• Published 21st Jun 2012
  • 1,467 Views, 22 Comments

The Nightmare - Sparkle



Exiled, Princess Celestia must face the fate of eventually banishing Nightmare Moon -- her sister.

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Chapter 1

It was a rainy, cloudy night, as always these days, and the clock had just struck ten. At the Canterlot inn The Prancing Pony, the sparse evening clientele that still cared to visit was involved in brooding, hushed conversations, sipping the one beer they would drink all evening as slowly as possible. The small tap room, covered in rustic wood panelling, was gloomy, and so were its customers.

The door flew open, and the good dozen of ponies all turned to look at the newcomer. Apprehension lay in their eyes: no one here could use any more trouble than they already had, and any newcomer meant potential trouble.

In the doorframe stood a slender, pristinely white young unicorn mare, maybe seven-, eighteen, and looked at them with calm round eyes. She wore a soaked cloak that enveloped her body and hid away her mane. Behind her, the heavy rain pelted down in thick torrents, bombarding the cobblestone so insistently that it ought to have left holes. Lightning tore through the night outside.

Everyone present knew what the mare’s questioning gaze was supposed to mean, and the innkeeper, a withered stallion, sketched a nod: Yes, you can come in. She nodded and fumblingly closed the door behind her with a hoof. The sound of the thunderous rain was shut out once more. The innkeeper narrowed his eyes, watching her approach.

“Something to drink, lady?” he asked loudly as she came closer, stalking her hooves, her eyes wandering over the floor that was sticky with spilt beer. The whole room smelt of dirt and liquorice.

“No, thank you,” she said. She had a voice like molten butter, clear, smooth and mellow, that left a profound ring and seemed to betray a wisdom beyond her age, while still having a certain soft edge to it. It pleased the stallions present, no doubt about it. “I just want something to eat, please.”

“To eat! Of course. Well, what’s it gonna be?”

She hesitated. She did look very hungry. “You don’t happen to... do you have zucchini with toasted champignons?”

Unwittingly, he fixed her gaze on her as though she was a creature from another world — which, without his knowledge, she was. Then he screwed his face into a weird expression.

“Unfortunately, we just ran out of zucchini. How about grilled aubergines with a honey-mustard sauce and fresh lettuce? Or how about hay sauté with an aside of freshly-picked truffles, garnished with radicchio and a butter sauce, the milk for which I have milked personally from my large stock of fat cows —”

“I get it, thank you,” she said quietly.

“So taters it is?” His eyes sparkled irritatedly.

She nodded, hastily looking around; she felt suspicious looks on her back. She couldn't help but crane her neck to watch how he fumbled with stove and pot, but the stallion’s broad back obstructed the view completely. When he turned around, in any case, he held a plate full with unpeeled, but boiled potatoes on one hoof.

“There’s shoots on the—” she began, but bit herself on the lip when she met his gaze.

“That’ll be ten bits,” he said cooly. The price was outrageous, and he was closely watching her reaction to see if he could get away with it. But it had been in vain anyway.

“I don’t have that much,” she said truthfully.

“Oh? So how much do you have?”

“O-one.”

“Just one bit,” he said, and his eyes started wandering over her body. “Funny, I’d have thought you’d make more.”

She kept her eyes peeled to the ground and said nothing. His gaze rested heavy on her, but he seemed to conclude that she had spoken the truth. He raised an eyebrow.

“You know, there’s something off about you. Can’t quite put my hoof on it. But you’ve got shiny fur and pretty eyes, and yet you’re clothed like a beggar. And then, you’ve got a long horn, but by the looks of it, don’t deign to use it. Neither to open the door nor to accept the plate. Are you doing that out of courtesy, maybe? You think us lowly earth ponies will get all jealous if you use your horn powers?”

“No,” she said after a while and looked up, and her gaze was so deep that the barpony believed to be swallowed by it. “I ... I can’t use my horn at the moment, so I prefer using my hooves. It’s — a health issue.”

He stared at her and finally clucked his tongue, as if to break the silence. “A health issue. I see. I’m sorry to hear that. Say, would you mind taking off your hood? Just so that we can marvel at your pretty mane.”

