It was midnight, but the stars shone in vain, hidden by clouds of noxious, hissing gas. The world beneath them trembled, wrenching haphazardly as a low rumble filled the air. A field of scorched, shattered stone stretched for a mile in all directions, where it met the near-vertical walls of the caldera. In its center, a broken-edged pool of lava spat and boiled. Upon the lava floated a hexagonal raft of black stone.
The movements of the slick basalt made any purchase rare and tenuous, but the pony who stood in its center was unhindered: four silver-clad hooves made constant contact against the convulsing block of stone. Her wings were kept folded about her, unnecessary for balance so long as she maintained her stance. Around her blue-grey countenance flowed a shimmering aura of sparkling purples, blues and white. Her eyes and mane glowed with the eldritch force she controlled, and her horn emitted coruscating sparks of silver and blue.
Approaching her, struggling to keep his step, a small, almost nondescript unicorn staggered and slid across the treacherous surface. Blood caked his black mane, and open wounds lay ragged across his dun coat. He sighed, channeled his power once more, and spoke into the spell.
“Listen. I can help you,” he pleaded, his voice amplified against the din. “Celestia can help you. We just want you back. How you we-” His plea was interrupted by an explosion of stone at his feet, knocking him to the edge of the raft.
The alicorn roared, “BACK? You mean MEEK! Do THIS!” Sweeping her horn through the air, she threw him to the other edge of the raft. “Do THAT!” She picked him up again, and spun him like a top. “You’re such a good FILLY!” She reared back on her hind legs, and spread her wings. A sphere of sparking energy formed far above the snared stallion. He hurried to cast a counter-spell. “I. WON’T. BE. IGNORED!” She dropped to all fours, and the blow fell. A pale shield flickered into existence, only to be annihilated by the blast.
The raft rocked violently, groaning in protestation as the assault rippled through the stone, and it began to crack. The stallion lay motionless, his nostrils running with blood, frothing as his lungs labored for breath. Several shards of stone pierced him, holding him fast. She strode towards his prison, and stood over him. A smile crept across her face, then, unmatched by her vacant, glowing eyes. Her voice grew cold. “You always did say the best way to learn was by doing, didn’t you, Chancellor?”
“What?” He could not move to see her. “Yes, I did, your Highness, but-”
“Then it’s time to learn,” she interrupted. With barely an effort, the alicorn spun his head around, a tearing noise accompanying her work. “That’s better,” she said into the lifeless eyes that stared through her. “After all, you should look at the person with whom you speak.”
She felt a change overtake her. A purpose. She shimmered a moment, and then was gone. Only the chancellor’s body remained, adrift atop a molten sea.
The library was aflame, its staff and patrons alike using spell and storm to try to control the blaze. Nearby, a broken spire smoked, its stones embedded in the countryside. The night was beginning to fade, but the moon still held reign above.
In a hidden courtyard, a white alicorn was oblivious to it all. She struggled silently with a monumental task. Staring at the horizon, she willed the sun to rise. Begged it. Pleaded with it.
Something spoke in the darkness. “Is my sister having trouble?”
Celestia staggered, forgetting her spell for a moment. No one but Luna should be able to approach her, here. The voice sounded like her sister, but... different. Darker. Treacherous. She glanced about, looking for the one who spoke.
“Above you, dearest. Really, now, did you forget what those wings were for, after all those chariot rides?” The figure that appeared before her, landing in the courtyard, was most definitely not her sister.
She was taller, thin, and clad in silver-blue armor. Her mane and tail flowed as Celestia’s own, but took the form of a blue mist studded with stars. The Sun Princess stared a moment, and then demanded, “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“Why, don’t you recognize me, Celly?” Her voice was a serpent, lying in wait. “It’s your beloved sister.” Her words hardened, daggers in flight. “Or did you forget about me too?” The intruder’s mane and horn flared a brilliant white, and Celestia found herself against the columns lining the wall of the palace.
“How dare you strike me?” She stood, and flared her wings wide, channeling her own abilities outward. “And what have you done with Luna?” She channeled a restraining spell: a sphere meant to snare and capture. The intruder laughed, each pitched note acid on Celestia’s ears. From within the crystalline bubble, her horn flared again, and she blinked to her sister’s side.
The Sun Princess recoiled, and reared. The intruder circled, but Celestia turned to keep an eye on her. “Sister, sister,” she chided. “You showed me how to escape that trick eons ago. I’ve always been an apt pupil.” She sneered. “But now you can learn from me!” She spun on her forelegs and delivered a blow to the princess’ chest, staggering her, dropping her to her knees.
“Luna?” she gasped. “Is that really you? What happened to you? What have you done?”
