind, Luna now had to rely on the metropolitan unicorn’s answer to a ‘rooster crow’, which was a personal light-based alarm. Being situated in Canterlot, it was the closest thing on hoof, but Luna despised it. The device had been made with ordinary unicorns in mind, naturally, and so it did not account for an alicorn with perfect night vision and, as such, eyes which were more light-sensitive than quite literally anypony else’s in Equestria. The alarm was about as well suited to Luna as staring into the sun was to an ordinary pony; to call it painful was an optimistic description.
With her sight finally approaching normalcy, Luna fumbled for her sandals and put them on, then reached for her peytral. Her tiara she put on without the mirror; in fact, given the morning before, she’d resolved to avoid the mirror this evening. The day had been long and her sleep fitful, but despite that she was slow with fatigue, she forced a brisk pace out of her bedroom and down the hall to attend her first duty.
The balcony she worked from was only a short distance, and the shuttered doors were already open. Luna came out under the sky, and saw across the way that her sister was in her own tower, a pale shape against the dimming blue. She could surely see that Luna had arrived at her proper place, and would now take her cue as she did every dusk. A tiny glow of gold could be seen from Luna’s faraway vantage, and she lit her own horn in response. Their twilight hour performance began.
Celestia pulled the sun down, cutting off the light behind the horizon and darkening the sky. The colours in the western half became warmer and richer, deep reds and oranges coming to the surface of the watery yellow. Luna responded in kind, lifting the moon from its hiding place, bringing up a soft silver against the embers of the sunset across. The palette of their sky, a canvas that spread from one end of the world to the other, grew cooler and darker at a steady pace. The bright colours made a brief stand against the encroaching dark, growing riotous and fiery before being quenched against the western line. The pale light of the moon brightened gently at the sun’s passing, easing the weight of the dark, and Luna brought out the stars to help. Celestia settled on her dais just as Luna rose off her own to get a better view of her work. She daubed the stars over the sky with care; this could not be rushed no matter how practiced she was. The sky was a display of size and complexity beyond mortal comprehension, and every star had a historically valued place that could not be mistaken. Celestia went inside, leaving Luna to her task of bringing each star out, one by one.
Once every point of light was just where it should be, Luna lowered herself to the balcony’s surface and looked around with satisfaction. It was not a special performance by any means, nothing particularly unique or unusual about it. To their little ponies, it was just another sunset. Wonderful.
Luna turned and went inside, to meet Celestia in their kitchen. No doubt she would already be there, having started her dinner while Luna starpainted.
She entered their personal dining room and sat at the small table. Contrary to popular belief, the grand dining hall was only used for public functions. The princesses took their daily meals in the little, softly lit room off of the kitchen, where their table was short enough that the alicorns didn’t require chairs. Luna couldn’t be sure, not having been present for the Canterlot palace’s redecoration, but looked to be a repurposed coffee table. Servants had already come and gone, leaving her a breakfast of flowers and fruit at her place. As Luna started her meal, Celestia asked “Did you double-check that Orion is properly dressed?”
Luna smiled as she chewed. There had been one night since her return that she had painted the hunting horse with four stars in his belt by accident. Within hours of moonrise she’d received many irritated letters, the first from Twilight Sparkle, admonishing her for altering it from the customary three. As the picture was her own creation, she privately thought that Orion had however many stars in his belt that she said he did, but then it had been a mistake. It was now something of a running joke between them. “Yes, Tia, Orion’s wardrobe is canonically accurate.”
“Good, that is the most important part.”
“But of course. Equestria would fall.”
The guardians of the nation laughed.
Celestia’s shift was ending, and she could take her time finishing her dinner, but for Luna the work had just begun. She finished her breakfast quickly, and bade her sister a good sleep. As she rose from the table and turned to leave, Celestia called “Oh, sister, I nearly forgot to ask.”
Luna paused at the door; she anticipated the question, but politely said “Yes?”
“Would you like to talk this dawn?”