She looked at him questioningly, but he didn’t change his mind. With a glance towards the plate of potatoes, she slowly pulled back the hood some with a hoof — just enough for a long, thick mane of a uniform pink to fall out. She could feel all looks on her, and the barkeeper was unwittingly biting his lower lip.

“Okay,” he said finally. “Pretty. Just rose, I mean pink, just a solid pink.”

“Just a solid pink,” she repeated, staring him directly in the eyes. She gulped, and her hungry gaze wandered back to the potatoes.

“When was the last time you ate?” he asked, now taking in the rest of her figure with less and less misgivings. “You look lank.”

“Yesterday.” She put the one bit she had on the wooden bar with a dumb sound. “And now, please.”

He looked at the coin, then shook his head. “That’s on the house. Diced daffodils would have cost you, but not this, don’t worry.”

“Thank you.” She was wary of his magnanimity, but too hungry to refute the offer on such high grounds; about to turn away from the bar and seek herself a secluded table, she turned back to look at him once more, her gaze lowered meekly, her voice a mere murmur. “I also don’t have a place to stay for the night,” she said in deference.

“Well, you’ve got no money, do you?”

“Trod, almost all your rooms are empty anyway, what do you want? Let her,” called out one of the shady stallions in the background. The single stallion that sat alone at the bar, drinking a beer, turned to throw him a glance.

“Oh, I would, but if I did that, all the homeless ponies would come here to stay for free, no?” the innkeeper retorted. “Gotta value my property, or I have nothing left. An inn that gives rooms away is not an inn at all anymore, but a shelter.”

“I’m sure we need a great deal more shelters than inns in these times.”

He sighed, then looked at her and nodded. A kind spirit. This one wouldn’t make obscene requests, she estimated. She hoped. A pretty young mare like you doesn’t have to be out in the cold rain... she’d heard that phrase more often than she could bear.

“But no word to anyone,” he swore her in. “If this gets spread around, people will run down my doors. The least thing I want is trouble. And you know what they say: render unto the innkeeper what is the innkeeper’s, render unto the Nightmare what is the Nightmare’s.”

And he nodded to dismiss her.




Princess Celestia balanced the plate to a secluded table and started tucking in greedily, shovelling the potatoes with her hooves into her mouth, ignoring the eyeballs on her and for once not caring about her appearance, only seeking to fill that large, gaping hole in her stomach as fast as possible. When the first hunger was satisfied, she did her best not to throw everything up again. The potatoes had gone bad at least a week ago, but who was she to complain?

Who was she to do anything anymore?




Celestia, who came from a different world, had no way of knowing it: but usually, when there’s peace, ponies congregate in shady pubs to gossip, talk about the weather, their friends and spouses, the hoofball matches and pegasus races, and (maybe all too merry) smiles abound. When there’s the menace of war, however, ponies only talk about war. It dominates any conversation, even the silent ones.

If words were spoken, it was in a hushed, raw, subdued tone, as if the walls had ears or as if enunciating these half-remembered rumours gave them a certain solidity, a reality that they tried to avoid. And yet, saying them out loud, sharing them with others, provided a certain relief.

Still chewing on the potatoes, Celestia started to pick up on shreds of words the ponies around her were exchanging. No doubt, they weren't expecting her to participate or even listen.

"—did you hear that the pegasi are renouncing Canterlot for good? Word has it they're building their own city, a city in the clouds —"

“— and here in Canterlot, they’ll put in a new mayor soon, that’s what I’ve heard, and it’s gonna be a unicorn who says is gonna crack down on anarchist violence —”

A groan went through the ponies. As far as Celestia could see, they were almost all earth ponies except for herself and the older stallion, who was sipping his beer alone at the bar. His eyes lit up.

“Of course, all the old officials disappeared, didn’t they? There ain’t no nobility at Canterlot anymore.”

“Good riddan—”

“Shh.” Two round, glowing dots turned around to look at Celestia. Below them, a mouth smiled apologetically. Soon, the agitated whispers recommenced.

One of them mentioned General Stronghooves. The name seemed to instil instant fear in the ponies. Celestia’s reaction, however, was rather different. It wasn’t visible to any of the other ponies in the sparse inn hall, but in the cover of the darkness, her eyes lit up with the determined expression only the betrayed can have.

That had been a different time, when she had been a naive child. Nothing of the sort would happen again. Trust you don’t have can’t be betrayed. You care, you lose.

