Part 2 - Soft
Twilight bit her lip nervously as she checked and double-checked the library shelves. She took another swipe with the feather duster, just in case she'd missed a spot. An error caught her eye, and she hastily switched out Amazing Aerial Acrobatics of the Advance Aviators from Air City and Amazing Alligator Assailants from the Aquatic Association of Azoturia so that they were alphabetically correct. If everything was in order...well, that was one less worry.
"Spike!" Twilight called, agitated, nearly galloping from the library's study area into the kitchen. "The scones aren't burning, are they? Don't bother; I'll get them!"
In truth, Twilight didn't know what to expect. The unknown, the lack of planning made her apprehensive. After all, she'd only received the letter from Celestia a couple days ago, and perhaps she'd been a little hasty in sending an invitation.
A sharp knock at the door frightened a small cry out of her. She froze in the fortress of her kitchen.
In the main library, Spike jumped at the knock, and the last saucer landed on the doily-covered table with a sharp clatter. A quick check revealed nothing broken. Spike let out a relieved sigh and headed for the front door. He hadn't been told who was coming to tea, but he always assumed it was Rarity. After all, Rarity was so refined and graceful and beautiful and majestic that it made sense to have her for tea. Whoever the guest, it had made Twilight explosively obsessive-compulsive. More so than usual, anyway. She certainly didn't act like that for Rarity, who was ever so generous and lovely and exquisite and –
"Spike, will you get that?" Twilight called, interrupting his thoughts. The sounds of shuffling plates echoed from the kitchen.
"I'm goin', I'm goin," Spike murmured.
There was no need for a rush. The guest had already entered.
A freezing chill crawled up his spines, paralyzing him with fear. The unicorn before him had a light lavender body stained with dark splotches of midnight blue. Her whole face, from jaw to nose to eartips, was dark blue. Her Cutie Mark, a shooting star crossing a crescent moon, was also blemished with dark spots. The shooting star on her flank was shattered. From her forehead to her poll, her mane was stark white, and a few stray white hairs streaked against the dark blue down her crest. But it was the intense gaze of bright yellow eyes that froze the baby dragon to the spot as he remembered the events of that day.
Spike hardly recognized the pony as Moondancer.
"T-Twilight?" he called, his voice trembling in terror.
"Spike," Twilight snapped, her head appearing from the kitchen doorway, "don't be rude. Invite our guests inside!"
"Guests?" Spike looked again, trying to shake off his nervousness. A small, dark blue dragon with a red belly and long, floppy red spines shyly stepped out behind Moondancer. In an instant, Spike's fear was shaken off like last year's scales. "Mopsy!"
He dashed forward to greet the baby dragon, but Mopsy disappeared behind Moondancer with a squeak. Spike stopped in his tracks, surprised. "It's me, Spike! Don't you know me?"
"I'm afraid he lost his memory," Moondancer said apologetically.
"I'm surprised he's here at all," said Twilight, pushing a tray of tea and snacks into the room. "It's a miracle in itself Celestia was able to bring him back. Thank you for coming, by the way. I know you've been through a lot in these past few weeks."
"Thank you for sending me an invite. You have no idea how much it means to me."
Twilight set the tea items on the table in the middle of the library. Moondancer approached the violet unicorn, touching her neck to Twilight's in a friendly hug. She noticed with some guilt that Twilight flinched at the touch.
"I wanted to see you as soon as Princess Celestia said you were well enough to travel. Would you like a sweetgrass scone?" Twilight hovered one to Moondancer's plate, taking a seat across from her. "Spike made them himself."
Moondancer graciously took a bite of the scone. "Quite delicious! Incredible job, Spike. Perhaps Mopsy could learn a thing or two from you."
Mopsy, separated from his guardian, curled up in a corner, shying away from Spike. Confused and a little hurt, Spike plopped on the floor a few feet away, frowning, making a conscious but not obvious effort to avoid looking at Mopsy's guardian.
"So tell me," Twilight began, diverting her eyes from Moondancer's strange face and concentrating instead on stirring a sugar lump into her tea, "how did you escape Nightmare Moon?"
