Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters
Everfree Forest, Equestria
First Summer Moon 1, 1001 SE (Solar Era)
“Come on now, y’all,” Applejack said, or at least so Twilight thought. With how much of her focus was devoted to the magically inert Elements of Harmony, it could have been anypony – if she even remembered the mare’s name right to begin with. “She needs to concentrate.”
Perhaps a minute later, Twilight idly noted that her five personal distractions were gone. The thought slipped away as soon as it came.
“Just one spark,” Twilight mumbled to herself. According to the book, it only took a single spark to summon the sixth Element of Harmony. One little magical spark was all she required to restart the natural flow of magic through the Elements.
Twilight poked and prodded the inert stone spheres before her with her magic. She could see the dead, lifeless channels in them. They should be coursing with enough magic to strike down a goddess. These were the real artifacts, not some distraction Nightmare Moon placed here.
But nothing worked. Every attempt Twilight made was rebuffed as if the Elements themselves objected to her ministrations. It made no sense! There had to be a way to revive them. Why would the book say it was possible if somepony had never done it before? The book had to be right.
“I hope,” Twilight whimpered to herself. Her teeth bit down on her lip as a terrible feeling settled into her chest.
The oddly metallic sound of hooves on stone echoed through the crumbling ruins. For a moment, Twilight paused to think which of the ponies who came here with her uninvited wore horseshoes. Pegasi never did. The unicorn would never be caught dead in plain, simple horseshoes, so she was out. Twilight had gotten far too personal a look at the pink one’s bare hooves, so that meant it was the cook.
Twilight shook her head. No, both the earth ponies were cooks or something. It was the farmer-cook.
Something sounded wrong though. A frown worked its way onto Twilight’s face. Applejack – Twilight really hoped she remembered a name right for once in her life – was the one who’d cleared out the distractions. Why was she back?
Eyes widening, Twilight leapt to her hooves, ready for anything. The hoofsteps did sound wrong. They were coming from in front of her, not from the barely functional doors behind her.
The dark alicorn had come. She walked calmly forward as if she had not a care in the world, as if the instruments of her defeat were not in the hooves of her enemy.
She walked as if the instruments of her defeat were worthless lumps of stone.
“Twilight Sparkle,” Nightmare Moon calmly replied. To Twilight’s disbelief, she sounded almost respectful.
Twilight felt herself mentally trip. This was the mare who, not a day earlier, had cackled and proclaimed the night would last forever like a lunatic?
Nonetheless, Twilight summoned up her magic in an instant. She shaped and formed it into a teleport. Flight was her only option.
“Ow!” Horn stinging, Twilight flinched and shook her head. The remnants of the half-formed teleport Nightmare Moon had interrupted crumbled and dissociated into the background magic of Equestria.
“You’re kidding, right?” Nightmare Moon said. Her tone fell somewhere between taunting and amused.
Not rising to the provocation, Twilight did the only sane and rational thing she could when she only had one option and tried again. She put her all into casting as fast as possible. Her horn protested, but it would be worth–
Twilight’s scream pierced the night. She collapsed to her knees. Her head fell downward as she tried to hide her horn away in the imagined safety of her own hooves.
“No need to bow. You are not my subject.”
Her head swimming, Twilight tried to teleport again as it was the only thing that came to mind. It stung just to call forth her magic, let alone focus it, but she could still manage to cast spells. She had to.
A small sigh escaped the alicorn now looming over Twilight. One of her armor-clad hooves shot forward.
Twilight braced herself, her eyes squeezed shut.
“Ow…” Twilight whimpered. The relatively gentle kick would have barely stung if her horn were in good health. In its current condition, Nightmare Moon was merely rubbing salt in the wound.
However, the blow did force Twilight to look up at Nightmare Moon. She was tall, as tall as Princess Celestia. The last time Twilight had felt so small, she’d been eight years old and staring starry-eyed up at her princess and new mentor.
“Come now, Twilight. My sister must have taught you better than to try the same thing over and over again.”
Twilight grit her teeth, an act which only reinforced how sharp Nightmare Moon’s were. This close, Nightmare Moon could tear into her throat before–
Nightmare Moon’s words only now registered. ‘Sister’? Nightmare Moon was Princess Celestia’s sister? The legend had read as such, but foals’ stories made regular and liberal use of their artistic license. Surely that was a lie.
