Chapter 10: Shadows in the Dark
A strange place.
A weird time.
The dust in the road smelled faintly of ashes, with her hooves throwing up little puffs of the greyish stuff with every step and the sounds of her hooffalls muffled by it; like snow without the squeak. Mouth dry, she looked up and toward the horizon. Before her stood nothing but seemingly endless wastelands, devoid of water, of food, of anything more than rock and the ever present ash.
Trying to swallow, she felt her tonsils grate against her throat. Her tongue felt as dry as the ground on which she walked. She felt sunburned, even through her fur, and was certain she had never walked this far in her entire life. If only she could fly; leave this place behind in a moment and feel the cool, crisp air in her face; find a few wisps of cloud and squeeze a drink from them.
Yes! she thought. That was it. She unfurled her wings, and made a running start for the air. Before she could launch though, a searing pain grabbed at her wing. She fell, skidding in the dirt.
Looking back, her outstretched wing was caught in some sort of hideous, thorny vine, which tore into her flesh, ripping muscle and feather both. She struggled, but with every movement, the vine dug in further, sending sharp pains down the nerves and up her spine, the plant's venom searing like fire where it pierced.
She turned her face away and wept there, sprawled upon the dirt. But no tears came, the sweltering heat leaving no moisture to spare for sadness. Only the bitter grit of ashes was felt with each blink.
An eternal moment later, a voice spoke to her. "You look like you could use some help."
The mare lifted her head and craned her neck to see a dark blue unicorn approaching through the shimmering heat waves. "Yes," she said. "Please help. My wing is stuck!"
The unicorn approached, and examined the vines and the tangled wing. "Oh my," she said. "This looks bad."
"Yeah, it hurts like Tartarus too."
"I don't think I can untangle this," the unicorn said. "I may have to cut it loose."
The mare closed her eyes, nodding. "Yes, please! Thank you! Just get me free!"
"Well, if you insist!" The voice had changed somehow, and the mare opened her eyes to see a much larger, much darker pony standing over her. She was now using her aura to levitate a large war axe over the tangled, blue wing.
"No, wait!" Rainbow Dash cried out. "Not my wing! The vine!"
"Oh," the dark alicorn cooed. "I'm so sorry little pony, but your wing is already far too injured. Best we cut it off now."
Dash cried out. "No! There's got to be some other way!"
"Well..." the dark one said. "There might be something I can do."
"Oh, thank you!" Dash cried, her voice cracking with her dry throat.
"But I'll need a favor in return."
This sounded odd to Dash. Of course she'd be happy to return a favor, but this sounded like something... more.
"What kind of favor?" she said.
"Nothing much, I just need a ride out of... here."
At the mention of location, Dash found herself surveying her surroundings. Endless desert, with just rocks and dirt. But something felt off. She didn't remember how she got here, nor, now that she thought about it, where she was going.
"Wait," she said. "Where exactly are we?"
"Just a few steps away from being back with your friends. I know a shortcut."
Now that was getting even stranger, Dash thought. She stood up, and turned to face the dark alicorn. "Who are you?"
"Just a stranger, passing by in the night."
"But it's..." Dash paused, as the searingly yellow world around her morphed into an airless white landscape, with a dark and far-too-clear sky above. She hardly even noticed that the vines were gone and her wing free as well.
"Day?" The dark one prompted, her fangs protruding from a smirking countenance.
"I know you!" Dash shouted. "You're the thing that took over Princess Luna!"
"Oh yes, that," The Nightmare said. "But I can offer you so much more than she ever dreamed of!"
"Pffft! As if," Dash said, her tone dropping instantly into the dismissive now that she recognized her foe. "Like what? Let me join your stupid 'Shadowbolts'? You already tried that, you know."
The Nightmare rolled her neck, eliciting several loud pops. "Oh, that was just foal's play. You've come so far since then."
Dash moved into a hover, letting her cross her forelegs. "Yeah, so what is it this time then?"
"I can heal your wing," The Nightmare said.
There was a sense of weightlessness, as Dash felt the memories of the past day come rushing into the dream's reality. The flight, the cold, the frostbite; she remembered all of it, and the terror of never flying again. But this was The Nightmare. She couldn't trust it, so she opted for bravado. "Maybe my wing's gonna heal on its own!"
Stepping forward, and dropping the pretentious airs, the dark alicorn looked Dash in the face and told her simply, "It will not."
"Yeah, well..." Dash foundered for words. "Says you!"
"Join me, Rainbow Dash. Not only will your wing be whole, but with the power I can give you, you can be faster than you've ever been, faster than any pony has ever been."
Keeping on her brave face, despite the now-closer evil, Dash was quivering on the inside. She really, desperately wanted to keep her wing, but... she could never betray her friends. Besides, it would break Scootaloo's heart if she took the "fastest pony" title back.
The thought of Scootaloo ended her debate in an instant. She'd never do anything to disappoint her number one fan, or the world's best sister. "Yeah right!" she said. "Have you even met Scootaloo? She'd beat the both of us, even with her wings tied behind her back!"
"Bah!" The Nightmare stomped, tired of playing coy. "Join me! Or I will destroy her and all you hold dear!" She let her fangs make themselves known.
Dash didn't flinch. "Oh really? Because it seems to me that if you could really do that, you'd have done it already. In fact, I think you probably need me way more than I need you."
"How dare you!"
"Ha!" Dash said. "I do dare! Because Dare is my middle name!" Technically, it was "Daring", at least according to the penciled-in modification she'd made to her birth certificate some years ago. But The Nightmare didn't need to know that.
"Fine, you insolent half-wit, I shall find another to share my glory with!"
There was a puff of black smoke, and the alicorn disappeared. "You ended that sentence with a preposition!" Dash shouted, grinning in triumph. Then there was a twinge of pain from her wing, and her grin was replaced by grimace.
Whistling a quiet tune, Fluttershy walked toward the market. It was a beautiful sunny day; the birds were singing, the breeze was soft and smelled of flowers, and there was a joy in the air she couldn't quite put of a hoof on.
A blue lump of pony fell from the sky and crashed in front of her.
"Oh my!" Fluttershy said, rushing toward her friend. "Rainbow Dash, are you okay?"
Dash moaned. "Ooouch... I think I zigged when I should have zagged, and now my wing hurts."
"Let's take a look," Fluttershy said. "Just take it slowly."
As Dash stood up, she looked toward her friend. "Fluttershy?"
"I'm here, Dashie," she said leaning over to examine her.
"Get away!" Dash said, scrambling backwards. "Get away from me, you freak!"
