In the years since Luna returned from the moon, she’s always been quiet about the truth of her exile. Always keeping it to herself, hidden away. Keeping secrets. She never even told Celestia that something was up there with her.
Luna has a secret.
A secret that she's kept close to her heart ever since her return from the moon, a secret she's hidden for so long that she's no longer even sure if it's real. At least until it returns to haunt her, and she has no choice but to confide in Celestia and hope her sister trusts that she hasn't gone mad.
Contrary to what her subjects would likely expect, Princess Celestia was not a ‘morning pony’. Perhaps she would have been, had she not the dubious honour of raising the sun each and every dawn, but as it was she would always be woken by her maid while it was still dark outside, and she would always demand five more minutes of sleep before allowing herself to be wrenched out of bed by duty.
All this achieved was her maid rousing her five minutes earlier than she would have done otherwise.
She hated how she looked in the mornings, too – her mane so bedraggled, its usual shiny lustre replaced by a dull and matted mess, her eyes rimmed with dark rings. Celestia would feel better after she’d cleaned up a little, but it was still only a thin veneer of contentment to wear as she trotted through the castle.
A well-practised routine by now, and Celestia prided herself on her performance, on each and every warm smile and nod to the guards and other ponies she would pass along the way. She may not have been a morning pony, but she could damn well act like one.
In some ways, Celestia envied Luna for that. For starters, Luna always got to wake up while it was light outside, and surely that would have made a great difference, morning pony or otherwise. Still, she could never begrudge her sister for much, and though it had been years since Luna’s return to Equestria it was nothing when compared to the vast gulf of time that Luna’s banishment had encompassed.
And so the smile that Celestia wore on the long walk would always be real by the time she arrived at her sister’s chambers.
As always, she found Luna on her balcony, peering intently into the ornate telescope that seemed to occupy so much of her time of late.
“Anything interesting?” Celestia asked, and Luna jumped wildly enough at the sound of Celestia’s voice that she ended up smacking into the eyepiece with a very uncouth yelp of surprise and pain.
“We have told you before, Tia, do not sneak up on us,” Luna muttered once she’d recovered, gingerly pressing a hoof to her eyelid and wincing.
“Sneak? I didn’t need to sneak, Luna. You’re always so engrossed in that telescope that I make you jump every time.”
Sheepishly, Luna straightened her mane, and then shook away the embarrassment and drew herself up to her full height. “Only because you are so quiet.” Her eyes narrowed. “One would be forgiven for believing you do it on purpose.”
“Me? Sneak up on you intentionally? Perish the thought.”
Luna’s withering glare bounced against Celestia’s kind but stoic countenance, a silent battle of wits and determination. In the end it was Luna who broke first, as always, her obvious suspicion making way for a wide grin.
“I am glad you haven’t lost your sense of humour,” she said.
“Not for one moment,” Celestia replied. “Now, if all is well I can relieve you of your duties.”
Luna hesitated. “Yes, of course.”
“All is well, isn’t it?”
She knew it wasn’t before Luna even answered. Had known for weeks, in fact. Luna was too fidgety, too nervous and on edge. Her eyes darted left and right, but kept returning to the pale orb hanging in the sky as if simply looking away was some great task, her gaze magnetized to the moon.
Even if Celestia wasn’t Luna’s sister, even if she hadn’t had millennia to learn and understand her subtle tells, she would have known something was wrong. Very wrong. In fact, Celestia couldn’t remember the last time she’d ever seen Luna this perturbed, not even when she had been on the cusp of becoming Nightmare Moon. Back then, Luna had been angry, and frustrated, and indignant.
But not like this.
Now, Luna’s eyes were wide, flitting up to the moon again as she chewed at her lip. This time, Luna was anxious. Scared. There were very few things in this world that could actually scare her sister, Celestia knew, and that alone sent a little shiver of trepidation down her spine.
“No,” Luna admitted. “Things are not well. There is something we must discuss. Soon, and in private.”
“Very well,” said Celestia. “There’s still time before I must raise the sun. We can sit out here if you’d like – I’ll have tea brought to us.”
Luna nodded, hesitantly, and as far as Celestia could tell the thought did absolutely nothing to improve her mood.
Luna’s teacup rattled against its saucer as she tried to place it gently back down. Her hooves shaking, the clink of crockery so loud in the final moments before dawn as pale moonlight bathed the balcony.
She’d shown no eagerness to leap into whatever it was she had to say, and Celestia knew better than to push the matter. Better that she organise her thoughts, that she was ready. And when Luna took a deep breath to steel herself, Celestia knew it was time.
“It began with my banishment,” Luna began.
Celestia’s mouth opened, reflexively, but Luna was quick to interrupt.
“Spare your apologies, Tia, I know. This isn’t what you think, and I’ve told you we bear no ill will over my incarceration. We left you little other recourse.”
Celestia acquiesced and remained silent, waiting for Luna to find her thread again.
“A thousand years is a long time,” Luna said, almost wistfully. “A millennium alone with my thoughts. Mine, and Nightmare Moon’s. Angry thoughts. Hateful thoughts. An aeon spent locked in my own head with nothing but thoughts of vengeance sustaining me. It’s the sort of thing that gets to you, after a while. The solitude, the anger. I began to have conversations with myself, usually about the things I planned to do to you and all of Equestria when I returned. Conversations filled with malice, conversations that went to places I am not proud of.”
“For someone who doesn’t want my apologies, you’re not making this easy,” said Celestia, frowning. Luna probably wasn’t worsening Celestia’s guilt intentionally, but she was doing a very good job of it regardless – that insistent, gnawing pit of regret in her stomach growing ever deeper as Luna detailed her plight.
“That’s not my intention,” Luna insisted. “But I need you to understand. I was aware I was slowly starting to lose my mind, if I hadn’t done so already. Some part of me was, at least; the part of me that wasn’t Nightmare and fury, the part of me still self-aware enough to regret my actions. But you need to understand that I could tell my grip on reality was slipping ever so surely through my hooves. Otherwise, it would make little sense that when I first saw the pony on the moon I didn’t believe it was real.”
Whatever Celestia had been expecting Luna to say, it wasn’t that. “Another pony,” she said, bluntly. “On the moon.”
Luna smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. Didn’t reach anywhere, stretched painfully thin, so forced, so out of place amongst her obvious fear. “And yet there they were.”
Luna drew her hoof through the dust, slashing viciously across the line and its neighbours already there, teeth gritted in a snarl of frustration.
Every single one meticulously recorded, drawn in the dust. A sea of tally marks stretching out before her in a vast swath of lines. More symbolic than anything; a visual representation of how far she’d come. Luna didn’t really need the tally, she was keeping count in her head just fine.
For the 149,375th time, Luna cursed her sister with every foul word she could think of, every cruel insult, screaming them heavenward, some part of her hoping that Celestia had devised a way to keep an eye on her so she could hear every vitriolic word that spewed forth from Luna’s mouth, each and every one full of poison and disgust and contempt.
Unlikely – even Celestia would have struggled with something like that – but just in case… Just in case she could, Luna made sure to shout loud enough that Celestia would have no choice but to hear her fury, and then she spat into the dust and ground it beneath her hoof, imagining the dirt was Celestia’s face instead.
Oh, how sweet her inevitable revenge would feel. It was the only thing keeping her going, the only thing that had allowed Luna to survive half a millennium without losing her mind completely.
At all. Without losing it at all.
This was all a perfectly reasonable response to a perfectly unreasonable situation. The scrawled tally was just a counter, one that she didn’t even really need. Nothing mad about that, nothing mad about 149,375 lines in the dirt. At least, she was fairly certain that was how many there were. She hadn’t double-checked, it wasn’t worth it, but she knew that was how many days it had been regardless because she’d counted each and every one. Had lived each and every one, although calling this living felt like some awful joke.
This wasn’t even existing. 149,375 days of not existing, of grey dust and endless stars and a beautiful orb of blue so far above her that by all rights should have been hers, was supposed to be hers. It was Celestia that should have been confined to this hellish oblivion, although true oblivion would have been an improvement over this waiting. The moon, so empty and desolate, only Luna and 149,375 tally marks she’d left upon the surface, a number so big and so prominent that it had become essentially meaningless.
Perhaps when she returned to Equestria, Luna would give Celestia the same treatment and cast her into the sun. See how she liked it.
The image of Celestia screaming as she plummeted into that obliterating heat, as her skin melted and she burned forever, forever in agony, forever writhing in pain, was enough to bring a smile to Luna’s face. Yes, she liked that idea. Some kind of spell to preserve her consciousness, even her body, or at least enough to make it slow. Celestia didn’t deserve quick. Celestia hadn’t given Luna quick, after all. She’d given Luna slow, and torturous, and alone so very alone oh goddess what Luna would have given just to talk to someone, anyone.
Before everything, before her rebellion, Luna had considered herself a very private pony. She never sought out company, and would often snap at any of her courtiers who disturbed her unduly while she was working, buried under sheaves of important and incredibly dull governing documents, trade agreements, peace treaties.
It was only now, after 400 years of solitude, that Luna realised how much she missed hearing other ponies’ voices.
This is pitiful. Nightmare Moon, the most powerful creature alive, and you’re feeling sorry for yourself?
It was pitiful. She had no objection to that, no answer to her own reprimand. Nothing but surrender.
Luna dropped down into the dust, staring up at Equestria and wondering how she would ever survive the next hundred thousand tally marks. How she would ever last up here, so separated from everything, everyone. So alone.
Her thoughts slowly began to drift, her eyes closing without really being conscious of it, and then her imagination began to wind away as it always did on the cusp of sleep, ideas and images swirling together in nonsensical and illogical ways. Images of her sister cackling in triumph as she consigned Luna to banishment, of Equestria burning, of legions of ponies bowing in deference to their rightful Princess beneath a black, star-dusted sky.
But just before sleep wrapped its quiet embrace around her, something jolted her awake. Her eyes snapped open, and at first she wasn’t entirely sure what had broken the spell and pulled her upwards.
But something was wrong, terribly so, she was sure of it. In that primal way of knowing, breathing hard and adrenaline coursing through her veins so hard she could feel it, and Luna still didn’t really know what had happened to put her on edge. Why she felt so deeply scared.
Nightmare Moon never felt scared. Not when she’d confronted her sister, not when she’d realised her mistake in underestimating the elements and that Celestia was going to win, not even when she’d found herself here and understood the awful truth of her confinement and solitude. Nightmare Moon just felt angry.
But here, now, she was scared. And she didn’t even know why.
Something had woken her, dragged her from the edges of sleep and flooded her with fear. A shadow, falling over her eyes, that slight change in light impossible in a place like this. A whisper of air, brushing against her fur, equally impossible – no wind here, no air at all, only magic keeping her in place.
What, then? Those ideas had planted themselves so firmly into her mind and she could envisage nothing else. She swore she’d felt it, seen it. Swore that something had been here, something had stood over her as she lay in the dust, something had watched her falling asleep. Nothing could possibly be here, and yet Luna was sure something was. Knew something was.
She scanned the wasteland of the moon’s surface, but of course there was nothing to see. Nothing but her, and the desolate moon, and her sea of tally marks.
Luna froze, strangling the scream that tried to drag itself up from her throat.
Her tally marks. Her rock in this cold place, her totem. Her proof that time continued to pass, that she was moving ever closer to her escape.
Something had walked right over the top of them, trampling through without care or compassion. Deep hoofprints in the dust obliterating the marks beneath. Impossible hoofprints, with no one to make them.
Hoofprints that ended right next to where Luna had been lying.
Celestia raised an eyebrow as she took another sip of tea. Warm and sweet, just as she liked it. “Hoofprints?” she asked.
“You don’t believe me,” said Luna. It wasn’t a question, and there was no hurt in her voice. It was simply a fact, left to float between them.
“I didn’t say that.”
“You never do.”
Celestia gave her sister a sympathetic smile. “You must admit, it sounds a little far fetched. None save the bearer of the elements would have the magic to cast the sealing spell I placed on Nightmare Moon, and until very recently, I was their only wielder. I can assure you, I did no such thing.”
“I know,” said Luna. “If you had done, this wouldn’t be much of a mystery, would it?”
“Luna, you know I love you,” said Celestia, trying not to let her exasperation through, “and I believe you, but hoofprints alone do not mean there was somepony else up there with you. Perhaps they were your own? The mind has a penchant for playing tricks, especially when left to its own devices for so long.”
Luna was gazing up at the moon again, although she kept giving Celestia a sidelong glance, as if to make sure she was still there, still listening. To see how she was taking it.
“I know how it sounds, Tia. Why do you think I waited so long to speak of this?”
She dropped her head and stared straight into Celestia’s eyes, and there wasn’t even the slightest hint of joviality there, none of the familiar hint of life and playfulness that usually graced Luna’s expression. Nothing but sincerity.
“But those were not my hoofprints,” she said, firmly. “And there is more story to tell.”
For the hundredth time, Luna lowered her hoof over the imprint in the dust, as if this time it would somehow be different, as if this time it would somehow make sense.
Smaller. The hoofprints were smaller than hers.
She hated that they were smaller. Bigger, she could have found some way to justify – her own size would be simpler still. But smaller had no explanation. Smaller didn’t make any sense.
Luna had thought long and hard about it (as though she had anything else to do) and concluded there were only two options. The first: exile had stolen enough of her sanity that she’d created fake hoofsteps and then somehow forgotten she’d done so. The second: somepony was on the moon with her.
Neither of those were particularly appealing.
She was fairly certain it wasn’t the former. She didn’t think she’d reached the point where she would do something like that, not yet, and then to forget it so completely would be further into insanity still. No, in the face of two options the simplest was most likely, no matter how unnerving it may have been.
There was another pony here. One that had found her sleeping, one that crept up on her and vanished as soon as she stirred.
That would have been bad enough, concerning enough, but then there was the other thing. The thing she’d tried not to think about once Luna had worked up the courage to believe it was another pony after all.
The hoofsteps led straight up to where she lay, but there was no trail leading away. If something had been there, if somepony had been watching her, they had disappeared into thin air. Or whatever passed for air in this place, whatever magic kept her locked away here.
A unicorn, perhaps, teleporting away, although Luna had heard no magic. She wasn’t even sure if it was possible to teleport up here, not if they were held by the same spell that bound Luna. But that was another thought she would prefer to ignore if she could. Better it was a unicorn, better that they could teleport. That was an answer, at least, and a much better one than anything else it could have been.