She looked up: a pony had sat down opposite her. At first, she expected the lecherous gaze of a stallion with clear intentions -- but the unicorn sitting across from her was a mare. She had a long, wavy blond mane that had been bound up into ponytails for practical purposes. Her fur was a sleek brown, for the most part, with blonde spots here and there. Celestia estimated that she was barely two years older than herself. The mare’s eyes were green and sharp; her pupils, focused on Celestia, were narrow, and they had a strange sparkle to them, like those of a wild cat.There was a certain raw, unadorned prettiness to her.

“What happened on Canterlot Square?” the mare asked simply. Her voice was slightly smoky.

Celestia looked at her in surprise. “And... who wants to know this?”

“My name is Foxtrot. What happened on Canterlot Square?” asked the mare again, eagerly, hastily. “You know, don’t you? You know what happened?”

“Nobody knows what happened,” Celestia said finally, looking down onto her plate, now more politely busying herself with her potatoes.

“But you do,” insisted the mare. “Because you were there. Right?”

Celestia stared into the twilight.




Four weeks had passed since she had lost everything. Four weeks had passed since she had turned into someone else. Four weeks had passed since she was no longer a child, and since hopelessness, despair and distrust had spread throughout Equestria.

But what had really happened on that fateful day on Canterlot Square? She was unable to say. Because while she had been there, the reality of the events was ever harder to ascertain. She remembered bits and pieces, flashing to the fore of her mind with unreal intensity, like fever dreams. The dead Sweetcorn, his mane spread out and floating on a blackened puddle, his red eyes shimmering feebly. A stained-glass window. Images hanging in the air like wafts of mist.

Darkness. Darkness everywhere.

And then light. All-consuming light, and then nothing.

What had happened on Canterlot Square, what had been the events leading up to this disaster? Discord had presented her his version, but whether it was the truth, she simply didn’t know. She wanted it to be a lie, however improbable it was. She herself had done everything to find out. But no one could help her. No one could tell her what she needed to know the most.

She had revisited Canterlot Square. All the houses there were destroyed: that much was certain. The town hall had been razed to the ground. There were traces of flames, soot, blackened surfaces. The place had been cleaned up only provisionally.

There were no signs of dead ponies or anything of the sort, however. As though nobody had ever been there. And nobody dared to go there now any longer. Not because the square had been cordoned off, but because word had it that it was cursed.

She sought out the stories of ponies who had been on that square, waiting for Sweetcorn. On her cautious prowl through Canterlot, a city now grey with despair and shuttered windows, she had sometimes found faces she believed to recognise from the crowd of demonstrators on Canterlot Square; but she was afraid to talk to them in fear they might recognise her for who she was, something she had to avoid at all cost. In his final and grandest trick, Sweetcorn had, after all, convinced the crowd that the Queen, Celestia’s mother, had betrayed them all.

Apart from them, very little had transpired from Canterlot Square — at least very little that was spoken out aloud. All that everyone in the city knew was that something horrible of one kind or another had taken place there. The known facts went somewhat like this: anarchist protestors and Sweetcorn sympathisers had been on Canterlot Square. Then, some kind of riot had broken out there, the same night the Grand Galloping Gala had taken place up at Canterlot Castle — from which none of the invited nobles would return. And finally, people had seen a great shadow in the sky over Canterlot, like that of a giant bird of prey.

A shadow now known only as the Night-mare.

After that, darkness had enveloped Canterlot Square and the events on it, and everypony that had witnessed them had either committed to silence or been too unreliable to be trusted. Some said that nothing had taken place there, and that everyone had escaped unscathed before somepony fed it to the flames. Others said that multiple or every single protester on the Square had died, assailed by either, according to the respective version, an entirely unfamiliar threat — the Nightmare, by Queen Gaia’s soldiers, or by Gaia herself, even; by her daughter, or by Sweetcorn. In short, common, reliable knowledge about the actual events on the Square was nonexistent. Ponies believed what they wanted to believe and feared everything. If you are not sure who the enemy is, the most prudent strategy seemed to deem everyone the enemy.





“How do you know I was there, the night of the attack?” Celestia said finally, preferring not to deny it.

