• Published 28th Feb 2020
  • 4,302 Views, 150 Comments

Ring Around The Moon -- Part II - Lets Do This



The Sun Celebration has arrived. The Nightmare returns. And with the help of some extra friends, Twilight, Tempest, and their fellow students are about to discover just how far the Dark Mare will go to have her revenge...

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Ring Around The Moon

And so it comes down to this, Twilight thought, as she and her friends strode through the crowd in the Celebration area, in the cool darkness of early morning. A thousand years of lonely waiting for Princess Celestia, a thousand years imprisonment for Princess Luna... it comes to an end today. And we have to make it right... somehow...

She grimaced. Like Starlight says, no pressure...

Twilight's team were all wearing their focus gems, and walking together as a group through the respectfully parting audience of ponies. Spike trotted along beside Twilight, and Grubber accompanied Tempest.

Sunset's friends from Ponyville were already there, triple-checking that everything was ready. Cheese Sandwich and Pinkie Pie in particular were circulating through the crowd, dancing and singing and cracking jokes, helping to keep everyone's spirits up, helping them stay focused on being ready to welcome Luna back.

Except, Twilight thought grimly, they don't know it's Luna. Only we know that. And Princess Celestia too, of course.

She wished things could have been different. Everypony might feel better if they knew how much this meant.

But they don't. They're going along with our plan, simply because the Princess chose us. They're trusting our judgment, simply because Celestia asked them to.

So we can not let them down!

Twilight's group came to a halt before the grand staircase leading up to the Celebration dais, and they waited, calmly, their heads held high.

At a gesture from Tempest, Shining Armor and the few Guard ponies who'd accompanied them gently motioned the crowds back a few lengths, just for safety's sake. Then the Guards themselves moved back into the crowd, so they would be unobtrusive and Luna would not be presented with a show of force on her return.

For a long moment, all was hushed in anticipation.

All at once, the Guard ponies stationed along the edges of the dais came to attention. They readied their trumpets. Off to the side, Fluttershy motioned to her bird chorus, readying them to sing.

The trumpets sounded. The orchestra joined in, and Fluttershy's birds provided a fusillade of bright, cheerful twittering.

And from the rear of the dais, Princess Celestia stepped forth: tall, regal, and proud. She gazed out across the silent, waiting audience, as if observing her subjects one final time.

Then her gaze fell upon Twilight Sparkle. And the Princess extended a hoof to Twilight, gesturing welcomingly.

Surprised, Twilight glanced at her friends. Then she cautiously mounted the steps, approaching her mentor.

Celestia bowed her head in greeting, and Twilight hurriedly followed suit. When Celestia lifted her head, there was a hint of a smile on her face.

"There is so much to say," she whispered. "And no time to say it. So I'll be content with saying thank you, my faithful student. To you and your friends. I know you'll do what's necessary, to keep Equestria safe."

"We will, Your Highness!" Twilight replied. Then she looked Celestia square in the eye. "And don't worry, Princess. We'll bring her back. We'll bring her home to you. You won't have to be alone anymore!"

Celestia looked momentarily speechless. And then her face settled into a relieved smile, verging on tears.

"Thank you, Twilight. If any pony can do this, I know you can."

Celestia came to attention, and nodded curtly. Twilight did likewise, in acknowledgement.

Then, turning, Twilight descended the steps once more to rejoin her friends. As she turned to face the stage once more, she glanced up at the Moon, high in the sky. The Mare shadow was still there, the Shepherd Stars still in their places.

It couldn't be too much longer now. Celestia was already powering up her horn, and readying herself to begin the ceremony.

Silence fell.

And then Twilight heard, behind her, a loud collective gasp from the crowd. Followed by a darkly amused voice, booming across the Celebration area.

"Well, well, well! Are we waiting for someone?"

Twilight and the others turned and looked up...

... at Nightmare Moon.

The night-dark alicorn, clad in moon-silver armor, hovered in the air, smiling down confidently at them. The crowd beneath her were hurriedly pressing back, trying to get away.

"What?" Twilight hurriedly looked up at the Moon again. The Mare shadow was still there, the Shepherd Stars still in their places.

How can that be?

"I'm so sorry," Nightmare Moon said, "for being unfashionably early. But I simply could not resist. I had to see the looks on your precious little sun-loving faces as I returned."

Descending through the air, the Nightmare landed lightly on the marble tiles. She strode, tall and confident, towards Twilight and her friends. Her armored shoes rapped loudly on the stone surface, like coffin nails being driven home.

Before she'd gotten three paces, Tempest Shadow had lunged forwards, interposing herself in front of Twilight. Her teeth were bared, her broken horn sizzled dangerously. And among the stunned crowds to all sides, the Guard ponies edged closer, readying themselves, anxiously looking for a chance to intervene.

