“A part of me,” said Luna, watching Celestia carefully, “fears that as my story grows more fanciful it will push away any remaining belief you might still hold for it.”
Celestia thought for a moment, contemplatively stirring her spoon even though her teacup was empty, pawing idly at the box of chocolates even though that was empty too. “It has not,” she said. “As distressing as your tale is, and as comforting the thought of it all being fabricated would be, I do believe you.”
“Because I asked you to?”
Celestia shook her head. “No. Because you were never one for embellishment.” A slight pause. “And because I have never seen you look so scared before.”
Luna’s false smile disintegrated. “I am scared, Tia,” she said, in barely more than a whisper.
“No, you don’t. You can’t understand yet, not until I’ve told you everything.”
Celestia frowned at the panic in Luna’s words. “This is why you’ve spent all those nights staring up at the moon, isn’t it? You’re looking for it.”
“Yes,” Luna said, and then curled up her lip in frustration. “And no. I… Just let me get to the end and it will make sense. Or, not sense, but at least you’ll understand, if only as well as I do.”
“Then please, continue.” Celestia leaned back, trying to seem at ease even though she couldn’t keep her hoof from tapping restlessly against the leg of her chair. “I assume your blur came back?”
“It’s not about the blur,” Luna said, firmly. “Or even the thing that was lurking within it.” Her gaze hardened, although it kept flicking back to the telescope, then back to the moon. “It’s about where they came from.”
Luna was ready. She’d been ready for weeks, months, years. She wasn’t sure how long, or even when she was supposed to have started counting, but she was ready. That much she knew, that much was absolute.
The blur had not returned. There had been no more hoofprints. For all intents and purposes, Luna’s imprisonment had been restored to its former state. But that was a lie – everything was different.
Celestia had become the least of her concerns, for a start. No matter how much the Nightmare raged and swore that her sister was the true enemy, that this was just a distraction and not to forget the conflict that had sent her here, that Equestria was rightfully hers and she had been denied it. That Celestia was her greatest threat, her only rival and deserving of all her attention, forever and always.
But she wasn’t. And this shimmer, whatever it may have been, was not from Celestia. Luna was sure of that. It bore none of the hallmarks of her sister’s usual ostentation, and the aura she had felt leaking out of it as it brushed so closely against her was like nothing she had ever felt before, oozing with menace and wrongness and malice.
Malice that rivalled even her own, but so much colder. Hers was hot with anger and vengeance, but the shimmer had felt almost icy in comparison, in a way that nothing on Equestria had ever been. She and Celestia had faced down so much evil together before her sister denied Luna her birthright, and it had never been cold. There was always anger, always hatred, always fury. Never ice.
But whatever this blur may or may not have been, this time she was ready for it. This time she would no longer baulk or flee. This time she would stand firm and if it was going to try and send her to Tartarus then Nightmare Moon would do all she could to drag it down with her, kicking and screaming if she had to. And she probably would have to – there was nothing else at her disposal – but it was still better than the alternative, of spending every waking moment in fear of its return, of only falling asleep when she was too exhausted to do anything more, and not knowing if she would even wake up again.
But no matter how ready Luna was, the blur would never appear again. And by the time the pony appeared at the corners of her vision, Luna’s mind had frayed far enough that she was convinced she was imagining it.
It started with shadows. Flickering, dancing shadows where there could be none. Still at the edges, but only for moments, just long enough for her to notice them, just quick enough to question if she’d even seen them at all. Sometimes she would snap her head around fast enough that it made her neck ache, that uncomfortably warm, flooding hurt, but there would never be anything there. Or sometimes the shadows would still be flickering just out of sight, and no matter how far she craned her head they would still linger at the edge, dancing away at a perfectly equal pace so she couldn’t even tell what shape they were. If they even made a shape at all.
At first it was only brief flickers, brief visits. The shadows would dance and Luna’s heart would beat fast in her chest and her neck would ache as she whipped around and then it would be gone, gone for days, months, years. Who knew? But it would be back, always. The gaps began to shorten. Years, months, days.
