Twilight Sparkle could barely put one hoof in front of another. Her mind was so overcome with shock—shock she knew that if she expressed might put an end to her mission right there. These soldiers had weapons, and her own magic had been strained to the breaking point. She’d never have dreamed of an Equestrian soldier hurting her, no matter the reason. But these weren’t Equestrian soldiers.
They were the slaves of Nightmare Moon, first of Twilight’s real enemies.
Starlight Glimmer didn’t just undo one of our victories… she undid them all. Rainbow Dash had never achieved the Sonic Rainboom—just how much did that change? Apparently the entire country. It meant her friends hadn’t ever became friends. It meant there had been no Elements to stop Nightmare Moon when the stars aided in her escape.
It meant that Equestria had done nothing but get battered by disaster after disaster for the last several years or so. Now proud, brave ponies like Applejack were bowing down to evil soldiers in purple armor.
They might not be evil. Maybe they just want to protect their homes. Nightmare Moon might be bad, but she’s not as bad as Chrysalis. Ponies can’t appreciate her night if they’re enslaved in a crystal mine, or drained dry of their emotions.
Besides, Twilight didn’t have to beat any of these monsters. If she could get her friends back together, she could defeat them all at once.
The Everfree Forest was far from the lush wildland that Twilight remembered, with its unregulated weather and numberless animals unknown to pony science. At first she hadn’t even realized they were walking into it, as fields of dead grass gave way to more empty space. But then she recognized the bend of a forest path, and the strange lumps on either side.
Twilight’s eyes widened with horror as she saw them all. It wasn’t just that the forest had been cut—it had also been burned. The ground was still black, with a faint powder covering everything.
“What happened to the Everfree?” Twilight whispered to Applejack, keeping her voice low. Thestrals had excellent hearing—there was no chance the guards wouldn’t hear everything she said. But maybe they wouldn’t know that she knew that.
Applejack didn’t whisper in response. If anything, she spoke louder, each word clearly enunciated. “After the one true princess ascended the throne, the creatures of the Everfree rebelled. I don’t know the details… but they wouldn’t obey her. Started attacking Ponyville, and lots of other places too. Our princess protected us. Burned the forest down. Salted the earth so it would never return.”
Sweet Celestia, that’s what that powder is. There wasn’t so much as grass growing along the trail. Not even sparse weeds were hardy enough to survive here. I’m so sorry, Fluttershy. I hope you didn’t have to see it. And you, Zecora. I hope you got out.
“That sounds… very noble of her,” Twilight said, forcing every word. “I can’t wait to meet such a… kind and magnanimous ruler. Her wisdom in protecting Equestria is without parallel.” Was she laying it on too thick? Nocturn didn’t seem to think so, just nodded with satisfaction and even let them slow down a little. Maybe Twilight’s acting was convincing him of her loyalty.
But then the castle came into view. Twilight had expected the Castle of the Two Sisters, both from the Cutie Map and from the direction they were traveling. But she hadn’t expected it to be rebuilt.
The castle now rose nearly as tall as any of Canterlot’s towers, with buttressed fortifications and menacing spikes and hundreds of soldiers on the ramparts. Where Canterlot Castle was an inviting place, with huge windows to let in the lights and plenty of gardens, this castle had been built to an older style: it was a fortress.
“Princess Nightmare” had gone a step further than just burning the forest and salting the field—here she had pulled up every stump for hundreds of feet around, creating a killing field for bows and cannon alike. From the occasional crater in the ground and bit of charred rubble, it seemed as though this fortification was used.
There were two layers of gates on the outside. They passed first through a transparent, purple bubble, one that Twilight knew well. Shining! I hope Nightmare Moon treated you well here. What about his engagement to Cadance—had he survived it? Was Cadance still out there, somewhere? So many questions. But it doesn’t matter what Nightmare Moon did, I can erase all of it. Nothing could stop her now.
The guards watched her closely as they passed through the bubble, as though they expected it to do something to her when the mud hadn’t. Of course nothing happened, just a brief fuzz against her fur and her mane briefly standing on end. Then they were through it to the other side, to a much more conventional gate and set of walls on the opposite side of the bridge.
