The Nightmare Penance

by levarien

The Nightmare Penance

I remember coming to on a cold stone floor. My eyes were still closed, but I could hear a familiar reassuring voice that, for the first time in a seemingly eternal slumber, elicited no vitriolic anger. I felt only a longing for a time and place, that, up until then, had been locked away in deepest recesses of my memories.

"Princess Luna," said the voice, "It has been a thousand years since I have seen you like this."

My eyes snapped open, and all I could see was my sister striding towards me. Those long legs, that expansive wingspan, those piercing violet eyes: It was enough to make me shy away from her. A thousand years of my alter ego's hateful whispers urged me to lash out, to repay her for our defeat and exile, but with it no longer active in my mind, I merely lay frozen in place.

"It's time we put our differences behind us," she said while sitting before me and looking into my eyes. "We were meant to rule together, little sister. Will you accept my friendship?"

I could scarcely believe my eyes and ears. After all I had done and hoped to do, she still was willing to fall to her knees and plead with me to share in everything she possessed. At that moment, I felt only shame and inadequacy: The need to apologize to her for the hurt I had caused her, that I caused them, drove me into her waiting embrace. I remember not what I said, for it was insufficient to express how sorry I was, but I recall the feel of my elder sister's tears on the back of my neck as hers fell on mine.

Of the celebration of my return I remember little. The six ponies I remember, each bearing the Elements my sister and I once shared between us. Perhaps it was for the best, as it was my lust for power which had led me to that sorry state. My sister was quite fond of the violet unicorn, and told me she was destined for great things. I sometimes wonder if she regrets giving up the Elements to those young, mortal ponies, but I suppose I'd lost any right to question their character. They all accepted me with nary a reservation among them. Even the common ponies of the large town we returned to seemed to accept us with open hooves. We believed they simply did not know, or did not believe, the tale of my fall into darkness. I suppose it had been a thousand years: Any stories were now mere myths and legend. I recall flying in on a pegasi pulled chariot, the throngs of townsponies following in our wake and a pair of tiny foals draping wreaths of flowers over my neck. Everything else is a blur.

I can understand why my sister chose to abandon our foalhood home. "Every time I turned a corner, I saw something that reminded me of you," she had told me. "A corridor we played in; a trap door we found together; that magnificent organ in the basement: I began to think, not of the happy days, but of that one awful night, and what I had done to you." She explained that she would rather keep those memories as far apart as she could, and the only way to do that was to abandon our home.

Even I must admit that she traded up. This new castle; no, this new city was something that only she could have imagined. Ivory towers with golden spires rising midway up the colossal Mount Canter as majestic waterfalls, fed by the melting snow, fell between them. As we passed over the bustling metropolis on our way to the castle, I asked my sister why she lived so close to her subjects now. "How could I not?" she asked. "Without you, I had no one to talk to. I know we both feared the sting of outliving our subjects, but I found that I much preferred it to being alone." I could attest to that. I had suffered through a thousand years of isolation; well, almost isolation. The nightmare refused to leave me truly alone.

The castle was as cavernous and majestic as any I had ever seen. The throne room was the grandest single room I had ever set eyes upon. On the dais at the far end sat a single massive gilded throne. I knew it was not for me. This was where the Princess of Equestria saw to the needs of her ponies. It was not the place for one who would have brought it all crashing down.

It was quite late when we arrived, but that didn't stop my sister from giving me the grand tour. As we wound our way through the galleries, kitchens, baths and other countless rooms, the retinue following us grew in number. I suppose they were curious about the new arrival. I must admit I was surprised when she freely acknowledged me as her long lost sister. I met more new ponies that evening than I had in several years leading up to my fall, and not a single one seemed outwardly afraid or hostile.

After touring the library and the observatory with its amazing balcony and golden orrery, my sister began feeling the weariness of our busy day as heavily as I. She yawned as she led me to the living quarters. At the end of a wide corridor she stopped and laid her neck over mine. "I've waited so long for you to come back to me, Luna," she whispered between yawns.

