• Published 21st Jun 2012
  • 1,472 Views, 22 Comments

The Nightmare - Sparkle



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

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2
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Chapter 2

General Stronghooves morosely looked up at the rain, as though he could will it to cease by pure spite. He bit down on his teeth, careful not to taint his well-polished, golden armour. His hooves were already soaked in mud. Above, strong and supple legs with thick musculature moving underneath, bulging under his armour. They lent a surprising heft to his gait. To each of his forehooves, a sword was attached, running parallel to his forelegs and glinting menacingly when a stripe of light hit it.

But a more subtle force lay in his eyes: eyes like tiny windows to a poked fire. His gaze was alert and searching and furious.

Nopony around. The street he walked was empty. Not a soul, not even mice or rats that otherwise scurried around the capital merrily. They must have perceived the particular aura that surrounded him. An aura that promised crushed critters under his hooves with a twitch.

He paused as his eyes lit upon the wooden sign he had been looking out for. It was an inn's sign creaking in the wind. The Prancing Pony. For a moment, he stood perfectly still as he looked up at the sign, chin up, chest out, like his own monument. As if he was focused on doing something invisible. Maybe sniffing in the rainy air, like a predator for prey. A cloud slid away, and narrow beams of moonlight lit on his face. His jaw was taut, as if he was clenching it.

The Prancing Pony,” he muttered.

***

“Acier,” Celestia said silently.

The stallion’s hard gaze metamorphosed into a smile, chiseled but soft.

“Tia,” he said. There was uncertainty in his voice.

Just inches from them, outside the bridge's protection, rain poured from heavy clouds like a revelation of divine motives, heavy drips shattering on the grubby ground like tiny bursting worlds.

Acier's mane was soaked and clung to his face in waterlogged streaks. His cheeks, like hers undoubtedly, had taken on a rosy sheen from the coolness of the rain. Every crease and wrinkle on his forehead promised to tell its own story.

She gulped. She felt numb and fresh from the bombardment of precipation herself, a prickling sensation of a hundred tiny needles pricking her all over, but not unpleasant. But the numbness was there. And her hooves were dazed from all the galloping they'd done.

“You know, Tia,” he said after a moment of silence, his soothing deep voice flowing around them like water around a rock, “I got something in my applebag that's sure to be better than potatoes.”

He opened it with his horn, and it was full of apples. The same saddlebag he had had the Eternal Flame in.

“You want one?” he asked mildly.

Without thinking, Celestia nodded. He placed a red apple in front of her with his horn, but she didn't pick it up, just stared at it like some foreign object. He began to eat himself, nonchalantly, staring out over the river. A silver horseshoe floated there.

Celestia took a deep breath and looked him straight in the eyes. She couldn't believe to have met him back here, out of all places, in the underbelly of Canterlot. She started to speak against the thunderstorm.

“I — thought you were —”

“Dead? No. They won't be getting me so easily.

“Not dead, I mean, I — I thought Stronghooves had — he'd have you under his control.”

Acier looked back at her. “That's what you thought, isn't it? Well, he had. But it was't all that difficult to get rid of that sod.”

“Acier, I —” She closed her eyes. “I betrayed you. I gave you away to Stronghooves I surrendered you.”

He said nothing and instead continued to stare at her.

“If I hadn't,” she continued, “if I hadn't — been so stupid, been so selfish, then all of this wouldn't have happened, I know you wanted to sop me from leaving the castle, and ins-instead of listening to you, all I thought to do was to have you ar—rested and -”

The words failed her and she just looked at him for a while. He sighed.

“It's okay, Tia. If anyone has done any wrong, it's not you. It was my job to protect you. That was the promise I'd made to your mother. To protect you, and to watch out for you. And I haven't been able to do that. If anybody's, it is my fault.”

“Don't say that,” she said with some bitterness. “Don't say that. You know it's not your fault. You know it's mine. Why are you saying that?”

“Well, it's too late to go back in time now. What has happened, has happened. No matter the consequences, we gotta start over with what we have now. That's how this game works. You fall, you pick yourself off the floor. Ad infinitum.”

“But — “

“But what?”

Celestia shook her head. She couldn't quite put in words what she had felt; it was a sort of hunger for punishment. She wanted to be chastised for her misdeeds. She wanted someone to finally speak the word she had been waiting for, to resolve her of this kind of unshared guilt that she couldn't let outside, not let escape the confines of her mind, the burden that was getting heavier with every second that passed. She wondered if he could read that in her gaze. Probably not. The wall between them was thick and high. She shook her head in confusion.

“Acier, how — how did you escape?”

