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The Night that Never Ended p18

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The captain beat her wings rhythmically, flying nearly blindly. Barely a dozen stars kept the night alive, and years of flying instinct guided her more than sight. The crisp chill of the air told her that she was well above the treeline, and her natural sense of direction told her that she was flying northeast, dead on course to arrive at the castle. Though she told herself to hurry, her wings beat at a steady pace, lulling her body into autopilot as her mind wandered.

For the hundredth time that night, a snapshot flared up before her mind. She was in the ancient ruins again, Twilight Sparkle in front of her. The stone beneath her hooves was even colder than the air around her, but Twilight wasn't shivering as she glared up at Nightmare Moon, the Elements of Harmony floating around her and her friends.

The captain remembered Nightmare Moon's face of assurance. A smirk had been permanently etched on her features from the moment the ponies found her, and even now, with the elements before them, Nightmare Moon looked as if she didn't take them seriously.

Then came the moment that the captain couldn't stop thinking about. Twilight's element appeared and vanished, and the unicorn took a step back. The captain could only imagine her face of brief confusion. A moment later, she would be dead, but the scene ended there. A single snapshot of Twilight, not sure what to think, and the ever smirking Nightmare Moon leering up before her.

The captain knew it had never happened, but she could just imagine Nightmare Moon winking at her. "Thank you," she would have said, "for making this all possible."

The captain shook her head, nearly rolling herself out of the sky as she caught her balance. Resuming her flight towards Canterlot, she looked towards the horizon as another star vanished.

Trixie will start her invasion soon, she thought to herself. Those foals will die. Her wings beat on, her eyes glaring straight ahead.I don't care, she answered the unspoken accusation, What are they to me? They were nothing before they killed Spitfire, and now they're even less.

Twilight's face flashed before the captain, but her heart stood firm. She knew she didn't actually care about Twilight, she was just some filly. But to see her come back, to actually have a conversation with her… Twilight was dead, and with her that whole future for Equestria. That was something the captain had long since accepted and made peace with. So why did that stupid unicorn have to come back?

The captain shook her head again, careful this time not to upset her balance. Focus, she scolded herself, I need to get back to the castle. I need to warn Nightmare Moon about Trixie's lies.

She nearly dropped from the air as the realization hit her. Why was she already bent on foiling Trixie?Because I hate her… and she might hurt Nightmare Moon… and…

The answer loomed up before her, overshadowing any other reason she could give. She hated to admit it, but denying it wasn't even fooling herself anymore. And because I don't want her to destroy New Ponyville.

Fine! What of it? I don't want there to be needless death, sue me. She crossed her hooves across her chest as she flew, sulking to herself midair. I'm just a nice pony. I don't feel guilty about ruining the world.

The beat of her wings kept the silence at bay as her last thought echoed around her head. She looked around for a distraction, but the empty sky around her offered no solace. Alright, fine, maybe I do feel a little guilty. Maybe I do kind of wish I could help them, even if they did kill Spitfire. She sighed as she uncrossed her hooves, the anger flowing out of her. it's not like they started it, to be fair. I burned down Ponyville, and then I brought her with me into that hellhole. I should have died, I should have been hated, not her.

The captain's wings beat on, but the floodgates to her guilt had been opened. Though the air around her was nearly silent, her head was a whirlwind of burdens. I might as well of killed her, in the end. I killed Twilight, and Spitfire, and Ponyville, and everypony who has died since then. I killed the sun and I created Trixie and I did everything. It's all my fault.

The captain felt the weight in her chest grow with every word, her breath coming slower and slower. She had expected herself to cry, or scream at herself, but nothing came. All she heard was the sound of her wings, beating in the void, flying her back towards the castle and away from everything.

For what felt like days, but couldn't have been more than a few minutes, she flew in silence. It doesn't matter, she finally told herself. It was reflexive at first, but she found herself latching onto it more and more with each silent second. It doesn't matter. Nightmare Moon is my friend now, not them. She's the only one I owe loyalty to.

In the captain's mind, Twilight was staring at her with annoyance. It was a moment before the captain realized that this was a memory, and not just another disjointed accusation. Twilight was covered in mud, a moment that captain hadn't thought about in months.

Rainbow Dash turned her gaze away from the strange unicorn in front of her, alighting on a nearby cloud. "I'm Twilight Sparkle," the mud covered filly on the ground stated, "and the princess sent me to check on the weather."

"Yea yea, that will be a snap." Rainbow Dash waved her hoof toward the voice below her, mind already roaming elsewhere. "I'll do it in a jiffy, just as soon as I'm done practicing."

"Practicing? For what?"

Dash rolled over, leaning over the edge of the cloud. "The Wonderbolts!" She exclaimed, pointing towards a nearby poster, the exact same edition she had in her room. "They're gonna perform at the celebration tomorrow," she continued as she flipped lazily backwards onto another cloud, "and I'm gonna show 'em my stuff."

"The Wonderbolts?" Twilight questioned. If Dash hadn't known any better, she'd have thought there was a hint of disbelief in that voice.

"Yup," she answered nonchalantly.

"The most talented fliers in all of Equestria?"

"That's them," Dash repeated. Was this egghead really not getting the picture?

"Pfft, please. They'd never accept a pegasus who can't even keep the sky clear for one measly day!"

Dash sat bolt upright, glaring and the smirking unicorn below her. "Hey, I could clear this sky in ten seconds flat," she stated simply.

The annoying unicorn beneath her lowered her brow. "Prove it," she challenged.

Oh, it is on!, she thought as she took off, kicking the cloud beneath her as she launched up. Wings powering her through the sky, she rocketed from cloud to cloud, letting the wind behind her push and pull at the disheveled unicorn. Well within her boasted time, she landed on a small bridge in front of Twilight.

"What did I say?" she rubbed her victory in, "Ten, seconds, flat." She smiled as she flicked her hair back, savoring the look on Twilight's face. "I'd never leave Ponyville hangin'!"