The Nightmare raised an eyebrow, and casually, indifferently came to a halt. She was in no hurry.

Celestia stared at her. "Luna..." she breathed, as surprised as anyone.

"Oh, how quickly they forget!" the Nightmare sneered at her. "Luna is long gone. That pony no longer exists! I am Nightmare Moon!"

She laughed, loud and harsh and braying.

"No..." Celestia whispered, shaking her head. "Luna..."

"Oh, Celestia! Act your age! You have had a thousand years to grow up and move past this! And as always, you cling to the past in vain hope." She stamped her armored hoof ringingly. "Get over it! Luna is dead!"

Then she tilted her head, giving a playful smile.

"Though I will admit," she added, snidely, "it is nice to see you again, Celestia..." Her look turned cold and bitter. "If only because it means I am released, and you are the prisoner!"

"Luna, no..." Celestia pleaded desperately.

The dark pony snorted. "Oh please! You knew this was coming, didn't you? For a thousand years you've known! And now... ooh, wait for it... here it is!"

Around Celestia, a sphere of shimmering energy was forming. Steadily, the gleam of the sphere increased in brilliance, ramping upward into a blinding glare...

... like a gateway opening to the heart of the Sun.

Celestia hurriedly charged her horn, attempted to disrupt it, but her blast of magic dissipated weakly against it, having no effect.

"The balance tilts in my favor, Celestia!" Nightmare Moon crowed. "As I free myself, as I gain in power, yours slips away. Soon it will be gone completely! And so will you!"

Twilight stared from one to the other of them in shock. "Luna, wait!" she called out. "Please! You don't have to do this!"

The Nightmare looked down at her, feigning surprise. "Whatever do you mean, child? I'm not doing anything. It is already done!" She scowled at Celestia. "In fact, it's been done for a thousand years!" She gestured upward with a long black forehoof, pointing toward the Moon.

Twilight looked up at it. And now she could see the Shepherd Stars moving, falling in towards the silvery disc, yielding to the will of its prisoner. They finally surrendered completely, passing behind the Moon and leaving the door to the Mare's prison wide open. With a faint flicker of light the Mare shadow vanished, leaving the Moon's surface bare and empty. The Mare in the Moon had finally freed herself.

Yet she was also, impossibly, standing right in front of them.

"Form up, everypony!" Twilight called. Her friends moved closer, arranging themselves, as she stared up at the Nightmare. "Luna, listen!" Twilight said urgently. "You don't have to do this. We know you resented ponies ignoring your Night. We know you wanted only to be honored and respected. We know the frustration became too much to bear. We understand! So please, now that you've returned, let us show that you are honored, that you are respected! You don't have to use force! We're ready to welcome you back, to welcome you home. There is still a place for you, here with us!"

Nightmare Moon smirked, and then glanced around the Celebration area -- darkly, dismissively.

"Ah, yes... your quaint little Welcome Home gesture. How charming, how touching. If only I could believe you actually meant it. But it's too little, far too late. For you see, I already know you are not to be trusted... Twilight Sparkle!"

She flicked an armored hoof. In a flash of teleportation, there was suddenly another pony hovering in the air beside her, trapped within an icy-blue, shimmering shield bubble.

Twilight stared. Her friends all gasped in shock, looking at the miserable, helpless, despondent lavender alicorn. She was Celestia's height, with a flowing, ethereal mane.

And she was shockingly familiar...

"Twilight!" Spike whispered. "That's... that's you!"

Twilight nodded, even though she couldn't believe it. The trapped alicorn had her coat and mane colors, her magenta star cutie-mark. And when the mare finally lifted her weary, miserable eyes, Twilight could see herself looking out of them -- it was like looking into a mirror.

Recognizing her, the alicorn Twilight leapt up, pressing her forehooves desperately against the curved wall of her shimmering prison. Her mouth opened and shut as she screamed, soundlessly and helplessly.

"Oh, yes!" Nightmare Moon said, "Celestia has her dear, charming, bookish little student. So not to be left out, I brought my own." She glared down at Twilight. "You thought to trick me, Twilight Sparkle -- to escape from me, and steal my dominion away from me. But I do not fool so easily. And now you shall pay the price for your duplicity!"

"Luna, no!" Celestia called, now barely visible through the rising glare of her own prison, struggling desperately to make her fading voice heard over the roaring of the impossibly bright sphere of magic.

Nightmare Moon favored her with a snide glance.

"Fare thee well, Celestia! And don't worry! While you're gone I'll take good care of your precious little student... and her friends!"

"Twilight!"