He cocked his head. “Like I said, that really wasn't all that difficult. After all, Stronghooves has never been the brightest bulb in the socket. I told your mother that, but you, of course, were on a different cloud altogether. Not that I can blame you for that. After all, things were just very confusing at the time.”

“But what happened after I left the castle?”

“It was pretty easy convincing him to let me go. You know, I wasn't born yesterday, and ponies tend to believe the far-fetched and fancy and conspiratorial over what's easy to see. Luckily, you left us with that letter.”

“You just told him you really were working for Discord,” she said.

“Exactly.” He smiled at her. “And then, I left at once, looking for you. But I have no wings, and Discord's web already had the castle in a tight grip, so that I could hardly trust in anypony else. I galloped off towards Canterlot.”

She perked her ears to attention and scrutinised him. “Did you see—”

“—what happened? Well, when I arrived in the city, at the Square, there was this dense cloud of darkness. I knew right away what had happened. Always knew it was gonna come to this. I stood there for a while, just seconds, in one of the alleyways near Canterlot Square, facing that wall of darkness, and not daring to go one step further.

“Well, before I could think of anything else, there was this blindingly bright light. Blazing and glistening, ballooning up and driving away all that darkness as though it had never been there. I couldn't believe my eyes. But of course, I knew what had happened.” He looked at her, and she was sure to detect a trace of sadness in his gaze.

“You knew that—”

He shook his head. “And then it was all gone. All that darkness. Just like that. As though someone had turned on the lights. Just a normal September evening again. I stepped towards the Square. But there, in its centre, lay something surrounded by a strange and glowing aura. A pony. You.”

“But not only me,” she said silently.

“That's right. Not only you,” he said flatly, but didn't say anymore. “I knew I — I had to act quickly, before ponies were going to come and see what had happened. First of all, I dragged away that Sweetcorn guy. He had to disappear, no doubt about it.”

“But why?” she asked and immediately regretted the question.

“Because he's their idol and the symbol of his own martyrdom. You can't let them build a legend around that. I mean, it's happening anyway — that guy was clever, oh so very clever — but if they had his body, it'd be a hundred times worse and they'd put him in a glass casket or something.”

She said nothing, somewhere astray in thought. He had always been a practicality she had lacked.

“You had him disappear,” she said silently.

“That's right.”

She nodded and tried to catch the thought hovering in front of her.

“And — and my mother, did you —”

Her voice trailed off. If there was any question improper to ask, it was this one, and she knew it. But something in her needed to know. She bit down on her lip and waited for an answer. Acier just looked at her, his gaze deep but superficially emotionless, impenetrable, unchanging.

“Yes,” he said tonelessly. “I also had to make her disappear.”

She closed her eyes and in a flash, imagined Acier dragging away, using his horn, the motionless Queen Gaia. It was a very clear and sharp vision. The evening sun was golden and red over Canterlot Square, and she saw herself lying unconscious in its centre.

Yet of course, he had been right in doing so. He couldn't have left her mother's body there. For a while, she contemplated asking him where it was now: but was that really a question she wanted to know the answer to?

“In situations like this,” he said in spite of himself, “you need to think practical, and quick.”

Practical. Quick.

For a moment, the two stared out onto the river. Its surface was agitated and restless from the incessant bombardment with rain, and it sloshed wildly against its bed. Celestia was thankful that they were in the dry, but she did throw a quick look over her shoulder: this wasn't the most private place. From the bridge above them, the clip-clop of hoofsteps sounded, all lost wanderers. A feeble stroke of lightning halfheartedly sought its way downwards, but apparently lost interest halfway through and just faded away. And the night was dark again, safe for the gloomy illumination of torchlights.

Celestia sighed. “So you were the one who got me off the square.”

“I was,” he said earnestly. “I brought you to safety, that was all that mattered. You were fast asleep, a deep, dreamless sleep, that much was clear. I'd never seen you like that. Like a pupa. Closed off, shut off from the world, and plunged into another one. As if something was changing in you. Because your eyes were open, and they were moving as if they could see something in the distance. It was scary, Tia,” he said more casually than would have been authentic.

She wasn't surprised. There was something glum in her hope.

“Acier,” she said grimly. “I don't want you to call me Tia anymore. That's not who I am. That's behind me. I've changed.”

“And yet you call yourself Sunray out of all names.” He raised an eyebrow.

“That's different. But Tia — I've just changed, I —”

She took a deep breath, but before she could go on, he had spoken again, not looking at her, but somewhere into the void.

“You know, you didn’t need to say that. I could see that you’ve changed the very instant I looked into your eyes. It’s always raining now, isn’t it? Heavy, grey rain, everywhere, all the time. Well, it seems as though all the rain has flushed the spark from your eyes. They’re not lavender anymore. They’re grey, too, and washed out. I can’t look into those eyes and not feel as though something has died somewhere, and there’s really enough things that remind me of death in this world already, thank you very much.”