It all left Luna with one purpose: find the pony. Demand an answer, discover their purpose here. Perhaps Celestia had sent an assassin to finish the job. Perhaps it was a loyal subject, come to save her somehow. Perhaps, perhaps. She could hypothesise forever, but standing around gained Luna nothing. No, Nightmare Moon was not going to wait around for a would-be assassin to find her asleep again. Nightmare Moon was not going to be scared.
She was going to track down this pony, and if they were an assassin then they were going to pay oh so dearly for daring to come here. Luna may have been trapped, but she was far from powerless. And if they weren’t an assassin, well, they would have to be very convincing.
There wasn’t much of a choice when it came to direction. No real landmarks to speak of, despite Luna’s familiarity with each and every nearby crater and mountain. The obvious choice was to follow the only trail given to her – to trace the line of hoofprints back to the source, wherever that may have been. Whatever that may have been. Perhaps it would lead her to the pony’s den, or hideaway, or… something. It was her only lead, regardless, and better than doing nothing. Better than waiting for them to come back.
And so, with all that and more spinning through her mind, Luna set off across the desolate moon, following the trail of hoofprints that stretched off into the distance.
She took her time. There was no rush. No wind to cover the trail, nowhere to hide. And, she noted, the hoofprints’ creator had taken their time, too. Their distribution was even, measured. The indentations perfect and unscuffed. The pony had walked so calmly, so surely, no hint of hurry or concern in those tracks. Similar to her own that she left behind, a fresh trail aligned perfectly beside the others, the only differences her larger hooves and slightly longer gait.
She wondered, not for the first time, how the pony’s path had been so direct. There was no deviation, no turning as it saw her and changed direction. This pony had marched in a perfectly straight line and still managed to end up right beside Luna as she drifted towards sleep.
And no matter how long she followed it for, it didn’t turn. The hours began to scroll past, and still the trail continued in its sure, unwavering way, and no matter how far Luna walked there was no end in sight. Even as her shadow started to stretch away from her, even as the moon began to be drenched in night, the trail continued, the faintest glimmer of reflected starlight in the divots guiding her way.
How far had they walked? Perhaps Luna had been wrong, perhaps she hadn’t been this pony’s target after all, perhaps this was all some big misunderstanding. This pony had just happened upon her sleeping, and there was no great mystery, no conspiracy, no plot.
Please. Have you forgotten where you are? Have you forgotten what this place is, or the strength of magic required just to keep you here?
No, she hadn’t forgotten, and Luna didn’t believe in coincidences. So no matter how improbable the trail became, no matter how far it stretched onwards, ever onwards, not faltering or fading or stopping, Luna knew it was here for her. She didn’t know why, or how she knew, but she was sure of it.
But even Nightmare Moon couldn’t walk forever. The trail showed no signs of stopping or slowing, and she hadn’t slept. The nights here lasted for days on Equestria, and it would always break her eventually. And yet, Luna didn’t want to stop. Didn’t want to curl up and sleep no matter how much her eyelids began to droop, how much her hooves started to drag and her head sagged downwards, too heavy to keep up. Sleep meant they might come back, and more than anything Luna was afraid that she might wake up to even more hoofprints.
Or perhaps it would be more than hoofprints this time; perhaps she would wake to find the pony looming over her, its intentions unknown and unspeakable.
Good. Let them come. Let us tear them apart.
Or perhaps she would never wake up at all.
But then she stumbled and toppled into the dust, and couldn’t bring herself to stand again. She had to stop, no matter how much she hated it. Luna stared out over the dark horizon until exhaustion finally took her, and if she squinted she thought she could make out the silhouette of a pony standing ahead of her, waiting. But it must have been a trick of what little light was left, because when she opened her eyes fully it would be gone. Just her imagination. Paranoia.
And she repeated that mantra until sleep took her.
Celestia wasn’t sure when her tea had gotten cold, and when she went to take a sip and made this discovery she wrinkled her muzzle in distaste before throwing the rest of it out. Her sister had fallen very quiet, the story winding into silence as Luna stared up at the stars. She’d barely looked at Celestia this whole time, and Celestia couldn’t help but wonder if it was something as simple as reminiscing or if there was something else to it, some other reason Luna couldn’t look her in the eye.
“And were there hoofprints?” Celestia asked. “When you awoke, were there new ones?”
“There were not,” Luna said, after a moment’s pause. “Only the ones from before, still there. I wasn’t entirely sure they would be.”
“You thought they might have vanished?”
“I thought perhaps they might have been a dream. A false memory. But that was wishful thinking at best. Did you know that I never dreamed once while I was up there?”
Celestia lifted the teapot and poured herself another cup, watching the steam swirl slowly through the cool dawn air. “I didn’t, no.”
“I wonder if it was part of the sealing spell, separating me from my domain. Sleep always used to be so reassuring, so comforting, drifting effortlessly through imagination. But up there, on the moon?” Luna’s expression darkened. “It was just black. Empty.”
Another long silence as Celestia tried to bite back the apology she was so desperate to give and Luna stared wistfully into space.
“And what about the trail of hoofprints?” Celestia asked. “I assume you kept following them.”
“And did you ever find the source?”
“In a fashion,” Luna said, “although it took a lot longer than I had hoped.”
“I’m sure it was nothing compared to a millennium.” Celestia dropped a sugar cube into her cup, lifted the golden teaspoon and began to stir, the bright clink of metal against china ringing through the air.
“No, but it was still several months before I found the end.”
The teaspoon stopped clinking. “I’m sorry, did you say months?”
“But that’s… And they never stopped? Never deviated? Surely this pony must have paused for a rest?”
“If they did, their hooves continued on without them,” said Luna, with a mirthless smile. “Of course, I didn’t have the same stamina or dogged stubbornness, but I would follow those tracks until my hooves gave out beneath me and I could walk no more, and the journey still took months.” Luna’s smile was gone. “I know, because I was still counting.”
Luna’s hooves traipsed across the dust, the slight crunch underhoof all too familiar, the trail she left behind her stretching out of sight into the distance. A trail of slightly dragging hooves, leaving scuffs and broken lines in the grey in stark contrast to the perfect, pristine hoofprints they accompanied beside them. They’d never faltered, not once, not over all the days Luna had spent following them, as sure and consistent as when she had first set out.
Luna wasn’t sure if that made her feel better or worse. She had long since abandoned the idea that this thing was really a pony. No pony could march for months on end with no rest, its steps still as equally measured and precise as the moment it set off as when it found Luna, months later. No pony could have marched in such a straight line and still stumbled across her, not in the vast wasteland of the moon.
She didn’t know what that left, however, and so perhaps it was worse after all.
Some small, still niggling part of her couldn’t shake the idea that this was all in her head somehow. In some ways, that had become a more reassuring thought. This was just a distraction that Luna had created for herself, something to while away the nights, an unsolvable mystery, an unending trek across the moon’s surface to keep her mind from spinning away in vengeance and tally marks. But then she would hover her hoof over the trail and they would be smaller and any comforting notion of this being her own doing was cast aside, replaced by the same deep unease that had driven her so relentlessly onwards, pushing her to keep following, matching the trail step for step, no matter how long it had taken.
No matter if she was beginning to wonder if it would ever end at all.
Perhaps this was another part of her banishment. Celestia had shown how cruel she could be, even in her attempts at kindness, and perhaps endless purgatory hadn’t been enough. Perhaps putting her through this brought Celestia some sick, twisted pleasure, seeing Luna mindlessly, stubbornly pressing onwards. Trying to impart some kind of lesson as the trail continued forever. It felt like forever, and maybe it had been.
But no, she’d been keeping count. A perfect count, the tally marks long since abandoned behind her but flawlessly maintained in her head, every night another notch, every day another march. It had been months, not forever, and though the days were blended into one and it was all just one hoof in front of the other trudging through the dust a perfect trail parallel lines the orb of Equestria staring down on her Luna silent the moon silent the horizon stretching out for eternity and still onwards, onwards, onwards, despite all that she had always managed to add one to her total. The actual number seemed less important now than the act of keeping it, though, reassuring herself that she was making progress and that today was separate from yesterday and tomorrow and last week and a month from now, because otherwise for all intents and purposes they were the same.
Every day, every waking hour spent marching towards that unreachable horizon that met and matched her every step, shrinking away just as quickly as she approached, stretching ever out of reach in pace with the trail she followed. Every moment the same, the soft crunch of her hooves a metronome, a drum beat, a heartbeat. Crunch crunch crunch crunch. Her destination unchanging, immutable, always the same, forever the same, always-
And then Luna saw it, and her heart began to sink even before she was really sure what she was looking at.
That can’t be it.
The perfect horizon, the unchangeable had changed, and she could see the flurry of activity that had disturbed the dust ahead of her, the trail leading to it like a map, as if to mark it with an exclamation point.
No no no no no.
Her march grew ever more unsteady, her hooves threatening to topple her over again, not from exhaustion but fear and panic. She stumbled forwards as if drunk, borne onwards out of habit and terrible need to know, to understand, to confirm her suspicions. The familiar, rhythmic crunching replaced by an awkward shuffle, as she dragged herself towards the last thing she’d expected to stumble upon, as the hoofsteps she’d been following somehow grew tenfold more ominous, more impossible.
That one even managed to break through her consciousness into reality, her voice cracked and dry and hoarse with disuse, barely more than a whisper of denial and horror. It couldn’t be. Anything but this.
She stopped shambling forwards and stared down at the dust. At the multitude of lines left in its surface, etched by hoof – her hoof – before she abandoned them months ago to chase hoofsteps. Hoofsteps that had somehow perfectly looped back onto themselves, the old and the new meeting seamlessly, not even the slightest break or misplaced step, although now Luna had no idea where one set was supposed to begin and where the other was supposed to end. Instead, it was a perfect trail that trampled right over her tally marks, stretching off into the distance where she knew it would continue until it ended up right back here. And now there was a second trail following beside them, too – her own.
Luna had walked around the entirety of the moon’s surface and ended up exactly where she started.
And, faced with the impossibility of it all, faced with the sheer weight of her walk, of all the wasted months resting on her shoulders, the idea that there were now two rings of hoofsteps next to each other circling the entire moon, and staring down at the sea of tally marks that remained undisturbed save for the hoofsteps cutting straight through the middle of them, Luna did the one thing she could think to do. The one thing she still had energy left to do.
She sank down into the dust, onto her back, and began to laugh. Far too loudly, and for far too long, until the tears were streaming down her face and she wasn’t sure where the laughter finished and the sobbing began.
This time, the soft clip of Celestia’s hooves against the castle’s polished floors seemed to echo for too long, and instead of bringing her comfort but now strangely alien sound only added to her growing discomfort.
Duty had interrupted Luna’s story – dawn had come and Celestia had a sun to raise. If anything, her sister seemed relieved for the interruption, and had retired to her chambers despite Celestia’s offer to continue once her obligations were done. And when they’d changed guard once more for the sunset, Luna had told her it could wait until morning, until Celestia was rested and the world was quiet.
Celestia wasn’t entirely sure what she’d meant by that last part, only that Luna seemed insistent on it, and that just before dawn was the only time she felt comfortable telling her tale. As much as the things Luna had told her nagged at Celestia, she had to trust in her sister. And she did, more than anyone, better than any pony alive, although if there was one thing Luna could best Celestia at it was stubbornness.
Even if that stubbornness could be dangerous.
After all, it was that stubbornness that had pushed her around the entire moon, chasing a pony that might not even have been real. Stubbornness and Nightmare Moon’s relentlessness. Luna no longer wore that mantle, but even unmanifest there were aspects that Luna still shared, aspects that had been brought into focus by the Nightmare but had always been part of her regardless, and always would be.
Things unburied. Sharp edges.
For the first time since Luna’s return, Celestia hesitated at the door to her sister’s chambers. Just for a moment, but it was still enough that the less disciplined of the two guards outside cocked their head slightly in Celestia’s direction. And then the moment was over, and with a deep breath she pushed the door open and stepped inside, clutching the small box she’d brought with her ever tighter.
Unsurprisingly, Luna was transfixed by her telescope again, lost in it, the stars in her mane gently waving like a tide as she stared so intently into the eyepiece.
And when Celestia coughed to get her attention, she jumped again.
“We have told you to stop doing that!” Luna snapped. “How many times must we repeat ourselves?”
“And how exactly would you like me to interrupt your stargazing?” Celestia asked, pointedly. “There are only so many ways to introduce oneself, and I’ve tried most of them.” A carefully weighted pause. “You’ve jumped every time.”
Amazingly, Luna seemed to actually consider this, before sighing in resignation. “You are right, I apologise. I didn’t sleep well, and we are ill-tempered.”
And indeed, now she had turned Celestia could see the even darker circles around her eyes, the concentration on her features as if simply staying upright was a struggle. Something keeping her awake, haunting her. Celestia wished she could take that burden away and offer more comfort than warm words, but in the meantime she had the next best thing.
“I’ve brought these,” she said, levitating the thin box into view. Plain and flat, a white square of cardboard. “I had thought we might enjoy them on the balcony.”
Luna frowned. “Are you sure? I thought you’d sworn off them.”
“Yes, well, I think we could do with a bit of a mood lightener.”
“You said they went straight to your flanks.”
Celestia pursed her lips tightly. “I did say that, yes, but-”
“Although, having seen into our subjects’ dreams I don’t think you have to worry about them disliking your flanks being f-”
“Yes, thank you, sister.”
Luna’s grin was almost worth the humiliated burn Celestia could feel in her cheeks. Almost.
“Now, if you’ve quite finished,” she continued, icily, “I would very much like to eat some chocolate, and I think you could use some too.”
“Are you implying that my flanks aren’t as-”
“I’m implying that if we must talk about the terrible things that happened to you on the moon, we should at least do so in comfort. Nothing about flanks or their relative plumpness, I assure you.”
“If you say so.” Luna remained unconvinced, or at least was sure to appear so because she knew it would annoy Celestia. The latter might have been even more infuriating, but Celestia chose not to allow her frustration to show as they took their seats and cracked open the confectionary.
Oh goddess she’d missed this, letting out a small nicker of approval as she devoured the chocolate in a particularly unrefined manner.
“I imagine you sent for tea again?” Luna asked, leaving the box untouched.
“Coffee today,” Celestia replied, reaching for her third. “I could do with something a little stronger. You look as though you could, too.”
