• Published 23rd Dec 2012
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Winter Bells - Pen Stroke


Can Nyx find acceptance with her extended family during Hearth's Warming, or will she find the holiday hymns are filled with nothing but hollow promises?

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Questions of Magic

Winter Bells

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Batty Gloom, Illustrious Q, Municipal Engines, Cloudhammer, Wraithguard, Kohta Izumi, Kirk Heller

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Part of a side-story miniseries known as "In The Family" for the story Past Sins

- The stories of the miniseries -

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Chapter 9

Questions of Magic

====================

Nyx and Lumber Jack's path had taken them into a richer part of Canterlot, where smaller homes gave way to extravagant manors. Like fine mares in a Hearth’s Warming beauty contest, each home was trying to outshine its neighbors with its holiday decoration. There were garland, wreaths, candles, trees, and magical lights that made the manors glow brighter than the street lamps. One manor even had carolers who sang as Nyx and Lumber Jack went by, like they had been paid to do so late into the night.

It was both beautiful and daunting. Nyx’s eyes couldn’t take it all in fast enough, but that didn’t stop her from trying. She leaned this way and that while sitting on Lumber Jack’s back, and, as he walked, Jack gladly bragged about how many of the larger trees were ones he had sold and which manors were burning wood he had chopped.

They passed Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns on their way to Spell Nexus’s home. The campus was not as well lit or decorated as the homes that surrounded it, but there was a charm in its subtlety. Every lamppost on the campus had a wreath, and several of the trees that grew naturally on the grounds had been decorated, even those that weren’t evergreens. There were also students slowly strolling down the paths, mostly couples who used the chill in the air as an excuse to cling close to one another.

Spell Nexus’s home was not far from the university nor was it hard to spot. It was a dark patch amidst the glowing lights of the homes that surrounded it. There were no decorations outside. The only sign that anypony was home was the lights glowing from inside a few windows. It was a sight that made Nyx’s stomach turn sour, and a nibbling urge to forget everything and go home to Twilight began to form in her head.

She had not seen Spell Nexus since the day she cured him of the blessing. Nyx didn’t even know what had happened to him. He was a victim as much as anypony else, but he was also the start of it all. He had been the first of the Children of Nightmare, and he had been the one to spread the so-called blessing.

It had been Spell Nexus who crafted the resurrection spell that had given her life.

“You sure this vhat you vant?” Lumber Jack asked.

Nyx licked her lips a moment but then looked at him and nodded. “Yes.”

Lumber Jack returned the nod. He began to walk towards the front door, but, as he did, his eyes wandered across the dark manor. “Is shame, you know. Lumber Jack used to sell great, big tree to Spell Nexus. His house vas one of best, and, over there...” He pointed to a fountain covered in snow. The path that led to the manor’s front door circled around it, and, as they walked by, Lumber Jack couldn’t take his eyes off it.

“...Spell Nexus used to always have great, big, glowing magic heart above fountain. It vas Hearth’s Varming heart, a copy of spell cast by Clover the Clever. It one of finest decorations Lumber Jack has ever seen. Don’t know vhy he didn’t put it out this year.”

Nyx sank down a little. She had an idea why, and it was because of her and the Children of Nightmare. The blessing that had gripped him was one of the most pervasive. There had hardly been an inch of his body that wasn’t choked with the poisonous magic. What if it had changed him permanently? What if he was still bitter? What if there was some still left? It had taken Nyx all her strength to beat back that demonic cloud of jealousy and rage when she was queen. If it tried to overtake her now, she’d be unable to defend herself.

The whole idea of speaking to Spell was becoming less and less appealing. Nyx even opened her mouth to ask Lumber Jack if they could, maybe, just go and find Twilight. But she was too late. Lumber Jack had reached the door, and, with his large hooves, he knocked three times. The knocks echoed from the far side of the door, as if the house was empty of all life.

Yet, soon, the sound of hoofsteps began to emanate from inside the house.

The door cracked open, light from inside spilling out into the night. The pony who had come to the door was not Spell Nexus. It was an older unicorn stallion who didn’t have a hair out of place. His mane was well trimmed and slicked back, his tail was properly brushed, and his monocle was crystal clean, just like the monocle that was his cutie mark.

“Mr. Lumber,” he said, rolling the words out of his mouth like they had to be perfectly formed pearls. “As I assured you when you departed yesterday, we do not require a larger tree. If you have one that you simply cannot sell at your lot, you shall not find a home for it here.”

Lumber Jack laughed and gently punched the pony at the door in the shoulder. “Ah, Proper Etiquette, you always make best jokes. Lumber Jack never fails to sell all his trees, even vhen I must sell one save for Spell Nexus.”

