THE NIGHTMARE AFTER NIGHTMARE NIGHT
By Saddlesoap Opera
It was some time ago, but not too long, you see?
In a place that perhaps you have seen on TV.
For this story spans places far from pedestrian,
Crossing spooky and dark with bright and Equestrian.
Now, you may be asking how that crossing was done.
If you are not, I'd say it's time you begun…
PART ONE - Doors
"…and even if my Star Swirl the Bearded costume didn't go over, this still turned out to be the best Nightmare Night ever!"
Twilight Sparkle smiled proudly…and then turned at the sound of an electrical crack and a hoarse shriek from above and behind her. The bells on her arcane robes jingled softly.
Rainbow Dash was streaking away through the sky, followed by a rainbow contrail and puffs of smoke from her lightning-struck rump.
A moment later Princess Luna hovered down on a dark storm cloud, wearing a mischievous smile. She winked.
The two Ponies and Spike broke into a fit of giggles.
"We thank thee for thy sage advice, Twilight Sparkle," said Luna once she'd gotten her laughter under control. "It has pleased Us greatly to meet thee and thy five friends under more... positive… circumstances." The Princess paused, her brow furrowing. "But hold; the strawpony, the fowl, the trickster, and gentle Fluttershy..." Luna frowned. "…Where is the last of thy companions?"
"Oh, you mean Rarity?" Twilight Sparkle put a pensive hoof to her beard-clad chin. "Now that you mention it, I haven't seen her all night!"
A look of worry passed over Luna's features. "Perhaps Our earlier displays frightened her into hiding?"
"No way!" said Spike adamantly. "Rarity would never pass up a night when everypony shows off their costumes just 'cause of the return of Nightmare Moon!" Twilight shot Spike a withering glance. He chuckled nervously. "…Uh, I mean, PrincessLuna. She's way too professional for that." He sighed adoringly. "And also talented. Beautiful. Graceful…" Spike tugged at the collar of his Dragon costume, letting out a small whistle of steam.
Luna raised an eyebrow at the baby Dragon before turning back to face Twilight. "Well, if she intended to be present at tonight's festivities, some unwelcome vicissitudes may have befallen her. We should peruse this debacle forthwith!"
"I concur!" agreed Twilight firmly.
"Whuh…?" Spike scratched the side of his head with a claw.
"We're going to go and find Rarity to make sure she's okay," replied Twilight.
Rarity cautiously crept down the winding dirt path into the Everfree Forest, following the urgings of her glowing horn. She wore a few jeweled accessories, but she'd left the bulk of her oh-so-very-nearly-complete costume back at the Boutique.
"Of all the nights to run out of black opals…" she muttered under her breath. "Come on, magic…Mummy needs a new pair of gem-studded shoes!"
All at once, the glow around Rarity's horn intensified. She almost stumbled as her gem-detection spell pulled her forward with renewed force.
"Wahh-ha-haaaa!" she cried out in surprise as the spell propelled her through a barrier of thorny vines, over a puddle and down a low hill.
She groaned dizzily and spat out a few leaves and twigs. She had come to rest on her belly, with her front hooves pressed up against a wide, flat rock. No…not a rock…
Sitting before her, half-buried in the soft earth, was an absolutely massive opal; the round, flat gem was easily as wide as she was tall. It was a deep midnight blue, marked with a flashy streak of golden yellow.
"….Oh. My. GOODNESS!" she exclaimed. "Pack your bags, you magnificent mineral marvel – you're coming home with me!"
Rarity stood up, fixed her stance and ignited her horn. The pale blue glow of her magic spread to the opal, but instead of lifting into the air the stone simply began to hum. The low, thrumming vibration grew until Rarity could feel it through her hooves.
"Come on…" she grunted through clenched teeth. "Up you get…!" Sweat beaded on her forehead.
Rarity poured more magic into the stone, but it still wouldn't budge. However, the brighter light illuminated the ring of trees surrounding the opal; Rarity stopped trying to lift the gem and stared.
Each tree had been fitted with a different strangely-shaped door. One looked like a fish with the upper body of some sort of hairless ape. Another was shaped like a clownish rabbit's smiling face. Another displayed a repulsive giant insect with a red bull's-eye painted over it. There were dozens of trees and dozens of doors, all facing the blue and yellow stone.
"What is this…?" Rarity whispered under her breath.