It wasn’t rickety and ancient anymore, but heavy stone, held up by pillars that could’ve supported a dozen earth stallions galloping abreast.
As they came close, guards all over the wall stopped to stare openly at Twilight. A few of them slackened their grip on tools or weapons, staring in shock at something they’d clearly never expected to see. Probably doesn’t bode well for Cadance.
“I have the princess’s guests,” said Nocturn, to a pony in armor that was solid silver instead of purple and silver. “The apple farmer, and an… oddity.”
“I see that,” answered the unicorn, walking over to Twilight. He stood taller than she was—an impressive feat now that Twilight was an Alicorn. Though he only had a few inches on her. “You, Alicorn. I heard you’d been spotted… thought you must be a changeling. Probably the same as everypony else thought. But guess we were wrong. Who are you?”
“Twilight Sparkle,” she said.
“Never heard of it,” he said. “Now answer me honestly—are either of you carrying or concealing any weapons or dangerous enchantments? You may check them here with no penalty, but if you lie to me and I find otherwise…” He tapped one hoof on the ground, and a dozen bows aimed at them from the walls. Ponies glared sternly down at Twilight, or did their best impression of it “There will be lethal consequences. I am authorized to execute assassins without the princess’s involvement. Don’t think I haven’t before.”
He gestured just past them, where a few tall shapes rose in the gloom. Twilight realized with horror they were a gallows, positioned less than a hundred meters into the castle.
“I don’t carry weapons,” Applejack said. “Never do. I’m a factory manager.”
But the guards were barely even looking at Applejack to begin with. It wasn’t her they were afraid of, and Twilight had no illusions about why. She spread her wings automatically, so they could look through her feathers for anything she might be hiding. Of course there was nothing there.
Good thing I didn’t bring the time travel spell with me. No guard unicorn would recognize magic that advanced, and they’d probably think it was a weapon. A brief twinge of horror passed through her at the idea of what Nightmare Moon could do with time travel. She’s already ruling the world. Probably she’d just want it destroyed to protect her reign.
They didn’t find anything on her, and in a few moments the unicorn waved her through. “Go on then. You should know, uh… whoever you are, that we aren’t frightened just because of who you are. We serve the most powerful Alicorn in the world. She’s defeated all her enemies. Banished Celestia to the sun as she herself was banished to the moon. She will do the same to you if you resist.”
“I’m not here to fight,” Twilight said. Didn’t say anything about Cadance. Maybe she’s okay.
“Best hope not.” They crossed the bridge, and into a busy castle courtyard. Blacksmiths hammered on anvils, ponies rushed about with supplies, and in general life continued as though it was just before sunset, and everypony was trying to wrap up their last few responsibilities.
The two of them were taken straight to the castle keep, its stones polished clean, broken windows repaired, and holes in the roof fixed. Twilight could feel new defensive spells wrap around her as she passed inside, searching for hostile intentions. They probed against her mind as no pony spellcaster would’ve dared to do in the world she knew. But this was a different world now, with different standards. Nightmare Moon didn’t care about the rights of ponies.
These spells too found nothing, since of course neither of them had come as assassins. They slowed a little as they passed inside the walls, with their escort thinning to just Nocturn. The others waited outside, and even he looked out of place. Like a large work dog realizing he’d just muddied the carpet. “I, uh… won’t be taking you much further than this,” he said. “The princess prefers to keep our presence inside to a minimum. Her steward will be with us.”
He straightened, standing right in front of Twilight. “But you should know, new Alicorn, that violence will not be tolerated. It isn’t me or my stallions you should fear, but our princess. There is nothing in the world that can harm her, and many ways for her to harm those who resist her.”
“I just want to talk,” Twilight muttered, not looking away from him. “There won’t be any violence while we’re here, honest.”
“Good.” He stepped back, eyes widening as a pony approached. “Ah, just the mare I was hoping to see!”