“Then why are you here?” Proper Etiquette questioned as he adjusted his monocle.

“Found Little Snowflake amongst snowflakes,” Jack said as he turned to one side. “She vants to see Spell Nexus.”

Proper Etiquette looked at Nyx for a few moments, his face still a perfect mask of composure. Nyx had met Proper Etiquette before. He had come to Ponyville, to Night Stone castle, once or twice to bring Spell Nexus things from his manor and news from the occupation in Canterlot. He was a pony she had never seen smile or frown. He was a butler of such skill and experience, she’d expect him to be working for the princesses.

For several long moments the trio just stood there, and, with each passing second, Nyx feared she and Jack would get the door shut in their face. But, eventually, Proper Etiquette stepped back and bowed slightly. “Please, come in.”

Jack didn’t dawdle. He stomped through the door, making no effort to wipe his hooves on the doormat before walking into the center of the home’s foyer. It was there he and Nyx found the only bit of Hearth’s Warming decoration to be found in the entire manor. It was a single, small tree decorated simply but elegantly with golden ornaments, gentle glowing lights, and a star.

“Ah, you did her up right, you did,” Lumber Jack said with a smile as he circled the tree. “Vhy, I could not have done it better myself. Vell, maybe little less garland, but very good otherwise.”

“At least somepony has appreciated the effort,” Proper Etiquette said before coming up beside Lumber Jack and focusing on Nyx, who was still riding on the wood cutter’s back. “Miss Moon, Spell Nexus is currently in his study. Shall I show you to him?”

“Y-yes,” she answered as she carefully hopped down from Lumber Jack’s back. “But please, my name is Nyx, not Nightmare Moon.”

“Of course, Miss Nyx. Now, Mr. Lumber, please feel free to make yourself comfortable here. I do ask, however, that you try to resist the temptation to touch the tree. It does not require any further decoration or adjustment.”

Proper Etiquette’s scolding tone made Lumber Jack quickly pull his hoof back from an ornament and smile innocently, like a colt who had been caught with his nose in a cookie jar. “Of course. It is fine tree. I could not make it better if I vanted, even if some ornaments are not hung best vay possible.”