Moondancer quietly looked into her own cup, took a deep breath, and began:
"The first few days, nothing really happened. I was still stuck in the Realm of Darkness, where I took you when you dreamed. I was aware that Celestia and a few other ponies were around me, but I knew little else. Every so often, Celestia used that strange technique to speak to me, but she wasn't able to do it very long, and her words weren't very convincing. I told her that I'd planned to stay petrified as long as Nightmare was with me.
"That is simply her name, you know. Nightmare. She is a sort of spirit that wanders the world looking for fear, guilt, and shame, off which she feeds. She's been around since the dawn of time, and she'll probably be around until the end of it."
Twilight nodded, staring into her tea.
"Anyway, a few days passed, and one night Princess Luna came to me. She was able to speak to me a lot longer than Celestia, probably because of her experience with the Realm of Darkness. I heard afterward that she was not allowed to visit me in fear that Nightmare would take her again, but our night princess isn't exactly known for taking orders.
"At first, Luna only asked who I was and how I came into this place. I told her, and she left as quickly as she had arrived. I suppose she was afraid of getting caught.
"The second night, she stayed for a long time. 'You don't belong here,' she said.
"'I must atone for my mistakes,' I told her.
"'That may be, but you must not do it here. This is a place where no pony should ever tread. This is a place solely designated for darkness and light.'
"But this is a Realm of Darkness,' I answered. 'How can they exist together?'
"She laughed. 'The Realm of Darkness protects the Realm of Light. All of the darkness you see before you is made up from creatures similar to those that Mopsy became. They have different shapes and purposes, but they are mostly harmless.'
"I said, 'But how can darkness protect the light?' Is that quiche?"
Twilight blinked, surprised by the distraction. "Oh-oh, yes! It is. Spinach and zucchini." She levitated a slice onto Moondancer's plate. The unicorn took a bite.
"This is fantastic. We must get the recipe."
Twilight waited until her friend swallowed before prompting, "So then what happened?"
"'I will show you,' Luna said, and her horn glowed a bright blue. Somehow, she chased the shadows away. I saw the shapes of them, a menagerie of different animals. Some looked like small dragons, some like ponies, some giant ones with broad, bat-like wings, and some small ones that looked like big bugs. They scattered like a flock of birds, opening up the ground below.
"The ground – it was made of light. A gigantic ball of white light. It was warm and happy, and as soon as I touched it I felt love for every single being on the planet. I loved Luna. I loved you. I even loved Nightmare. Such endless joy and hope consumed me, and I fell on the ground bawling, completely inconsolable with happiness.
"The Princess simply laughed at me and closed up the ground. The dark creatures flooded in, hungrily craving the light, and I could feel them all over. Many of them had sharp claws and long fangs, but they were gentle with me, as if they meant me no harm. I began to feel cold and lonely as they lifted me away from the light.
"'This is a place of extremes,' the Princess said. 'You are needed in the world beyond to help the balance of light and dark, like all ponies must.'
"Cradled by the creatures in the darkness, my heart felt such a yearning for the light. I wanted both the light and the benevolent dark. I wanted – I accepted – the balance. At once, I felt myself falling, but I wasn't moving. Luna just smiled at me, and then she disappeared. I could feel the edges of myself breaking away, and it sounds very strange to you, I know. I opened my eyes and saw them, Celestia and Luna, standing in front of me. They had an odd, wavering tint, and I soon realized I was trapped in a large bubble. We were in some sort of research area, like a laboratory.
"Unfortunately, when I woke up, Nightmare woke up, too. I could feel her within me, squirming, raging, a tsunami of hate. I knew she recognized the Princesses, and I could feel this desperate fear within her. She was afraid that the Princesses would destroy her. The bubble around us began to shrink, and Nightmare thrashed within me like a fish in a net. Terrified, I closed my eyes as tightly as I could. The bubble continued to shrink, but it wasn't closing in on me. I was being, for lack of a better word, osmosed, the bubble filtering Nightmare out of me.