"You are tired, sister," I said back to her, "and I am largely at fault for that, imprisoning you as I did." The day's activities as Nightmare Moon added a new layer of guilt to what was already a mountain of it in my heart.

"It's all behind us, now," said Celestia. I couldn't sense the least bit of bitterness or anger in her voice.

"Nevertheless," I continued, "you must rest, and I fear that I too am feeling the pull of slumber. We have tomorrow, and every day thereafter to spend together." I opened the door to her quarters and led her to the large low bed next to a blazing hearth. "Sleep well sister," I said as she lowered her to her side, "I will find somepony to lead me to a guest room." As I turned to leave the bedroom, my tail was caught in her golden magical grasp.

"No," she said, "you can sleep in here. It will be like when we were fillies." I looked over my shoulder and realized that there was no way she would accept any answer that involved me leaving her side. I'm sure some part of me wanted nothing more than to find a dark room to lock myself into, but thanks to my sister, I would spend that first night by her side.

"Luna," she asked softly, "do you remember how to enter dreams?"

"Of course," I replied. It wasn't really something you forgot how to do. To me, it was as natural as breathing. "But I can keep myself from walking anypony's dreams," I said in what I hoped was a reassuring tone, "I would not risk scaring anypony with my presence."

"Enter mine tonight," she said.

"I do not think that a wise idea sister," I replied sullenly.

"Why not?" she asked. "We used to talk and play in my dreams all the time."

"I have power in dreams, sister," I replied, "power that I cannot be trusted with."

"Please?" asked Celestia, "you don't have to do anything else. I just want today to last a little longer, if only in my dreams."

If we had talked honestly in that moment, perhaps I would never have gone as far as I did. Well, need isn't quite the word. Perhaps I wouldn't have resorted to it. As it was, I silently nodded and waited for her to doze off before using my magic to link into her dream. It took several minutes to find my way; I was a thousand years out of practice after all. I materialized in the same room in which my real body currently resided. Celestia was nowhere to be seen. "Sister?" I called out.

"Over here Lulu," replied her voice. I followed the sound to her large balcony. The noonday sun shone over the breadth of Equestria; the sun always shone in her dreams. I took solace in the familiar scenery. Things could change in a thousand years: Cities could rise, castles could fall, and generations of ponies could come and go, but the land would always be there. I walked to the edge and sat with my hooves hanging over the railing.

"Sister," I said, "We haven't had the chance to talk. I just want to- no, I need to apolo-" Her hoof settled over my mouth, muffling me.

"It's in the past Luna," she said to me, "what matters is that we have learned from our mistakes, and are together again, ruling as a family. Oh, that reminds me, I need to introduce you to our niece."

"Our what?" I asked in shock. I was quite sure we were each other's only sibling, and I certainly wasn't the source of any progeny. "Sister," I asked in a scandalized tone, "have you taken a spouse? No wait... that's not quite right. Have you a spouse, who has a sibling who has a foal?"

Celestia laughed and rested a leg over my shoulder. "It's complicated," she said, "I'll let Cadance explain." She rubbed little circles on the small of my back. "I missed this most of all," she said, "just talking with my sister; trading stories; joking with one another."

I couldn't very well deny her that simple request. It soon became a ritual between us. Each night I would enter my sister's dreams. We talked; we laughed; we cried; we cavorted about the wildest dreamscapes she could conjure. Even when I retook the duties of the night, we made sure to schedule our days so that there would be some overlap where we could meet in her dreams. Of course, that meant that there were times when I was left to my own dreams. That first morning, when Celestia disappeared from her dream to wake and raise the sun, was the first moment I was truly alone since my return.

As my sister's dreamscape dissolved around me, I was left in a void with hours to go until I was to wake and raise the moon. I must have sat there for hours in real world time; it's tough to tell in the dream. I, of course, was capable of creating any sort of frivolous entertainment I could imagine. In my youth I frequently spent my sleeping hours swashbuckling on the Spanish Mane, soaring through the lost cloud cities of Neighpal, or simply strolling through the countryside of Istallia. Lucid dreaming came naturally to me: It was as simple as imagining what I wanted, and it became part of the dream. Others, like Tia, could be led to lucidity, but none took to it as quickly and adeptly as I did. But that first night alone, I was frozen with fear.