“That, Mr. Lumber, is a matter of opinion. Now, as to you, Miss Nyx. Please, follow me.”

~~~

“What do you want, Etiquette? I’m busy.”

“Yes, the numerous bottles and takeout bags attest to just how busy you’ve been since the last time you let me in here to clean. Still, you may want to take a brief moment to straighten yourself up, sir.”

“And why’s that?”

“You have a guest.”

“I do not want to see anypony.”

“I realize that, sir. Your habits of the last few months have made that perfectly clear. This, however, is one pony I feel you may wish to see.”

“I do not want to see anypony.”

“But sir—”

“I do not want to see anypony!”

“But—”

There was a clatter of books and glass hitting the floor. “I do not want to see anypony, Etiquette! Who in their right mind wants to see me anyway? If it’s Princess Celestia again, tell her my answer is still no!”

“It is not Princess Celestia, sir. It is Miss Nyx.”

The long pause that followed made Nyx shift anxiously. She had been left outside the study by Proper Etiquette, who had gone inside to speak with Spell Nexus. It hadn’t been a pleasant discussion from what she had heard from the far side of the door. But still, now everything had fallen silent. Then came a series of hoofsteps moving closer to the door.

Nyx stepped back just as Proper Etiquette came out of the study. He left the door open behind him, and, without even looking in Nyx’s direction, began to head back down the hall towards the foyer. “Spell Nexus will see you now.”

“W-what about you?” Nyx asked as she watched the butler walk away.

“Spell Nexus has asked that he see you alone,” he answered before a rustling and laughing came from down the hall, from the direction of the foyer. “You’ll also have to excuse me, because I must ensure Mr. Lumber is not trying to decorate the foyer or reposition the tree.”

With that Proper Etiquette was gone, stepping quickly to attend to the ruckus Lumber Jack was making in the foyer. This left Nyx alone outside the cracked door to the study, and she couldn’t help but swallow nervously. Once more, the thought of turning back and just going to Twilight slipped into her mind, but she pushed it back. She wanted answers, this was where she would get them.

So, with her legs feeling like gelatin beneath her, she pushed open the door and moved into the study.

She didn't know what she expected when she entered the study. Spell Nexus had bragged about how it had been the nerve center of the Children of Nightmare before her resurrection. He had spoken of his books hidden behind books and the secret meetings held within. He had even bragged his study had been the stage of Celestia’s greatest folly, when he had convinced her to lend an unsuspecting hoof in her own downfall.

One thing was certain, however. She did not expect it to be such a mess.

Books that once neatly filled the shelves were in stacks on the floor, being used as tables for the dozens of empty glass bottles that dotted the room. The air smelt of rotten fruit and body odor, a smell that was only made worse by the heat coming from the fire in the hearth. And in front of that fire, sitting slumped back in a chair, was Spell Nexus.

And he wasn’t looking much better than the room.

The stallion who had once been the dark minded leader of the Children of Nightmare now looked like he hadn’t been outside in weeks. His eyes were plagued with bags from lack of sleep. His mane now reached down to his shoulders, and his untrimmed bangs hid his eyes. His once lean middle had been overtaken by a heavy paunch of a belly, and a pile of empty bottles, takeout boxes, and dirty dishes cluttered the end table beside his chair. Even his tie, which had once clung neatly to his neck, had suffered. It lay across the end table, wrinkled and stained like it had been used as a napkin.

“S-spell Nexus?”

“It’s been a while,” he said. He didn’t turn to look at her. He just kept watching the fire in his fireplace. He levitated an empty bottle in his magic, lifting it to his lips. He titled it back, trying to draw a few final drops of juice from inside. Only when he was absolutely sure it was empty did Nexus set the bottle on the end table, next to a dozen others. “Forgive me if I don’t get up and bow to my old queen, but I think we both know that isn’t appropriate anymore.”

“N-no... I suppose it’s not,” Nyx said as she began to walk closer to Spell Nexus, having to weave through the clutter of the room.

“So, what brings you to Canterlot? Where’s your dear mother, Twilight? I’m surprised she let you get within a hundred feet of me.”

“Twilight doesn’t know I’m here,” Nyx admitted as she came up behind his chair, beginning to feel the heat from the fire on her face.

“Then I imagine Princess Celestia has the whole guard out helping search for you. Proper Etiquette is going to have a fit when they track mud on his nice clean floors,” Nexus said as he used his magic to toss a fresh log on the fire with a firm thud. “He’s always been such a neat freak. Makes him an excellent butler, but it’s made him a pain in my flank the past few months.

“So, to what do I owe the honor?” he asked as he turned his head and look past the edge of the chair, watching Nyx through the gaps in his shaggy, unkempt mane.

“I...” Nyx wet her lips and struggled to steady her voice. “I wanted to ask you a question, about the spell that made me.”

“Why would you want to know about something like that?” he asked as he took his eyes off Nyx and sat back in his chair.

“Shining Armor thinks you did something to Twilight,” Nyx said as she dared to creep closer to the chair, stepping past a stack of boxes that had been piled up in a tall, impressive tower. “He thinks the only reason Twilight took me back to the library after finding me in the forest is because you put a spell on her.”

A small, quiet chuckle escaped Spell Nexus’s lips. “I know just what charm Shining Armor is thinking off: the ‘Want It, Need It’ spell. A very powerful little charm that makes anypony desire a particular item just by looking at it. To limit such a broad spectrum spell to have a specific effect on a specific mare... well, it would be child’s play.

“In fact, that’s partially why it’s taboo to cast the ‘Want It, Need It’ outside of a controlled learning environment. A few centuries ago a stallion manage to modify the spell so it only worked on mares, and he then cast it on himself. He thought it would help him get noticed and get a date for some festival or dance.

“And he was right. The spell did exactly what he wanted it to do,” Spell Nexus said as he shifted in his chair to get more comfortable. “But that also meant every mare in the village wanted to date him. It wasn’t long after that a riot broke out in the town. Mares were fighting with one another, and Princess Celestia herself had to come to the town to clean up the mess.