No, true or not, it was a distraction. The fact was a relative triviality – a footnote in history – compared to escape.
But Nightmare Moon was right, as much as Twilight hated to admit it. Magic was not going win her her escape. Outcasting a goddess was a vain effort to begin with, maybe even outright impossible. Yet what other option did she have? Woefully underprepared as she was, her only skills were magic, research, and organization. She hardly thought offering to organize Nightmare Moon’s sock drawer would get her anywhere.
“Now with your permission, I would like to take this conversation elsewhere.”
Twilight tried not to let the shock show on her face. Nightmare Moon was asking for her permission? Of course, refusing would certainly have consequences – unpleasant consequences. Talking was good, though. Every second spent talking was another second she had to think of an escape plan.
Even though she knew she had no other option, Twilight was still hesitant in her reply. “Okay.”
A shiver ran down Twilight’s spine as Nightmare Moon smiled. An almost overwhelming amount of magic flooded into the room. The cyan glow at the tip of Nightmare Moon’s horn was nearly blinding.
And in an instant, the world returned to normal – or as normal as Nightmare Moon’s world ever was. It was still night, after all. What should have been daybreak had passed long ago.
That said, the place Twilight now found herself was well lit. Looking around, the magical lights floating about the admittedly comfy looking room absorbed shadows more than they projected light, or so it seemed to her eyes. A small throne rested on one side of the room, and scattered about were various other office fixtures, none unused, which blended into the background.
This hall screamed ‘throne room’, however small and homely it appeared. Out of the corner of her eye, Twilight spotted the Elements tucked away in a corner.
“Where are we?” Twilight tried her absolute best to make her question not sound like a demand.
“The temporary Night Court,” Nightmare Moon replied, as if that answered anything. She crossed the room with all the grace and poise expected of royalty, settling down onto her throne. Even so seated, she stared down at Twilight with her imposing height.
Only once she was obviously comfortable and at peace did Nightmare Moon speak again.
“Twilight Sparkle, I have banished my sister to the sun.”
The words hit like a train.
“You liar!” Twilight screeched.
“Then where is she? Why has the sun not risen?”
“She…” Twilight bit down on her lip, fighting not to tear up. Princess Celestia, generous and benevolent, had shared some of the secrets of the heavens with an inquisitive young filly. The world needed the sun. If the sun must share the sky with the moon, then so be it. There was no sun, therefore there was no Princess Celestia. QED.
Twilight cursed herself. If she were anypony else in the world, she could force herself to believe the sun’s absence to be a mere ruse, a trap, a plot. But no, her mind had to believe in facts, and evidence, and logic.
Staring at the floor, Twilight could only guess what Nightmare Moon’s face must look like. It had to be warped in manic glee as she watched Twilight struggle to accept reality.
Well, Twilight would hardly give the mare the satisfaction. She raised her head to glare back at Nightmare Moon.
Yet this only made Nightmare Moon’s smile grow.
“Now then,” Nightmare Moon said, her diction absolutely perfect. Something about that bothered Twilight. “I believe you have a…proposal to bring forward to the Night Court.”
For at least the second time tonight, Twilight’s mind ground to a halt.
“Speak, and you will be heard.”
Twilight fumbled with her mouth, seeking words that were not there.
“Come now, Twilight. What is the one thing I possess, might be persuaded to give, and you need?”
Twilight decided that instant that she hated Nightmare Moon personally. Before, she was just a villain that needed to be stopped. They were all over Equestria like weeds. That was what happened when a third of the population could alter reality with their minds. But this – this – this arrogance, this goading, this railroading was insufferable. Nightmare Moon was only after something from her.
A moment passed.
Twilight fought to keep her scowl from becoming a mere intense frown. Nightmare Moon wanted something from her. Assuming that something was not entertainment of one kind or another, she had something she might be able to use. The only question was what.
“I want Princess Celestia.”
Nightmare Moon raised an eyebrow questioningly.
Honestly, Twilight had expected more yelling and posturing at the demand. Still, she did her best to stare down Nightmare Moon to see just what she could get from her.
“If you insist,” Nightmare Moon finally said.
Twilight none-too-subtlety let her jaw drop.
“I might warn you, though. Is she what you need?”
