• Published 16th Dec 2011
  • 38,063 Views, 604 Comments

Daylight Burning - Guesswork

The return of an ancient enemy draws the ponies into a deadly spy game.

  • ...

Chapter 1: Ships on Fire

Chapter 1

Princess Celestia had been through quite a bit in two thousand years.

She had seen every corner of the world, squared off against countless monsters and villains, had loved and lost a hundred generations of friends. Celestia was no stranger to the weight of memory, and although she spent each day ruling with an eye toward the future, each night she found herself haunted by dreams of the past. Faces of ponies long-gone, images of battles, conflicts, tragedies and sorrows, all centuries old. A vivid memorial of a life perhaps too long-lived. But the Princess of the Sun was well accustomed to it by now, and she was strong-- she'd always been strong, even before becoming immortal. She bore the burden. She weathered. She made do.

And yet, it was with a unique foreboding that she awoke this night, heart pounding and body sheathed in sweat. She had been dreaming of suffocation, of a tide of darkness, cloying, flowing into her nose and mouth, black fog like oil, choking her, stealing away any hope of breath.

But she was awake now... wasn't she? The sleep amnesia threatened to pull her back under again, to trap her in the clutches of a terrible dream she already only half remembered. With a sense of desperation, Celestia turned over in bed and fumbled with the lantern, struggling to wake fully, almost knocking the fixture off the nightstand. Only after a tense few seconds did she managed to ignite the wick with a spark of magic, allowing her royal bedchamber to burst into light. Colorful tapestries, ornate vanity, four-post bed. The Princess's heart relaxed a bit to see that she was safe at home in her castle, that everything was indeed okay, that the dream was only a dream. But the calm lasted scant moments before being replaced by icy realization.

"I'm blind," she whispered, sweeping her blurred gaze across the room. "Blind in one eye." She waved a hoof in front of her face, but sure enough, she could see only blackness on the right side.

Panic did not come easily to the Princess of the Sun, but it lay there now, just under the surface. There has to be a reasonable explanation for this, she thought. She could feel her pulse pounding in her temples. Get up! Shake it off! You are royalty, now act like it!

The Princess pushed herself out of bed, hooves alighting on the throw-rug, stretching her white feathered wings out and rolling the crick from her neck. She stamped a few times, regaining balance, and glided over to the mirrored vanity to inspect herself.

How in the world could I have gone blind? she pondered, sweeping back her mane to reveal an apparently uninjured eye. Alright, filly, think it through. You don't age, but you can still be injured. Did you sleep on it wrong? Did you get a crystal shard in it? Did the shower stream hit you in the eye last night and dislodge your retina?? She had read about that one, and knew that it was possible, although not very likely.

Or maybe... she thought suddenly, is it possible that I'm just... getting old? It had been millennia since this had even crossed her mind. It's taken for granted that my sister and I are immortal, but nopony really knows how long Luna and I will live. Another thousand years, a million, a trillion-trillion... or maybe just until today.

Celestia shook her head angrily. Stop it! Stop scaring yourself. Consult the royal physician before leaping to conclusions. There was still plenty of time before sunrise. She let out a long sigh. Might as well take a second to straighten up. If I've somehow taken ill, it will do nothing but harm for ponies to see me wandering the castle looking like a crazy, old nag.

Celestia swallowed the lump in her throat, willing her heart to slow down-- which it did, albeit slowly. Once she felt a bit more in-control of herself, she lifted an ivory comb with her magic, running it through her mane, and glanced in the mirror at her world-famous cutie mark. Eight rays of the golden sun: an image known to every mare, foal, and stallion in Equestria. A symbol that held her people, her nation, her world together. Except this time, one ray was missing.

She counted the rays again. Seven. Then a third time, and a fourth. Seven. Seven! Seven curving spokes, where there should be eight-- where all her adult life, there had been eight. She had barely begun to process this bizarre turn of events when right there in full-view, another ray of her sun cutie-mark faded away to nothing, leaving now a gaping, bare patch of white hair on her flank, and the remaining rays lopsided. Six. Barely-contained panic crept another step towards full-blown terror.

It's some sort of countdown... she realized. But a countdown to what?

Her royal cutie mark made for a nearly limitless power-supply, which meant that literally anything could happen when the timer reached zero. A wormhole, a temporal rift, a nuclear megaspell... any or all of these events... She could vaporize her entire castle, her entire kingdom, or even worse. Much worse.