“Nocturn,” said a familiar voice, as a mare in elegant purple slipped down a staircase nearby, in a flowing purple gown that was at once smart and functional. She looked like she was barely even paying attention to them, focused on whatever she was doing.
“Rarity?” Applejack asked from beside her. “I thought you went to Manehattan. Recruited to…”
The mare looked up, settling her pen against the clipboard in its designated place. “Ah, Applejack. Glad to see you’re well. As for my own arrangements… you’re correct in suggesting they took a different turn than I anticipated. But judging by the company you keep, the same is true for you as well.” She stopped in front of Twilight, waving a dismissive hoof. “You can go, Nocturn. I’ll take it from here.”
“Be careful, Miss Rarity,” the guard said, saluting obediently anyway. “This isn’t one of the ordinary prisoners. An Alicorn would be too powerful to trust the charms of the castle to fully protect you. Her powers might be…”
“Unnecessary.” Rarity waved her hoof again. “Nocturn, you’re skilled and effective as ever. But if an Alicorn was a threat to ordinary ponies, you would be dead already. And we both know she’s no threat to the princess, for the Nightmare is Eternal. This leaves only the likely scenario that she has come for peaceful, diplomatic reasons. Isn’t that right, ummm…”
“Twilight Sparkle,” she said.
“Right,” Rarity said, barely listening and without any trace of recognition. “Miss Twilight Sparkle looks as though she needs some time in the castle baths before the princess returns from the front, anyway. That won’t require any assistance of yours, Nocturn. Give my regards to the patrol.”
“Of course.” He saluted again. “Evening, Miss Rarity.”
“Forever it endures,” she repeated, like a religious mantra. And also with a tad of exasperation.
“Now… come on, both of you, this way. Princess Nightmare is many things, but punctual is not one of them. You’ll find your time with her more productive if you appear as proper guests of the court.”
Rarity strode away with the same perfect, cultured dignity that Twilight remembered—without any of the softening she’d experienced over the last few years. It didn’t seem she’d ever learned to properly empathize. She’s still the Element of Generosity in there somewhere. I just have to get through to her.
She was also apparently the Steward of Nightmare Moon.
“So, uh… how’d you end up in the Castle?” Applejack asked, apparently wondering the same thing. “I always knew you had, uh… a gift for business, but… weren’t you going to make uniforms?”
Rarity shook her head. “As it turns out even generals are more than happy to wear exactly the same style that our ancestors have been bringing to war for generations. It was mostly just running sewing machines. Tear off the old sun patches, sew on the new unit numbers… it was dull work. But the factory wasn’t running terribly efficiently, and that was something I could do. Fix up a few things, re-order the production process, and suddenly we’d tripled our output. Regional supervisor thought I could do more coordinating the local supply chain, and…” She trailed off. “That’s boring to a pony like you, I have no doubt.”
“Well, uh… maybe not as boring as you suspect. I’m doing something similar with the cannery. Flim and Flam let me stay on to manage after they bought the property, and…”
Twilight was relieved to see that Rarity hadn’t just been saying what she thought the guard wanted to hear—they actually were going to the castle baths. Granted, she’d never seen them intact before—the last time Twilight had visited the baths, they were ancient tile covered with grime. Now even that had been removed, sun and moon cutie marks both ripped out and replaced with a night sky.
But Twilight didn’t stay to enjoy it. She rinsed and scrubbed so quickly that even Applejack was left stunned behind her as she emerged into a guest dressing room beyond. Rarity was at that moment rolling in a large cart of clothing from one room over, and that was where she stopped to stare. “You aren’t afraid of water dear, are you?”
“No.” Twilight’s horn flashed, and whatever water was left on her vanished in a drying spell. Probably a waste of precious energy, but that no longer mattered so much to her. The guards on the walls had been right about one thing—she didn’t stand a chance against Nightmare Moon. Saving energy for a fight with her was stupid. “I just wanted to have a word with you. I’m sure Applejack will catch up with us in a minute.”