The captain's gut twisted and turned, her mind finally remembering what her subconscious had never forgotten. She captain dropped from the sky, her form falling silently as the wind ripped past her ears. Any pretense of calmness was gone as she built up speed, her wings finally shooting out from her side. She held her head up as the air pushed against them, letting the movement pull her out of her dive. With the extra momentum and the now frantic beating of her wings, she raced towards Canterlot Castle. It was nearly dawn, and that meant there was only one place Nightmare Moon could be.

_________________________

"Alright big brother, let's hear it."

The sounds of frantic preparations that engulfed the guardhouse were muffled by the walls of Big Mac's office, and the red giant himself leaned over his desk on which a map had hastily been placed and pinned. The drawing on it lacked detail, but was obviously a bird's eye view of New Ponyville's cavern.

Big Mac remained silent for a  moment, ignoring both mares in front of him. He knew his sister would know better than to interrupt his thoughts, but-

"Well, Guard Leader?"

Flashing Rarity a glance of annoyance, Big Mac returned to his studying of the map. After a moment, he lifted a hoof and let it fall onto the table, pointing at the the very eastern edge. "This is their only entrance," he began slowly, "and that's our biggest advantage. The stone door into Everfree can't be opened from the outside at all, and after your two friends left we smashed the pulley system. Still, it's just stone, and no telling how long that will stop unicorn magic."

Big Mac glanced at Rarity again, this time with a raised eyebrow. Rarity shook her head, confirming his fears. "Then we got this narrow stretch of tunnel here-" he dragged his hoof across the map a few inches, ending where the main cavern began, "-up to here."

"So what defenses do we have in place for that tunnel, brother?"

Big Mac shrugged without moving his view from the map. "Nothing."

The silence that followed finally prompted Big Mac to look at the mares again, and he found them looking at each other worriedly. Big Mac waited until Applejack turned back to him before answering the unasked question. "It can fit three, maybe four ponies if they stand side by side, which makes it just too wide to barricade. Our ponies don't have the weapons or, more importantly, protection to try and go hoof-to-hoof with them there. Even if we took down one Royal Guard for every stallion we lost, we have no idea what their numbers are."

"Then perhaps we could collapse the tunnel completely? Surely even their magic couldn't get through that." Rarity's eye's were filled with hope, and Big Mac almost paused before shutting her down.

"'Fraid not, miss mayor. We got nothin' to collapse them with, neither explosives nor unicorn magic. "

"Well then, where are we gonna fight 'em?"

Big Mac returned his gaze to the map, his hoof sweeping across the eastern end of the cavern. "Here," he stated simply.

Applejack scratched her head for a moment. "Err, I meant a little more specific than that."

The corner of Big Mac's mouth twitched in what could have been a smile. "The cavern ceiling has been riddled with stalactites since we got here. I'm sure you heard about that problem in the western part of town, miss Rarity?" Rarity nodded cautiously, trying to piece together the plan. "There ain't so many on this side of the cavern, but I'm putting all my pegasi up in the air anyway. They ain't any better than an earth pony behind the lines, and up in the air they'll be safer while giving us air support, of a sort."

Rarity brought a hoof to her mouth as she drew in breath. "You're going to have them buck the stalactites down?"

Big Mac nodded, his face remaining impassive. It was Applejack who stifled a chuckle. "We don't have to barricade the tunnel at all, then. They won't be able to advance with those rocks falling on them."

Big Mac nodded, but he was already looking at the map again. "My pegasi have already started clearing the ceiling above the bridge, I figured we could use the extra stone for our wall, and we don't want those things getting bucked down on top of us by mistake."

"I saw a whole bunch of ponies dragging things about by the bridge. Big red fella was ordering them around. Is that what they were doing, building a wall?"

Big Mac nodded, "That creek doesn't pose much of an obstacle if they want to ignore the bridge, but if we can pile up enough stone and wood along our bank we can at least make them think twice. Between slippery rocks, moving water, and us pelting them with whatever we've got, they are more likely to just try for the bridge."

Rarity craned her neck over the map, rubbing a hoof along her chin. "And we're constructing a wall along the bridge now, yes? Even with earth pony strength, that will only hold unicorn magic for so long, so what's our next line of defense?"

Big Mac lifted his gaze as he drew his hoof off the table, leaving the map for all to see. While the eastern quarter was marked up by a dozen notes and arrows, most of the cavern was blank, with only landmarks or notable terrain detailed. With his voice more ponderous than normal, Big Mac sighed. "If a third of my force wasn't bedridden in the hospital, we could barricade some buildings in town. If we had better arms and armor, we could go hoof-to-hoof with them in the streets and alleys, where we know the area. If we had more food, we could barricade the safehouse on the western edge of town and survive a siege for as long as we needed." Big Mac's gaze remained steady, but he took special care not to make it accusing. "But we have none of that. We have a wall, and one small tunnel in that safehouse that will need to evacuate an entire town one pony at a time."

For a few moments, nopony said anything. Rarity turned away from the map, her ears drooping on her head as she hid her face. It was Applejack who finally muttered, "Then all we can do is fight it out till we're slaughtered?"

"'Course not, sis." Big Mac looked at his sister with wide eyes, taken aback by her hopelessness. Big Mac stuck his chest out and raised his head, looking towards the wall of photographs to his right. "All but the old, sick, and young have volunteered to help with this fight. We have enough ponies to man these defenses fully, we just don't have any to spare. Unicorn magic may be awful strong, but nopony can build like earth ponies. Mark my words, that wall will hold long enough."

Applejack cocked her head, ears perking up slightly. "I hope so, Big Mac. We don't know how long Twilight's gonna be gone for."

Big Mac never laughed, but he did crack a smile at his sister's worry. Must be all the stress gettin' to her, can't say I blame her. "Hah, right, the unicorn. You mentioned something about her plan, but I'm not banking on some kid's legends and myths." Big Mac shook his head as if trying to shake such foolish notions loose, his smile lingering longer than normal. "But in all seriousness, our goose ain't cooked yet. As long as your resistance is out there, we might just stand a chance."