It was time to leave.

The Princess snatched her crown and torc from their glass case and dashed for the window as her jewelry caught up with her. She would fly away, as high as she could go-- into the stratosphere if necessary. She knew she could even survive at least a little while in the vacuum of space. Celestia could contact her sister once she had reached a safe distance. That's what I'll do. I can beat this. But the Princess had not made it ten steps before her cutie mark flared a terrible yellow-orange, and a jagged knife of pain lanced through her heart.

The immortal mare gasped and doubled over, waves of nausea crashing over her, as her knees buckled and her royal accouterments clanged onto the flagstones behind her.

What... what was that!!?

Celestia turned and leaped again for the windowsill, but the knife twisted and cut, tearing a shout of surprise from her lips. She almost fell again, staggering forward, clutching her chest and hobbling on three legs. Have to save my castle... Have to save my subjects... The Princess had almost made it to the threshold, when a final slice of agony flipped the world upside down and she crashed to the floor.

She had never felt pain like this before. Not when Queen Chrysalis had defeated her six years ago. Not even at the hooves of Nightmare Moon. It was like her very essence was being destroyed.

My soul, she realized. My soul! It's not attacking my body, it's attacking my soul... The knife twisted and tore. Her eyes rolled back in her head. She gulped air and still couldn't breathe. Time stood still with only the shrieking of pain in her ears.

And only then did she realize that she wasn't alone.

"Give in, Celestia," whispered the other presence, in a voice like cool breath on the back of her neck.

Something else, but not in the room. This voice was coming from inside of her own mind.

"We both know it's already over," said the voice. "You made sure of that yourself."

Whoever you are, she called into her thoughts, you have made a terrible mistake coming here.

"Oh, Celestia, I disagree," said the voice. "I dis-a-gree! I'll admit there was a time when you might have won, even after I had infected you this far. But I have all the Secret Keys to your Heart, now. And that means I can do anything I want."

The blade sawed at her wounded soul. Princess Celestia retched onto the flagstone.

"Recognize me now?" said the intruder. "You and I have tussled on-and-off for over a thousand years, and even I never thought I'd see the Princess of the Sun laid so low as this. You've really lost your edge since the kingdom went peaceful, haven't you? In the old days, I doubt the wily Celestia would ever have let this happen. But you're soft now, lazy. Even your once-coveted Elements of Harmony have moved on, attaching themselves to a group of mortals, of all things! They must have known to get off a sinking ship, because 'goddess' or not, my dear, it turns out that you're still only meat."

Hubris was always your downfall, thought Celestia. It will be again.

"Any more empty threats?" said the voice with a bored note. "No? Well then, what do you say we just skip the pageantry and get back to business? First, I'm going to carve your soul into little glowing pieces. Then I think I'll take your pathetic sister apart. Do the world a favor. Then onto Twilight Sparkle and her team of misfits. Oh, I'm going to have some fun with them."

You should have left us alone, thought Celestia. You should have stayed away. Hid in the borderlands, away from civilization. Perhaps eventually you could have found peace. But instead you got greedy and came back, and now it's too late for you!

The alicorn's horn burned with a pure sunlight so intense that the tapestries in the room curled and smoked. Inside the vast expanse of her mind, the Princess deftly knocked the blade away from the creature holding her soul hostage. The psychic weapon went skittering off into darkness, and her mental defenses all turned to lock down on the intruder. Surrender, monster! she thundered. It is you who have lost!

The intruder was fast, though. Faster than it should have been-- faster than ever before. It squirmed out of her grasp like a greased eel, and drove even deeper into her mind. She pursued it, descending through her layers of consciousness. Don't do this, she called to it in her thoughts. You can still surrender to my mercy! It is only a matter of time before I find you, and I promise I will be in a much less forgiving mood when I do.

Celestia had a plan. She would corner this thing in an auxiliary part of her brain, then collapse her own neural tissue with telekinesis. Give herself a stroke. There would be damage, but it would be a small price to pay to avoid what was coming.

Her magic flooded the recesses of her mind with sunlight, searching for the intruder, but the longer she scoured her halls of memory, the more elusive her prey became. A strange realization began gnawing at her: the intruder knew her mind better than she did-- escaping with ease every time she grew near. Every door Celestia opened and every dark corner she shone her sunlight into turned up nothing. Nothing and nothing, and then the pain started in again.

