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    It felt like months since the fight.

    Months since the tainted entrails of Twilight and Rarity’s relationship had been exposed. It felt so faraway, so unimportant, so blurred.

    Maybe that was the sleep-deprivation.

    The fascinating thing about being sleep-deprived, Twilight learned, is that the longer you go without sleeping, the more time and space blur together; a messy mix and match of fragmented memories that somehow make sense if you don’t think about it too much.

    Like a dream.

    In the sleepless days that followed her terrible fight with Rarity, Twilight Sparkle didn’t try to figure out what was a dream or what was real because, truth be told, both felt the same.

    Both felt like a nightmare.

    “Princess.”

    She’d stopped just beyond the crystal doors of the Dreamland, her eyes set on the dozens of blurry foals running around inside. Were they blurry because of the doors, or because she’d only slept about four hours? It was hard to tell, but she supposed it didn’t matter.

    Was Rarity still upset? Fluttershy said that Rarity, like Twilight, had expressed the desire for things to be ‘okay’ but…

    Would they be? Was okay even possible after this?

    The thought had kept Twilight awake the entire night, and she knew it would continue to do so for longer still.

    “Princess,” Fluttershy repeated. Twilight looked at her, swallowing hard, not daring to speak. The smiling pegasus simply tilted her head and placed a comforting hoof on her shoulder. “You’re not alone. I’ll be here with you.”

    And Rarity? Twilight wanted to ask, but she didn’t.

    “Thank you,” she said instead.

    Assured, Fluttershy stepped forward and opened the doors, subjecting the princess to the sensory overload of cheering foals. Loud, loud, loud and giving her no option but to plaster on a smile, switch to damage control mode, and get on with it.

    There were so many things Twilight had to worry about, so many things hanging by a frail thread, yet it was hard not to fixate on Rarity at first. If the unicorn was upset, Twilight did not know. They didn’t talk much when she and Fluttershy came back.

    In fact, they didn’t talk at all.

    There was no time to talk that day with the foals running around, with the surprise party being planned out, with the oppressive knowledge that elsewhere in Hollow Shades, Dusk Star was being told that everything they were and stood for was a scam.

    With so many problems hanging over their heads, it was hard to find even a few minutes to take a breather, much less talk about the litany of unresolved tensions that were hard to confront.

    The only thing that mattered was how Dusk’s birthday would go. It had been everything Rarity’d been building up to for the last two years. And that mattered. It mattered so much.

    Princess Luna certainly thought so too, considering it was the only thing she talked about when Twilight saw her that night.

    Standing with the princess before a massive, star-filled lake, Twilight Sparkle examined her reflection. She’d been there for hours now; traveled into the dream realm as soon as the foals left just to make sure Princess Luna wasn’t alone in waiting for judgement day to knock.

    And it knocked.

    “Is everything ready for today?” Princess Luna asked.

    “Today? Oh.” Twilight stared at her reflection and forced a smile. “The surprise party. Yes, everything is ready. It’s starting at noon.” If Dusk came. She hoped he would. It would be terrible if he didn’t. “How are you feeling? Are you okay? Not that you wouldn’t be. Because you are. I—” She fell silent. “It’ll be fine.”

    The princess nodded. “It will be. We will reconvene tonight so you can tell me about the party and what a success it was.” She then smiled sympathetically. “After that, there will be no dreamwalking lessons. You need rest, Twilight. You’ve not slept much, have you?”

    “It’s fine.” Twilight grinned. ”I have a plan.”

    “I cannot imagine there won’t be physical repercussions for drinking coffee for hours on end.”

    Twilight’s grin vanished.

    “I never said it was a smart plan.” At the princess’s pointed stare, she relented. “If everything works out, I’ll have enough time to sleep. Until then, It’ll be fine.”

    “It will be fine,” the princess repeated, and Twilight wondered if either of them believed it.

    Twilight had a book of idioms.

    A book she’d read every so often, trying her best to memorize the different expressions, and then being overjoyed whenever she found herself in a situation where one was applicable.

    This time was different, however. This time, when the lights of the Dreamland turned on, when adults and foals jumped out from their hiding spots and yelled surprise only to find not the birthday colt and his sister, but just the sister…

    Twilight Sparkle thought of an idiom just as Pinkie spoke up, addressing the distressed filly.

    “R-Rhy! Rhy, where’s your brother?”

    When it rains…

    “I’m sorry, he… he didn’t wanna come…”

    …it pours.

    “Maybe he just got that many presents.”

    Somewhere inside the bakery, Rainbow Dash spoke. She was actually two seats away from Twilight, but to her it felt distant, her sights lost inside her sixth cup of coffee. She swirled it around with a spoon, a vortex that felt no different than the one in her mind. Was this a side-effect of barely any sleep in over thirty hours? It’d been thousands of years since her last all-nighter.

    “I reckon’ it was too much for one day,” Applejack said, also somewhere, distant, distant. “But he’ll be back here tomorrow, fine an’ dandy, you’ll see.”

    But what if he wasn’t?, Twilight wondered, zillions of thoughts crashing at her at once, driven by caffeine and anxiety. If he wasn’t, what then? Should she start planning for it now?

    “None of the children’s chaos levels have risen,” said the professor, or something like that as Twilight was paying only so much attention.

    “I’m sure his door will be there!” Pinkie exclaimed, her voice muffled somewhere in Twilight’s head. “You’ll see!”

    “Twilight.”

    Rarity’s voice clearly pierced through the veil, the only sound that took priority over all else. She immediately looked up to find Rarity staring straight at her, and in return did the alicorn fix the entirety of her attention on the unicorn. How could she not?

    This was the first time they’d spoken since the fight, after all, and princesses, she missed her.

    Was Rarity going to tell her she missed her, too?