And then there was nothing but shadows, always shadows, always lingering, lurking, always just out of sight, tormenting her. Everywhere Luna looked, shadows, and yet somehow nowhere as they slipped away from wherever she cast her gaze. Buzzing at every edge, but refusing to stay in view. She would slam her eyes shut and still see them somehow, crackling and fuzzing in the darkness behind her eyelids no matter how hard she scrunched them shut and maybe that was just because she knew they were there but maybe that was all they needed.
When it got too much – and towards the end it was always too much – Luna would suddenly start awake from a reverie she didn’t even realise she’d slipped into and find that she had been pacing again. Walking endlessly, in a circle.
There were dozens of circles, now, all deep and well-trodden, scoured into the dust as she wandered and muttered under her breath and tried and failed to ignore the endless shadows.
And then dark would come and Luna would pray it would grant her some respite but if anything it only made it worse because she could still see them how could see still them. Worse, when the dark came she started to believe she could hear them, hear the light whispering they made as they danced in the darkness, so quiet and yet growing to an unbearable cacophony in the silence that made Luna want to bury her head in the dust just to get away from it, but she knew that would do as little to help as covering her eyes with her hooves.
She screamed into the darkness, a scream of fear and anger and frustration, her voice a dagger through the murmuring shadows, and for just the briefest of moments there was blissful, perfect silence. And then the whispering returned, perhaps even louder than before, and Luna dropped to the dust and curled into a ball and the shadows kept dancing. Kept whispering, although not in words, or at least none that Luna recognised. Just pure sound, and for the first time since she had been trapped here Luna found herself praying for the return of the silence that seemed so unbearable when she first found herself imprisoned. It would have been better than this. Anything would have been better than this, the whispering somehow loud enough to make her ears ring.
And then, just as Luna was sure she could take no more and that her last shred of sanity was going to evaporate and leave her alone in the murmuring dark, the whispering stopped. The shadows stopped. One instant an all-encompassing crescendo, the next, gone.
Luna looked up, her sister’s sun just beginning to drag itself up over the horizon, the corners of her eyes mercifully clear, no dancing shadows, no whispers, and somehow that made everything even worse. No new marks in the dust, either, the hallmark of her visitor that she’d grown so used to.
Just Luna, alone.
And that was worse because now she couldn’t even be sure it was real. It had felt real, so real that Luna had thought her eardrums about to burst and pour hot blood down the side of her head. So real that the edges of her eyesight seemed all too bright now, stinging and making her cover them even though the sun had barely peeked over the horizon. So real that her ears still rang, but now in this deathly silence it seemed impossible that such a sound could have existed mere moments before, one that forced her to the ground in a crying, whimpering mass that was thoroughly unbefitting of her title.
She had been so sure, so certain, so assaulted by the shadows, and yet now in their damning absence it was hard for her to believe they had even been there at all. Maybe she really had lost her mind, fabricating hoofprints, fabricating shadows and whispers. But why would she do that, why would she torment herself like this?
Why were the hoofprints smaller?
The silence was so empty. Luna didn’t miss the whispers, of course not, but the quiet that had replaced them was not the improvement she had hoped it would be. Perhaps it had always been like this, and now the contrast had pulled it into stark relief, but this silence was so much more overbearing, overwhelming. Not just the absence of sound, but of so many other things besides – life, laughter, dreams. A silence that had draped itself so wholly over everything and smothered the whispers beneath it.
And it was in that silence – that dead, oh so empty silence – that Luna first saw him.
Just like the blur, it was impossible to look directly at the pony who had replaced the shadows, lingering at the edges. Far enough away that she could have missed him, and indeed if it hadn’t been for the sheer contrast now that the shadows were gone, she very well may have. But she saw him, saw him standing so still in the distance, and her heart plummeted like a stone falling through the ocean.