It was physical this time, right behind her eyes. A line of blood dribbled from her nose as she felt the pressure in her sinuses rising, threatening to burst. It's in my autonomic nervous system... she realized with horror. The intruder was going to disable her mind even if it meant destroying her body. In desperation, Celestia turned her energies on full, tried to erect some sort of defense-- anything before it was too late. The pain grew worse and worse, doubled and tripled as she gasped aloud and tasted more blood. Flashing spots clouded her mind's eye, her vision narrowed down to a tunnel, and the focus on her defensive network faltered.

Her cutie mark had only one ray left.

How could this have happened?

How could I not have seen this coming?

She could see so far into the future... but she had missed this.

Get it together, Celestia! she commanded herself. Warn them! Tell them! This is your last chance, filly. Do something now!

The Princess could barely move, but she began scratching symbols into the stone wall with the tip of her horn. The dark embrace of sleep dragged at her until there was almost nothing left. Only the hope that her allies would be able to do what was necessary if it came down to it. That they would not let this thing take her.

She scratched and scratched at the wall, lines becoming letters, letters forming words. The message was incomplete but it would have to be enough. At last, her exhausted neck sagged and her face lay down against the cool stone. It was such a relief to give up, and she cried with shame at the thought. The melted threads of sleep swirled into her head and tumbled, roiled, made no sense.

Twilight, this will be hardest on you. Luna has already known loss, she will persevere. But she will need you to temper her extremes. Be strong my faithful student. Teach my sister and learn from her.

And remember that nothing lasts forever.

Nothing lasts forever.


* * *


* * *

6 hours earlier.

The end of another busy day had come to Sugarcube Corner bakery, as Pinkie Pie pulled open the oven door and swept out the last batch of cookies. She whistled a merry tune, enjoying the sweet aroma of a job well-done, placing the tray on the windowsill to cool as she glanced at the sky. The setting sun blazed on the horizon in its usual oranges, golds, and pinks, but this evening it was framed by a heady bank of dark gray thunderclouds. Their stormy silhouettes burned along the edges with the final light of the day.

They look like ships, thought Pinkie suddenly. Like sailing ships on fire.

It was a dark thought for such a happy pony. She cocked her head as a chill wind picked up, blowing in past the curtains and causing her coat to stand on end. Her tailed twitched a little, then her ear, then her rump. Pinkie Sense? What could it mean?

She shivered a little, and closed the window against a cold gust of air, tossing her oven mitt on the counter. For a moment, she peered through the glass again. Sailing ships... burning... She resumed whistling, but now she was only pretending to enjoy herself. What is wrong with me?

Suddenly, the door to the bakery slammed open, causing Pinkie to turn around with such haste that she nearly left her skin behind. But her heart switched instantly from fear to joy as she recognized the two unicorns sweeping in from the street.

“Congratulations!” cried Pinkie Pie. "You are Sugarcube Corner's one-millionth customers!!” She slammed her hoof down on a big red button. Alarms and buzzers went off from every direction, and confetti exploded from a dozen hidden launchers, showering them in a rainbow blizzard. A banner labeled “One Million Cupcakes Served!” dropped down directly over the counter to the sounds of Mariachi music.

Twilight Sparkle lie on her back on the floor where she had collapsed. She pounded on her chest, apparently restarting her heart. “Well, Twilight," she said to the ceiling, "what did you expect? It's Pinkie Pie. At least you get free cupcakes."

“Actually, the contest is over!” said Pinkie, squealing with laughter. Her eyes were happy crescent-moons. “All this stuff is left over from last year, right after I bought the shop from the Cakes. But I just love it all so much, I've been setting it back up and springing it on ponies whenever things get slow!" She cleared her throat and pulled out a clipboard. "So, on a scale of one-to-ten, how surprised would you say you were just now?”

Rarity had leaped into a fierce fighting stance at the barrage of celebration, but now, the beautiful white unicorn was fixing her hair in the reflection from a chrome candy dispenser. She gave Pinkie Pie a bemused look. "Any more surprised and you would have needed a mop."

“Great!!” said Pinkie, writing on the clipboard. “Even got a dirty joke out of Rarity! I'll mark that down as a ten, and...." She peered down at Twilight, still flat on the ground. "... Another ten! Complete success! Come on girls, give me a hoof setting this all up again and I'll let you push the button for the next batch of 'winners.' Ponies get all cranky sometimes, but I know they all secretly love it.”

