Here we go!
The six ponies and two alicorns moved through what was supposedly Whitetail Wood, their hooffalls muffled by a dense layer of dead leaves. Fluttershy's head darted around, not stopping for an instant. Her ears stood straight up, twitching at any sound made. Her breathing increased slightly as they made their way past leafless trees and the occasional log.
Dash glanced to her from her left. "Fluttershy, I know how stupid this will sound, but are you all right?"
Rarity looked over from the right. "Indeed, darling. You're shaking worse than Carousel Boutique did last time the Crusaders were there for their weekly sleepover." She closed her eyes, shuddering herself.
Fluttershy reached up with a hoof, pushing her hood back. "No, Dash. I'm not all right, but Whitetail Wood is even worse off!" Her eyes darted from Dash to Rarity. "Well, can't you hear it?"
Rarity blinked. "Hear what, exactly?"
Fluttershy trotted ahead a few paces before turning and facing her friends. "Exactly!" She waved a foreleg in the air. "I've barely heard any insects while walking through here, to say nothing of birds, squirrels or any other animals! Whitetail Wood is dying!"
There was a pause for several seconds before Luna cleared her throat, gaining everyone's attention. She waited for them all to turn back to face her and Twilight at the back before speaking. "I'm afraid I can confirm Fluttershy's assessment of Whitetail Woods is correct, as well as Applejack's earlier statement about the grass." She turned her head to the side and craned her head up, focusing on a branch and an abandoned nest nestled in a crook. "This land is sick and malnourished. The food chain has been broken."
Nightmare Moon snorted, drawing everyone to the front of the group. "The Tyrant Filly's blundering, no doubt. Her mismanagement of the sun and inability to rule has no doubt wounded Equestria. When she is removed and I am on the throne, then it can be made right."
Fluttershy suddenly hopped up and flew right to Nightmare Moon, hovering a couple of feet from her muzzle. "It's not this version of Twilight, well it is, but it's the sun under her control. Well, n-not under her control." The pegasus shook her head, her pink mane swinging wildly. "I mean without the sun, photosynthesis won't occur. The plants die, the herbivores eating them starve, the carnivores eating them starve and the scavengers and carrion eaters eventually run out of food as well! Then they all die off and..." Her voice trailed off and she dropped back to the ground as Nightmare Moon's gaze drilled into her. "And you... get t-the idea, N-Nightmare Moon."
Nightmare Moon stood there for a moment before lowering her head to Fluttershy's level. She cocked her head to the side and her eyes dimmed back to normal levels. "So where are the ponies to help out the animals and plants?" she asked, her voice tinged with mild curiosity. "Before I was betrayed-" A grunt from Applejack brought her head whipping to her side. "What?" she asked, staring at the earth pony.
Applejack swallowed and drew herself up as tall as she could before speaking. "Beggin yer pardon, yer majesty, but that's not tha case. Yah see, without the sun, there's only so much we ponies can do." She held up a foreleg and pointed up at the dark, starless sky. "Pegasi can make it rain, or clear away clouds. Earth ponies can help plants grow and unicorns can aid with their magic, but without tha sun..." Her voice trailed off and she merely shrugged, letting the wind whipping through the bare branches speak for her.
The alicorn's slitted eyes shifted from side to side before she wheeled about, digging a furrow in the ground with her armored hoof. "Then it is best we finish this trip to Ponyville as soon as possible!" she declared. She glanced back, her starlit mane whipping about. "Come, little ponies. Time is short in my land!"
Applejack hung her head, but followed Nightmare Moon, the others trailing behind as they made their way through the woods.
Twilight, still near the back with Luna, looked up to the Lunar Diarch. "Pardon me for asking, Princess, but-" She suddenly looked to the fore of the group and Nightmare Moon marching straight ahead, her ears twitching slightly.
Luna's horn shone for a moment. "She cannot hear you," she said, looking down at the unicorn by her side. "So, you were about to ask if I was as delusional as she is?"
Twilight's eyes widened and she seemed to shrink into herself. "I well it's just..." Her cheeks turned a dark red and her mouth clamped shut. "I'm sorry," she finally mumbled, hanging her head.