"But Dash, I'm your friend." She couldn't understand why Rainbow Dash had suddenly panicked at the sight of her.
"No, you're not.... you're some kind of monster! Get away!"
"No!" Dash turned and fled, her injured wing hanging half open at her side as she ran in fear.
Fluttershy fell to her rump, confusion overwhelming her ability to stand. What in the world would make Rainbow Dash so scared of her?
"Having trouble with your friend?" The new voice seemed to come from right behind her, causing Fluttershy to jump.
When she landed a few feet away, she saw a dark blue unicorn. "Some friend, to treat you like that," the newcomer said.
"I'm umm... I'm sure she had a good reason for running off."
"Yes, she made it quite clear she doesn't like you at all." The unicorn smiled in a way that never reached her eyes. "At least, not like this." She motioned toward Fluttershy, causing the pegasus to look down at her body. Where her hooves should be, she found a pair of leonine paws.
"Eeek!" Fluttershy tried to back away from her appendages, but they were, unfortunately, attached.
"Yes, how... disturbing." The voice didn't seem disturbed at all however.
"Who... umm... who are you?" Fluttershy ventured.
"Just a pony who's here to help."
This brought some relief. A kind stranger was always a welcome sight. But something was odd about this unicorn in Fluttershy's eyes. "Help with what?"
"I can return you to your old form. You can be a regular pegasus again, and everyone will stop staring at you. You can go back to caring for your animals and nopony will ever bother you again."
She had wanted that. At least, Fluttershy thought she had at some point. Right? Just get out of the spotlight and back to her nice, safe cottage with her friends, her animals, and Discord.
Something snapped, and memories came flooding in. She wasn't deformed, some monster. No, Discord had given up his power to her, so she could save her friends. Rainbow Dash had even told her she looked "awesome," so she must have run away for some other reason.
"Umm," Fluttershy ventured. "Thank you very much, miss, but I think I'm okay the way I am now."
"Really?" The dark alicorn said.
"Yes, umm, I think so."
"But what about the future?"
"Oh yessss," The Nightmare's sultry voice cooed. "Maybe you can live as an outcast, a freak, but what about your foal?"
Confused, Fluttershy tilted her head. "But I don't have a foal."
"Perhaps not yet, but it is—how would you say—'in the works', yes?" The Nightmare winked at her.
Fluttershy blushed, then tried to hide behind her mane. This elicited a low chuckle from the alicorn which was almost, but not entirely, un-sinister in sound. "I'll take that as a confirmation then."
Fluttershy said nothing.
"But do you really want that child to be a freak like you? You know how much you were teased, you know the cruelty of children. Imagine your own child, standing out as a monster, never making friends, never having somewhere to belong. Do you really want to condemn your own foal to that?"
"I would never do such a thing!" Fluttershy said, indignant at the idea she would intentionally harm anything living, much less her own flesh and blood. "How dare you!"
"Then let me help. With my powers, I can ensure that your child grows up normal and healthy in every way. You'd never have to worry."
The thought was tempting, Fluttershy had to admit, but something about this stranger just didn't sit right. It felt a bit too much like the dark fairy tales she'd heard during her own foalhood. "So, ummm, if I said yes, what would you do?"
"Well," The Nightmare said, putting on her best attempt at a friendly smile. "I could use a favor in return."
Fluttershy took a few steps backwards. "I, umm, thought it might be something like that."
"Why whatever do you mean?"
Raising her head, Fluttershy did her best to recall her brief lessons with Iron Will, and took what she hoped was an assertive stance. "I recognize you now," she said. "And I'm sorry, but I won't be entering any binding pacts with forces of darkness."
"Darkness? Darkness?!" the alicorn spat. "My little pony, what you call 'Darkness' is only the shadow of something you cannot possibly comprehend!"
Ears flat against her head in fear, Fluttershy nevertheless stood firm. "Perhaps, but I know my friends would be hurt if I let you scare me into doing something foolish. So I am afraid I will have to ask you to leave."
"Hahaha!" The laugh was big, darkening the sky, and full of teeth. "What in all the worlds makes you think you can tell me what to do?"
"A dear friend of mine once told me that fear can have no power over you unless you let it. I refuse to be afraid of you, so I am telling you to leave. NOW!"
The Nightmare recoiled from the force of The Stare accompanying that last word. "You insolent little wretch!" she yelled. "My power is too precious a gift for you. I shall leave, but of my own accord. But when you see me next, then you shall know true fear!"
Fluttershy refused to blink.
"Fine!" And with that, the now-alicorn vanished in a wisp of dark magic.
It was several minutes before Fluttershy finally got her legs to move under their own power again.
Blitzen ran through the snow, then leapt down the slope, throwing the disc under himself as he landed. The slide down the rest of the hill was awesome!
At the bottom, after narrowly missing a few of the tall pines, he came to a stop. Standing up he saw a dark blue unicorn in front of him. "Hi!" he said, cheerful as ever. "I'm Blitzen. Who are you?"
"Oh, cool!" Blitzen said, nodding to his friends on the slope behind him. "Want to try sledding with us?"
"Perhaps... Could you show me how it's done first?"
"Yeah, no problem!" He ran off to the top of the hill. "Watch this!" he yelled down, before making another running start.
As he slooshed through the turns on the slope, suddenly he found himself airborne, as a giant cliff had appeared where none had been before. Falling, he shouted with glee. "Whoo hoo!"
Then time came to a near stop.
"What?" The dark now-alicorn said, standing on mid-air beside him. "Why are you not afraid?"
"Of what?" Blitzen asked, smiling.
"Oh, my dad taught me how to fly years ago. I mean, it was really kind of impossible while that whole hole thing was happening, but now that the sun's back right," he pointed to the bright and intact sun, "it's no problem!"
"Ohhh," the alicorn said menacingly, "But it's not really fixed, is it?" The sun above grew a massive, black spot in its center, and the sky around darkened to a much more depressing hue.
Blitzen hung his head. "Yeah, I know, but my roommate says we're gonna fix it up real soon now!"
"Yeah, he's this really cool dragon-egg-quiche guy. He's like, super old, and knows everything!"
"Dragon, egg, quiche?" The Nightmare repeated. "Do you mean, 'draconequus'?"
"Yeah, that's totally it!" Blitzen smacked his forehead with a hoof. "My bad!"
"You," The Nightmare pointed, "are roommates, with Discord?"
"Woah, yeah dude. You know him too?"
"Well, like, for now anyway, like, while we're camping."
"Take me to him at once!" the alicorn demanded.
"Woah, chill out. I don't know where he is. Actually, I don't know where we are. Hey!" he said suddenly cheerful again. "Do you know where we are?"