“Sure, uh… me?” Her eyebrows went up. “I’m not certain what use I can be to you, I’m afraid. You’re an Alicorn, mighty and powerful. Not so mighty as our ruler, but…”
“Rarity,” Twilight interrupted. “Don’t you remember me even a little? We were friends! You made my birthday dress, my gala outfits for the last five years running, and oh, I dunno… we saved Equestria together? Like a dozen times?”
The unicorn withdrew a step from her, eyes narrowing. “Riiiight, of course we did. Saved Equestria, heh-heh. Whatever you say, darling. Now, it would probably save your part of Equestria if you appear before Princess Nightmare properly dressed for her regal majesty. She’s quite a bit more insistent about the old customs than… the sun tyrant ever was.” Even to Twilight’s ears, Rarity’s words were halfhearted.
Twilight selected one of the outfits at random, lifting it in her magic. “You don’t remember… but that’s not your fault. She changed the past, erased it all. But I remember. I know you have a little sister named Sweetie Belle, who only recently got her cutie mark. I know about your dream to open a boutique in Manehattan. I know about your talent for tracking down gemsto—” She trailed off. “Oh, right. You might not know about that. But it’s in there, I know it is.”
Twilight’s last attempt might as well have been treading water, but now… now the unicorn was listening. She stared intently at Twilight, and for a second Twilight could almost feel her cutie mark tingle. A brief, unseen connection passed between them.
“Now that you mention it, you are familiar to me…” Rarity said, adjusting the glasses on the ridge of her nose. But then the moment passed, and the sensation was gone. “Sorry, must be imagining things. Please dress as quickly as you can, Alicorn. Our night matron will be here soon.” And she left, snapping the door shut behind her.
Applejack entered through the door into the spa, with several towels wrapped around her. “You talk to Rarity?”
Twilight nodded, struggling into a dress. All these clothes were made for ordinary ponies, and there weren’t quite the right sizes for an Alicorn like her. They did all have Rarity’s distinct flare about them—little dustings of precious stones here, or an extra bit of lace there. Maybe this was what she did in her spare time.
My friends are all still in there! We can still power the spell and put all this right.
What had happened to Starlight Glimmer, she wondered, as she found a set of elegant hoof wraps that matched her dress, and a hat. Nothing as nice as Rarity would’ve picked for her, but Twilight didn’t have a talent for this.
Applejack had selected perhaps the most humble of all the outfits that rarity had brought, a simple yellow dress with a few red accents. Unlike what Twilight was wearing, Applejack’s clothes actually fit, thanks to her not being an Alicorn. I can’t believe you put that on without anypony forcing you. Just how different was your life here?
She couldn’t let herself get distracted by the differences. She was about to meet with Nightmare Moon, that was far more dangerous than any change to Applejack’s wardrobe. Twilight would have to figure something out. The Alicorn was Equestria’s ruler now, from enemies that were even worse than she was. “Please get Celestia back, she could probably fix everything,” probably wasn’t going to be a winning negotiation tactic.
Rarity returned a moment later, her posture suddenly tense and her glasses all the way up on her nose. “The princess has returned, and she’s waiting for you in her study.” Rarity’s eyes darted between them in an instant, lingering on Applejack a moment longer. “Oh, you chose that one… you have better taste for a factory worker than I would’ve imagined.”
“Factory manager,” Applejack corrected. “I grew up in Manehattan. I didn’t work in the industry until the war.”
“Yes, of course,” Rarity said, not sounding like she believed it even a little. “Nothing to be ashamed of. Follow me.”
They walked together through the no-longer-ruined hallways. They were filled now with fine art in an ancient style, like the tapestries and sculptures that had seemed faded and abandoned with time. But instead of depicting scenes from all over Equestria, all of these showed the night. There was the moon, and swirling galaxies, and constellations, but nothing green, nothing growing. And no portraits to speak of.
They stopped in front of a set of wooden doors lined with gold.
“I trust the both of you know how to handle yourselves around royalty,” Rarity said. “Yourself particularly, Princess Twilight Sparkle. Princess of what… I suppose Princess Nightmare will answer that for all of us.” She gestured, and servants on either side of the door pushed it open, leading Twilight into the study.