Shielding her eyes with a hoof, Twilight thought she saw Celestia calling out to her one last time, frantic and terrified.

Then in a silent implosion, the sphere collapsed in on itself to an intolerably brilliant point of light. Which winked out, as if it had never been.

Celestia was gone.

And in her place there appeared a whirling, thrumming black vortex, a sphere of shadow, of dark magic. The shadowy sphere coalesced into a cloud of gleaming, star-spangled smoke, which then further resolved itself into a second night-dark alicorn.

A terrified gasp went up from the onlooking ponies, who were on the verge of panic.

The new arrival gazed about herself in proud, haughty arrogance. Then her gaze fell on the other black alicorn standing before her. "So thou are real," she said. "We had thought it was but a dream... or a nightmare." She chuckled grimly. "We thought it was one of Celestia's little tricks, trying to wear us down, bring us back to her."

"Oh, it is no dream!" Nightmare Moon replied. "Now be still, and follow my lead. And we shall rule this land under eternal Night!"

"Oh, I don't think so," the new arrival said. "We do not trust thee... and we share our dominion with nopony!"

Her horn flared, prepared to cast a spell...

And Nightmare Moon, with a dismissive sniff, gestured casually with a hoof accompanied by the lightest flicker of her horn. The new arrival was suddenly restrained, trapped in a sphere of cold blue light, unable to move.

Nightmare Moon laughed. "Such a marvelous thing, time!" she said languidly. "It is our tool now. It is a gift, a beneficence! We alone have the power to grant it... and to take it away..."

Fighting back tears, Twilight looked to her friends. "Quick, everypony -- the Field!"

The six ponies nodded. As one, they lit their horns. Starlight cast the initialization spell, Tempest provided the power boost. Arcane force lines snapped out, connecting their focus gems. The energy of the Field spiraled outward around them, coalescing into a vast, rippling, rainbow-hued ring of power.

The six ponies rose into the air, eyes blazing, manes flowing with energy. The Field itself spread out over the Celebration area, dampening magic, restoring balance and harmony.

It's working, Twilight thought. It's working perfectly. For a moment, she dared to hope. She reached out with the Field's amplified strength, ready to stifle the Nightmare's magic, to bring Nightmare Moon to a halt.

To stop the Nightmare...

And the Nightmare simply laughed at her.

"Oh my!" she simpered. "Your little Field spell! Whatever shall I do?" She cackled brightly.

"THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE," Twilight warned. "STAND DOWN!"

Nightmare Moon snorted. "Fortunately, unlike you, I plan ahead." Her gaze swept across the group of ponies... and settled on Trixie.

"Now, Trixie!" she snapped. "End this!"

Trixie, her eyes blazing, stared back at her nervously.

"Trixie, no!" Starlight called over to her.

But Trixie had already reached up to her collar, to unhook the focus gem. She clutched it with her hoof, in an agony of indecision, even as Starlight frantically struggled to maintain the unbalanced power loop.

"Now, Trixie!" The Nightmare called. "Destroy that gem!"

Trixie lifted her hoof, holding the gem aloft. She looked at Nightmare Moon... and hesitated.

Nightmare Moon stared at the gem, fixedly her eyes wide, almost desperate. Her gaze met Trixie's.

"Trixie Luna Moon," she called out. "If you have ever trusted me, if you ever wish to be Great and Powerful, do as I tell you! Smash that gem! Now!"

"Trixie, don't!" Twilight called to her. "Don't give in to her!"

Trixie glanced at Twilight, miserably.

"Sorry, Twilight!" she called. "I have to do this -- for Luna's sake!"

Trixie shut her eyes. She flung her hoof downward. The focus gem shattered into countless fragments on the marble beneath her.

"Quick, Starlight!" Twilight called. "The five-gem solution!"

"There isn't time!" Starlight yelled back.

The five remaining gems fractured, then splintered into shimmering cascades of useless fragments. And the whirling spectrum of magic, escaping from Starlight's desperate attempts to control it, overloaded. In a massive, concussive blast, the unleashed power washed outwards across the Celebration area. It knocked ponies off their feet, tore down and incinerated banners and decorations, snuffed out torches and candle flames, plunged the entire area into darkness and shadow... and echoed off the distant hills like cannon-fire.

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In the aftermath, ponies crawled painfully out from under wreckage, groaning and shaking their heads. Many simply lay where they were, playing dead and hoping to pass unnoticed.

Nightmare Moon stepped carefully over the debris, approaching the miserable lavender unicorn just struggling out from under a collapsed snack-table. Behind the Nightmare, the alicorn Twilight drifted along, still encased in her shield prison. She sat with her shoulders hunched, her head lowered in defeat, powerless to act.