It was hard to make out details, of course. Her eyes would slide right over the spot where he stood and insist it was empty, right up until he was at the periphery again and he would reappear, still standing there, still watching her. All she could really make out for sure was the colour of his coat: black, blending in so well with the night sky but standing out against the dust.
She took a few, experimental steps towards him, and even if Luna had had any words for him she wasn’t sure she would have been able to speak them, her throat so dry, tongue thick and useless in her mouth. She didn’t really want to try, anyway. Something told her he wouldn’t have understood, that he came from the same place as those languageless whispers.
But as she moved towards him, though she never saw his hooves move he seemed to get no closer. Always remaining at that same distance, about a hundred feet away. Watching.
Luna tried retreating. The stallion came with her, trailing in perfect time, again his hooves as still as the rest of him.
And then lastly Luna broke into an unexpected gallop, charging towards the stallion as fast as her legs would carry her, and again it retreated, again it maintained perfect distance. No closer. No further.
Again it stood there, in silence, as Luna panted for breath and soothed her burning legs and hurled hoarse obscenities at the stallion that did little to make her feel better.
Was it closer, now? It was hard to tell, but Luna thought it might have been. Just a little, a few feet or so, if even that. But closer.
And as the hours passed, that niggling doubt became undeniable. The stallion was getting closer. A hundred feet. Then eighty. Fifty. The hours rushed by, and the stallion didn’t move, and yet every time she checked he would be just that little bit nearer. Behind a crater, then over the lip, then nestled inside it, and then over the near edge.
Nearer, closer. Forty feet. Twenty.
Luna could bear watching no longer, and she turned tail and began to run. It didn’t help. Soon he was in the periphery again, and now fifteen feet and no matter how hard she ran, no matter which direction she chose he was always there, ten feet away.
Close enough now that she could make out his mane, or lack thereof. No tail, either, and where his eyes should have been were twinkling stars. Five feet. No way to run, nowhere to run to. No way to hide, nowhere she could have hidden herself. She fancied she could see him growing closer inch by inch now, inexorable, and all Luna could do was brace herself and grit her teeth and wait and watch, watch because looking away did nothing, and because if doom was approaching then Nightmare Moon would never dream of not looking it in the eye.
And then right next to her, and she could feel his breath ruffling her fur, and his eyes were stars and he was close enough now that she could see that his fur wasn’t really fur at all but coiling, coalesced shadows, and she could hear the whispering as it roiled beneath what should have been skin. Leaning in, the sharp stench of something chemical, electrical, and then he spoke to her in a voice of cracked ice and even though she didn’t understand the words she knew what they meant.
The shadow lurched suddenly, its enigmatic message delivered, and out of the corner of her eye Luna could only watch in horror as his form crumpled in on itself, collapsing, his featureless face caving in and melting away as his limbs sloughed off and disintegrated back into twisting shadow, as he crumbled and faded and evaporated until there was nothing left of him, and she saw what he had left behind.
“Come home,” repeated Celestia, thoughtfully. She tasted the words as they dripped over her tongue, so innocuous, so innocent, and yet somehow full of incomparable weight.
“Yes,” said Luna, huffing a little in annoyance at the interruption.
“A strange thing for your spectre to be so insistent on telling you, don’t you think? I assume he didn’t mean Equestria?”
Luna’s eyes narrowed. “He did not.”
Celestia did all she could to keep locked with Luna’s gaze. Looking away would make it too obvious.
“Do you know something I do not?” Luna asked, with naked suspicion. “Have you seen this shadow before?”
“No, I haven’t,” Celestia assured her, and like all the best lies it was entirely the truth. She’d never seen Luna’s shadow before, although she had a fairly good guess as to whence it came from. “I was simply making an educated guess. After all, if it were something mundane I doubt it would have scared you so.” Celestia couldn’t smile, not right now, but she tried an approximation of one. “And besides, you said yourself that it was about where these things came from. It’s not hard to surmise you weren’t talking about Equestria.”
To Celestia’s immense relief, Luna relaxed, her shoulders dropping as she sank back in her chair again and her eyes stopped piercing right to Celestia’s soul.