‘Would you like to’ or ‘do you need to’. Luna could swear she could hear Celestia weighing the merits of how to phrase that question every time she asked it. One implied Luna’s greater choice in the matter while also allowing her to avoid it when perhaps she shouldn’t, the other insinuated Luna’s dependence. The talks were more than simple talks; Luna had no personal experience on the receiving end of modern-day psychiatric practices, but she imagined their conversations over the past few months were a close approximation. Ever since her monster had been caged, they’d become a regular practice. Her sister had been, to understate, greatly concerned when she’d heard of the terrible near-escape of the creature, and what had caused it. At Celestia’s insistence, their relationship since then had become much more intimate, more than Luna was comfortable with. In her opinion, it was a natural way to feel: what pony could ever be comfortable talking about their greatest failings and personal insecurities? It was never a welcome prospect, but tonight the idea of plumbing the depths of her personal flaws with her sister was even more tiring and frightening than usual.
“I’d rather not.” she replied, words clipped. She swept out of the dining room quickly, closing the door just as Celestia opened her mouth to strongly suggest otherwise. Her stomach gave a quick squeeze of guilt as she walked away down the hall; she knew better of this avoidance, but that didn’t stop her hasty retreat.
She returned to her chambers, and secured the large oak door in place behind her. When it was locked, it was as secure as a vault; it was a foot thick of solid hardwood too heavy for a mortal pony to move, and the lock was ancient and sturdy. Not the castle staff nor anypony besides her fellow alicorns would be able to disturb her; even sound scarcely carried through the wood. Dream diving required solitude, not just for the performance but for peace of mind. Projecting her awareness out of the physical plane meant that she’d be oblivious to anything happening around her, and one does not live to be over a thousand years old by leaving the door unlocked during such vulnerable moments. One of the few times she had ever worked her magic in an insecure place had been the day when the Tantabus escaped, and there’d been no time for precautions. Many safety considerations had been cast aside … not least of which had been her personal rule that only a few ponies would ever share a dream.
Luna shuddered at the memory of holding that gargantuan dreamscape together. If she allowed herself to dwell on it, she swore she could still feel the searing magical exertion. Her horn had felt as though it would crack open along the shaft like a bone in the fire. That had been an unnatural overextension, far beyond what she was designed to do. So many ponies’ dreams, the soft underbelly of their minds, all linked together and on display to one another … it had been so demanding because it should not be done. Dreamdiving was a practice meant to be personal and intimate.
Her sparkling regalia came off and was thrown in a pile in preparation. Every now and then, particularly when dealing with Twilight’s friends, she forced herself to cross into the dreamscape still wearing all that unnecessary jewellery for the sake of some sense of royal decorum, but not tonight. She didn’t expect to meet anypony who might care whether or not she was in uniform: it was the nice thing about working with children. Luna summoned her dreamdiving spell. It built gradually, as such a powerful spell must, slowly lifting her off the floor, white glow surrounding her. The tendril of light reached the tip of her horn, and cast out into the world. At the moment it left her body, Luna followed it, releasing her awareness in this plane …
… and regaining it in the vastness of the next plane over. She stood as her immaterial self, a shining translucent copy, in the dreamscape. All things here: the location, other ponies, the princess herself, truly had no visual representation at all. As was her duty, she’d given this world an appearance for her and her little ponies’ convenience. She’d designed the world around her to look like a hallway of doors, one door each for the dreams of every sleeping pony in all Equestria, floating floorless and wall-less in an infinite expanse of stars. The hallway stretched as long as the entire population of the country, and the whole thing was hers to take care of. She started down the row, knowing where to find the foals.
She approached one such door, and lay a hoof against it. A vague sense of the dreams it contained and the emotion intrinsic to them could be felt through touch. This one felt confused and befuddled, but not afraid; a mere absurd dream, not a nightmare. She moved on to the next and the next, encountering several that were simply confused or bored, until she touched one that emanated a feather-ruffling stew of frustration and panic. It was strong enough that she worried for the dreamer, and so she opened the door with a burst of light and stepped inside.
The environment was ill-defined, as was often the case: the room was small, with chipped beige paint on the walls and linoleum worn to a shine. Bookshelves, filled haphazardly with paper, magazines and textbooks were set into the walls in randomly chosen spots. Oddly shaped wooden objects littered the floor, some of them shoved against each other until their strange angles and protrusions had gotten stuck together, and in the centre of the mess was a sweating grey colt. He was fumbling with two pieces, turning them every which way and pressing them against each other like a hoofheld puzzle he was trying to solve, head bowed over his work so that his cornflower mane fell in his eyes. He was shaking and muttering, his voice tired.