The room was so ordinary that at first Twilight couldn’t even tell it hadn’t just been made as an identical copy of something from Canterlot Castle. There were shelves along the walls packed with interesting books, and a few little burners that filled the room with a comforting haze of incense. There was a fireplace along one wall, but no wood in it or even a black mark suggesting it had ever been used.
The unmistakable centerpiece of the room was an organ of incredible size and complexity—one that Twilight knew did far more than play music. But it was playing music now, filling the cold stone space with so much noise that the floor shook beneath her hooves. And playing it…
Nightmare Moon looked very much as Twilight remembered her, if she’d gained herself a royal tailor of surpassing skill to make an entire ensemble from black fabric and strange purple metal. Just how much do I know about this pony, anyway? She knew Luna, probably better than almost anyone in Equestria. But Nightmare Moon…
Thanks to previous adventures with time travel, she had seen the moment of her duel with Celestia. There had been clues there about the conflict that had come before. Ponies had died, she was sure of that. And based on the gallows outside, ponies were dying again.
Not for much longer. I’m going to fix this. Keep a level head, Twilight. You’ve done harder than this before.
There were servants lingering on the edges of the room, though no guards. One low table had fresh hors d’oeuvres, another had a bottle of chilled wine. Neither had been touched, though they had an attendant ready to wait on the princess’s hoof when she arrived.
Nightmare Moon was a skilled musician, and the tune she played was one of mourning. Twilight had never heard it before, but it would’ve been well at home at any military funeral. Eventually it ended, and the princess rose from her music.
Rarity and Applejack dropped into a bow—and Twilight did as well, just a few seconds late, and probably not as deep either. The princess seemed to notice, and one of her eyebrows went up.
Twilight almost turned to run, with those eyes on her and this powerful pony standing only a few feet away. But there was no chance she’d be able to escape. She had defeated Celestia in this world. Only the Elements would be able to beat her now. And the two I’ve found so far are working for her.
“Well done, Rarity,” the princess said, flicking one wing for them to rise and striding down from the stone steps. The ground was covered with dark carpet, making it look almost like they were floating out in space. The night princess seemed to glide down over it all, her eyes never once looking away from Twilight. Where the guards had seemed afraid, Nightmare Moon was something else. “You must get me the name of whoever’s squad apprehended her. It can’t have been a simple task to track down an Alicorn. And so quickly, too.”
“Nocturn,” Rarity answered. “Of the third watch.”
“Nocturn,” she repeated. “Pen a message to General Echo,” she said. “A promotion is in order for him. And… this pony I do not recognize. Who are you, and why are you here?”
“My name is Applejack, Princess. I run the cannery outside of where Ponyville used to be. I was, uh… the first pony that Princess Twilight here found. Your guards, uh… helped us not to get lost.”
“Applejack,” the princess repeated. “Rarity, take this one and wait outside for my word. All of you, out! I will have privacy with my guest. Anyone who interrupts before we are finished can join the others in the Garden.”
The threat, whatever it meant, provoked an instant response from the assembled ponies. They scattered, calling out with surprise and fear as they darted for hidden doors along one wall. Except for Rarity, who took Applejack by the hoof and led her briskly out the way they’d come in. Dignified, but brisk.
Only when the last door had clicked closed did Nightmare Moon finally turn on her. “And you,” she said, striding slowly closer. “I’m told you’ve been cooperative since the moment you were first spotted. There was no violence, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Twilight kept her mouth shut and eyes down—it was probably what the princess expected. She found herself grateful to Rarity that she’d taken the time to provide her with something to wear, even if it didn’t fit right and probably made her look a little silly. That would’ve been one more excuse for Nightmare Moon to be upset with her. I can’t fight her. I need her cooperation. One of the ponies I need is working right in her castle! How easily could she be persuaded to let Rarity come with her?
“I assume this means you’ve heard about me then, whoever you are. Heard about the ruler of all Equestria, and what she did to her sister. The… fate that would be waiting for you, if you raise your hoof against her.”
“I have,” Twilight said, voice flat. “I’m loyal to my princess.” It felt like spitting acid out of her mouth, but Twilight wasn’t Applejack. She wouldn’t catch fire if she lied, particularly when she had such a good reason for it.