A dozen objections ran through Twilight’s mind. She stomped down on each one, instead asking, “What do you mean?”
“Surely you cannot be so blind?” Nightmare Moon’s words came off as a question. To Twilight’s blank expression, she continued, “I conquered her once already when she was at her full strength. How would I lose in a rematch when she is weak from her foray into the sun?”
Unable to stop herself, Twilight ground her teeth together. Again, Nightmare Moon was railroading her into something.
A thought struck Twilight. It was not something useful so much as perhaps a means to gain information.
“Are you weak from banishment right now?”
Nightmare Moon’s grin grew positively feral. “That is the million bit question, is it not? Perhaps at this moment, I have nothing left, no magic to even conjure a tiny glass of water.”
No. No, Nightmare Moon was baiting Twilight. The kind of power she used and the ease with which she used it at the castle in the Everfree Forest was not what Twilight would expect to see from a mare scraping at the dregs of her power.
Then was Nightmare Moon lying about Princess Celestia being weak upon her return?
No. What would be the point? It wouldn’t change Twilight’s decisions except in very unlikely edge cases. If she actually managed to rescue Princess Celestia, she would make the plan foolproof enough to secret the princess away to prepare for battle before Nightmare Moon could intervene regardless.
And beyond that, there was still something bothering Twilight about Nightmare Moon. She had the feeling that once she figured it out, a facehoof would immediately follow, like a hard math problem with a simple, elegant solution.
“Oh!” Speaking of, Twilight’s mind stumbled upon the correct ‘request’ to make of the Night Court. “I need you to cycle day and night.” It was so obvious in hindsight. Any attempt to rescue Princess Celestia and save Equestria would require, well, Equestria to be alive. The world would freeze without the sun.
A half second later, Twilight realized she said that out loud and placed a hoof over her mouth. This was not a homework exercise with Princess Celestia even if Nightmare Moon rudely strung her along as though it were.
“Not quite.” Speaking more to herself than to Twilight, Nightmare Moon said, “Perhaps we might discuss that later.”
Later? That was a good sign. Or rather it was a not-bad sign. It suggested Nightmare Moon meant to keep Twilight alive – at least for now. Twilight felt just a little bit of the tension in her shoulders fade.
“Tell me, Twilight, what did you do before running off haphazardly into the Everfree and nearly dying?”
Before Twilight could say more than two words, Nightmare Moon interrupted. “The Everfree is not as nice a place as it was a thousand years ago, especially so at night. Alone, you would have died. With those other mares and some…direction, you barely made it to the castle in one piece.”
It took all of an instant for Twilight to connect the dots. “You! You – you cast some spell and – and…”
And why on Equus had Nightmare Moon allowed Twilight to reach the Elements?
“You’re welcome,” Nightmare Moon said.
Twilight refused to dignify that with a response, not that her indignation made her predicament any less confusing.
“Now please answer the question.”
It took Twilight a few seconds to tear herself away from pondering what Nightmare Moon could possibly be up to and another few seconds to admit to herself that Nightmare Moon already knew the answer. Nothing she could say would give anything away.
Twilight grumbled, “I read a book about the Elements.”
“Research?” Twilight hesitantly replied.
Nightmare Moon waved a hoof in a circle, silently asking for her to keep going.
“Quite so. So what do you need?”
“Information,” Twilight said, fairly confident that she’d just reached the destination Nightmare Moon had railroaded her to. Still, there was the matter of what information she needed. “How to cycle day and night? How to rescue Princess Celestia?”
“No. You do not yet possess the magic to do either–”
Yet? Twilight tucked that thought away for later.
“–and as soon as I find her, I plan to arrange for your foalsitter to be taken care of. One way or another.”
Shouting, nearly screaming, Twilight said, “If you harm one hair of her mane–”
Twilight found herself seething silently under Nightmare Moon’s magic. Muted, words having failed her, she rushed forward, her magic flaring.
Before Twilight could form even the core of a spell, Nightmare Moon ripped the magic she’d summoned away from her. She collapsed to her knees again and grit her teeth to keep from crying out.
“Twilight Sparkle,” Nightmare Moon said, her voice icy, “her fate lies entirely in her and your good behavior. I suggest you think before you act. Thinking is what you’re good at, I hear.”
