The Garden of Shadows
The storm clouds over Ponyville parted with a flash of lightning and a peal of thunder. From the direction of Canterlot, a blue and black chariot flew in with menacing metal spikes and wheels like a predator’s eyes. It was pulled by a duo of armored, bat-winged pegasi, and sitting within was a dark blue alicorn with a mane and tail like the night sky. She cast a glance down at the town below, elated to discover that it was bedecked in the same decorations as the year before.
One of the bat-winged pegasi looked down as well. He whistled, then turned his head and addressed the alicorn.
“Quite the crowd this year, Princess Luna.”
Luna smiled. The town square was filled to the brim with ponies of all ages and races, the majority of which were dressed up in costumes of some form or fashion. Carnival games and food stands were set up all throughout the streets, and a silver and blue flag adorned with a crescent moon waved proudly atop the Town Hall.
“So I see,” Luna said. “Almost double from last year, I’d say.”
“Landing in the square might prove difficult,” the pegasus pointed out. “Do you want to circle around and enter town on hoof?”
“Nay. The ponies will make room as we descend.” Luna smirked and adjusted herself in her seat. “Besides, we wouldn’t want to deny them a show, now would we?”
The pegasus chuckled. “Of course not.”
Luna allowed a portion of her celestial power to manifest itself. A chill rose in the air, and her eyes glowed with white light. A swath of fallen leaves was summoned from the nearby Everfree Forest. It circled once around the chariot, enveloping Luna in their wet, earthy aroma before following behind like a comet’s trail. She then cast another spell, and after the tickling in her throat had subsided, she spoke in a powerful voice that echoed out throughout the countryside.
“CITIZENS OF PONYVILLE!” Luna boomed. “REJOICE UPON THIS HALLOWED NIGHT! YOUR PRINCESS HAS RETURNED!”
It had been two years now since Luna had returned from her banishment, and what a two years it had been. Before her banishment she'd had no friends, her court had been empty, and every evening she'd raised the moon and the stars, sighing as she reached out with her magic to only find sleeping minds. Now, her court was filled with petitioners, she was invited to countless social events by dozens of friends, and everywhere she went, ponies eagerly and happily basked in her presence.
The town responded with a thunderous cheer. Luna's horn flashed again, and the shadows lengthened to obscure her from view. A thin fog imperceptibly crept up to engulf Ponyville, and the lights of the town dimmed to bare flickers. The chariot descended into the town square, and as predicted, the ponies parted to make way. An excited hush fell over the crowd as the menacing vehicle landed with a heavy thump and the creaking of chains.
Silence reigned for five torturously long seconds. Then, a single pillar of pale moonlight shot down from on high. It bathed the chariot in its glow, and Luna released the concealing shadows, flying out of the chariot and raising her forehooves to the heavens.
“WE DECLARE THAT THIS NIGHTMARE NIGHT HAS OFFICIALLY BEGUN!”
The crowd went wild. The lights of the town returned, and the moonlight gently faded away. Luna’s eyes returned to normal, but she stayed in the air for a little while longer to bask in the adoration of her subjects. Never in her wildest dreams did she ever expect she'd be greeted with such positive zeal. It was certainly a welcome change from being treated with fear and mistrust! To be embraced so completely and totally, to feel the appreciation radiating out from ponies when her fell transformation had been caused by bitterness, resentment, and loneliness? It was a balm powerful enough to soothe the ache of a thousand year-old wound.
Luna landed gracefully on the ground. The ponies immediately around her bowed, which caused a ripple effect to spread through the costumed crowd.
Luna held back the urge to laugh. “No need for that! This is not a night of ceremony, but of celebration! Come! Let us partake in the festivities together!”
There was a murmuring throughout the crowd, but they all slowly complied. Giddy, embarrassed smiles adorned the ponies closest to Luna, and she could’ve sworn she even heard several sighs of audible relief. This wasn’t entirely unexpected, however, as she'd figured some ponies might be a little nervous after what’d happened last Nightmare Night. She'd done a lot of things wrong in hindsight, and it was no small miracle things had worked out in the end.
Luna had mistakenly thought that Nightmare Night was a holiday that associated both her and the night with wickedness and deceit. She'd wanted it to not be a reminder of her past sins, but a celebration of her reform, and wanted ponies to know that gone was the bitter, jealous Luna of old, slave to the foul specter of her emotions made manifest. In her place was the new Luna: kind, fun-loving, friendly, and above all, avatar of the beautiful, glorious night that she so desperately wanted others to enjoy!
Luna mingled with the crowd for a few minutes, exchanging pleasantries and providing advice and blessings as royals are wont to do. However, her eyes kept scanning the crowd, searching for a certain individual whom she’d asked to be in attendance.