“From what I’ve read, the stallion who cast the spell started a life of celibacy after that.

“And Twilight,” Spell Nexus continued, “she should have faced a trial for the chaos she caused by casting that spell. Princess Celestia, however, was benevolent as ever. She enforced the spirit of the law, which was not quite the letter, as she always has, and turned the incident into a lesson for her student. Yes, she’s always forgiving. She likes to give second chances...

“Even though, sometimes, a pony doesn’t even deserve to be in the same room as her anymore,” he said quietly as his he hung his head and sank deeper into his chair.

“So, did you do it?” Nyx pressed, moving another step closer. “Did you use the blood from Twilight to cast a spell on her to make her care for me? Please, I need to know.”

Spell Nexus turned his head slowly, but not to look at Nyx. He was instead focused on the floor, using his magic to flick through some takeout boxes, as if hoping to find some stale piece of leftover food. He even managed to find something, a fortune cookie. He cracked it in half gently, and popped both pieces into his mouth as he read the small piece of paper contained within.

“You will be visited by an old friend.” Nexus chuckled and tossed the paper into the fireplace as he continued to chew. “Sometimes, those things are just creepy.”

“Did you hear me?” Nyx asked, taking another step forward. She was now even with the side of his chair. “Did you cast a spell on Twilight?”

“No, I didn’t,” he said flatly before bringing a hoof to his mouth to pick at his teeth. “I placed no charm on Twilight Sparkle.”

In that moment, Nyx released the breath she did not even realize she was holding. A smile spread on her face, and she began to dance. She literally started dancing as the excitement fileld her. Shining was wrong. Shining was wrong! Shining was wrong! And that meant... that had to mean Lumber Jack was right.

“Oh, thank you, Spell Nexus! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” she said as she bounced on her hooves. “Shining doesn’t have to be scared of me anymore. Nopony does! I can go back to Twilight, and we can be a real family. I can have real grandparents, a real uncle, and a real aunt.” She bent low, and then leapt into the air as her wings fluttered, trying to get their first taste of flight.

“I’m Twilight’s real daughter!”

“What are you talking about?”

Nyx almost tripped when she landed and had to stumble to keep herself upright. She looked back at Spell Nexus, who was sitting forward in his chair with utter confusion written in the lines on his face. “The blood in the spell,” she answered him. “Lumber Jack thought that Shining Armor was wrong, and that the blood in the spell made Twilight my real mother. And, since you just said Shining is wrong, then Lumber Jack must be right.”

Nyx began to smile and bounce on her hooves again. “I’m Twilight’s real daughter, not just her adoptive one. And that makes so many things better. I mean, if I’m Twilight’s real daughter, then that would explain why I didn’t like being queen. It’s probably why I like reading books too. It all makes so much sense, it’s—”

“You know, no pony’s ever really asked me about the blood,” Spell Nexus interrupted, as if he hadn’t heard a word of Nyx’s jubilation. “Princess Celestia and Bastion Yorsettes, they were too preoccupied with the grander theories behind the spell. The thought of a unicorn bringing a pony to life through magic alone made the princess worry and made Bastion almost salivate. He is so passionate about magical theory, it’s no surprise he does not have a wife. He’s married to his work.

“Then again, I’m not one to talk.”

Nexus fell silent for a time, staring at the ceiling as he licked his lips, hoping for something to drink. But, with no juice or water at hoof, he brought his gaze back down to Nyx and continued to speak. “But Princess Celestia was relieved and Bastion was disappointed when I told them the truth. The spell, your spell... it was no proper resurrection. I did not create life. I just pieced back together what the Elements of Harmony tore apart, like some morbid jigsaw puzzle.

“You see, the Elements never destroy. Thus, they did not destroy Nightmare Moon. They peeled her away... They peeled you away from Luna, like... like the blackened skin of a banana that is still good to eat on the inside. Have you ever had a banana? I’m not too fond of them myself. I do not like the texture, but I hear Princess Celestia enjoys them for breakfast. She cuts them up and adds them to her cereal.”

Spell Nexus chuckled a little as he lifted a metal fireplace poker with a levitation spell and prodded at the logs within, causing one to split and fall open. “Imagine a princess eating cereal for breakfast. The royal chef must have a fit whenever she asks for a bowl of hay flakes with cut up bananas.”
“But what does that have to do with the blood in the spell?” Nyx asked.

Spell Nexus nodded silently, acknowledging Nyx’s question before his eyes became fixated on the large portrait on the wall, a picture of himself he hardly recognized anymore. “In any case, when the Elements of Harmony peeled Nightmare Moon away, they left shreds behind. It was in those shreds I found everything I needed to make a living mare. I had emotions. I had memories. I had flecks, sprinkles... seedlings from the darkest parts of Luna’s own soul, the parts that had given birth to the jealousy that drove her to try and usurp the throne.”

Nexus rolled his head again, looking away from his portrait and focusing on Nyx again. “After all, not even the Elements of Harmony can peel away a thousand years of evil intentions and power from a mare without making a few mistakes. You can’t cut that much off somepony in a matter of seconds without slicing away a little more than you intended. That reminds me of this time I got my mane cut. The barber was in a rush because he had a train to catch, and—”

“But if you had everything you needed, then why did you kidnap Twilight?” Nyx asked, cutting Nexus off before he could go on another tangent.

“At first, I had much grander intentions,” Nexus admitted. He slowly pulled himself up from his seat, putting his hooves on the floor gingerly before walking closer to the fireplace. He used his magic to pick up the fireplace poker, and was now mindlessly prodding at the glowing embers.

“I told the other Children of Nightmare what strength it would give our newly risen queen. I told them that I was sure I could use the blood to give Nightmare Moon invulnerability against the Elements of Harmony. I made many promises and I had many theories.

“But none of them came to fruition.”