Twilight struggled back to her hooves. "As fun as that sounds—“

“—we're kidnapping you instead!” finished Rarity.

Pinkie was midway up a ladder, carrying reloads for the confetti blasters. She froze in mid-step. “Kidnapping me??” she said with a hint of alarm, remember her earlier premonition.

“Yes, for a night on the town, as it were!” exclaimed Rarity, with stars in her eyes. “Dinner at a fancy restaurant? Dancing? Cocktails? You are the pony with the balloons on her rear-end, yes? Let me know when any of this starts to sound like your type of thing, darling.”

“Now! It sounds good now!!” shouted Pinkie.

Twilight nodded decisively and glanced on the clock. "Then it's settled. Spike said he'd be bringing the carriage at eight to pick us up. That gives us about an hour to get ready."

"Spikey's coming?" asked Pinkie with more than a little surprise. "I haven't talked to him since he moved back to Canterlot! How's he been doing?”

“Good, I guess," said Twilight, glancing away.

"You guess?" pressed Pinkie.

"Yes, well, we haven't really spoken since, uh, since he left."

“What?" said Rarity, turning to Twilight. "You didn't mention that! I know things were a bit rough near the end, what with trying to raise a teenage dragon and all... but you really haven't spoken in a whole year?”

Twilight shrugged uncomfortably. “He's been busy. It's not official yet, but Celestia plans to make him a Champion of Equestria when he's done with his training. It made sense for him to go study with Princess Luna at the castle. If anypony knows how to hammer that dragon into a soldier, it's her."

“A Champion!" exclaimed Rarity. "Honestly? Oh, why, that's wonderful! He'll be the toast of the town—of the whole kingdom in fact!" She pursed her lips. "I wonder if he wouldn't mind wearing a few of my Carousel Boutique fashions for the publicity photos...”

"I thought we didn't need Champions anymore," said Pinkie. "I thought the Princesses were, like, Champions for life and all that."

"We haven't needed one besides Celestia and Luna for a long time," said Twilight. "But the world is changing. It started the year that Nightmare Moon returned, and it's only gotten worse. I don't need to remind you that threats from the past have been returning, and a few new ones, too."

This gave them all pause, as they each remembered the litany of monsters and foes that they had fought in the past eight years as Elements of Harmony. A nervous glance went around the circle, but it was followed by a shared look of determination. They'd faced danger again and again, and so far, all six Elements were still alive.

"Anyway," continued Twilight, "Canterlot wants to put a positive spin on commissioning a new Champion, but I'm afraid its actually bad news. It means... well it means that there's reason to expect even more danger."

"What dark talk," chided Rarity, shaking off the trio's sudden pall. "So a villain or two has reemerged. Not such a bad record considering the, oh, thousand years of peace before that. I'm willing to chalk it up to coincidence until proven otherwise. Training Spike to fight is just a precaution. And if it puts him in the highest of social brackets, well then, why shouldn't his oldest and best friends-- and their businesses-- benefit?"

Twilight rolled her eyes. “And here I thought you were happy for Spike."

“Nonsense. Of course I'm happy for Spike-- he deserves fame and fortune. He was always such a bright young dragon, and it was nice to have a masculine sense of humor around the shop. Mares can be so insufferably catty!"

“Well, excuse us!” exclaimed Twilight.

“Rarity does run a dress-shop,” pointed out Pinkie. “All she gets is oceans of mares— mares and mares as far as the eye can see!”

“Sometimes the whole town seems like that,” sighed Rarity. “Such slim pickings on stallions around here. I can't believe Derpy found herself a doctor before I did.”

Twilight shrugged. “Marriage is overrated. I'm busy enough as it is. The last thing I need is some stallion breathing over my shoulder all day.”

Rarity smiled bawdily. “I should be so lucky, darling!”

Pinkie Pie fell over laughing.

“You know what I mean,” said Twilight, giving them each a look. "Now come on, Spike will be here soon, and we ought to be ready when he arrives."

* * *

By eight o'clock, the watercolor streaks of sunset had given way to Luna's vast canvas of stars.

At about this time, a white carriage bearing the royal Canterlot crest pulled up in front of Sugarcube Corner. It parked in the pool of light under a gas streetlamp, and Spike the Dragon jumped down from the driver's seat. He was wearing a top-hat and coat, and he extended a claw to the three mares waiting for him in front of the bakery.