___________________________

"Hurry, Twilight! We don't want to get stuck out here!"

Twilight barely heard the voice from above her, her ears filled with the ragged sound of her breathing and the crunching of sticks beneath her hooves. For a moments, the only sound was rushing air as she leapt over a log before crashing down in the soft mush of the forest floor. Not missing a beat, she kept running as fast as she could through the growing darkness.

After the two mares had emerged from the cave of New Ponyville, even the rot-heavy stench of the swamp tasted like fresh air. The two had set off at a brisk pace through the woods, following the trail that had originally led them to the town from Zecora's hut.

It had taken only a few minutes before the trail became harder to follow, though not because of the undergrowth. The light from the moon had vanished, and as dawn approached even the stars were winking out one by one.

Twilight risked a glance overhead, straining to see through the skeletal tree branches to the horizon. Three, maybe four stars left? How many minutes did that leave before the forest was plunged into complete darkness? The lack of light that they were dealing with now was nothing compared-

Twilight's thoughts halted as her hoof caught on something that refused to give, not having time to reprimand herself for stargazing before her face slammed into the ground. She lay there for a moment, panting, before a rush of air and a pressure on either side of her announced another pony.

"Come on Twi, up, you,go! There, now come on, we have to keep moving!"

Without a word, Twilight forced one hoof in front of the other, careful to keep her eyes on the ground. Every shadow  could be a crack in the earth or an exposed root, and with the failing light there were plenty of shadows to look out for. She was running nearly blindly, both her and Rainbow Dash knew that, but if day descended while they were in the middle of Everfree forest, then there was no way they'd make it out before the next nightfall.

Twilight risked another glance at the horizon. Her heart sank as she realized that she could count the number of stars left on one hoof, which was really just a roundabout way of saying "one".

Her blood pumped as she returned her gaze to the ground, furiously dodging shadows. Though she found plenty to jump at, she noticed that her hooves were catching on fewer objects than they had, something her throbbing limbs were grateful for. She forced herself to slow down a bit, her mind insisting that there was something important in that detail. Head low to the ground, too tired to even lift it as she trotted, it hit her just as her friend in the skies confirmed it.

"Twilight, the trees are thinning out! I think we're almost there!"

A cough that could have almost been a laugh escaped Twilight throat, taking the edge off her fatigue. Forcing herself to a full gallop again, Twilight grit her teeth. They had done it, albeit barely. They had gotten through the entire-

A tiny flash appeared on the horizon, the last twinkle of the final star. The reflection gleamed in Twilight's eyes as they opened wide, and with her next blink the world was plunged into daybreak.

________________________

Many miles away, another set of eyes watched the last glimmer in the sky sputter and die. The air was cold, as it always was, but Nightmare Moon wouldn't have noticed if not for the wind. Canterlot Castle was always windy, being so high in the mountains, but on the observatory tower it was especially bad. Thankfully, Nightmare Moon had no need of delicate instruments that may have been swept away; all she needed was a clear view and steady footing.

She kept her gaze locked on where the final star had vanished, already feeling the cloying darkness gathering around her. She knew that if she looked carefully at the shadows on the stone around her cast by her mane, she would see them thickening and roiling, as if waiting for permission to spill outward.

With the same sigh she gave every morning, she let her horn light up. She didn't have to raise the dawn, she knew, but she had made a vow. Every morning, from now until forever, she would lower the moon. Even if there was no sun to take it's place.

The light faded from her horn faster than it had appeared. The day was eager to take hold over the world, as was only natural, and Nightmare Moon drew in a deep breath to remind herself that the oppressive feeling was only a feeling. Finally turning around, she found the only structure on the large roof by memory more than sight. The trapdoor rose an inch above the floor, the only thing to break the level flagstone right up to the shear drop off the edge, and as Nightmare Moon's hoof pushed at a corner, dim light began to spill out from the sides.

A long stairwell stretched below her. The bottom should have been pitch black, but an infuriating light shone out from the cracks of a heavy door.

Nightmare Moon let the trapdoor fall shut again, the soft thunk lost in the wind. She instinctively tried to squash the memory down, to put her mind on different things, but she stopped herself. Not here. If there's anywhere I can't run frpm it, it's here.

A long stairwell stretched below her. The bottom should have been pitch black, but an infuriating light shone out from the cracks of a heavy door. A light that Nightmare Moon longed to snuff out.

The clacking of her gilded hooves on the stone steps was the only sound as she descended, their pace quickening as she reached the bottom. Her horn sprang to light as she grunted, the heavy door swinging slowly aside. Her eyes narrowed as the doors banged against either wall, both from the radiant light and from the voice that greeted her.

"Hello, Luna."
  
"That's not my name." Nightmare Moon walked into the room, her mane thrashing behind her.

Nightmare Moon blinked, snapping back to reality. Did I just say that out loud?

For a moment Nightmare Moon stared at the trapdoor and listened. She knew she had said that out loud, and she knew who she had heard. She felt her mane simmer low as she turned around.

Out of the darkness of day, a figure emerged from the sky. A pegasus landed gracefully on the flagstones of the roof, but faltered after a moment, obviously exhausted.

"Captain." Nightmare Moon's voice contained no hint of emotion, nor did she move to help the pegasus as she collapsed.

"I came... as fast... as I could." The captain paused for breath as she fell on to her knees, her wings spread loosely over the ground. "You've got... you've got to stop... Trixie from..."

"Shut up."

Nightmare Moon stepped forward, bringing her captain into the full light of her mane. Her head was held to the side, too tired from her rushed flight to even lift it fully. Her mask was off, something Nightmare Moon had only seen a handful of times, and her eyes were open wide in surprise.

For a moment, Nightmare Moon hesitated. There was honest surprise in those eyes, she was sure of it, but it made no difference. She's been playing me for months, she snarled to herself, I can't even trust the look on her face.

"T-Trixie is... and Twilight... New Ponyville can... be saved..."