A slight chuckle came from Luna. "She is deep in the throes of denial," she finally said. "Just as I was. The similarities are unnerving, to say the least." She glanced back at her cutie mark. "I have learned of what happens when a pony is unable to perform their special talent, the thing they love doing the most. The research is in its barest stages, but it describes what happened to me precisely." Her gaze drifted to the sky. "I am not sure, but I believe back then I suffered through a rather extreme case of such a disorder. It was somewhat magnified by being the Bearer of the Elements of Honesty, Loyalty and Generosity."
A small gasp escaped Twilight's mouth. "Oh, my gosh." She reached up with a hoof and patted Luna's upper arm and shoulder. "I'm so sorry."
Luna's eyes slid down to gaze at the smaller one next to her. "I appreciate it, but I do not deserve it." She looked ahead at Nightmare Moon. "What I did back then was wrong, no matter what excuses I might give myself."
Dash suddenly hopped into the air and held a foreleg up to her forehead. "Hey, is it just me, or is lighter ahead?"
Applejack craned her head forward and squinted. "Why, I reckon yer right, Dash." She looked back to the rest of the group. "Ah, Fluttershy, is it just me, or isn't the boundary o' Whitetail Wood supposed tah be a lot further away? It shouldn't be thinning out so early..." Her eyes widened and she suddenly shot forward, breaking into a gallop within seconds.
Fluttershy's entire body trembled before she too took off, flying past a startled Nightmare Moon and leaving a yellow and pink contrail in her wake. "No, no no no no!" she shouted, tears streaming from her eyes.
Rainbow Dash followed her oldest friend a half-second later. "Hey, wait up!" she cried out. "You don't know what's ahead!"
Nightmare Moon's wings flapped as the three shot off. "Wait, come back!" she cried out. Her horn lit up, but she ceased as Luna and Twilight trotted up to her side. "We must stop them!"
"Why?" Luna asked. She turned and looked ahead down the path. "We're going that way anyway." She looked back to Rarity and Pinkie Pie as they trotted past. "It looks like you'd better hurry," she said before she and Twilight followed along.
Nightmare Moon's lips curled back, but she set her gaze straight ahead and followed suit, moving quickly and catching up with the rest of the group, now standing in a cluster at the side of an elm. She stopped next to Applejack and looked down at the earth pony. Her brow furrowed at her slack-jawed expression. "Well? What is it?"
Applejack's head slowly tilted up and she looked up at Nightmare Moon. She slowly looked back down and wordlessly motioned to where she was staring.
Nightmare Moon slowly looked up, her eyes widening as she stared out. "What..."
A slow wind tossed a few leaves around tree stumps, the dominant feature of the land as far as anyone could see. Hundreds-perhaps thousands-of them sprouted from the ground, the remnants of the trees once standing proud and tall.
Applejack slid her stetson off her head and placed it over her chest as she looked out at the devastated forest. "This... this is bad." She looked up to her left at Dash as she hovered by her side opposite Nightmare Moon. "Dash, how fast can ye fly around Whitetail Woods' borders and scope out tha situation?"
The pegasus' eyes narrowed and her wings buzzed. "I'm on it!" she shouted, shooting off and leaving a rainbow-streaked contrail behind close to the ground.
Nightmare Moon reared back. "Come back here!" she shouted, mane flaring out after Dash. "I DID NOT GIVE-"
Luna was suddenly by her side, her own mane reaching out and blocking Nightmare Moon's reach. Her expression was neutral, save piercing eyes that almost caused Nightmare Moon to flinch. "Let her be," she stated. "This is important."
The dark alicorn snorted and her eyes glowed. "What, some tree stumps?" She stepped over to Applejack and leaned her neck down, bringing her visage a scant few inches from Applejack's face. "Do not tell me that in your Equestria, trees aren't cut down!" she shouted, sending the earth pony sliding back.
Applejack flinched, but planted her hooves wide apart and squared her shoulders. "It's not jus that." She backed up to a stump, keeping her eyes on Nightmare Moon the entire time. "Thare's no saplings nor new growth. They've all been clear cut and none o' them replaced." She sucked in a breath. "They're killin' Whitetail Wood, and this cain't be tha only place it's happening."