Nexus laughed a little at himself as he drew shapes in the ashes of the fireplace, shapes resembling Twilight’s Element of Magic tiara. “I was so naive. The Elements and their magic are unlike anything else in the world. Trying to give Nightmare Moon, to give you, immunity from their effects was... impossible. It would be like asking a pony, who has never seen a drop of water, to build a dam to stop a flood. Yes, I imagine the pony that comes to understand the magic behind the Elements will be heralded as one of the greatest minds of our time.

“But... that pony isn’t me.”

Nyx dared to move a few steps closer to Spell Nexus, feeling as if he was avoiding something. “But then what did the blood do?”

“When I could not get it to give you an immunity, I made the blood symbolic. After all, you can not argue that it was not poetic. Nightmare Moon was reborn from the blood of her enemies. It was the kind of thing that would turn into legend. In a thousand years ponies would speak of the hundreds sacrificed to their dark queen. It was a rallying cry for the Children of Nightmare, our queen becoming like a black feathered phoenix.”

“Spell Nexus, what did the blood do?” Nyx said, moving closer until she was right next to his chair. “You keep telling me what it was supposed to do, what you wanted it to do, but what did it do?”

With a small clink, Spell Nexus let the fireplace poker come to rest against the stone of the hearth. He then began to look across his books, looking for a specific tome. “Are you sure you wouldn’t want to hear more origins on the rest of the spell? Zebra magic powder is particularly fascinating.”

“Nexus, what did the blood do?”

“What about the magic of shapes, like the lines used in your spell?” he asked as he levitated a book off the shelf and cracked it open. “You see circles—”

“Nexus! What did the blood do!?”

He fell silent for a few moments, holding the book he had removed from the bookshelf in his magic. Nexus then sighed, shut the tome, and put it back in its place. He then turned to face Nyx. It was the first time he had looked at her head on since she had come into his study.

“It was... food.”

Nyx cocked her head to one side, the gears of her mind locking up at the simple, short utterance that had just come from Spell Nexus. “How can blood be food?”

“Well, maybe food isn’t the right word,” Spell Nexus said as he began to walk back to his seat. “But that was what it did. The blood was a transfusion. It was a little spark of life to get your own heart pumping back when you were the size and shape of a golf ball. It sustained you for a few brief minutes before your body became stable enough to survive and draw in magic on its own.

“Yes, Shining Armor is wrong, but Lumber Jack isn’t right either. You...” Nexus paused a moment, trying to calm the shaking in his voice as he sat back down. “There is no part of Twilight’s blood that remains within you, and it had no lasting effect. You share no lineage with her. Her parents are not your real grandparents, and Shining is not your real uncle.

“You are... no more related to Twilight than a mosquito that happens to bite her neck.”

Like a delicate glass, the hopes that had filled Nyx’s chest like dozens of butterflies shattered and began to fall away, leaving an aching hole. “N-no! Lumber Jack said...”

“Lumber Jack doesn’t know about magic.” Spell Nexus sank back into the chair. “It was wrong of him to put such ideas in your head in the first place.”

“B-but it would fix everything. Shining Armor wouldn’t have to be scared of me anymore. Nopony would have to be scared.” Nyx sank to the floor, rubbing at her eyes as she tried to deny the tears that were forming. “I just want to be her daughter. That’s all I want. Why can’t anypony understand that? I don’t want to hurt or scare anypony anymore. I just want to be with Twilight at the library and play with my friends.”

“Well, you aren’t the only one who wants things to be different!” Nexus spat, irritation flaring as he grabbed an empty bottle off his end table. “All I want is to take it all back, all of it! I wish I had never tricked Celestia into taking you away from Twilight. I wish I had never plotted against her. I wish she had never brought those accursed shreds to me for study. I wish those shreds, Nightmare Moon, and anything to deal with this whole mess would just... would just...”

Nexus’s short lived flare of temper faded, and he set the empty bottle back on his end table as he slouched, defeated, in his chair. “...would just go away.”

“Go away,” Nyx echoed, getting to her hooves. She made no effort to hold back her tears now, and they flowed freely down her cheeks as she turned to look at Nexus. “You’re just as bad as Shining. You both just want to see me go away, like some bad dream, like a nightmare. But... I don’t want to go away. I know I’ve been bad, but I don’t want to go away. I just want to stay with Twilight. Why can’t you just let me stay? I’m not hurting anypony when I’m with her, am I?”

Spell Nexus sat up in his chair, an almost panicked look entering his eyes. ”I... I didn’t mean—”

“No! You meant exactly what you said!” Nyx snapped. “Just like Shining meant exactly what he said! W-why can’t you both just leave me alone!? Why can’t everypony just leave me alone!? I’m not doing anything bad! I’m not Nightmare Moon anymore! I’m a good filly; Twilight says so!

“I’m a good filly,” Nyx said, starting to break down right there on the floor in front the fireplace. “I’m not bad anymore. I don’t want to hurt anypony anymore, so why... why is everypony trying to take me away?”

Nyx succumbed to her tears right there, crying her eyes out as she continued to ask Spell Nexus why. She asked why Shining had done what he did. She asked why the unicorn had attacked her on the catwalks. She just kept asking and asking and asking until the strength began to leave her voice.

It had been a long, trying day, and as Nyx felt her strength failing she stopped trying to get Nexus to explain. She instead just lay there, crying as she tried to understand how this Hearth’s Warming, which had started out so well, had gone so wrong. She tried to think, tried to understand, but it was all too much.

Nyx cried herself to sleep on the study floor as Nexus remained in his chair like an unmoving statue. It was only when her cries had stopped that he looked up at her, and it was only when he was sure that she was asleep that he rose from his seat. He walked to her, horn glowing as he pulled a clean cushion and blanket off the nearby couch. He made Nyx as comfortable as he could without waking her, and then crossed the room.

He walked up to the study door and pulled on a rope next to it. He heard the small bells ringing through the house, and soon the door to the study cracked open.

“You called, sir?” Proper Etiquette asked.

“Yes... I did,” Nexus said, pushing past the butler as he stepped into the hallway. “Please, keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn’t go anywhere.”

“And may I ask where you are going, sir?”

“To find Twilight Sparkle, before I say something else to break that little filly’s heart.”