Nightmare Moon looked down, her brow knotting in confusion. The captain's gaze had become unfocused, and as her voice dropped lower her eyes closed further and further. Within moments she was unconscious, and Nightmare Moon was left with the wind to decide what to do next.

___________________

Rainbow Dash tucked her wings in at her side, giving a silent prayer as she dropped from the sky. Something cracked as her side erupted in stinging pain, but luck was mostly on her side as she dropped through the canopy of twisted branches. Once she judged herself to be near to the ground, she thrust out her wings to slow her fall and alighted on an exposed root, looking frantically around.

"Twilight! Twilight! Can you hear me?"

She jumped down from the root and turnd in a circle, not sure which way to go. I JUST saw her, where did she go? She was right here, wasn't she? Dash picked a direction that she was pretty sure led out of the forest, but she knew the truth of the matter. She couldn't even see the hoof in front of her face, nevermind a filly several yards away. If she was going to find her friend, it was through frantic yells.

Dash pulled up short as she heard a distant yell, cursing her own heartbeat for ringing so loudly as she strained to listen. She wasn't scared, of course, but she was unnerved by the thick blackness around her. She wasn't scared of anything, especially not some harmless lack of light that enveloped her whole body like a body of water, pouring into her throat as if she was drowning and filling her lungs with every breath. It wasn't as if she could feel the imperceptible weight lift off her eyes every time she blinked, only to return as soon as she began struggling for sight again. It certainly wasn't as if she knew she had landed next to her friend, only to find her gone and an unfamiliar forest floor beneath her.

The yell came again, sounding like it was miles away. Dash forced her breathing to slow as she ran towards it, trying not to think of the infinite sky of darkness pushing down on her. She cried out Twilight's name again, bouncing painfully off a tree as she sprinted into it shoulder first.

She could recognize her name clearly now, and briefly wondered how much farther it could be. Twilight still sounded like she was hundreds of yards away, but Dash couldn't have landed more than twenty from her. It had to be this weird dark stuff, weighing down even the air so that sound-

For a brief moment, Rainbow Dash thought she heard the sound of hoofbeats before her vision suddenly exploded into brightness. For a detached moment, she wondered where the lights had come from before her mind registered the pain in her forehead and the feel of the sticky ground on her back. Her ears were ringing as she blinked, trying to clear her head. Another groan echoed hers, Dash's ears perked at the realization of what she had run into.

"Twilight? Is that you?"

"Rainbow Dash! Ugh, are you all right? My head feels all stuffy..."

Dash crawled to her knees and shambled forwards, feeling the ground with her hooves. She made contact with something soft and slightly furry, and Rainbow Dash threw herself onto the object. Sure enough, a quick pat down revealed that it was Twilight, rolling slowly onto her back with a continuous groan.

At least I didn't run my face into her horn, Dash grumbled as she rested atop her friend. She sighed with relief as Twilight began to sit up, and sat back onto her flank as she hugged herself for warmth. She shivered as she waited for Twilight to regain her composure, the chill of the open air all too apparent now that they had stopped running.

Both mares coughed raggedly as they stood and tried to recover, neither having anything to say. To Rainbow, their situation was obvious. We almost made it, but almost doesn't count for anything now. We have no idea which direction we were going and no way to find out.

"We can't stay here until nightfall," Twilight finished for Dash, her voice making Dash's ears droop.

"We don't have very good odds of picking the right way though, and I can't fly around and check in these conditions either."

"You're right. New Ponyville won't last through the day anyway. But I... I don't know what to do."

Rainbow Dash looked straight ahead, not bothering to turn her head to the voice of her friend. Every direction looked the same anyway, so what was the point? Dash's shoulders drooped as she mentally ticked off her options one by one, trying desperately to find a solution. She shook her head, standing and turning to ward off both her hopelessness and the frigid air. On her second turn, however, she froze.

"I'm... I'm not giving up, Rainbow. Let's just pick a direction and hope for the best. It's all we can do."

"Actually, it's not." Rainbow squinted her eyes to make sure she hadn't hit her head too hard, but her glimmer of hope stayed with her. "Twilight, I think I see a light."

__________________________


Nightmare Moon sat in her throne, her mane billowing behind her. The room around her was empty, dark, and silent. Windows, both clear and stained, stretched from the floor to the awning ceiling, letting the heavy darkess spill into the room. Anypony walking in wouldn't be able to find their way across the room to the alicorn, let alone see her. As far as Nightmare Moon was concerned, it was perfect.

Night time was her domain, and every night she embraced it. Whether it was another crop failure or another riot that had to be crushed, every night brought its own challenges and regrets. She had expected resistance at first, of course. These ponies, foals that they were, all thought Celestia had been some kind of saint.

Nightmare Moon glared ahead into the darkness, her mind wandering. She had known better, of course, but those foals clung to her like orphaned kittens! Couldn't they see that her night was even more beautiful than day? Didn't they know that every star was another world's sun? That Luna showed them the true scope of the universe every night? It wasn't her fault they preferred to be blinded by one gaudy sphere that you couldn't even properly look at!

Nightmare Moon relaxed her face, catching her anger. She felt the temptation to stomp her hooves, yell as loud as she could, and torch the first pony she found. She examined the impulse from a practiced, detached point of view, examining it like she would a piece of muck that had gotten stuck to her hoof.

It was always present. There was always some hatred in her, and she knew she'd never be rid of it. For a thousand years it was all she had to live on. Trapped in frozen space, hatred had kept her warm and focused her grief, pain, and jealousy into a single, focused goal. For centuries, it was all she could think about, all she wanted to think about. And finally, when the stars aligned, she had returned to Equestria. Her one, single mission for a thousand years had been completed, but all it had left Luna with was the hatred that had fueled her.

The night was her domain, but during the day she had always rested. Even now, with no real day to speak of, Nightmare Moon's guards had orders not to disturb her except in cases of emergencies. She didn't sleep, at least not usually, but it provided her with some time to reel in her thoughts, refocus her energy, and lately, try to calm down.