“Ladies," he said with cheesy smile and wink.

Pinkie Pie ran up and threw her hooves around Spike, squeezing the big dragon very nearly to death.

“Spikey!” she shrieked. “Look at you! You're so huge, I'm afraid you're gonna eat the whole town!”

He laughed—a resonant bark these days, but still Spike's laugh. He squeezed Pinkie back. “Well, it's happening naturally this time, don't worry. No greed-growth for me.”

The dragon's dimensions were maturing too, unlike the various times that he had been magically aged. His cute roundness had become the sleeker lines of a young adult, neck elongated, the spines on his back coming in tough and sharp.

“You're so handsome!” gushed Pinkie, then she squeezed his bicep. “Ooh, and so strong...”

“Careful Pinkie," quipped Spike, "if I've learned anything in my time, it's that gorgeous cougarponies will only break your heart.”

“And when exactly did you learn this??” exclaimed Twilight.

They all turned to consider Rarity.

“Well, don't look at me!” said the white unicorn. "My intentions have always been honorable!"

"Yeah, Rarity," said Twilight, "you're an unsullied daffodil."

“Cougarpony?!” shrieked Pinkie Pie, punching Spike on the chest as he laughed. "I'll always be young at heart, you big meany."

Rarity stepped forward and curtsied. "It was quite gentlemanly of you to bring the carriage, Spike.”

“No more than you deserve, Madame Rarity,” said Spike. He bowed with elegant genuflection. “And might I say, you look positively lovely tonight.”

“Why, thank you,” said Rarity, apparently impressed with his Canterlot manners. “Aren't you polite! You even nailed the accent. And look at you! Downright dangerous, I have to say.”

Spike smoothed back his head spines absently, reminding them all for a moment of the red dragon in the cave from so long ago. “Yeah,” he said, placing his hat back on, “I'd prefer to keep the blades trimmed, but Luna says they're important for deterrence.”

“Oh, my!” said Rarity.

Spike turned to Twilight then, and the two eyed each other with some trepidation. The dragon looked amicable enough, but she could sense caution behind his eyes.

A year ago, on the day he'd left Ponyville, she and Spike had ended things with a screaming match. “You don't care about what I want!” Spike had yelled. “You just want me to be a copy of you! So you know what? I'm glad the Princess is transferring me to Canterlot! The only thing you can teach me anymore is how to be an OCD nutcase!”

"How can you say that to me, Spike!?" she had shouted back in tears. "I've taken care of you and risked everything, including my life, to protect you. If that's not good enough, then why don't you run back to your real family and see how much they love you!?"

He had slammed the door on his way out. It was the worst fight they'd ever had.

But then, the letter. Out of nowhere the other day, appearing on her desk in a swirl of green flame. The message was brief: Spike wanted to see her. So here she was.

They exchanged a brief neck-hug.

“You do look good,” said Twilight at last. “The training has definitely had an effect on your physique. I hope Princess Luna isn't working you too hard.”

“Oh, it's not so bad. She lets me wear the mouth-guard when she's kicking me directly in the head.”

Twilight laughed. “You know, I remember times I worked a hundred and twenty hours in a week helping Celestia with research. I can only imagine what her sister must be like.”

“Similar hours, but I'm more likely to be dragging buckets of water up the tower stairs.”

“My goodness," commented Rarity, "will you listen to the complaints of the privileged! The two of you, royal appointees, while Pinkie and I remain but lowly shopkeepers. Not one more minute of this shameless self pity, I insist!”

“Oh, you're one to talk,” smirked Twilight.

Rarity tossed her hair. “I meant only that we should be thankful for the things we have, including the privilege of choosing our careers. Many ponies don't get that choice. Like that poor Apple family, for instance.”

“Enough talking!” said Pinkie Pie. “The night is young and this filly needs a cold drink and a hot dance floor!”

* * *

It was a karaoke bar. Pinkie had insisted.

Twilight didn't mind. After all, it did fall within the optimum range on her activities efficiency chart. Also, Pinkie Pie had a great voice. All of Twilight's friends did, except for Spike, though even the dragon allowed himself to be dragged on stage for Wild Horses.

Pinkie monopolized the microphone all night, which surprised nopony. What was surprising was Rarity charging up there-- six drinks in-- and joining her, the two ponies performing number after number to an adoring crowd.

