This time, the soft clip of Celestia’s hooves against the castle’s polished floors seemed to echo for too long, and instead of bringing her comfort but now strangely alien sound only added to her growing discomfort.
Duty had interrupted Luna’s story – dawn had come and Celestia had a sun to raise. If anything, her sister seemed relieved for the interruption, and had retired to her chambers despite Celestia’s offer to continue once her obligations were done. And when they’d changed guard once more for the sunset, Luna had told her it could wait until morning, until Celestia was rested and the world was quiet.
Celestia wasn’t entirely sure what she’d meant by that last part, only that Luna seemed insistent on it, and that just before dawn was the only time she felt comfortable telling her tale. As much as the things Luna had told her nagged at Celestia, she had to trust in her sister. And she did, more than anyone, better than any pony alive, although if there was one thing Luna could best Celestia at it was stubbornness.
Even if that stubbornness could be dangerous.
After all, it was that stubbornness that had pushed her around the entire moon, chasing a pony that might not even have been real. Stubbornness and Nightmare Moon’s relentlessness. Luna no longer wore that mantle, but even unmanifest there were aspects that Luna still shared, aspects that had been brought into focus by the Nightmare but had always been part of her regardless, and always would be.
Things unburied. Sharp edges.
For the first time since Luna’s return, Celestia hesitated at the door to her sister’s chambers. Just for a moment, but it was still enough that the less disciplined of the two guards outside cocked their head slightly in Celestia’s direction. And then the moment was over, and with a deep breath she pushed the door open and stepped inside, clutching the small box she’d brought with her ever tighter.
Unsurprisingly, Luna was transfixed by her telescope again, lost in it, the stars in her mane gently waving like a tide as she stared so intently into the eyepiece.
And when Celestia coughed to get her attention, she jumped again.
“We have told you to stop doing that!” Luna snapped. “How many times must we repeat ourselves?”
“And how exactly would you like me to interrupt your stargazing?” Celestia asked, pointedly. “There are only so many ways to introduce oneself, and I’ve tried most of them.” A carefully weighted pause. “You’ve jumped every time.”
Amazingly, Luna seemed to actually consider this, before sighing in resignation. “You are right, I apologise. I didn’t sleep well, and we are ill-tempered.”
And indeed, now she had turned Celestia could see the even darker circles around her eyes, the concentration on her features as if simply staying upright was a struggle. Something keeping her awake, haunting her. Celestia wished she could take that burden away and offer more comfort than warm words, but in the meantime she had the next best thing.
“I’ve brought these,” she said, levitating the thin box into view. Plain and flat, a white square of cardboard. “I had thought we might enjoy them on the balcony.”
Luna frowned. “Are you sure? I thought you’d sworn off them.”
“Yes, well, I think we could do with a bit of a mood lightener.”
“You said they went straight to your flanks.”
Celestia pursed her lips tightly. “I did say that, yes, but-”
“Although, having seen into our subjects’ dreams I don’t think you have to worry about them disliking your flanks being f-”
“Yes, thank you, sister.”
Luna’s grin was almost worth the humiliated burn Celestia could feel in her cheeks. Almost.
“Now, if you’ve quite finished,” she continued, icily, “I would very much like to eat some chocolate, and I think you could use some too.”
“Are you implying that my flanks aren’t as-”
“I’m implying that if we must talk about the terrible things that happened to you on the moon, we should at least do so in comfort. Nothing about flanks or their relative plumpness, I assure you.”
“If you say so.” Luna remained unconvinced, or at least was sure to appear so because she knew it would annoy Celestia. The latter might have been even more infuriating, but Celestia chose not to allow her frustration to show as they took their seats and cracked open the confectionary.
Oh goddess she’d missed this, letting out a small nicker of approval as she devoured the chocolate in a particularly unrefined manner.
“I imagine you sent for tea again?” Luna asked, leaving the box untouched.
“Coffee today,” Celestia replied, reaching for her third. “I could do with something a little stronger. You look as though you could, too.”
“Perhaps. I think I just need sleep.”
“If that’s what you’d prefer, we can always discuss this another time?”
Luna considered for a moment, then shook her head. “No, I’ve already put this off for too long. I shouldn’t have, I know. I should have confided in you the moment my – Nightmare Moon’s – rebellion was over and I was at your side once more. I just… I didn’t want to push you away again. I couldn’t bear the idea of you believing I had lost my sanity, both for your sake and my own.”
Luna smiled sadly. “You already struggle to forgive yourself, no matter my reassurances. I don’t believe you would ever succeed if my banishment had cost me my mind.”
“You may be right,” Celestia conceded. “But I wish you had trusted me with this sooner. I believe you, you know I do, no matter how improbable it all sounds.”
