Over a Cardboard Sea

by SPark

Only a Paper Moon

A tiny filly stands on an open plain.

Her coat is deep blue. Her mane and tail are paler blue. Her eyes are turquoise. Her flank is blank. Above her, the stars swirl in a velvet-dark sky. She looks up with a feeling of unease.

Something is not right about the night. But what? And how do I know what she feels?

In an instant I am looking up through her eyes. Ah—I know because she is me. I am her. I watch the stars wheel above. They are beautiful, but something is still not right.

I run across the empty plain. Tall grass whips about my legs, brushes against my barrel. I run faster, searching. Why am I alone on this plain? Where is the herd? Where are my parents? Where is.. is... the thing. The missing thing. Where is it? What is it?

Around me, large, dark forms rise up. The herd is here. Heads bent, they crop at the nighttime grass. Shadow shapes, they loom over me, black in the starlight. I cannot make out their faces. They blot out the horizon around me. Muffled sounds—the chewing of grass, faint whickers and whinnies—sound all about me. I run among them, hunting through the tangle of legs like tree trunks, searching for whatever it is that I'm missing.

Laughter echoes through the empty night. “Are you lost, little one?” The voice is high, childish, mocking. I run faster—away or towards it, I'm not sure. Around me the legs of the herd become higher, thicker, until they are trees. They grow denser, merging into a high wall that twists and turns into a maze. I race through the maze, and the walls are now hedges. Ahead, there is a glimpse of something white and shining, which vanishes around a corner. My heart leaps. This is the missing thing! It must be!

I run faster. My heart is pounding, my lungs heaving. I am only a small filly, and I have run far. But I must find the missing thing, the shimmering paleness whose shape I cannot bring to mind.

Suddenly, the maze ends. I step out into a broad central plaza. It is dark. The glimmer of pale light that I have followed is nowhere to be seen.

Laughter sounds again. “Poor little foal. You shall never find what you seek.”

“I shall too!” I shout to the starry sky.

“You do not even know what it is. Your quest is hopeless. Rather like you.”

Something moves at the heart of the plaza. Shadows condense to form a shape that steps forward into the starlight.

It is me.

It is not me. It is blue, yes, with a mane and tail like mine. Its face is my face. Yet it has a horn, and wings, and a shadow of a shape, that I cannot quite make out, on its flank. Its eyes are my eyes.

It smirks at me. I glare back. “You shall never win. Maybe I do not know what I seek, but I know I shall not let you win,” I say.

“Such a foal! I have already won. I won long ago, little one. Yours is merely the frantic scrabbling of the mouse under the cat's paw.”

“No! I do not believe your lies. I reject you!”

“Ha! You cannot—you are me. And I am you.”

“No, I am not!” I charge at my false self, head lowered.

It dissolves into black smoke as I reach it. Ebon tendrils surround me. I fall through blackness and blackness claims me. I shout defiance, to the last.


I wake.

Around me rise smooth stone walls. Above, the stars shine. They are no longer alone in the sky. A pale orb sheds silvery brilliance down, casting a stark shadow beneath me. I look back and find that a white crescent on black marks my flank.

The moon.

I have found the moon, the thing that was missing from the night sky. My moon. I know that it belongs to me. It is on my flanks because it is mine. Now that it is in the sky, all should be well.

Somehow, I am still uneasy.

I walk among the walls. The stone rises, smooth and perfect, all around me.

I take a step, and the stone around me is crumbling, ancient. The pavement beneath my hooves is cracked. Above me, clouds cover the moon.

At first the stone walls seem another maze, but doors and windows begin to appear as I walk. A city—ancient and crumbling. Ghostly shadows move around me. Ghostly murmurs fall on my ears. Ponies, going about their lives in the city. I am no longer walking among their legs, I am as tall as they are now. Still, I cannot make out their faces. They walk through me as if I am not there.

Perhaps I am not.

A flicker of white ahead catches my eye. Not a ghost—something else. Something I want desperately to find.

The streets begin to climb. I walk more slowly. Above, clouds swirl across the moon's face, creating shadows that race over the ground below. The ghost ponies merge into the shadows and are gone.

A vast building rises before me: a crumbling wreck of a palace. The clouds skitter away from the moon. In the brilliant light the crumbling walls are suddenly whole and new. Something pale moves behind a window in one high tower.

I yearn towards it.

The huge double doors creak open. I run inside. The thing, the somehow still missing thing, is in there. I must find it.

There is no moonlight inside. The shadows move and whisper. I stumble through them, seeking. Somewhere there must be a way up—a staircase, some path to the tower above. The whispers grow louder, more mocking. I run faster, but I trip and fall. The whispers laugh at me, their voices merging into one voice, that mocking voice that is almost, but not quite, my own.