Fluttershy let out a strangled sob and her entire body shook. "W-without the t-trees, the soil will be eroded away," she stuttered out. She trotted over to Nightmare Moon and looked up at her with wide, watery eyes. "And n-no new growth or plantings will m-mean W-Whitetail Woods will c-continue to shrink with every tree cut down." She swallowed. "All the animals, no homes for them. No homes..."
Rarity and Pinkie Pie were by her sides in an instant. "There, there," Rarity said, wrapping her forelegs around Fluttershy in a hug.
Nightmare Moon's body trembled slightly. "All right, so what does this change, precisely? The Tyrant Filly must still be stopped." She turned her gaze to the general direction of Canterlot. "We should not be wasting our time going to Ponyville!"
Luna, still standing by Nightmare Moon's side, shook her head. "And you know we won't go there until we see how this Equestria's Ponyville is doing. It's not only for our benefit, remember?" She cantered right up to Nightmare Moon's flank and waved a wing in Ponyville's direction. "It has been a millennium, after all."
Nightmare Moon's teeth ground together. "Very well, but I will brook no further delays!" she shouted, her mane and tail flapping about. Her gaze shifted slightly to the right as Rainbow Dash flew back to the group. "Well?"
Dash landed in front of everyone there, panting slightly. "About half of Whitetail Wood's gone," she reported, the hood of her cloak casting her face in shadow. "I saw a few animals here and there, but not many." She focused on Fluttershy, her eyes sympathetic. "Sorry, Fluttershy."
Fluttershy's right eye twitched. "I-it's all right, Rainbow Dash." She suddenly hunched down and covered her head with her wings, sobs coming from underneath. She barely reacted as Dash, Pinkie Pie, Applejack and Rarity huddled around her, patting her on the back or gently rubbing her wings.
Twilight walked up to Dash's side. "Did you manage to see Ponyville?"
The pegasus focused on her. "Yeah, and I hate to sound like I'm in a Daring Do novel, but I think you're gonna have to see for yourself what's happened there."
Twilight nodded. "All right." Her head suddenly shot up as Nightmare Moon was there, by her side. "Eep!" she shouted, hopping into the air.
Nightmare Moon's slitted eyes flashed for a moment. "Then perhaps we should find out, correct?" And with that, she turned her gaze to Dash. "The direction of Ponyville?"
Dash kept her gaze low and hood covering her eyes as she jabbed a hoof in the general direction opposite of where they came from. Nightmare Moon nodded to her before turning and trotting off.
Luna's lips turned up as she watched her counterpart walking off. "Excellent," she said.
Applejack blinked. "Excellent?!" Her head shot up and her voice rose in pitch. "Half tha forest is gone? How's that 'excellent'?"
Luna swallowed and her cheeks turned red. "My apologies, Applejack," she said, glancing over her shoulder. "I did not mean Whitetail Wood. I meant that I believe Nightmare Moon's eyes might be opening. Slowly, but they are opening." She unfurled a wing and motioned to Nightmare Moon as she slowly receded in the distance. "Come, my little ponies." And with that, she walked off, following Nightmare Moon.
Rarity gently reached out and lifted Fluttershy's right wing. "Fluttershy, darling, are you fit to continue?"
Fluttershy's eyes darted about. "N-no, I'm not. It's dark here, and scary. The land and animals are dying..." She lifted her wings from her head and folded them back against her body. "B-but t-things won't get better w-while I'm sitting here shivering!" She stood up on all fours and stared straight ahead at Nightmare Moon and Luna. "Now let's go!" she shouted, her head suddenly ducking low. "Before I change my mind!"
Twenty minutes later
The first thing they noticed about Ponyville was the wall.
It was solid, wrapping around the entire town, with metal bands reinforcing the timbers. Gemstones of various colors, shapes and sizes were embedded in the wood. A haze hung over parts of the town, supplied by several chimneys burning nonstop. A massive gate stood in front of the main path, with a smaller pony-sized door built into it. Near a bend in the wall, a small culvert of stone could be seen, built into the bottom for drainage. And finally, guard towers were evenly spaced right behind the wall, each one with at least two ponies staffing it.