“Done? Why nothing, dear sister. Not yet, at least. I simply want your ponies... our ponies... to see my wonderful night.” Celestia struggled to her hooves, and found herself face to face with the creature with her sister’s voice. Their eyes locked, and Celestia could not look away.
A single purple-grey cloud hung low in the sky: a bruise against the amber sunset. The arc of the sun sank below the horizon, caressing every waking creature with its last golden rays, and a promise of tomorrow. A final flash of green took the world into an indigo twilight.
The moon had yet to rise. Still, the stars appeared, one at a time, preparing the night sky for their Lady’s charge.
Timidly, as in every night before, the creatures of the dusk and gloom began to stir, and stretch, and sing. Slow to begin in the cool spring air, the cacophony rose, filling the shadows with life. But it was not to last.
Beneath the croaks, calls, and chirps there began a low rumble, a quaking, and then a mighty roar that obliterated all noise before it. The forest thrashed violently, the ground tore asunder, and the lakes overflowed their banks. Its intensity built, its power raged, and when the very trees began to split...
The forest cowered, waiting for the next blow. It came in the form of a spark, somewhere in the center of the wood, in a palace of stone, where there lived two sisters.
The spark flickered, and fell, fading, from the horn of the Night Mare. Beneath her, restrained by ancient magic, Celestia watched in horror as the faintest wisp of eldritch power drifted to her horn, and was absorbed.
The world vanished in pure light. A torrent of energy, wild and savage, erupted from the captive alicorn, blasting away the walls of the palace, and vaporizing every living thing for miles - plant, animal, and pony - in an instant.
Standing in the center of the sun’s rage, what was once Luna channeled her sister’s power into herself. The radiant energy was harnessed, and shaped, slowly, into a blinding column. It tore through the sky, and into the waiting night. The days-long battle was over.
The Moon Princess smiled. She did not need her sister any longer. Taking the tiniest fragment of the sun’s power, she drove the unconscious alicorn into the bedrock below. Setting to work, she channeled again, focusing the myriad streams of energy into an ever-intricate net that she cast across the sky. The energy pooled there for the slightest of moments, then coursed for western horizon.
Something changed, then, and brought with it a strange sensation: a sound that was not heard, a pain which could not be felt, a loss that could not be understood. The sun, buried past the horizon, was chained in place. Triumphantly, Nightmare Moon bellowed her victory, and set the moon in its rightful place at the apex of the sky.
It had been some time since the sun last shone; Equestria was buried beneath a blanket of snow and ice. The realm was dying, as were its denizens. There had been no harvest that year - the sun had vanished in spring - and the larders were almost bare. In the wilderness, countless creatures had set in to hibernate without their winter stores, and trees stood barren.
The snowfall served its new mistress well. Coating every surface in sparkling white, the moon’s light was reflected throughout Equestria, and Nightmare Moon could easily pick out every pony who dared to move through her world. Not that she had much to worry about. Her sister had been missing since that fateful day, months ago. She chuckled to herself; that word had ceased to hold any meaning.
The realm was secure. All the land was still, and silent, reverent beneath her starry canvas.
She watched the little ponies abandon their homes, seeking out the ancient comforts of cave and bonfire. Entire towns had vanished into mountain and burrow, the buildings torn down to provide fuel. Acres of farmland, unable to bear fruit, saw their way into the flames. Their dreams of a future were a caustic fume, a haze that burned the lungs and stung the eyes. She marveled at the devastation.
She never imagined her victory could be so complete. One by one, she saw the lights go out behind the ponies’ eyes. With a brooding satisfaction, she watched as they would walk out into the snow, unwilling to go on, and lay down to die. Each one became its own grave marker. The earth was too hard to dig, and the lack of weather - the factories had fallen some time ago - preserved each abandoned corpse in the cold and the dark.
Oh, she could end them all, she mused, but it was so much more satisfying to watch them lose hope. Still, there were holdouts. Some ponies mined deep into the mountains, seeking heat and safety. Others tried to coax what they could out of the torchlight and weak soil within the caves. It wouldn’t be enough, but they worked on, tirelessly.
Even across the frozen wilderness, some ponies trudged, wrapped deeply in protective clothing, or glowing with warming magic. They would tear down houses, or raid cellars, and in some cases, bring snowbound ponies back with them to the nearest warmth. Even in the face of all this, the ponies would sacrifice themselves to save one another. And for what? They were all doomed.
Her mood suddenly dark, Nightmare Moon stretched out her wings and soared into the night. A new constellation was in order, she thought. That would take her mind off the waiting. And so, she set to work.
She was still absorbed in her craft when five ponies, carrying a litter between them, set out from a cavern near the blasted lands, and towards her old home. She never saw them traverse the tundra, or what it was they carried.