“You said you lost your horn’s power. You’re not the only one, you know. I’ve heard that so many times from so many unicorns that they lost their horn’s powers that day.”

It was true. Celestia had heard the same stories. For some reason, unicorns present on that square has lost their powers afterwards -- but for most, they had come back after a while. Not so for Celestia, and she had her suspicions as to why.

“You’re right, I was there. But I prefer not to talk about it. And what is it to you, anyway?” Celestia said finally, without challenge, just looking with open, calm eyes at the mare opposite her.

Foxtrot lowered her gaze. “I’ve lost someone on that square that day. Someone very important to me. And I don’t know where he is now, I haven’t heard from him, and nopony — nopony — can tell me.”

“Who did you lose?”

“My fiancé.”

Celestia nodded slowly. “I lost someone on that square, too,” she said finally. She didn’t know where it came from, her faith in this strange mare, but she decided to hold on to it nonetheless.

“Who?”

“My mother.”

The mare looked at her, with hurt, green eyes. “I’m sorry.”

Celestia only shook her head.

“And now? Do you have other family you can go to?”

Celestia shook her head.

“A father?”

No.

“Siblings?”

Celestia hesitated, then again shook her head.

“So you’re all alone in this world.”

“That’s right. Thanks for rubbing it in.”

Their eyes met, and for a short moment, Celestia believed to have seen a rush of sympathy — or admiration? — in the mare opposite her that was so very different from herself.

“So where did you go then?” Foxtrot asked. “I mean, afterwards.”

Celestia’s gaze wandered off into the distance.





When she had woken up, in an abandoned alleyway, days had gone by. She had no idea how she had gotten there, how she had left the Square, where she had collapsed after that sudden outburst of boundless power, after channelling the one source of warmth and light inside her that would never go away and driving away the dense darkness that the Night-mare had left in her wake. After her awakening.

Whatever the details, now she was no longer a princess. Instead, she was homeless, orphaned, lost, without a bit to her name. Washed up on hostile shores. She couldn’t use her wings anymore: the left wing was still broken and healing only very slowly, still causing her atrocious pain sometimes that she attempted to swallow down. In any case, no one could see her wings. If people realised she was an alicorn, she would raise unnecessary suspicions that were bound to get her discovered sooner rather than later.

So she tried her best to adjust to the new situation. Tried to make ends meet and become the pony she thought she needed to be now, instead of clinging on to the pony she had once been. That had been the past, now was the present.

She made do. But feeling so alone, she had done horrible things — not just for money, but also to fill that gaping, aching emptiness in her that she tried in vain to deny. On bedsheets in salacious nights, Celestia had desperately attempted to fill it up, only for it to come back with a vengeance; reliving the feeling of falling down into a deep abyss time and time again, and then, only standing at its precipice, the addictive bliss and torture of mind. But when the feeling had waned and receded, every single time, she felt like another part of her had been lost. As if the hole in her had once again grown bigger, sucking everything down with it into the abyss of oblivion.

And there was a simple truth that Celestia was too ashamed to confide in anyone. Since that night on the Square, she hadn’t been able to cast the simplest of spells. Her magic had, after that sudden and uproarious outburst, completely dried up. Because it lay in chains — Celestia was sure about that. Because it was bound off by something that she would need to break off. A poisoned spot on her soul that would keep her from doing magic again. She tried to ignore it; but that was impossible. That ugly spot on her soul was also, she was convinced, the reason why the multi-coloured sheen had left her mane to leave an even, unremarkable pink behind. That way, her mane raised less suspicions, to be sure -- but it also was visible proof that something had been lost in her.

Her attempts to combat that poisoned spot on her soul were futile, but agitated and breathless. When afterwards, after a short while of exhilaration and short breath, she drifted off into a shallow slumber, it never lasted for too long; either were the feelings still too present, or she had seen haunting images in her dreams that faded away with the dawn. Then, those half-remembered images momentarily seemed more real to her than the new truth she was finding herself in.

In either case, the awakening after these always came with a crash. The by now distant feeling, both interior and exterior, made her feel disgusted with herself: what had felt meaningful and fulfilling the night before now felt revolting and empty. What was more, it disconnected her from anyone she had ever thought she had been, relegating memories ever further from truth and ever closer to fantasy. Celestia had changed, definitely and forever.