That last part wasn't easy, especially tonight, and it had become as much a physical action as a mental one. Every moment of every day, Nightmare Moon could feel waves of heat and tension running over her skin, intensiying as her mood darkened. Her hatred had quite literally become a second coat to her, and it always ached to be used.

Relaxing had been easier since her return from Trixie, she had found. She felt a little calmer, a little happier even, after rewarding the unicorn with some small taste of power, but this time... if it hadn't been such a euphoric relief for the alicorn, she may have worried that she'd overdone it. Through long and hard experience, she had learned that the rage never went away; it only became less violent, but never truly lessened. For the first time since her return from the moon, however, Nightmare Moon felt like her power had truly decreased, which meant that the hatred that had so long fueled it had to have left. Simple logic drew her to a somewhat troubling conclusion. If her anger never dissipated, but was no longer in her, then it must have gone somewhere.

Nightmare Moon snorted. Fine, let her deal with it. An almost alien feeling of relaxation wafted through her as she closed her eyes, savoring the quiet darkness. A cloud of her mane wafted in front of her face, and she opened her eyes again to admire it. Resembling a cloud more than a flame, it's gentle borders shifted slightly as it floated in the still air, staying calm enough for Nightmare Moon to see the stars and distant nebulae that seemed suspended in it. Even during her own nights, she rarely had a chance to appreciate the sky anymore, and a wave of depression overtook her as she lamented.

She let her head droop, gazing as far down the steps as the darkness would let her. I never wanted this. I only wanted to show the world how beautiful my night was. When did I lose sight of that?

The memories played out in front of Nightmare like a horror show, her gut sinking lower with every frame. The ponies of Ponyville when she first appeared, and the terror that emanated from them. Her dogging of those six mares as they braved the Everfree, toying with them while it would have been more merciful and practical to just kill them outright. And then, when the time for death really did arrive, the look on the purple unicorn's face as she brought her full power to bear. Nightmare Moon had seen her own reflection in Twilight's eyes at that moment, and at the time she had relished the feeling. Thinking back now, even she would have described her tentacled mane and twisted grin as the visage of a monster.

A clacking noise pulled Nightmare Moon out of her memory, and she choked out a quiet laugh. She was shaking so hard her teeth had been chattering, and she could feel the moisture in her eyes. In the back of her mind, part of her insisted that none of that mattered, that she did what she had to do, and a hundred other excuses. That voice was quiet now, though, and she recognized it as the insistence of her anger. She ignored it and held on to her sorrow, breathing deeply and relishing the feeling. It didn't taste much better than the venom of rage she was used to, but after a thousand years of cultivating her own poison, even the worst regret was a welcome emotion.

Nightmare Moon stood, descending the steps of her throne. The noise was quiet, her glass-like hoof-guards barely clinking on the carpet-padded steps, but in the silent room it was all she could hear. For a few moments, her hoof steps drowned out her thoughts.

But a clear mind continuted to elude her, and she knew it would until she dealt with the problem weighing it down. There would be no relaxation during this day, and the time had come to stop trying to put her duties off. As confusing as the situation was, the captain had to be dealt with. It was almost poetic, Nightmare Moon reflected, that she had hidden her captain away in the same place as her darkest memory. It was her that had originally turned it from a victory into a nightmare.

Nightmare Moon realized she had stopped moving awhile ago, and absentmindedly lifted a hoof. The pedestal of her throne sat above her, but here behind the steps there was no need for fancy carpets or gaudy ornaments. In fact, the bare wall was simple stone, but as Nightmare Moon pushed her hoof forward, one particular stone slid inwards until there was a click.

Immediately, a section of wall just tall enough for Nightmare Moon to duck through opened, swinging outwards silently. Bracing herself, Nightmare Moon looked through, the memories rushing up as they always did.

A long stairwell stretched below her. The bottom should have been pitch black, but an infuriating light shone out from the cracks of a heavy door. A light that Nightmare Moon longed to snuff out.

The clacking of her gilded hooves on the stone steps was the only sound as she descended, their pace quickening as she reached the bottom. Her horn sprang to light as she grunted, the heavy door swinging slowly aside. Her eyes narrowed as the doors banged against either wall, both from the radiant light and from the voice that greeted her.

"Hello, Luna"

"That's not my name," Nightmare Moon walked into the room, her mane thrashing behind her.

"You are still my sister, no matter what you call yourself." The white alicorn sat on the floor with legs folded, seemingly unperturbed by the conditions of her cell. No windows adorned the walls, nor did the cold stone of the walls and floor offer any warmth. Not even a bedroll lay on the ground, yet she smiled as though she stood in front of her throne. "You may have wrapped yourself in hatred, but my little Luna is in there somewhere."

Nightmare Moon felt her mane draw inwards as her anger built. "You condescending... I have every reason to hate you! A thousand years of watching my beautiful night pass overhead, and I was powerless to control it! One thousand years of solitary confinement as I watched this world turn from a hunk of dust and rock!" Nightmare Moon lowered her horn and snorted, pawing at the ground. "You deserve to die for what you did to me. We were supposed to rule together!"

Celestia stood, her chin raising as she looked down her snout at her sister. "Yes, we were, and it broke my heart to do that. But you tried to choke the world in eternal night, sister. I love you Luna, but I would do it again if I had to. Banishing you was the only way-"

"You should have just killed me, then!" Nightmare Moon yelled, "You left me there to rot, tortured me with your betrayal, and you can still tell me to my face that you love me?" Nightmare Moon drew her head back with a guttural choke, then flung it forward as she spit at Celestia.

Celestia blinked as the missile hit her chest, but she did not move to wipe it off. "I do love you, sister. I will always love you. One day you'll forgive me for what I did, and I'll sit in this cell for ten thousand years if that's what it takes."

"Is that why you haven't fought back? Is that why you haven't tried to escape? Because you want my forgiveness?! Nightmare Moon let out a laugh, telling herself that her tears were from mirth. "I'll never forgive you, so you best just get comfortable."