    “You’re dreamwalking tonight, aren’t you?” she asked instead, and oh, nevermind then, Twilight thought, feeling silly for having hoped at all. Nevermind, nevermind.

    “Twilight.”

    Again, Rarity’s voice, sharp and clear.

    Twilight jolted back to reality, fixing Rarity with her stare. “I’m sorry, what?”

    Rarity pursed her lips, clearly withholding a deep breath. “You’re dreamwalking tonight, aren’t you?” she repeated, slowly, and Twilight might have felt insulted if she wasn’t so tired.

    “Yes,” she replied, and when the conversation moved along, her sight dropped down towards the bitter vortex.

    Nevermind.

    Madness didn’t come in a vacuum. It always came from somewhere, sometimes a single event, sometimes many, but there was always a general moment at which one could retrospectively look back, point a hoof and say, “There. There, that’s where it started, where it all began”.

    For Twilight Sparkle, her madness started the day she tricked Discord, and unraveled the day she found out Cadance had been spirited.

    For Princess Luna, well…

    “Hello?” Twilight exclaimed once inside the dream realm, a manic energy to her actions. Everything would be fine! Everything would be fine, it would be, no need to worry.

    Stars, she wanted to sleep.

    She moved further in, and finally saw the princess in the distance.

    “Princess Luna!”

    She was standing in front of a door, and as Twilight cantered towards her, her eyes roamed the doors littered throughout the hallway, and her heart dropped at the sight—or, rather, lack—of a door bearing Dusk’s cutie mark.

    “Hello!” she said, undaunted. “Sorry I’m la—”

    “His door is missing.”

    “…Yes,” Twilight replied, because Princess Luna wasn’t wrong. “That doesn’t mean anything, though. Didn’t Pinkie’s door take a week to appear after she was told you weren’t real? I’m sure his will appear soon.”

    The princess said nothing, lost in thought, until whatever thoughts she had ceased and she spoke.

    “Come,” she said, getting up and moving towards a flashing door. “We have training to do.”

    “Training?” Twilight asked, alarmed.

    “Yes. We will start with Lemon Drop.”

    “Wa-wait, Princess Luna!” Twilight ran up in front of her, trying to steady her voice and plastering a nervous smile on her lips. “Uhm. I thought you said I was going to rest tonight? I really—”

    “You are a dreamwalker, Twilight,” the princess said, an unexpected harshness to her tone forcing Twilight to wince. “If you cannot handle lack of sleep, you cannot handle this at all.”

    “I… But…”

    She pressed a hoof against her forehead. It was hard to think, and when it was hard to think, it was easy to…

    “Okay.” She smiled, hopeful, pleading. “Just a few hours?”

    It wasn’t until seven in the morning that Princess Luna let her go, only after Twilight had cleared out every single nightmare Hollow Shades was having. And by that time, there was no use in going back to sleep.

    The Dreamland would be opening up in an hour, anyway, and she wanted to be there to see Dusk. If he came. Maybe. Hopefully.

    And she was fine, anyway! Fine and smart as always, judging by the fantastically intellectual thought she was currently obsessing over:

    Did water have taste?

    This and many other thoughts floated around her mind as she stared up at the shower nozzle, barely registering the water splashing onto her face. Showers were fascinating. They had water. Water didn’t feel like anything. It did but it didn’t. What if water had a taste? It didn’t. Maybe it was because she was blinking so slow.

    Maybe if she closed her eyes, it would have a taste. That made sense.

    So she closed them, and discovered the bottom of the shower tasted like soap when she passed out and slammed her face against it.

    “Princess?!” Incantation called out from outside the door. “Are you okay?! What was that?!”

    “I’m fine!” Twilight called back, embarrassed beyond belief as she pushed herself up, now wide awake, her head throbbing and her nose bleeding. “I just—I just slipped in the shower!”

    “You slept in the shower?!” Incantation gasped, unknowingly calling her out on her lie.

    “No! Slipped! Slipped!” Twilight quickly called back.

    “Oh! Sorry, it sounded like—Hold on! What? No, she said slipped!” Incantation called out to somepony before waiting a moment and addressing Twilight again. “So you didn’t fall asleep?!”

    “No!” she lied. “And let me finish showering!”

    “You haven’t seen her?”

    Twilight’s question hung in the air, the alicorn nursing her first cup of coffee of the day, her eyes fixed on the earth pony cleaning the counter.

    “No,” Pinkie said, a hitch in her voice as she doubled her cleaning efforts and smiled brightly. “But it’s okay! I’m sure there’s a reason for it!”

    “When was the last time she spoke to you?” Rarity asked, leveled.

    “Uhm…” Pinkie paused and pursed her lips. “The night before Dusk’s birthday. But like I said, I’m sure she’s fine!” She went back to cleaning her impeccable counter. “She’s just busy training Princess Twilight! There’s no reason she wouldn’t talk to me, right?!”

    When Pinkie turned to them, Rarity and Twilight replied immediately.

    “Right.”

    “None at all!”

    Pinkie nodded, reassured. “Yep! I’m going to take a nap in a few hours, and that’s when she’ll talk to me!”

    “Hey!” Incantation called from the lobby. “Can someone help me set up for opening?”

    “Coming!” Pinkie called, putting her rag away and walking off past the two mares and out the kitchen, leaving Rarity and Twilight with no one but themselves.

    Twilight didn’t look at the unicorn, instead considering her coffee for a minute before downing it in a single gulp, and then walking to the counter, her magic levitating the pot of coffee.

    “Twilight.”

    She stopped at the sound of Rarity’s voice, and turned to find the unicorn looking at her, biting down on her lip, ears downcast.

    When Twilight said nothing, Rarity continued.

    “You’ve barely slept in two days, Twilight,” she said, every word measured.

    Another moment passed, and Twilight realized that whatever she’d been waiting for Rarity to say, that wasn’t it. It wasn’t it, but admittedly, she was too tired to care.