The Nightmare found herself facehoofing. "Begone, fool! I shall find him myself." With that, she disappeared in a totally gnarly cloud of magic.
"Heh, awesome!" Blitzen said, his fall now continuing and turning into a flight over his waiting friends. "Who's up for a race?"
There was a knock at the door.
"Go away," Discord muttered from his position on the couch in the cottage. "It's nap time!"
The knock repeated, and this time he ignored it outright.
When it repeated again though, he knew he was dealing with a determined pony. Probably Twilight, as Rarity wouldn't knock nearly so hard, Dash would've just come in through the window, AJ would be yelling back, and Pinkie didn't really seem to need doors in the first place.
"Hold your horses!" Discord said, slinking off the couch and into a posture emphasizing the crick in his back. He moved to the door and opened it. "Oh."
"So it is you!" the alicorn across the threshold said.
"Ah yes, my dear sister, how long has it been?"
"Don't call me that," the dark form said.
"Why not?" Discord replied with feigned innocence. "We were both created by the same being."
"That does not make us siblings!"
"Suit yourself," Discord said, shrugging and turning away from the door. "So what are we calling you these days? Penumbra? Nyx? Nocturna?"
"It seems most of the contemporary mortals have given me the moniker of 'The Nightmare' for the time being."
"Pity," Discord said, tsking. "The old civilizations were so much more poetic with their names for our kind."
"Indeed. Whatever became of great Apophis?"
"Oh how sweet!" Discord practically squeaked. "You remember! But the ponies need their narrative symbolism I suppose, and 'Discord' fits in opposition to 'harmony' with far less explanation than 'Apophis'."
"So we let them take even our names?"
"Such is the way of our kind," Discord admitted. "But I confess, it has grown on me over the centuries. I kind of like it now. It suits me." There was a flash and he was wearing a bright purple suit, complete with green and orange plaid bow-tie, and an oversize top hat in an equally discordant shade of pink.
"Hmmph." The Nightmare didn't seem to be amused. "Enough smalltalk. You know why I'm here."
"Do I?" Discord said, striking a coquettish pose.
"Be serious, Apo... Discord!"
Blowing a raspberry, Discord snapped his claws and vanished the obnoxious suit. "Fine," he muttered. "Spoilsport."
"I almost overlooked you," the alicorn said. "Your magic seems to be... gone."
"Oh, not gone, dear Nixie."
"Don't call me that."
Discord made a frown that extended about twice the height of his face.
"Your emotional ploys won't distract me. Where is your magic?"
"In safe keeping elsewhere."
"Where?" The Nightmare demanded.
Putting on a baby bonnet and holding an oversized lollipop, Discord stuck out his tongue. "I'm not telling!" The alicorn seemed to be staring at something behind him however, and he quickly turned to look.
Behind him, the far side of the cottage had been replaced with a projection screen, showing the scene of the battle with Nemesis. It ran like a silent film, complete with intertitles for the dialog as he transferred his power to Fluttershy. The Nightmare grinned as she watched it.
"So," she said, still grinning. "Your gave up your power to save a mortal."
"Well shucks." The costume was now coveralls and a straw hat, with a stalk of hay in the mouth and accent to match. "Ya caught me well an' good right thar!"
Ignoring the shenanigans, The Nightmare continued. "Then you know I can return your power if you join me."
"Eeyup." Discord grinned. He'd heard Big McIntosh's signature phrase often enough that it was the one impression he had down pat.
"So," the alicorn said, confused. "Is that a yes?"
"It's a right kind offer there little miss, but..." The costume and accent vanished, and Discord advanced on The Nightmare. "I." he began, poking her with a claw for emphasis. "Am." Another poke. "Never. Going. To. Betray. My. Friends. Again."
The poking over, The Nightmare harrumphed. "Fine, then perhaps I shall go find this Fluttershy and destroy her; take your power for my own."
Discord just stared. "What? You expect that to scare me?"
"You seem to care for her deeply, so yes."
Discord laughed, slapping his various knees with joviality. "You wouldn't make it three steps if you tried to fight her."
The Nightmare didn't like being laughed aside like that. "Then I will take her for myself then. A frightened little mortal like that should be easy to bend to my will." The threat was hollow, as she'd already been rebuffed by Fluttershy, but perhaps she could try again.
"Oh, Nixie! Why do you think I gave my power to her in the first place?"
The Nightmare rolled her eyes. "Is this where you explain to me about the power of love or something?"
"You should look into that at some point anyway," Discord said, sounding sincere for once. "But no. I gave my power to her not just because I love her, but because, of all the creatures and beings I've ever met, she is the only one I am absolutely certain would never use it for anything even the slightest bit dishonorable."
"But she's practically afraid of her own shadow, never mind mine!"
"Everypony is afraid of something," Discord said. "You should know that better than anyone. But strength doesn't come from a lack of fear, but in how we face our fears."
"So are you really trying to tell me that that scared little pony—"
"Is one of the strongest I've ever known." Discord smiled warmly. "She should be, she's faced down more fears than maybe even you can imagine."
The Nightmare scrunched up her face in thought.
"If you doubt me, then by all means, go try! I shall be waiting here with cake" there was a pop "and champagne" another pop, along with a clink of two glass flutes "to celebrate your failure!"
Snarling, The Nightmare glared at Discord.
"Oh!" A lightbulb appeared over the draconequus' head. "You already did try, didn't you?"
"And found yourself defeated, in a nightmare of your own making, by that 'scared little pony', right?"
"Shut up, Discord!"
"Fine!" the alicorn shouted, having no real answer. "If you won't join me, then I'll find someone who will. Then I will come back to crush you as well!"
There was a puff, and The Nightmare was gone.
Discord sighed, and a small raincloud appeared over his now-hung head. "Oh sister, does it always have to be like this?"
It was raining in Hartholm. The kind of rain that just seeped from the clouds continuously; not enough to really wash anything clean, but enough to keep it all damp and miserable. It was the kind of rain that got into your fur to make it smell all the time. Donner was sick of rain.
She trotted through it anyway though, her big hooves clacking on the cobblestones of the university as she sought out the cafeteria. A little soup would at least warm her up before rehearsal.
A few minutes later, nursing a hot bowl of barley stew, she thought about the play. It'd been the first really outgoing thing she'd tried for since starting university, and the director had told her she was perfect for the lead female role. Today was the first on set, and she'd been up most of the night practicing her lines.
On stage sometime later, she was surrounded by most of the cast and the director. They'd been taking turns reading against each other, and her big scene—the one with the first kiss—was up next.