‘Good behavior’ being the key words, Twilight bit out an weak, “Apologies.” At least she could speak again.
“Apology accepted. Now then, what do you need information about?”
“I don’t know.” Sick of playing this game, Twilight guessed, “My current situation?”
Nightmare Moon sighed. “Close enough. You might find it curious that I not only knew who you were, but also that I showed up in that backwater Ponyville to begin with. What kind of place is that to make my triumphant return?”
Rather begrudgingly, Twilight had to admit Nightmare Moon had a point.
“I had an extended–” Nightmare Moon chuckled. “–conversation with my sister. I learned quite a number of interesting things about you, the least of which being your location.”
A shiver ran through Twilight. Her mind conjured up progressively worse things Nightmare Moon might have done to get that information, culminating in some of the most nightmarish tortures imaginable.
Jumping on anything to distract herself, Twilight asked, “What interesting things?”
Nightmare Moon smiled again, as creepy as ever. Rather cryptically, she said, “Today is a great crossroads in your destiny, Twilight. Perhaps I might simply kill you.”
Twilight took an unconscious half-step back.
“Perhaps you might get lucky, free my sister, and live out the life she planned for you. But I rather doubt it.”
“Or what?” Twilight snapped. “I become your minion and help you rule the world?”
Nightmare Moon looked as though she were fighting off a laughing fit, yet her tone was as even and regal as ever. “That would be a bit…cliché, would it not? I could hardly expect the heroine to betray her beloved, wise old mentor to the villain for power.”
Twilight opened her mouth, then closed it a second later. She had no idea how to respond to that.
“Please, Twilight. Do not presume me the fool.”
A mad goddess was bad enough, but a mad intelligent goddess was an unmitigated disaster. Twilight’s threat assessment of Nightmare Moon skyrocketed.
Sweat slowly suffusing her brow, Twilight considered that maybe – maybe – Nightmare Moon was sane and Ponyville was all an act. Maybe even eternal night was just leverage for something else.
As if reading Twilight’s mind – and Twilight wondered if she could – the grin on Nightmare Moon’s face grew the longer Twilight thought.
Twilight gulped. “What do you want?”
Nightmare Moon leaned back on her throne, by all accounts satisfied with Twilight’s words.
“Nothing,” Nightmare Moon repeated herself. “You are a charity case.”
“That doesn’t make any – I – but I tried to – and you – you’re lying!”
“Perhaps.” Nightmare Moon paused, frowning as her thoughts turned inward for a moment. Her brow furrowed as if struggling with something. Then into that brief silence, she said, “But then lies are simply data points you chose to ignore, as you say these days.”
That was hardly how that construction was meant to be used, but Twilight checked herself before correcting Nightmare Moon. Besides for a mare a thousand years behind the vernacular–
Twilight’s eyes widened.
Nightmare Moon grinned. She raised an eyebrow as if asking, “Yes? Do share with the rest of the class.”
Even as the evidence rolled in, Twilight refused to accept it. And yet it all made sense.
Nightmare Moon spoke Modern Ponish with a perfect Canterlot accent. She even knew idioms, if not perfectly.
This throne room was all new but obviously used.
The spells Nightmare Moon used – from what little Twilight had witnessed – had neither the style nor structure of a mage a thousand years behind the times.
“How – how long have you been free?”
“A swing and a miss, dear Twilight.”
That was impossible. All of the evidence pointed to Nightmare Moon having had enough time to update herself to modern standards. She was just lying again.
‘Lies are just data points you chose to ignore.’ The words echoed in Twilight’s head. There was some wisdom there; she could begrudgingly admit it. What then did Nightmare Moon gain? Or perhaps what was she trying to hide? Why did it matter when she returned?
“If you must know,” Nightmare Moon said, interrupting Twilight’s thoughts, “I escaped my confinement during the winter solstice when my power was at its greatest.”
Two seasons? Two seasons was nowhere near enough time to learn everything Nightmare Moon would have needed to – Twilight felt nauseous even thinking the words – defeat Princess Celestia. The princess had earned the epithet Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, for good reason. Maybe it would be enough time to learn the language. Old Ponish was the root language for its modern counterpart, after all.
No. No, Nightmare Moon was likely telling the truth.
“Which winter solstice?” Twilight wore a triumphant smirk on her face.