“Perhaps. I think I just need sleep.”
“If that’s what you’d prefer, we can always discuss this another time?”
Luna considered for a moment, then shook her head. “No, I’ve already put this off for too long. I shouldn’t have, I know. I should have confided in you the moment my – Nightmare Moon’s – rebellion was over and I was at your side once more. I just… I didn’t want to push you away again. I couldn’t bear the idea of you believing I had lost my sanity, both for your sake and my own.”
Luna smiled sadly. “You already struggle to forgive yourself, no matter my reassurances. I don’t believe you would ever succeed if my banishment had cost me my mind.”
“You may be right,” Celestia conceded. “But I wish you had trusted me with this sooner. I believe you, you know I do, no matter how improbable it all sounds.”
Luna sighed and finally reached for the rapidly emptying box. “You’ve yet to hear the rest of it.”
Luna had grown to hate the moon’s nights. This was a new experience for her, a revelation. The nights were hers, after all, and the moon equally her own. Night on the moon should have been her time, more than anything else.
But it was different. The nights on Equestria might have been hers, but not the moon’s. The blanket of stars that wrapped the sky was ever-present, for a start, and so the only real difference was how dark it all became. That, and the nights here being so much longer. What would have been several days in Equestria, bathed in darkness and cold and silence.
Even that hadn’t been a problem, at first, back before the hoofprints, but now the darkness held no comfort. In Equestria, the darkness of night was alive, full of her creatures and energy, full of potential and excitement. She had never feared the dark because it thrived in its own way, just as much as the day had.
The nights here were dead.
Save for Luna herself, submerged in the dark, trying to do as she could in Equestria and become part of it, have the night flow through her like a current through the ocean. But this night wasn’t hers, and, no matter how hard she tried to become one with it, communion remained out of reach. It was too different, too alien. She didn’t know how to connect with it, how to tame and merge with it.
Whereas the night on Equestria rejoiced in her, delighted in their communion, this one actively resisted her. And that both angered and scared her in equal measure.
How dare it? How dare it elude her, the princess of the night? It wasn’t supposed to do that, be it on the moon or anywhere else, it was supposed to bend to her whim and obey her and listen to her just as she could listen to it. But even as she drowned herself in the darkness, it simply washed around her, buffeting away any attempt to link with it.
This wasn’t the first time she’d tried, of course, but until now Luna had always assumed her failure was a result of the seal placed upon her. Everything else had been stripped away, after all, why not this as well? No magic, no flight. No communion.
Now, though, Luna had a horrible suspicion that something else was to blame. That the night here was different to Equestria, somehow, that it spoke a different language, that it didn’t know what she was, who she was.
Ridiculous, of course. Nightmare Moon held dominion over every night, and the moon was her beacon, her trophy. All her visions of the future – her reconquest of Equestria with the moon proclaiming her victory across the sky forevermore. That she could hold no sway over it was inconceivable.
But that didn’t change the fact it wasn’t listening to her.
Her teeth clenched in familiar anger, the same that had caused her to obliterate her tally marks when she’d returned, along with the impossible hoofprints. Returning the dust to a pure, blank slate. As it should be.
And for a while, that had been enough; she could even pretend the hoofprints never existed at all, and then the darkness settled around her and the ground was awash in black and it didn’t matter anyway.
Luna sighed and stared up at the blue orb above her. And then she heard it, and a sharp spike of dread pierced right to her heart.
The faintest, quiet crunching sound, one she immediately recognised as hooves against the dust. The heartbeat. The drumbeat. Perfectly measured, growing louder as someone, something approached directly towards her in the gloom.
“Who goes there?” Luna demanded into the darkness. “Reveal thyself at once!”
The steps grew louder.
“We are the rightful ruler of Equestria, Nightmare Moon, and we will not be ignored. Who goes there? We shall not ask again.”
The steps grew louder.
Luna’s anger and indignation were starting to melt away as the noise drew closer, never faltering, never wavering. So steady, so consistent, and in the anger’s place was the chilling sensation that something here was very, very wrong and she was in grave danger.
Preposterous. There was nothing Nightmare Moon couldn’t face.
...ordinarily. But here she had been stripped of her power – flightless, without magic, and even her night wouldn’t listen to her. And the hoofsteps grew closer still and Luna was struck with the horrible realisation that she had nothing left to defend herself with.
“Stay back, whoever you are,” she shouted, her voice shrill with a fear she’d never heard in her own words before. Only other ponies, only because of her. “Or you shall regret this.”
Too loud, too close, impossible to even determine its direction now. It almost seemed to echo, even though that couldn’t be right either but still it rang in her ears as the sound cascaded around her. And then right next to her, and she thought she could even hear faint breathing, ruffling the fur of her neck, and she whipped around but nothing but darkness and night there and the hoofsteps were loud enough to be deafening and a scream of panic threatened to tear loose from between her lips and then
And then the sound began to recede. Fading, dwindling. The oppressive fear that had crushed her chest drawing away with it, the thick weight in the air draining along with the sound as whatever lurked in the dark passed right by her and kept going, until the sound of its hoofsteps disappeared into haunted memory and nothing more.
It took a long time for Luna to calm herself, for her chest to stop heaving and her heart to stop crashing against her ribs. It took far longer still for the sun to rise again, and at no point in that darkness could Luna bring herself to move, her hooves refusing to budge no matter how hard she willed them, stiff and uncooperative. And days later, when the sun finally climbed over the horizon and she saw what the night had left behind, that urge to scream returned full force and she had to choke it back down.
Hundreds of them, thousands, more hoofprints than empty dust, covering almost every inch. Worst of all was the set that headed straight for her and then continued on the other side, as if something had marched straight up to Luna in the gloom and walked right through her like she wasn’t even there.
The chocolates were gone. Celestia would be lying if she said she hadn’t done the lion’s share of the work, especially as Luna’s story continued and her words grew more fervent and desperate and unstoppable. Though Luna wasn’t staring up at the moon tonight – or at least far less than yesterday – Celestia could see her sister reliving the words as she spoke them, how much the memories scared her.
“There were so many, sister,” Luna said, almost a whisper. “Dust that had been clean and smooth, dust I’d kicked over myself just to get rid of what had been there before. Almost as far as the eye could see, nothing but hoofprints, like an entire herd had wandered through. And all the same size.”
Celestia blinked. “You mean to tell me you think they belonged to the same pony?”
“That would be the simplest explanation. At the time I was equally incredulous, but the evidence lingered all around me. Even I couldn’t deny it.”
“Surely that would have sounded like a stampede? Nothing you described would lead to that sort of chaos.”
“I know what I heard, and I know what I saw, after. You’re trying to make sense of it, just as I did, but I believe this creature may be beyond that. Beyond sense.”
“If it’s a creature at all.”
“Oh, I know it is.” Luna was wistful again, this time staring at her telescope with only the odd, furtive glance towards the sky. “I saw it.”
Luna didn’t bother to cover up the tracks anymore. There was no point. There were far too many of them, and there would always be more. No matter how much dust she kicked over there would be more, and it did nothing to help. She would still imagine the hoofprints lying beneath – lingering, malignant, soaking through the particles – and she knew that if she somehow found the energy to cover everything it would all be the same. She would still see them lurking, even if the surface was smooth and perfect.
She would still know. She would still feel them. Like fur growing over an old war wound, one might not have been able to see it but that wouldn’t stop it from hurting.
Luna stopped. She’d been pacing again. She’d been doing that a lot ever since it visited her in the dark. Restless. Uncomfortable.
Not scared. Never scared. Nightmare Moon does not know the meaning of the word.
But she did, and she was.
And so, pacing. Endless circles in the dust, joining the cavalcade of hoof imprints that were already there, leaving a deep trench in the sea. An island. Walking until her legs hurt, walking to keep her brain spinning, searching for answers, clues, memories, anything.
But nothing. Nothing but meaningless, disconnected hoofprints and voiceless visitors in the dark.
All a loop, all an eternity. Pacing a circle, following hoofsteps in a far bigger circle around the moon, hoofprints that had followed her back anyway, hoofprints that had come to her instead of allowing her to come to them. A month in darkness, a month in light. Spinning. Pacing. Circles. Something important about circles, something forgotten, or perhaps remembered for the first time. She left a circle, and she stared at the other tracks as she paced but if they left a circle too it was too big to see the curve. Even the hoofprints themselves a ruptured circle, burst open at the side.
She had no idea how long she was lost in that haze for. How many darks and lights. For the first time since her incarceration, Luna had lost count, and in doing so the last shred of a grip on her reality was unravelling like a ball of yarn, rolling away and leaving her holding uselessly onto the spent end. Her legs burned, fire. Sometimes she would sleep, never well. The hoofprints remained. Her circles deepened.
And so she had no idea how much time passed before she first saw the blur. Maybe months, maybe years. Losing count made those words meaningless, made time itself meaningless, all the same. When it was light she would pace and when it was dark she would wait for more hoofsteps, and sometimes she would hear them and they would head straight towards her and she would brace herself and tense and clench her teeth together so hard that they hurt but then it would pass like always and walk straight through her like always and vanish off into the distance like always, and when it was light again there would be fresh trails in the dust that bisected right through the circles of pacing.
And then Luna would start walking again.
Nights. Days. All the same. Always the same.
And then different.
At first, Luna almost didn’t notice it. It was so faint, and her thoughts were so fogged, and sight had become practically worthless to her because it was always the same. Always grey dust, black sky, pinpoints of stars, the blue orb of Equestria, circles in the dust. Or just darkness, half pitch black, half drenched in stars.
All the same, all a cycle.
And so when that blur, that flicker, started to dance at the corner of her vision it was imperceptible enough that it didn’t really register. She simply kept trudging, kept pacing a circle, trying not to think, thinking anyway because it was the only thing she could do, imagining what lurked in the darkness, what kept visiting her, crunch crunch crunch.
Her hooves ground to a halt, and Luna squinted out at the horizon. A shimmer, a haze like a heatwave, faint and creeping at the very edges of her sight. But when she turned her head, even just a little, it was gone. An optical illusion, she decided. It must have been. A mirage. Luna didn’t know there could be mirages on the moon, but there it was and so there must be. She kept walking.
On the loop back around, the blur returned. Again she turned, again it vanished, but this time she turned her head back and it reappeared, right in the corners, right at the edge, enough that her eyes had to strain just to catch a glimpse of it. An angle thing, maybe. Something to do with the way the sunlight hit the dust. Innocuous. Harmless. Just a trick of the light. She kept walking.
On the third loop, Luna couldn’t deny it to herself anymore. The blur was moving. It was hard to tell here, of course, all grey and black and nothing in between, everything the same, every direction featureless, but she could. It was bigger, now. Closer. Hard to judge the exact distance, still only visible at the very edges, but definitely closer. More than a hundred feet, still, at least. The thought brought Luna little comfort.
Another loop, and now closer still. Not a mirage, not an illusion. No point in lying to herself – she knew it wasn’t. Had done the entire time, and lying wasn’t making her feel any better about it. There was something wrong about it, something that set her teeth on edge. Something that made her want to turn tail and flee.
Nightmare Moon does not flee.
No, she didn’t. But perhaps she should.
We are not a coward.
But she was powerless here, stripped of magic, all locked away by Celestia’s hoof. And so, as that shimmer drew inexorably closer, it took everything Luna had to hold firm and stand her ground. There was no plan, no answer if this thing turned out to be a threat. Only hooves and teeth, and what good could they be?
Hold your ground. Show no fear. Be the nightmare.
Closer, closer, Luna gritting her teeth in a snarl. The shimmer still confined to the corners of her eyes but taking up so much of them now, blurring and warping her sight like rain covering a window.
But more than that, she could feel the wrongness ever stronger as it approached. A creeping dread that crawled its way up her neck. It was alien, completely and utterly. It didn’t belong here, it wasn’t supposed to be here, and the more she stared at it, the sides of her eyes aching from wrenching them to the edges, the more that unease grew.
It wasn’t a shimmer, not really, not like the heat haze she’d equated it to. It was a ripple. A warping. Those rolling waves on a hot day were an illusion, seen but not felt, but this was different and somehow she knew it. The waves this blur made were real, the moon’s surface twisting and roiling as it grew nearer, even the stars beginning to twist out of place behind it.
Luna tried to ignite her horn as pure instinct took over, almost shocked to find the blank nothing there instead of the well of magic she was expecting. Closer still, and now she almost thought she could hear it, a murmuring, rustling susurration. The ripples widening, spreading. Luna’s gaze accidentally flicking towards it and banishing it from sight before turning again and watching it reappear so close and so fast and growing.
Was it growing? It must have been, or else it was so much bigger than she thought and so much further away to start with and so much faster than she’d anticipated.
Whispering, and a faint rumbling below even that, quieter still but low and deep and echoing. Close enough now that Luna could see the moon dust shift just slightly beneath the blur as it came, almost imperceptible but whenever her eyes flicked properly towards it and the shimmer vanished again she could make out the slight trail it had left behind, the faintest, thick line of disturbed dust.
Be strong, be Nightmare. Hold.
Do not be afraid. Nightmares are not afraid.
The air – or whatever passed for it up here – grew cold, sending another shiver trembling through her. Mere moments away, now, seconds from engulfing her completely. The shimmer began to oscillate faster, almost as if in anticipation. All the worse because she couldn’t even look at it properly, every fibre of her screaming to run and escape and
We. Do. Not. Yield.
But at the last second Luna was able to wrest enough sense from the NIghtmare inside her that she could leap to one side, out of the path of the shimmer an instant before it swept her up in it. As she sprawled into the dust, covering her coat in grey, she could swear she heard a frustrated growl, low and deep and rumbling the air. But perhaps it was just the sound of her tumbling to the ground, perhaps it was just her imagination, and perhaps she was ascribing far too much to something that could amount to some kind of illusion.
No, you felt it, it felt cold. It felt dangerous. It felt wrong.
Yes, to all those things, and yet when she raised her head from the dirt with a groan, the blur was gone. No matter how she twisted her head, how hard she tried to keep the corner of her eyes on where the shimmer had been, there was no sign of it. Just herself and the heavy rhythm of her still panicked breathing, and nothing more.
She would almost believe she had imagined it, that the last vestiges of sanity had drained out of her, but Luna knew better. She could see the trail it had left behind, the line, as though someone had dragged something heavy across it.