"You see, Twilight?" the Nightmare said, "I will not be denied."

She gestured to the alicorn trapped in the bubble. "When you appeared in my realm I was naturally intrigued. Where did this strange alicorn come from, I wondered? I was even more interested when you said you had arrived via a time-travel spell, crafted by an associate of yours... Starlight Glimmer."

There was a sharp gasp from a heap of shredded bunting nearby. Starlight, crawling out of it, stared wide-eyed at the Nightmare. "What? My spell?"

"Why, yes!" Nightmare Moon nodded. "And so nicely done, my dear. A little rough and ready to be sure, but we commend thee on thy talent with spellcraft." She turned her attention back to Twilight. "But clearly, I could not allow you to leave me, in possession of that knowledge. So when you foolishly attempted to trick me and escape, I easily snared you, then placed you under close watch. It took some time, and more than a few sleepless nights -- for you, my dear! But finally I was able to wear you down. And then I had the power to travel through time."

Nightmare Moon cackled.

"Such limitless power! To travel throughout the entire span of history, to alter past, present, and future, at my will!" Then her expression turned dark, uncertain. "And yet I knew, so long as you existed..." She gestured to the despondent lavender alicorn, trapped in her shimmering cage. "... so long as there was that other timeline, that other version of history, I was vulnerable. You could always use the spell yourself, go back in time, reinstate your own version of events."

Nightmare Moon smiled craftily.

"So I needed to go back earlier, much earlier, and find a way to utterly erase all traces of your version of the past. To disallow its return, while at the same time preserving my own, inviolable and sacrosanct!" She laughed. "Now, as I'm sure you are aware, time is a fickle thing. It is difficult to devise a lasting diversion in its flow that does not alter its entire course... or even destroy it utterly! It is an even more difficult feat to establish a significant revision of the past which nevertheless retains the same future events, unharmed and unchanged."

She grinned horribly.

"But after a thousand years, have we not learned the value of patience? I used the time-travel spell, journeyed the length and breadth of your time-line, Twilight Sparkle, examined your entire history, to see how it might be done. And I found a way!"

Her eyes gleamed. Her laugh was cold and harsh.

"Imagine my surprise, when I discovered that all it took was one small change -- almost trivial! A whisper in Celestia's ear as she lay sleeping. The suggestion for her to be on a particular road, on a particular day... not much of a diversion from her planned tour of local townships, seeking new bearers for the Elements. And on that road, she would find, alone and hungry, one wayward unicorn... with a broken horn..."

The Nightmare turned to grin at Tempest. The maroon pony had finally managed to free herself from the collapsed spider-toss net. Shaking her head to clear it, she glared up at Nightmare Moon, seeking an opening to attack.

"And so easily dealt with!" the Nightmare said lightly. "Not much of a burden for dear, kind-hearted Celestia! Or do I not know her so well?" She cackled nastily. "Just give this poor, lost pony a meal, a place to sleep... and a friend." She smiled proudly at Twilight. "And all Celestia's worries would be answered! The rest, as they say... is history!"

Twilight exchanged a shocked glance with Tempest. "But that means... all my friends..."

"Amusing, isn't it?" Nightmare Moon nodded. "It worked so perfectly. Each of them finding the next like a chain of falling dominoes. Until you, Twilight, were surrounded by a totally different group of ponies, and thus no longer a threat to me. Oh, don't get me wrong! I commend your work on the Field of Harmony. It was impressive, watching you work so hard to bring it all together. You very nearly recreated the effect of the Elements, using nothing more than technology and your talent with magic. An inspired tour-de-force! Yet fundamentally flawed... in a way you yourselves could never quite see..."

"You mean Trixie?" Twilight snarled. "You didn't count on her wanting to help us, did you?" Her face fell. "But... I thought... I really thought we'd convinced her to side with us..."

Nightmare Moon's eyes went wide in amazement. And then she laughed, long and loud and harsh.

"You think that duplicitous little carnival barker had anything to do with my success? The flaw, my dear Twilight, was there from the very beginning, in the companions you chose to surround yourself with!"

The Nightmare gestured with a hoof. There was a whirlwind of shadows, and an image appeared, hovering in the air beside her. "Would you like to see, just for the record, what your so-called friends would have been like without my kindly intervention?"

The image shifted, dissolved. It displayed Trixie Lulamoon. The showpony was dressed in a dark cloak, a strange glowing amulet around her neck, her eyes gleaming red as she used her magic to torment and terrorize an entire town, until its inhabitants yielded and served her without question. And then, using her limitless power to defeat and banish Twilight forever.

"Oh, but Trixie wasn't nearly the worst," the Nightmare said, gesturing.