“Just … c’mon … why won’t you fit?! Uugh!” He flung the pieces away, straight at the entering princess. Luna was unfazed, allowing them to pass through her projection without reaction. The colt, seeing where his pieces had gone, jerked in surprise. “Oh!” He leapt to his hooves. “I’m sorry! I didn’t – I mean, it was an accident, I – you’re her, aren’t you?”
Luna stalled him with a raised forehoof. “It’s alright, Chrome,” she reassured him, picking his name out of the ambience of his mind. “Nothing here is real; you’ve done no harm.”
He blinked. “It … it’s not real?” Chrome Finish turned in a circle, looking around at the off-kilter room and the pile of tangled wood scattered around him. “Oh … well, that explains why I’m doing this.”
Luna picked up a piece. “What are these, my little pony?”
“They’re … if I can just do it right, they’re supposed to form a perfect sphere.” His ears twitched, and he started pawing through the pieces again as he talked. “I can make them fit, I swear, I just need more time.” He grabbed any two pieces from the pile and ground them against each other. “I’m not stupid, I can figure it out, I can make it perfect …”
“Chrome, I’m afraid they’re not going to fit.”
“It’s the nature of the dream, Chrome. This is an anxious nightmare. Success is not possible here.”
Chrome dropped the pieces, ears drawn back. “I don’t get it.”
“Are you worrying about something?” Luna prodded. “Upsetting dreams like these can come from what plagues us in our waking lives. Is there something in your own life that feels like an impossible puzzle?”
The colt looked up at her, and began “Well …”
Responding to his shift in mood, a shelf of books suddenly tilted, spilling its contents between the two ponies. The vague piles of paper took on recognizable characteristics: textbooks full of math problems, old printings of classic novels with footnotes in the back, thick lined-paper notebooks with sparse notes and frantic scribbles on every page. Chrome looked away, shame-faced. “I’m having a little trouble in school.”
Luna looked over the reading material. Was that MacBit? That was a rather gruesome story for a foal his age. “Is Shakespony nightmarishly difficult?”
“Shakespony talks like a crazy horse!” Chrome blurted. “Crazy! He makes no sense!”
She fought to keep from smiling, mindful not to hurt his feelings. “It’s only early Modern Equestrian. Everypony used to talk that way; as a matter of fact, it feels quite recent to me.”
“Well, I think it’s dumb. I don’t get it. We’re supposed to answer questions about what happens and write about the characters and what we think about them and I don’t even know what anypony’s saying! How am I supposed to … I mean, what …” Chrome couldn’t finish the sentence, sputtering in confusion. He shut his muzzle and snatched up a couple more puzzle pieces, resuming his futile efforts.
“Why don’t you ask your teacher for help?”
Chrome cringed, shaking his head. “No. I won’t. I don’t need help, I’m not stupid.”
“Everypony needs help sometimes. It doesn’t make you foolish.”
Chrome shook his head again, scowling, eyes still on his work. “You don’t get it. No grown-ups get it. Of course it makes me stupid. Everypony else is doing okay. Only the dumb colts have to get extra help. If I ask Mr. Blackboard to help me, like I’m some little foal and I can’t do it by myself, then … then all my friends will think I’m an idiot. I must just not be trying hard enough.”
Luna put a hoof over his puzzle, staying him. “There’s no shame in talking to Mr. Blackboard; helping you is his job. Chrome, this isn’t good for you. Your anxiety is already affecting your dreams. It’s unhealthy for a pony to carry stress like this, especially a pony your age.”
Chrome looked up at Luna, his stubborn expression relaxing somewhat.
“And these nightmares will return time and again as long as you’re struggling with this alone.”
“But … I just don’t want to …”
“I know you’re afraid of other ponies thinking you’re not intelligent. But a fear you avoid is a fear that follows you all your life. It may feel like the worst thing, but this is the way to solving your problem. If you never face this, then you’ll always feel this anxious and overwhelmed. You must get help.”
“I …” He hesitated. “I’ll think about it, Luna.”
Luna nodded, quietly pleased that he’d left out her title. “I hope you do, Chrome, for your sake.” As she concluded with her most often-used adage, the hypocrisy of that statement gnawed at her. “Face your fears, my little pony.”
Unaware of her thoughts, Chrome dropped his gaze and nodded at the floor. “I’ll try.”