And in that line, so prominent in what would otherwise be smooth and unsullied, were more hoofprints. These ones were not like the others, the ones that had been careful and measured and patient. These ones were spread out, wide and deep. Whatever had come for her – and it had come for her, of that Luna had no doubt – had been galloping right towards her, as fast as it could.
“A part of me,” said Luna, watching Celestia carefully, “fears that as my story grows more fanciful it will push away any remaining belief you might still hold for it.”
Celestia thought for a moment, contemplatively stirring her spoon even though her teacup was empty, pawing idly at the box of chocolates even though that was empty too. “It has not,” she said. “As distressing as your tale is, and as comforting the thought of it all being fabricated would be, I do believe you.”
“Because I asked you to?”
Celestia shook her head. “No. Because you were never one for embellishment.” A slight pause. “And because I have never seen you look so scared before.”
Luna’s false smile disintegrated. “I am scared, Tia,” she said, in barely more than a whisper.
“No, you don’t. You can’t understand yet, not until I’ve told you everything.”
Celestia frowned at the panic in Luna’s words. “This is why you’ve spent all those nights staring up at the moon, isn’t it? You’re looking for it.”
“Yes,” Luna said, and then curled up her lip in frustration. “And no. I… Just let me get to the end and it will make sense. Or, not sense, but at least you’ll understand, if only as well as I do.”
“Then please, continue.” Celestia leaned back, trying to seem at ease even though she couldn’t keep her hoof from tapping restlessly against the leg of her chair. “I assume your blur came back?”
“It’s not about the blur,” Luna said, firmly. “Or even the thing that was lurking within it.” Her gaze hardened, although it kept flicking back to the telescope, then back to the moon. “It’s about where they came from.”
Luna was ready. She’d been ready for weeks, months, years. She wasn’t sure how long, or even when she was supposed to have started counting, but she was ready. That much she knew, that much was absolute.
The blur had not returned. There had been no more hoofprints. For all intents and purposes, Luna’s imprisonment had been restored to its former state. But that was a lie – everything was different.
Celestia had become the least of her concerns, for a start. No matter how much the Nightmare raged and swore that her sister was the true enemy, that this was just a distraction and not to forget the conflict that had sent her here, that Equestria was rightfully hers and she had been denied it. That Celestia was her greatest threat, her only rival and deserving of all her attention, forever and always.
But she wasn’t. And this shimmer, whatever it may have been, was not from Celestia. Luna was sure of that. It bore none of the hallmarks of her sister’s usual ostentation, and the aura she had felt leaking out of it as it brushed so closely against her was like nothing she had ever felt before, oozing with menace and wrongness and malice.
Malice that rivalled even her own, but so much colder. Hers was hot with anger and vengeance, but the shimmer had felt almost icy in comparison, in a way that nothing on Equestria had ever been. She and Celestia had faced down so much evil together before her sister denied Luna her birthright, and it had never been cold. There was always anger, always hatred, always fury. Never ice.
But whatever this blur may or may not have been, this time she was ready for it. This time she would no longer baulk or flee. This time she would stand firm and if it was going to try and send her to Tartarus then Nightmare Moon would do all she could to drag it down with her, kicking and screaming if she had to. And she probably would have to – there was nothing else at her disposal – but it was still better than the alternative, of spending every waking moment in fear of its return, of only falling asleep when she was too exhausted to do anything more, and not knowing if she would even wake up again.
But no matter how ready Luna was, the blur would never appear again. And by the time the pony appeared at the corners of her vision, Luna’s mind had frayed far enough that she was convinced she was imagining it.
It started with shadows. Flickering, dancing shadows where there could be none. Still at the edges, but only for moments, just long enough for her to notice them, just quick enough to question if she’d even seen them at all. Sometimes she would snap her head around fast enough that it made her neck ache, that uncomfortably warm, flooding hurt, but there would never be anything there. Or sometimes the shadows would still be flickering just out of sight, and no matter how far she craned her head they would still linger at the edge, dancing away at a perfectly equal pace so she couldn’t even tell what shape they were. If they even made a shape at all.
At first it was only brief flickers, brief visits. The shadows would dance and Luna’s heart would beat fast in her chest and her neck would ache as she whipped around and then it would be gone, gone for days, months, years. Who knew? But it would be back, always. The gaps began to shorten. Years, months, days.
And then there was nothing but shadows, always shadows, always lingering, lurking, always just out of sight, tormenting her. Everywhere Luna looked, shadows, and yet somehow nowhere as they slipped away from wherever she cast her gaze. Buzzing at every edge, but refusing to stay in view. She would slam her eyes shut and still see them somehow, crackling and fuzzing in the darkness behind her eyelids no matter how hard she scrunched them shut and maybe that was just because she knew they were there but maybe that was all they needed.
When it got too much – and towards the end it was always too much – Luna would suddenly start awake from a reverie she didn’t even realise she’d slipped into and find that she had been pacing again. Walking endlessly, in a circle.
There were dozens of circles, now, all deep and well-trodden, scoured into the dust as she wandered and muttered under her breath and tried and failed to ignore the endless shadows.
And then dark would come and Luna would pray it would grant her some respite but if anything it only made it worse because she could still see them how could see still them. Worse, when the dark came she started to believe she could hear them, hear the light whispering they made as they danced in the darkness, so quiet and yet growing to an unbearable cacophony in the silence that made Luna want to bury her head in the dust just to get away from it, but she knew that would do as little to help as covering her eyes with her hooves.
She screamed into the darkness, a scream of fear and anger and frustration, her voice a dagger through the murmuring shadows, and for just the briefest of moments there was blissful, perfect silence. And then the whispering returned, perhaps even louder than before, and Luna dropped to the dust and curled into a ball and the shadows kept dancing. Kept whispering, although not in words, or at least none that Luna recognised. Just pure sound, and for the first time since she had been trapped here Luna found herself praying for the return of the silence that seemed so unbearable when she first found herself imprisoned. It would have been better than this. Anything would have been better than this, the whispering somehow loud enough to make her ears ring.
And then, just as Luna was sure she could take no more and that her last shred of sanity was going to evaporate and leave her alone in the murmuring dark, the whispering stopped. The shadows stopped. One instant an all-encompassing crescendo, the next, gone.
Luna looked up, her sister’s sun just beginning to drag itself up over the horizon, the corners of her eyes mercifully clear, no dancing shadows, no whispers, and somehow that made everything even worse. No new marks in the dust, either, the hallmark of her visitor that she’d grown so used to.
Just Luna, alone.
And that was worse because now she couldn’t even be sure it was real. It had felt real, so real that Luna had thought her eardrums about to burst and pour hot blood down the side of her head. So real that the edges of her eyesight seemed all too bright now, stinging and making her cover them even though the sun had barely peeked over the horizon. So real that her ears still rang, but now in this deathly silence it seemed impossible that such a sound could have existed mere moments before, one that forced her to the ground in a crying, whimpering mass that was thoroughly unbefitting of her title.
She had been so sure, so certain, so assaulted by the shadows, and yet now in their damning absence it was hard for her to believe they had even been there at all. Maybe she really had lost her mind, fabricating hoofprints, fabricating shadows and whispers. But why would she do that, why would she torment herself like this?
Why were the hoofprints smaller?
The silence was so empty. Luna didn’t miss the whispers, of course not, but the quiet that had replaced them was not the improvement she had hoped it would be. Perhaps it had always been like this, and now the contrast had pulled it into stark relief, but this silence was so much more overbearing, overwhelming. Not just the absence of sound, but of so many other things besides – life, laughter, dreams. A silence that had draped itself so wholly over everything and smothered the whispers beneath it.
And it was in that silence – that dead, oh so empty silence – that Luna first saw him.
Just like the blur, it was impossible to look directly at the pony who had replaced the shadows, lingering at the edges. Far enough away that she could have missed him, and indeed if it hadn’t been for the sheer contrast now that the shadows were gone, she very well may have. But she saw him, saw him standing so still in the distance, and her heart plummeted like a stone falling through the ocean.
It was hard to make out details, of course. Her eyes would slide right over the spot where he stood and insist it was empty, right up until he was at the periphery again and he would reappear, still standing there, still watching her. All she could really make out for sure was the colour of his coat: black, blending in so well with the night sky but standing out against the dust.
She took a few, experimental steps towards him, and even if Luna had had any words for him she wasn’t sure she would have been able to speak them, her throat so dry, tongue thick and useless in her mouth. She didn’t really want to try, anyway. Something told her he wouldn’t have understood, that he came from the same place as those languageless whispers.
But as she moved towards him, though she never saw his hooves move he seemed to get no closer. Always remaining at that same distance, about a hundred feet away. Watching.
Luna tried retreating. The stallion came with her, trailing in perfect time, again his hooves as still as the rest of him.
And then lastly Luna broke into an unexpected gallop, charging towards the stallion as fast as her legs would carry her, and again it retreated, again it maintained perfect distance. No closer. No further.
Again it stood there, in silence, as Luna panted for breath and soothed her burning legs and hurled hoarse obscenities at the stallion that did little to make her feel better.
Was it closer, now? It was hard to tell, but Luna thought it might have been. Just a little, a few feet or so, if even that. But closer.
And as the hours passed, that niggling doubt became undeniable. The stallion was getting closer. A hundred feet. Then eighty. Fifty. The hours rushed by, and the stallion didn’t move, and yet every time she checked he would be just that little bit nearer. Behind a crater, then over the lip, then nestled inside it, and then over the near edge.
Nearer, closer. Forty feet. Twenty.
Luna could bear watching no longer, and she turned tail and began to run. It didn’t help. Soon he was in the periphery again, and now fifteen feet and no matter how hard she ran, no matter which direction she chose he was always there, ten feet away.
Close enough now that she could make out his mane, or lack thereof. No tail, either, and where his eyes should have been were twinkling stars. Five feet. No way to run, nowhere to run to. No way to hide, nowhere she could have hidden herself. She fancied she could see him growing closer inch by inch now, inexorable, and all Luna could do was brace herself and grit her teeth and wait and watch, watch because looking away did nothing, and because if doom was approaching then Nightmare Moon would never dream of not looking it in the eye.
And then right next to her, and she could feel his breath ruffling her fur, and his eyes were stars and he was close enough now that she could see that his fur wasn’t really fur at all but coiling, coalesced shadows, and she could hear the whispering as it roiled beneath what should have been skin. Leaning in, the sharp stench of something chemical, electrical, and then he spoke to her in a voice of cracked ice and even though she didn’t understand the words she knew what they meant.
The shadow lurched suddenly, its enigmatic message delivered, and out of the corner of her eye Luna could only watch in horror as his form crumpled in on itself, collapsing, his featureless face caving in and melting away as his limbs sloughed off and disintegrated back into twisting shadow, as he crumbled and faded and evaporated until there was nothing left of him, and she saw what he had left behind.
“Come home,” repeated Celestia, thoughtfully. She tasted the words as they dripped over her tongue, so innocuous, so innocent, and yet somehow full of incomparable weight.
“Yes,” said Luna, huffing a little in annoyance at the interruption.
“A strange thing for your spectre to be so insistent on telling you, don’t you think? I assume he didn’t mean Equestria?”
Luna’s eyes narrowed. “He did not.”
Celestia did all she could to keep locked with Luna’s gaze. Looking away would make it too obvious.
“Do you know something I do not?” Luna asked, with naked suspicion. “Have you seen this shadow before?”
“No, I haven’t,” Celestia assured her, and like all the best lies it was entirely the truth. She’d never seen Luna’s shadow before, although she had a fairly good guess as to whence it came from. “I was simply making an educated guess. After all, if it were something mundane I doubt it would have scared you so.” Celestia couldn’t smile, not right now, but she tried an approximation of one. “And besides, you said yourself that it was about where these things came from. It’s not hard to surmise you weren’t talking about Equestria.”
To Celestia’s immense relief, Luna relaxed, her shoulders dropping as she sank back in her chair again and her eyes stopped piercing right to Celestia’s soul.
“You’re right, I’m sorry, Tia. This has gotten us far too paranoid for our own good. That’s why I had to tell you. That, and…” Luna trailed off into silence, and Celestia knew better than to push no matter how curious she was. If Luna wanted to talk, she would do so in her own time, and no amount of urging would encourage otherwise. It would only make it all the more likely Luna would never tell Celestia at all.
“So,” Celestia said, trying to seem nonchalant even as her mind spun with memories and concern and her hoof tapped away below the table, “your spectre braved the moon, appeared before you to deliver his cryptic message, and then vanished before your eyes. But you say he left you something? Something more than hoofprints, this time?”
Luna nodded solemnly. “He did.”
“What was it?”
The corners of Luna’s mouth twisted up in a smile that was more like a grimace, uncomfortable and sardonic in equal measure. “A circle,” she said, and Celestia’s heart plummeted as her fears were realised.
The circle hung in the air, so still, so perfect. Black, pitch black, and ringed with bright, burning light. A couple of feet across, and floating a few inches off the ground, although floating didn’t seem like the right word for it. It was far too still for that.
So still that it might have been painted onto the air, that its sheer stillness brought another wave of discomfort, enough so that Luna almost found herself wishing for the other things she’d already seen – the blur, the shadow. Those had felt wrong, too, but the feeling that emanated from this circle was far worse.
The blur and shadow hadn’t belonged here, but this circle didn’t belong anywhere. It was fundamentally wrong, somehow. Broken.
Luna took a few experimental steps towards the circle, and then around, only to find that it had apparently no depth at all. Perfectly flat, a perfect ring, a perfect puzzle. The light around the edge shimmering, the darkness inside devouring any other glint that would dare to brush against it.
And though there was no way she could possibly have known, even though she had never seen anything like this before, still Luna understood. Some primitive, primal part of her brain recognised the circle for what it was.
A rip. A tear.
Not painted on, but quite the opposite. Pulled out, torn – a space, a gap. A hole, right through the air, right through reality, punched out and through to…
To darkness. To the unknown.
A sudden, savage excitement filled Luna’s chest. This could be her way out. An end to her torment, her imprisonment. Bound no longer to the moon, a free Nightmare once more. Her return would be swift and bloody, and would take Celestia entirely by surprise. Her sister would never know what was happening until it was far, far too late.
There was, of course, the not-so-small matter of where the portal lead, although there was very little that could be worse than this torment. And with thoughts of freedom and vengeance swirling through her head, Luna reached out and placed her hoof against the circle.