“You’re right, I’m sorry, Tia. This has gotten us far too paranoid for our own good. That’s why I had to tell you. That, and…” Luna trailed off into silence, and Celestia knew better than to push no matter how curious she was. If Luna wanted to talk, she would do so in her own time, and no amount of urging would encourage otherwise. It would only make it all the more likely Luna would never tell Celestia at all.
“So,” Celestia said, trying to seem nonchalant even as her mind spun with memories and concern and her hoof tapped away below the table, “your spectre braved the moon, appeared before you to deliver his cryptic message, and then vanished before your eyes. But you say he left you something? Something more than hoofprints, this time?”
Luna nodded solemnly. “He did.”
“What was it?”
The corners of Luna’s mouth twisted up in a smile that was more like a grimace, uncomfortable and sardonic in equal measure. “A circle,” she said, and Celestia’s heart plummeted as her fears were realised.
The circle hung in the air, so still, so perfect. Black, pitch black, and ringed with bright, burning light. A couple of feet across, and floating a few inches off the ground, although floating didn’t seem like the right word for it. It was far too still for that.
So still that it might have been painted onto the air, that its sheer stillness brought another wave of discomfort, enough so that Luna almost found herself wishing for the other things she’d already seen – the blur, the shadow. Those had felt wrong, too, but the feeling that emanated from this circle was far worse.
The blur and shadow hadn’t belonged here, but this circle didn’t belong anywhere. It was fundamentally wrong, somehow. Broken.
Luna took a few experimental steps towards the circle, and then around, only to find that it had apparently no depth at all. Perfectly flat, a perfect ring, a perfect puzzle. The light around the edge shimmering, the darkness inside devouring any other glint that would dare to brush against it.
And though there was no way she could possibly have known, even though she had never seen anything like this before, still Luna understood. Some primitive, primal part of her brain recognised the circle for what it was.
A rip. A tear.
Not painted on, but quite the opposite. Pulled out, torn – a space, a gap. A hole, right through the air, right through reality, punched out and through to…
To darkness. To the unknown.
A sudden, savage excitement filled Luna’s chest. This could be her way out. An end to her torment, her imprisonment. Bound no longer to the moon, a free Nightmare once more. Her return would be swift and bloody, and would take Celestia entirely by surprise. Her sister would never know what was happening until it was far, far too late.
There was, of course, the not-so-small matter of where the portal lead, although there was very little that could be worse than this torment. And with thoughts of freedom and vengeance swirling through her head, Luna reached out and placed her hoof against the circle.
Instantly the dark edges began to crumble, falling away inwards, fading to dust in the air. Only the bright ring remained as the centre collapsed and vanished, revealing behind it…
A snarl of outraged anger burst out of Luna. Had this all been a cruel joke? Come home, you’re already here. Was this all just Celestia’s doing after all, giving her fear and then false hope to try and break the Nightmare?
She almost gave up, almost spun dismissively on her hooves and stormed away, leaving the circle in disgust. But then Luna saw it, and a little shiver rolled down her spine even though she wasn’t really sure what it meant.
The dark sky beyond the circle held not a single star.
She had to double-check to make sure she wasn’t imagining things, peering behind the illuminated ring to make sure there should have been stars there, and then back through the circle with only darkness above the grey.
And there was more. Even the dust on the other side wasn’t quite right, wasn’t quite the same. Darker, greyer, and not just from the lack of starlight. Luna had thought it merely a window, showing the same moon behind it, but she was wrong. The moon behind this hole was not the same that she had spent the last thousands of days upon. It was different. Changed.
It could still be a way out. It could still be something, anything, and Luna had so little to lose that she only hesitated for a moment before pushing her hoof through experimentally, wincing a little in anticipation of something awful happening to it, that perhaps the rip would close, or perhaps something was waiting on the other side – something with teeth and a taste for alicorns.
But there was nothing. The only difference, as far as Luna could tell from that small probing, was that the moon on the other side was colder.