"You'll forgive me, Luna. I'll wait as long as it takes." Celestia sat back down, the pleasant smile never leaving her face. Nightmare Moon felt a vein throb in her forehead as she looked at that smile. So perfectly friendly yet so condescending, it had always reminded her of a mother looking down at an infant that had just asked a foolish question. For as long as she could remember, Celestia had worn that smile around her. After all, big sister always knew best. It didn't help at all that she was always right.

"NO I WON'T!" Luna screamed, tears welling up in her eyes. "I HATE you, Celestia! You refused to share power because you think I'm stupid, that I'm just some stupid filly! Well who's stupid now, huh? I beat your elements of Harmony, and even have one of them as my personal pet now!" Luna paused to admire the look of shock that was supposed to be on Celestias face, grimacing when it didn't appear. "Did you hear me? Your element of loyalty is loyal to ME now! I don't even care that you betrayed me, because I have somepony better than you now. And the best part is that your pet project is what made her that way!" Luna stood over her sister with a leer, holding back giggles and sobs simultaneously. "I don't need to forgive you because I don't need you anymore, so give me one good reason why I should.

"Because I love you, sister."

Luna screamed, something red splattering across her face. Her hoof throbbed where it had hit her sister, and a cough from below her turned her gaze downward. Celestia's smile was finally gone, instead her eyes were wide and unfocused as blood trickled down from the corner of her mouth.
Adrenaline surged through Luna as her mane flared out, her rage wrapping around her like a warm blanket. With no small amount of will, she lowered her hoof back to the ground. She could feel her heartbeat in every fiber of her muscles, strength coursing through her with every breath, but she held it back. Her anger fed on itself, growing greater and stronger with every passing moment that Luna didn't focus on keeping it down, the result of a thousand years of cultivated hatred. More than anything in the world, she wanted to hit her sister again and again and again until there was nothing left to be angry at.

"I- I didn't mean..." Luna shook her head, struggling to think straight. "Look... look what you made me do. This is all your fault, not mine. I'm not your baby foal to be coddled and forgiven! You've got nobody but yourself to blame for how you treated me."

Celestia looked up, drawing a hoof across her mouth. Her eyes locked calmly with Luna's as she composed herself again, her smile returning. Her lips split as she formed the words, every syllable shattering Luna's resolve ten times over. "I'm sorry for what I had to do, and I always will be. But being sorry means nothing without forgiveness." The white alicorn's smile looked like it had never left, her face as white and pristine as always despite being trapped in a cell. "No matter what happens Luna, I want you to know that I'm sorry for what I did, and that I forgive you for what you've done."

Luna's skin felt like it was on fire as she raised her hoof again. This time, however, she didn't try to hold herself back.

The minutes crept on as Nightmare Moon stood at the top of the stairs, the cold air welling up into her face. In a lot of ways, everything had changed after that day. In too many ways, everything had stayed the same. Nightmare took a deep breath and focused herself on the present, fighting down her deja vu.

A long stairwell stretched below her. The bottom was pitch black, the infuriating light that had shone out from the cracks of a heavy door nothing but a memory. A light that Nightmare Moon had finally snuffed out.

The clacking of her gilded hooves on the stone steps was the only sound as she descended, their pace quickening as she reached the bottom. Her horn sprang to light as she grunted, the heavy door swinging slowly aside. Her eyes widened as the doors banged against either wall, both from the utter darkness and from the voice that greeted her.

"Luna... please."

In the light of her mane, Nightmare Moon looked down at the shivering pegasus. She had been unconscious when Nightmare had brought her here from the roof, but even the alicorn wasn't sure how much time had passed since then, nor how long the pegasus had been awake.

Regardless of the time spent, the captain was not faring well. She lay on her side, hooves drawn up to her chest as she shivered, looking up with pleading eyes at her ruler. The image of a beaten dog crossed Nightmare Moon's mind, but she paid it no heed. Her captain was not a beast, but a living, breathing pony. A pony who had betrayed her.

"That's not my name," Nightmare Moon growled, her mane thrashing in agitation. Shaking her head as the memories began to well up again, she spoke again as if to spite them. "I've figured it all out, captain. You never razed the town, all those months ago, did you? Or, at the very least, you willingly let the townsponies escape. You defied your very first order from me, and you've been hiding it all this time."

The captain lay on the ground, though her shivering had calmed down some. "I did."

Nightmare Moon's mane shrunk lower, though it still flickered like a darkened torch. "Then you reported back and refused to aid in quelling the Manehatten riots, saying you'd had enough of burning buildings. I'll admit it wasn't kindness that kept me from pushing the issue, but rather prudence. I wanted to break you, not make you defect within mere days of joining me." Nightmare Moon turned to the side and began pacing back in forth in front of the pegasus, "But still, that was two for two. I can't fathom how I ever trusted you from there on out."

The captain remained silent, breathing deliberately and slowly to stop her shaking. Nightmare Moon continued as the silence dragged on. "I suppose I'll never know how many of my orders you sabotaged, but that doesn't matter. Honestly, I don't blame you for those early days. You were just like every other foal in this world, blind to my intentions and wisdom. And I let myself be blinded to your intentions.

"Listen to yourself, Luna. You're sounding like the old-"

"That's not my name!" Nightmare yelled, thrusting her snout in the captain's face. The pegasus whimpered and drew back, and a pang of guilt resounded in Nightmare Moon's conscious. Nightmare Moon drew back, her mane calming as she turned somberly away. "Luna is dead. She died with Celestia."

"And you swore to never let that happen again, didn't you?"

Turning sharply, Nightmare's eyes narrowed. "You tricked me into thinking that! I was... confused, and you saw an opportunity. You pretended to care, made me promise to control my anger, but why should I? Why should I limit my power, just because some backstabbing traitor says to?"

With a grunt, the captain rolled onto her knees, pushing herself off the ground one leg at a time. Finally, with shaky legs but her chest pushed froward, the captain spoke. "I would never betray you."