“Have any of you seen Twilight Sparkle?” Luna asked her gaggle of admirers. “She is to be my guide for the evening.”
The voice came from a strange unicorn dressed a hooded, blood-red cloak inlaid with glittering silver runes. Her coat was bright gold, her mane and tail were dyed white, and most interesting of all, her pupils were shaped like hourglasses. Several small pouches hung at her sides, and a staff topped with a bone-white claw clutching a glass orb floated in her magic.
“Ah, well met!” Luna looked Twilight up and down with approval. “Quite the splendid costume you have again this year—I almost didn’t recognize you! Are you by chance masquerading as the infamous Raistlin Marejere?”
Twilight’s magically-altered eyes went wide. “Yes! Yes, I am! Oh, I knew somepony would get it! Ha! Rarity owes me five bits!”
Luna snickered. “Glad to be of assistance. You know, I had the er... pleasure, of meeting the Sly One once, long ago.”
Twilight’s jaw dropped. “You… you did? Really?”
Luna adopted a serious tone. “Heed my words well, Twilight Sparkle. There is no sin in mimicking Raistlin’s appearance, but do not do so for his character. The path he chose was not a righteous one, and it only brought him ruin in the end.”
Twilight’s eyes unfocused as she adopted a wistful smile. “Yeah… I know.”
Luna smiled warmly at her. It was in no small part thanks to Twilight’s efforts that last year’s Nightmare Night had been saved. She’d explained that while Nightmare Night was indeed a celebration centered around fear and tricks, it was done in a frivolous, playful manner. This was surprising to Luna at first, but apparently, information about Nightmare Moon had gotten skewed through the generations. It was out of consideration, not spite, that Celestia had let Luna’s little temper tantrum fall into the disparities of legend, and while she still wasn't thrilled that there was a celebration in public practice that so brazenly reminded her of her greatest failure, she'd stomach it if it meant being accepted by her subjects.
After all, if the true story behind her downfall and rebellion were have to remained common knowledge, her returning reception would've been considerably... colder.
Luna raised a hoof to her chin. “Perhaps you’d enjoy hearing of my encounters with him. ‘Twould make for amicable conversation as we tour the town. Do you agree?”
Twilight didn’t reply at first. She was still wearing that odd smile, staring off into space.
Luna raised an eyebrow. “Twilight Sparkle? Did you hear?”
Twilight blinked several times, then looked up at Luna. “Huh? Oh, yes! I have the whole evening planned out. Don’t worry, we’re going to hit all the venues! Follow me and we’ll get things started!”
Luna shook her head in amusement. It seemed her sister’s comments about Twilight going off into her own little world at times weren’t exaggerated.
Luna and Twilight set off together down the street. The crowd reluctantly parted to make way, but a considerable number followed behind them. Luna was used to such things, however, and paid no heed to them. Instead, she chose to take in the decorations of the transformed Ponyville.
It was clear that the town had pulled out all the stops. Every building was adorned with various decorations, ranging from jack-o-lanterns and haybales to skeletons and ghoulish statues. Strings of lights fashioned in the shape of skulls and bats hung from the streetlamps, and the venues were bedecked in silver, blue, orange, and black. Low hanging storm clouds hovered around the rooftops, adding to the ominous ambiance with occasional rumbles of thunder.
“S-So, Princess!” Twilight said with a stutter that betrayed her glee. “When was it that you met Raistlin? Was it before or after he underwent the Test of Sorcery?”
“During, actually.” Luna curled her lip. “I was on the council that decided the manner in which he should be tested. It was my idea to show him his flaws in the most brutal way possible, so that it might damper his lust for power.”
Twilight cringed. “That… didn’t seem to have worked.”
Luna laughed. “No, no it did not. We decided that the Test was in need of reform after that, and it was made into what’s in use today.”
“Were you a part of that council, too?” Twilight asked.
Luna winced. “Alas, no. It was around that time that I was starting to be… unwell, and I slowly withdrew my involvements in academia."
“Mmm,” Twilight said.
Luna's tone gained a bitter tinge as she looked out over the crowd. “It is perhaps my greatest regret that my absence caused me to miss out on an untold number of discoveries, advancements, and contributions to society. It pains me to think of how many scholars I will never get the chance to meet, the conversations and friendships I will never have. It is at least a comfort that I now get the chance to work with you, Twilight Sparkle, but I can’t help but wonder how things might have been. Perhaps I might have still been on the council, and I could have overseen you taking the Test of Sorcery.”
There was a silence in the wake of Luna’s musings. She didn’t think anything of it at first, as she just figured Twilight was lost in thought. However, the seconds dragged on, so finally Luna turned to see what was the matter.