“You have failed again. You always fail. Failure of a foal, falling down!” Shadows pull together and form that other pony, the me-but-not-me, with her wings and horn that I lack. She too is no longer a filly. I can see my crescent moon on her flanks.

She grins at me. Her teeth are too sharp. For a moment her eyes are not mine at all; they are dragon's eyes, slitted and alien.

The moment passes.

“For what do you search so diligently, little one?”

I halt. I do not know.

“You were looking for the moon, and there it is. You have found it. What more do you need?”

“Something else is missing. 'Tis in the tower here, I know it. Let me past.”

“No, I think not.”

“Yes!” I snort and lower my head, ready to fight.

She laughs suddenly. “Give up! Lay down! Return to your slumber! You cannot beat me. You have already lost a thousand times!”

Moonlight glimmers in through a window, falling on the staircase behind her. The way up! I run for it. This time I dodge around her rather than trying to run through her. She hisses hatred at me as I run past.

My front hooves touch the stairs, but they fall away, crumbling into gravel beneath me. The floor beneath my hind hooves crumbles too.

I fall into blackness once more.


I wake.

Have I been dreaming?

I rise from my bed and stretch.

My wings flare out from my sides. They have always been there—how strange, to be shocked at their appearance. They are mine, just like my moon. I look out the window. The crescent moon hangs in an indigo sky, above a cobalt sea. The stars twinkle around it. I am myself, with my wings, and all is well.

I go out through the door, into the hall beyond. A pony passes me. I can see that he is a servant, dressed in the royal livery. I cannot see his face.

The walls are covered in tapestries. Most of them depict the moon. Yet one further down the hall seems to show something else. Are there two ponies there, circling a common center? Does another orb hang beside the moon? I approach, but when I arrive, the tapestry contains only a single pony; a blue figure with wings and horn, curved around a dark moon which shows a bright crescent. I frown. Something is not right.

I continue down the hallway. At the end a door leads into a library.

Moonlight pours in through high windows. Bookshelves cover the walls. My eyes sparkle like stars at the sight. Eagerly I rush into the room. I scan the shelves, seeing familiar titles. I know these books. I have read them all, some of them many times over. I pull out an old favorite and settle at a table to read.

Time passes. Pages turn. My eyes pass over words. Yet when I reach the end of the book, the tale within is no clearer in my memory than it was when I sat down to read.

Something is not right.

I place the book back on the shelf and rise. I step out into the hall. My eyes scan it, seeking... something. I know not what.

“Surely you do not tire of reading already, little one?”

The voice speaks from beside me, and when I turn I find the alicorn mare standing there, looking at me with my own eyes. Those eyes gleam with kindly care, yet I remember the flash of dragon's eyes.

“I have read all these books.”

“Oh? But surely you can return to some of your old favorites and read them again?”

“No. Leave me be.”

“You would send a friend away so coldly, little one?”

I turn on her with a snarl of rage. She has blocked my way all this time. She will not let me find whatever it is that I must find. “You are no friend of mine!”

As I turn I see another hallway behind her. At the end of it a staircase leads up. I catch the briefest possible glimpse of a pale shape vanishing upwards, out of sight. Pushing the pony who is not me aside, I race down the hall and up the stairs.

I want to call out after whatever it is, but I don't know what name to call it by. So I run, leaping up the stairs two and three at a time.

At the top there should be a tower room, with a balcony. Instead there is black emptiness. I halt, feeling confused. The blackness begins to close in. I scream and strike at it with hooves and wings. It wraps around me, drowning the light.


I wake.

I know I have been dreaming. I lift my head, feeling the weight of the horn on my brow. It feels natural, comforting. It has always been there, has it not? I rise from my cot and don my armor. It encloses me like the embrace of a lover, familiar and welcome.

Outside my tent, the night is cool and clear. The stars wheel above. All around me are my soldiers, my followers, my brothers in arms. Their dark forms gather behind me as I stride towards the battlefield.

We face off against the ranks of the enemy. They are faceless shapes beneath the waxing light of the moon. I turn to my soldiers, and find that I cannot see their faces either.

When I turn back to regard the enemy I see a tiny, pale form, bright against the distant horizon.

My heart yearns towards it.

The enemy is between it and I. Very well.

There is a rumble like thunder as the enemy ponies charge. I scream a battle cry, leading the charge to meet them. My horn glows. Magic sweeps out across the enemy ranks, felling dozens of ponies. I laugh and charge faster. I am in among the enemy, dancing the bloody reel of battle.

