Five ponies pushed open the large doors leading into the throne room. Rainbow Dash poked her head in and took a hasty surveillance. She was right; empty. There wasn’t even the clatter of a guard making his rounds out of sight. They were well and truly alone.
The room itself was exactly as she remembered it: dark and imposing. Shadows seemed to come from nowhere and choke the details out of the stone and floor, while blue fire danced on the torches without a fuel source, causing the unnatural shadows to flicker and wave as if alive with malicious intent. Silver and purple tapestries and furnishings decorated every wall and brought a chill that had nothing to do with the night air.
The pictures sewn into the tapestries weren’t warming either. Nightmare Moon herself was a common theme. Standing regally over her subjects, stoically watching the moon, even striking down some long forgotten enemy in a quilted fire. There were, however, more abstract images as well. The moon and stars, of course, what looked like rolling tides over the sea, and strange symbols long forgotten to the modern world.
The only thing relatively calming about the whole setup was the ceiling. It was made entirely out of glass and gave a perfect view of the star strung sky. Unlike the torches, the light shining from the ceiling was steady and true. Oh sure, light also poured in from the many stained glass windows lining the hall, but the piercing gaze of Nightmare Moon diminished their beauty somewhat. The ceiling though… The ceiling’s view was unobstructed even by clouds, each constellation bathing the throne room with its own radiant light.
Dash would spend most of her shifts gazing up because of it, getting lost in the beauty and freedom the sky promised.
Shaking her mind out of memories, she did one last sweep with her eyes and, confirming that they truly were alone, signaled the others to follow her in.
The were mostly silent entering, but Applejack let out a low whistle as she brought up the rear and closed the doors behind her. "Would ya get a load of this setup? Someone's in love with themselves."
"Well, maybe not. I mean, Rarity is the interior decorator," Pinkie supplied with a grin to said pony.
Rarity snorted. "Please, this place would be so much more inviting and if I had any say in it. There is only so much purple one can use after all.” She rolled her eyes and let out a haughty huff. “No, my job is simply to hang the tacky things. Every. Single. Night."
"Girls focus," Twilight muttered, eyes darting and ears flicking with nervous energy as she trotted briskly up to the towering throne. It was by far the grandest thing in the room. Brilliant white steps led up to something more akin to a decorative piece of art than any type of chair. Bat like wings extended from the base with claw like metal climbing its way to the top. A swirling cloud churned at the peak, supporting a dark crescent moon nestled inside another moon. That part had always made Dash nervous. The amount of constant magical force used to keep the cloud holding the metal moons and not simply dissipating into the air with time was beyond anything she had ever heard of. Twilight ignored all of this and made straight for the plain purple wall behind it. "Discord said the Elements were in a room behind the throne. It's probably locked with a spell, so keep a lookout while I try and..."
"Why don't we just push the button?"
Twilight glanced over her shoulder at the approaching Earth Pony and mirrored Pinkie’s genuinely puzzled expression. Twilight glanced back at the smooth stone wall, and then back to Pinkie Pie. "What button?"
Pinkie gave her an exasperated look and pointed to one of the stones that made up the wall. "That rock isn't a rock so it's probably a button. Unless it's just style choice to put a piece of plastic in a stone wall."
Four pairs of eyes blinked at her.
"How the hay do you know that?" Applejack asked, coming up and squinting at the wall, "That one don't look a bit different from the others."
"Rock Farmer," Pinkie replied smoothly, pushing the indicated stone until it gave an audible click. "Duh."
The back wall swung inward with a grinding screech, as if it hadn't been used in years, and the five ponies shuffled in with eager anticipation.
At first it was dark, the light from the throne room spilling in only illuminated a few feet beyond the wall. After a few steps Rarity’s horn flared to life and the ponies got a complete view of the room.
It was a decently sized chamber. The five ponies easily fit with space to spare. It was simple, however, just plain grey stone for the structure, not even given a paint job. The only furnishing at all was an alcove in the far wall. A layer of dust carpeted the stone underhoof, billowing around them with each step, and spiderwebs grew in the corners. The place seemed to be long out of use.
