Luna felt confident. The thousand niggling doubts that had clouded her mind evaporated with a smile and a chuckle. She felt like she could do anything, especially after what she had just said to Twilight. She looked up at the sky for a moment and realized that all she had done was admit to liking her, nothing more. Her victorious attitude deflated slightly as she imagined Twilight waving aside what she had said as little more than an acknowledgement of friendship. She made a silent vow to properly express herself when the next ideal moment came along.
The streets were pleasantly quiet and Luna relished the peace. Vendors were packing away their goods and closing shop for the day and everypony was making the slow, lazy trip home from wherever their day had taken them. The setting sun turned their shadows into tall, majestic creatures that roamed the streets with elongated strides that carried them a few graceful inches before halting. Luna was too busy admiring them to notice the ponies casting them were staring at her. She lifted her head, smiling to herself, and came face to face with a green unicorn mare and her cream-coated companion with a two-tone mane and tail, each eying her with a mix of confusion and surprise.
"Oh! I'm terribly sorry, I must have lost focus for a moment there."
Luna did her best not to imitate their expression, trying to giggle away her embarrassment and failing.
"Princess Luna? Oh my, it is you, isn't it? It's an honor to meet you."
The earth pony smiled and bowed before giving her friend a light smack and motioning for her to do the same. After a moment of holding her hoof over where she had been struck, realization dawned on her.
"Oh! Right. Yes, very honored."
She performed a hasty, slightly less graceful bow and resumed rubbing the sore spot, scowling at the now frustrated earth pony. She looked back at Luna and smiled.
"Sorry about that. I think it was me who lost focus that time. I hope that you'll forgive me for not bowing immediately."
The pair exchanged glances and Luna chuckled a bit.
"Worry not, unlike my sister I tend to not be much for ceremony. I understand that I can be a bit... intimidating, especially considering the problems Nightmare Moon caused when I was released from the moon, but I hope that everypony will treat me no differently than anypony else."
The unicorn lightly prodded her friend in the shoulder.
"And this is why we ask these questions before we smack ponies upside the head."
The earth pony rolled her eyes and smirked.
"We both know that you'll have earned it one way or the other before nightfall."
Luna chuckled and gestured to the setting sun. Its light was slowly beginning to fade little by little.
"Then you had best be quick, I'm due to raise the moon shortly. I'll hold off so that you can use the light to return home safely and swiftly."
The green unicorn opened her mouth to speak and apparently thought better of it. Her companion bowed once more.
"Good night, Luna."
Luna bowed to them each in turn and walked away. She heard the unicorn say something in a sarcastic tone followed by the sound of another smack and shook her head, smiling. She looked to the west. There was hardly any light left as the sun dipped below the horizon. Luna spread her wings, flying upward with slow, measured flaps. The moon was almost never raised with any ceremony except around the harvest time when festivals continued into the early hours of morning, and this was no different.
So why was everypony watching?
Luna gazed down upon Ponyville and the small crowd that was gathering beneath her. Colts and fillies called out to her and cheered, stallions and mares looked on in awe. Every night she raised the moon from the tallest tower of the castle, hoping to glimpse somepony somewhere gazing up at her night and finding none. And here she was, miles from home and being brave for the first time in what seemed like an eternity, with her subjects smiling at her and awaiting the raising of the moon. Her eyes teared up as she closed them.
In her mind she could feel the turn of the world beneath her and the pull of the stars as they tugged at the pattern she had woven them into. The power of the night surged through her in a way it never had before. She could feel it running down her horn and out her hooves like a current, her mane and tail flowing in a gentle evening breeze. Luna wiped away the tears rolling down her cheeks and her smile curved into a crescent shape. Every drop that fell became a shining speck that wove itself into her mane and reflected itself in the night sky, and as the moon began to rise it was her smile shining down on Equestria.
She flung her wings open wide, held aloft by force of will alone. The ponies beneath her let out a collective gasp and Luna smiled, opening her eyes. Slowly she returned to the ground and raised her head to look at the sky.
There were so many stars. The night sky was so full that Luna couldn't help but laugh a little. Nebulae and brilliant clusters of young stars formed streaks of color and pleasing patterns. Dust and tiny meteorites fell from the sky as burning lines that lasted only a few moments and seemed to join the new shapes together. She turned to the small crowd, cheeks red and smiling softly.