She was always quiet as she went, careful not to wake the peacefully breathing pony on the bed, leaving the chamber and descending the stairs on light hooves, but with a heavy heart.






“I made do,” she murmured.

Celestia wondered whether the mare opposite her could read her soul and see the abysses she had been to. Whether she could sense her despair, either out of empathy, or maybe because she herself had been there, too. A part of her wanted Foxtrot to understand. So that her fate may become a little lighter, once shared.

Foxtrot nodded thoughtfully, scanning Celestia with her eyes. “You don’t have to tell me,” she murmured. “You’re young, you oughtn’t have the weight of such a fate on your shoulder.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Celestia gave back. “You’ve lost someone, too, that’s enough to gnaw on.”

“Say, I didn’t catch your name before?”

“— Sunray.” From the corner of her eyes, she believed to see one of the stallions at the bar turn around curiously.

“A pretty name,” Foxtrot said, observing Celestia’s reaction.

“Thank you. Say,” she frowned, “what was your fiancé’s name? I’ll be on the lookout for ... for any news on him.”

“Chuckbolt.”

Celestia gulped.

“You know him?”

She quickly shook her head, but Foxtrot was watching her curiously.

“Just heard of him,” Celestia said. “He’s — he was in the army, right?”

“He was,” she said sadly. “And so was I. But not anymore. The army has changed, after all.”

“Stronghooves?”

Foxtrot nodded, scanning her.

“Say, do you have enough money to survive for the next days?”

“Yeah.”

“So, if I understood that correctly before, you think one bit is enough?”

Celestia said nothing.

“How did you earn money before? Or did you always enjoy someone’s charity when it came to food?”

She jerkily shook her head. She didn’t want to speak about it.

“Did you steal?”

“Never.” And that was the truth.

Foxtrot, biting her lips, slowly reached into her saddlebag and took out a large, silver coin, putting it on the tableplate. She pushed it over to Celestia, still fixing her with her eyes.

Celestia returned her a questioning look; when she realised the mare’s intention, she just shook her head in shame. But Foxtrot insisted.

“It’s just money. Nothing important. Take it. I’ve got more where it’s come from. Better for you to have something to eat than for these pieces of metal to lie around uselessly, don’t you think?”

She looked incredulously at the money on the table, at least a hundred bits, and then back at the mare.

“Why are you helping me?”

“We all need help. And because I’m a unicorn, too. That binds together.”

But that wasn’t the bond Celestia had been looking for.

“And a mare.”

“And a mare. — Listen, if you care to come.” She handed Celestia a parchment with a hastily scribbled address. “Me, and a few friends of mine, we meet on Sundays at dusk, at the old Observatory on the hill. Do you know where that is?”

“I do,” said Celestia tonelessly, frowning. She had been there, once, as a filly with her mother: tt used to be called Royal Observatory. But apparently, that adjective no longer was part of its name.

“I would be happy to see you there. I think we might even still have zucchini, if not for long.” Foxtrot smiled, a little sadly, but genuinely. There was something in her gaze that captivated Celestia. That stirred something in her heart.

“Well, goodbye, Sunray. We gotta stick together, remember that, and we all need friends, especially in these times. I’d be happy to see you again. And tell me if you’ve got news on him.”

“I will,” Celestia said quietly. She watched the young mare leave through the door into the rain. But she knew already, of course, what had happened to the mare’s fiancé Chuckbolt: he was, without a doubt, dead.





Still thinking about that encounter, the first one with a friendly soul of this kind, she gulped down the final potatoes still left on her plate, feeling the utter satisfaction of a full stomach and vanquished hunger. She looked around. The other ponies were still talking in hushed voices, except those that sat drinking alone. No one besides her was eating.

Foxtrot, she thought. She looked at the parchment the mare had left her, with chickenscratch announcing that they met at dawn every Sunday, at the observatory. Celestia wondered if she should go. She couldn’t really trust anypony; but she had to trust somepony, and Foxtrot had made a connection with her. We all need friends, she’d said.




Suddenly, Celestia realised that something was wrong. She felt the innkeeper’s gaze on her, and slowly, every head in the inn turned towards her. He extended a shaking hoof to point at her.

“You’re Princess Celestia,” he said, white-faced.