She blinked, feeling a melancholy spread in her that was just barely distinguishable from hollow affection. She furtively closed her lids, as though she was hoping to recreate some of that spark by shielding her eyes from the light some.

“It wasn’t that hard, really. I simply told him I was a collaborator of Discord, and he believed me. You see, at that point, Stronghooves had finally realised something that he had been missing out.”
“That the guards were running over to Discord.”

“Exactly. And once that happened, he knew which site he was going to be on. He tends to jump on bandwagons if he has the opportunity.”
“And now Discord has made him his general.”

“It’s Discord’s idea of a joke,” Acier said darkly. “Stronghooves is Discord’s very opposite. He wants military order and takes things more seriously than anybody, first of all himself. Chaos is a foreign thought to him. And what was more, Discord knew of your little ... story with him.”

“He did it to tease me?”

“That sounds just like him, doesn’t it?”

She nodded slowly.

“Discord doesn’t want to win a war, unlike someone like Stronghooves. No, no, all Discord wants is provoke one. That’s his energy. After all, he’s not a pony. He’s a force of nature. And so are you.”

She shook her head. “I’m nobody. I have lost everything. There’s no reason to expect anything of me. You see where that leads. I even betrayed you, when I should have —”

He waved his hoof dismissively. “Don’t worry about that now. If that’s what you want, then all is forgiven. Just make sure you lead us out of all this.”

She turned her head and looked out over the river.

“In Canterlot Castle, it never rained,” she said. Stray streaks of her rose mane covered her view. “And it never snowed. It was always warm, even in winter. But the truth that it was a prison. A prison, keeping me inside, locked in a golden cage. I can see that now. Now I’m free. Now at least, I can live a life that’s mine.”

She slowly raised her head, as though looking for confirmation. He stared back at her, his gaze inscrutable.

“There’s something I need to tell you.”

She hesitated, trying to put into words what had tormented her for so long. She had to say it. She had to tell someone. Her eyes sought out the vague beyond.

“I met her, you know,” she said, her voice steady but remote. “My mother. She was still there. Almost as if Discord had wanted her to stay alive long enough for me to still see her.”

She registered vaguely that he took a shallow breath.

“I talked to her, or... she talked to me. All that time, I wanted to feel sad. I knew that’s what I was supposed to feel. Sad about her. But instead, I felt something else. I felt this invisible wall between her and me. As if it kept the sadness from reaching me. An error in transmission. She told me she had started to see too much of her in me. What she meant to say was that she saw nothing of herself in Luna. She talked of grace. I didn’t say it out loud, but I wanted to tell her to shut up. I didn’t feel sad. I just felt angry. So very angry.”

She didn’t dare look at Acier, who didn’t say a word. Sheets of incessant rain floated over the river like fog, illuminated by the streetlights.

“Why did you feel angry, Tia?” he said finally. His voice lacked any tone.

She gulped. “Because she’s left me all alone. All alone in this world. Even though she promised to always love me. Us. But she didn’t. She didn’t. And then she just died, just like that. Under my eyes. As if it was nothing.”

She kept her eyes glued to the ground, her head bowed down. Her gaze was fixed because she needed to hold on to somewhere. Her eyes needed to rest if her mouth couldn’t.

“Did you cry?” Acier asked finally. It was impossible to tell what he was feeling.

“Yes,” she said. “I cried. I cried more than I have ever cried in my entire life up to this point. Even when I read Luna’s letter. I cried, and cried, and cried, until I was not sure if the puddles on the ground really were from the rain or from my own eyes. But I knew something was off. Something wasn’t how it was meant to be. Because I didn’t cry for my mother, oh no. I didn’t cry for her, even though I should have. Instead, I only cried for me. Selfish, childish tears for all that I’d lost and would never get back. Wallowing in self-pity and boundless egoism.”

He was silent. From the corner of her eye, she saw that he kept his eyes wide open, looking in the opposite direction. But their exact expression remained hidden by the shadows.

“And then it all stopped, just like that. Like a turned-off tap. In that instant, I had a brief vision of the future. Not even a vision, but a simple certainty. I knew that I was never going to cry again. No matter how long I was going to live, no matter what was going to happen, never, never again would I shed another tear.”

She slowly turned her head to look at him. “Is all still forgiven?” she asked, her voice foreign and rattling. But her eyes were wide and searching. “Is all still forgiven?” she repeated.

“I can’t absolve you from that,” he muttered finally. His beady eyes seemed to look right through her. “Nobody can absolve you from your own feelings.”