No sooner had she spoken than she heard a soft creak behind her. She turned, and saw that a door shaped like a pumpkin with an evil smiling face was now ajar. The sliver of shadowy abyss visible beyond the orange-stained wood suggested far greater depth than the tree could accommodate.
Rarity backed away from the open door, suddenly filled with an eerie chill. A rear hoof touched the opal's smooth surface. Rarity bit her lower lip; was she really willing to part with a gem the size of a dining table just because of a little creepy feeling? In answer to the unspoken question she turned to face the opal and reignited her horn.
As she resumed pouring magic into the massive gem a chill wind escaped from the pumpkin door, bringing with it a few dead leaves and the scents of damp earth, wood smoke and sugary spice. Rarity pointedly ignored it.
A few moments and a great deal of magic later, the wind had grown strong enough to whistle between the trees and stir the white Unicorn's coiling purple locks. Rarity continued to focus on the task at hand.
With mere seconds left before the huge stone would pull free – or so she was fairly certain – Rarity felt her hooves leave the ground as the wind swirled fiercely around her and lifted her upward.
She yelped in fright and galloped in midair. "EEEK! All right! I get it!" she pleaded. "You can keep the opal! Just put me doo-ooo-www-www-wwwn!" Before Rarity could finish her entreaty the wind sucked back into the now-wide-open door, and hurled her down into the darkness inside. Her cry echoed hollowly as she fell.
A final inward gust pulled the pumpkin-door shut with a soft click, leaving the woods dim, still and silent.
The full moon hung in the bleak black sky like the back of a vast skull caressed by spidery fingers of ominous grey cloud. A chill wind played across the fields of sickly, monochromatic grass, whistled between the rusty bars of black iron gates and fences, and stirred up bone dust from the yawning mouths of open graves. In the distance a lone werewolf howled.
In other words, it was quite nice out.
Jack Skellington strode down the winding packed-earth path leading out of Halloween Town with his bony hands clasped behind his back and a pensive expression on his skull.
As the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, the burden of leading the planning of each year's Halloween festivities fell squarely on Jack's shoulder-bones. A great many good things had come into his unlife of late – not the least of which, the love of a certain caring and pretty rag doll and the demise of a particularly noxious and unpleasant foe – and Jack felt like expressing his resurgent Joie de Mourir with a phantasmagorical extravaganza for Halloween this coming year.
And so he walked, taking in the delightfully creepy atmosphere of Halloween Town by night and waiting for inspiration to strike.
He walked for a long time, mulling over decorations, tricks, treats and costumes, too lost in thought to even sing about it. When he finally took stock of his surroundings, he realized two things: it was nearly morning, and he had no idea where he was.
He had wandered into the Hinterlands once again, and into an old-growth wood not unlike the one which held the mysterious trees bearing the doorways leading to the other Holiday Towns. But he had deliberately walked out of town in the opposite direction from that strange place this time.
He walked between the leafless, rough-barked trees, searching for a landmark or a sign of something familiar. Soon enough he did indeed come across a landmark – and a familiar-seeming one at that – but it was also new.
A ring of mighty trees towered around an ancient pale grey stone disc sunk into the rich dark soil, their roots reaching toward it like spokes around the hub of a giant wheel. Each tree bore a stylized door, but Jack didn't recognize their shapes.
He approached, seized by the same curiosity that had once led him to visit Christmas Town. I could take a quick look, he mused. No holiday misappropriation this time, of course – I've learned my lesson! But surely a tiny peek through just one door couldn't hurt?
One door was a sharp-angled, crested face in red; it seemed stern yet just, but also somehow… mechanical? I've had my fill of toys for now. Jack moved on.
Another was a giant, rounded paw-print, as though a vast puppy had playfully pounded an ink-covered paw into the tree. Intriguing, but... Jack shrugged and kept browsing.
Yet another was a red-and-white-striped shield, set with an off-centre silver star and covered by crossed assault rifles. Jack shuddered at the memory of anti-aircraft fire blasting his reindeer-skeleton-drawn sleigh. Definitely not.
Something colourful caught Jack's attention out of the corner of his eye socket; he turned around and gasped.
The tree was more vivid and lively than its fellows – the few leaves it bore were even still green – and its door was a thin, bright pink arc, not unlike the "Ω" often carved onto headstones. A festively-coloured memento mori? Perfect!
Jack grinned and moved to reach for the door's knob, but as he did so the door snapped open by itself and disgorged a shrieking blur of purple and white.