One which was returned in full measure. “You’re learning. Good.”
For a moment, Twilight made to protest but held her peace. Celestia forbid that Twilight would or could not learn. What a horrible world that would be.
“Please indulge me, Twilight. Do you know what the sixth Element of Harmony is?”
Caught off guard by the change in topic, Twilight replied automatically without thinking. “No.”
“Oh? Well, I suppose my sister did think you would have more time…”
Twilight had the horrible feeling that Nightmare Moon knew her weakness. Knowledge was much alike to a carrot on a stick. Dangle it in front of her and she would chase it to the edge of the world. Worse, even when she recognized it for the trap that it was, she would walk into it knowingly every time. It was a hard-learned lesson from magic kindergarten.
“Time for what?”
“To attune with the element she attempted to groom you for, of course.”
With the expectant look Nightmare Moon gave her, Twilight hazarded a guess. “Magic?”
“That hardly fits the theme.” Suspended in the cyan glow of Nightmare Moon’s magic, the Elements flew from their corner to float by between her and Twilight. She named them each in turn. “Honesty. Kindness. Loyalty. Generosity. Laughter, or more properly Good Humor, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue. Translation issues, you see. No, Magic does not fit the pattern.”
Twilight had to admit Nightmare Moon had a point. She ran over all the virtues she possessed, even in modicum, in search of the answer. ‘Organized’ was hardly better than her first guess. ‘Punctual’ was an even poorer fit. ‘Diligent’ might work, but it lacked the ring of truth she expected. It needed to be more about personal relationships.
“Trustworthy?” At the very least, Twilight liked to think that her word was as good as truth or prophecy. Unless she overreached – and admittedly that had happened once or twice – she always did what she said she would.
Nightmare Moon appeared thoughtful for a moment, but she shook the expression away soon after.
“A very good guess, but no. The sixth element is as symbolic as it is functional. It takes a careful hoof to wield, as it channels and directs the other elements which empower it.”
By this point, Twilight was scrapping the bottom of the barrel for virtues she possessed – at least for non-scholastic virtues. ‘Studious’ hardly fit the pattern, after all.
Eventually, Twilight gave up. “I don’t know.”
Twilight would have burst out laughing in any other company. She had friends, of course, but nopony could accuse her of being a paragon of friendship. Moon Dancer was the closest friend she had, but even that relationship was little more than study buddies at its heart.
“I did say attempted,” Nightmare Moon commented dryly. “You know how she is.” The pair shared a moment of camaraderie as they exchanged mutually sympathetic looks. Princess Celestia, despite all her virtues, could be frustratingly opaque at times. Nopony would know that better than them. “If you have any doubts, I’m sure we can unearth some old documents somewhere if we look hard enough.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Twilight said, actually somewhat amused even in her current situation. Nightmare Moon’s answer fit well enough, and it hardly mattered at the moment. Besides, what reason could Nightmare Moon possibly have to lie about it right now and to allow Twilight to call her bluff?
For once, Nightmare Moon’s smile was just that: a smile. There was nothing smug or predatory about it. Not that the arrogance and self-assurance had left her countenance.
The five Elements of Harmony fell to the floor in a circle. The moment they did, a bright light flared from their center.
The light faded. Blinking away the sting from her eyes, Twilight looked back at the Elements. A sixth stone sphere sat in the midst of the other five, one about twice the volume of the others. Emblazoned upon it was the six-pointed star any student of magic would recognize.
“Destiny likes to pull at our strings in more ways than just our cutie marks.”
For a moment, Twilight glanced back at her own with a frown. It was a six-pointed star with five smaller stars encircling it, much like how there were five elements surrounding the larger sixth.
“You stand at a crossroads, Twilight Sparkle. This will be the biggest decision of your life.”
Nightmare Moon arose from her throne. Her hoofsteps echoed steadily as she approached, stopping just in front of the elements on her side of the room.
“Will you pursue this?” Nightmare Moon gestured at what must be the Element of Friendship with a hoof. She held it suspended just over the sphere as if inviting Twilight to ask her to roll the Element across the far too small distance between them. “Do you wish to become a social butterfly? Do you wish to be a pony who drops her books for a party or a pony who delays her latest project in favor of tea and company?”