Nightmare Moon's vision narrowed as she approached the pegasus, leering over her as she came close. "I saw you," she hissed. "I used Trixie's spell to find you, too make sure you were alright. I thought she had killed you, and like the idiot I was I was worried. And then I find out you're helping New Ponyville, doing your best to keep Trixie and I from killing them? I thought you had left your old loyalties in the dirt, but now it's clear. Now I know that I can't trust anypony, not even the paragon of loyalty herself.

At the last phrase, the captain's shoulders slouched. "I'm not a paragon of loyalty," she muttered.

The alicorn snorted, the hot air blowing the captain's mane back. "Finally, some honesty. Now, before I simply write you off as another failed experiment in friendship, one detail keeps nagging at me. If you wanted to protect New Ponyville, why did you come back here?"

The captain's ears perked, and she raised her head to meet Nightmare's gaze. "I came to warn you! Trixie is lying, like she always has been! You know she's a venomous bitch, and this whole rebel base thing is just a power ploy! It's not too late, you can still stop her!"

Nightmare Moon looked down, bile rising in her throat. "So that's it?" She asked, surprised to hear the disbelief in her own voice. She had expected... well, she didn't really know. An apology, maybe? Begging? "You flew to your own death to try to manipulate me further into actively helping the ponies you claimed to have killed months ago?"

The pleading look on the captain's face vanished, and she shook her head. "No, wait, I mean, uh, kinda. Look, just let me explain!"

Luna screamed, something red splattering across her face. Her hoof throbbed where it had hit her sister, and a cough from below her turned her gaze downward. Celestia's smile was finally gone, instead her eyes were wide and unfocused as blood trickled down from the corner of her mouth.

With a gasp, Nightmare Moon caught her hoof in the air. The captain had froze beneath her, too terrified to even shiver. Slowly, Nightmare Moon lowered her hoof to the ground, eyes wide in surprise at herself. It had seemed so real, and yet the captain lay untouched beneath her.

Nightmare Moon stood silent for a moment, trying to hide her own shivers. With a voice like a dying breath, she choked out, "Go on."

It was a moment before the captain recovered enough to speak. "I burned down my home town, just like you ordered. You never told me to kill everypony, but you're right, I twisted your orders. This is different now, though. For the past few weeks, I've been bounced around from one prison cell to another, first in New Ponyville and then in Trixie's camp! I've been trying to get back to you and report this whole time, but- gah, look, let me start at the beginning." The captain took a deep breath, recalling back to her first report. "One of my scouts saw a purple unicorn and a rainbow pegasus in the ruins of Ponyville when this whole thing started."

Nightmare Moon scoffed. "Trixie made that report herself, now that you remind me of it. Of course, I didn't believe her, because I trusted you."

The captain shook her head. "No, you aren't listening. A rainbow pegasus and a purple unicorn. Luna, they made the report to me, so I wasn't the pegasus. Now think back, what exactly did you hear during your spell?"

Nightmare Moon thought back, her gut telling her that something was off. "A white unicorn told you to save the town. In order to do that, you first had to stop Twili-."

Nightmare Moon's eyes widened as her throat siezed. The captain remained silent as understanding hit Nightmare Moon. "But... no, it can't be her."

"Just like it couldn't have been me."

"She's gone, there must be some mistake."

"That's what I'm trying-"

"But I heard it with my own ears. Twilight is alive, but I saw her-"

"There's two of them!"

Nightmare Moon blinked at the captain's yelling before collecting herself. Could it really be true? It made no logical sense, that was certain. Wait, was it certain? Wouldn't it explain so much more if...

"No, not her. She can't be back!" Nightmare Moon spun from the pegasus, already headed towards to stairs. Behind her, the captain called out, but her thoughts were elsewhere.

Twilight. The purple unicorn. Barely more than a filly, but determined enough to push through everything I threw at her. The first pony to oppose me on my return... and the first one I killed.

She ignored the captain's voice as  she galloped up the stairs, a hundred questions running through her head. She needed time to think and to answer them, and she had no time for the pegasus's complaints.

Fortunately for the captain, she also had no time for such trifles as closing cell doors.

__________________________________


As a matter of fact, Rainbow Dash had seen a light. Twilight knew this because, after a few moments of maneuvering around trees, Twilight was also able to make out a distant glimmer. It had been a miracle that either of them had seen it at all around the skeletal limbs, and Twilight managed a chuckle when she realized that this time, almost had been good enough. Even though they hadn't escaped the forest before daybreak, some distant light had been sent to guide them out.

Even after the trees had thinned out enough that walking was no longer a hazard, the light had hardly grown larger. For all Twilight could tell, the two mares could have now been walking in the longest clearing of the forest or right in the middle of Ponyville. Neither mare spoke, paranoid that the slightest disturbance would upset this turn in their favor, and instead walked deliberately as if in a trance.

Twilight lifted her hoof out of the soft muck of what was once grass, but when she placed it down again she felt the texture of hard dirt. In the growing light, it was just barely possible to squint out the road beneath her, and she took the first real breath she had dared since daybreak.

Something bumped into Twilight with a grunt, and the unicorn spun around with wide eyes. Rainbow Dash's eyes were half closed and her mouth slightly agape, but she managed to cock her head in confusion. "Rainbow, we've reached a road."

The pegasus shook her head, taking herself off autopilot. "What? Where? I still can't see a thing!"

Twilight opened her mouth, but found herself without an answer. It was hard to see, to be sure, but she could make out Rainbow Dash clearly enough. Or, at least the shape of her, anyway. "You... can't see me at all? Your eyes are sharp as a hawk's!"

Twilight could see Dash's ears flatten as she grumbled her way past the unicorn, stumbling slightly. "Yea, well, you still have those freaky eyes. You can probably see in the dark better than me."

Actually, that makes a lot of sense. With my pupils this dilated, maybe that's exactly what's happening. Twilight shrugged, turning back to the light. The two mares continued walking, Twilight's vision improving all the while.

"So, what do you think it is?"