The dreamwalker did not need to leave through the door as she’d entered; she simply loosened her magical grip on this colt’s dreams, and his world faded away. The hallway reappeared around her, and she continued making her rounds.
There were many children who needed her help, just as there were every night. Here, a filly who dreamed of hiding from monsters just as she hid from her schoolyard bullies, there a filly that dreamed of her speech going wrong the day after, there a colt who dreamed nopony wanted his friendship and had left him alone in the woods. The inner demons of ponies were many and vicious. Luna stepped into each of these nightmares, alleviating the worst of their mental assault and patiently discussing their source with each frightened foal. Much of the advice she gave to her ponies stung a little on the way out. How could she tell others to accept help or to face what they feared most when she’d avoided doing the same? Dishonesty went against the grain for her, and her job was more tiring for it.
She’d passed through multitudes of nightmares by the time dawn neared. It had been a long night, by intention; reluctant to return from her realm, Luna had remained in the dreamscape, tending to every foal that she could reach before they started to awake for the day. But now, when a few early risers were starting to withdraw from the hallway, her other duties could wait no longer. She allowed the entire dreamscape to dissolve around her …
… and came back to her body, hovering near the ceiling. Feeling came back into her limbs slightly after her eyes opened; regaining full awareness of this plane of existence took a few seconds to achieve. Luna released the dreamwalking spell, lowering herself to the floor with partially stretched wings. Out the window, she saw Celestia was just beginning to nudge the sun upward. She couldn’t fully lift it with the moon still raised. Luna’s horn was uncomfortably hot after holding her spell for roughly the past ten hours, but she forced a final bit of magic through it to tuck her charge out of Celestia’s way. When the moon was where it should be below the horizon, the sunrise started in earnest, lighting the sky with its warm palette.
Luna watched the autumn-coloured dawn with apprehension; as soon as Celestia was finished lifting the sun, Luna would have to go rectify her mistake from earlier that evening. It was the decent thing to do … though it still hurt to think about opening up to her. Perhaps she could just go to bed now, and avoid the issue altogether. Celestia wouldn’t blame her for trying to sleep; she’d been hard at work all night. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d skipped dinner, not the first time she and her sister hadn’t seen each other at sunrise. Besides, it could be that such cloying reluctance to have one of their talks was a sign she ought not to do this for a while. At least until tomorrow.
Luna shook her head in disapproval; she knew excuses when she heard them … but didn’t they have a point? It’d been a long night with the children, she wasn’t up to more. But aside from that, she was fine. She drew her curtains, blocking the daylight out of her room, then went to her bed and lay down. She didn’t need to talk with Celestia. She was fine.
Minutes crept by. Long hours of work notwithstanding, she felt no closer to sleep as the sun grew ever brighter outside. Since losing the creature, she’d had entire days where unconsciousness eluded her. This stubborn wakefulness suggested today might be one such day. And that was a problem, for in the shadows and stillness, there were all sorts of thoughts that were easier to hear.
Why had she felt so sad and detached the other night? It was supposed to be special, bring them closer and ease the stress of their duty to the ponies; instead, she’d been stuck in her own head the whole time, not talking to her sister, sad and pained for reasons even she couldn’t put into words. Their once-monthly time together had ended with her sitting alone, disconsolate and confused, thinking some nonsense about not being herself. It was pathetic, really, that was the perfect word for a centuries-old alicorn who could console and advise the entire nation she ruled, then come back to herself and while away the daylight hours feeling miserable.
After she’d missed her sleep worrying about this, she still would not have the slightest idea why she didn’t recognize her own reflection. Pathetic, she was so pathetic …
“Shut. Up.” she growled.
Tartarus, she wasn’t going to sleep at all. This day would crawl past, with the same thoughts circling her mind until sunset. Then, that awful alarm would flash, and she’d have to do a full night’s work again. It would feel like death warmed over, all because she couldn’t get to sleep.
But she knew full well what could fix this problem. It was sealed in a vault that could only be accessed through the dreamscape, kept in a deep sleep. She had the magic to reach its prison, open the door, wake the beast. If freed, she wouldn’t have to worry about any of this. It could force her body to get the sleep it needed, while her mind was subject to its assault. No frustrating problems or unimportant worries could bother her if she were in the grip of the Tantabus, forced to endure the only fear that ought to matter. Next to these sleepless nights stressing over nonsensical identity issues … the clarity of that single, pure horror sounded healthy.