"Oh dear... I seem to have gotten carried away. I hope it isn't too bright for everypony; I know most of you are on your way to bed."
The crowd began to murmur, full of awe and appreciation. Three ponies, barely older than foals, approached her slowly with smiles on their faces.
"It's... It's so lovely..."
"Princess, how the heck do you expect me to sleep and miss this? It's so cool!"
"Yeah! Hey sis, can I stay awake just a little longer? Please!?"
Whichever mare she was addressing must have been just as deeply moved, because no reply came from among the crowd. The filly sighed and walked off, her friends following. One of the stallions looked over at Luna and took a step towards her. He lowered his head.
"Thank you, Princess Luna, for this beautiful night."
He smiled softly and rose, walking away. Several of the other ponies looked at each other and at her. They began to bow, and soon the entire crowd was following suit.
"Oh, please, don't feel like you have to bow. It's really nothing more than duty."
One of the younger colts stood up straight.
"But Princess, how else are we supposed to show our... uh... respect?"
Luna chuckled a bit as his mother rolled her eyes and ruffled his mane.
"Simply enjoying the night is enough. I don't require your prostration, I simply desire..."
Luna felt a cold chill run down her spine and a twisting feeling in her stomach as though somepony were rearranging her insides. She tried to avoid grimacing and mostly succeeded, merely tensing up slightly. The feeling passed momentarily and in its place was a faint throbbing sensation that almost burned.
"I simply desire your appreciation."
Luna took a few steps away from them.
"I apologize, something has come up."
She spread her wings and took flight, leaving behind the confused crowd of ponies before another word could be said. In her head she went over the list of things that could possibly be wrong. She looked up at the sky and closed her eyes. The pattern was twisted, as though somepony had bent it out of shape. The lines upon which the stars hung had been gathered up to write a message. Luna opened her eyes again as true fear made itself known to her for the first time since she had lost herself.
"Come find me, Luna. Artemis awaits."
Luna untangled the stars bit by bit and followed the flow of magic back to its origin. It was cold and dark like the void that the stars held at bay. The path was not only plain but the caster had made the effort to make it easy to follow. Luna looked towards the center of Ponyville, the place the spell seemed to emanate from, and began to fly towards it.
As she descended she could feel the oppressive presence of the black shadowy mass before she actually saw it. It clung to a pale yellow pegasus mare like a veil, both sprouting from her and using her form as a support. It's eyes glowed an icy blue and a horn of black fire sprouted from its forehead.
"Luna. At last. I've been longing to meet with you face to face."
Luna recognized the voice almost instantly. One of the Elements of Harmony, the Element of Kindness. But the tone was cruel, commanding and harsh.
"Just who are you?"
The veil moved, dragging the body along with it like a puppet on strings, throwing back its head and laughing. For a moment they became one, fragments of blue armor circling around them, mane and tail streaked with blue.
"You always were slow when it came to picking up on this sort of thing. Perhaps I should simply spell it out for you? Or maybe you finally recognize your own face?"
Luna took a step back, and then another. Her eyes widened and her horn flared defensively.
"No, you... This is a trick. It's an illusion. You are my weakness, it is completely impossible for you to try to take over anypony else."
Nightmare Moon took a step forwards. Her host did the same.
"This pony has a very weak will, little foal. Try as she might she can't bring herself to resist me, so afraid of the cold and the dark that I could plunge her mind into. Even while you restrain the greater portion of our power and keep it from my grasp, just a stray fragment was enough, a shred of my will escaping your prison. And now I'd like the rest of it back. And our body, of course."
Luna stared in fear, absolute terror rooting her to the spot. She watched Nightmare Moon draw closer, her victim pulled along with sudden, jerking movements. The shadows loosened their grasp slightly, barely anchored to the pegasus mare.
It wasn't Nightmare Moon's mouth that moved, but her host's.
The veil of shadows drew tighter around her form and there was a strangled, gasping sound. Luna's mouth fell open, horrified. Nightmare Moon chuckled softly as her form solidified once more.
"I'm sorry, where were we? Ah yes, destroying you."