She was quite surprised to find herself alone. Luna looked back, and saw that Twilight had stopped walking fifteen feet back. Her staff was resting in the crook of her neck, and she was swaying back and forth with half-lidded eyes. There wasn’t any look of shock, worry, or pain on her face, but rather, one of bliss.
Luna’s lips parted. “Twilight… Sparkle?”
Twilight’s eyes suddenly flew open in surprise. She picked her staff back up in her magic. “Hmm? Oh, yes! The Test! I’ll be taking it in two years. I’m a little nervous about it, but Princess Celestia thinks that I’ll do just fine. I just need to keep studying like I have, and I’ll be a mage before you know it! Can you believe it? Me, a mage? I still can’t see it!”
Luna’s face became a stoic mask. It appeared Twilight wasn't even aware of her lapse in consciousness. Such behavior might simply be written off as fatigue, but still, this level of detachment was unexpected from a unicorn hailed as a magical and intellectual prodigy.
“I can... ” Luna said slowly, “very much... see it. I’ve no doubt that you will make a grand mage. You have done your parents and Celestia proud thus far in your endeavors, and I know you will continue to do so in the future.”
Twilight blushed. She bowed her head and pawed at the ground. “That a-actually means a lot. T-Thank you, Princess.”
“Tis nothing but the truth,” Luna said smoothly. “Now, let us be on our way. I believe you were about to give a tour?”
Twilight perked up. “I sure was! Right this way!”
The two of them continued down the decorated street. Luna kept an eye on Twilight as they went, but she didn’t relapse again. It was probably just that Twilight was a tad absentminded, and tended to turn inward for her reflections. Luna could certainly relate to that, so she let it be and turned her thoughts back to the carnival. Passersby stopped to gawk as they went, their faces were filled with awe and excitement. Luna’s heart swelled at seeing so many happy faces, and it was hard not to act like she was absolutely loving the attention. She looked straight ahead and kept a normal stride, although there perhaps was a bit more spring in her step than usual.
“I thought we’d start with some games,” Twilight said. They came to a stand where ponies were tossing small wooden balls up a ramp at a series of ringed targets. “Have you ever played skee-ball before? This is spookee-ball!”
Luna snorted. The game seemed to be exactly the same as regular skee-ball, save for that it was decorated in a gruesome motif. One of the targets was painted to look like the mouth of a lycan, while another went into the eye socket of a zombie.
“An excellent idea!” Luna said as they went over to two empty ramps. She picked up the first ball with her hoof. “No magic is to be used. Agreed?”
Twilight giggled. “Agreed.”
Luna took aim and rolled her balls one by one towards the middle target. Her first two missed and only got ten points. Her next two both missed as well, but hit the middle ring instead and got thirty points. Luna’s final two were dead on, and both hit the the center with a pair of dings!
“One-hundred eighty points,” Luna said with a slight pout. “It appears my aim needs work. Still, not bad for a first try. What was your... score…”
Luna trailed off as she turned to her guide. Twilight had zoned out yet again, and was staring off into space with the same glazed look as before. She hadn’t even rolled her first ball. Her mouth was hanging slightly open as she let out her breath in a long, contented sigh.
Luna placed a hoof on her shoulder. “Twilight Sparkle!”
Twilight jumped. “Ah! Wha?” She looked up quizzically at Luna. “Um, yes! Let me know when you’re ready to start.”
Luna cocked her head. “Never mind the game. Are you ill? You're greatly out of sorts.”
Twilight shook her head and grinned. “Nope, I’m great! I haven’t felt this good in a long time!”
Something in Twilight's voice set off a warning bell. Luna frowned and leaned in closer. “How long, exactly?”
Twilight bit her lip and looked away. “Oh, I don't know. I’d say since—oh, my.”
Luna felt a chill. She followed Twilight’s gaze, and now saw that the crowd following them had tripled. Not only that, but the ponies were only a few yards away, and were slowly inching closer to them.
All of them wore the same goofy smile Twilight kept having.
Twilight gulped. “Princess? What’s going on?”
Luna chanted a string of syllables under her breath. No sign of mind control, no interference in the magical leylines, no kind of ritual, hex, spell, incantation, or curse that she could detect. The ponies were physically healthy, they hadn’t been replaced by shapeshifters or golems. Discord’s prison was intact. The Nightmare was obliterated. Sombra was dead. Cerberus maintained his vigil over the Gates of Tartarus. The sun and the moon were in their normal respective orbits. The Elements of Harmony, both the relics and their avatars, were uncorrupted, attuned, and whole. The Realm of Shadows was—
And there it was. Luna closed her eyes a moment, and when she opened them again, they were not teal, not white, but black. Black like the embrace of night that relieved Equestria from the day’s searing light. Black like the embrace of the womb that protected all creatures in their first moments of life. Black like one half of all ponies’ souls, for while their rulers stood at opposite ends of the spectrum, their subjects dwelled in the middle. Luna and Celestia had the power to look upon ponies’ souls and see their alignment, but there was little to be gained from doing so, so they very rarely did it.