Twilight clamped down on her immediate response. It was what Princess Celestia had wanted for her. She could even admit it might, perhaps, possibly be the case that she should get out more on holidays. And if her suspicions about her cutie mark were on point, it was her fate, what she was always meant to do.
But it would taste a lie to say it was what Twilight wanted.
“That…doesn’t sound like me.”
“No, it does not.”
Twilight felt dirty inside at Nightmare Moon agreeing with her, much less at rejecting her destiny and indirectly disobeying Princess Celestia’s wishes.
“Tell me, in my absence, what would you wish to be?”
Far too many times Twilight had asked herself that question. There were simply too many things that held her interest and too many books to read. And always there was that foolish dream she had of being a princess, of being an alicorn just like Princess Celestia and Cadance.
“A researcher,” Twilight mumbled. It was the best viable choice, in her opinion.
“I believe that is a poor decision.”
A poor decision? “And what would you have me do?” Twilight demanded.
“Nothing in particular, my little charity case.”
Nightmare Moon was lying again. She was still after something. Twilight knew it.
“I merely wish to point out the effort hardly seems worth your while. A thousand years behind the times, and I learned enough in two seasons–” Nightmare Moon actually rolled her eyes at Twilight’s disbelieving glare. “–to best my sister. Even should I have had a decade to practice, does that not sound strange? A thousand years of progress forgone? I should be a barbarian.”
“Perhaps culturally,” Nightmare Moon allowed. “Have you ever heard of the Crystal Empire? King Sombra?”
History was not Twilight’s strongest subject, but she still shook her head. Surely Nightmare Moon would inform her. “So what?”
“My sister and I together removed them from the map. And yet a train still runs through their lands in the Frozen North a thousand years later.”
“That line goes to Rainbow Falls!” Twilight protested. Not that she understood the point Nightmare Moon was trying to make.
“After detouring hundreds of leagues through a snow-covered wasteland?”
Twilight had nothing to counter that.
“The train is an ancient device, Twilight. Why is it still in use?”
It was a tautology, but Twilight said, “Because it’s useful. Not everypony can fly.”
“True enough. Yet in a thousand years, surely somepony would have invented something more useful.”
Surely that was an unfair argument. Doors were older than civilization, and nopony would suggest that doors were antiquated.
“Who was the last great historical figure in magic?”
Twilight automatically answered, “Star Swirl the Bearded.”
“He was born before me.”
“That doesn’t mean–” Twilight started to protest.
“Do you know of the Alicorn Amulet?”
“In passing, but–”
“It is as dangerous today as it was when King Sombra created it ages ago.”
Twilight stomped her hoof. “Spears are no less pointy either!”
“Ha! Spears! They were relics when I was a filly, utterly harmless to a unicorn and, in the hooves of an earth pony, worthless against a pegasus. Spears were the weapons of the ancients when magic was barely more than supernatural powers and bizarre rituals.
“And still I see earth ponies harvesting and farming with their own hooves. Unicorns have the magic to make their lives easier with enchantments, if only they were to apply it properly.”
Nightmare Moon was not finished. “And now, a thousand years later when ponies have leisure time in their prosperity and their foals run around playing all day, how much education does a typical pony receive?”
“Primary and” – Twilight’s breath hitched – “training in their special talent.” She knew now where Nightmare Moon intended to take this argument.
“And you wonder why I say that research is not worth your time? It is an esoteric field, one not fit for civilized society.”
“That’s not true!” Twilight screamed.
“It is!” Nightmare Moon firmly stated. She paused for a moment, then added, “Unless something changes.”
For a moment, Twilight almost let herself do the unthinkable: agree wholeheartedly with Nightmare Moon.
“Equestria is at peace,” Nightmare Moon continued. “Centuries of peace is impressive. Equestria is fat and rich. It is open and accepting in ways it never was a thousand years ago. Although it is still far from perfect, what more could anypony ask for?”
Nightmare Moon’s magic pulled Twilight’s gaze up from the floor to stare directly into her eyes and held her there.
“But you are dead intellectually. History is forgotten and fragmented, if not outright edited. Where are the changelings? What happened to the Crystal Princess? Who is Lord Tirek and his sworn brother Prince Scorpan? What of the Pony of Shadows? Grogar? What happened in the Discordian Era? Where is your other diarch, Princess Luna? Who is the Mare in the Moon?