Twilight cantered back and forth as she beheld the wall. She and the rest were standing about a dozen meters away, near a lone tree and a group of stumps. "Oh, my gosh," she repeated, her head swishing back and forth and bits of her mane springing up, pushing her hood around.
Nightmare Moon rolled her eyes. "I assume there's no wall around Ponyville either."
Dash flew around right up to her muzzle. "Well, duh!" she said, rolling her eyes.
Rarity eyed the gems and rubbed her chin. "Oh, my," she muttered. "It's brilliant, but so sad that they have to do such a thing."
Everyone turned to the pearl-white unicorn. "Whatcha mean?" Applejack asked.
Rarity shrugged. "Well, if a magical current is run through those gems, a force field will be created, strengthening the barrier. It's a neigh-perfect arrangement." Her eyes lit up for a moment. "Oh, to be able to get a few of those..."
Twilight's eyes lit up. "Rarity, that's amazing!" Her expression darkened. "Wait, I've never read anything like that." She looked to her. "when did you learn that?"
Rarity snorted and waved Twilight off. "Oh, please, darling! I taught you everything you know about gems, but not everything I know." Her expression turned grim. "Oh, this is most unsettling!"
Pinkie Pie blinked. "Why, the gems clash with the wood color?"
Rarity's jaw cracked to the right before she shrugged "Well, all right, there's that." She pointed a hoof at the wall. "But think about it, girls. Ponyville is less than a half day's travel from Canterlot. If they feel this threatened in the shadow of the capital itself, how's the rest of Equestria doing?"
Twilight suddenly gasped. "Shining Armor, Cadance!" she cried out, rearing back and kicking the air. She dropped back down and trotted over to Nightmare Moon. "Ah, did you happen to see either a white-coated unicorn stallion or a pink-coated alicorn mare before coming to our Equestria?" she asked, hopping from hoof to hoof.
Applejack was by her side in an instant, foreleg draped around her withers and back. "Easy, sugarcube."
Dash dropped down on the opposite side and extended a wing. "Yeah. Remember, they're not the Shining Armor or Cadance you know."
Twilight's head whipped back and forth between the two. "I know I know, but it's still 'a' Shining Armor and Cadance, my big brother best friend forever and the best foalsitter ever." She slowly leaned back onto her haunches. "My brain says the ones I know are safe back home, but my heart..."
Nightmare Moon slowly reached out and placed an armored hoof on Twilight's shoulder. "I was not here long," she said. "I have no information one way or the other." She drew her head back slightly. "I am... sorry."
Twilight looked up, eyes shining. "No, it's all right," she whispered. "Thank you for your concern."
Nightmare Moon opened her mouth, but her head shot up and her horn flashed. "Down, foals!" she shouted as a violet shield sprung up around the group a half-second before an arrow would have embedded itself in the back of Twilight's head. The arrow shaft flexed for a moment before snapping, the two halves dropping to the bare dirt.
The dark alicorn strode forward, shield expanding into a full dome even as the smaller ponies scrambled back, either of their own accord or for one particular pegasus pony, Nightmare Moon's telekinesis. Her lips drew back into a sneer. "Do they not know who they're dealing with?!"
Luna rolled her eyes. "No, they don't," she said, walking up beside Nightmare Moon. She looked to her, suppressing a shudder. "These are obviously difficult times for them, and we are strangers huddled near their gate."
A shout from one of the guard towers drew everyone's attention. "Who goes there?" a mint-green unicorn mare shouted, two crossbows floating by her head. "And who are the alicorns?"
Rainbow Dash, still caught in Nightmare moon's grip, twisted around at the voice, her eyes wide. "No, way! Is that... Lyra Heartstrings?"
Pinkie Pie bounced up and down. "Ooh, it is!" She waved a foreleg in the air. "Hi, alternate universe Lyra! Have you and Bonbon married here?"
The Lyra at the guard tower leaned forward over a rail. "Who are you?" she shouted, golden eyes narrowing.