Luna looked upon the crowd of ponies with her altered vision, and immediately saw the problem.
Their souls were all blindingly bright.
Luna took a step back. The crowd took a step closer in response.
“Princess!” Twilight said with alarm, looking between her and the crowd. “What is it? What’s going on?!”
Luna turned to Twilight. “They are—BY THE STARS!”
Twilight’s soul was even brighter than the others, and over a dozen tiny hollow dots were visible in the center of her core.
Luna said nothing more. She simply acted. Her outline pulsed with a sound like a heartbeat, and an aura of cool, soothing darkness formed around her like a living fog. The ground rumbled faintly, and the air became figid and sharp. The shadowy fog swirled once around Luna as she gathered her might, then, with a sound like rushing wind, it exploded outward to envelop the entire crowd.
There was no time to react. The darkness passed through the ponies and immediately dimmed their souls, correcting the imbalance of light and pushing them back towards neutrality. There was a loud, collective groan, not of pain. but of relief. Many of them fell to their knees or collapsed outright, their souls like overworked muscles after a strenuous task.
The blast of darkness continued all throughout Ponyville, passing through rock and stone and flesh. All the ponies that were hit became fatigued, winded, or even completely unconscious from the shift. The wave dissipated at the outskirts, but however, Luna wasn’t done. She now focused on Twilight, who was on the ground in an inert stupor. Her soul was dimmed like the others, but the hollow dots were still in her core.
“You poor child,” Luna whispered as she lifted Twilight up in her magic. “How long have you been suffering?”
“Mmmnhh,” was Twilight’s reply. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head.
Luna concentrated. “Hang on.”
The darkness coiled around her again, gathering and coalescing on the very tip of her horn. She lowered the point to Twilight’s chest and focused on the hollow dots. Sweat formed on Luna’s brow as she fired several fine rays into Twilight’s soul with laser-like precision.
Twilight shrieked. The darkness entered and filled the holes, spreading outward and merging with her essence with an unpleasant sizzle. She passed out, and Luna cursed herself for not putting her under first. She cast a quick spell to keep her anesthetized, then redoubled her efforts to finish the task. The injected darkness pulsed ominously, and for an instant Luna was afraid Twilight would reject the transfusion. But then, the pulsing faded away completely, and her soul evened out.
Luna released her spell, set Twilight down on the grass, and looked out over the crowd. The ponies that were still awake were looking on with half-lidded eyes, unsure of what had just happened. One of them, a blue unicorn dressed as a vampire, got to her feet and managed to speak in a wavery voice.
“Princess,” she said. “What… did you… just do?”
Luna met the unicorn’s eyes and clucked her tongue.
“I gave you an antidote.”
Princess Celestia laid comfortably on her favorite silk pillow as she went over the latest petitions she’d received in court that day. She was in her study, a large, high-ceilinged room lined with bookshelves, maps, and tapestries. The center of the room was a sunken seating area, and a magical flame crackled merrily within a firepit. She hummed to herself as she turned the page, then pulled a toffee out a small candy bag at her side.
Celestia had never been a fan of Nightmare Night. This was ironic, as she was the one who’d created it in the first place. The idea was to make the public think that Nightmare Moon’s actions were nothing more than myth, but to Celestia, who’d always known the truth, the memory of her sister’s actions and subsequent banishment brought her nothing but pain. She was at least getting over her reclusive tendencies now that Luna was back, and who know? Maybe in a few decades she might even—
The study doors flew open with a BANG. Celestia dropped her papers and inadvertently swallowed the toffee. She coughed and beat her chest as she looked up to the study entrance.
Luna stormed inside, wreathed in darkness with black eyes like empty holes. Her teeth were bared in a snarl, but her expression was not one of rage. She was plainly worried, and when she got to the sunken circle, she spoke in a shrill, panicked tone that made Celestia’s hair stand on end.
“We've an epidemic on our hooves.”
“Light poisoning?” Celestia said. “Are you sure?”
Luna scoffed. “The symptoms are all there: Lapses in awareness, physical fatigue, a primal, almost magnetic attraction to darkness, and spiritual deterioration. Inspect the soldiers if you doubt me. I passed a dozen on my way here, and every single one of their souls is ripped due to being in close proximity with you. I’ll need to heal the entire castle staff tomorrow.”