Nightmare Moon's horn swelled and glowed, encasing itself in a towering black inferno. Luna's eyes widened as the shadow solidified and she stood rooted to the spot as it charged. The only sound was Nightmare Moon's cruel laughter.
There was a sudden flash of blue light and Nightmare Moon stopped in her tracks. She scowled a bit at the thin flecks of silver that floated around Luna, watching them settle around her neck and stick to her. Luna observed the motes of stardust closely as they gathered around her, brushing her hoof against the silver band.
At her touch the dust became solid, forming a chain and a shimmering crescent medallion. Luna reached up a hoof to touch it, gently toying with the moon pendant and bringing it to her face to look at it. It was brighter than the full moon but the light didn't hurt her eyes to look at and hanging beside it was a little blue balloon-shaped charm. As she toyed with it she could swear she heard Pinkie Pie laughing, singing her childish songs about giggling at the ghostly. The sound reassured her.
The word wasn't so much spoken as invoked, a call to the Element itself. Luna smiled softly, releasing the pendant. It felt warm and weightless like a comforting presence, shrouding her in the same manner as the black veil around the Element of Kindness.
"To banish fear."
Her eyes met Nightmare Moon's and her smile became a faint smirk.
"I won't let you hurt anypony, Nightmare Moon. I am not a scared little foal anymore. Leave her quietly or suffer the consequences."
Nightmare Moon glared, eyebrows furrowing.
"We'll see about that. Even if this form is hard to maintain, I have one thing you do not. I have rage, fury. The fury of a night princess scorned is dangerous, is it not? We both know well the damage a tidal wave can cause, or a single falling star."
She gestured to the sky and grinned cruelly.
"And you've done nothing with your display earlier but give me plenty of ammunition to level this town with, little foal. It seems you fail to realize the situation you have put yourself in."
Luna felt the sky being shifted once more and the burning sensation in her gut returned as the pattern began to creak under the strain. A single star broke free of its bonds and dropped from the sky. Luna's horn glowed, trying to combat Nightmare Moon's magic with her own. The frayed threads of the sky wove themselves around the star once more and snatched it out of the air. Luna breathed a sigh of relief as it pulled itself back into place but her relief rapidly turned into confusion as Nightmare Moon's grin grew.
"Congratulations are in order, I think. You've regained some small scrap of magical power. You stopped a single star with your power. But what about five at a time? Ten? I could unleash the heavens upon you, little foal, and then what would you do?"
Luna drew herself up to her full height and spread her wings, horn glowing.
"I would fight. I would remake the night sky a thousand times and stop you at every turn."
Luna's horn glowed brighter and she scrapped her hoof against the ground. Nightmare Moon rolled her eyes.
"What, copying that trick? That purple mare was the first and shall remain the only pony to fool me with that charade."
Nightmare Moon smiled, her horn igniting once more. Her host quivered and squeaked.
"Allow me to remind you which of us is the real queen of the night."
Luna's horn glowed brighter, a sputtering flame forming at the tip. Nightmare Moon cackled.
"Oh? So you really think you can fight me?"
They charged at one another, wings flaring. Luna bit her lip and concentrated. Their magic collided and Luna's hooves dug into the ground as she was slowly pushed backwards. She flapped her wings, closing her eyes and trying desperately to focus her magic. There was a ripping sound as something tore and Luna fell forwards. She watched as Nightmare Moon's flaming horn disintegrated, her own horn piercing through it. Nightmare Moon gasped and her host screamed in agony.
Luna stood there panting for a few minutes as the shadowy veil faded and reformed over and over. There was blood on the ground and Luna could feel more on her horn, hot and slick. The Element of Kindness lay on the ground, thin cuts all over her body from where the shadow had torn at her to get a better grip. Luna wiped her horn clean, trying not to think too hard about which wound was her fault.
"Are you alright?"
The Element stirred slightly and stood up.
"Yes, I... I think I'm alright."
Luna smiled softly until she noticed that the eyes were still the same cold blue and her lips retained their cruel smirk. The shadows coiled around her slowly and Nightmare Moon shuddered a little bit.
She chuckled a bit and examined her host's body, testing the wounded limbs and stretching.
"Well now, it seems that once again the odds are in my favor where they belong now that I know you can only hurt my puppet."