    “I am aware of that, Rarity,” she replied, a slight irritation to her tone, having no desire to back off.

    She was surprised when Rarity did.

    “All right,” said the unicorn, and when she got up and left, Twilight served herself her second cup of many.

    Dusk Star arrived that morning, holding but not hugging his teddy bear, and lingering behind his little sister as dozens of foals rushed in.

    “Hi, Dusk!” Pinkie greeted almost immediately, sharing in the visible relief of the adults. “We missed you yesterday! How was your birthday?!”

    “…It was okay,” he murmured, and immediately his eyes shot to Twilight, and then narrowed.

    “Dusk!” she exclaimed, stepping forward, because she definitely hadn’t just seen him do that. “Happy birthday!”

    “…Thank you,” he said carefully, now clutching his teddy bear, unaware of Professor Awe quietly lingering by, his detection device lit up. The foal pointed towards the bandage on Twilight’s nose. “What happened to your nose?”

    “I bumped it!” She laughed, or tried to. “I fell in the shower! It wasn’t very smart of me. Some princess, huh?”

    The foal frowned again.

    “Darling,” Rarity said, stepping forward, “we have a cake for you. Why don’t you come with us to eat it and you can tell us what you did for your birthday.”

    “They said I have to help with Seeking Night now,” he said suddenly. “‘Cause I’m big, and it’s what everypony does when they grow up.”

    “I… I see!” Rarity exclaimed. “Did they say anything else?” When he said nothing and instead looked at the floor, she continued. “Dearest, let’s go get your cake, and you can tell us—”

    “I don’t want cake,” he interrupted, brusquely. “I want to go play with my friends.”

    She smiled brightly. “…Of course! Go ahead, dear.”

    After throwing Twilight one last glance, he rushed upstairs. Once he was gone, all eyes were on the professor.

    He cleared his throat. “It’s… Hrm.”

    “What? What happened?” Twilight asked, urgently. “Did it change?”

    The professor remained silent.

    “Out with it,” Rarity hissed, quickly. “Say it. Just say it.”

    “Very well. His levels are at five now.”

    Twilight felt her stomach drop, and she stepped back, horrified. “They rose by three points?”

    Three points?” Rarity whispered faintly.

    “Is there any chance this a mistake?” Twilight asked next.

    “No,” he said. “And I resent the implication I’d make a mistake over something as grave as this.”

    Twilight frowned, opening her mouth to protest, but stopping when Rarity spoke first in a strained whisper.

    “Check again.”

    The professor blinked at her. “Excuse me?”

    “Check. Again,” she repeated, eyes closed, ears flat against her head. When she opened her eyes, Twilight saw tears. “Please, Professor. There must be a mistake.

    “V-Very well,” he said, thrown off. “I suppose there… There could be some margin of error. I’ll check again and confirm.”

    And so, when he departed, Rarity and Twilight were left alone for a moment up until Rarity quietly made her way towards the stairs, Twilight’s heart compressing in her chest.

    “Rarity, wait.”

    When Rarity turned to her, wiping at her eyes, Twilight spoke sincerely.

    “This is normal. We knew the chaos magic would fight back, and we’ve all made sure Dusk has a way to defend himself.” She smiled. “Okay?”

    “All right,” Rarity said, though she didn’t smile back. “Thank you, Twilight.” She hesitated and then spoke again. “I’ll be in my workshop if anypony needs me.”

    And so, when she left without another word, Twilight took a deep breath and made her way towards the screaming foals, hoping that would be enough to keep her up.

    “I’m not hungry,” Dusk said when asked to eat.

    “I don’t want to,” he replied when offered to play a game.

    “I’m not tired,” he grumbled when everypony got ready for a nap.

    “Princess Twilight?” he asked her, while everypony slept and he did not. Clutching his teddy bear, he walked over to the spot where she was resting. Twilight noticed he had a hard time holding her gaze.

    “Yes?” she asked, trying to not sound eager and failing to do so.

    He looked up at her, and pointed to her bandage. “Is your nose better?” he asked, and she couldn’t help an affectionate smile.

    “It is. Thank you for asking,” she said, her sentence dissolving into a yawn, which he involuntarily mimicked.

    “Are you sure you don’t want that nap?” she teased, and when he shook his head, she decided to confide in him. “I want a nap. I barely got any sleep last night.”

    “Oh.” He frowned, and yet before she could question him, his eyes roamed her body and a bright smile suddenly appeared on his face. “You should sleep, Princess! I’ll get you a blanket! Wait here, okay?”

    “Okay!” she called back, hope filling her. Was this him fighting back?

    He came back a few minutes later, dragging a blanket behind him.

    “Close your eyes, and I’ll tuck you in,” he instructed, and with delight she did as told, affection pouring over her when he threw the blanket over her body and patted her wings. “Shhh… Shhh…”

    He patted her wings, over and over, a calming motion that turned quite sinister when she cracked an eye open and found him frowning in concentration at the spot where her wings met her back, his haphazard pats feeling less like a soothing gesture and more like a pat-down.

    “You know what?” she blurted, immediately getting up and startling him. “Actually, I’m not tired! I’m not tired at all!”

    “You’re not?” he asked, and her anxiety tripled when she saw him examining her wings. “Okay…”

    “In fact, I just remembered I was supposed to help Pinkie with something! Can you look over the other kids while I go do that?”

    “Okay,” he said again, and when she promptly walked away, she could feel his stare on her back every step of the way.

    “Sugarcube, are you really sure that won’t kill her?”

    Huddled in the corner of Princess Cadance’s theatre, Twilight stared intently as Rainbow Dash poured an entire can of energy drink into a huge mug of coffee, her hoof tapping impatiently against the floor.