The Moon Princess ducked behind a broken column, her eyes wild, her chest heaving. Such ferocity, such power! She was unprepared, and unpracticed. Where had her sister come from? Where had she been hiding? As if to answer, the top half of the column vanished in a gout of flame. No time to think. Not now.
She gathered her wits and teleported to another vantage point, appearing on a rocky outcrop that was familiar to her. She she had spent many nights here, when she was younger, perfecting her work. She could see her sister, now: bloodied but unbowed. Five smaller ponies stood around her in a ring, each gazing into the night, ready for whatever came.
Of course her sister would have loyalists. Of course she would surround herself with mewling sycophants, even now. The fear in her belly churned into a dark fury. Her fatigue and doubt were washed away in a flood of raw hate. She leapt into the night sky, screaming with frustration.
“CELESTIA,” she roared, her great wings unfurling as she fell from the precipice. “We end this NOW!” She dove for the Sun Princess, for her sister, everything she hated, and everything she loved. Power coursed through her. A lance of night poured from her horn, equaled only by the tears streaming down her face. She knew what she was about to do, but she could not watch.
She never reached her sister. Opening her eyes, she stared in wonder. Celestia stood, regal and proud, as radiant as her beloved sun. Around her, the five ponies floated, suspended in the frozen night air. They were casting a spell - that much she could see - but the type of magic was alien to her. Unicorns, pegasi, and an earth pony - earth pony! - each glowed with a distinct hue, lending their light to her sister, who combined them into a pure white sphere: a sphere which now held her aloft.
Wait! Those colors! The Elements! Her sister had somehow found the Elements!
Suspended as she was, she could see now the regret in her sister’s eyes, the tears that welled at their corners. Her sister... pitied her? Pounding against her prison’s walls, she spat at Celestia, and thrashed, unleashing wave after wave of power against the silvery barrier. An hour she raged, then two, all the while Celestia watched her with sad eyes. Finally, she collapsed, unable to fight any longer, panting.
She could hear a voice through the bubble. “...ry, my friends. I love you, dearly, but I must.” Celestia turned to face her sister. “And I’m so very sorry, my dear Luna.”
The white mare’s brilliance redoubled. A single lance of light shot from her outstretched horn, through the sphere, and into the sky, connecting the earth, the sisters, and the moon. Whatever arcane power she had left she poured into that spell, holding on, no matter how her horn charred, nor how her legs buckled.
As soon as it had begun, it was over. The light flickered, and faded, and the Night Mare found herself gazing upon Equestria from an unimaginable distance. It was quiet here, wherever she was, and so cold. So very, very cold.
The Mare in the Moon began another night’s journey across the void. She was almost a full moon again, for which she was thankful. Feeling the sun on her face was the only real pleasure she had been able to find, all these years in captivity.
Despite her prison, she had not been idle. Every day, while the sun held reign, she would speak with the hidden stars. Every night, as they shone anew, they would move, almost imperceptibly, closer to the mighty arc she paced out against the sky. They would aid her escape, she knew, and soon. One more night. One night to wait, and rise... and she would finally be free.
She would have a battle on her hooves. While she had the charge of the night gallery, her sister was no foal, and kept close eye on her work. She would be expected. She would have to be prepared.
But how? Her prison kept her fast, locked away in a realm that was the moon, and yet not. Still, she was patient, and even a thousand years could be borne if one kept her mind active.
Those ponies had given their lives, pouring themselves selflessly into the magic of her incarceration. That point she had dwelled upon, all these centuries. She knew only three things about it.
First, each pony was intrinsically involved. Each was a specific part of the spell, and could not be replaced by another. The magic that flowed through each pony was linked to it, part of their life. This was new. When she had battled Discord, alongside her sister, the Elements were tools, focus-points for their magic. Now, it seemed they were something more: A living force, perhaps?
This, she reasoned, could be hindered simply by dividing any force against her. She was the Mistress of the Night, after all, and dreams were her playthings. It would be a small thing to turn the desires of those who opposed her into a wedge, and drive apart any approaching threat.
Second, not one of them survived. Once she had regained her bearings that night, she watched her sister, now alone, lying exhausted in the blasted ruins of their old palace. All that remained on that scorched, stony plain were the Elements themselves, now in the form of crystalline spheres. Her sister had gathered these, and placed them in the only building that still had a roof, the old observatory.
There was a slight concern here. The land had regrown since then, wild and dark, unlike the other forests of Equestria. She did not know if the crystals remained within the ruins. Still, she would find them, and prevent whatever power they held from being used against her.
Finally, her sister controlled the spell. The ponies gave her the power, but she wove it, enhanced it, and tempered it with her own might.