Twilight found herself alone in the booth with Spike-- the first time they'd had the chance to speak since he'd left for Canterlot. She hit around for a topic before finally settling on work. "The others are gone," she said. "You can tell me what Princess Luna is actually like as a boss.”

Spike glanced at her sideways. “What can I say? You haven't really heard the Royal Canterlot Voice until it's been three inches from your ear at dawn. And I was serious about her kicking me in the head. Yes. Yes, I was. But how about you? I heard you've been tapped to open the new Ponyville University. That's quite an honor.”

“I could wallpaper the library with the red tape I've had to deal with!" said Twilight with a groan. "At least construction is done. The furniture even came in last week.”

“It sounds like you're just about ready to commence. You'll be taking the bullwhip to your overworked, underpaid faculty in no time."

Twilight looked bemused. “Don't cut yourself on that razor-sharp wit of yours.”

They drank their drinks for a moment. Then Spike said: "Twilight... Look, uh, I'm really, really sorry about what I said to you. Back then, at the library."

"Me too, Spike."

“Also, I don't want to be the Champion of Equestria anymore.”

She nearly spit out her drink. For a moment she could only gape at him. Finally, she said, “Why not!?”

Spike snorted a thin jet of flame. “Well for one thing, I just can't stand living at that castle any longer. It's been over a year alone in that place with nopony else to talk to besides Luna, and you know the Princess. All business."

"There are a ton of other ponies at the castle! What about the servants or the guards?"

"Ever since I started getting bigger, the servants either tiptoe around me like I'm about to chomp their heads off, or turn up their noses like I'm some kind of filthy animal. You burn down one priceless antique tapestry and you're equus non gratus forever!”

Draco non gratus, you mean,” corrected Twilight. "Ouch, though."

“The guards are friendly enough, but cliquish. And I just don't fit in. It's lonely as hay up there. I fantasize about jumping in the river one day and swimming away, out of Equestria. Maybe all the way out to the ocean.”

“Dragon wanderlust," said Twilight with a slow nod. "I've always wondered if you'd want to stay in Equestria as an adult, Spike. Ponies are naturally agrarian, but I knew it would never be easy for you.”

“It's not just instinct,” said Spike. “It's the whole 'guardian of the realm' thing. I'm... I'm not a fighter Twilight. Celestia and Luna have it in their heads that just because I'm going to be huge and fire-breathing someday, that means I can be a Champion."

"You have to admit, the logic is sound."

"I'm scared," he said, shaking his head. "Terrified, really. The things Luna's been teaching me... I mean, you just have no idea how many ways there are to kill or be killed."

"We've both seen death before," said Twilight, and Spike glanced away. They both knew what she was talking about-- their last major battle, several years back, had been short, but nasty, and it had cost Shining Armour his life.

"That's how I know I don't want any more of it,” said Spike. "No more."

The silence between them hung in the air, despite the music in the background. Then Twilight said: “Equestria is in danger. That much is clear to both of us. And... and you're the only dragon we know, Spike."

He looked into his empty glass. "Why else do you think I stay? I haven't even had you to lean on this past year. But I know things are heating up for Equestria, and I have to protect you and the others if I can. And the Sisters... I'm loyal to them, no doubt about it. I feel like I am obligated to stick with this, even though it's the worst possible choice!"

“Duty is a burden," said Twilight. "It can be a prison. I'm sorry for that. If you want to leave, I'll understand. Really, I'm scared too. We all are-- Rarity, Pinkie, the others. I know Celestia and Luna are scared for us. But I hope you're not trying to get my approval for quitting because you're not going to get it."

He gave an enormous sigh. “Twilight Sparkle never quit a thing in her life," he recited.

"Not that I can remember, no."

His eyes took on a look of resignation. "I'm counting on your judgement here. Visit me more often, though, okay?"

She threw her foreleg around the dragon's neck and gave him a hug. "Thank you for staying with us, Spike. And for writing the letter. You are a good friend and I missed you."

"I missed you, too, Twi."

"This is the right choice."

"I know."

They glanced up to see Pinkie Pie and Rarity returning to the table.

“I finished your drinks,” said Spike. “Hope you don't mind.”

“We have to get back to Ponyville,” said Pinkie Pie. “Right now.” Her ear was twitching.

“What? Already?” asked Twilight.

But Pinkie didn't answer. She looked so haunted that even Twilight started getting a little creeped out.

“Alright,” said Twilight, “Seriously. What's going on?”