Jack managed to say "Wha–" before he took the full brunt of the impact squarely in his ribcage.
Rarity stirred into consciousness and dazedly got to her hooves.
A quick glance suggested that she was probably still in the Everfree Forest – the ominous trees, foreboding grey skies and bone-strewn soil told her that much – but she didn't recognize a single landmark. Even worse, the sun was in the sky, which meant that she'd missed the entire Nightmare Night. And worst of all, somepony had abandoned a perfectly fine tuxedo on the filthy forest floor!
"Well, even if I missed the festival, the least I can do is stop anypony else from committing a crime against fashion!"
She sighed in dismay and magicked up the pinstriped black tailcoat and trousers. She dusted off the formalwear and slung it over her back for safekeeping.
"Now…where in Celestia's name am I?" While Rarity pondered the question, the bleached bones on the ground began to twitch, then shift, then slowly roll toward her.
"I don't see Canterlot anywhere in the distance," she mused. "Maybe I'm on the far side of the Forest..?" Still lost in thought, Rarity failed to notice the bones silently converging behind her and slithering up into the empty clothing.
It wasn't until an elongated black-clad arm reached past her head and picked up a smooth round skull from the ground in front of her that Rarity came to the paralyzing realization that she was not alone in the clearing: a tall, spidery, skeletal creature in funerary finery was now crouching over and behind her like a bone gargoyle.
"Hell-oo-ooo…" said the skeleton as he popped his skull back into place on top of his neck-bones. "I'm Jack Skellington – Pumpkin King of Halloween Town. And you are…?"
Rarity slowly turned and backed away for a few paces with an even and dignified gait. And then she firmly planted her hooves, filled her lungs as deeply as she could, and unleashed a piercing scream loud enough to scare the crows out of the trees.
" –Wait," she said after several seconds, cutting of the tail end of her shriek, "…did you say King?"
Twilight Sparkle, Princess Luna and Spike stopped at the edge of the path into the Everfree Forest. The bells on Twilight's costume jingled softly as she halted.
"Spike, are you sure this is where Rarity went?" asked Twilight. "She is not exactly fond of this place."
"No doubt about it!" Spike replied. "I'd know those hoofprints anywhere!" He idly cradled his tail between his claws; underneath the fabric of his costume, the tip of his tail still bore a faint imprint from repeated stomping.
Twilight swallowed. "Well, okay then…let's go." Twilight and Luna kept pace with Spike as he resumed tracking the Unicorn he so adored.
The Everfree Forest by Nightmare Night was even more forbidding and ominous than usual. Every shadow seemed to hold a pair of watching eyes, and every sound suggested pursuit by some nameless horror. Spike stayed focused on following Rarity's trail, but Twilight was free to enjoy the carnival of dread her imagination was apparently more than eager to unleash. A sudden pronouncement from the Princess behind her did not help:
"BE NOT AFEARED, TWILIGHT SPARKLE!" Luna boomed. "THOU HAST OUR COUNTENANCE THIS NIGHT, AND NO CREATURE OF DARKNESS WOULD DARE INSULT US BY SEEKING TO HARM THEE!" She focused her blazing white eyes on the robed Unicorn before her as the echoes of her declaration – and the crash of thunder that had accompanied it – faded. "…ART THOU NOT RELIEVED?"
"Oh, y-yes, Luna…!" Twilight managed between gasping breaths. "I f-feel s-so much better n-now!" She forced a smile.
"SPLENDID. HIE WE HENCE!"
The trio proceeded silently for some time until they came to a gentle grade. At the bottom of the hill, a huge blue and yellow gemstone in the middle of a copse of trees shone in the moonlight.
"Ah. Now I get it," said Twilight dryly.
A careful trip down the hill later, the Alicorn, Unicorn and Dragon began searching around the massive gem for any sign of their missing friend. They eyed the various door-fitted trees warily.
"Hey! Look!" Spike was straining to reach a necklace dangling from a pumpkin-shaped tree-door. "This is Rarity's – I know it!"
"Rarity's inside that tree?" asked Twilight doubtfully. "Okay, let's take a look." She approached the tree and ignited her horn.
"BEWARE, TWILIGHT – DO NOT DRAW NEAR! THOSE TREES ARE MORE THAN THEY APPEAR!"
Twilight yelped in fright and turned to face Zecora, who was trotting into the strange grove from the far side. "Why is everypony shouting at me tonight?"