If only it hadn’t all gotten out of hand. If only it hadn’t slipped free of her restrictions. It still made her wish for her rightful punishment to think how close the Tantabus had come to swallowing Equestria. What had undoubtedly started the problem was when it learned how to grow strong on her raw guilt. In her psyche, guilt was far too plentiful a source; any creature feeding on that would eventually grow to endanger Equestria. It hadn’t really been at fault; it was just an animal, a pet dog, she was the master. If only she’d put harder restrictions on when it could feed, and how much, maybe she could have kept it under control.
Perhaps she still could control it, now that she knew what the problem was. If it could be made safe, conditioned and modified so that it couldn’t possibly escape, then she could consider the possibility of its return to duty. And a vital duty it was. There was a risk of Nightmare returning, regardless of what Twilight or Celestia tried to tell her; no matter what anypony else said, the fact remained that she’d fallen into that mental state once, without any outside interference, and therefore she had the potential of letting it happen again. It was unarguably a risk. Anything that reduced that risk should not be disregarded.
She couldn’t help feeling that everypony had been a little bit overdramatic about why she’d created the Tantabus; perhaps to them it looked unhealthy, but what was reliving Nightmare’s emergence if it was not facing her worst fear? That was all, she just been following her own advice to so many young ponies. It was necessary suffering, no more than what she needed. What did Celestia know about the nature of fear? Who was she to try telling Luna, the Dispeller of Nightmares, how to fight the inner demons? What if this whole endeavor was a terrible mistake and the path she was on ended in another eclipse – ?
Luna bolted upright, cursing. “No, no, we promised we wouldn’t think that way anymore. None of that … defeatist rationale. It’s nothing more than lies.” She groaned, kneading her temple with a hoof. “Even when it sounds true … especially when it sounds true.” She turned to look at her bedside table, gritting her teeth in reluctance. There was something in that drawer that she kept for times like these. A little levitation magic flowed through her horn to open the drawer, and lift a folded paper out. She brought it over and held it in her aura, pondering. She didn’t see how it could help right now; those words never changed and she knew them by heart. How could they convince her that she didn’t need the creature back?
“You never think it will help. But it does, every time.” she muttered. She unfolded it along its deep, worn creases. Pointless though it seemed, she read it slowly from the beginning.
The Tantabus must remain asleep, or it poses a threat to all of Equestria. Whatever safeguards might be put in place, the only one that ensures our safety from eternal living nightmares is to keep the creature locked away. Waking it would be to court a danger greater even than that once posed by Discord, risk destruction and misery the likes of which Equestria suffered during Tirek’s recent escape. You have been entrusted to be its jailer. You must not unlock the door.
The grim facts of the matter were blunt, written to be a quick and effective reminder for when she needed it. Below, there were gentler sentiments, in case those were what she needed:
You may feel as though you need the creature, that you depend on it to avoid your past mistakes. But its torments cannot help you. What you used the creature for was not to face those fears and overcome them, but to obsess on them to a dangerous degree. That is not help, it is hurt: to dwell on your fears is not to move past them. I know you know this, better than anypony else.
The Tantabus is your means of self-destruction, and nothing more than that. If you ever feel you deserve such harm, I want you to remember that it is a lie. Remember that you are a revered guardian and guide to your subjects. Remember that our partnership is what balances the very sky. Remember that I love you more than anything and I know you deserve peace.
Let it sleep.
Luna squeezed her eyes shut. Every time, and there had been many, every single time she read those words, tears threatened. She folded the note back up without looking. Her earlier impulse wasn’t quite so convincing now, as intended. She’d almost lost the reasons, but she’d been reminded why she couldn’t have the creature back. It would stay behind the door for tonight.
And her greatest feeling about that wasn’t relief, but disappointment.
She threw the note back into her bedside drawer, and forced herself to get out of bed. She understood the mental mechanisms perfectly. She knew that the fear didn’t mean anything, nor did her flimsy reasons for releasing the creature; they were just excuses to fall back into the old pattern. Yet that didn’t prevent them from twisting in her gut and keeping her awake.
“Cease this pointless brooding,” she grumbled, “and go talk to her. We obviously aren’t ‘fine’.”
She didn’t want to. But she went to the door, and left her small, dark room for the open sunlit palace.