~~~

“I have found her.”

Shining Armor pulled his head away from the telescope’s eyepiece, and looked back at Luna. She was still in her magical trance. Her eyes were still closed and her horn was still glowing gently, but he was sure of what he had heard. “Where is she?”

“I don’t know her exact location yet,” Luna said as the glow from her horn grew brighter. “She has fallen asleep, and she is beginning to dream. This is the first step in locating her, but I cannot ascertain her exact location from dream alone. There are no landmarks in the dreamscape, just the endless sea of lights that shift and change as ponies slip into and out of their dreams. I can find any dream in the dreamscape, but only Nyx can tell me where she sleeps.”

“So, you’re going to enter her dream?”

Luna gave a single, subtle nod. “Yes, I am delving in as we speak.” The smile on her face faded. “Except... the waters of her dream are... turbulent. She is having a nightmare. There is snow, endless snow. I am manifesting... but... no, wait... why is everypony shouting at me? No, I haven’t done anything wrong. No! No! I’m not a bad pony, I’m not a bad—!”

“Princess Luna!” Shining shouted. He moved up beside her, placed a hoof on her shoulder, and gave it a firm shake. This drew Luna back to reality. She opened her eyes and gasped, as if she had been holding her breath underwater. “What happened?”

“Something that will make reaching Nyx in her dream very difficult,” Luna said as she lifted a hoof to her head. “When I enter a pony’s dream, I must first become part of the dream. I must fuse with a manifestation of the dreamer’s mind before I can act. When I entered the dream of Column, I became a member of the crowd. Months back, when I entered the dream of young Scootaloo, I became the headless horse. It is only after I’ve become part of the dream that I can manifest as my true self and speak with the dreamer.”

“So then what went wrong?” Shining asked.

“When I enter a dream my consciousness is drawn to part of the dream most similar to me, to allow the dreamers mind to accept my presence with the greatest ease. If somepony was having a dream where I am already playing a part, then I would simply overtake that doppelganger of myself. This, however, is the problem.

“Nyx is dreaming she is Nightmare Moon again,” Luna explained as she managed to quiet her breathing and regain her composure. “And when I enter her dream, that is the manifestation my consciousness is drawn to. My magic, however, does not give me the ability to usurp the dreamer. If I and the dreamer become tied to the same entity in the dreamscape, I become nothing more than a reflection of their thoughts and feelings.”

Luna stood up from her seat on the balcony, moving to the edge of the banister to look out across the city. She then began to pace, her eyes focused on the banister of the balcony. She was deep in thought, and Shining Armor sat and watched in silence until Luna turned to look back at him.

“There is only one solution. You will have to enter her dream in my stead.”

Shining Armor couldn’t help but stare at Princess Luna for a moment, as if the plan she was suggesting was the ramblings of a lunatic. “I... you can’t be serious. You want me to be the one to go into her dreams? Aren’t I the last pony she’d want to see?”

“Yes,” Luna answered flatly. “Twilight Sparkle, Cadance, or even your parents would be a better suited to sooth Nyx’s dream and get her to tell us where she is. Nightmares, however, are unsteady ground. If the dream becomes too traumatic, Nyx may awaken and be unable to get back to sleep for several hours. Even in the time it would take to contact Twilight and have her teleport here, Nyx may awaken and we will lose this chance.”