The image changed, and Twilight saw Starlight Glimmer, using her magic to rob ponies of their cutie-marks, then using the time-travel spell to fling Twilight and Spike into different alternate timelines, each worse than the last, until all of Equestria was a bare, dead, dust-swept wasteland. And she saw Starlight herself, screaming like an enraged banshee when Twilight tried to intervene.

"Ah, and now," Nightmare Moon went on, "we come to Sunset Shimmer. She was a bonus, actually. I hadn't counted on her returning from that other, mirror reality. But as you see, she's no better than the rest..."

The image changed again, showing Sunset in pony form, robbing Twilight of a star-jeweled crown. And later, in human form, engineering deception after deception to prevent her getting it back... and in the end, transforming into a screaming, shrieking she-demon, bent on conquest and destruction.

The Nightmare tsk'ed sadly. "But not all of your friends turn out bad." She cackled gleefully. "Some merely molder away, useless and isolated..."

The image now showed Moondancer, but as an aged, spinsterish mare in a heavy wool sweater and tape-bridged glasses. She sat alone in her room, angrily reading long into the night, until she finally fell off her chair, unconscious, suffering from malnutrition and lack of proper sleep.

Nightmare Moon grinned.

"And we've saved the best for last, my dear Twilight. Would you like to see what becomes of your dearest companion, your self-styled big sister and bodyguard, if I'd allowed her to remain on that lonely road by herself?"

Twilight and Tempest both stared, horrified...

The image showed Tempest, leading an army of hulking, ape-like soldiers as she invaded Canterlot, turned the Princesses to stone... and then raged out of control at Twilight, imprisoned in a cage. And all of it so she could turn the power of the Princesses over to a scheming, indifferent satyr with no qualms about betraying anyone -- including Tempest herself.

"That... can't be true," Tempest moaned, shaking her head. "Twilight, don't believe her! I would never --"

"Oh, don't try denying it!" Nightmare Moon scolded. "You know the kind of pony you are, the kind of company you keep... so willingly, so easily! You know where you were headed. I merely diverted you from the path you were all too eager to tread... on your very own!"

Anger warred with crushing shame on Tempest's face. Her gaze set, coldly and murderously, on Nightmare Moon. The Dark Mare sniffed dismissively, and looked around at them all.

"Such a circle of friends... or accomplices, I should say. I might have kept you all around, just out of curiosity, to see what else your inventive little minds might come up with. But you're far too creative, far too inquisitive for my liking. I think I'd be better off having you out of the way. Once and for all."

Her horn lit, sizzling with power. She scowled darkly.

"I shall not make the same mistake twice with you, Twilight Sparkle!"

Tempest looked Grubber in the eye, and nodded to him. She tensed herself, her horn sizzling and crackling.

"Boss..." Grubber whispered, terrified.

With a bellow of rage, her horn blazing in unrestrained fury, Tempest flung herself at the Nightmare.

Nightmare Moon barely reacted. She simply swept up a hoof, slammed a ward into place. Tempest struck the gleaming shield bodily, with a sound like an iron stove hitting a cinder-block wall. Flung backwards, she landed heavily, several lengths away, unmoving.

And at the same moment, two ponies from the crowd leapt forward, grabbing Twilight and trying to drag her away.

"Tempest!" Twilight shouted, terrified.

She saw Tempest struggle to rise, try to stand -- and then collapse again, helplessly. Nightmare Moon took a step towards her, horn flickering coldly, as if she meant to finish Tempest off...

"No!" Twilight's horn flared, and in a flash she had teleported free of her captors. She landed right beside Tempest, reaching out to her in fright. Then she leapt in front of her, facing Nightmare Moon.

"Twilight..." Tempest moaned, wincing painfully. "Are you insane? Get out of here! Go!"

"No, Tempest! I'm not leaving you!" Uncertain what to do, Twilight powered her horn, tried to think of a spell, a shield, a ward... anything to stop the looming, cackling alicorn, who was already charging her horn to attack.

And she knew she had nothing.

"Hey!" Like a bolt from the blue, a rainbow contrail flashed past Nightmare Moon. Its owner came to a skidding halt next to Tempest. Rainbow worriedly checked the pony was still breathing, and then bounded into the air again. She darted towards the Nightmare, whipping around her like an angry hornet.

"Nopony treats my friends like that! Nopony!" Rainbow slammed on the air-brakes and came to a halt in midair. "C'mon, put 'em up! Oh yeah! Or do you just look ugly, huh?" She shadowboxed with her forehooves, weaving left and right.

Nightmare Moon looked nonplussed. "You're not serious."

"You bet I am! I'd never leave my friends hangin'!"