Instantly the dark edges began to crumble, falling away inwards, fading to dust in the air. Only the bright ring remained as the centre collapsed and vanished, revealing behind it…
A snarl of outraged anger burst out of Luna. Had this all been a cruel joke? Come home, you’re already here. Was this all just Celestia’s doing after all, giving her fear and then false hope to try and break the Nightmare?
She almost gave up, almost spun dismissively on her hooves and stormed away, leaving the circle in disgust. But then Luna saw it, and a little shiver rolled down her spine even though she wasn’t really sure what it meant.
The dark sky beyond the circle held not a single star.
She had to double-check to make sure she wasn’t imagining things, peering behind the illuminated ring to make sure there should have been stars there, and then back through the circle with only darkness above the grey.
And there was more. Even the dust on the other side wasn’t quite right, wasn’t quite the same. Darker, greyer, and not just from the lack of starlight. Luna had thought it merely a window, showing the same moon behind it, but she was wrong. The moon behind this hole was not the same that she had spent the last thousands of days upon. It was different. Changed.
It could still be a way out. It could still be something, anything, and Luna had so little to lose that she only hesitated for a moment before pushing her hoof through experimentally, wincing a little in anticipation of something awful happening to it, that perhaps the rip would close, or perhaps something was waiting on the other side – something with teeth and a taste for alicorns.
But there was nothing. The only difference, as far as Luna could tell from that small probing, was that the moon on the other side was colder.
She drew her hoof back, half expecting something or someone to reach out and grab it, drag her through, but no one did, and it was only once all four of her hooves were safely back on the moon’s – her moon’s – surface that she truly began to entertain the idea of crossing through to the other side.
Yes, the Nightmare hissed. Escape. Freedom. Vengeance.
Urging her on, pushing her even as the more practical part of her resisted. Other realities were tricky, after all, and the portals between them doubly so. Like that mirror in the castle, only open sometimes and then shut, trapping ponies the other side. There was no guarantee that this other reality would ever provide a way back and give Luna means to wreak her revenge as she so desperately desired.
Perhaps it would just be another prison.
But then what have you lost? The Nightmare was growling again, seething. Would you reside here forever instead, lamenting what could and might have been? There is nothing on the other side of that circle that could be worse than this. Nothing.
Luna chewed her lip, staring up at the blue orb above her. Knowing that if she stepped through there was a chance she would never find her way home again. Not this one, at least.
This is no home. This is hell.
And if she walked away, here and now, she would be consigning herself back to tally marks and moon dust and obscene nothingness. Days and weeks and months and years as meaningless as one another in the irrepressible sea of time that washed and buffeted against Luna but never seemed to actually flow. In the endless darks, the endless lights. Forever.
That wasn’t even living.
And then there was the shadow. Come home. It had wanted her to cross, gifted her the circle. Home, whatever that was supposed to be, lay beyond. If nothing else, it wouldn’t be here. At least for the first time in a hundred thousand tally marks, Luna would be moving forwards.
And so when she summoned up her courage and stepped through the circle, it was with a smile.
There was a horrible, shifting sensation as her hooves landed on the other side, as though gravity itself had flipped and the entire universe had spun on its axis to match, and for one terrible moment Luna felt like she might fall off the face of this new moon and tumble into the abyss of space, lost forever. And then her senses righted themselves, the shifting passed, and though her legs were still a little unsteady they at least felt appropriately pressed against the ground.
Her wings fluttered in the cold to try and warm themselves, and then Luna’s eyes widened as she felt a familiar but long-forgotten rush beneath them, as they thrummed with potential. Her heart pounding in her chest as she lowered her head and dragged her wings down, and then a burst of elation as the ground fell away from her and she took to the sky.
Flying. Oh goddess she’d missed it, more than she could have imagined, sealed away like the rest of her powers and gloriously restored now that she was free of the binding spell. Not even a hint of unsteadiness as she soared, everything coming back to her without even thinking about it, so natural, so right. Luna’s smile only grew wider as she closed her eyes and dug deep and the magic that had been sealed away flooded up to meet her, horn igniting in a victorious blaze as she revelled in the sensation she’d missed so much.
Free. She was free.
And for a time, that was all she needed. For a time all she wanted was to soar and feel the magic humming in her horn, stretching muscles that had been long cramped, the restoration of such a fundamental piece of her that had been missing.
No, not missing. Taken. Stolen.
Her sister would rue everything she’d done. Denying Luna her wings, her magic… She may as well have denied her breathing. And whichever of her hundreds of plans for retribution she would eventually settle on, Luna was sure it would contain suitable reprisal for Celestia’s cruelty. Suitable punishment. She cast her face skywards, looking towards Equestria to envisage her victory and prepare her teleportation, and Luna’s smile dropped.
Her wings threatened to fold and crumple, and the soaring that had seemed so easy became impossible as her body turned to a lead weight and she dropped out of the sky to crash into the dust beside the circle again. She barely even felt the impact, and as she clambered back up to her hooves Luna could never have wrenched her eyes away from the planet hanging above her.
Equestria was dead.
There was no other word for it. The blue and green that had loomed over her during her incarceration, only adding to her torment as she stared up at her home so many thousands of miles away, was a far cry from what hung above her now.
Not blue. Not green. Grey. Ashen.
Come home, the shadow had said. Come home, and then it had left her the gateway, and yet what remained of this world’s Equestria was as desolate and devastated as the moon itself. What had happened here?
She spun around at the sudden crunch of hoofsteps behind her, but there was nothing there. No blur. No shadow.
“What is this?” she hissed into the void, as if anything would answer, as if anything had an answer. “Why did you bring me here?”
But there was no reply. No more hoofsteps, either, and perhaps she’d only imagined those. Just a memory, just a ghost. A dream, desperate for something to be here even if it was only the shadow that had coaxed her through. Better than the emptiness that was here instead, the grey planet above so lifeless and dull. Better the shadow than the cold realisation that her freedom here was meaningless, trading one cell for another, returning her powers but taking away anything she could have used them for.
There was no vengeance to be found here. If this universe had a Celestia, she would already be dead.
Luna collapsed against the ground much as she had done when she had first found herself on the moon all those years ago and stared up at the darkness of space, not even the stars to be found, not even the faintest glimmer of life save for Luna herself. And she was no longer so sure about that last one.
And so lost in her melancholy and hopelessness, Luna didn’t see the shade falling over her until she looked about herself and realised the moon was dark, almost as dark as night despite the sun being so high in the sky but a few minutes ago.
She frowned, and glanced in the direction of the horizon where the sun had gone, and her eyes went wide, mouth flopping dumbly open at everything that had replaced it.
So many eyes, hundreds, thousands, squirming and teeming eyes. Dark circles in writhing tendrils, eyes surrounded and buried in twisting shadow. Eyes that didn’t make sense, that somehow overlapped and existed in the same place together, eyes upon eyes. The overall shape impossible to make out, too enormous and different everywhere Luna looked, so much so that the shape hurt to look at, burning deep in her mind if she tried to focus and comprehend exactly what she was seeing. The shape shifted, and the world shifted with it, and among those whirling tendrils and staring eyes there was nothing but that cold, dead cruelty she’d felt before.
This was the source. This was the thing that had leaked into her world, the shadow.
And no wonder it had seeped through, found its way in between the cracks, forced its way in through the shimmers. It didn’t belong here, or perhaps it belonged everywhere and perhaps that was the same thing. It was so many things, all at once, entirely beyond comprehension.
The source reached out to her, both with its tendrils and its eyes. Wrapping around her drowning her submerging her, Luna unable to even begin to fight back as everything became shadow, as it took her into itself and took itself into her and eyes staring tendrils constricting and screaming screaming until Luna’s throat was hoarse and she could scream no more and it stung and burned and still she screamed anyway.
Her mind crumpling and buckling beneath this creature’s very existence, if it even was a creature, if the word creature even applied to it. It probed and forced its way in and she saw everything and nothing and images began to flash and spiral, things she had already seen, immutable truths that had permeated through the shimmers and tears and weak points between this world and her own, between every world and her own. Truths wilfully avoided, that ponies buried and tucked away and didn’t even really notice except in haunted dreams and imagination, the only times their consciousness allowed them to be acknowledged.
She saw fire. She saw death. She saw red sky, falling. She saw ponies screaming and no one to answer them, heard them as they were torn, as the world burned to cinders. She saw eyes, saw through the eyes, felt them as it drowned her, embraced her, showed her the truth. As it showed her what it was, what it could be, and she understood and also knew she could never understand, that nothing and no-one could ever understand.
She saw a foal, playing alone amongst the ash. She saw circles. She saw too much, not enough. Staring at the source became impossible; there was too much of it, and not enough of her. Too many layers, too many existences, all together, all one.
She saw it descend on the world below, and she saw that world burn. Everything devoured, everything brought to ruin, everything consumed so entirely. The eyes stared, and they were full of the panic of the ponies’ last moments, but only reflections in cruel, dispassionate mirrors.
The cacophony of sound again, of whispers and this time they did make sense, all too much sense, a single phrase repeating. Voices, screams, the ponies that it had taken into itself repeating the cry, the call, the order.
The source lifted her with its shadows, so effortlessly, light as air, and Luna could see her own terrified reflection in those abysses it called eyes. But the word wasn’t quite right. Not a reflection. She saw herself in the same way she saw the world consumed, the same way she saw those ponies’ fear, the creature giving as much of itself as it took of her.
Over and over, endless, incessant chanting, demanding. Lost in the eyes, lost in the tempest of shadow, lost in chaos. Coaxed into the maw of this… thing, this monstrosity, almost willingly. The chanting all there was, everything, all-consuming. The world burned, the ash fell, the ponies were gone. The foal laughed. There were circles. There was silence.
All for naught. Everything, her rebellion, her entire life. All to be lost to this shadow, to the eyes, and she would be ash, and Celestia would never know her fate, would never know what waited and lingered just through the gaps, what was trying to force its way through. And Luna would be part of it, and it would be all of her, and she would be home.
No. No. We do not yield.
Moments before her mind cracked completely and the eyes devoured her, the Nightmare surged. Magic welling in her horn from reserves she didn’t even know she had, hot anger breaking through the madness and resignation. Light, blinding and magnificent, burst from the tip of her horn and erupted outwards in a radiant sphere, and she watched as the eyes burned under its explosion, evaporating the shadows that held her.
And then she was falling, and her wings spread wide and she couldn’t help but smile even now as she felt herself soar, that old familiar power rolling through her again, the one she’d almost forgotten about, the one that time and isolation had tried so hard to beat out of her. She was Nightmare Moon, and even on the brink of insanity she had strength left to fight this thing, even as the voices only seemed to grow louder and stronger and more insistent.
Come home Come home
But no matter how much shadow she burned away, no matter how brightly her light shone there was always more, always eyes. Now in every direction, surrounding her, drowning her, a forest of shadow and tendrils and eyes and memories. And closing in, even as she channelled more and more magic into her horn, the shadows threatening to swat her out of the air as she was forced to the ground. What she had thought was resistance was becoming the barest of reprieves, and if the dark enveloped her again Luna was sure she wouldn’t escape, that there would be so little left of her that escape wouldn’t even be a consideration.
She felt its indignant shriek of pain as it pushed back against the light, the whispers turning into an outraged roar that crashed into her and wiped clean all of her other senses, left no room for them. Just raw sound, furious and bestial.
And even though it was enough to almost make her knees buckle, enough that she stumbled and almost fell and the roar seemed loud enough to rattle her skull, Luna knew she had to keep going, had to keep running, keep moving.
A pang of fear as she realised that even the path of her escape was shadows now, that she was lost in them, that in its embrace she had forgotten which direction she had even come from. The light from her horn dwindling, expending all of her out-of-practice energy on that initial burst. Eyes, drinking her in, closer, closing. The sphere of light before endless shadow ever-shrinking as she cantered onwards, not even knowing if she was running in the right direction or just getting further and further from the portal.
And when she saw them, Luna almost wanted to laugh at the absurdity even as the shadows grew close enough that she could feel them grasping and catching at her fur.
Her own, this time, the ones she had left as she ventured into this place. Guiding her back to the circle. She forged ahead, her erratic canter crushing the neatly ordered hoofprints into the dust as she pushed back the darkness with her faltering light and tried not to listen to the roaring of its incessant command.
Running until her lungs burned and her legs ached, running with her eyes clenched almost shut, running and trying desperately to keep her horn lit, to hold back the dark, to keep the shadows from devouring her like they’d done so many times to so many others, like it had shown her in those torturous flashes of memory as the shadows revelled in their ruination. Trying not to look into the writhing darkness, where madness seeped out of every inch, where eyes spun and stared, where she saw the ashes.
There. The circle, its bright edge blazing even amongst roiling shadows. One hoof in front of the other, gasping for breath, onwards, onwards. Don’t stop, don’t think, don’t remember. Don’t let your magic fade.
But it was fading, oh so quickly now, and her hooves were starting to catch and stumble as the shadows wrapped around them to grab and trip and subdue. A tug against her tail hard enough that she had to grit her teeth to suppress the shout as she pulled it free. Another seizing her hindleg, this time succeeding in forcing her to the ground, but she was up on her hooves again even as the thing pressed inwards, as the circle seemed to fade into twisting tendrils and eyes, as everything became comehomecomehomecomehomecomehome
We do not yield.
And then mercifully through, leaping at the circle just as her horn sputtered out and the shadows roared first in triumph and then in anger as Luna slipped between realities. She even made it halfway through before a grasping hold around her midriff tightened and locked her in place, her hooves pawing desperately at the dust in a futile attempt to drag herself the last few feet. But the shadow was strong, strong enough to force the breath from her lungs as it crushed inwards and began to drag her back through the rip.
As she dug in harder and tried and failed to draw breath and gave a panicked look back, her situation only became more dire. The circle was closing. Shrinking in so rapidly, contracting. Her options now far too narrow, too unthinkable. Allow herself to be dragged through into the shadow’s maw, or allow the circle to close and leave half of her here and half on the other side. Both options terrible, both deadly.
But if Luna was going to die here, then it would be on her own terms. Her scraping across the dust deepened as she ground her hooves in even further, turning back to snarl at the shadows and watch the circle shrink.
Smaller, smaller, and Luna winced as she felt the blazing edges reach her midriff and cut inwards, deep, blood starting to seep warmly into her fur. The voices rising, Luna letting out one last frustrated scream that this was how it was going to end, sliced apart by reality and shadow.