The two of them had relocated to the balcony connected to the study. Luna was pacing back and forth while Celestia was sitting on her haunches beside the entrance. Her expression was downcast as she digested her sister’s discovery.
“What about Twilight?” Celestia abruptly asked. “Is she all right?”
Luna’s face turned grim. “Her soul was on the verge of collapse. I was able to mend it, but you must not go near her for several weeks. I have already notified her family, and they are now in Ponyville with her.”
Celestia closed her eyes and began taking long, deep breaths. Luna said nothing, despite the burning desire to yell at her for negligence. She knew Celestia would never intentionally hurt Twilight, or any of their citizens for that matter, but this had been too close a call to dismiss. It would take some time for Luna to get over her annoyance.
“How widespread is the damage?” Celestia said after a time. “Can it be reversed?”
“Two questions, two answers.” Luna scanned the city below. “I suspect that the entire nation is affected. Children’s souls are malleable, so there’s a chance they might yet be permanently realigned, and I’ve an idea on how to do that. Adult souls, however, are too rigid for realignment to stick. They’ll need to be exposed to pure darkness at least once a year in order to stay balanced.”
“Which is something only you can do.” Celestia shook her head. “To think that too much light would be harmful—not even in my wildest dreams...”
“Too much of anything is harmful,” Luna replied. She met Celestia’s eyes and continued speaking in a softer tone. “It’s not as bad as you imagine. The damage is worst here in Canterlot, and I can blanket the city and immediate area with darkness easily enough. The rest of the population will be uncomfortable, but they won’t be in any danger so long as they don’t follow you around for years on end like a living shadow.”
Celestia almost laughed, but then she got the insinuation behind Luna’s statement. Her face quickly fell back into a morose melancholy as she turned and looked back towards Ponyville.
Luna correctly guessed what was on Celestia’s mind. “You wouldn’t have known what to look for. You're not attuned to the darkness any more than I am to the light. I myself didn’t even notice the imbalance until an entire crowd began shambling toward me like a zombified horde.”
Celestia pursed her lips. “Why would the effects be more prominent tonight? There’s nothing special about this holiday, or Ponyville, for that matter.”
Luna raised an eyebrow.
Celestia rolled her eyes. “The Elements of Harmony don’t affect ponies’ souls, and you know it. I meant nothing special that would alert you to the poisoning. It makes no sense that you’ve been back for two years, and then tonight an entire mob swarms you like moths around a flame.”
Luna turned a faint tinge of pink. “I… might have inadvertently triggered their reactions. I indulged in a small display of theatrics upon my arrival in Ponyville, and said theatrics may or may not have involved me tapping into the Realm of Shadows.”
Celestia’s eyes narrowed. “You promised me you were going to stop showing off.”
“This was a special occasion!” Luna huffed. “And don’t pretend like you don’t do it, too. I saw you drawing from the Realm of Light at this year’s Summer Sun Celebration.”
Celestia’s eyes went wide. She stood there with her jaw hanging open for a few seconds while Luna stood there with a smug grin.
“Didn’t think I’d catch it, did you?” Luna said. “You’re not as clever as you think, sister. I know your magic well enough to know when you’re covering something up.”
Celestia exhaled out her nose. She turned away to glower at nothing in particular, then sat down on her haunches and crossed her forehooves. “Fine, fine, you caught me, but I ONLY do it for that ceremony, nothing else! You want to do it for Nightmare Night, I’m okay with that, but then that’s the only time you can do it. Fair?”
Luna inwardly preened at the victory, but kept her expression neutral. “Fair.”
Celestia rubbed the bridge of her nose. “You said you’ve an idea on how to realign the children’s souls permanently. Tell me what it is.”
Luna gathered her thoughts. “Well…”
It took twenty minutes to go over the plan. Celestia was skeptical at first, but the more Luna elaborated, the more receptive she became. They went back and forth over a few details, but the core concept remained the same. The air turned colder as time passed, and Celestia ignited another fire beside herself to keep warm.
“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Celestia said.
“We’ve never had reason to.”
“You’re really okay with sharing an intimate part of who you are with an entire generation of ponies?”
Luna shrugged. “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
Celestia rubbed her forehooves. “Is there any chance they'll be hurt?”
Luna flattened her ears. “I’d die before putting them at risk. They'll be safer in my care than they are in the real world.”
Celestia held up a hoof. “I don’t doubt your abilities or motives. I only ask for peace of mind.”
Luna sighed. “You needn’t worry. My power in the Realm of Shadows is absolute. I don’t do this lightly, but it’s the quickest way to bring the children back into balance for good. I think saving our subjects from abject suffering takes priority over personal comfort, don’t you agree?”
Celestia conceded the point. “I’ll trust you, then. When are you going to do it?”