"When the bubble reached my head, I felt something hard and sharp under my hooves. I realized that the stone around me had shattered, and now I was standing atop it. I opened my eyes. Twilight Sparkle, to this very day and all my days afterward, I wish I hadn't. I looked into the true face of Nightmare, and I can say this: She is not a pony. She's a black mass of fangs and claws and glowing eyes and fear and anger and hate. She grabbed my face, and…oh, Twilight, it felt as though she'd ripped my skin clean from my bones. I fell out of the bubble, and my face was all bloody. I screamed and cried like a newborn filly. Even though Celestia and Luna were there, healing me, I still felt a tremendous pain."
Moondancer paused. She took a small bite of her scone and ruminated. Twilight looked over her dark face and white-to-the-ears mane, no longer with anxious fear but with gradual understanding. Gulping down more than the scone, Moondancer uneasily continued.
"It was a pain worse than pain. I'm not sure how to describe it. As though my very soul was torn from my body. As you can see, it had its affects on my face. These other spots are from Nightmare ripping at my body, but I don't remember that part. Luna said Nightmare had changed her the same way. Not that we would know, but her Mark wasn't covered in dark fur before she was imprisoned.
"They said I was hospitalized for days, but I only remember the painful emptiness. Luna visited me often, as did Celestia. The bubble containing Nightmare was placed up in some high tower, and I was told it's constantly under guard. I don't think the Princesses had the heart to destroy it, even if it is malevolent.
"After I was healed, they had me speak to one of the 'Magicians of the Mind,' they called them. Imagine my surprise when that 'magician' turned out to be a pegasus! She was the loveliest pegasus I'd ever seen: pure white, with small pink designs all over her; hair of pink, white, and blue; and her wings were as big as Celestia's, with blue-tipped feathers! Her name was Star Catcher, and she's the Princesses' niece, though several generations apart. She didn't do any magic apart from discuss things with me. Things like how I shouldn't hold on to guilt, how I shouldn't be ashamed about the way my body changed, and other subjects of that nature. She was nice, but I didn't understand how this would help me. When I tried to go home and visit my friends, I understood immediately what Star Catcher tried to do."
Moondancer looked sadly at her half-eaten slice of quiche, as if she pitied it. "I had friends, even after you had left for Ponyville. Lemon Hearts, Sparkleworks, Twinkle, and a few other classmates. But once I returned, they wanted nothing to do with me. Many just avoided me; some actually called me 'traitor' or 'monster' or worse. I had lost everything.
Twilight was distinctively aware that the news of Nightmare Moon's return was kept only within the range of Ponyville. It was true that stories of Princess Luna's return had been spread, citing Twilight and her friends as the ponies that "helped to free Luna," but very few others knew that Luna and Nightmare Moon had actually been the same pony. Twilight remembered that Celestia specifically wanted her sister to be viewed as a victim instead of an antagonist.
Nightmare Moondancer, on the other hoof, had made very public appearances in Canterlot and Ponyville. Plus, it was hard to hide the evidence that Moondancer and Nightmare Moondancer were the same pony. All the magic in the world couldn't change public opinion.
"There's something to be said for acting without thinking," Moondancer continued. "'Patience in one moment of anger escapes one hundred days of sorrow'; isn't that the quote? My foalish acts had left me with a broken life. I spent days in my house, alone. Mopsy's absence left me with a sharp reminder that I was responsible for his demise. There was no friendly shoulder. I spoke to Star Catcher a little more, but how can a member of the esteemed royal family know true loneliness?
"Last week, Celestia brought Mopsy back to me. Initially, I was overjoyed to see him. Even now I'm not sure how she saved him. But I was devastated when I found that he didn't remember me. He's a little better now. He knows that I'm his guardian, at least. But he still doesn't say any words, and I fear he'll never be the same."
Twilight glanced over at the corner of the room where Spike and Mopsy were sitting. Spike had finally coaxed Mopsy into playing with him. Spike would blow a burst of green flame, and they would both giggle. Mopsy would blow a noticeably smaller, bright orange flame, and again they would both giggle. It was a hatchling's game, something newborns played, but at least Spike was getting some reaction from his former friend.