"Okay," the director shouted, clapping his hooves as the previous scene finished. "That was good, but work on those expressions. Next up, I want..." he looked at a chart, "Birger and Donner."
Donner stepped to center stage, but no other caribou joined her.
"Where's Birger?" the director asked.
"Umm, I think he had to go to the bathroom," one of the other cast members said.
"Well, we're not waiting. Astrid," he addressed one of the previous performers. "You stay on and read his lines."
"Okay," Astrid said.
The scene started, and Donner focused intently on her role. As her lines were mostly memorized, she hardly referred to the script at all. She hoped that counted for something. Meanwhile, Astrid had to read nearly every one of her lines, and seemed far less focused on the scene because of it.
It only lasted a few minutes, but it felt like ages to Donner. As the two performers drew closer and moved about—the final scene would be a full ballroom dance—Donner concentrated on becoming her character. When the big moment arrived, the two were nose to nose, and, just as the script directed, Donner leaned in and kissed her knight.
"Oh, ew... gross!" Astrid shouted, wiping her lips with a hoof. "What are you doing!"
"I'm... I'm sorry," Donner stammered. "I was just..."
"Get away from me, you cowlicker!"
"What? No, it was just that the script said..."
"There's no gay stuff in the script!" Astrid said, as the others behind her snickered. "Just because you look like a bull doesn't mean I want anything to do with you!"
Donner, feeling tears well up in her eyes, turned, hoping to see some support from the director, but she found him only shaking his head in disappointment. She turned and ran from the theater.
Her antlers caught on the door on the way out, causing her to bash her face into the cobblestones outside. She hated her genes sometimes. While her mother was beautiful and svelte, she took after her massive father instead. She was already larger than most bulls, and was probably still growing. She had the shaggy hooves and stout build to match.
She ran through the rain, and everywhere the other students and faculty shouted at her. "Lesbo!" "Cowlicker!" "Gaywad!" "Dyke!"
The streets became a blur of tears and shame. Donner sought out the only place she could hide, back at the great hall with her family. Skidding around the corner and into the courtyard though, she saw her father standing in the door. He was the only caribou she knew larger than herself, and now he seemed to tower over her like he'd done when she was just a calf.
"Is true?" he bellowed, blocking the door as she approached. "You become disgrace for family?"
Donner, already crying, fell to her knees to beg. "Please father, just let me explain."
"Explain? You explain how you, my only daughter, dishonor me, dishonor entire family with pervert ways?"
"No, dad, please..."
"You go now," Gunnar said, turning his face away. "I have no daughter!"
Donner fell to the ground, eyes shut tightly, trapped with no way out. She heard the door to the hall close as she slowly sank into the infinitely deep puddle. In the far corner of her mind there was a whisper. "It gets better." But does it? she wondered.
"What's the matter, little one?"
The soft, feminine voice came out of nowhere, and Donner looked up. She saw a dark-coated caribou standing over her. "Everything," she said. "Or maybe just me."
"Oh, come now," the dark figure said. "It can't be that bad. But if it is, maybe I can help."
Donner, taking a proffered hoof, stood up. Looking around, she found herself in a nebulous void. The ground was solid, and nearby buildings seemed real, but the distance just kind of faded away. "Who are you?" Donner asked, starting to suspect she was in a dream. "Some sort of goddess?"
"I've been called such at times."
If this was a dream, Donner reasoned, then maybe this was Nótt herself. She quickly bowed.
The dark one chuckled. "Well well, it is good to find some respect still present."
"I am honored, great one." Donner had never been one to really believe in the gods, but her father—she shuddered at the recent memory—had instilled a deep respect for the old ways nevertheless, so she knew the protocol. "How may I help?"
"Oooh," the other cooed. "Such manners! Sssooo... willing!"
Not sure how to respond, Donner simply held the bow.
"Oh, get up from there," the other said after a moment. "You look ridiculous."
"Yes, Lady Nótt." Donner stood.
"Not?" The other said.
"My apologies, I had only presumed that with the setting," Donner motioned toward the strange horizon, "you were Nótt."
"You're not Nótt?" Donner said.
"I'm afraid not."
"I'm not Nótt," Donner said, "I thought you were."
"That I was afraid?"
"No, that you were Nótt."
"Of course not!" The Nightmare shouted, all pretense at calm demeanor forgotten. "Why would I be afraid of a stupid mortal like you?"
Donner was taken aback, but only for a moment. "You're definitely not Nótt," she said, knowing now she was dealing with some form of Dökkálfar, who were notorious for their impatience, especially with riddles and wordplay. "What do you really want?"
The Nightmare calmed herself. "Only to help."
"For a cost, I'm sure."
"My my," The Nightmare said. "It seems all of you mortals are far more aware of me than I would've suspected."
Donner glared at her. "I find education to be quite useful, yes."
The dark caribou turned and walked to a nearby bench, sitting on it before waving a hoof and dismissing the rain and clouds. "Then let us talk as learned ones," she said, patting the seat next to her.
Donner looked at the small space. "I don't think I'd..." The bench expanded, making plenty of room for both. "Fine then," she said, and sat. "Talk."
"Perhaps I am not quite a goddess," The Nightmare admitted. "But I do have immense power. Power I can use to give you nearly anything your heart desires."
"Can you restore the sun?" Donner asked, cutting straight to the point.
"Ah, no, I'm afraid that is beyond even my ability."
"Then we have nothing to discuss." Donner made to stand up.
"Patience child, there are many things you may want which I could give you."
"Oh," The Nightmare grinned. "Don't play coy with me. I've been here, watching your dreams unfold. I know the secret desires in your heart."
Donner turned away, blushing. A moment later, she felt a hoof gently turning her chin.
"Don't be like that," the dark caribou said. "Such a small problem to overcome."
Donner felt her legs twitching, eager to back away, but... she had to know. "How so?"
"With a single breath I could make any girl you wanted fall for you madly. You could live the rest of your life happy and in love."
"It wouldn't be real though," Donner said, though her thoughts had flashed immediately to Sweetie Belle. Perfect in every other way but that.
"Just as easily, I could change your own heart. You could like bulls, and be happy and normal for the rest of your life."
That one was harder to dismiss, Donner realized. When she was younger, she'd just always assumed she'd marry a nice bull someday. She'd imagined herself happy, with a family of her own. It was only as she'd become a teenager, and started to actually understand romance, that she realized she'd never be in love with a male. So maybe that wasn't so bad.
But then she remembered what she'd promised Sweetie. To keep trying. To kiss all those other mares until she found the right one. This wouldn't be trying. This would be giving up on her true self.
"No," she said. "Then I wouldn't be me."