In the background, the celebration continued, but none at this table were part of it anymore.

“I don't know,” said Pinkie softly. “Something is just... really, really, super-duper wrong...”

* * *

Princess Luna tore through the halls of Canterlot Castle, racing down the straightaways and skidding around each corner as servants and guards pressed against the walls to avoid her. Nopony had been able to tell her what was happening to her sister, only that the Princess's chambermaid had tried to enter as usual and found the door barred from the inside. Celestia was not answering knocks or calls.

At last Luna arrived in front of the ornate oak door that led to Celestia's private chamber. Two legionnaires paced nervously as she rode up.

“Stand aside,” commanded Luna before either of the guards could utter a word. The stallions were well trained, and fell back immediately, knowing what was coming next.

Luna's horn pulsed with energy, emitting a glow that spread down her sides, to the tips of her wings and the ends of her hooves. Her moon-and-stars cutie mark left tracers of light as she moved, and a low-frequency hum sifted stone dust from the walls and ceiling. Luna turned and kicked the heavy door with the force of a battering ram.

The ancient wood cracked and sagged inwards. Luna peered through the split planks into her sister's bedchambers. She could barely make out a white shape prone in a heap on the other side of the room. Luna's heart hammered to see her sister unconscious, and it evoked a slew of terrible memories from a thousand years ago. “Celestia!” shouted Luna, but the white heap did not move.

Luna's horn thrummed even louder as she focused her magic with divine precision. Her haunches surging with a crescendo of energy, Luna bucked up onto her forehooves and delivered a kick to the door that shook every stone in the castle down to its foundation. The door shattered into flaming kindling, and with coals still raining down, Luna shot over the threshold and to Celestia's side without touching the floor.

“Sister!” she said, half pleading. “Arise, sister!” Luna scanned Celestia for injury, but found none. She thrust her head under the white alicorn's neck and tried to prop her up, but it was like lifting a bag of cement. And then she saw the cutie mark.

“No,” she said, and her blood ran ice cold. “It cannot be...”

A telekinetic force seized Luna and lifted her off the flagstones like a rag doll. The Princess of the Night could only twist and torque her body uselessly in midair as the iron grip of magic tightened and tightened. Luna began to choke.

“It's been a long time,” said Celestia, except that it wasn't Celestia's voice. “My little pony, it has been a long time indeed.” The white alicorn rose slowly to her hooves, her famously beautiful eyes replaced now by sizzling red spotlights.

“Not long enough,” gasped Luna, barely able to breathe, “Nightmare Moon."

Celestia laughed. "Nightmare Moon was you, dear. And what a disappointment you turned out to be in the end. A few fillies with party-favors and you go all to pieces. What a disgrace! You know, I really thought you had the willpower to beat your sister. I believed in us! You'd think after so many thousands of years, I would have been a better judge of character."

"Celestia," said Luna, even though she knew it was hopeless. "Celestia, please fight her."

"Oh, stop it,” said the white alicorn. “Celestia is locked up nice and tight in here, and she's not going anywhere." She touched a hoof to her temple. "I think I'll call myself 'Nightmare Sun,' from now on. It's got a classic ring to it, don't you think? And my, my, but this body is powerful. Far more powerful than you could ever hope to be, dear 'sister.' All this power, though, and it still wasn't enough to keep her from turning to me."

"She... she would never turn to you!"

"But she did." Nightmare Sun leaned in and grinned. "She gave me all the Secret Keys to her Heart."

"That's not true!" thundered Luna, and with a loud snap of frost magic she froze the moisture in the air to form a slippery sheen of ice across her body. The Nightmare's telekinetic field fumbled for purchase, trying to hold on, but Luna was too quick. She torqued her weight backwards, leaping away and landing on four hooves. Then, before her enemy could react, Luna blasted forward across twenty feet of floor, tearing the flagstones up like they were made of paper, and stabbed her horn deep into the side of the creature wearing her sister's skin.

The blacks and blues of shadow magic whirled in a funnel around Luna. She drove the point further and further into the Nightmare's torso, feeling tissues tearing and separating like wet cloth.

Luna knew it had come down to this. She knew what her sister would want. She knew that Celestia would forgive her. With a crackle of black lightning, the Princess of the Night flooded the white alicorn's body with concentrated shadow magic. You will not put my sister through what I went through! thought Luna. Never!! Nightmare Sun screamed, black tentacles erupting from her eyes, mouth, nose.