    “Relaaaaax, AJ,” Rainbow insisted, shoving the empty can into a bag and taking a second from her saddlebag. “She died once and it was fine.”

    Displaced. I was displaced,” Twilight said, looking away from the fizzling mixture and towards the foals—specifically, towards Dusk, who quickly looked away when she saw him. He was staring again, she noticed, and she gritted her teeth when her wings twitched involuntarily.

    “Princess? Prince—”

    What?” Twilight snapped, and immediately regretted it when Rainbow and Applejack raised their eyebrows at her. “Sorry. Sorry, I didn’t mean that. I just—” She looked back to Dusk, and again he quickly looked away! “Look! He did it again!”

    “Did what?” Rainbow asked, looking towards the foal.

    “My wings!” she whispered, urgently. “He’s been staring at my wings all day! I think he thinks they’re fake!”

    Rainbow turned towards the foal. “Really? Oh, shi—”

    Rainbow!” Applejack scolded. “There’s foals runnin’ round!”

    Leaving the two mares to their bickering, Twilight teleported into Rarity’s workshop, hoping to get away from Dusk. Unfortunately, the action of teleporting brought with it a throbbing headache.

    Even though she wanted nothing more than to lie down and clutch her head, Pinkie Pie was occupying the little sleeping nook, curled up into a ball and looking upset as she stared down at the ground.

    “Pinkie?” Twilight asked, putting her own pains to the side. “What’s wrong?”

    “Is Princess Luna mad at me?” Pinkie asked, pawing at the blanket. “Why isn’t she visiting me? Did I do something wrong?”

    “No, of course not, Pinkie.”

    Pinkie’s frown deepened, her eyes darting to Twilight. “Then why isn’t she visiting me?! She’s visiting you! What about me? Is it because I can’t do magic so I can’t help with nightmares?! Huh?!”

    “No, Pinkie,” Twilight said, her headache growing as Pinkie’s pitch rose. “Princess Luna is just…” A sharp pang cut her off, and she gave up on trying to sound in control, pressing a hoof against her temple. “I don’t know. Why don’t you just—”

    “Can you ask her?” Pinkie interrupted, and suddenly she was up and close in Twilight’s personal space, acting no different than the foals downstairs. “You should ask her! Ask her! Can you dreamwalk? Let’s go!”

    “Pinkie, no—”

    “Do you need the sleeping nook?” Pinkie continued, now shoving Twilight towards it and ignoring Twilight’s protests. “Do you need a bedtime story? Will that help? How about—”

    Pinkie, I said no!” Twilight grabbed Pinkie with her magic, forcefully shoving her away before slamming a hoof on the floor.“I don’t want to go see her! I don’t want to dreamwalk anymore! I’m done! I’m done trying to fix everypony else’s problems when I can’t even fix my own!”

    Whatever momentary relief yelling brought Twilight, it was quickly done away with when she saw Pinkie cowering in front of her, ears clamped against her head.

    The words ‘I’m sorry’ wet her lips, but she was tired of saying them. Tired of apologizing, tired of messing up, tired of trying and failing to get better, frankly tired just in general.

    She fell onto her haunches and just went out and said it.

    “I’m tired.”

    I’m tired, she said, so Pinkie stood up and to Twilight’s surprise, she extended a hoof. With whatever curiosity was left in her, Twilight took it and allowed herself to be guided towards the sleeping nook. She crawled inside it, and when Pinkie sat down and soothingly patted her back, humming a lullaby Luna had once hummed to Twilight centuries ago, the princess finally fell asleep.

    And dreamed.

    She dreamed of a train headed nowhere, a train that was simply going, keeping her safe as she sat by the window and admired outer space. Twilight herself had never been to outer space, but she’d read enough books on the topic that she knew what it was supposed to look like. An endless, quiet expanse of stars, asteroids, and planets larger than life.

    Construct versions of her friends were there too, Rarity cuddled besides her as she read a magazine, while Pinkie, Fluttershy and Applejack joined Twilight in watching Rainbow and Spike race through the stars.

    It was magical.

    “Twilight.”

    And it was over.

    Twilight Sparkle,” a voice boomed, and with a yelp Twilight turned away from outer space to find an annoyed Princess Luna standing beside her.

    Twilight blinked, confused. “Princess Luna?”

    “Princess Luna!” the construct Pinkie exclaimed, thrilled. “You’re here!”

    Princess Luna ignored her.

    “You have training to do,” she said instead, the irritation in her voice matching the one in her actions as she slammed a hoof on the floor and…

    Twilight woke up inside Rarity’s dark bedroom, her eyes stinging from lack of sleep. “Great,” she whispered once she’d realized what happened. “Just great.”

    How long had she been asleep? When had she been moved to the bedroom?

    She looked around and was admittedly stung to find Rarity nowhere near, despite the clock on the wall indicating Rarity’s bedtime had long passed. Fine. She curled down on the bed again, closing her eyes as her headache reappeared.

    She stayed there for who knows how long, her eyes opening when the bedroom door did as well. Rarity stepped in, glasses perched on her nose, measuring tape hanging from her neck, and with relief Twilight realized she was just working late.

    She closed her eyes when Rarity approached, listening intently to the unicorn moving things around a nearby desk. There was a pause after a minute, and Twilight’s heart compressed in her chest when she felt Rarity carefully brush back her bangs and stroke her cheek.

    Afterwards, Rarity withdrew her hoof, then yelped when Twilight’s magic held it in place.

    “Twilight?” she asked, her confusion turning to concern when Twilight’s eyes opened to reveal tears. She quickly moved forward, placing her other hoof on the alicorn. “Twilight? Twilight, what’s wrong?”

    Shame swept through Twilight. There she was again. Crying. Feeling guilty for feeling guilty, and for showing as much, and for proving Rarity right about being worried over her mental state.

    “Nothing,” she said, her tone forceful as she dropped Rarity’s hoof. “I’m fine.”