“But—”

“Yes, I know, you will not do this for Nyx,” Luna said as she took a seat in front of Shining Armor, her horn already glowing. “But if not for her, then would you do this for your sister? She will not find peace of mind until Nyx is found, and if you wish to regain her trust so she may listen to your fears, then helping to find Nyx will be a step in the correct direction.

“Besides, didn’t we come to agreement earlier? No matter if your fears are true or false, it is in our best interest to find Nyx quickly. Is that not why you stayed here, using the telescope to search the streets below while I searched the dreamscape?”

Shining Armor opened his mouth to protest, but then cursed under his breath when he realized Luna had backed him into a corner. Finding Nyx quickly was important, whether it was to stop her from brainwashing other ponies or because she was an innocent filly lost on a cold winter night. Whether he was right or wrong, whether he liked it or not, this was the fastest way of finding Nyx they currently had presented to them.

“All right, I’ll do it,” Shining finally agreed as he sat down in front of Luna.

“Very good, I am glad you saw reason.”

Shining looked up, crossing his eyes as he watched Luna’s glowing horn drawing closer to his forehead. “So... how does this work, exactly?”

“First, Shining Armor, all you have to do is relax,” she said, her voice turning soothing and calm, like a lullaby whispered by a mother. “Listen to the sound of my voice. Focus on nothing else. Just listen to my words. Let them slip in your ears and roll down your body until they reach your hooves. Yes, feel my words rolling down to your hooves and then back up to your spine. Breath deep and slowly, match the pace of the flowing words. Down... and up. Out... and in. Yes, breathe deeply and listen to the sound of my voice. You wish to sleep, to dream. Listen to my words, and know that when you sleep, that when you dream, you will be in control. Your dream shall be lucid, for that is the first step in this journey. Yes, just listen to the sound of my voice. Breath in and out. Feel the words rolling down and up your body. Yes, feel your eyes growing heavy. Feel yourself wishing to dream, for you must enter the dreamscape the only way a normal pony can.

“Yes, listen to my voice and... sleep.” She tapped her horn against his forehead. “Listen to my voice, let yourself dream, and let me guide you from there.”

Shining stood no chance against Luna’s words and the subtle magic in her voice. His eyes drooped, then slid shut. The world fell away, growing dark as his consciousness slipped into a dream. It felt like he was sinking in water, descending slowly, but he was able to breathe without issue.

Ground eventually came up to meet him, a soft patch of grass that grew larger as he got closer. Like it was rising from the blackness around him, his dream took shape. He saw blue skies and clouds. He saw familiar faces and structures. He saw the crystal empire, shining in all its glory as his hooves touched down on the path. He was at the city’s gate, the crystal spires that stood to greet any travelers coming from the train station and to bid farewell to any ponies heading out along the same path.

“Am I really dreaming?” Shining couldn’t help but ask. The ground felt so real beneath his hooves. The air smelt of the flowers that were in bloom on the crystal berry bushes. It was all so perfect.

“You are,” Cadance said as she came out from behind a tree. Yet, at the same time, Cadance’s appearance was shifting. The pinks, purples, and yellows of her mane and coat were being replaced with rich blues. Her body shifted in build as some subtle nuances of her face change. By the time she had reached the place on the path where Shining Armor was standing, Cadance had turned into Princess Luna.

“And now that you are in the dreamscape,” Luna continued as she turned to face the welcoming gate of the Crystal Empire, “I shall bridge your dream with Nyx’s so that you may enter her nightmare and try to calm it.”

“And how do I do that?”

Luna flared her wings and her horn glowed as she focused her gaze on the arch. “That, Shining Armor, is something you will have to figure out for yourself.” It was then she unleashed her magic, an aura of blue energy shooting from her horn to the keystone of the gemstone archway. The gems began to resonate with light, and, with a blinding flash, a set of great white doors appeared inside the archway.

Those doors swung open of their own accord, opening up to a black expanse. A chilling wind blew into his dreamscape from the far side of the door, carrying with it a few trace snowflakes that quickly melted against the ground of Shining’s dreamscape. Luna stepped to the side, and looked back to Shining. “The way is open,” she said before extending a wing. “I can do nothing more.”

Shining swallowed nervously and began to take slow, cautious steps towards the door. This was starting to seem like a very bad idea, like the time he had snuck up behind Cadance while she had been reading a scary story. He came right up to the edge, his forehooves less than an inch away from the realm that was Nyx’s dream. He then stood there on the edge for several seconds, just staring at where the path of the Crystal Empire suddenly changed to the snow that blanketed the ground beyond the door.