“That’s what I thought about Mi Amore Cadenza,” said Nightmare Moon, circling around her from the other side and stopping inches away from her face. “That’s what I once thought about my sister. That Celestia could never do anything to harm me. That we would be ruling Equestria together forever. But you see where that got me? The kingdom is shattered, my subjects are slaves to another master, and my sister is banished forever. No good came of that. Or Cadenza? She was supposed to placate Sombra’s desire for conquest, keep him contained. But the only thing containing him are thousands of pony lives.”
Twilight shook her head. “I’m nothing like that, Princess. I only want what’s best for Equestria. That’s why I wanted to meet with you.”
“Is that so?” She hesitated for another second longer. “And why should I trust you, when the others have caused only heartache for me and Equestria at large? Perhaps I should give you a pedestal in the garden. Or… I could send you to join my sister.”
Twilight shook her head, whimpering involuntarily and lowering her eyes to the floor. It was all about submission with monsters like this. They wanted to be in control. But Twilight didn’t have to act to seem like she wasn’t in control. “Please don’t, Princess. If you do that, I won’t be able to help you retake Equestria. That’s what I want… to see you ruling over a united realm again.”
Nightmare Moon’s horn stopped glowing. Her gently waving mane even seemed to calm a little, the storm of meteors visible behind her replaced with gently twinkling stars.
That apparently wasn’t what she had been expecting.
“Who are you?” Nightmare Moon asked, after a few seconds. “My steward didn’t give me a name.”
“Twilight Sparkle,” she answered.
“Twilight… Sparkle.” She frowned for a second, staring at Twilight’s cutie mark. Twilight swallowed, but she forced herself not to look away. It’s okay, not even Rarity remembered me. Nightmare Moon won’t either.
The terrible moment passed, and she wasn’t sent to the moon. “And where have you come from, Twilight Sparkle? And before you speak, know that I understand my realm’s every facet, far better than you can imagine. Cadenza attempted to hide herself from me, and the consequences of her deception found her in time. Do not waste our time by doing the same.”
Twilight shivered. There was no way around it—maybe there were ponies who could come up with clever lies, enough that even an Alicorn would believe them. But Twilight wasn’t a pony like that. Her lies would be too obvious, and she’d probably be killed. If Nightmare Moon turns me to stone, there won’t be anypony to fix Equestria. I have to survive this.
“I’ve traveled here through time,” she answered. “From an Equestria that was still united. That is why you’ve never heard of me, Princess. Why no spy anywhere knew about me, why your soldiers thought I must be a changeling. Because in your world, I don’t exist. But in mine… the changelings were beaten, and Sombra was destroyed. The princesses ruled it all, from the Crystal Empire in the north all the way to the badlands in the south.”
Then she finished, and silence descended into the room between them. Twilight was conscious every second of Nightmare Moon’s eyes on her, and the slight glow in her horn. Whether that meant the Alicorn was preparing to attack her, or… something else, she couldn’t say.
“There is a curious magic about you, Twilight Sparkle—unlike anything I have sensed before. Perhaps this is the energy of travel through time. Or perhaps you are trying to deceive me. Not a changeling, yet… that does not mean this is legitimate. I have many enemies who would wish to destroy me. You tempt me with the one thing I desire most.”
She turned, stalking away. “I won’t be captured by your deception. Whatever this is, I’ll get to the bottom of it. And punish those responsible.”
“It’s the truth!” Twilight called, stumbling after the Alicorn. “That’s really why I’m here. I can prove it! I want to put Equestria back together!”
“Maybe.” Nightmare Moon lifted into the air, turning to glower down at her. “Maybe not. We will see. Guards!”
Where once the soldiers had been inconspicuous, shy creatures hiding out of sight—now a dozen hidden doors opened, and they all burst in. Crossbows and spears were all aimed at Twilight. “This pony and her accomplice are under arrest. Treat them as an Alicorn deserves… unless they resist. Then you may kill them.” She vanished in a teleport.