Luna cracked her neck. “Now, preferably.”
Celestia blinked. “As in, right here, right now?”
“Why not?” Luna was rolling her shoulders. “I see no reason to delay. The sooner this malady is nipped in the bud, the better.”
Celestia shifted back and forth. “I… suppose you’re right… you’re going to be leaving your body behind, aren’t you? Do you want me to watch over it?”
“If you would.” Luna finished stretching and cleared her throat. “I would appreciate a moment of privacy to get centered, though.”
“Of course.” Celestia got to her hooves and started to head back inside. However, when she got to the door, she stopped and turned back to Luna.
“You did well on this, Lulu. You’ve always done just as much as I have for Equestria, if not more, and you’ve done it with only a fraction of the gratitude. You can see things I can’t, do things I can’t, and the time spent without you was a torment that I never want to live through again. I took you for granted once, but never again. I can only hope that one day I’ll find a way to make it up to you.”
Luna was taken aback. She opened her mouth to give a reply, but found that she had none. Her thoughts were a complete blank, and all she managed to stammer out were a few lines of gibberish.
Celestia smiled sheepishly. “That’s all I wanted to say. Good luck.”
She went inside. Luna stood there for a few seconds as her brain rebooted, and it was only when it did that she finally came up with a response. She held onto it for the moment, though, and instead focused her attentions on the task that lay ahead of her. She took a deep breath, relishing the cool evening air and undisturbed peace as she walked to the edge of the balcony. This was the essence of what the night was—tranquility, peace, safety. It was what she loved, what she wanted others to see, and what her ponies so desperately needed. With these thoughts in mind, Luna raised her eyes to the sky, closed them, and focused on a very special part of her magic.
When the world was young and Luna was still learning how to control the moon and stars, she'd searched within herself to discover the workings of her magic. Her experimentation had inadvertently shunted her out of her body, sending her spiraling into the sky and completely out of the physical plane. She’d suddenly found herself in a new place, one that was separate from the real world, but connected at the same time. After some experimentation, she realized this 'Shadow Realm' was the source of her power, and it was here she truly was a god. She could create anything she wanted, do anything she liked, be anything she wished to be. The realm was the very essence of darkness, the origins of the night, the soul of the stars and moon. It was timeless, without beginning or end, and she was its avatar and master.
In that first visit, Luna had found the realm to be an empty plane of nothingness that stretched out into eternity. The power of the moon and stars was vague, spread out and unfocused, yet it all answered to her beck and call in an instant. She decided she wanted the setup to be more aesthetically pleasing, and so she molded the endless black like a potter molds clay, shaping it and fitting it according to her whims.
And so the Realm of Shadows became a Garden, a mysterious, pristine eden that contained the very essence of darkness. None could enter this idyllic place but herself, as to taint its purity with even the smallest modicum of light was an abhorrent defilement. This was her final bastion, her most sacred sanctuary, a part of her very being, and she’d never shared it with anypony else.
Luna detached herself from her physical form. She spread her consciousness outward, extending out past the castle and into the city of Canterlot beyond. She called upon the power of the Garden and stretched herself out even farther, extending past the city, out into the valley beyond, then even past that as her influence spread out to cover the entirety of Equestria. The moon developed a soft blue corona, and the stars brightened to twice their normal luminance. Luna's magic was palpable, felt all throughout the land, but very few took notice as the majority of her sickened subjects slept oblivious through the night.
The grownups couldn't be taken, as their souls were beyond influence. Only the malleable spirits of the innocent could be brought, and their time must be brief, for prolonged exposure to pure, unfiltered darkness would have the opposite effect. Luna kept this in mind as she reached out into the houses of ponies across the land, locating those children age three or younger and catching them in the thrall of her spell.
Seconds later, the spirits of thousands were under her command, and now that she was connected to all of them, the imbalance became all the more apparent. The damage of being exposed to a thousand years of light could yet still be undone, but she was cutting it close. The adults of the era would have to receive repeated administrations of darkness, but being in her presence for long periods of time would also do the same thing.
Luna chuckled. It seemed that a great deal more public appearances and social gatherings were in her future.
Now fully free of her body, her country-wide spell cast and her eyes glowing with power, Luna raised her chin, took a deep breath, and began to sing.
Come little children
I'll take thee away, into a land
Come little children
the time's come to play
here in my Garden
Luna spread her wings and jumped off the balcony, abandoning her body and diving straight down to sail above sleeping Canterlot. She could feel the spirits of the innocent following behind, her presence tugging them out of their bodies as they slept. Their ethereal forms followed soundlessly after her as she continued on, pulling them behind her like a powerful magnet. She did a lap around Canterlot before ascending up into the clouds, then headed out into Equestria proper. Luna flew faster, the power of her domain giving her increased speed as she soared above the lands in her natural form like a ghostly phantom.