Twilight almost jumped at the sudden conversation, realizing she had been letting herself fall back into a trance. "I don't know, to be honest. What kind of light travels so far during the day?" Twilight realized she had spoken like the days of her own world were a thing long gone, rather than memories just over a week old. Celestia, has it only been so long? Did I lose count along the way?

To be fair, she had never really kept an account. Days were always easy to keep track of, right? But with no real light and no sleep schedule at all, how was she to keep tabs on what time it was, never mind what day? Speaking of sleep, how long ago was the last time she slept?

"Twilight, I think I can see you now," Twilight turned to face the squinting Rainbow Dash, whose eyes loosely followed her movement. "Yea, I can totally make you out. Your eyes must be a lot better than mine though.

Twilight didn't know what to say. Her eyes were a lot better, and she could make out the ground a few feet in either direction now. The light was casting silhouettes of something towards her, and Twilight squinted as they approached.

Realization hit her as an archway passed overhead. "Rainbow, we're here. This is Ponyville."

Dash cursed softly as she stubbed her hoof, the small bridge over Ponyville's stream rising before them. "So wait, that means the light is coming from somewhere in here?"

"Yes, and I think I know where."

It makes sense, really, Twilight thought as the two mares moved briskly over the more even ground. I mean, if there was one anomaly in this world, one exception to a day that actively suppresses any light, it would naturally have to be her.

Rainbow Dash groaned as she made out what had already become clear to Twilight's eyes. Sugarcube Corner stood before them, light pouring out from every window.

Maybe it wasn't a miracle that we saw this after all, Twilight worried as uneasiness settled over the frozen mares. Maybe she's been waiting for us all along.

____________________

"I can't tell them, Rarity. Not now."

Between the crack of stone and the pounding of mallets, Applejack didn't even have to keep her voice down as she made her way out of the guardhouse. Even the sight of the rising barricade on the bridge wasn't enough to console her. "If they knew there was no resistance... Celestia, even I'd give up at that point. And you saw Big Mac! Rarity, we finally did it. There's hope in these ponies, even if it is a grim hope. Something to actively fight for, a home to defend... it's all coming together now. Even if Twilight really is the best chance they got, we just take the resistance away from them. Not while they're still willing to die for it."

Applejack looked to her side, but Rarity just stared at the ground as she walked. If she had even heard what Applejack had said, she didn't show it.

"I mean, I know I'm supposed to be the Element of Honesty and all, but there's a degree of practicality that I gotta think about. If I tell them the truth now, our best chance of survival would be Trixie interrupting our lynching." Still Rarity said nothing, and Applejack began to calm down a tad. "There simply ain't any logic to it all. I'll tell them the truth, I know I will, but I gotta wait for the right time. Once this is all over, I'll tell them all."

As if the punctuate her decision, a thunderous boom rumbled through the air. The sounds of construction halted instantly as dust trickled down from the walls and ceiling. Just as Applejack's mind began to clear, an identical boom rumbled through the stone beneath her again.

A gigantic red pony exploded into movement across the bridge, shouting orders. Instantly, ponies were pounding and hammering at twice their previous speed. The two mares stood dumbfounded as Big Mac rushed out of the guardhouse, pushing them both across the rubble-strewn bridge.

Another boom echoed throughout the cavern, a series of distant cracks revealing that stalactites had been shaken loose somewhere in the cavern. With a shake of her head, Applejack recovered enough to realize what was happening.

"They're here," Rarity spoke. In the the bustle of desperate preparation, it might as well have been a whisper. "We're not ready, but they're here."
The night is darkest just before the da- oh, wait.

If I have one problem with this chapter, it's not being able to include everything I wanted to. Seriously, I've got a list longer than anything Twilight has ever dreamt of of scenes to include. Meh, today is my last day at this 6-days-a-week bullshit job, so I'm gonna have more time for writing from here on out. Time=/=results, however, so I'm gonna aim to get as much done on the next chapter as possible before Mass Effect 3 launches.

Also, I just realized. There's a very good chance that the one year anniversary of TNTNE might roll around before it's done, or at least within a month or so. When I started this project, I made myself promise that I would finish it no matter what it took. As an avid reader, the thought of having a book just end 2/3 of the way through was as unforgivable as it gets, so I told myself "If you start this, you're damn well gonna finish it." If I knew back then that I'd be working on it for close to a year, I don't know if I ever would have put fingers to keyboard :P

I feel like this chapter is empty because at nearly half again the length of my normal chapters, it still didn't get as much done as I wanted it to. Looking back, however, it's the only logical stopping point in every chain of events that makes sense. Trust me, you didn't want me leaving off halfway between the Pinkie confrontation or the battle beginning. So yea, you get some cliffhangers instead, but they aren't the worst I've ever thrown at you.

Alright, now I'm just making accusations of myself. Thank you all for reading, I've... got nothing left to say. Enjoy!

EDIT: OH GOD AHAHAA I HIT THE WORD LIMIT FOR DA SUBMISSIONS! It's a good thing I decided to cut it off where I did, because I was able to drop it under 64k characters with some clever formatting, but I think even one more scene would have meant death. Oh man, there's some narrowly dodged irony in there somwhere, but I'm laughing too hard to find it.
© 2012 - 2022 BronyCray
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RadiantVoid's avatar
Luna and nightmare moon are wonderfully portrayed here. You kept nightmare moon from being a complete monster, and instead allowed her to be a scared little filly who hates too much.

Just as she was supposed to be.

Celestia, however.... let her greatest pupil die? I understand she is an immortal and loves her sister, but even she should have had some reaction to that (if it was revealed). That is my only complaint with this chapter: Celestia is simply too pure here. She's yelled at Twilight once ("Lesson Zero"), and I am shocked if she truly is just waiting for forgiveness.

4.75/5 The only grievance with this chapter was that Celestia seemed too serene. But we never know how she would react - i am on the fence. maybe 5/5. Excellent writing, this complaint is more of a personal thing ("she let twilight die?") than a flaw of writing, so actually i revise my score to 5/5. Keep it up.