“Electricity and magnetism is new, I admit, but what do you use it for? The occasional light when no unicorns are around to maintain magical ones? The compass is not new, only more studied.
“Your knowledge of medicine and healing is little better. The only truly great invention I have seen is the x-ray, yet that is but one idea in what should be millions.
“And your magic – ha! The fact that Star Swirl’s work is still relevant is a joke. You would spend your entire life amounting to–”
“Stop!” Twilight cried. “Please. Please stop.”
And surprisingly, Nightmare Moon did. Surely it was not the tears – Twilight could never bring herself to believe Nightmare Moon cared – yet she did stop.
Without the righteous thunder of her earlier words, Nightmare Moon said, “You live in a golden dark age, Twilight. You could choose to embody friendship, to perhaps even strike me down, but you will have to live with that decision forever. You would, in essence, embody the status quo: peace, friendship, and harmony.”
Nightmare Moon finally let her magic disperse, and Twilight slumped to the ground without the support.
“Now tell me, Twilight Sparkle” – Nightmare Moon turned to face away as if Twilight would believe that made her vulnerable – “in my absence, what would you wish to be?”
“I – I don’t – I don’t know.” Twilight’s voice was weak, uneven. What could she even do alone? What if Princess Celestia – and she could barely believe she was thinking it – would do nothing about this?
“Then I ask you another question. What do you wish to be in my presence?”
This – this was the trap. Twilight hated herself for it, but Nightmare Moon had her. And really, what other option had she possessed to begin with? Nightmare Moon had railroaded this entire conversation to this point.
“I’m not important,” Twilight mumbled, defeated, her head hung low. Whatever Princess Celestia saw in her, there had to be a thousand other ponies with equal talent. More, even. The princess had, after all, entrusted the future to her, and she’d failed miserably. Surely there was even somepony else to bear the Element of Friendship.
Nightmare Moon turned back around in Twilight’s peripheral vision. No doubt she was smiling from ear to ear.
“Twilight Sparkle wields some clout, being both famous and almost fanatically devoted to my sister. Yet she is nothing I cannot live without.”
Without warning, Twilight’s left foreleg lit up in the cyan glow of Nightmare Moon’s magic. She stared at it for an instant before panicking. She flailed the leg around to no effect as she slowly lost all feeling in it. Within seconds, it refused to even respond to commands.
“What are you doing?” Twilight screamed, eyes wide.
“Providing extraordinary evidence for an extraordinary claim,” was Nightmare Moon’s calm reply.
Without another word, Nightmare Moon cast one last spell, one Twilight recognized. She tried to counter the ordinary kitchen-grade cutting spell, but like every other time she’d tried, Nightmare Moon countered her magic before it even took shape.
And then the deed was done. Twilight stared at her severed leg on the floor, unable to bear looking at the stump left behind where Nightmare Moon had detached it.
And yet the numbness was fading. There would be no denying reality. Even in her shock, Twilight braced herself for the coming agony.
Any moment now.
Perplexed and somewhat morbidly curious, Twilight raised her view from the floor to where her leg was supposed to be gone – supposed to be, but was not.
“W-w-what’s going on?” Twilight watched transfixed with equal parts horror and now scientific curiosity as her stump knit itself back together. In what was, Twilight swore, at most ten seconds, her leg was back and perfectly functional.
Or she had a new one, at least. There was still a dismembered limb on the floor right in front of her. And while that was fascinating, there were other things on Twilight’s mind right now.
“I don’t understand! What is this? What did you do? What happened? How did this happen?”
Nightmare Moon cast a silencing spell on Twilight for the second time that night and waited until she petered out.
“What did you do?” Twilight asked, if not calmly, then at least evenly enough that Nightmare Moon deigned to answer.
“I cut off your leg.”
“What else?” Twilight hissed.
Nightmare Moon clearly took some sadistic glee in the situation. She smiled as she said, “You tell me. What cannot be physically killed, regenerates, and is magically powerful?”
Glaring back at the patronizing mare, Twilight replied, “Alicorns.”
Nightmare Moon arched an eyebrow.
It took a second before Twilight tripped over her own thoughts, her answer and its implications catching up to her.
“An alicorn filly in your case,” Nightmare Moon said. “You’re such a cute, adorable little thing.”