Follow sweet children
I'll show thee the way
through all the pain and
Weep not poor children
the Night keeps thee safe
dream but of beauty and
The souls of the pure were gently freed from their physical vessels as they joined Luna in the heavens. She strengthened the pull of her spell, sending her spiritual call to echo out and bring forth the children of the land. The souls were silhouettes of their owners, purest white and glowing with the power of Luna's magic. They circled around her in an expanding sphere as she continued her flight and gathered more and more souls. She could make out their faces as they swirled around her, their expressions all of unfiltered awe and wonder. A young foal came close, and Luna nuzzled his forehead before letting him rejoin the others.
Hush now dear children
and trust my embrace
be weary of light and
Rest now my children
for soon we'll away
into the calm and
Luna fully opened herself to the Garden of Shadows, and her astral form faded away. The stars above gathered and swirled together to reform into a pair of enormous, teal eyes that looked lovingly down upon the land. The heavens were comprised of shimmering violets and deep blues, and a pair of colossal ebony wings reached down to wrap around the children. Their spirits were sucked forward, then disappeared into the endless black.
The children were now in a grove with majestic, leafless trees circled about the edges. Weeping willows, oaks, maples, cypresses, and elms were scattered about, the outlines of their naked branches blurring back and forth. A spectral light filtered in through the branches from beyond, giving the garden mystic ambiance. Orchids, lilacs, azaleas, hyacinths, hollyhocks, pansies, and nemophilas were scattered about in groomed patches, each of them pulsing with the very essence of darkness. The grass under the children’s hooves was silver and soft as heather, and crystalline waterfalls spilled out into a small lake from several outcroppings of rock. The water of the lake was clear and still as glass, and at the middle of this lake was an island with a shrine to Luna at its center. The sky above was an aurora of galaxies and stars, and the air was warm and heavy with the scent of flowers.
Come little children
I'll take thee away, into a land
Come little children
the time's come to play
here in my Garden
Luna reappeared before the children as a goddess in her true realm. She looked as she normally did, but her power was apparent as the flora of the Garden bloomed and became more alive in her presence. A corona of violet shimmered around her body, and she left behind a faint afterimage as she moved about. She watched as the blinding brightness of the children's outlines slowly dimmed, the Garden's soothing influence slowly balancing out their souls.
Luna spoke, but not with words. Instead, she used feelings and impressions to communicate with the young mortals. She towered over them, clad in her full regalia as a flawless beacon of immaculate glory.
“I am your Princess.”
She looked down at them all with unceasing vigil, meeting each and every one of their eyes.
“I am your protector.”
Her eyes glowed with ethereal might, and the Garden thrummed in response.
“The night is my charge, and my power over it is absolute.”
The children felt her presence all around them, yet she stood motionless before their eyes.
“You are my subjects, and under my rule, the darkness is not something to be feared.”
Luna didn't change in size, yet she was now face-to-face with all of the children, looking at them as a peer.
“You are beings of harmony, comprised of both darkness and light. To deny one or the other is to deny part of yourselves.”
She stepped back and gave them all a warm, maternal smile.
“And it is also to deny one who loves you, without pause, thought, or condition.”
The children weren't as bright as they once were anymore. Their outlines were faint, and their eyes were half-lidded with dreamy looks on their faces. Luna wished she could keep them here longer, to share with them the true wonders and beauty of the night, but they foals were too impressionable. She welcomed those who had an affinity for darkness, yes, but too much of it would be just as much of a problem as an overabundance of light.
Now confident that balance had been restored, Luna spread her wings and flew up to rejoin the sky above. The shadows coiled around the children, and the Garden faded away. She released her hold on their spirits, and they split throughout the sky like a meteor shower as they scattered to the corners of the country to rejoin their physical forms.
Satisfied that they were safely returned, Luna returned to Canterlot, finding her physical body where she'd left it on the balcony. She had a slight jarring feeling as her two forms reattached, followed by a wave of fatigue and a surge of nausea. She fell to her knees with a groan.
“You all right?”
Luna's ears twitched at Celestia's voice. She would've turned to address her, but she wanted to keep the contents of her stomach where they were.
“I hate rejoining with my body,” Luna muttered.
Celestia came over and laid down beside her sister. “How’d it go?”
“I think it worked,” Luna said. “We'll need to watch them to be certain, but if nothing else, then they’ll just need the same treatment as the adults.”
Celestia enveloped Luna in an alabaster wing. “I can't tell you how thankful I am that you'd be willing to do something like this. I mean, if your connection to the Shadow Realm is anything like mine to the Light Realm...”