"That goes for me, too!" Applejack called. "Uh, Your Highness!" She was helping Trixie struggle out from under the shattered front floorboards of the performance stage. As she did so, she leaned close to whisper in angry disbelief.

"What the hay have you done, Trixie?"

To which Trixie put a forehoof to her snout, smiling. "Shhhh! Trust a showpony, Applejack!"

"What? Whaddaya mean?"

"Wait for it..."

Rarity was helping up Moondancer. "Count me in as well!" she called proudly. "I don't care where you're from, that's not how we do it, here in Canterlot!"

"Yeah!" Pinkie bounded up on top of the upturned apple-bobbing tub, hooves on her hips, snout thrust forward. "You think you're tough? Don't make me laugh! You're dealing with two of the best party ponies in the business! Right, Cheese?"

"You said it, Pinkie!" He clapped a helmet on his head. And suddenly there was a massive, tank-sized party cannon sitting behind the two of them, its barrel aimed right at Nightmare Moon.

"Oh my. Whatever are you going to do?" the Nightmare sneered. "Party me to death?"

Fluttershy hunched in fear. "Oooh! Oh dear! Um..." Then she looked around at her friends, at the ponies lying on the ground all around the Celebration Area...

And she suddenly got a grip, set her jaw, and marched determinedly forwards. "That goes for me too!" she barked, in stern, unhinged rage. "You do not, I repeat, do not... hurt... my.. FRIENDS! You got that!"

The others stared at her, astonished. Clearly this was a side of her they weren't used to seeing...

Sunset had crept over beside Twilight, and the two of them exchanged a glance, equally amazed. And then Sunset took another look at her friends from Ponyville... and her new friends from Canterlot.

And saw it...

"Loyalty," she whispered. "Honesty. Generosity. Laughter. Kindness." She nodded. "And the final, mysterious element, the one that binds them all together... the spark --"

She grinned. She had it now. The feeling of pride, of comfort, and of happiness, being in the company of her five friends.

And they thought it was only Magic.

"Sunset?" Twilight asked, puzzled.

"We're not done yet, Twilight," Sunset said urgently. "Quick, while she's distracted, get the others together. Form the Field again!"

"With what?" Twilight shook her head. "We're down six gems -- and a pony!"

"Au contraire!" whispered Trixie, who had teleported over to them. "The Great and Powerful Trixie may be down, but she is never out!" As she spoke, she dug into her hat and pulled out one of the spare focus gems, which she pushed into Twilight's startled hooves. She tapped her own spare, already clipped to her collar. And then with a smug wink, she teleported away to distribute the others.

Nodding reassuringly to Twilight, Sunset got up and circled around to join her friends from Ponyville. "I was so close, wasn't I?" she said loudly. "So very close, the entire time. I might even have figured it out on my own, if I wasn't always in such a hurry, if I actually paid attention to what was right in front of me all along..."

"What?" Nightmare Moon turned to look at her... and away from the others, so she didn't see Trixie flashing from pony to pony, passing out gems.

Sunset motioned to Applejack, to Rarity, and then to the others, gathering them together. "Six elements... and six very different ponies. With one thing in common, one very special thing, holding them all together --"

Nightmare Moon stared at her, suddenly afraid.

"No..." she whispered. "No! I prevented this! I prevented Twilight from bringing them together --"

"But you didn't count on me, did you?" Sunset warned, smiling. "You didn't look closely enough at that mirror universe, at the friends I made there! They taught me what to look for here... and how to power the Elements of Harmony." She grinned proudly. "And I was so dense, I almost didn't see it! It takes a particular, very special kind of magic to properly awaken the true power of the Elements..."

She grinned, raising her voice to a shout: "... the magic of Friendship!"

"NO!" Nightmare Moon's horn blazed. She reared desperately, her horn blazing alight, ready to blast them all to ashes.

"Oh, Sunset!" Trixie called airly. "Catch!"

A gemstone flew through the air. Sunset fielded it with a wild swipe of a hoof, and for one heart-stopping moment nearly dropped it... and then she slapped it into place in her necklace. And grinned.

"Light 'er up, Starlight!"

Starlight's horn flared, as she cast the opening bar of the Field spell. Gritting her teeth in pain, Tempest lowered her horn and blasted a stream of magic at Trixie's gem, which bounced it to Twilight, then to Moondancer, then Sunset, then Tempest, then Starlight, and finally to Trixie again...

... completely encircling the Nightmare.

She found her magic suddenly, fiercely suppressed as the blazing ring of spectral magic swirled into place around her. The six ponies rose into the air once more, their eyes blazing, their manes flowing.

Sunset looked down at her five friends from Ponyville -- her five very good friends, staring up at her in awe and wonder. "Thanks, gang! We couldn't possibly have done this without you!"