    “…All right,” Rarity eventually replied, not fighting Twilight’s obvious lie, which upset the alicorn much more than she’d anticipated. Rarity stood there for a moment, hesitant, before stepping back and awkwardly bowing her head. “Goodnight, then.”

    She grabbed her things from the table and walked away.

    “Wa-Wait!” Twilight stammered, the words tumbling out after having consulted her heart and not her mind. “Prin… Princess Luna.”

    Rarity stopped dead in her tracks, only barely concealing her concern. “…What about Princess Luna?”

    “Princess Luna,” Twilight croaked again, her voice cracking and the tears returning. “She wants me to dreamwalk.” She buried herself under the covers. “I can’t. I don’t want to.

    “Then don’t,” Rarity said, and Twilight felt a hoof press against the covers. “You don’t have to do this. You need sleep, Twilight. Actual sleep.”

    “I can’t.”

    “You can’t? Whatever do you mean you can’t? Of course, you can!”

    “No, you don’t understand!” Twilight exclaimed, taking the covers off. “I literally can’t because she’ll wake me up if I fall asleep!”

    Rarity frowned. “What? No. She can’t do that. She wouldn’t. Would she? Twilight.” Her eyes widened, and anger laced her tone as Twilight hid under the covers again. “Is that why you’re awake?! Twilight! She can’t do that!”

    “Well, she already did! And I can’t stop her from going into my dreams and doing it again,” she complained. When a few seconds went by without a response, she took the covers off and found Rarity staring down at her, eyes narrowed. “What? What’s wrong?”

    “Princess Luna can only enter the dreams of Hollow Shades inhabitants, can’t she?”

    “Yes.” Twilight frowned. “Why?”

    “Come now,” Rarity said, walking off and out of the room. “Get a pillow and I’ll meet you outside in ten minutes”

    “A pillow? Outside? Why? Rarity, wait! Where are we going?! Rarity?!”

    “Alright, you should be safe here,” Spike announced, walking into a small clearing several miles away from Hollow Shades. He pointed to some lights in the distance. “We’re closer to Fall Harbor than we are to Hollow Shades, and I know Princess Luna can’t reach them.”

    “Wonderful, darling, thank you,” Rarity said atop his back, Twilight helping her levitate down two suitcases before jumping down. “We can set up here.”

    “Sounds good.” He looked around and then back to them. “I’m going to bring wood for a campfire, and then I’ll meet Rarity at the crossroads.”

    “Thanks, Spike,” Twilight said, watching him leave before turning back to Rarity.

    The unicorn took blankets out from her luggage and set them on the floor.

    “I’ve brought you six blankets and a comforter,” Rarity said, fluffing a pillow and setting it on the blankets. “They should be enough to keep you warm even without the campfire. I would have brought you a tent, but it was quite short notice, and. Well. Regardless.” When she was done, she stepped back and cleared her throat. “Does this work for you?”

    “I, uh, yes… Thank you,” Twilight said, carefully laying on the blankets, surprised by how comfortable they were.

    “Here,” Rarity said, levitating the comforter and spreading it out. “Let me—” She then paused, cleared her throat, and quickly put the comforter back down on the ground. “Why don’t you put that on? If you want.”

    “Uhhh… I’m fine, thank you.”

    “Ah. All right. It is chilly, though, but that’s perfectly alright. It’ll be there if you want it.” She moved it a few inches towards Twilight. “It’s quite comfortable.” An awkward second passed, and she cleared her throat. “That’s that, then! I better head off to meet up with Spike.”

    “Okay…”

    “…Alright, then, goodnight, Twilight.”

    “Goodnight,” she replied, a lump in her throat, miserable to see Rarity leave despite their current uncertain status. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay until Spike brings the wood?”

    Rarity faltered. “…I’m fine, dear. You should be sleeping regardless, and I don’t want to be an imposition, fussing over you and all that.”

    “Okay,” Twilight said in a small voice. “Can you help me with the comforter?”

    Rarity brightened visibly.

    “Oh! Certainly.” She wasted no time whatsoever in picking it up and spreading it over the alicorn. “I knew you would need it,” she said, tucking Twilight in, yet her cheer vanished when she saw tears in Twilight’s eyes. “Twilight…”

    She sat down, and much like she had before, gently caressed Twilight’s cheeks.

    Twilight couldn’t help herself.

    “I’m sorry, Rarity,” she said quietly but sincerely.

    “Oh, darling.”

    Rarity breathed in.

    “I’m sorry, too.” She brushed Twilight’s bangs back and laughed softly. “I’m quite the mess, aren’t I?”

    Twilight snorted. “I’m not any better.”

    “Ahhh, but that’s good, isn’t it?” Rarity grinned. “As they say in maths, two negatives make a plus, no? So, two huge messes make—”

    “A bigger mess,” Twilight helpfully interrupted, unable to stop herself from laughing at Rarity’s expression.

    “No, no, a slightly bigger me—”

    “A catastrophic mess.”

    Rarity rolled her eyes. “Alright, alright! It’s not an exact science! Regardless, my point was that it’s late, and you—” She tucked Twilight in again. “—should be sleeping.”

    “Wait,” Twilight blurted out, her magic gripping Rarity’s forelegs. When she realized this, she immediately let go, but forced herself to finish her thought. “Can you stay? Please. If you want. I understand if you don’t because of our… well… the fight… but…”

    “Come now,” Rarity said gently, gesturing for Twilight to move. “Scooch.”

    Without having to be told twice, Twilight obeyed, moving over on the blanket and allowing Rarity to lie down next to her. Once she had, nothing could stop Twilight from burying herself in the unicorn, overwhelmed by everything and nothing at once, but finally finding some relief when Rarity held her close, tucking them both under the covers.

    “Try to sleep, dear.”