Luna leaned into her sister. “Think nothing of it. I know you would've done the same thing if our positions were reversed.”
Celestia raised a hoof to her chin. “I suppose I would. Although, I'd have to create something in the Light Realm so they weren't floating in a void.”
Luna looked up at her. “You mean you never have?”
“It's not like I was ever anticipating having guests,” Celestia defended.
Luna snickered. “True. All that nothingness just seemed so... boring, though. I guess I thought that we were supposed to do something with it. ”
Celestia patted her sister's hoof. “I'm sure whatever you did with it is beautiful. It's a shame that the children are too young to remember it.”
“That’s probably for the best,” Luna said. “They may want to go back If they were to have any memories of it, and that would be harmful to both them and the Realm.”
Celestia exhaled out her nose. “I wish I could do something to help.”
Luna's breathing evened out as her stomach settled down. “You can keep saying those things.”
Celestia looked down at her. “What things?”
“The things you said when you left.” Luna nuzzled her sister. “Some things may go without saying, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t nice to hear. If I never have to question my own value again, then you’ll have paid me back in full.”
Celestia gently squeezed her sister and rested her chin on her shoulder. “It’s a promise, then.”
Luna looked out at the horizon. “I’ll start my ministrations to the adults tomorrow. We’ll have to wait and see on the children.”
Celestia followed her gaze. “Don’t worry. I’m sure things will work out.”
Twenty Five Years Later-
Luna yawned as she finished her proceedings for court. Things had gone overly long tonight due to things starting with an unnaturally long and pointless debate with a rather insistent, ignorant scientist over why moving the moon closer to the planet was a terrible idea. She massaged her temples and turned to her assistant, a quiet midnight-blue unicorn mare by the name of Minute Detail.
“Any more petitioners?” Luna asked.
“Sir Flashing Steel was the last,” Minute replied. “Did you want me to process his request now, or wait until tomorrow night?”
Luna waved a hoof. “He didn't seem like he was in a hurry to get the Lunairium. I'll take care of it tomorrow.”
Minute scratched her chin. “It's not often we get requests for that. What do you think he wanted it for? Perhaps it was for that mask he was wearing on the side of face?”
Luna winced. “I don't think that was a mask, if the scar tissue was any indication.”
“What do you—” Minute’s widened. “Oooh.”
Luna got to her hooves and walked down the stairs of her throne. “I'm going to my chambers to retire. Send for me if I'm needed.”
Minute bowed. “As you wish.”
Luna adjusted her tiara as she walked toward the door. Things had gone well over the last two and a half decades. She’d managed to repair all the ripped souls she’d found, and both she and Celestia had closely monitored the souls of the latest generation. There was an unusual case here and there, but the population had largely evened out as a whole. Twilight had also made a full recovery, and amusingly, her soul had permanently aligned itself to neutrality upon her transformation into an alicorn. She had her own Realm now, and its power had been useful in assisting Luna in maintaining the balance of the older generations.
Luna was grateful, both for the help, and that she'd caught the disturbance in time. True, the effects of light poisoning had taken a long time to manifest, but the symptoms were all the worse for it. She was just glad that there hadn't been any lasting effects, a shift in either direction could cause ponykind to descend into madness. All in all, things had been resolved rather smoothly. Heck, none of the children had seemed to have any memories of—
Hush now dear children
and trust my embrace
be weary of light and
Rest now my children
for soon we'll away
into the calm and
Luna stopped dead. A chill went up her spine, and she whirled on the singer with wide eyes.
Minute was writing on her clipboard while softly humming to herself. She stopped when she noticed Luna's reaction, and furrowed her brow with questioning eyes.
“Something wrong, Princess?”
“W—Where....” Luna cleared her throat. “Sorry, something in my throat. Where did you hear that song?”
“The song?” Minute rubbed the back of her neck. “Oh, well... I'm not really sure. It gets stuck in my head sometimes, and I've known it for as long as I can remember. I sing it to my daughter as a lullaby.”
Luna had to bite the inside of her cheek to prevent the huge smile from creeping up on her face.
“Do you know anything about it?” Minute asked. “It's really pretty. I've always been curious about where it’s from.”
“It's from long ago,” Luna said. “It was meant to be sung to children so that they would not fear the night.”
Minute clapped her hooves. “Ha! I knew it was a lullaby! Do you know who wrote it, by chance?”
“The name eludes me,” Luna said with a note of regret. “I do know, however, that they would be very happy to know that you're singing it to your daughter.”
Minute beamed. “Then that's exactly what I'll do.”
Luna bid her assistant a good morning, then turned and walked out the door. She allowed herself a small smile as she made her way to her chambers.
“Very happy, indeed.”