Luna braced herself but not matter how hard she tried her magic refused to come forth. A tiny blue spark leaped from the tip and fell uselessly to the ground. Nightmare Moon watched it for a moment as it sputtered and died before looking Luna in the eye. She shook her head gently and reformed her black fire.
"Useless, little foal. Utterly useless."
Luna laughed defiantly but the sound did little to quell her growing fear and quickly became a brief, nervous giggle. She gulped and watched Nightmare Moon lower her head, charging right at her. Luna dove to the side, spread her wings and took to the skies. Her entire body felt heavy and her horn ached from pushing her magic. Luna glanced over her shoulder at Nightmare Moon as she took off after her, black wings wrapped around pale yellow and forcing them into motion.
"That's it, run! Fear me, cowardly little fake!"
She swung her horn in Luna's direction and the black flames flew from its tip. Luna swerved out of the way and felt the deep chill in the air around it. Her mind searched for a solution and she heard a faint jingling sound. She rested a hoof over her pendant.
"The Elements of Harmony..."
She glanced at Nightmare Moon. The Elements had vanquished her twice before, and as she had put it, just a fragment was enough. Luna tried to clear her mind and focus on the pendant, summoning up what little magic she had left. It sparked and flickered but refused to do anything more. Nightmare Moon readied another blast of flame, the black shadows growing from her horn.
"Now then, foal, it's time to take my body back for good. Be a good filly and hold still this time."
Luna moved to dodge and found herself frozen in place, not by fear but shock. She could see red droplets falling from the host's body, overworked and injured. She could feel that same pain inside herself and it made her wings lock up. Luna fell towards the ground, the flame barely touching her horn and grasping at it slightly. It left a thin layer of soot and ash on the tip as it flew past. Luna steadied herself and flew lower to the ground.
"You know you can't escape me, stop running!"
Nightmare Moon scowled as she spoke, hovering in place.
"I'm not running away, but I told you I won't let you hurt anypony."
Luna dropped to the ground and glared up at Nightmare Moon. She stamped her hoof.
"You... You are my responsibility! So I say to you, Nightmare Moon, that even if I have to turn my body over to you to do it, I won't let you lay a hoof on anypony else so long as you live! I refuse to let you hurt that mare further!"
Nightmare Moon swooped low over Luna and kicked her across the face, knocking Luna to the ground. She smirked and flew above her once more, horn swelling with tendrils of shadow.
"Your compassion falls on deaf ears, foal."
Luna coughed and, with some difficulty, stood.
"You're wrong, Nightmare Moon. Because there is somepony here who knows what true kindness is and why it's worth fighting for. And it's for her that I made that offer, so that she knows she's not alone."
A pink glow began to form around Nightmare Moon's neck and dragged her towards the ground like an anchor. It crystallized, taking the shape of a butterfly and Nightmare Moon thrashed her limbs, clawing at the air. She landed on the ground and her legs buckled beneath her.
"What? Impossible! I broke her will, she can't resist me! She can't!"
The necklace began to glow, a pale pink light that seemed to shine with tenderness and compassion. Nightmare Moon screamed in pain, her voice becoming more and more bestial by the second. The shadows melted away and she staggered, barely in control of her host. One eye shifted color and she panted, her hooves yanking at the necklace.
"No... Get it off of me! I can't lose like this, I refuse! I'm the real princess, not you, how could a mere fake overpower me!?"
Luna hovered closer and landed, walking towards her slowly.
"It's over. You are my burden, not hers nor anypony else's. I will find a way for us to coexist, a path for both of us to talk along. Together."
Nightmare Moon spat at her.
"Never. I will never submit, not to you or anypony else, and especially not to a pathetic little Element of Harmony. I- Oh my goodness..."
She shook her head and rubbed her temples.
"Oh my goodness... Luna, I...- No! Your body is mine now, foal, I won't- let you hurt anypony!"
The pegasus cried out in pain. She turned and ran off, shadows curling around her once more as she fled. Luna watched for a moment and decided to stay put. The night was still young and so long as there were stars in the sky Ponyville would be in danger. She looked around at the town and the handful of ponies peeking out of windows and around doorways at her. It would be safer in the morning, when the Element of Kindness would have an easier time fighting back. She turned and walked back towards the library, limping slightly. At the very least there was some hope remaining.