    And though Twilight wanted to, two questions burned her mind, kept her tethered to the waking world.

    She needed to know. To be told. To have some sort of answer so she knew where she stood.

    “Will Princess Luna be okay?” she asked then steeled herself for the next. “Will we be okay?”

    There was a pause, and then Rarity spoke with care.

    “Yes.”

    “…How do you know?”

    “I don’t. I just hope we will,” she confessed. “We’ve survived worse, after all. And if things don’t turn out all right, well…” She held Twilight closer, the princess already falling asleep, barely registering the uncertainty in Rarity’s tone. “We shall have to somehow survive that, too.”


    It was after that night that things changed for Twilight, that everything shot into crystal clarity, finally freed of the sleepless haze that had been plaguing her even though, funnily enough, she barely slept that night. She slept maybe… four, five hours, and the rest of her time until Rarity woke up was spent thinking about chaos magic.

    About her possession.

    Though to call it that, she knew, was wrong. Inaccurate.

    It was easy to say she’d been ‘possessed’. That some evil magic had taken hold of her body, forced her to do terrible things she’d never have done had she been clean. But that wasn’t true. The real horror of the magic, the thing that for her made her actions truly frightening, was that she had intended them all.

    The chaos magic had given voice and power to terrible thoughts, but only because they were already there to begin with. Thoughts and fears, insecurities and doubts that the perceptive chaos magic had found and pointed out in delirious, teasing sing-song.

    Like foals who knew no better might.

    “Let’s play finding the princesses!” yelled a filly, one of the many gathered inside the Dreamland the next day, several hours after Rarity and Twilight returned.

    “Found Princess Twilight!” a giggling foal exclaimed, rushing to the alicorn and putting a hoof on her.

    “I’ll find Princess Luna!” Rhinestone exclaimed, jumping up and down and then turning to Dusk Star, who was sitting by the corner and looking quite sour as he hugged his teddy bear. “Do you wanna play, big brother?”

    “No,” he grumbled. “This is a dumb game.”

    “It’s a fun game, silly!” Incantation encouraged, turning to the other foals. “If we keep practicing, we’ll find the real Princess Luna for sure!”

    “No, you won’t,” Dusk interrupted, harshly, the intensity in his eyes frighteningly familiar to Twilight.

    All eyes were on him now.

    “…What do you mean?” a filly asked, just as the adults shared a loaded glance.

    Dusk scowled. “I meant that—” And cut himself off, his eyes landing on Twilight for a split-second before he gritted his teeth and looked away. “…Nothing. Doesn’t matter.”

    The filly blinked. “But—”

    “I said it doesn’t matter!” Dusk snapped, startling the rest of the foals and his little sister…

    …For about three seconds, until one of the older colts giggled and pointed at him.

    “Wait! I know what’s wrong with you!” he exclaimed, triumphant.

    “Wrong with… Wrong with me?!” Dusk choked, before standing up, angered, his bear falling to the floor. “There’s nothing wrong with me! Shut up!”

    Rarity stepped forward. “Children.”

    “Yes, there is!” the colt continued, and with all the smug glee in the world, handed down his damning verdict. “You have chaos magic!” he exclaimed, and when Dusk hesitated, the colt giggled and continued in sing-song, others teasingly joining in. “Dusk has chaos magic, Dusk has chaos magic!”

    “N-no! No, I don’t! I don’t have chaos magic, I’m fine!” Dusk shot back, his ears clamping against his head, his eyes tearing up, his protests coming out as cracked, strangled pleas.

    It was too much for Twilight. Too familiar.

    Hey!” she exclaimed, stepping in-between Dusk and the others, half-splaying her wings to protect the colt. “Stop saying that! All of you! Can’t you see you’re upsetting him?”

    The foals backed down for a moment, long enough for a sympathetic Twilight to turn towards Dusk and offer a smile.

    “It’s all right,” she said gently, leaning down. “Are you okay?”

    Dusk looked thrown for a moment, staring up at her with uncertainty. “Princess Twilight…” The words tumbled out in a terrified whisper, a feeling which she was not wholly unfamiliar with.

    Unfortunately.

    Unfortunately, what came next she recognized as well, and she watched his expression harden, his brows knit together, his teeth grit against one another and, pushing her aside, he growled, “Stay away from me!”

    Twilight stepped back, shocked. “But Dusk, I’m trying to help—”

    “Shut up! No you’re not!” he interrupted, enraged, backed against the wall as everypony watched, wide-eyed. He looked towards them all, towards the foals huddled around the adults, towards his sister staring in terror, and it seemed as though his own fear and rage grew triplefold. “You’re not trying to help!” he continued, relentless.“There’s nothing wrong with me! Leave me alone!”

    “It’s—it’s the chaos magic!” a filly gasped, clutching onto Rarity’s foreleg, completely missing the unicorn’s stricken expression. “It’s making him bad!”

    “Kids, please!” Twilight said as another chorus of gasps followed the filly’s exclamation. “Stop say—”

    I said leave me alone!” Dusk yelled, rushing into the bakery and then slamming the doors closed.

    The shocked foals looked back and forth between the door and the adults, the silence broken when Rhinestone burst into tears, rushing to Incantation and crying in her forelegs.

    “I don’t want Dusk to be bad!” she wailed, other foals similarly starting to tear up.

    “He’s not bad!” Incantation helplessly exclaimed, comforting the filly. “He’s just—He’s just…”

    “Incantation.”

    A rattled Ink turned to Rarity, the latter displaying not an inch of emotion.

    “Get Pinkie, and then take care of the children.” After a quick glance at Twilight, she opened the bakery’s door and disappeared inside, the door slightly ajar.

    Twilight followed immediately after, stepping into the room and closing the door behind her. She saw Dusk near the counter, curled up against it. While Rarity walked towards him, she quickly teleported down the chaos magic detection device the Professor’d left behind.