Luna sighed and finally reached for the rapidly emptying box. “You’ve yet to hear the rest of it.”
Luna had grown to hate the moon’s nights. This was a new experience for her, a revelation. The nights were hers, after all, and the moon equally her own. Night on the moon should have been her time, more than anything else.
But it was different. The nights on Equestria might have been hers, but not the moon’s. The blanket of stars that wrapped the sky was ever-present, for a start, and so the only real difference was how dark it all became. That, and the nights here being so much longer. What would have been several days in Equestria, bathed in darkness and cold and silence.
Even that hadn’t been a problem, at first, back before the hoofprints, but now the darkness held no comfort. In Equestria, the darkness of night was alive, full of her creatures and energy, full of potential and excitement. She had never feared the dark because it thrived in its own way, just as much as the day had.
The nights here were dead.
Save for Luna herself, submerged in the dark, trying to do as she could in Equestria and become part of it, have the night flow through her like a current through the ocean. But this night wasn’t hers, and, no matter how hard she tried to become one with it, communion remained out of reach. It was too different, too alien. She didn’t know how to connect with it, how to tame and merge with it.
Whereas the night on Equestria rejoiced in her, delighted in their communion, this one actively resisted her. And that both angered and scared her in equal measure.
How dare it? How dare it elude her, the princess of the night? It wasn’t supposed to do that, be it on the moon or anywhere else, it was supposed to bend to her whim and obey her and listen to her just as she could listen to it. But even as she drowned herself in the darkness, it simply washed around her, buffeting away any attempt to link with it.
This wasn’t the first time she’d tried, of course, but until now Luna had always assumed her failure was a result of the seal placed upon her. Everything else had been stripped away, after all, why not this as well? No magic, no flight. No communion.
Now, though, Luna had a horrible suspicion that something else was to blame. That the night here was different to Equestria, somehow, that it spoke a different language, that it didn’t know what she was, who she was.
Ridiculous, of course. Nightmare Moon held dominion over every night, and the moon was her beacon, her trophy. All her visions of the future – her reconquest of Equestria with the moon proclaiming her victory across the sky forevermore. That she could hold no sway over it was inconceivable.
But that didn’t change the fact it wasn’t listening to her.
Her teeth clenched in familiar anger, the same that had caused her to obliterate her tally marks when she’d returned, along with the impossible hoofprints. Returning the dust to a pure, blank slate. As it should be.
And for a while, that had been enough; she could even pretend the hoofprints never existed at all, and then the darkness settled around her and the ground was awash in black and it didn’t matter anyway.
Luna sighed and stared up at the blue orb above her. And then she heard it, and a sharp spike of dread pierced right to her heart.
The faintest, quiet crunching sound, one she immediately recognised as hooves against the dust. The heartbeat. The drumbeat. Perfectly measured, growing louder as someone, something approached directly towards her in the gloom.
“Who goes there?” Luna demanded into the darkness. “Reveal thyself at once!”
The steps grew louder.
“We are the rightful ruler of Equestria, Nightmare Moon, and we will not be ignored. Who goes there? We shall not ask again.”
The steps grew louder.
Luna’s anger and indignation were starting to melt away as the noise drew closer, never faltering, never wavering. So steady, so consistent, and in the anger’s place was the chilling sensation that something here was very, very wrong and she was in grave danger.
Preposterous. There was nothing Nightmare Moon couldn’t face.
...ordinarily. But here she had been stripped of her power – flightless, without magic, and even her night wouldn’t listen to her. And the hoofsteps grew closer still and Luna was struck with the horrible realisation that she had nothing left to defend herself with.
“Stay back, whoever you are,” she shouted, her voice shrill with a fear she’d never heard in her own words before. Only other ponies, only because of her. “Or you shall regret this.”
Too loud, too close, impossible to even determine its direction now. It almost seemed to echo, even though that couldn’t be right either but still it rang in her ears as the sound cascaded around her. And then right next to her, and she thought she could even hear faint breathing, ruffling the fur of her neck, and she whipped around but nothing but darkness and night there and the hoofsteps were loud enough to be deafening and a scream of panic threatened to tear loose from between her lips and then
And then the sound began to recede. Fading, dwindling. The oppressive fear that had crushed her chest drawing away with it, the thick weight in the air draining along with the sound as whatever lurked in the dark passed right by her and kept going, until the sound of its hoofsteps disappeared into haunted memory and nothing more.
It took a long time for Luna to calm herself, for her chest to stop heaving and her heart to stop crashing against her ribs. It took far longer still for the sun to rise again, and at no point in that darkness could Luna bring herself to move, her hooves refusing to budge no matter how hard she willed them, stiff and uncooperative. And days later, when the sun finally climbed over the horizon and she saw what the night had left behind, that urge to scream returned full force and she had to choke it back down.