Luna closed her eyes, and in those final moments she thought of Equestria. She thought of Celestia, and for the first time in a hundred thousand tally marks it wasn’t with the irrepressible anger that had consumed her for so long.
She just wished she would get to say goodbye.
And then she was lurching forwards, not just released by the shadows but thrown, cast out through the narrowing divide that still sliced deeply into her as she passed through, tumbling to the dust and staining it red.
Her midriff burned as she turned the ground crimson, her fur matted and her wounds stinging. But Luna didn’t mind the pain – hurting meant she was still here, hurting meant the shadows hadn’t taken her.
But it still took a while for her to summon the courage to open her eyes. Lying sprawled in the dust was one thing, but as long as she didn’t open her eyes she could pretend everything was okay, she could pretend everything was fine. Just ignore the stinging in her flank, ignore the swirling memories of shadows and screams and ash, and pretend it was alright. Pretend that nothing had followed her through. And as long as she didn’t open her eyes, Luna had no evidence to suggest otherwise.
But eventually she opened them anyway.
The circle was gone. Not even a trace of where it had once been, the only remnant the faintest chemical scent, and then even that too was gone. No shadow, no blur. No anything. Just Luna, the moon, and…
She cast her eyes upwards to make sure. Thousands of twinkling stars shone down on her, and the blue orb above was back in its rightful spot, its colours seeming all the more vivid and bright in contrast with the ashen globe from the other place.
She was back. She was home.
Back to your cage, the Nightmare sneered. Back to nothing.
And it was true: the magic that had been so briefly returned to her now lay dormant, Luna unable to coax it up into her horn, the barrier preventing even that much. Such a fundamental part of her removed, like somehow forgetting how to move one of her limbs. She knew the magic was there, deep down, but reaching it was impossible. And her wings could no longer detect their magic, either, those currents of power they were supposed to glide upon. Relegated to useless lumps of flesh and feathers, as impotent as her horn.
And yet no matter how much the Nightmare hissed and spat it was all just noise, just frustration. Luna would take her prison over the shadow lurking beyond the circle every time. Nothing but madness and death, there. Grey ash.
She sunk down into the dust and stared up at Equestria, exhaustion dousing every inch of her, dragging her down like bricks. She was going to sleep, now, for a very long time. She’d earned it. And when she woke up?
Perhaps she would start the tally again.
Equestria glowed above, bright blue, and as Luna watched it and her eyelids dropped and in the dark behind them she saw dancing and spiralling shadows, Luna thought of home.
When Luna finished her story, Celestia was quiet for a very long time. To her sister’s credit, Luna didn’t push, didn’t ask for opinion or validation. She simply drank her tea and watched Celestia carefully and waited. Her voice had been cracking a little towards the end, and she was probably grateful for the respite. Celestia, meanwhile, was searching for words of her own. None of them seemed right, none of them seemed to have enough weight and earnestness to match Luna’s tale.
“You told me those scars were from the Element’s magic,” were the ones she settled on, and while they definitely weren’t the right ones they were the only ones she could find, the slight indignation in them a far better twinge than the fear and dread and guilt that would have steeped anything else she could have said. Because of course she’d noticed the scars, twisting silver beneath her sister’s fur. Mostly hidden, only noticeable up close, only the sort of thing a sister would see.
“I did say that,” Luna agreed. “It was a lie.”
“You could have told me. You should have told me.”
“I know. But I didn’t, and the longer I kept it hidden the harder it became to speak of. I began to question my own memory, my own sanity, and the thought that you may dismiss it out of hoof was both agonising and heartbreaking. I couldn’t bear that.”
That was something Celestia could sympathise with all too well. “So why now?”
Luna’s eyes flicked to the telescope again, and Celestia doubted she even knew she was doing it. Still, it was all the answer she needed.
“You saw it again, didn’t you?”
Luna nodded solemnly. “At first I thought it was just a smudge on the lens. Years spent searching for that blur, that ripple, so sure it would return, and yet when it actually did I was so terrified that I lied to myself that it was something else, something innocent and mundane. But of course it wasn’t. It was a blur.”
“And then a pony.”
“And then a pony,” Luna echoed. “And still I didn’t tell you, not until I had no other choice. Not until…” Luna struggled with the words, the ones she’d been leading up to all along, choking on them as she tried to let them go. “He’s here,” she whispered. “One day it vanished from the edges of my telescope and for a while I thought it was gone. Foolish, in retrospect. It crossed the ocean of stars and then I started seeing it, just flashes at the corners of my eyes, and no one else seemed to notice. In the gardens, then the castle itself, hidden amongst the crowd during our royal audiences. And now?”
Luna cast her eyes up to the moon again, but now Celestia saw the little sidelong glance that accompanied that motion, had accompanied it all along.
“Now, if I take great care to keep you at the edge of my vision I can see him standing behind you. He’s been there the whole time.”
The fur on the back of Celestia’s neck prickled, and she turned her head and for just a moment she thought she did see a pony there, standing wreathed in the last shadows before dawn. But then nothing, and no matter how hard she tried to emulate Luna and keep the darkness in her periphery there was nothing there. Maybe just a trick of her imagination, Luna’s story getting to her.
“You can’t see it, can you?” Luna asked, her voice filled with terrible resignation.
“The guards didn’t, either. I swore them to secrecy after, but I could tell they thought my mind had finally slipped, that all the years on the moon had cracked it.”
Luna snorted derisively. “Spare me your pity, sister, it does not suit you. I don’t want or need your sympathy, and I did not tell you all this for condolences.”
Celestia sighed and looked up at the still-dark sky. Dawn was already late. “Then what do you want?” she asked.
Luna’s gaze hardened, replacing her fear with stoic resolve. “A battle plan.”
“You would have us fight it?”
“Fight it? Tia, this thing devoured an entire planet. We would stand no chance, even with the elements by our side. No, we have to find a way to seal it, to lock it away in that graveyard it calls home. Plug up the gaps, where the walls are thin, and stop it leaking through.”
“What you’re suggesting will take time.” Celestia glanced nervously over her shoulder again. Nothing. “Time we may not have, given everything you’ve told me about our uninvited guest.”
“It’s the only thing we can do,” said Luna. “I don’t know why this thing chose me-”
Another pang of guilt in Celestia’s stomach.
“-but there’s no other option. Believe me, I’ve tried everything else, every spell I can think of. We have to find out where and how this thing is getting through, and stop it. Cut it off.”
“And the shadow following you?”
Luna shrugged. “I assume it will die if it gets separated. With any luck, we’ll discover how to do that before it manages to drag me through another circle.”
“Don’t joke about that.”
“It wasn’t a joke. This thing is patient enough to wait centuries for me before returning; it won’t stop, it won’t give up, and so our only option left is to beat it to the punch. Here and now.”
Celestia didn’t like it, but she had to admit Luna had a point. How else were they to battle something only Luna could see? Something so indefatigable, something intangible? And the dark rings around Luna’s eyes suggested that her sister had spent more than one night mulling this over, staring into the darkness and watching for shadows. More obvious now than ever, Luna swaying ever so slightly where she sat, her head threatening to droop no matter how stubbornly she held it high.
“How long have you been awake?” Celestia asked.
A pause. “Three days,” Luna admitted. “Or was it four?”
“You should get some rest.”
Celestia set her cup down with a sharp clink, and the mere sound had Luna flatten her ears to her head. “No, you aren’t. You’ll be no use if you’re on the verge of passing out, and we have time before the Elements and others arrive.”
For a moment, Luna looked as though she was about to protest, but then she sighed in resignation. “You’re right, I know. I will retire for now, then, and we will discuss strategy once I am rested and our friends are here.”
Luna stepped over to the doorway, but hesitated, casting a quick glance back over her shoulder. “And thank you, Tia. For believing me.”
This time the guilt was so great that it threatened to burst free, for Celestia to tell Luna everything, admit the secret she had held for so long, but something stopped her. Time. Fear. Habit.
And so instead she just smiled weakly and tried to seem reassuring, and it was only later that Celestia would mark it as one of her last and greatest regrets.
Luna disappeared through the doorway, only to be replaced immediately by an agitated guard, his awkward shuffling from hoof to hoof making the moonlight catch and gleam off every facet of his overly polished armour.
“My princess,” he said, bowing so low that she knew he was going to say something to upset her. “I am obligated to inform you that dawn is now twenty minutes overdue, and the populace will be getting anxious.”
All these years after the end of the Nightmare, and still Equestria was prepared to fly into a full-blown panic if dawn was just a little late. Celestia missed the old days, when she and Luna could be haphazard about it and not a soul would question their authority or judgement, even if it was only because Celestia had wanted to sleep in.
“Thank you, sergeant, I am aware,” she said, icily. “I will raise the sun, as I have managed to do so every day.” Her gaze softened a little. “Oh, and before you take your leave, I would have the guard outside my sister’s chambers doubled.”
The guard’s eyes widened. “Are we expecting trouble?”
She sighed. The royal guard had definitely slipped since the days of Captain Armour. His replacement was competent, of course, but no one had ever matched Shining’s discipline in matters both military and etiquette. She found herself wishing he was here now; they could have used him, and Cadance, too. Perhaps she should send a missive to the Crystal Empire as well.
“Would I give an order like that if I thought everything was going to be fine?” she asked, giving him the most withering glare she could muster.
“Er, of course not. My apologies, Princess, I’ll see to the reassignments myself.”
The guard hesitated, and Celestia rolled her eyes.
“That will be all.”
“Of course, Princess!”
With a smart salute, the sergeant marched back out through the doorway and at last left Celestia alone to digest everything Luna had said. The gnawing guilt refused to wane, and as she stared up at the moon above her, glowing so brightly amongst the stars, a single thought permeated through the spiralling others. Crystal clear, rising up through the tide of memories and imagination.
You should have told her.
There was a circle in Celestia’s room.
This was, by all accounts, unusual.
It glowed at the edges, bright white burning around a pitch dark centre, the faintest hum of energy emanating so quietly that she could almost pass it off as her imagination. Her first instinct was to call someone for help, her parents maybe, or at least the guards stationed outside, but something stopped her.
She was a big filly, now, after all. A proper Princess, and Princesses were supposed to take care of things like this all on their own. Her father had told her as much, and while he probably hadn’t been talking about magical glowing circles, Celestia thought it was as good a time as any to show how grown up she’d become.
That the circle was magical she had no doubt, although her initial attempts to attune to it with her own magic bore no fruit, unable even to discover the type of spell that had brought it here. She could sense the magic there, but it didn’t answer her, almost like it was speaking a different language, like it didn’t understand what her magic was asking it. Something new, then. Something different. Something alien.
Celestia’s smile widened. This mystery had grown ten times more exciting.
Her excitement only grew further as she paced around the circle, examining it, and discovered that not only was it flat but so utterly thin that it couldn’t even be seen from the sides, as if something had been cut in two then pressed together so tight that the gap was completely invisible.
Where had that thought come from, she wondered? A cut, a gouge. She wasn’t sure how she knew, but something deep down told her she was right, that this was some kind of cut. Perhaps that was a Princess’ intuition. She knew Princesses were supposed to have that, even if her mother kept telling her otherwise, but how else could she have always known the moment Celestia tried to keep a secret from her? Princesses must have had some magical way of knowing these things, and she suspected that her own was starting to come through at last.
An acrid smell burned the back of her nose, and she wrinkled her muzzle in distaste. Chemicals. That kind of strange smell that seemed to push out everything else, filling her senses but simultaneously emptying them of anything as well. Clean, but entirely so. Was that the circle, too? It must have been.
Curiouser and curiouser.
Celestia listened intently, trying to focus on the hum, deep and reverberating, but there was nothing else to be heard. She had to try, though. Exhaust every option before interacting. That was prudent, which Celestia knew was another word for sensible, which was something Princesses had to be all the time. Always.
And yet something about the circle beckoned her onwards, made her lift up a small hoof and reach out, gently pressing against it. It felt smooth, cool. Glass beneath her hoof. And then she felt it depress a little, felt her hoof start to sink into it and she snapped it back as if it had bitten her.
Her eyes widened as the edges of the dark circle began to fade away, leaving only the bright ring as the rest crumpled in on itself and disappeared. Had she done that? Was touching it a mistake? Should she have been more prudent?
Being a Princess was already far more difficult than everypony had made it out to be.
The last of the darkness disintegrated, tiny black motes flitting through the air and then they too were gone, only the now-empty white ring still remaining, still floating. Celestia peered through the circle, and frowned in confusion.
Her room lay on the other side, except it wasn’t hers. It seemed the same at first glance – the same layout, the same large windows lining one wall, the same ornate pillars of marble. But the marble of these pillars was dark, almost black compared the pearlescent ones they should have been, and outside the windows was nothing but a misty, grey fog. She turned back to her room, her real room, and looked out at the bright sunshine, and then back through the ring.
This mystery was rapidly spiralling out of control. Perhaps she wasn’t a big enough filly for this after all, perhaps she really should go and find her parents; they would know what to do. They always knew what to do. And if it hadn’t been for the slight noise catching her attention Celestia probably would have done just that.
Muttering, mumbling. Soft and high pitched. A foal. A filly, just like her. Celestried tried to crane her head around to see who was speaking, but the angle was impossible. So close, but just out of sight.
A little more, a little more…
Leaning almost through the circle now, and when Celestia felt herself falling it was too late to stop it, nothing to catch and hold onto, and so she tumbled forwards straight through the circle, and the world spun sickeningly before she landed on the other side with a soft thump and a wince. Far softer than she was expecting, far softer than it had any right to be, and it was only now that Celestia was sprawled on the other side that she noticed the floor was covered in an inch-thick layer of fine, grey dust.
Somehow the other foal hadn’t heard her unceremonious entrance, facing the other direction, staring down at something as she carried on murmuring, and now Celestia could finally see who that voice belonged to.
The first thing she noticed was that this filly was an alicorn, just like her. About the same age too, from the looks of it, although perhaps a little younger. Or maybe she was just small. Her coat was a deep, midnight blue, and her short and wispy mane was full of sparkling stars.
“Hello?” Celestia ventured, still keeping her distance just in case.
The other foal let out a yelp of surprise, sending something skittering across the floor as she practically threw it in her shock before rounding on Celestia with a deep scowl. “You made me jump.”