"I am part of you," the nightmare had said to me a thousand years ago. "You called upon me, and I came from within you; to subjugate that sister of yours; to give those wretched ponies eternal night to revel in; to make your wildest dreams come true. This I give you, because I am you."

I couldn't very well return to my dreams, if that is what I truly longed to see in them. The thought of bringing more suffering to my sister, to the ponies of Equestria, well, it was enough to keep me from dreaming. Me, the Princess of the Night and Guardian of Dreams! I was afraid, and doing nothing seemed to be preferable to risking everypony's safety, but the longing was still there: that desire to spend the night in something other than that eternal darkness that had been my life for the last thousand years. Those short hours of isolation; they began to add up. It was one thing during my exile, when the nightmare invaded the void and spewed its litany of hate; I had no hope then. Now, though, I would wake from the void. I would have breakfast (her dinner) with my sister and was able to bask in her love for me. To oscillate between such joy and such abject misery was too much to bear.

So I decided to dream again; but this would be on my terms. I spent many nights in the archives of Canterlot's many libraries. With the accumulated knowledge of a thousand years of Ponykind at my disposal, I began to expand my own already extensive knowledge of magic. Ancient spellbooks, treatises on magic, fragments of long forgotten history; I scoured through them all seeking some way to exorcise that dark presence that I feared had taken root deep within my psyche.

Celestia took notice of course. It was my fault to be honest. She caught me returning to the castle early in the morning, after she had already raised the sun. I believe she thought it good for me: That I was reintegrating myself into the world through covert nighttime escapades. She asked me, during our hours together, what I did on my nightly sojourns. I never lied to her, but I never told her my plans. It was always, "I spent the night reading about the wonderful history of Equestria," or, "I was refreshing myself on the latest theories on exotic magics." I know she wanted to believe that I was better, and I suppose she was right, but I still preferred not to worry her. Again, had we simply spoken honestly about what we were feeling, none of what happened would have been necessary.

My breakthrough occurred several months after my return. I was able to create a small magical construct within my dream. At first, I simply had it manifest small things: a serene meadow here; a flock of birds there. From there, I soon had it creating worlds as vivid as I could imagine. I simply fed it instructions, and it created a world without my own agency. I would simply say, "Somniatis, create for me a dream containing the cutest animals in Equestria," and I would spend the night frolicking with all the bats, possums, and badgers I could ever wish for. For several months, it was enough. I would leave my shared dream with Tia and Somniatis would create a diversion for my nights. Afternoon would come and I would awake refreshed and jovial. Celestia was happy; I was happy; everything was as perfect as I could have hoped.

I remember the exact night everything went wrong, which, as it turns out, was quite the accomplishment, all things considered. I had spent a late night at what the commoners called a "pub." I was never a pony to shy away from a night of good spirits, in both meanings of the word. I, however, did not realize what wonderful advances my little ponies had made in the art of distilling. I thought fortified wine simply had an excess of vitamins and minerals. At any rate, I stumbled back into my quarters before Tia woke and was asleep before my head hit the pillow. I entered the void and didn't comprehend what the floating mote of light wanted. Somniatis buzzed around my head, waiting for me to give it some command. "Away sprite," I shouted in my drunken stupor. Somniatis, of course, wasn't designed to take no for an answer. It flitted around my head, demanding a purpose. "You arcane annoyance!" I shouted, "simply give me what I want and ask no more!" I suppose it was more clever than I realized, because it knew what I wanted more than I did.

I stood before the throne my sister and I shared. Celestia sat in the velvet lined chair, her gaze as imperious and dominating as I had ever seen it. "I should have known better than to believe that you could have changed," she said harshly. "You were always the Nightmare, weren't you?"