But the sunlight was already beginning to fight back. The Nightmare had been right. Only one alicorn in the world was more powerful than Luna, and that was Celestia. And the Nightmare was Celestia now.

Frost magic..., Luna thought desperately, changing the nature of her attack. A web of ice shot shot across Celestia's coat. Freeze her solid. Then maybe I can buy us some time. Time to get the Elements... time to evacuate the castle... before... before... But the ice was already melting.

Nightmare Sun braced her hooves upon the ground, and blinding sunlight glared from every pore of her body. "Stubborn mare!" she said. "I suppose no more stubborn than your sister. I made her scream a very great deal before she was mine!"

Waves of sunlight ate away at Luna's shadow magic, tearing the darkness into shreds, pouring out of Celestia's wound, and pushing Luna's horn away. The room was a storm of motion, with furniture, decorations, and even chunks of flagstone whirling about.

At last, the two opposing magics detonated, throwing the two alicorns apart.

“Princess!” shouted a squad of legionnaire stallions, racing into the room. Their eyes shot back and forth between the sisters for a few seconds, unable to make sense of what they were seeing. Then it was too late. Nightmare Sun vaporized them all with a white-hot swirl of magic from her horn. Empty sets of armor clattered to the floor.

Seeing her chance, Luna launched herself again at Nightmare Sun, turning for a supercharged buck that would crush every bone in Celestia's body. Spacetime warped around Luna's cutie mark as she pulled kinetic energy from across the dimensional divide and aimed it squarely at Nightmare Sun's chest.

It might have been a perfect shot, had the Nightmare not thrown Celestia's marble-topped dresser in between them to intercept the blow. Luna's supercharged kick crushed the dresser, missing the white alicorn by mere inches and smashing into a column. Flagstone rained down and part of the ceiling collapsed as both combatants barely dodged out of the way.

In the dust and confusion, Luna struggled to regain her balance, but a massive oak table flew into her peripheral vision and bashed her in the side of the head. It sent Luna tumbling head over hooves against the wall, and then the Nightmare's telekinetic field had her again.

"You," said Nightmare Sun, slamming Luna against the floor, "always," she smashed her into the ceiling, "were," again into the floor, "annoying!" She flung her tumbling into the corner. Luna struggled to her hooves, only to be crushed in between two massive stone blocks.

"Now then," said Nightmare Sun, lifting the beaten Luna back up into the air. "Where were we?"

How could you let it in, sister? thought Luna as the telekinetic noose tightened back around her throat. Oh Celestia, how could you be so despairing, and I not even know it?? If you turned to the Nightmare to help you, even after what it did to me, what it did to us... The Nightmare was powerful but it still needed a willing heart. It had found one in Luna, so long ago. Surely, if this was happening now it meant that Celestia had allowed it! How else could this presence have enslaved one of the most powerful creatures in the world?

“That was a nasty little trick just now," said Nightmare Sun. "I guess I'm going to have to make sure it doesn't happen again.”

Her telekinetic field bore down on Luna's horn, wrenching the crystalline structure this way and that as the night-sky demigoddess shrieked in pain. At last, the horn tore from Luna's forehead. Nightmare Sun nonchalantly tossed the source of the Princess's powers out the window.

“I'll... kill.... you....” hissed Luna through clenched teeth, as tears of agony poured down her cheeks.

“Now you're just being silly,” said Nightmare Sun with an affected yawn. “Goodbye 'little sister.' I'd like to say you weren't a total disappointment, but I think we both know the truth of it."

With that, the Nightmare flung the night-sky alicorn against the wall with such thunderous force that it shattered the stone blocks to dust. Luna's broken body fell into dark oblivion and disappeared halfway down the mountainside. There was only the quiet rustle of the wind after that.

For a minute, Nightmare Sun peered out across the moonlit valley, catching her breath. Then she approached the broken vanity mirror and examined herself.

In the past, when the Nightmare had been in control of Luna's body, she had reveled in the psychological impact of the Nightmare Moon form. But she knew that the time for subtlety had come. "A perfect likeness," said Nightmare Sun, and in the mirror, Princess Celestia smiled back. Scuffed, bloodied, but utterly passable as the real thing.

"Now,” she said, magicking Celestia's crown and torc into place on her body, “now, now, now. To go greet our loyal subjects."

And she laughed.


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