Her satisfaction over a full stomach was immediately replaced with sudden sickness. She felt the blood rush to her skull, her vision becoming clearer, her flight instincts firing.

“Listen —”

“W-well, I’ve sent someone to give word to the army and — and I’ve closed the door, and you can’t es-escape from here and — “

Two stallions approached her left and right and grabbed for her, and she was already preparing to buck out at them; but somepony else took over that duty for her. The cloaked stallion at the bar had struck down the innkeeper and was pointing a bow at Celestia’s two attackers, shifting it from the one to the other. The taut string tensed with his horn, which was glowing in the gloom of the dark room.

“Get away from her,” he growled. It was a voice that she immediately recognised.

The two stallions let go of her and slowly retreated as he approached. Just now, the barkeeper was getting back up on his hooves, dizzy, and noticed that his keyring had been taken. The other guests stayed frozen in total fear.

“Everypony on the ground,” the cloaked stallion barked. “Now!”

There was sudden commotion as everyone hurried to follow his order. Celestia breathed flatly, through the nose, her heart pounding feverishly in her chest.

The stallion approached her and, putting a hoof on her chest, pushed her back towards the backdoor. Without saying a word, he dragged her along towards the back of the room. She closed her eyes.

“When I say run,” her murmured to her, “you’ll know what that means, won’t you.”

Using the magic of his horn, he inserted the key into the backdoor’s lock and turned it around. It clicked. He still wielded the bow menacingly at the rest of the ponies in the pub. The pasty innkeeper threw nervous glances towards the front door.

It burst open — the front door. Two soldiers entered, in heavy armour and themselves armed with bows, pointing them towards Celestia and her protector.

“RUN!”

They bucked open the backdoor, bursted out of it and threw it back into its lock with a clatter, galloping out into the night and the rain of the dirty alley as fast as they could, getting away from that place as soon as possible. They could never return to that inn, that much was clear. Someone had been on to Celestia’s tracks.

They lost themselves in the seedy entrails of Canterlot, not its formerly pretty centre, but where the real life was going on, the shady web of alleyways and cluttered backyards, framed with high-rise, dirty buildings left and right. Finally, when they were sure they couldn’t be followed anymore, they caught their breath under a wooden bridge, next to the river, finally sheltered from the rain. It smelt of water and urine. They watched the rain bombard the water surface with concentric rings; above them, under heavy clouds, thunder pealed. They were soaked to the bone.

Finally, they had regained their breath. The hooded stallion, still panting slightly, threw her a look. His voice was mild and rough.

Sunray, really — couldn’t you have come up with a less telling alias?”

There was a knot in her heart as she answered, her gaze desperate. “Acier?”

He pulled back his hood fully. Age hadn’t dealt him a blow; instead, the changed situation of war and exile appeared to have imbued him with a new vitality, arisen out of necessity. His grey fur shimmered slickly with the rain, and his brown eyes fixated her, not without warmth.

The harsh face, with all its carved-in wrinkles, metamorphosed into a soft smile. It was a smile of more fortunate circumstances.

Tia.”


To be continued, maybe....


While this is an independent story, some passages reference events in "The Price of Grace." If you would still like to read that story yourself, be warned that this summary obviously includes spoilers.

In “The Price of Grace,” Luna and Celestia grow up together at Canterlot Castle, but at the same time apart. The young Celestia grows attached to the much older master of the guards, Acier, who becomes the father figure she never had. It is revealed that Discord has pulled the strings of her and Luna's separation, eventually utilising a puppet body called “Sweetcorn” to sow distrust and strife. Through a wily scheme, Discord manages to stage his final act on Canterlot Square, killing Luna’s and Celestia’s mother Queen Gaia by her own daughter Princess Luna and taking over Luna’s soul, turning her into Nightmare Moon. Celestia is unable to prevent this.

At the end of The Price of Grace, Celestia inherits the token and artefact of her mother’s power, a diamond called the Eternal Flame that is worn on a gold collar, and finds the awakening of her own dormant, magical power. However, she is now in exile in her own country, and Canterlot Castle in the hands of Discord’s minions and military apparatus. Meanwhile, Discord has succeeded in sowing distrust and strife in the whole of Equestria. The air smells of civil war, and Canterlot slowly sinks into a bleak despair.

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