Applejack nodded, awestruck. "Our pleasure, Sunset!"

Sunset looked around at her Canterlot friends, Twilight and the others. She saw the smiles on their faces, as they looked at each other in pride and confidence.

This time, they could tell it was different. This time, they weren't just trying to win, trying to use the Field as a weapon. This time, they'd awakened the true power behind it all...

The thrumming of the enhanced, amplified Field filled the Celebration area. Ponies all around crawled out of their hiding places and got to their hooves, staring up at the shimmering spectral light, their eyes bright with awe, with amazement -- and shared hope.

And the more the feeling built, the more that they were all drawn together, the stronger the Field became.

"That's it, ponies!" Cheese called out to the crowd. "We need everypony together on this! All for one...!"

"...And one for all! Yeahhhh!" shouted Pinkie, waving her hooves excitedly.

The crowd began tentatively clapping, then applauding. Then they were cheering, and stamping their hooves, the excitement growing by the minute.

In response, from the circle of hovering ponies a surge of Harmony erupted: a palpable, comforting force, like a warm summer breeze. It swept out over the entire Celebration area, blanketing it in calmness, stillness.

And then rebounded inward, onto one pony... one night-dark alicorn.

Nightmare Moon struggled fiercely, raged viciously, vainly attempted to cast a spell -- any spell -- to stop it. But she was surrounded by a whirlwind of force, of fierce power... she was drowning in it, struggling against it. Restrained by the Field, her magic was suppressed, then stifled...

... which meant that as a side-effect, the spell pinning the other Dark Mare, standing on the dais, began to unravel. The bubble of slowed time around her flickered, began to fade. Slowly, sluggishly, the other Nightmare shook her head and began looking around, trying to work out what was going on... and clearly not liking it.

Her attention swung upward, to the six ponies hovering in the grip of the spell, holding her twin captive.

Her gaze darkened threateningly.

"Uh... Sunset?" Applejack called up anxiously. "Y'all might have a bit of a problem over here!"

"I can help with that," replied an unfamiliar -- yet at the same time shockingly familiar -- voice.

It was the lavender alicorn, who had also been released from the Nightmare's hold. She lifted a forehoof, and her horn glowed, drawing upon the energy being projected by the Field.

And the Nightmare at the center of the typhoon of energy was suddenly pinned, snared by her own imprisoning bubble of slowed time.

"Got her!" the alicorn shouted. And then she smiled in relief. "Wow!" she said, astonished. "I can't tell you what a pleasure it is, finally having the power to say that!"

Twilight and her friends looked at each other, equally amazed. Then they looked at the dark mare standing on the dais.

"CHANGE TARGET, EVERYPONY!" Twilight called out hurriedly.

The Nightmare stared up at them in shock, as she felt the Field's effect hit her, suppressing her magic, stifling her power. She felt it imprisoning her, trapping her once again...

... and after a thousand years, anything was preferable to that.

"NOOOOO!"

She slammed an armored hoof down on the dais. Then she frantically cast a spell, with every bit of power she had left. A failsafe spell... of dark magic.

Around the Nightmare, the black sphere of whirling, inky shadows reasserted itself, hiding her away. In seconds, there was no sign of her, only the depthless, light-eating, power-consuming blackness of the sphere of dark energy she had cast.

The sphere blocked the Field... consumed it. Twilight could feel it eating away at the power they were projecting, siphoning it off, feeding on it, growing ever stronger...

"STAND DOWN, EVERYPONY!" she called anxiously.

Starlight hurriedly backed down the spell. They settled to the ground once again, their eyes and manes returning to normal. And they stared at the whirling, writhing sphere of darkness on the dais.

"Stalemate!" Twilight whispered. "We can't use the Field on her. But she can't get out, either!"

"Okay... so what do we do now?" Starlight asked.

"I don't know!" Twilight said, worried.

Then she looked at the alicorn version of herself, who was still keeping the other Nightmare pinned. Walking up to her, Twilight smiled nervously. "Um... hi?"

The alicorn nodded. "Hello, Twilight," she cautiously replied. She looked at the two imprisoned Nightmares, then back to Twilight again.

"Well now..." she said gently. "This is quite the pretty problem, isn't it, my faithful student?"

Twilight gaped, and then grinned. She looked at Sunset, who was grinning too.

"That's what Princess Celestia always says..." Twilight said.

"... when there's a problem she wants us to work out," Sunset agreed, "on our own!"

They nodded to each other.

"Okay," Twilight began, "so two Nightmare Moons..."

"But one of them's from a different timeline," Sunset replied. "Trying to change the past... trying to remake it into her own past, so she wins..."

"... and so Celestia stays imprisoned," Twilight said. "So to stop her, we have to convince the other Nightmare Moon, who's only just arrived..."