At first, Twilight had no idea how to respond to that. But then Nightmare Moon tried to scratch her beneath her muzzle, cooing, “Coochy coo,” as if Twilight were a newborn foal. She batted the hoof away with her new leg and glared.
And yet Twilight’s heart was not in it. Her mind was still trying to process everything and struggling to cope. Being told she was an alicorn – filly or otherwise – was the last straw before it got up and left her to her own devices.
“So, Princess Twilight, what do you wish to be?”
It was too much to make a decision – to make any decision right now. Twilight needed time to think and regroup.
“If you do not want to be the Princess of Friendship, then what will you be? If you do not like this world, what will you do to change it? Who will you be to change it?”
“Come now, Twilight,” Nightmare Moon said again. Twilight was really starting to hate that. “I should think the choice is obvious for you. You can be whoever you wish. You can go by any name or title. But an alicorn’s essential nature is unchanging. Deep down in your heart, what are you? You are the Alicorn of…”
And the truth was Twilight did know exactly what word she wanted to finish that sentence with. It would be so easy. It would be so wonderful. All she had to do was fly out on her own away from the safety of Princess Celestia’s wings. With enough luck and determination, she could even save Princess Celestia from her banishment.
And then what? the little voice of doubt asked. What will she do when she sees what you’ve done with her Equestria?
But Princess Celestia was not like that. No matter what Nightmare Moon said, Twilight knew Princess Celestia would understand and be supportive, maybe even thrilled. None of this could be her fault. No one pony could possibly wield that much influence and power. And Equestria was in a golden age, even if it was also in a dark age. Ponies were happier and better off than ever.
The problem was Nightmare Moon. She was going to freeze the world.
Except she alluded to ‘discussing’ eternal night. And she was smart. That much was clear. Twilight would never ever underestimate Nightmare Moon’s intelligence ever again, not after tonight. She would never destroy the nation she wanted to rule. That was a contradiction in terms.
No, Equestria would endure with or without Nightmare Moon at the mantle. So long it was there, Princess Celestia would have something to come back to. The short, easy victory through the Elements of Harmony was no longer an option. Twilight knew she would have to be in this for the long haul now. Whatever plan she came up with for victory, she had to be one-hundred percent absolutely sure it would work.
Twilight doubted she would ever get a third chance.
“Magic,” Twilight finally replied, whispering the word at first. “I’m the Alicorn of Magic.”
Twilight’s head rose from staring at the floor in thought, and what her eyes found was far from what she expected.
In the place of Nightmare Moon stood a dark blue mare perhaps two-thirds as tall. Her mane still flowed in an æthereal wind, but the stars in it were muted now, not blazing lights. The draconic pupils were gone, and her teeth were flat instead of razors. She looked every bit a proper, regal alicorn.
Twilight noticed this new mare’s cutie mark was the same as Nightmare Moon’s.
“Very well then, Princess Twilight, Alicorn of Magic. My name is Princess Luna, Alicorn of the Night, Diarch of Equestria, Shepherdess of Dreams. As my sister has seen fit to erase me from history, our first task is to defeat Nightmare Moon and end this eternal night.”
And there was the confirmation of what Twilight had expected. Everything that had happened in Ponyville had been an act. The madness had been feigned. The threats, while real enough, were meant to be defeated. Eternal night was a sham. This Princess Luna was the villain and the ‘hero’.
Princess Luna – no, Luna was not her princess – held out a hoof.
“Rise, Twilight, and let us remake this world in our own image.”
Twilight gulped. There was no going back if she took that hoof. She could refuse. Luna would likely keep her alive for ‘reeducating’, but eventually Twilight would be left alone long enough to escape. She was immortal, after all.
But that would hardly help anypony. Even being a nominal ally would let Twilight influence Luna’s rule. As a prisoner or a fugitive, she would be worthless, unable to do anything whatsoever. Not to mention that comment about her ‘good behavior’ determining Cadance’s fate. How seriously was she meant to take a threat Luna had made as Nightmare Moon?
And deep down, as much as she hated herself for it, Twilight agreed with Luna. Science had stagnated under Princess Celestia’s rule for a thousand years. Equestria needed to change. If it had to endure a nightmare for some time to bring that about…well, there were worse ways it could happen.
Princess Twilight hoped Princess Celestia would understand.