The Zebra brushed a lock of spider-decorated mane out of her eyes and bowed apologetically. "I did not mean to startle you – only stop you from going through."
Twilight raised an eyebrow. "Going through…?"
"Yes, Twilight – as I said before…there is more than tree behind that door. Each one's a bridge through time and space, connecting to a far-off place."
"Thy friend has travelled to another world? Calamitous!" Luna exclaimed. "We must follow her at once, and bring her back to Equestria!"
"TOTALLY!" said a voice from behind Zecora. "Another world? This sounds like a blast!" Rainbow Dash hovered into view. She was still wearing her crudely-stitched Shadowbolt uniform.
"I dunno 'bout that," added Applejack as she trotted up to join her Pegasus friend, "but if Rarity's got herself in a bind, I'll do mah best to help her!"
A barely-audible squeak and a hint of pink mane peeking out from the side of one of the trees gave away Fluttershy's presence. "M-Maybe if we wait for her, she'll come back on her own…?"
Twilight Sparkle's face scrunched in confusion. "What are you all doing in the middle of the Everfree Forest?"
"I landed here after Luna zapped me," said Rainbow Dash. "Good one, Princess!" She chuckled and held out a hoof for Luna to high-shoe; the Princess smiled cheerfully and left Rainbow hanging. After a long awkward moment Spike ambled over and slapped the Pegasus' hoof himself. Dash nodded approvingly.
Fluttershy peered out from her hiding place. "Um…Zecora said I could hide in her hut until the celebration was over." The Pegasus pointed a hoof back the way Rainbow Dash had come. Zecora's rustic home was just visible in the shadowy depths of the Forest.
Applejack dusted off her scarecrow outfit with a front hoof. "I came to bring Fluttershy a candy apple, doncha know."
"The reasons matter little now," noted Luna. "You are here, and you are all welcome to accompany us on this journey. Adventures such as this call for a full party of–"
"*B-KAW!* Did somepony say PARTY?"
Twilight Sparkle nearly jumped out of her robes as Pinkie Pie – still in her full chicken costume – leaped out from behind one of the trees. "P-Pinkie? Whah…?"
The pink Earth Pony grinned. "Oh, I was just in the neighbourhood. Y'know – pecking at things, scratching at the dirt. …And not trying to figure out how to safely gather Poison Joke for an awesome prank. At all." Her eyes darted to and fro. Her smile was brimming with faux innocence.
Twilight straightened her hat and beard. "…Ooohh-kay. Princess Luna is still right. With a larger group we should be able to find Rarity sooner. We'll be back in no time!" Twilight turned to face the pumpkin door, but Zecora galloped over and stood in the way. The Zebra held up a warding hoof.
"Usifanye hivyo! You mustn't go, for you may lack a way of safely coming back!"
"What do you mean?"
Zecora gestured widely at the strange trees. "The ways beyond are mostly sealed – the right conditions make them yield." She nodded at the pumpkin door. "Only on eerie Nightmare Night can one open this door of fright."
Spike's eyes widened. "But the night's almost over! We don't have much time!" The little Dragon scampered past Zecora and tried to hop high enough to reach the door's triangular handle.
"NOTSO!" Luna bellowed in the Royal Canterlot Voice. "DOST THOU FORGET WHO WE ARE? THE NIGHT DOES NOT END UNTIL WE PERMIT IT!" The Alicorn spread her wings and cast her gaze skyward. Her horn glowed, and the moon jerked from the horizon back into the middle of the night sky. Luna smiled proudly. "There! Sally forth, brave Ponies! We shall venture to Ponyville in the meantime, and ensure that Nightmare Night continues until your return."
Twilight looked up at the re-risen moon dubiously. "Umm…Princess…are you sure this is a good idea? After what happened before?"
A hint of sorrow crossed Luna's features, but she pushed it down. "Thy concerns are valid, Twilight Sparkle, but surely thou canst see that this situation is different! We are not condemning Equestria to eternal night – we are helping a Pony in need! We are certain the townsponies will understand. And besides…" Luna hoofed at the ground sheepishly. "…we would also like a chance to have more fun."
Twilight smiled. "All right, Princess. I understand. Now…everypony else – who's ready to go rescue Rarity?" The assembled group let out a mighty cheer as well as a small, terrified squeak.
"OKAY! Let's do this!" Twilight took a deep breath, ignited her horn, and magicked open the pumpkin door.