She nodded, maybe disappointed, but most of all, disgusted with herself. “That day,” she went on, “that day, I had sworn to do everything I could to get revenge on Discord. Revenge for what he’s done to me. Revenge for what he’s taken from me. I wanted to make him pay. To hurt him. Not be gracious. Not even with my horn. With my own hooves. Do you understand?”

He sighed and lowered his gaze, but she still fixed him intently. Her lips quivered. She needed him to understand. She needed someone to understand, finally, anyone.

“Anything?” he muttered darkly.

Anything.”

“Then he’s already won.”
She recoiled in surprise. Celestia hadn’t expected that answer. The stallion’s gaze lay heavy on her, as though he had seen someone entirely new in her that he had never noticed before, that he didn’t recognise. Celestia could hardly blame him for that. She herself didn’t recognise who she was anymore. She lost herself in bottomless nightmares where she fell into that black abyss time and time again, plunging into the depths, swallowed by that suffocating darkness.

“Thoughts like spiders,” he said. “Can’t you see that? Weaving their poisonous web in your mind, envenoming your heart. That’s what Discord does. Don’t let him do that to you, too. Not you out of all ponies.”

“Why not me? There’s nothing special about me. I’m not better than the rest of us. Better get used to that thought.” She drooped her head and looked glumly at her cutie mark. “Celestia Sunray, and Luna Moonlight? Nothing but a cheap metaphor.”

“But it’s all we’ve got, cheap metaphors. I guess they’ll have to stand in for genuine hope.”

She shook her head. “Who says I have any more right to rule than Discord? Who says I’m anything more than him? I’m not the best of us. I sometimes wonder if I deserve this life at all.”

“If your thoughts should turn to death,” he said quietly, “you gotta stomp them out, you hear me? You gotta stomp them out, do you understand? It takes effort to have hope. That’s why the weak have none.

“You once asked me,” he went on, “if I had ever broken a promise, and I told you yes. You couldn’t know that at the time, but I was talking about a very specific promise. One that I had made to your mother. I swore I would protect you, if necessary with my death.”

“Then you’re the opposite of me.”

“Because you would never die for somepony else?”

“Because I can’t,” she said darkly. She glared at her own cutie mark. “Celestia Sunray, and Luna Moonlight.” She shook her head, incredulously, but with endless sadness. “I’m not sure this is a game I wanna play.”

“Are you giving up?” he asked outright.

“I can’t give up, I never pl—”

“Yes, you did play. And you don't just play for yourself, mind you. You're playing for all of us. If you want to or not. Do you still have it?”

“Have what?”

“The Flame.”

She nodded.

“Then not all is lost.”

Finally, Acier had enough of the gloomy talk. “Here, have one.” He lifted the apple lying untouched in front of her into the air before her. “And don’t tell me you aren’t hungry. You are. We’ll have another time to think about what we’re going to do next.”

She finally accepted, reluctantly, but genuinely thankful.

They ate in silence. The rain abated and gave the tormented river surface a rest; single thick, heavy drops fell to the ground from the bridge above them. She was thankful that they had the fire, as the coldness of winter was already drawing closer. Their dancing shadows were cast on the bridge’s underbelly like an eery echo from another world.

Celestia had said more than what she had wanted to say, and just like expected, sharing her sentiments had been a double-edged sword. It had externalised some of her shame, but now it was out in the open, it seemed even more oppressing. As she cast sideway glances at Acier, eating with dignity, she couldn’t help but feel inferior to this no doubt braver pony than herself. She again wondered why he didn’t have a cutie mark. She could always ask later. There was a time for everything. The whole trick was to find that time.

They raised their head. Somewhere in the distance, in the general direction of where they had come from, a column of thick smoke rose up into the air.

“He brings out the worst in ponies, you know,” Acier said glumly as he stared at it. “Discord. This whole city be damned if things go on like this.”

Celestia thought of Foxtrot. We all need friends in these dark times. She still had the note with her, with a date and a time on it. Then Foxtrot’s image disappeared, and Celestia believed to have seen a different face in the dark rain.

“The Night-mare,” she whispered.

Acier said nothing as more and more rain bled into the river.

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Comments ( 7 )

Ooh, does this mean it's off hiatus? Reading now.

So does this mean that this story is on again? If so, then I am grateful since I have enjoyed the price of grace a lot! Keep up the good work buddy :)

Yes! Yes! Oh god yes! Good to see you back :D I shall read this chapter greedily.

It been awhile. Are you now working on this story.:pinkiehappy:

Whale oil beef hooked

Oh thank god, I was beginning to, I was thinking it was cancelled.

ooo fuck I didn't know this updated

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