Hundreds of them, thousands, more hoofprints than empty dust, covering almost every inch. Worst of all was the set that headed straight for her and then continued on the other side, as if something had marched straight up to Luna in the gloom and walked right through her like she wasn’t even there.
The chocolates were gone. Celestia would be lying if she said she hadn’t done the lion’s share of the work, especially as Luna’s story continued and her words grew more fervent and desperate and unstoppable. Though Luna wasn’t staring up at the moon tonight – or at least far less than yesterday – Celestia could see her sister reliving the words as she spoke them, how much the memories scared her.
“There were so many, sister,” Luna said, almost a whisper. “Dust that had been clean and smooth, dust I’d kicked over myself just to get rid of what had been there before. Almost as far as the eye could see, nothing but hoofprints, like an entire herd had wandered through. And all the same size.”
Celestia blinked. “You mean to tell me you think they belonged to the same pony?”
“That would be the simplest explanation. At the time I was equally incredulous, but the evidence lingered all around me. Even I couldn’t deny it.”
“Surely that would have sounded like a stampede? Nothing you described would lead to that sort of chaos.”
“I know what I heard, and I know what I saw, after. You’re trying to make sense of it, just as I did, but I believe this creature may be beyond that. Beyond sense.”
“If it’s a creature at all.”
“Oh, I know it is.” Luna was wistful again, this time staring at her telescope with only the odd, furtive glance towards the sky. “I saw it.”
Luna didn’t bother to cover up the tracks anymore. There was no point. There were far too many of them, and there would always be more. No matter how much dust she kicked over there would be more, and it did nothing to help. She would still imagine the hoofprints lying beneath – lingering, malignant, soaking through the particles – and she knew that if she somehow found the energy to cover everything it would all be the same. She would still see them lurking, even if the surface was smooth and perfect.
She would still know. She would still feel them. Like fur growing over an old war wound, one might not have been able to see it but that wouldn’t stop it from hurting.
Luna stopped. She’d been pacing again. She’d been doing that a lot ever since it visited her in the dark. Restless. Uncomfortable.
Not scared. Never scared. Nightmare Moon does not know the meaning of the word.
But she did, and she was.
And so, pacing. Endless circles in the dust, joining the cavalcade of hoof imprints that were already there, leaving a deep trench in the sea. An island. Walking until her legs hurt, walking to keep her brain spinning, searching for answers, clues, memories, anything.
But nothing. Nothing but meaningless, disconnected hoofprints and voiceless visitors in the dark.
All a loop, all an eternity. Pacing a circle, following hoofsteps in a far bigger circle around the moon, hoofprints that had followed her back anyway, hoofprints that had come to her instead of allowing her to come to them. A month in darkness, a month in light. Spinning. Pacing. Circles. Something important about circles, something forgotten, or perhaps remembered for the first time. She left a circle, and she stared at the other tracks as she paced but if they left a circle too it was too big to see the curve. Even the hoofprints themselves a ruptured circle, burst open at the side.
She had no idea how long she was lost in that haze for. How many darks and lights. For the first time since her incarceration, Luna had lost count, and in doing so the last shred of a grip on her reality was unravelling like a ball of yarn, rolling away and leaving her holding uselessly onto the spent end. Her legs burned, fire. Sometimes she would sleep, never well. The hoofprints remained. Her circles deepened.
And so she had no idea how much time passed before she first saw the blur. Maybe months, maybe years. Losing count made those words meaningless, made time itself meaningless, all the same. When it was light she would pace and when it was dark she would wait for more hoofsteps, and sometimes she would hear them and they would head straight towards her and she would brace herself and tense and clench her teeth together so hard that they hurt but then it would pass like always and walk straight through her like always and vanish off into the distance like always, and when it was light again there would be fresh trails in the dust that bisected right through the circles of pacing.
And then Luna would start walking again.
Nights. Days. All the same. Always the same.
And then different.
At first, Luna almost didn’t notice it. It was so faint, and her thoughts were so fogged, and sight had become practically worthless to her because it was always the same. Always grey dust, black sky, pinpoints of stars, the blue orb of Equestria, circles in the dust. Or just darkness, half pitch black, half drenched in stars.
All the same, all a cycle.
And so when that blur, that flicker, started to dance at the corner of her vision it was imperceptible enough that it didn’t really register. She simply kept trudging, kept pacing a circle, trying not to think, thinking anyway because it was the only thing she could do, imagining what lurked in the darkness, what kept visiting her, crunch crunch crunch.
Her hooves ground to a halt, and Luna squinted out at the horizon. A shimmer, a haze like a heatwave, faint and creeping at the very edges of her sight. But when she turned her head, even just a little, it was gone. An optical illusion, she decided. It must have been. A mirage. Luna didn’t know there could be mirages on the moon, but there it was and so there must be. She kept walking.