She drew her hoof back, half expecting something or someone to reach out and grab it, drag her through, but no one did, and it was only once all four of her hooves were safely back on the moon’s – her moon’s – surface that she truly began to entertain the idea of crossing through to the other side.
Yes, the Nightmare hissed. Escape. Freedom. Vengeance.
Urging her on, pushing her even as the more practical part of her resisted. Other realities were tricky, after all, and the portals between them doubly so. Like that mirror in the castle, only open sometimes and then shut, trapping ponies the other side. There was no guarantee that this other reality would ever provide a way back and give Luna means to wreak her revenge as she so desperately desired.
Perhaps it would just be another prison.
But then what have you lost? The Nightmare was growling again, seething. Would you reside here forever instead, lamenting what could and might have been? There is nothing on the other side of that circle that could be worse than this. Nothing.
Luna chewed her lip, staring up at the blue orb above her. Knowing that if she stepped through there was a chance she would never find her way home again. Not this one, at least.
This is no home. This is hell.
And if she walked away, here and now, she would be consigning herself back to tally marks and moon dust and obscene nothingness. Days and weeks and months and years as meaningless as one another in the irrepressible sea of time that washed and buffeted against Luna but never seemed to actually flow. In the endless darks, the endless lights. Forever.
That wasn’t even living.
And then there was the shadow. Come home. It had wanted her to cross, gifted her the circle. Home, whatever that was supposed to be, lay beyond. If nothing else, it wouldn’t be here. At least for the first time in a hundred thousand tally marks, Luna would be moving forwards.
And so when she summoned up her courage and stepped through the circle, it was with a smile.
There was a horrible, shifting sensation as her hooves landed on the other side, as though gravity itself had flipped and the entire universe had spun on its axis to match, and for one terrible moment Luna felt like she might fall off the face of this new moon and tumble into the abyss of space, lost forever. And then her senses righted themselves, the shifting passed, and though her legs were still a little unsteady they at least felt appropriately pressed against the ground.
Her wings fluttered in the cold to try and warm themselves, and then Luna’s eyes widened as she felt a familiar but long-forgotten rush beneath them, as they thrummed with potential. Her heart pounding in her chest as she lowered her head and dragged her wings down, and then a burst of elation as the ground fell away from her and she took to the sky.
Flying. Oh goddess she’d missed it, more than she could have imagined, sealed away like the rest of her powers and gloriously restored now that she was free of the binding spell. Not even a hint of unsteadiness as she soared, everything coming back to her without even thinking about it, so natural, so right. Luna’s smile only grew wider as she closed her eyes and dug deep and the magic that had been sealed away flooded up to meet her, horn igniting in a victorious blaze as she revelled in the sensation she’d missed so much.
Free. She was free.
And for a time, that was all she needed. For a time all she wanted was to soar and feel the magic humming in her horn, stretching muscles that had been long cramped, the restoration of such a fundamental piece of her that had been missing.
No, not missing. Taken. Stolen.
Her sister would rue everything she’d done. Denying Luna her wings, her magic… She may as well have denied her breathing. And whichever of her hundreds of plans for retribution she would eventually settle on, Luna was sure it would contain suitable reprisal for Celestia’s cruelty. Suitable punishment. She cast her face skywards, looking towards Equestria to envisage her victory and prepare her teleportation, and Luna’s smile dropped.
Her wings threatened to fold and crumple, and the soaring that had seemed so easy became impossible as her body turned to a lead weight and she dropped out of the sky to crash into the dust beside the circle again. She barely even felt the impact, and as she clambered back up to her hooves Luna could never have wrenched her eyes away from the planet hanging above her.
Equestria was dead.
There was no other word for it. The blue and green that had loomed over her during her incarceration, only adding to her torment as she stared up at her home so many thousands of miles away, was a far cry from what hung above her now.
Not blue. Not green. Grey. Ashen.
Come home, the shadow had said. Come home, and then it had left her the gateway, and yet what remained of this world’s Equestria was as desolate and devastated as the moon itself. What had happened here?