“Oh. Um… sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
The filly continued to glower at Celestia, her eyes filled with accusatory suspicion. “Who are you?” she demanded. “How did you get in here? Did you come from outside?”
Celestia tried to stand firm under the barrage of questions. “My name’s Celestia,” she said. “I’m a princess. And I came through the circle.” She gestured at the glow behind her to emphasise the point, and the other filly’s eyes widened.
“What is that?”
“I don’t know,” Celestia replied. “It just showed up in my room.”
The filly stared at the circle in dumbfounded awe, the ring reflecting in her pupils, a glowing white circle amidst jet black.
“What’s your name?” Celestia asked.
“Luna,” the filly replied, after a moment’s hesitation. “I’m a princess too.”
“Oh, I’ve never met a princess my age before! Your room is just like mine, too, but a different colour. And…” Celestia’s excitement faded a little as she looked at the layer of dust that had stuck fast to her coat when she tumbled into it. “What is this stuff?”
“It’s ash,” Luna said, quietly.
The filly’s frown deepened. “Haven’t you seen it before? I mean, just look outside. It’s everywhere.”
And as Celestia looked out the window she could feel a low sinking sensation in her chest. Luna was right – it wasn’t a mist after all, but a swirling sea of ash, whipped up by the wind into a dense haze, occasional flurries of flakes whipping past. Thick enough that Celestia couldn’t see anything else, none of what would have been Canterlot’s buildings, none of the gardens down below, nothing.
“What happened to this place?”
Luna stared down at the floor, her face warped in wretched despair. “I don’t know. Everything went dark, and then my parents told me to wait here, that they were going to go fix it. And then the ash started to fall.”
“How long ago was that?”
Luna kept staring at the floor, and now Celestia noticed a sea of lines scraped into the ash. Tally marks.
“I don’t remember,” Luna said, a slight edge to her voice. “But I don’t think they’re coming back anymore.”
Celestia dragged her eyes from the mist – ash, she reminded herself – outside, and they fell upon the thing Luna had cast away earlier when Celestia made her jump. A small, carved wooden pony. She picked it up, turning it gently back and forth in her hooves. The carving was rough and rudimentary, but it was still unmistakable as a pony. An alicorn, even, both a small stubby horn on its head and carved lines to represent folded wings on the totem’s barrel.
“My Mom made it for me,” Luna said, startling Celestia enough that she almost dropped the figurine in surprise. “Before the ash.”
The murmuring all made a lot of sense, now. She’d thought Luna had just been talking to herself, and in a way she had been, but as Celestia looked around the otherwise entirely desolate room she realised Luna had just been playing. All alone. She passed the figurine back, and Luna took it gratefully and clutched it tight to her chest.
“You’ve just been here by yourself?” Celestia asked.
Luna nodded, but then cast a nervous glance towards the window. “Mostly alone,” she said.
Luna motioned to the glass, and the grey nothing behind it. “There’s something out there,” she whispered, as if the mere mention would bring it running. “Something big. I see it sometimes, but only a shadow. A dark shape. And then it’ll be gone and I’ll wonder if I just imagined it.” She hesitated. “Until I see it again.”
Luna’s words sent an icy chill down Celestia’s spine, and the already oppressive fog of ash seemed to somehow press tighter against the windows, constricting around the castle, trying to force them out like a breath from crushed lungs.
She tried not to look outside, something deep down screaming at her that it was a bad idea, that if she couldn’t or wouldn’t see it then it couldn’t see her, and as long as she looked anywhere but the windows she would be okay. Everything would be okay.
But of course she looked anyway.
Nothing. Nothing but whirling, spiralling grey, stretching out as far as she could see, the only thing she could see. An entire landscape gone, replaced by emptiness and grey and ash.
And then she did see it. In the gloom, in the grey, a vast darkness shifting. The mist made it hard to judge size, and surely it was just an illusion because it couldn’t be as big as she imagined it to be, like an entire continent shifting. So far away, and yet all-encompassing. Big enough that the entire window wasn’t enough to see the edges of the shape, vast enough that it permeated through that otherwise impenetrable mist. And, as quickly as it had appeared, stillness again.
Celestia didn’t think it had moved out of sight, if it even could, rather it had just stopped. Dead still. Just a slight movement, wide enough that perhaps it was the entire world spinning instead and maybe she just couldn’t tell the difference, and then motionless once again.
She couldn’t shake the sneaking suspicion that she had somehow caused it to move, that the very act of staring out the window had gotten its attention and interest. Stupid, of course, and princesses were too smart to believe in silly superstition like that, but it didn’t stop all the fur on the back of her neck from raising on its end, didn’t stop her from quickly snapping her gaze away before she could see it move again.
“You saw it too, didn’t you?” Luna asked, clutching the wooden figure even closer.
“Maybe. It was hard to tell.”
“I… I think that’s the thing that did all this,” Luna said, her voice cracking a little. “I don’t know how, or why, but it did. It got everypony. Even my… Even…” Luna couldn’t bring herself to say the words, and instead she just hugged the wooden pony and buried her head in her wings and Celestia pretended not to hear the heartbroken little sniffles that filtered through the feathers.
“I’m sorry,” Celestia said, her words sounding as hollow as she felt.
“It’s okay.” Luna sniffed, rubbing her eyes dry. “Mom told me princesses are supposed to be brave. I don’t know if it matters anymore, but I always feel like I’m letting her down when I cry.”
“I think it’s okay to cry sometimes,” Celestia said. “Sometimes I think that’s more brave.”
And for the first time since the two met, Luna truly smiled. Warm, and sincere. “Is there really no ash on your side of the circle?” she asked.
“None at all,” Celestia said. And then: “Do you want to see?”
Luna blinked in surprise, as if the very idea had never even occurred to her, but after a moment’s hesitation she nodded, and Celestia led her over to the circle. It seemed much less ominous from this side, and looking through at the bright light streaming in from her bedroom’s windows it almost seemed… welcoming.
“Does it hurt?” Luna asked, gripping the wooden pony tighter.
“It feels weird,” Celestia said. “Like the world is sliding out from underneath you. It makes you dizzy, but only for a moment, and then it’s okay again.”
Luna frowned as she considered this.
“It’s fine, see?” Celestia put her hoof through the circle, and it was only then that she really realised how much warmer it was on her side, back home. The sun, she decided. That’s probably all it was. “Do you want me to go first?”
“No, I can do it,” Luna said, still clutching the figurine even as her expression hardened with resolve. She muttered something under her breath as she stepped forwards, although Celestia only caught a single word.
And with that Luna climbed through to the other side.
She swayed a moment as she touched down, but quickly steadied herself, staring around Celestia’s room in awe. “Wow,” she breathed. “It’s so pretty here.” That warm smile back on her face, wider than ever, but then as she turned back to look through the circle Celestia watched it die.
“Don’t turn around,” Luna said, her voice suddenly so serious, so cold. So scared. “Whatever you do. Just look at me, okay?”
“What is it? What’s the matter?”
“Please,” Luna insisted, almost begging, “just look at me and don’t turn around no matter what you hear.”
Celestia blinked in confusion, and suddenly it seemed so difficult not to turn around, not to glance behind her at whatever Luna was looking at and urging her not to see, not to hear. But she didn’t hear anything, the world muted by the ash in the same way as snow, even her hoof falls so soft against the dust.
“Come through,” Luna said. “Don’t look back.”
When had it gotten so cold? Celestia shivered as she slowly tiptoed her way towards the circle, doing everything in her power not to look behind her no matter how much she wanted to, no matter how much she needed to know. And now she could hear it, the faintest of whispering, like wind through trees. A murmuring, quiet but somehow full of voices at the same time, as if an entire crowd was so far away that she could barely make it out.
Don’t turn around. Don’t look.
And she didn’t. She didn’t even though every step felt like only a millimetre of progress, even though the circle seemed so far away all of a sudden and she couldn’t bring herself to run, her hooves bricks, her body ice. The whispering grew, and she didn’t understand it – in no language she’d ever heard before – but she still knew what it meant. Could still hear the whirlwind of voices crying out so desperately, begging for help, begging to be saved.
Don’t turn around.
The voices loud enough now that her ears were starting to ring, Luna’s panic-stricken face staring wide-eyed at whatever was behind her, one hoof in front of the other as she tried not to let her rising fear get the better of her.
Celestia had changed her mind; she wasn’t ready to be a princess yet after all. She should have called for help, she shouldn’t have gone through the circle alone, and the weight of her mistakes seemed to be dragging her backwards. For every step she took it seemed like she grew two further away from the circle. And she could feel it, now, the icy chill that emanated out of the thing behind her, feel the whispering ruffle the fur on the back of her neck, feel eyes boring into her and she knew they were there even though she couldn’t see them.
Don’t turn around don’t turn around don’t turn around
And then, almost to her own surprise, she was through, and while in reality it had only been a few steps and a few seconds it had felt like a lifetime, and whatever had been behind her had been so fast. But as the world spun sickeningly again as she stepped through, it was reassuring rather than disconcerting, that oppressive weight that had wrapped around her relinquishing its grip as whatever was behind her faded away.
It couldn’t follow. She was safe.
Her hooves on solid marble again, and at last Celestia was able to spin around and stare back through the circle to find… nothing. The circle was beginning to shrink, and through it she saw Luna’s bedroom rapidly dwindling and there was nothing there. Except as she turned away to face Luna, looking as shaken as Celestia felt, for the briefest of moments before the circle vanished she thought she caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye. A mist, a shadow, slinking under the doorway and vanishing from sight just before the circle disappeared completely.
Luna and Celestia stared at each other, and there were no words, and none were needed. Luna stepped forwards and pulled Celestia into a tight hug as the wooden pony fell from her grip, and the afternoon sun warmed their wings as Celestia hugged her back and tried to get the echoing whispers out of her head.
Luna watched the sunrise through her window as Celestia hauled the blazing orb across the sky. The sight usually brought with it some reassurance, some sense of certainty that things were going to be okay, that she had survived another night of the thing stalking her, but she’d since learned that daylight did nothing to deter it. The pony was still there, his form scratching at the edge of her vision, and if anything sunlight only made shadows stronger.
It was hard to feel anything but trepidation, recently. Yes, Celestia had taken Luna’s story far better than Luna had ever expected or hoped, but that hadn’t stopped the pony from watching her, following her, and Celestia had seemed so strangely guarded as Luna recounted her tale. She knew Tia well enough to know when her sister was hiding something.
How many years had they spent together, after all? Uncountable, by this point, so long that their youth had all but faded in Luna’s memory, and yet still Celestia had secrets. Still there were things she would keep Luna from knowing. Not that Luna was really in any position to judge, of course, keeping the shadow hidden for all these years, and yet when she had gone to Celestia to bare her soul and lay out her secrets, she recognised that familiar expression as Celestia wrestled with her conscience. And even if it was hypocritical, it still stung that Tia did not trust Luna enough to tell her the truth.
You’re being petty. She must have had good reason to keep things from you.
Perhaps. Or perhaps it was more sinister, more guilty. Perhaps Celestia knew the truth behind these circles, the shadow, and had some manner of control over them. Perhaps banishing Luna to the moon had been an attempt at an execution.
Now you’re really being paranoid.
Yes, she was. Too tired, her mind too frayed to think straight. If there was one thing she knew it was that Celestia loved her, truly, and would never intentionally hurt her. Would never keep something like that from her just to use it as a weapon. What, then? What was so important to keep secret, what truth was Celestia hiding?
Spiralling questions without answer. Questions that, although Luna would not know until it was far too late, would never go answered. And so lost in whirling thoughts and exhaustion, Luna didn’t see the shadow getting closer.
Perhaps she wouldn’t have anyway; it had become such an ever-present part of her waking hours, that flittering, fluttering darkness at one side of every moment, the pony standing and smiling and watching but never talking, far enough that the whispering shadows he was made of couldn’t be heard either.
But it wasn’t the whispers she heard, first. It was the soft thump as his shadowy hoof fell upon her shoulder, and though Luna hadn’t seen him approach she saw him now as he spun her round to face him, and she didn’t think he could do that – first touching her and now standing directly in the centre of her vision, no longer lingering at the edges.
Ice and fear swallowing her as she stared at the being in front of her, his fur smoky tendrils, his eyes hollow and full of stars. His smile wide as those innumerable whispers filled her ears. He’d found her. He’d reached her, and already she felt herself starting to drift, starting to sink into those hollow pits that showed only space, only the universe from another time. From through the circle, where the shadow had taken its stars and devoured them just like it had to that world’s Equestria.
And the shadow held her and drowned her in those dark abysses and it showed her the truth. It showed her the foal playing alone in ash, their coat dark blue, their mane stars. It showed her the sky falling, melting, the world burning. Her world burning. It showed her the moment it had encompassed her in its shadow and rather than eating it had stayed its jaws, stayed its hunger, and it had marked her and then left her to play in the ash while it punched a circle, one through which a small, white foal would soon tumble. And it showed her how it had waited, and how its time for waiting was done.
It showed her hunger.
It showed her truth.
It showed her inevitability.
“Please,” she whispered, in the last thought that was truly her own, tears coursing down her cheeks even though she didn’t know when she’d started crying. “I don’t want to.”
And then Luna was gone.
It was hard for Celestia to pinpoint exactly when Luna had begun to forget the world of ash. They’d both been so young, and though the circumstances of their first meeting were crystal clear in her mind, the rest was covered in that haze of old, near-forgotten memories. Even at the time, it had been hard for her to notice Luna forgetting.
The decision to pretend Luna was her sister had seemed a pure kindness, but now Celestia couldn’t help but see the pragmatism in her parents’ actions. Better a new daughter than to have an unchecked alicorn running around. The foals themselves had been more than happy with the arrangement, and soon it was no longer even a lie. They were sisters, in every sense that mattered. More than sisters. Closer than any sisters could ever be.
And so when Luna had started to forget, it had just made things even easier. It was small at first – an extra conviction in her assertion she was Celestia’s relative, or she’d keep to the story when they were alone and there was no real need for hiding the truth. Perhaps it was the separation from her world, or perhaps Luna had simply chosen to believe her own truth, but somehow she had slowly forgotten and Celestia had let her.
She was reaching for the key again, the one she kept on her nightstand. Small, golden. Almost without thinking she floated it down to the drawers below and unlocked the very bottom one, its rails shrieking with disuse as it opened.