"Fine," the other said. "No changes to your mind. I could turn you into a bull. You can love all the females you wish, and no one would bat an eye. I could even set a slight spell, so everyone would remember you always being such. You wouldn't have to answer even one awkward question."
Hooves unconsciously curling in, trying to make herself smaller, Donner pondered that. Yes, sure, she'd often wondered what it'd be like to be a male. With her large physique she was halfway there already, as years of teasing children would attest to. But... she was proud to be a female. She was proud to be strong as well. If Sweetie could walk around with a metal paw—heck, the pony loved to show it off even—then surely just looking a little bullish was nothing by comparison. But she wasn't a bull, and she didn't want to be.
"I'm sorry," Donner finally said. "But a friend made me promise to keep trying, and all of these would be giving up on who I am."
Catching a glimmer in Donner's eye, The Nightmare reached for the thread of memory, and pulled forth a simulacrum of Sweetie Belle.
"Oh," the impostor said. "Hi, Donner."
"Don't you dare!" Donner said, glaring icicles at The Nightmare. "You don't get to use her against me."
"What's wrong, Donner?" the impostor said, walking toward her friend.
Eyes darting between the two, Donner settled on The Nightmare. "Keep her away from me."
"It's your dream, darling."
"Come on, Donner. It's just me." The Sweetie Belle advanced to Donner's side as Donner stood off the bench. "I'm sorry for what I said earlier."
"Wh-what?" Donner stammered. "What do you mean?"
"The kiss. You just surprised me is all. I..." Sweetie Belle moved close and nuzzled Donner, cheek to cheek. "I think I do love you, but I'm just scared."
Donner backed away frantically, hooves slipping on the once-again-wet cobblestones. "No, that's not what you said."
"I know," Sweetie said. "But I was wrong. Come here." Sweetie opened her hooves for a hug. "It's cold out here, and I need you to keep me warm."
Suddenly, Donner felt her tail bump against a stone wall. She couldn't back up any further as Sweetie approached. "Stay back!" she said as her legs quavered under her.
"Shhh..." Sweetie said, once again reaching the nervous caribou. "It's okay, I'm here now." She wrapped Donner in a tight hug. "Everything's going to be just fine."
Knees shaking, heart racing, Donner still cherished the hug. It felt real. It felt like Sweetie Belle, but with that extra desire underneath she'd always hoped to find, but never had. Tears fell from her eyes as she stood, nearly motionless, while the hug continued.
"Oh, I know it's hard," Sweetie said. "But we can get through it together. Just join me, and we can be together forever!"
Heart breaking, eyes burning, Donner screamed. "No! You're not her! You're some sort of evil trickster and I will not let you in! Go away!"
The white form of Sweetie Belle stepped back, tilted its head to the side and quirked an eyebrow at the tear-stained face of the caribou. A moment later, it suffused into a dark miasma of smoke. "You're too weak to waste my time on anyway," The Nightmare said, with far less fervor than Donner would've expected. The smoke then quickly disappeared into the ether.
Donner, glad that it was over, but having tasted just a tiny bit of what she knew she'd never have, slumped down against the rain-soaked wall, curled into a little ball, and cried.
The Nightmare reached out to the final thread, and pulled her way inside the dream.
Ah yes, she thought, this was a nightmare, ready to go. No need to try to darken other dreams as she had before. Judging by the setting, this one was primed for fear already. She took in her surroundings.
It was a sort of half cave, set aside some vast and grassy plain. Outside, a half moon shown, just enough to cast shadows in the darkness. In the center of the cave mouth was a massive spiderweb, larger than a house. In the center of that, an appropriately large spider-ish creature sat and waited, while around the floor and walls, other eight-legged things crawled. Some like crabs, some like lobsters, and others in ways that seemed to defy all natural law. It was horrifyingly perfect. Now she just needed to find the owner of the dream, observe, and strike at the height of fear. She took to her ethereal form, and drifted to hide in a small crevice, just inside the cave's ceiling. Her view wouldn't be perfect, but as long a she could hear it would suffice.
A short time later, she heard a pair of ponies gallop up to the front of the cave, slowing to a trot as they approached, seemingly winded. Ah yes, The Nightmare thought, this would be it.
"What are you doing here?" The spider said.
Yes, just perfect. The dreamer strays into the monster's den, and is questioned. A classic nightmare. Next would be the uncertain answer, the threat, and then... either the companion would turn on the dreamer, or they'd simply flee. Either way, she'd catch the dreamer right when reason was weakest.
But the pony outside didn't answer.
"I said," the spider repeated, sounding much louder "What are you doing here?"
The hoofsteps entered the cave, and The Nightmare couldn't resist a peek. Her mist-like form oozed out of the crevice slowly. As she looked down, she found the gaze of a half-pony, half-spider monstrosity staring back, as well as an eight legged horse, some dragon-ish things with multiple sets of wings, and several smaller creatures which could only be termed "crab-i-corns." All of them turned to track her gaze in unison, and all of them shared the same white unicorn face. The Nightmare knew she should be nearly invisible, especially in a dream, and she gave thought to just ignoring the odd behavior, but that notion quickly evaporated when they demanded as a choir, "One last time, what are you doing in my dream?"
Later, she would recall this as a moment of epiphany about the nature of fear in dreams; "So that's what it feels like!" But for now, she simply acted out of shocked reflex, the diffuse magical particles of her being slamming together into solid form. Unfortunately, she was near the ceiling of the cave as this happened.
"Ah," the horse-like one said, having caught her in its foremost appendages. "There you are."
Dignity momentarily forgotten, all The Nightmare could do was try to catch her breath, which came in loud ragged gasps, yet still barely covered the sound of her fast-beating heart.
Taking pity, Sweetie Belle gently set the intruder on the ground. "Sorry if I scared you. I'm just running some experiments."
Still gulping air, The Nightmare nonetheless made an attempt at reply. "Experiments? But you're just a dream."
"No, I'm me," Sweetie Belle said. "Well, one of me. All of us are me actually." The cave's ensemble of creatures all waved in unison.
"You're all the dreamer?"
"I guess that's one way to put it. It just makes the experiments go faster if I try a bunch of them at the same time."
The Nightmare was astonished. Sure, the normal rules of the world hardly applied in most dreams, but a pony's sense of self was usually the one unbreakable rule. Some ponies obviously dreamed about slightly changed versions of themselves—bigger muscles, better looks, stuff like that—but they were still just themselves at the core. She'd certainly never met a pony that literally fractured her sense of self deliberately in a dream.
"To what end are these abominations undertaken?"