Pinkie Pie blew out a breath. "It's me, Pinkie Pie!"
Lyra's eyes darted back and forth. "Who?"
Rainbow Dash suddenly gasped. "Oh, horse feathers. Pinkie Pie, I don't think this Lyra knows you!"
Pinkie Pie scratched her head. "Wait, why not? Am I going by..." She swallowed. "Am I going by Pinkamina here?"
Twilight slowly looked to her. "Or... in this reality, you never left the rock farm to begin with!" She looked around at Rarity, Fluttershy, Applejack, and Rainbow Dash. "All of your lives could be completely different!"
"I could still be at Manehattan!" Applejack exclaimed.
"And I could have never left Cloudsdale," Rainbow Dash added.
Fluttershy sucked in a breath. "Both of us could still be there!"
Rarity swooned from side to side. "And I could be still in that Celestia-forsaken wasteland I was in after finding that geode!"
Nightmare Moon rolled her eyes. "Well, the alternate versions of you might not be here, but you six are." She locked eyes with Luna. "So, what do you suggest we do?"
Luna glanced at the guard tower and Lyra. "Announce who you are and your intentions. But don't threaten anyone." Her own eyes glowed for a moment. "I'll be watching, after all."
Nightmare Moon walked forward. She spread her wings out, lit her horn up from root to tip and opened her mouth wide. "Tell me, Lyra Heartstrings. Have you heard of Nightmare Moon, locked away in the moon for a thousand years?"
Luna leaned down next to Twilight. "Was I this bad?"
Twilight shrugged. "Give or take, yeah."
Other ponies from other guard towers were staring down at Nightmare Moon. Lyra finally spoke up. "N-no, I've never heard of Nightmare Moon. Is that-"
"Yes, I am Nightmare Moon!" the alicorn cried out, mane flaring out and drinking in the surrounding light. She reared up before dropping both forehooves to the ground, cracking the dirt. "For a thousand years I waited to return and claim my rightful place on the throne, but I see that a usurper has stolen what is mine!" She slowly rose into the air, finally coming level with Lyra. "Twilight Sparkle, correct?"
Lyra nodded, eyes wide and crossbows clattering to the floor. "Yes." She looked away from Nightmare Moon. "She stole the sun from Celestia, and now the land freezes." She suddenly gasped. "There are rumors of a battle at Canterlot involving her. Was that you?"
A low chuckle came from Nightmare Moon. "I faced her in battle, yes. She is powerful, but a mere foal. I fled and gathered allies from across the veil of reality." She turned her head. "Come forth, Elements of Harmony and my other self!"
Rarity snorted. "Well, she's gotten into the role, hasn't she."
Applejack snickered. "Yeah, but I think we'd better mosey on forward." She adjusted her hat and motioned to Nightmare Moon's general location. "After you, darlin'."
Luna and the others left the general vicinity of the lone tree and trotted forth, heads held high. "I greet you from across space and time!" Luna shouted. "We are here to aid our fellow ponies in restoring balance and order to this land!" she continued, staring straight up at Nightmare Moon.
"Will you bring back the sun?" another guardpony shouted.
Nightmare Moon kicked at the air. "I will defeat the Tyrant Filly, yes. I merely ask that my allies and I be allowed to met the ponies inside and reassure them that their time of salvation is at hand!"
Lyra turned and ran to a set of stairs in the back of the tower, disappearing down them as Nightmare Moon floated back down to the ground. She looked to Luna and nickered. "Well, how was that?"
Luna's eyes shifted as the giant gate slowly opened. "You got the point across. Now. Let us see how you can deal with the common ponies and their problems."
A bark of laughter escaped Nightmare Moon. "Foal's play," she said as she trotted forward.
Luna kept her gaze on her. "She'll be in for a harsh lesson very quickly," she said as Twilight and the others walked up to her side.
Twilight let loose a sigh. "I figured that, Princess. But it's one she's got to learn, right?"
Luna nodded. "Right." A small smile crossed her muzzle. "Now, let's go. We shouldn't keep Ponyville or her royal highness waiting, now should we."
And with that, the seven followed Nightmare Moon into Ponyville.
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