    “Dusk Star?” Rarity called, a gentleness to her voice. “Darli—”

    “I’m not bad!” Dusk interrupted, pressed against the counter. “I’m not!”

    “No pony is saying that you are, Dusk,” she continued, briefly glancing at Twilight before turning back to the foal. “No pony here is against you.”

    “Yes, you are!” he exclaimed, looking up. “Th-they all said that I—” His eyes landed on the detection device, and he immediately stood up. “Why’d you bring that?! That’s the thing Professor used to see if we had bad magic!” His eyes welled up with tears. “Do I have more chaos magic?!”

    The device’s counter, Twilight noticed, ticked up to six.

    “Darling,” Rarity said, carefully. “Please, you need to calm—”

    “Chaos magic isn’t even real!”he yelled, his fury returned, directed at the two mares. “Is it?! It isn’t! You made that up! Elder Moonshine told me!”

    Rarity kept her cool. “Told you what, exactly?”

    “That… That you all lied,” he said, his anger now laced with betrayal. “That you lied about Princess Twilight being an alicorn! A-and Princess Luna being real, and—and—!” He choked on his own words. “And they said you’d try to say I was wrong!”

    “Dusk.” Twilight stepped up, carefully navigating the minefield. “I am an alicorn.”

    “No, you’re not!” he snapped back. “You have mechanical wings! I felt them!”

    “But I don’t!” Twilight exclaimed, helpless and aggravated. “They are real! The chaos magic is making you think they aren’t!”

    “Twilight!” Rarity snapped, just in time for the terrified foal to recoil against the counter, the device ticking up to seven. “That isn’t helping!”

    “I’m sorry!” Twilight exclaimed. “But it’s true! How can he fight it if we tell him it’s not real?!”

    “Yes, Twilight, I am aware, but—”

    “It’s not real!” Dusk interrupted.

    The door opened at that exact moment, and all three turned around to see Pinkie stepping in, carrying Dusk’s winged teddy bear with her.

    “Hello, everypony,” she greeted carefully, closing the door behind her. She smiled and lifted the teddy bear. “Look who missed you!”

    Dusk’s anger faltered for a moment, his eyes set on his bear.

    “Mister Dragon told me you were very sad!” she continued, gently walking up to the foal. “Like, super duper sad! And he was upset ‘cause he couldn’t help you just like he promised he would!” She walked past the two mares, knelt down and offered the bear. “Do you want him back?”

    Dusk pressed himself against the counter, torn. He looked at Rarity when she stepped forward.

    “Dusk. Have you ever heard of anypony going into the dreams of others? Do you know of anypony that can do that?”

    “N-no,” he said. “Just Princess Luna. If she was real.”

    Rarity ignored the comment and continued.

    “Why do you think it is that nopony’s ever learned to go into dreams except for her?”

    “…Because only alicorns can do that?”

    Rarity nodded. “Precisely. And this bear… You saw it in your dreams, didn’t you? You saw Princess Luna make this just for you, and you saw Princess Twilight there, as well, didn’t you? And immediately after you woke up, Mister Dragon was already there waiting for you.”

    He nodded, just as Twilight stepped up, catching on to what Rarity meant. This was it. The actual culmination of everything they’d done.

    “How could that have happened if I wasn’t real?” she asked, trying to stay as calm and composed as Rarity was. “It couldn’t! I’d have no time! It’s literally impossible for that to have happened unless I went into your dreams which is something only alicorns can do.”

    Dusk fell silent, his eyes set on the teddy bear.

    “Don’t you agree?” Rarity prompted.

    And his eyes went to her.

    Then to Twilight.

    And the counter ticked to 8.

    “No.”

    “…No?” they asked, eyes widening as his brow furrowed and his narrowed eyes shot to Twilight.

    “You read my mind.”

    Silence reigned, the three mares staring at the foal as if he’d lost the mind he claimed Twilight had read.

    “Because I what?” Twilight blurted out, completely thrown off. “Dusk, I—! I read your mind?”

    “Yes, you did!” he snapped. “Back at the park! You read Rarity’s mind, and Rosey, and Redwood, and mine!”

    Twilight wasn’t sure what came first. Her heart nearly coming to a stop or Rarity’s horrified gasp.

    “I seem to have strained my eyes terribly while working! Luckily for me, Princess Twilight is kind enough to guide me with the help of a spell. She’s sending instructions right into my head, you see.”

    “You are?!”

    “Yes, I am. I can read her mind and send her instructions as well.”

    Twilight stood there, every inch of her body weak, barely registering Rarity’s whispering of her name.

    Barely registering the counter ticking up to 9.

    “How did you do that?!”

    “She’s Princess Twilight! She can do anything, just like Princess Luna!”

    “Can you read my thoughts too, Princess Twilight? What am I thinking?!”

    “See?!” Dusk continued, believing he was right when faced with their silence. “You did read my mind! You can’t go into dreams! You can’t!”

    “What?!” Pinkie asked, completely at a loss. “What’s going on?! What does he mean?!” She turned to Twilight, afraid. “Princess?!”

    “N…No. No,” Twilight whispered, desperately trying to regain some sanity, trying to say something when faced with the fact that a stupidsilly game had… Stars above. “No! No, I—”

    “No, what?!” Dusk demanded.

    “I can’t!” she exclaimed, burning from every word. “I can’t! I—! I can’t read minds!”

    “Yes, you can! You knew I liked Incantation! You knew Posey was afraid of spiders!”

    No,” she said, burning from what she had to say next. “I… I lied. I lied, I—I can’t read minds, it was a trick.”

    And that was all the chaos magic needed as the counter ticked to ten.

    “…You lied?” he repeated, for a second not a foal consumed by chaos magic, but a foal who’d been misled by an adult he trusted.