Unfortunately, there was one troubling aspect about the plain and barren chamber that the five ponies noticed almost immediately.
"Empty?!?" Twilight cried, running to the alcove and unconsciously scanning it with spells. "How can it be completely empty?"
"Th- the Elements aren't here?!?" Rarity shrilled, spinning around as if the ancient weapons would materialize out of the wall if she looked hard enough.
Applejack clenched her hat and let out a low growl. "I knew we shouldn't have trusted that snake. This was probably a trap all along!"
"Well yes," a voice purred from the entryway, "But certainly not one set by Discord."
“Nightmare.” Rainbow growled as her friends froze in their tracks. Dash spun around and crouched into an aggressive stance. One that instantly melted as she saw who exactly was at the door. "Fl-Fluttershy!"
Nightmare Moon stood at the entryway, the tyrant looking as regal and imposing as always as more light seemed to flood around her like a spotlight. Standing next to her, kept near by a dark wing draped across her back, was Rainbow's oldest friend.
"Rainbow!" The buttercream Pegasus replied, giving Dash a shaky smile. "You came."
"Well, of course, she came," Nightmare Moon chuckled, "She's an idiot."
Rainbow Dash ground her teeth and seethed at the Nightmare. "Let her go. She hasn't done anything to you."
"And look at this,” Nightmare continued, flashing Dash a devilish smile but otherwise ignoring her. “You brought me presents." She swept her gaze around the room, lingering on each individual pony. "Let's see, we have the farmer that thought I didn't notice her suspicious activities after she lives practically right on my doorstep. I see you keep similar company Rainbow Dash."
"Ya didn't know nothing ya varmint," Applejack spat, "I know ya. I know ya would have taken us out if ya knew what we were doin'. Yer bluffin'."
Nightmare Moon rolled her eyes. "Please, I just let you have your harmless fun. You were being too 'careful' to actually do anything to harm me." Her gaze moved on. "Oh and Rarity, it's always the least noticeable of ponies in a crowd, isn't it? What was it? Your family not appealing enough anymore? Had to seek thrills now that Mommy isn't holding your hoof?"
"You're the reason they were taken from me you monster," Rarity seethed. "How dare you even mention them."
"Oh spare me from your family drama, child. I've had enough of it to last a lifetime." Nightmare's gaze then moved to the pony trying to discreetly hide behind the Unicorn. "And it seems I am just as bad a teacher as I am a sister. What's wrong Pinkamena? Did my lessons not get through to you? Perhaps we need a refresher."
Pinkie Pie flinched back and squeezed her eyes shut but managed to speak through her shaking. "We... we can't let you hurt anyone else... I-it's not right."
Nightmare Moon clicked her tongue and shook her head. "And here I thought you finally understood that the only morals one should have are the ones I give them." Her hard gaze finally moved to the last pony in the room. "And look Dash, you even brought me the Alicorn that paid us a visit." She cocked her head to the side and sized Twilight up. "Hmmm, not as impressive this time around is she?"
Twilight laughed nervously and took a few steps back. "L-look, like I've been telling Rainbow, you've got the wrong mare. I...I'm not Alicorn material."
"Hmmm, I don't think you'll live long enough to find out either way."
With a wave of magic the ponies were slammed backwards into the walls. Fluttershy cried out in shock and tried to rush to Dash’s aid but only got her wing twisted for the effort.
“After all,” Nightmare Moon laughed, “You’re all so pathetic as you are. Really, it’s obvious you could never stop me. At least the last group understood that much.”
"Why are you here?" Dash snapped, shakily rising to her hooves, even as her muscles screamed at her in protest, "How did you know we were coming? What did you do with the Elements?"