She spun around at the sudden crunch of hoofsteps behind her, but there was nothing there. No blur. No shadow.
“What is this?” she hissed into the void, as if anything would answer, as if anything had an answer. “Why did you bring me here?”
But there was no reply. No more hoofsteps, either, and perhaps she’d only imagined those. Just a memory, just a ghost. A dream, desperate for something to be here even if it was only the shadow that had coaxed her through. Better than the emptiness that was here instead, the grey planet above so lifeless and dull. Better the shadow than the cold realisation that her freedom here was meaningless, trading one cell for another, returning her powers but taking away anything she could have used them for.
There was no vengeance to be found here. If this universe had a Celestia, she would already be dead.
Luna collapsed against the ground much as she had done when she had first found herself on the moon all those years ago and stared up at the darkness of space, not even the stars to be found, not even the faintest glimmer of life save for Luna herself. And she was no longer so sure about that last one.
And so lost in her melancholy and hopelessness, Luna didn’t see the shade falling over her until she looked about herself and realised the moon was dark, almost as dark as night despite the sun being so high in the sky but a few minutes ago.
She frowned, and glanced in the direction of the horizon where the sun had gone, and her eyes went wide, mouth flopping dumbly open at everything that had replaced it.
So many eyes, hundreds, thousands, squirming and teeming eyes. Dark circles in writhing tendrils, eyes surrounded and buried in twisting shadow. Eyes that didn’t make sense, that somehow overlapped and existed in the same place together, eyes upon eyes. The overall shape impossible to make out, too enormous and different everywhere Luna looked, so much so that the shape hurt to look at, burning deep in her mind if she tried to focus and comprehend exactly what she was seeing. The shape shifted, and the world shifted with it, and among those whirling tendrils and staring eyes there was nothing but that cold, dead cruelty she’d felt before.
This was the source. This was the thing that had leaked into her world, the shadow.
And no wonder it had seeped through, found its way in between the cracks, forced its way in through the shimmers. It didn’t belong here, or perhaps it belonged everywhere and perhaps that was the same thing. It was so many things, all at once, entirely beyond comprehension.
The source reached out to her, both with its tendrils and its eyes. Wrapping around her drowning her submerging her, Luna unable to even begin to fight back as everything became shadow, as it took her into itself and took itself into her and eyes staring tendrils constricting and screaming screaming until Luna’s throat was hoarse and she could scream no more and it stung and burned and still she screamed anyway.
Her mind crumpling and buckling beneath this creature’s very existence, if it even was a creature, if the word creature even applied to it. It probed and forced its way in and she saw everything and nothing and images began to flash and spiral, things she had already seen, immutable truths that had permeated through the shimmers and tears and weak points between this world and her own, between every world and her own. Truths wilfully avoided, that ponies buried and tucked away and didn’t even really notice except in haunted dreams and imagination, the only times their consciousness allowed them to be acknowledged.
She saw fire. She saw death. She saw red sky, falling. She saw ponies screaming and no one to answer them, heard them as they were torn, as the world burned to cinders. She saw eyes, saw through the eyes, felt them as it drowned her, embraced her, showed her the truth. As it showed her what it was, what it could be, and she understood and also knew she could never understand, that nothing and no-one could ever understand.
She saw a foal, playing alone amongst the ash. She saw circles. She saw too much, not enough. Staring at the source became impossible; there was too much of it, and not enough of her. Too many layers, too many existences, all together, all one.
She saw it descend on the world below, and she saw that world burn. Everything devoured, everything brought to ruin, everything consumed so entirely. The eyes stared, and they were full of the panic of the ponies’ last moments, but only reflections in cruel, dispassionate mirrors.
The cacophony of sound again, of whispers and this time they did make sense, all too much sense, a single phrase repeating. Voices, screams, the ponies that it had taken into itself repeating the cry, the call, the order.