Inside were two identical wooden ponies. One that Luna had brought with her, a small chip on its ear from where she had dropped it after they escaped from the ash together, and the other that Celestia’s mother had made for Celestia herself before the circle had ever even appeared.
Celestia had kept that a secret. She’d hidden the figurine, knowing it would raise too many questions, and let Luna believe whatever she wanted to believe. And when Luna had forgotten, Celestia had hidden her pony too. Let her believe they were friends, and then that they were sisters. That was enough. But the truth, of course, was that they were far closer than that. Two sides of a single, dimensional coin.
Sisters in every way, separated by a circle.
But no more secrets, not anymore. No more hidden truths. Not lies, though, she’d never lied, but she’d never given the truth, either. No matter how much Luna deserved it. Celestia had been protecting her, or so she thought. Saving her. Celestia would bear the burden of truth, and Luna would forget, and she would be happier than she could ever be otherwise. And as the years and centuries and millennia went on, those secrets became harder to share, and then impossible, and the only thing left of them now were two wooden ponies hidden at the bottom of a drawer.
She lifted them from their confinement, gently, and was surprised at how light they were. That felt wrong, somehow, but she supposed they were only toys after all. It would have been impossible for them to be as heavy as they were meant to be, as the weight they bore, as her longest kept secret.
But no longer. She gripped the figurines tightly as she made her way from her chambers and out into the bright castle halls with steady, sure resolve. Celestia barely acknowledged the ponies she crossed paths with this time, the slightest head nod in response to sharp salutes and reverent curtsies.
If only for today, politeness could be skipped.
Her mind was far too preoccupied for the usual niceties, mentally playing the approaching conversation with Luna over and over, trying to imagine how she could broach the subject without breaking her sister’s heart. She’d thought that might help, that she could have some sort of script to follow by the time she reached Luna’s room, but the more she dwelled the worse her imagined confessions went. Every step dislodged another attempt, discarding it with the others.
So lost in her own thoughts, Celestia almost walked straight into the guard standing in the middle of the hallway, startling her out of her reverie as she began to apologise. The guard wasn’t even looking at her, staring slack-jawed out of the window, frozen in place. Her apology began to turn into a reprimand, but then she caught a glance at what he was looking at and the words died in her throat. Her own mouth fell open, too, and she felt the world start to constrict and narrow around her vision.
The moon was rising.
Celestia’s sun still blazed, merely hours since she had raised it (late, as her maid had hastened to remind her), and yet the moon rose. Slowly but surely making its way up to where the sun shone. Something was wrong.
Something was very wrong.
The wooden ponies dropped from her grasp with a dry clatter against the marble, and then Celestia was running, cantering. The moon rose. The windows flickering by as she ran, each one showing a moon that was a little higher, a little further, soaring. She could only watch as it reached her sun and didn’t even slow, moving in front of it and beginning to blot it out.
Had Nightmare Moon returned? Had the shadow somehow brought her back? Tartarus, she thought she had time. She was supposed to have time, time to tell Luna everything, time for them to fix this, to find the root and yank it free and everything would be okay in the end, just like it always was. But the moon rose and everything was not okay and Celestia couldn’t dare to stop or slow as the shadows lengthened and the world began to grow dark.
A deep crescent had been sliced out of her sun by the time she rounded the final corner to her sister’s bedroom, gasping into sore lungs. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting, perhaps the remnants of a struggle – wounded or dead guards, something. Certainly not to find all the ponies stationed outside her sister’s doors entirely unperturbed. Worse, most of them simply seemed bored. They were quick to snap to attention when Celestia rounded the corner, though, a series of salutes that only made a sharp flare of anger flicker in her chest.
“Princess!” barked the boldest of them. “Nothing to report!”
“Nothing!? My sister was under your protection, what are you doing?”
The guard raised a quizzical eyebrow. “I don’t understand, is something wrong?”
“Wasn’t there a struggle? Anything?”
The guard’s brow’s furrows deepened. “No, nothing like that. All’s been quiet. No one’s even come here save from Princess Luna and yourself.”
Celestia bit back the urge to scream and pushed past the confused pony, slipping through the door just as some of the others noticed the now rapidly-darkening sky and flocked to the windows. She shut out their panic behind the door, it would have only made her angrier.
Luna’s chambers were quiet. Dim. The curtains were drawn, the world muted and distant behind them as the light faded and drenched the room in darkness, her sister nowhere to be seen.
Calling out felt stupid, useless, but she did it anyway, and she hated the little quaver in her voice. She could almost hear the foal in her reprimanding herself – Princesses aren’t supposed to sound like that. But still no answer, still no Luna, and the darkness grew ever deeper. No sign of a struggle or a fight, no sign of anything, the room the same as it always was and always had been. Not a thing out of place except for Luna herself.
That, and the door to the balcony hanging slightly ajar.
Quietly, carefully, even though Celestia wasn’t quite sure why she felt that was important, she crept her way towards the door, her eyes flicking frantically around for any sign of what had happened here. But still nothing, until there was no other choice but to push open the door and step outside.
Luna stood at the very edge, staring up at the sky as the moon claimed the very last edges of sun and her eclipse became total. She must have heard Celestia – there was no way she wouldn’t have, no way the slightly open door had been anything but an invitation – and yet she remained fixated on the sky, her horn ablaze as she moved the moon inexorably into place.
Her coat was still deep blue, not black – not Nightmare Moon, then. Something else.
“Luna?” tried Celestia, taking another small step closer, past the table where only a few hours ago they had sat and shared tea and Luna had told her everything and Celestia had told Luna nothing.
No response. She hadn’t really been expecting one, though she was unsure which would be better or worse.
“Luna, you have to stop this.” Trying to be firm, trying to break through whatever hold had been placed over her.
Closer still, and now she could hear Luna after all, muttering rapidly under her breath. Not words, though. Just sounds – endless, incessant, rolling over one another in a meaningless array of chanted noise.
“Luna, please,” she begged, hating the plaintive notes in her voice but knowing there was nothing she could have done to prevent them. “You can stop this. You’re stronger than whatever this is, I know you are.”
More silence. More muttering. The moon stopped, the sun fully eclipsed, and the magic in Luna’s horn sputtered and died. Still she stared upwards, still she muttered, right up until Celestia closed the rest of the distance between them and gently placed her hoof on Luna’s shoulders.
She didn’t jump. Celestia had almost still expected her to, had still been ready to smile as if none of this was happening, ready to take her sister’s reprimands even though they would be thoroughly undeserved, but none came. Instead Luna simply turned her head, so slowly, as if every inch was a terrible strain, and Celestia’s hoof dropped as she stumbled backwards in shock.
She could still see the glistening trails of not-yet-dry tears that had fallen from the starry voids where Luna’s eyes used to be. Their emptiness burned into Celestia’s mind, and she could see all the tortured pain in every facet of her sister’s face even before Luna spoke.
“I’m sorry, Tia,” Luna said, and her voice was dull and slow and not quite her own, not quite right. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’ll be okay,” Celestia assured her, even though she wasn’t sure she believed it herself, pulling Luna into a tight hug as she tried not to look at her face. “We can still fix this. I don’t know how, but we will.”
Luna was strangely stiff in her embrace, as if she had never hugged anypony before and didn’t know what she was supposed to do.
“You don’t understand,” Luna insisted, and there was the faintest trace of panic breaking through that otherwise dull monotone. “He’s come home.”
And Celestia looked up at the sky and saw what Luna had made, and she understood. Too late, she understood.
A circle. A bright ring, blazing light surrounding a pitch-black centre.
Too late. It was all too late. There was nothing left for Celestia to do but watch as what was left of Luna wept beside her and the darkness within the circle began to crumble away at the edges, writhing shadow beginning to melt through the gaps.
Soon the screams down below would begin, and not long afterwards they would stop.
Among shimmering crystal and drifts of ash, the foal played. She no longer had much in the way of toys; the only thing she had left was a stuffed, pink pony, an old gift from her mother. The rest were gone.
She still remembered saying goodbye. She remembered how the sky blazed red, her parents telling her to be good, that they would be back soon but right now they were needed somewhere else. That there were lots of ponies who needed help and so they had to go help them because that was their duty, but everything would be okay in the end and they would be back.
But they had lied. They didn’t come back. And then the ash had fallen, and then everypony else was gone too. The foal wished she had told her parents that she needed them, too – perhaps then they would have stayed. But she didn’t, and they didn’t, and now she was alone. The ash and shadows had taken everyone else.
She wasn’t sure why it had left her alone. Maybe fillies didn’t taste good. Maybe it had just overlooked her. Maybe it just hadn’t found her yet. She saw it, sometimes, among the ash that hung so thickly outside that it was like fog. No nights anymore – just ash, just grey. And sometimes in that grey she saw shifting darkness, but only out of the corner of her eyes, and sometimes the foal could convince herself that it was just her imagination instead.
And so the foal played, and tried not to think about it. The castle seemed so desolate, now, not another pony to be found in its cavernous halls, and yet she had nowhere else to go. She couldn’t set hoof outside or the shadow lurking in the ash might find her, and then she would be ash too. So she played, alone, and she wasn’t sure how long she would be able to but she also wasn’t sure what else she could ever have done. If she had never heard the other filly she might have played alone forever.
“Hello?” said someone behind her, and it had been so long since the foal had heard a voice other than her own that she’d almost forgotten what it sounded like.
She whipped around in shock, clutching the plush pony tighter as she came face to face with the first other being she’d seen for… how long had it been? She wasn’t sure.
A filly, perhaps a little older than she was but otherwise just like her. Like her in more ways than one, in fact: she was an alicorn, which was strange because her parents had always told her that alicorns were very rare and special and there were only a few of them and she thought she’d met them all before. This filly’s fur was dark purple, her mane lighter and clipped short, and she stared at the foal with unabashed inquisitiveness.
“Who are you?” the foal asked, shifting a little bit further away as the other filly tried to take a step closer.
“Oh, my name’s Soul! Well, kinda. There’s some other stuff, too, and titles and things, but I don’t like them very much. Soul is fine.” The filly beamed brightly at her. “What’s your name?”
“Flurry Heart,” the foal murmured, still unsure what to make of the filly before her.
“That’s a nice name,” said Soul. “Bit of a mouthful, though. What about just Heart?”
“Normally it’s the other way around.”
“Flurry?” Soul tilted her head, contemplating. “No, that’s not as good,” she concluded, so matter-of-factly that Flurry almost found herself agreeing.
“How did you get here?” asked Flurry, still hugging her plush tightly as if Soul might steal it if she didn’t. “Did you come through the ash?”
“The what?” Soul glanced down and then raised a hoof, studying the grey that stuck to it. “Is that what this stuff is? Weird.”
“What? It’s everywhere, how haven’t you seen it before?” Flurry had more questions, countless more, but they stopped seeming so important when she saw what was behind Soul. “What is that?”
Soul blinked in panic, but relaxed after she turned and saw what had startled Flurry. “Oh yeah! That’s how I got here. It just sort of showed up in my room, and then the middle disappeared, and then I saw you through it and decided I should come say hi.”
The circle floated in midair, a bright, shining ring. There was something oddly familiar about it, but Flurry quickly discarded the notion when she saw what was on the other side.
“Is that… sunlight?”
“Er, yeah. Is that strange?” Soul glanced outside the crystal castle’s windows, and frowned. “Oh, I guess it’s kinda misty here, huh?”
“Something like that.”
Flurry couldn’t tear her eyes away from the room on the other side of the circle. So familiar, but different. The crystal sparkled so brightly – she’d forgotten it did that, how beautiful it looked when it caught the sunlight. And not a trace of ash, spotlessly clean and clear.
Probably no shadow, either.
“Can… can I come see it?”
Soul grinned. “Of course you can! Although it looks pretty similar to here. My castle’s made out of crystal, too, but it’s a different colour to yours. And obviously we haven’t got the, uh, ash. But I’m sure you get used to it, right?”
Flurry shook her head. “No, you don’t.”
There was a brief, painful silence as Soul tried not to ask any more questions that Flurry wouldn’t want to answer, but eventually the other filly could bear it no longer. She seemed the type to fill every silence she could.
“Well anyway, come on through! I’ll show you my room, and afterwards we can find some guards and walk through the city if you like.”
A sudden rush of excitement and nervousness flooded through Flurry Heart at the thought. A city, bustling with ponies and activity. The thought – the memory – almost scared her a little. Loneliness had become second nature, and she wasn’t sure if she would be able to handle the bustle of a living, breathing city again. Of a castle filled with hoofsteps and voices instead of silence and ash.
Soul froze on her way back over to the circle. “Oh, wait, you probably have to ask your parents, don’t you? Otherwise they’ll be wondering where you are.”
Flurry’s chest wrenched a little at the mention of her parents, and it must have shown on her face because Soul’s broad smile faltered a little.
“They won’t,” said Flurry, dully. She could tell that Soul was itching to ask, biting back her curiosity, but Flurry wasn’t ready to indulge her. “They’re gone,” she said. All she was willing to say.
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” said Flurry, but it wasn’t.
Another painful silence, longer this time as Soul tried to look anywhere but at her while Flurry stared through the circle and remembered how her own castle had looked when the light shone through it like that. Her mother had a word for it, a word that sparkled like water, but Flurry couldn’t quite remember it anymore and it hurt that she’d forgotten it. It hurt more that she could never ask Cadance what it was again.
“Well,” said Soul, breaking her out of her memories, “do you still want to come see?”
Flurry nodded slowly, holding her plush pony close as she stepped forwards.
“Don’t worry,” Soul told her. “It feels a bit weird but it doesn’t hurt.” She smiled again, so brightly, and for the first time in far too long it actually raised Flurry’s spirits a little. She wondered if she would ever be able to smile like that again, after everything she’d lost. She hoped so. “Come on,” Soul said, “I’ve got so much to show you!”
And together they stepped through the circle, and Flurry did smile as the warmth settled against her fur, just a small one. Neither of the foals noticed the shadow that had seeped into the room they’d left behind, watching as they crossed the gap. It watched them step through and it watched them smile and it watched them be oblivious as the circle dwindled to nothing behind them, and then the shadow was alone. Time to rest. Time to slumber, sated at last. Not to wake until it had been forgotten once more, until the marked one was ready and the shadows were hungry again.
But for now it would close its uncountable, stolen eyes and sink into sleep, and if it dreamt it would dream of circles.