"Please Rainbow Dash, stop embarrassing yourself with talking. I heard your fight with my guards, you weren't exactly being quiet, and I had known you were coming back even before you had left. After all..." She cupped Fluttershy's cheeks in her hooves and gave a fake pouty frown as the Pegasus squirmed in her grasp, "You wouldn't leave your poor little friend all alone with a big scary Nightmare would you?" She dropped her hooves and turned her glare back to Rainbow Dash. "And as for the Elements, I'm not an idiot. I had them destroyed as soon as I had defeated my sister. They're nothing but sparkly sand now."
The atmosphere in the room plummeted with the ponies' hearts. Destroyed. All their work, all their plans... it was pointless. The Elements, their only chance, were gone and they were in Nightmare Moon's clutches. Rainbow felt despair settle in over her heart and had to fight tears. She had failed them. She had failed everyone. Again.
"Now now, don't look so glum Rainbow Dash," Nightmare Moon gently chided, "Not all is lost. I still have an offer to make you."
Despite herself, Rainbow's ears perked up. "Oh, and what could you have to ever offer me?"
"Life, your old job back, the chance to save your friends."
Now Rainbow was really listening. "What? You'll just let us go back to our old lives?"
"Well, not exactly," Nightmare chuckled, "You still disobeyed me. You will have to be punished. But if you come back now it will be significantly lessened."
Rainbow glared. "Why? Why would you show us any mercy?"
Nightmare gasped. "I'm hurt. You do not think I am a kind and merciful ruler." She dropped the feigned offense only after a moment when it was obvious no one was buying it. "No, in all honesty, you're still one of the best guards I've ever had despite your... loose loyalty. I could still find use for your skills, so surrender now and I might just spare your life."
Nightmare gave Dash a sickly sweet grin and strode father into the room. “After all, think of what you’ve already done for me. You’ve helped make the forest safer by killing that Ursa Minor and aided in driving off the Major.”
Dash flinched as Fluttershy’s eyes went wide. She had never told her that particular tale. Not about her killing a bear cub.
“Your unmatched speed has aided in catching deserters before they could flee my glorious kingdom.”
Rainbow felt a shudder run through her as Rarity took a sharp breath. She hadn’t known about the Unicorn’s family… she hadn’t…she hadn’t hurt them had she?
“Your keen instincts have saved a number of my troops from ambushes.”
“That was…” She heard Applejack mutter and had to squeeze her eyes shut to keep tears from escaping. She was just trying to protect herself and she probably got some of Applejack’s family hurt or worse because of it.
“The list goes on and on doesn’t it?” Nightmare mused, something resembling a fond grin directed at Dash. “You’re always so willing to do what you’re told. Just a little lap dog doing tricks for my scraps.”
Stupid stupid. Twilight had been right. Who was she to fight Nightmare Moon? She wasn’t a rebel or a hero. She was a coward. She wasn’t sticking to the shadows and working just to survive. She was one of the elites. The elites of a cruel world that had broken families apart and hurt countless ponies. She was as much a monster as the Alicorn in front of her.
Nightmare shook her head. “And that’s why I’m willing to put this transgression aside Rainbow. You’ve always been so good to me that I feel you’ve earned some kind of reward. Your life is a very big prize after all.”
She paused to ruffle Fluttershy's mane, causing the battered pony to grimace uncomfortably under the touch. “I’ll even let you keep your little friend, just like old times. And I suppose…” She mused to herself, “I still need to keep Pinkamena alive for that little arrangement to work. So you get a deal Rainbow Dash. Three ponies get to live and all you lose is your pride."
Rainbow was frozen with indecision. She could save someone. She could save two ponies and herself. If she didn't surrender, Nightmare Moon might kill them all. But if she did... if she took her offer wouldn't it be just like killing the other three herself? Wasn't she going to fight for their lives? Wasn’t that what a true friend would do? The Elements were gone, their plan ruined, and all of them too injured to take on an Alicorn. Would a true friend understand how beaten they were and try to save all that she could? Was she even their friend anymore? After they had heard all she had done… She could save her own skin but kill others or try to save all and almost certainly kill them. How was she supposed to make that choice? What was she to do?