The source lifted her with its shadows, so effortlessly, light as air, and Luna could see her own terrified reflection in those abysses it called eyes. But the word wasn’t quite right. Not a reflection. She saw herself in the same way she saw the world consumed, the same way she saw those ponies’ fear, the creature giving as much of itself as it took of her.
Over and over, endless, incessant chanting, demanding. Lost in the eyes, lost in the tempest of shadow, lost in chaos. Coaxed into the maw of this… thing, this monstrosity, almost willingly. The chanting all there was, everything, all-consuming. The world burned, the ash fell, the ponies were gone. The foal laughed. There were circles. There was silence.
All for naught. Everything, her rebellion, her entire life. All to be lost to this shadow, to the eyes, and she would be ash, and Celestia would never know her fate, would never know what waited and lingered just through the gaps, what was trying to force its way through. And Luna would be part of it, and it would be all of her, and she would be home.
No. No. We do not yield.
Moments before her mind cracked completely and the eyes devoured her, the Nightmare surged. Magic welling in her horn from reserves she didn’t even know she had, hot anger breaking through the madness and resignation. Light, blinding and magnificent, burst from the tip of her horn and erupted outwards in a radiant sphere, and she watched as the eyes burned under its explosion, evaporating the shadows that held her.
And then she was falling, and her wings spread wide and she couldn’t help but smile even now as she felt herself soar, that old familiar power rolling through her again, the one she’d almost forgotten about, the one that time and isolation had tried so hard to beat out of her. She was Nightmare Moon, and even on the brink of insanity she had strength left to fight this thing, even as the voices only seemed to grow louder and stronger and more insistent.
Come home Come home
But no matter how much shadow she burned away, no matter how brightly her light shone there was always more, always eyes. Now in every direction, surrounding her, drowning her, a forest of shadow and tendrils and eyes and memories. And closing in, even as she channelled more and more magic into her horn, the shadows threatening to swat her out of the air as she was forced to the ground. What she had thought was resistance was becoming the barest of reprieves, and if the dark enveloped her again Luna was sure she wouldn’t escape, that there would be so little left of her that escape wouldn’t even be a consideration.
She felt its indignant shriek of pain as it pushed back against the light, the whispers turning into an outraged roar that crashed into her and wiped clean all of her other senses, left no room for them. Just raw sound, furious and bestial.
And even though it was enough to almost make her knees buckle, enough that she stumbled and almost fell and the roar seemed loud enough to rattle her skull, Luna knew she had to keep going, had to keep running, keep moving.
A pang of fear as she realised that even the path of her escape was shadows now, that she was lost in them, that in its embrace she had forgotten which direction she had even come from. The light from her horn dwindling, expending all of her out-of-practice energy on that initial burst. Eyes, drinking her in, closer, closing. The sphere of light before endless shadow ever-shrinking as she cantered onwards, not even knowing if she was running in the right direction or just getting further and further from the portal.
And when she saw them, Luna almost wanted to laugh at the absurdity even as the shadows grew close enough that she could feel them grasping and catching at her fur.
Her own, this time, the ones she had left as she ventured into this place. Guiding her back to the circle. She forged ahead, her erratic canter crushing the neatly ordered hoofprints into the dust as she pushed back the darkness with her faltering light and tried not to listen to the roaring of its incessant command.
Running until her lungs burned and her legs ached, running with her eyes clenched almost shut, running and trying desperately to keep her horn lit, to hold back the dark, to keep the shadows from devouring her like they’d done so many times to so many others, like it had shown her in those torturous flashes of memory as the shadows revelled in their ruination. Trying not to look into the writhing darkness, where madness seeped out of every inch, where eyes spun and stared, where she saw the ashes.
There. The circle, its bright edge blazing even amongst roiling shadows. One hoof in front of the other, gasping for breath, onwards, onwards. Don’t stop, don’t think, don’t remember. Don’t let your magic fade.