I looked upon myself and gasped. My coat was ebon black, my mane had become a hazy blue blur. I was the Nightmare. I was Nightmare Moon, and that was perfectly normal. I was always the Nightmare, the champion of eternal night and rightful ruler of all of Equestria. I assaulted my sister with concentrated blasts of dark magic. She leapt from the throne and parried each beam with a multichromatic shield conjured from thin air. Her golden armored guards charged me, but found themselves thrown across the throne room like rag dolls. Amidst the sickening crunch of breaking bones and anguished cries of suffering ponies, I cackled manically. "The Day dies this night!" I screamed, the force of my voice shattering the detailed stained glass windows.

My victory was short lived, of course, as Twilight Sparkle and her friends burst through the large doors and confronted me. I paid no heed to their prattling, so confident I was in my absolute superiority. I don't exactly know why I forgot about the Elements of Harmony, but as that rainbow blast crashed through the ceiling and burned the very essence of my soul, I thought to myself, "I deserve this."

I awoke with a start, my head throbbing from a night of fitful sleep and the aftermath of my unintended inebriation. I chalked the nightmare up to the drink and went about my day unconcerned. The next night, after a pleasant few hours in Tia's dreams, I again found myself in the void. Before I could ask Somniatis for a dream, however, I found myself in the armor of the Nightmare, my horn alight with the glow of evil intentions.

Somniatis was beyond my control. I know now that it simply was trying to give me what I wanted, but at the time, I thought that I had erred in its construction. My dream construct was now filling my nights with nightmares, and so I renamed it Tantibus. Each night the terrors were similar, but different enough to give me a new perspective on my fall. Every night I rose against my sister and the ponies she protected, and each night I suffered defeat at the hooves of Twilight and her friends. It hurt; it hurt badly; every time. Each morning, however, I found myself more appreciative for the love my sister held for me. I grew more accustomed to the joy the ponies of Equestria brought me. In a way, the Tantibus gave me what I wanted: A voice to say, "What you did was wrong and what you wanted was so heinous, so very evil, that you deserve these nightly punishments that I inflict upon you."

It was my penance: The only way I could show remorse without hurting my dear sister. It was a burden I could carry without disturbing those I had already traumatized. The Tantibus was everything I deserved, and everything I needed.

Twilight sat in silence, stunned by the elder alicorn's admission. Her large bed shifted under both of their weight as she fidgeted. She didn't know what to say. Part of her wanted to scream at Luna for keeping this regime self-flagellation secret for so long. Another part of her marveled at the alicorn's determination to keep from worrying her sister.

"I hope I haven't removed whatever goodwill you might have held for me," said Luna, her head staring at the ground between them. "I felt that you deserved some explanation for how the Tantibus came to be. I am overjoyed that it is done with, and that I no longer fear the Nightmare within me, but I know that nothing I can say can ease the mistrust you must now feel for me."

"Luna, I meant every word," said Twilight, "we all know that you are not Nightmare Moon. We all believe that you love your sister along with everypony in Equestria. We trust you implicitly."

"And I know that your words were true," replied Luna. "The Tantibus sensed it after all. In the end, it was simply trying to make me realize that. The Nightmare was never there, and I, in my stubbornness, refused to speak earnestly about it." Luna yawned as she looked out the crystalline windows of Twilight's bedroom. Her sister had already begun her raising of the sun. It was a shimmering disk of red on the horizon. "It will be nice to finally have my dreams to myself," she said with a smile.

"Well, you're free to stay here," said Twilight, her own yawn punctuating the offer. "In fact I insist on it. Your sister knows how often I imposed on her hospitality." She lifted the large covered bed's comforter and patted the down mattress. "I'll take one of the other beds we brought up here," she said.

Luna smiled and nodded in assent. "You seemed to enjoy your library of flying tomes," she said with a smirk. "I don't suppose you'd be interested in returning?" Twilight's tired face lit up with excitement. Luna laughed and began gathering her magic to link their dreams. "I thought you might," she said with a satisfied smile.