On the loop back around, the blur returned. Again she turned, again it vanished, but this time she turned her head back and it reappeared, right in the corners, right at the edge, enough that her eyes had to strain just to catch a glimpse of it. An angle thing, maybe. Something to do with the way the sunlight hit the dust. Innocuous. Harmless. Just a trick of the light. She kept walking.
On the third loop, Luna couldn’t deny it to herself anymore. The blur was moving. It was hard to tell here, of course, all grey and black and nothing in between, everything the same, every direction featureless, but she could. It was bigger, now. Closer. Hard to judge the exact distance, still only visible at the very edges, but definitely closer. More than a hundred feet, still, at least. The thought brought Luna little comfort.
Another loop, and now closer still. Not a mirage, not an illusion. No point in lying to herself – she knew it wasn’t. Had done the entire time, and lying wasn’t making her feel any better about it. There was something wrong about it, something that set her teeth on edge. Something that made her want to turn tail and flee.
Nightmare Moon does not flee.
No, she didn’t. But perhaps she should.
We are not a coward.
But she was powerless here, stripped of magic, all locked away by Celestia’s hoof. And so, as that shimmer drew inexorably closer, it took everything Luna had to hold firm and stand her ground. There was no plan, no answer if this thing turned out to be a threat. Only hooves and teeth, and what good could they be?
Hold your ground. Show no fear. Be the nightmare.
Closer, closer, Luna gritting her teeth in a snarl. The shimmer still confined to the corners of her eyes but taking up so much of them now, blurring and warping her sight like rain covering a window.
But more than that, she could feel the wrongness ever stronger as it approached. A creeping dread that crawled its way up her neck. It was alien, completely and utterly. It didn’t belong here, it wasn’t supposed to be here, and the more she stared at it, the sides of her eyes aching from wrenching them to the edges, the more that unease grew.
It wasn’t a shimmer, not really, not like the heat haze she’d equated it to. It was a ripple. A warping. Those rolling waves on a hot day were an illusion, seen but not felt, but this was different and somehow she knew it. The waves this blur made were real, the moon’s surface twisting and roiling as it grew nearer, even the stars beginning to twist out of place behind it.
Luna tried to ignite her horn as pure instinct took over, almost shocked to find the blank nothing there instead of the well of magic she was expecting. Closer still, and now she almost thought she could hear it, a murmuring, rustling susurration. The ripples widening, spreading. Luna’s gaze accidentally flicking towards it and banishing it from sight before turning again and watching it reappear so close and so fast and growing.
Was it growing? It must have been, or else it was so much bigger than she thought and so much further away to start with and so much faster than she’d anticipated.
Whispering, and a faint rumbling below even that, quieter still but low and deep and echoing. Close enough now that Luna could see the moon dust shift just slightly beneath the blur as it came, almost imperceptible but whenever her eyes flicked properly towards it and the shimmer vanished again she could make out the slight trail it had left behind, the faintest, thick line of disturbed dust.
Be strong, be Nightmare. Hold.
Do not be afraid. Nightmares are not afraid.
The air – or whatever passed for it up here – grew cold, sending another shiver trembling through her. Mere moments away, now, seconds from engulfing her completely. The shimmer began to oscillate faster, almost as if in anticipation. All the worse because she couldn’t even look at it properly, every fibre of her screaming to run and escape and
We. Do. Not. Yield.
But at the last second Luna was able to wrest enough sense from the NIghtmare inside her that she could leap to one side, out of the path of the shimmer an instant before it swept her up in it. As she sprawled into the dust, covering her coat in grey, she could swear she heard a frustrated growl, low and deep and rumbling the air. But perhaps it was just the sound of her tumbling to the ground, perhaps it was just her imagination, and perhaps she was ascribing far too much to something that could amount to some kind of illusion.
No, you felt it, it felt cold. It felt dangerous. It felt wrong.
Yes, to all those things, and yet when she raised her head from the dirt with a groan, the blur was gone. No matter how she twisted her head, how hard she tried to keep the corner of her eyes on where the shimmer had been, there was no sign of it. Just herself and the heavy rhythm of her still panicked breathing, and nothing more.
She would almost believe she had imagined it, that the last vestiges of sanity had drained out of her, but Luna knew better. She could see the trail it had left behind, the line, as though someone had dragged something heavy across it.
And in that line, so prominent in what would otherwise be smooth and unsullied, were more hoofprints. These ones were not like the others, the ones that had been careful and measured and patient. These ones were spread out, wide and deep. Whatever had come for her – and it had come for her, of that Luna had no doubt – had been galloping right towards her, as fast as it could.