I am surrounded by conflict. All around me my soldiers duel with the enemy. Hooves kick out. Wings carry the battle into the sky above. Horns flash—brief, bright stars in the night.

Screams sound.

My magic scythes around me. My wings buffet and sweep over my opponents. My hooves lash out, and the iron battle shoes tear through flesh and bone.

The blood is black in the moonlight.

The faceless enemies fall so easily, as if in a dream. They are no challenge.

As if this thought has summoned her—has it?—my double is there among the enemy. She wears armor that is twin to my own. She laughs as I laugh. When she charges, I run to meet her.

My blood rushes hot in my veins. My breath comes fast, and I laugh again. This is what I need, simple combat against a foe I can match. My wings are as hers. My horn is as hers. Our magics meet even as our bodies circle in the opening moves of a duel both physical and mental.

It is glorious.

Our battle rages for a small eternity.

Then comes a moment when a shadow beneath my feet is not what it seems. I slip and stumble. Her hooves drive into me. Now the black blood that spills beneath the waning moon is my own.

She stands over me, laughing. “I win, little one. I always shall.” Her mane whips around her, becoming a starry nimbus of power. Her coat darkens. Her eyes become dragon's eyes. Her armor changes, twists into something fanciful and strange.

She has been in my dreams. I know suddenly that she still is.

“No! You do not win. Not here. Who are you, to dare challenge me in my own realm?”

“I am Nightmare Moon, little one. This nightmare is my realm, not yours. You are no one.”

I open my mouth. Silence chokes me. I have no name to shout in defiance.

She laughs again, and her hooves come down once more.

Pain lances through me.

This time, blackness chases the pain away, and I go with it.


I wake.

I know I am still dreaming.

A bird cries somewhere, high and far away.

I still do not know my name.

I rise, finding myself on a grassy plain. My moon is bright and full overhead. The bird cries once more. Loneliness strikes me. I have been surrounded by shadow ponies, but none of them have been real. Save perhaps for her—the enemy with my face.

And perhaps one other. I catch a distant glimpse of white, a bird's wing, that I have chased all this time. I follow the bird's cry towards the horizon until it is joined by a deeper sound.

The grass stops. Beyond it there is only sky, and one lonely, white bird. I walk to the edge of the world. Below me, the ocean foams against a stark black cliff.

The moon lays a path of shattered, silver light across the waves.

The bird cries again, over the glimmering sea.

I know its cry holds meaning. The bird is the something, the missing thing that I have sought. If I can only reach it, everything will be right at last. I spread my wings to soar after it.

Black tendrils reach out of the ground and tie my hooves to the earth.

“No. You shall not touch her,” hisses a voice from every direction.

“Nightmare Moon,” I say, naming her.

Laughter is all I hear in reply. I wish myself free of the dark tentacles.

Suddenly I am standing some distance away, leaving the shadows that bound me behind. I smile. This is a dream. I have power here. I spread my wings again.

“No!” The black alicorn is there before me in an instant. She does not hide behind my face this time. Her sharp teeth are bared in a snarl of rage.

Her anger makes me laugh. I am winning at last.

The laughter carries a truth into my heart.

“I am Luna!”

“NO!” screams the Nightmare.

My eyes go past her, fixing on the white bird, which circles close now. My voice rings out, calling to her. “Celestia!”

The sun comes up.


I wake.

Around me hangs a perfect silence. I can hear nothing but the sound of my own heart beating.

My lungs do not move. There is no air for them to suck in.

My eyes open slowly, painfully. I see a gray plain all around me. The sky above is perfectly, unnaturally black. The stars do not shimmer.

I lift my head. Above, a blue-white orb hangs in the sky.


I remember.

I remember everything.

I remember hatred and jealousy and betrayal. I remember the Nightmare's betrayal in turn. I remember her laughter, as my sister lay helpless before her. Sister! I didn't want it to be like this! She could not hear me. She could only hear the Nightmare laughing.

I remember the elements. Their power burned—a cleansing fire, but it was not enough. I had invited the nightmare into my heart. They could not cast it out.

Yes, you wanted me here. You needed my power. Your sister took too much power. Too much love. Too much light. She left you only a dim reflection, remember?

I remember.

I remember my lonely, empty nights. I remember her brilliant, busy days. I remember pain.

Yes. You hate her.

Somewhere in me is the faint echo of a white bird's cry. Do I hate her? Should I hate her? I struggle, caught between hot, rage-filled darkness and the painfully clean sound of the white bird's truth.

Remember the ponies. Remember their joy during her day. Remember your hate...

I remember.

I forget.

My eyes close.

I dream.


A tiny filly stands on an open plain...