Sweetie quirked an eyebrow at that, but decided not to take offense. "Oh, well, just playing around really. See, I'd been reading some of the caribou mythology before the trip, and I came across the legend of Sleipnir, an eight-legged pony that was supposed to be the fastest that ever was."
"And the spider?"
"Well, once I got going with eight legs, it turns out the mechanics of it are really awkward in pony form. A more primitive equine form" she motioned to her currently speaking body "fits them in a little better, especially if I keep the foremost for grasping paws, rather than hooves. But really, there are so many other options for eight legs, I figured I'd try them out, see if any really provide an advantage."
The Nightmare raised a hoof and rubbed her temples. This had been a long night, and now she was in a dream even weirder than Discord's for her last shot, and she'd completely blown her entrance.
"So," Sweetie said. "Enough about me. Who are you? I've never met another pony that could dreamwalk, save Princess Luna, and you clearly aren't her... Wait, are you? In disguise I mean?"
Oh, The Nightmare thought. Maybe she could use this. She'd been bound to Luna for a thousand years, and knew more about the Princess than any being, including perhaps even Luna herself. "Well spotted," she said. "My sister has sent me to check on you, but as you know, she doesn't want to seem intrusive, so she asked me to be discreet."
Squinting, Sweetie used a paw to rub her chin as she licked her lips a few times. "No, your magic isn't right. I mean, it's a good attempt, very few unicorns can even begin to disguise the signature of their aura, but you're not her."
The Nightmare sighed. So it wasn't going to be so easy after all.
"Wait," Sweetie said, ears perking up. "I think I do know you."
"You're not disguising your aura at all, are you?"
"Umm..." she was unsure how to answer that, not knowing what the guess was going to be.
"No, you're not. You're the entity that joined with Luna. The one they call The Nightmare. That's why your aura tastes so similar to hers!"
This was all going wrong, The Nightmare thought. Normally the reveal of her identity was the moment of terror for the dreamer. But now this pony—was it a pony?—before her didn't even look concerned in the slightest to have her dream invaded by what most feared as an ancient evil. In fact, the eight-legged proto-equine in front of her actually looked somewhat giddy about it.
"Soooo..." Sweetie said, grinning as she rubbed her foremost paws together in anticipation. "What are you here for?"
Sighing yet again, The Nightmare realized she was just ready to give up at this point. She'd try again with the others on a future night. Some of them had been just on the verge of cracking, she felt. Surely another night or three and one of them would. But she had to at least make the token attempt here, or she'd feel even worse about her failure.
"Fine," she said. "Here's the deal. If you know who I am, then you know I'm quite powerful."
"Oh yes," Sweetie said. "Quite powerful. It took the Elements of Harmony to stop you and Luna when you were joined."
That was, The Nightmare felt, a compliment. Odd. She pressed on.
"Yes, well, if you join with me, that power can be yours to share." She said it like a litany. "Fame, fortune, love, power... all yours for the taking. You'd have the world at your hooftips..."
"Okay," Sweetie said.
"...Your wildest dreams can become reality, subjects bowing before you, enemies trembling at your... Wait. What?"
"I said, 'okay.' Let's do it!"
"Really?" The Nightmare was flabbergasted. "Just like that?"
"Yeah, sure... I mean, unless your deal has something more to it. I'm not giving you my firstborn or anything like that."
"No..." The Nightmare wasn't sure what to make of this. "Just you. You must freely join with me, and then we share my power." She left out the bit about "as I slowly take over your will with my own."
"Sounds fair," Sweetie said, still looking for all the world like a genuinely excited and interested party to such a deal. "Then what? You move in here and set up shop?"
"Errr, something like that, yes. We would share your mind, commune within it, much as we are now."
"Okay, sounds great. How do we start?"
"Well, there's never really been a formal process or anything. You just have to welcome me in."
"Oh, easy enough!" Sweetie said cheerfully, then proceeded to wrap four legs around her new partner, hoisting her in the air and crushing her in a massive hug. "Welcome home!"
The Nightmare felt a pressure in her eyes that she'd never experienced before. Her lungs were about to burst as well.
Nearby, a very large spider-pony made a very girlish squee as a bunch of crab-i-corns danced a jig.
The Next Morning.
Fluttershy was up early, and had taken it upon herself to start breakfast. Rolled oats were simmering in the kettle as it hung over the fire in the main room of the tent. She took a deep whiff, the warm, earthy scent bringing some tiny semblance of home to this cold, distant place she found herself in.
Hearing the sounds of a pony stirring, Fluttershy's ears quickly swiveled and identified it as coming from Donner and Sweetie Belle's room. She'd heard a lot of hushed whispers, and even what sounded like a muted argument coming from the two during the night. She could tell Donner had a bit of a crush on Sweetie, though she was fairly certain Sweetie didn't swing that way, and she'd been briefly worried the two might have had a row over it, though that would be out of character for Sweetie Belle as well. Thankfully, the last she'd heard, there had been muffled giggles, so whatever had happened, it seemed to end on a cheerful note. Maybe Sweetie... No, it was none of her business.
Hoofsteps let her know that at least somepony was now fully awake, and she glanced up to see the shaggy white form of Sweetie Belle enter in her peripheral vision while she stirred the pot.
"The oats are just about ready, Sweetie." Fluttershy said. "Bowls are just over there on the table if you want to grab one."
"Why yes, that sounds delicious. Though I'm not—"
"You're not Sweetie Belle!" Fluttershy said, her attention shifting instantly at the eerily familiar voice coming from the interloper.
"As I was just saying," The Nightmare said casually.
Fluttershy froze as she examined the creature. It was almost Sweetie Belle. But where the golem pony was almost always smiling warmly, there was instead a cold neutrality. The eyes had a dim red glow in the now-slitted pupils, with faint wisps of some dark aura surrounding them. On top of that, each word the creature said revealed a set of fangs, not unlike Fluttershy's own.
"Who... Who are you?" Fluttershy stammered, backing away.
The white form suddenly shook its head violently, and when it returned a moment later to meet her gaze, Fluttershy saw the pupils and teeth were still there, but the glow and aura was gone. More importantly, the warm smile was back.
"Fluttershy, it's okay. It's me, Sweetie!"
"You look like her, but... the eyes, the teeth! What did you do with Sweetie!?"
Sweetie tilted her head, confused. "Eyes? Teeth?"
Fluttershy, paw quivering, pointed to one of the shiny metal spoons set out on the table. Sweetie levitated one and examined her reflection.
"Oh, for the love of..." Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes, then appeared to be having a conversation with the air a few feet to her left. "I thought I told you, no redecorating unless we both agreed on it!"