"... to give up being Nightmare Moon, and return peacefully."

"Which..." Twilight face-hoofed. "... is exactly the problem we already had to solve before all this started. It never gets any easier, does it?"

"Never does," Sunset agreed. "Not even when you understand it."

"So," Starlight asked, joining them, "how do we do it?" She pointed at the sphere of dark magic. "We can't use the Field now! How do we reach her?"

The ponies stared at each other, at a loss.

"Well..." the lavender alicorn suddenly said, as if thinking aloud. "You could always try what I do... you could try talking to her."

Twilight stared up at her. The lavender alicorn smiled down at her sympathetically.

"No promises, but it usually helps..."

"But..." Twilight objected, "she's locked herself in! We can't get to her through that!"

"Of course you can," the alicorn said gently. "Though not by force, that never works. Trust me on this."

"How, then?"

The alicorn smiled. "The same way she did, in becoming Nightmare Moon. By entering into the shadow... willingly." At their shocked look, she nodded. "The journey into the darkness is easy. It's getting out again that's the hard part."

She smiled at Twilight. "Trust me, Twilight -- you can do this."

"She's right, Twilight!" Sunset said. "To end all this, we need somepony to go in and convince that Nightmare Moon to return peacefully. And you're the pony to do it!"

"Me?" Twilight objected. "Are you kidding? Sunset, you figured out how to make the Field of Harmony work properly! You stopped Nightmare Moon, not me! Shouldn't you --"

Sunset shook her head. "No way!"

"But --"

"Twilight! Don't you get it? The Field of Harmony, even the Elements of Harmony themselves... they're just tools. It's friendship that powers them! And you're the expert on that!"

Seeing Twilight was still uncertain, Sunset gestured towards Applejack and the others. "I have five of the best friends any pony could ever have," she said. "But they were practically gifted to me. I did nothing to earn them. But you..." Sunset shook her head, amazed. "Twilight, you took a group of ponies that no one would have looked at twice as friends --" She gestured to Tempest, Starlight, Trixie, and the rest including herself -- "You brought us together, you made us your friends. You turned us into something greater than any of us would have been without each other." Sunset nodded proudly. "Twilight, you know way more about Friendship than I do! More than I ever will! So it has to be you!"

Twilight swallowed nervously. "All right... I'll try."

"Well, you're not doing it alone," Tempest growled, stalking over to stand with her. She winced painfully with every step. "I'll go with you."

"I will too!" Starlight said, scared but determined.

Moondancer nodded as well. "Count me in!"

Trixie held her hat in her hooves contritely, looking around at them all.

"I'm so sorry, everypony. I couldn't clue you in what I was doing... because I didn't even know myself until I'd done it! It must have been Luna's idea, a way to bring the real answer to the surface, to make us take another look and see it for ourselves -- the right way to make the Field work. But she had to make Nightmare Moon think it was her idea all along. She had to keep Nightmare Moon from guessing -- and so she had to make me think I was betraying all of you, all along."

She hunched, miserably.

"So now I really want to help save Luna. If... you'll still have me with you?"

Twilight stared at her... then held out a hoof to her.

"If there's any pony we need to have with us, Trixie, it's you."

Sunset nodded. "And me too. We're all in, Twilight!"

Cheese glanced at Pinkie, and then trotted over to them. "Maybe you'll need a party pony, too?"

"You never know!" Twilight grinned. "I can't see how it would hurt."

Then she looked up at the lavender alicorn. "Will you be all right here?"

The alicorn nodded. "Don't worry about me, Twilight. I can hold the fort. I'll look after Spike and Grubber too." The alicorn motioned for the dragon and hedgehog to join her. "And try to do what I can for ponies here."

"Thanks," Twilight said. She found it strange, talking to herself like this. And the alicorn smiled back at her oddly, as if she felt the same way. Then Twilight looked to her friends.

"All right, everypony!" she said. "Let's do this!"

Turning, she unhesitatingly led the way up the steps of the dais to the sphere, the others right behind her.

The journey into the darkness is always easy, she reminded herself. Cautiously, she put a hoof to the surface of the whirling cloud... and found it was porous, vaporous, like chill mist. Taking a deep breath, she walked forwards, and vanished into it.

The others followed, one at a time. The last of them was Starlight, who gritted her teeth nervously, hoping that the others hadn't simply evaporated entirely as they'd passed out of sight.

Then she shrugged helplessly. "Oh well... who wants to live forever, huh?"

"Don't even get me started on that," called the alicorn Twilight, with a knowing smile.

Starlight smiled back at her, comforted by the strangely familiar sense of humor.

And then she followed her friends inside.