She acknowledged this might not be necessary. It had been a new spell, and perhaps her sister was being cautious. Celestia preferred to plan out contingencies. But it gave her an idea to further dampen any resistance... and treat her sister to a little fair play. She began to laugh.
Oh, yes. It would be a glorious Summer Sun Celebration, indeed.
It had been going so well.
Her abduction of Celestia went off without a hitch. Surprisingly, she had not lifted a hoof in her own defense. Instead, she stood there, staring, crying at a memory. Pathetic. Sending her to her beloved sun took far less energy than Nightmare Moon had anticipated, and she felt ready to face the rest of her sister’s subjects - her subjects now - and restore herself to the throne.
But there was a problem. There was always a problem. One of the ponies of that backwater village knew who she was, and what she was after. A thousand years, and someone still remembered the tale. While she was impressed, it put a kink in her plans, and she was forced to move up her timeline.
She needed to secure the Elements. Where were they? She searched for the ruins, but was hampered by the overgrowth. All the while, she was distracted by the little upstart and her friends. That, at least, she had planned for. A whisper here, a change there, and she erected barriers to their passage throughout the wood.
Still, they persevered, and closed the distance with alarming haste. Could the unicorn know about them? Did she know how to use them? The Night Mare had to reach them first.
She heard voices ahead. Had they entered the ruins before her? She heard the word ‘harmony’, and something missing. That little purple unicorn was speaking.
“...back, I don’t know what will happen.”
No! They had been found! She had to act quickly. Flying into the room, she cast a spell about the Elements, and swept them away... but not before the interloper got tangled in the spell.
She regained her bearings, and found the crystals at her feet. The stowaway had been thrown across the room, and laid motionless against a shattered pillar. Good. Turning to the crystal spheres, she... wait. The unicorn was stirring, staggering to her feet. Nightmare Moon let her watch. After all, a new world would be made permanent here, and someone would have to tell the st-
What was this? The brat was challenging her. Her! In a duel! Was she mad? Still, a horn to the face would be an excellent lesson for her friends. She charged, and lowered her horn, and...
Tricked! She had been tricked! By that slip of a filly! She could not be allowed to use the crystals. She... yes. It might work. It had to work. Blinking across the room, she raised her hooves, and shattered the stones like so much spun glass.
She smiled darkly at her opponent, and decided - wait. Voices down the hall. Her friends were coming. No matter; six would be dispatched as easily as one. Channeling her power once more, she approached. This would end here, and now.
Her dreams were better now, if fleeting.
Every morning, she would lay down to rest. Every morning, before sleep took her, there was that momentary surge of fear: fear that when she woke, if she woke, she would be...
Well, it hadn’t happened. Not yet. Still, she was wary. Everyone had been so warm, so cheerful at her return. That was the wrong word. Her arrival. This world did not know her; she would need to begin anew.
Rumors were wild, of course, as they often were: Celestia battled to free her from the clutches of a madmare. Celestia was defeated before a ragtag group of fillies intervened. She, herself, had appeared in Equestria’s moment of need - from the moon! - and battled the Night Mare. All with a grain of truth, of course. Some grains were more painful than others.
Still, this world was new to her. A whole realm, in the literal sense, of possibility. She spent so long on that lonely island, and yet she could remember only fleeting glimpses of her time there. It was a small mercy.
Her sister trusted her, that much was sure. Her sister loved her, even if she, at times, felt unworthy of her love. And... she thought these ponies might love her too. But first, she had love herself. To do that, she would have to remember who she was.
It would be difficult. That, too, was the wrong word. Agonizing. Soul-crushing. But it had to be done. She was sure that she had done great wrongs, in her state. Great evils. While this world did not remember, she would have to, if only to prevent history from repeating.
That evening, before her sister settled in for bed, they had spoken - at length - about how best to tap into her past, and how to begin her future. Celestia had given her several good ideas, but the last was most interesting. She had suggested a visit to Ponyville.
Her sister’s suggestion made sense. After all, without the ponies who lived there, she would not be back to her old self. She owed them her thanks, at the very least, and her apologies for her actions as Nightmare Moon. The same six ponies had also been instrumental in Discord’s second banishment. Finally, Nightmare Night was fast approaching. What better opportunity was there to improve the image of that distasteful holiday?
It was settled, then. She would confirm her plans with her sister at dawn, and set off for Ponyville after moonrise the next evening.
She would have to seek out the mayor, of course. It was only proper. Before then, she would need a costume, as would her charioteers. Her crown and regalia would need to be polished, her chariot examined, and a thousand smaller things. There was much work to be done.
She stood, retrieved writing supplies from her nearby desk, and focused her magic for the exacting task. Humming a quiet lullaby into the silent night, she began writing orders for ponies throughout the palace.
For the first time in ages, she held hope for a happier future.