But it was fading, oh so quickly now, and her hooves were starting to catch and stumble as the shadows wrapped around them to grab and trip and subdue. A tug against her tail hard enough that she had to grit her teeth to suppress the shout as she pulled it free. Another seizing her hindleg, this time succeeding in forcing her to the ground, but she was up on her hooves again even as the thing pressed inwards, as the circle seemed to fade into twisting tendrils and eyes, as everything became comehomecomehomecomehomecomehome
We do not yield.
And then mercifully through, leaping at the circle just as her horn sputtered out and the shadows roared first in triumph and then in anger as Luna slipped between realities. She even made it halfway through before a grasping hold around her midriff tightened and locked her in place, her hooves pawing desperately at the dust in a futile attempt to drag herself the last few feet. But the shadow was strong, strong enough to force the breath from her lungs as it crushed inwards and began to drag her back through the rip.
As she dug in harder and tried and failed to draw breath and gave a panicked look back, her situation only became more dire. The circle was closing. Shrinking in so rapidly, contracting. Her options now far too narrow, too unthinkable. Allow herself to be dragged through into the shadow’s maw, or allow the circle to close and leave half of her here and half on the other side. Both options terrible, both deadly.
But if Luna was going to die here, then it would be on her own terms. Her scraping across the dust deepened as she ground her hooves in even further, turning back to snarl at the shadows and watch the circle shrink.
Smaller, smaller, and Luna winced as she felt the blazing edges reach her midriff and cut inwards, deep, blood starting to seep warmly into her fur. The voices rising, Luna letting out one last frustrated scream that this was how it was going to end, sliced apart by reality and shadow.
Luna closed her eyes, and in those final moments she thought of Equestria. She thought of Celestia, and for the first time in a hundred thousand tally marks it wasn’t with the irrepressible anger that had consumed her for so long.
She just wished she would get to say goodbye.
And then she was lurching forwards, not just released by the shadows but thrown, cast out through the narrowing divide that still sliced deeply into her as she passed through, tumbling to the dust and staining it red.
Her midriff burned as she turned the ground crimson, her fur matted and her wounds stinging. But Luna didn’t mind the pain – hurting meant she was still here, hurting meant the shadows hadn’t taken her.
But it still took a while for her to summon the courage to open her eyes. Lying sprawled in the dust was one thing, but as long as she didn’t open her eyes she could pretend everything was okay, she could pretend everything was fine. Just ignore the stinging in her flank, ignore the swirling memories of shadows and screams and ash, and pretend it was alright. Pretend that nothing had followed her through. And as long as she didn’t open her eyes, Luna had no evidence to suggest otherwise.
But eventually she opened them anyway.
The circle was gone. Not even a trace of where it had once been, the only remnant the faintest chemical scent, and then even that too was gone. No shadow, no blur. No anything. Just Luna, the moon, and…
She cast her eyes upwards to make sure. Thousands of twinkling stars shone down on her, and the blue orb above was back in its rightful spot, its colours seeming all the more vivid and bright in contrast with the ashen globe from the other place.
She was back. She was home.
Back to your cage, the Nightmare sneered. Back to nothing.
And it was true: the magic that had been so briefly returned to her now lay dormant, Luna unable to coax it up into her horn, the barrier preventing even that much. Such a fundamental part of her removed, like somehow forgetting how to move one of her limbs. She knew the magic was there, deep down, but reaching it was impossible. And her wings could no longer detect their magic, either, those currents of power they were supposed to glide upon. Relegated to useless lumps of flesh and feathers, as impotent as her horn.
And yet no matter how much the Nightmare hissed and spat it was all just noise, just frustration. Luna would take her prison over the shadow lurking beyond the circle every time. Nothing but madness and death, there. Grey ash.
She sunk down into the dust and stared up at Equestria, exhaustion dousing every inch of her, dragging her down like bricks. She was going to sleep, now, for a very long time. She’d earned it. And when she woke up?
Perhaps she would start the tally again.
Equestria glowed above, bright blue, and as Luna watched it and her eyelids dropped and in the dark behind them she saw dancing and spiralling shadows, Luna thought of home.