There was a... a change, some quick flash-that-wasn't and the creature before her was once again the other. "Sorry," it said. "I could hardly even speak correctly with such flat teeth."
Another blip. "Fine," Sweetie said. "We'll keep it for now, but nothing else unless we talk about it first, okay?"
"Agreed," The Nightmare said.
"Good," Sweetie said, then looked up and saw Fluttershy, who was now brandishing a not-particularly-threatening spatula from a defensive posture in the corner.
"Stay back!" the chaocorn shouted. "Or I'll... I'll..."
"Offer us some oatmeal?" Sweetie smiled. "Sorry, we—or at least I—didn't mean to scare you like that."
"What's going on?" Rainbow Dash muttered groggily as she walked into the room. Seeing Fluttershy in the corner, quivering in fear, Dash instinctively took a defensive posture, head lowering, wings opening slightly. "What's wrong, Flutters?"
Fluttershy just waved the spatula frantically at Sweetie Belle. Sweetie then turned to face Dash and explain, but before she could get a word out, Dash already saw the changed features. "You!" she growled, and began pawing the ground to charge.
"You're kidding, right?" The Nightmare barely finished her sentence before Dash body-checked her through the far wall of the tent.
The (Repaired) Tent.
Some minutes later.
Sweetie awoke to find herself lying on her side on the floor of the tent. Moving gingerly, she found her legs had been tied together. That didn't bode well. She had to give it to Dash though, very few ponies could've gotten the jump on her like that. She opened her eyes, and saw Discord place one last piece of tape over the tear where she had exited unexpectedly and abruptly due to a certain pegasus.
"Oh, you're back," Discord said, eying her as he tossed the tape to the luggage, which consumed it in one gulp.
Sweetie tried to roll over, and felt a pain in her ribs. "Ow..." she moaned. "Dash got me good."
"You bet I did!" The voice came from the other side of the tent, and Sweetie twisted her neck to try and see.
"It's not what you think," Sweetie said.
"Isn't it?" Dash said, approaching to stare down at her. "Because it seems like you've been possessed by The Nightmare."
"Well... Yeah," Sweetie admitted, "but by choice!"
"Wait," Fluttershy said, joining the conversation. "You let her take you?"
"It's not like that," Sweetie insisted. "She was trapped without a body, and she needed help, so I let her hitch a ride."
"Ha!" Rainbow Dash said, pointing a hoof down at her face. "You expect us to believe that? Sweetie Belle would never give in to evil!"
"Hey," Donner said, kneeling beside Sweetie's form. "Give her a chance. You already knocked her out and tied her up."
"Thanks, Donner." She gave a weak smile to the caribou, before turning back to Dash. "I am Sweetie Belle. Seriously Dash, it's me."
"Oh yeah? Prove it!"
"Umm..." Sweetie wasn't sure how to prove that. At least in the objective sense. Then she felt a poke in her hindbrain. "One second," she said, and closed her eyes.
Somewhere far inside her left temporal lobe, Sweetie Belle sat at a table. "I thought we agreed you'd let me handle this for now."
Across from her, The Nightmare drummed her hoof on the table. "Yes, that's going swimmingly so far. But I thought perhaps you'd like a suggestion."
"Discord... he can vouch for me. More importantly, and by extension, he can vouch for you not being me."
"Discord? What does he have to do with this?"
"I thought you said you'd trust me."
"I said I'd try to trust you. Your reputation on that front isn't exactly stellar, you know."
"Just do it."
Opening her eyes, Sweetie nodded toward Discord. Here goes nothing, she thought. "He can tell you."
"Dizzy?" Fluttershy said, her voice a mix of both surprise and concern. "You know something about this?"
Discord sighed. "Alas, yes. My dear sister"—Sweetie felt a sharp poke in her mind at the word—"and I go way back."
"Sister?" The word was said in unison by all five of the others, including Sweetie Belle herself.
"Well," Discord waved a talon in a circle. "More or less. In as much as Nemesis is dear ol' dad, little miss Nightmare may as well be my sister. Though Stygian heredity is far more complex than that of mortals."
"The Nightmare is your sister?" Dash said.
"Really? I already told you the giant evil thing trying to destroy the world is my father. I myself tried to take over at least several times. Is it really that surprising that another ancient ne're do well is related?"
"Well, when you put it that way, it does sound kind of logical."
"Logical?" Discord facepalmed. "Oh dearest me, how low we've sunk, if I'm the one explaining things logically!"
Sweetie couldn't help but chuckle.
"Hey, you're not off the hook," Dash shouted at her. "Sister or not, I don't like evil possessing my friend!"
"Dash," Sweetie said. "I told you, I'm not The Nightmare, I'm just letting her catch a ride."
"A likely story! Why I—"
"It's true," Discord said. "Even without my powers, I can still sense magic. My sister is in there, but she's not driving the coach, at least not at the moment."
"Thank you!" Sweetie Belle said. "So can we get rid of these ropes now?"
"Not so fast!" Dash said. "How do we know she's not going to take over the moment we release you."
Sweetie blinked and found herself looking over the table at The Nightmare again. "Again?" Sweetie said. "I'm trying to work the room out there."
"Oh hush," The Nightmare said. "You know our discussions here are just a fraction of a second out there."
"Fair enough. But if we're going to keep meeting here, we really should spruce up the place. Giant table floating in the void really isn't that inviting." She blinked, and the two now found themselves at a much smaller table, inside a small, but comfortable looking cottage kitchen.
The Nightmare harrumphed.
"It's my brain, I can do what I like. And I think it's more welcoming this way."
"Whatever," The Nightmare said. "Back to the point. You should let me talk to them."
"They're afraid of you."
"I can play nice. I'm quite good at it actually." She switched into a higher, sing song voice. "Oh dear, isn't this lovely. What a beautiful day. I love everypony!"
"You know they've heard of sarcasm in this century, right?"
"You get my point. I'll be gracious and humble. If I'm not, just take over yourself."
"Fine, but let me make an introduction first, so they don't freak out."
Sweetie finished her blink and looked at Dash. "Okay, leave them for a little bit longer and I'll let her come talk to you herself. You'll see, she's not that bad."
"I don't know," Fluttershy said. "Are you sure those ropes will hold her?"
"Just as surely as they're holding me," Sweetie said, mentally chiding herself for the almost-lie.
"Umm, okay I guess."
Sweetie went back into her mental cottage. "You're up," she said.
"Greetings, my little ponies," the Not-Sweetie said with a voice liked tinted glass.
"Yup, that's lil' sis!" Discord confirmed.
"I am not your sister!"