Exiled from Canterlot, Twilight knew they had nowhere to go. She was a little uncomfortable with the thought of Moondancer staying in Ponyville. She still didn't know Moondancer that well, even if she was willing to give their friendship a chance. Regardless, what else could she do?
"Moondancer," Twilight began hesitantly, "you and Mopsy are more than welcome to come and live with me in Ponyville. That is, unless you want to finish your magic exams first. Didn't you only have about two or three more?"
Except for the dragons' laughter, the room fell eerily silent. Moondancer gave Twilight a bittersweet smile, and at once, Twilight understood. Her stomach lurched with guilt and pity.
"That's just it, you see. I can't finish the exams."
Twilight looked at the table. For the first time, she realized that Moondancer had never picked up her cup, that she'd bitten the quiche directly from the plate. The once-pristine scone was now squashed and malformed with clumsy hoof indentures. Her heart felt tight in her chest. "M-Moondancer, I'm so sorry."
The lavender unicorn shook her dark head. "There's no need for that. Celestia said – well, she hopes – that it's like Mopsy's memory. One day it'll just…come back." She gave a nervous laugh, but it didn't stop two large tears from rolling down her cheeks. "I never thought how hard it would be to be an earth pony. It's certainly a challenge."
Twilight slid off her seat, stepping over to put a comforting hoof on Moondancer's shoulder. "You didn't deserve this. Nopony deserves something like this, no matter what they've done."
"I-I know." Moondancer couldn't hide a sniffle. "That's what Star Catcher kept telling me."
"Stay with me. I can help you."
The disgraced unicorn shook her head. "I can't. I can't stay in Canterlot, either. That's the other reason I wanted to visit you, Twilight. I'm going on a journey, and I wanted to say goodbye."
"What? Moondancer, stay here. I have a lot of friends, and I'm sure once I explain things-"
"No, that's not the only reason I'm leaving. There's…an emptiness. Just something else I can't explain. I feel like there's something out there, something to fill this void inside of me. I'm happy that you want to help me – in fact, I'm overjoyed that anypony cares for me right now – but I can't accept your offer."
"Then let me go with you. Stop and think about this, Moondancer. You're not prepared to go out there."
Moondancer shook her head, drawing back from the table. "Your friends need you here. If you must do something for me, hope. Hope for me to find what I seek, and never forget me." The lavender unicorn paused, looking at the table. "Also, some more of those scones would be quite nice."
Twilight allowed herself to smile. Spike and Mopsy, distracted from their game, came to see what was going on.
"Spike, will you pack some treats for Moondancer and Mopsy? They're going...on a trip. I want to make sure they eat well, and Moondancer seems to love your food."
Spike blushed as Moondancer smiled pleasantly at him. Those yellow eyes still haunted him in the middle of the night with nightmares he hid from even Twilight. He knew behind those eyes was a pony he had once known a pony that meant him no harm, but the fear was still too much. He scurried off to the kitchen to collect foodstuffs, possessed by a rare case of shyness. Even when he returned with the parcel, he merely handed it to Twilight before disappearing into the kitchen again.
"I don't blame him," Moondancer sighed.
"Oh, Spike!" Twilight chided. "He doesn't hate you. Right, Spike?"
"R-really, I like you, Moondancer," Spike called from the safe recesses of the kitchen. "I just...can't look at you. Ever."
Twilight gave an apologetic look, but Moondancer waved a hoof passively. "It's not the worst thing said to me. I'm not insulted; don't worry."
"I want you to write to me, as much as you can. Don't make me worry about you."
"At least once a month, as long as you write back."
The scholar-pony smiled. "Trust me. Writing letters is my specialty."
Twilight saw her friends off toward White-Tail Woods, bidding them a safe journey. She knew that Moondancer would have been safer staying in Ponyville, but another part of her knew the forsaken unicorn would not have been happy.
After the unicorn and her companion were a tiny speck in the distance, Twilight went back inside the library to chase Spike out of the kitchen. That night, they ate dinner and went to bed as per usual, but there was a hint of a breeze that blew through the library that night, a reminder of the wind that had so suddenly came and so suddenly vanished.
Twilight was looking forward to the first letter.