“Is something the matter, Shining Armor?”

“What if it’s a trap?” he asked, looking over at Luna as he took a single step back from the doorway’s edge.

“A trap?”

Shining nodded his head. “I’m going into Nyx’s mind. It seems like a great place for her to catch me and brainwash me, and I’d rather avoid getting brainwashed for a third time.”

“Your concerns are understandable, but Nyx cannot do that while you are in her nightmare. She could only do that if she was to enter your dream, and I promise I will stand watch and ensure she does not enter this space without your permission.”

“But what if she—”

“Shining Armor,” Luna interrupted curtly.

“Yes, Your Highness?”

“Enter Nyx’s dream before I throw you in.”

Shining laughed, and took a step towards Luna, assuming she was joking. Yet, he soon found himself being levitated off the ground by the princess’s magic. A moment later, he was hurled through the open doorway, a panicked shout escaping his lips as he soared through the air like an expertly tossed bag of leaves. He crashed into Nyx’s dreamscape, the snow providing both a soft landing and a cold, wet chill down Shining’s spine.

“I thought you were joking!” he shouted back at Luna as he climbed to his hooves and shook the snow from his coat and mane. He lit his horn, trying to see into the darkness, but there was nothing around him to see. There was only the snow covered ground and the darkness in all directions. He took a few steps forward and then turned around to ask Luna if something wrong.

That was when he saw the tower. The doorway, which provided passage to his own dreamscape, was built into the base of a tall, white stone bell tower that stretched for several stories into the sky. It was massive, easily larger than the bell tower that played the carols at Canterlot Palace. Yet the tower, and its bells, were silent.

But the dream itself was not silent. In place of the music he’d expect to be hearing from the bells, there were angry shouts coming from the opposite side of the tower. It was a mob, a large mob of very angry ponies from the sounds of it. And there was one pony shouting above them all, though he could not make out the words just yet.

Steeling himself in case this was the trap he feared, Shining Armor walked to the edge of the tower. He pressed himself against the stone, and then slowly moved along the edge until he reached the first corner. He checked around it briefly, putting to use skills honed sharp by years of training in the guard. He then moved around the corner and continued on, continuing to hug the wall as the shouts of the crowd grew louder. The one louder voice also grew clearer.

“Nightmare Moon, even with all the evidence presented, you still plead your innocence. Don’t you feel it’s high time you confess what you've done? Isn’t it time to admit you brainwashed the ponies of Equestria, so that in generations to come they would give you the throne you seek? Isn’t it time to admit you brainwashed everypony to make them believe you were no threat?”

“No! I’m not brainwashing anypony! I’m not evil! I’m not Nightmare Moon anymore!”

“Then why do you still look like her?”

Shining reached the second corner of the clock tower’s square shape and poked his head around the edge. He could now see what was going on. There was a crowd in front of the tower, an angry mob of ponies carrying torches. Most were faceless, odd shadows that he knew were ponies yet lacked any defining features.

But there were some he recognized that were standing near the front. He saw his mother, his father, and Cadance standing at the front, shouting up with the rest of the crowd. Their brows were furrowed and their jaws were turned down in hateful frowns. He had never seen them like that before, but they weren’t the only ones. He saw Twilight’s friends amongst the crowd, some of them accompanied by young fillies.

The whole crowd had their gazes fixed upward. Standing before them was a gatehouse without an accompanying wall or castle to defend. It was tall, made of dark stone, and from the battlements a large, wooden platform extended out where everypony could see it. Above that was a rope attached to a structure of thick wooden timbers.

The platform was the hangmare’s noose.

And on that platform were two ponies. One was Nightmare Moon. She was without her armor, and it was around her neck that the hangmare’s noose had been tightened. Her cutie mark was also different. In place of the moon with the purple background Shining Armor instead saw a familiar blue shield.

Yet Shining Armor’s blood ran cold in his veins when he saw the other pony with Nyx on the platform. It was a stallion of a strong, soldier’s build. It was a stallion with a white coat and a blue mane. It was a stallion with a shield cutie mark that had a six pointed star at its center and three smaller stars above it. It was a stallion with a voice Shining knew better than any other. It was a stallion with a face he saw every time he looked in the mirror each morning.

The stallion on the platform was Shining Armor’s own doppelganger in Nyx’s dreamscape.

It was a terrible fact that compounded as Shining’s mind took in the scene. He was the one who stood guard over Nyx. He was the one calling out to the crowd below, only making their lust for blood go stronger. He was the one that was toying with the rope around Nyx’s neck and nudging her closer to the edge.

In this nightmare, with the entire world turned against her, Nyx saw him as her executioner.

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I do not own the intellectual properties this fan-fiction is based on.

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