"Who are you then?" Donner said, speaking up softly.
"I am..." she was primed to make a haughty announcement, but realized that any moniker she choose would likely not help her cause. She foundered. "...not Sweetie Belle."
"Monocle, monocle!" Discord said under his breath, frantically miming a ring around his eye to Fluttershy. She rolled her eyes, but smiled and snapped her talons anyway. A jeweler's monocle appeared in his claw, and he quickly made a point of examining the "specimen." "Da! Ve can tell she ist not of ze same specie, due to ze indications of ze red glowing of ze eyes, und ze Stygian aura emanating from ze ocular regions."
Dash snorted. "Glowy red eyes equal evil. Duh!"
Donner glared at both of them. "Sweetie didn't seem to think she was evil."
"Thank you," The Nightmare said, nodding.
Donner looked into the glowing eyes. It was eerily like her dream. Here was Sweetie Belle, but not Sweetie Belle. Yet here, in the real world, it was less frightening. Especially as this version wasn't making advances on her. More importantly, the real Sweetie Belle seemed to be vouching for her. If Sweetie could give her a chance, then so could Donner. "Do you have a name?"
"Yes," Fluttershy said. "That would help, I think. We can't simply call you 'not Sweetie' if we're supposed to trust you."
The Nightmare grinned. It was too perfect. She was not Sweetie, but... "How about Nótt?"
Donner, kneeling close to Sweetie's body, looked at her as she said it, and saw just the faintest hints around those dark eyes which showed the smile was, at least in some small part, genuine.
Discord just snickered, but the other two opened their mouths to voice confusion. Donner quickly held up a hoof to silence them. "Nótt was the caribou goddess of the night. When... this one... came to me in a dream, I mistook her for that goddess. However, it seems as good of a name as any, and certainly less likely to cause disruption than introductions made as 'The Nightmare.'"
"Indeed," Nótt said. "This one—"
"Donner," Donner said.
"Donner, has named me."
Donner wondered to herself about other stories of the Dökkálfar, stories that said naming one granted you power over them. And then there were the darker stories, those which told of the twisted power of the Unnaming. Probably just more fairytales, she thought, but one could never be sure these days.
"So, the ropes?"
Donner looked over, and saw Sweetie had returned. She looked around the room, and the others nodded in assent, though Dash was obviously reluctant. She reached for the ropes to untie her friend.
"No need," Sweetie said, quickly flipping into the air and unknotting the ropes with her magic before landing firmly on all fours. The undamaged rope sailed into the luggage.
"Seriously," Sweetie said. "I know none of you were born unicorns, but you really need to remember that ropes don't stop magic."
"No," Discord said, feigning interest in a hangnail. "But she does."
Sweetie wheeled about as she heard Fluttershy snapping her talons. She felt strange pressure on her forehead, then a weird sense of vertigo and a loud pop. Reaching up to her head, she found her horn was gone.
"I'm sorry, Sweetie," Fluttershy said. "But while you were unconscious, we all decided that we couldn't trust The Nightmare—I mean, Nótt—with your magic. At least not right away."
Eyes flaring briefly, Nótt took over. "Why you insolent—"
"No," Sweetie said, gritting her teeth in her own anger. "You don't get to drive."
Sweetie was shocked, both by the physical sensations of being cut off from her magic, and that her supposed friends could do such a thing to her.
"But why?" she said, meekly. "Don't you trust me?"
Dash, ever resolute, spoke up. "Sweetie Belle, we trust you but not her. Luna herself couldn't resist Nótt's temptations, and that nearly destroyed Equestria."
"But this is different! I know what I'm doing! I—"
"Sweetie!" Dash said. "You think you do, but what if you're wrong? Just, think, for just a moment, have you ever been wrong about something?"
She wanted to object, to insist that she was right, obviously she was right, but... how could she? Of course she wasn't perfect, and neither was her judgment. She thought back to being trapped in the pit with the obelisk. She'd been so confident going into that place, so certain of her power. But she'd almost died there, and taken her two best friends down with her. Apple Bloom had saved her from her overconfidence by literally driving nails through her hooves and climbing out. She still woke some nights, hearing the cries of pain her friend had made during that ascent. The fact that she now felt equally removed from her magic now as she had then only emphasized the connection. She felt tears start to well up in her eyes.
"I'm sorry," Sweetie Belle said, starting to sob. "I... I know I take risks. I do it all the time, but you're right. It's not fair of me to put you all at risk with something like this."
She felt a whoomph of heavy fur wrap around her, as Donner gave her a hug. "It's just for a little bit," the caribou said. "Until we know we can trust Nótt."
Sweetie wiped her eyes and nodded. "I understand. I'd probably do the same thing. But it's just scary, suddenly being without magic."
Donner chuckled, "And just last night, I was convinced you weren't afraid of anything at all!"
Sweetie Belle smiled, and leaned in for another hug. "Thanks," she said. "But now, I think I need to go calm Nótt down. She's about to give me a migraine with the tantrum she's throwing."
Sweetie sat back and closed her eyes for just a few seconds, and then they opened, the dark aura surrounded them. "I am," Nótt said. "here to apologize. I should not have interrupted Sweetie Belle earlier, nor insinuated that any of you were insolent."
Fluttershy spoke up first. "Thank you, Nótt. And I'm sorry we had to surprise both of you with that."
"Same here," Donner said. "We... well, we want to trust you, but that may take some time."
The others looked at Discord. "Hey, I'm not apologizing. I trust you about as far as I would trust me. Frankly I'm surprised these ponies give you any chance at all."
"Oh Dizzy, you don't mean that," Fluttershy chided.
Discord hung his head. "Okay, fine. Dearest Sis—Nótt—I really do hope you can be trusted, and I'm sorry if we've hurt those chances already." He looked at Fluttershy. "Better?"
"Much!" she chirped.
"Thank you all, I suppose," Nótt said. "I am uncertain how to proceed from here, however."
"I think I know how Sweetie would do it," Donner said, as she wrapped the Stygian in yet another hug. "Welcome, Nótt! I hope we can be friends."
The former Nightmare again felt a strange pressure in her eyes before she was returned to the ground. Then another caribou walked into the room.
"Oh, hey!" Blitzen said, rubbing sleep from his eyes. "Guess I overslept. Did I miss anything?"
The rest of the tent's occupants all shared a look.
"What?" Blitzen said, oblivious. "And who's that?" he said, pointing to the one with glowing red eyes.
"I am Nótt," she said.
"Not who?" Blitzen dutifully replied.
Everyone, including Nótt, broke out in laughter.
Yup, Discord thought, that was never going to get old!