    Twilight tried to salvage what she could. “Yes. Yes, but that has nothing to do with me going into dreams! If anything, that—”

    “You lied!” he interrupted, and in his eyes she saw herself, consumed as she once was by pain, betrayal, and anger. “You lied! You lied! Just like you lied about being a princess! And Princess Luna being real! Liar!”

    Incensed, he pushed the teddy bear away and ran off, opening the doors to the bakery and finding all the foals still gathered together in the foyer, now staring at him wide-eyed.

    “Big brother, what’s wrong?!” Rhinestone pleaded, pushing away from Incantation. “Why are you angry?”

    “They lied!” he yelled, absolutely enraged, terrifying his playmates. “Princess Luna isn’t real! Princess Twilight isn’t a princess, or an alicorn! She has fake wings, and she can’t read minds, or a bunch of other stuff she said she could! They lied to us! It’s—” He choked on his own words, hurt. “It’s all fake!”

    “No, stop!” Twilight gasped, rushing to him. “He’s lyi—mmph!”

    She screeched to a stop and turned around, her mouth now magically muzzled shut. She stared at Rarity, completely thrown-off, and even more so when both Rarity and Pinkie shook their heads.

    “Princess!” Pinkie whispered, upset.

    Twilight watched back, helpless, her words muffled by Rarity’s magic.

    “What’d you mean they’re not real?!” a colt asked Dusk back inside the foyer, horrified. “Yes, they are!”

    “No, they’re not!”

    Mmmph!” Twilight pleaded again, gesturing towards the foals, desperate to stop Dusk before more damage was done. When Rarity released her grip, she continued in a whisper. “But he’s lying!”

    “So we should antagonize him?!” Rarity heatedly whispered back, standing up. “He’s a child, Twilight! Telling him he’s wrong won’t get him on our side!”

    Twilight’s ears clamped against her head, shame burning her. “I know! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but—! We have to do something!”

    “I’d say we’ve already done bloody enough, don’t you think?!” Rarity shot back, as harsh towards Twilight as she was towards herself. When Twilight fell silent, ears pressed against her skull, Rarity’s tone softened. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I just… Please, just…”

    Without another word, she moved past Twilight and towards the foal.

    “Dusk.” Her voice was harrowed but there, and when he looked at her, she continued, “Do you remember what I told you? It doesn’t matter what we say. The only thing that matters is what you believe. What you know.” Her voice cracked. “Please.”

    He stared at her, clearly torn. But rather than reply, he instead rushed out of the Dreamland, leaving in his wake dozens of visibly shaken foals.

    Rhinestone’s wailing filled the building.

    Priiiiincess Twiiiiiliiiight!”

    Pushing herself out of Incantation’s forelegs, the hiccuping filly rushed into the bakery and launched herself at Twilight, practically knocking her over before sobbing in her forelegs.

    “Did you lie to me?!” she bawled, clutching the princess. “Why would he say that?! Is he bad now?! Is Princess Luna not real?!”

    Her crying filled the room once again, and soon enough joined the crying of the rest of the foals, all rushing in to trample Twilight in their distress, horrified at the thought that she was a lie.

    “Kids, kids!” Twilight said, trying to reassure them as they pulled her wings, her forelegs, their tears on her coat intermingling with hers. “Of course I’m real! And Princess Luna, and—! And everything!”

    “Why’d he say that?!” another asked, upset. “Is it because of the bad magic?!”

    “I… He just… doesn’t believe,” she said, disheartened. He’d gone from believing fully to not at all, and it was terrifying to think that any of those foals might also flip like a switch. “He doesn’t believe in us.”

    “But we believe, right!?” Pinkie exclaimed. “Don’t we?!”

    A chorus of sniffled agreements rang out.

    “Yeah!” and “Uh-huh” and finally Rhinestone leading out a rallying cry, as she hugged Twilight tight, “We believe in you, Princess Twilight!”

    “I have an idea!” Incantation exclaimed, taking note of the three adults’ exhaustion. “Why don’t we go upstairs and write letters to Dusk to convince him again that they’re real?”

    Encouraged, the foals complied. They hugged Twilight, tugged on her wings one last time to prove they were real, and then hurried off after the changeling. It wasn’t until they were gone and that the door swung shut that somepony spoke.

    “What do we do now?” Pinkie asked, distraught.

    “I don’t know,” Rarity said, defeated. She turned to Pinkie, tearing up. “Pinkie, I’m so sorry… We… We had no idea this would happen, and…”

    “But we didn’t do anything wrong,” Twilight immediately shot back, having held her tongue before but unable to do so again because she was sick. Sick of taking the blame, sick of letting things she loved become tainted. She was sick and tired of it all, and she wasn’t about to let Rarity take any of the blame.

    “But, Twi—”

    “We didn’t!” she insisted, walking to Rarity, pleading almost. “This isn’t our fault! We couldn’t have known. We can’t be blamed for trying to have fun! For not caring about everything for once, and just trying to have fun!”

    “Have fun?! Our fun utterly destroyed any chance of success!”

    “No, it didn’t! We knew the chaos magic would fight back!” Twilight insisted. “If it wasn’t the necklaces, it would have found something else to ruin the plan with! It’s not our fault!”

    “But the mind-reading and—”

    “That doesn’t matter! It literally doesn’t matter! In fact, it completely invalidates his point! If I lied about reading his mind, then there’s no way I could have known what the teddy bear looked like unless it was through dreamwalking!”

    “Does that mean we can get him to believe us?!” Pinkie asked, smiling, hope visibly filling her.

    Rarity shook her head, wiping her eyes. “No. Didn’t you hear her? If it wasn’t the necklaces, the chaos magic would have found something else to use against us.” She laughed bitterly. “Well, that was two years wasted, wasn’t it?”

    “No, it wasn’t!” Pinkie protested. “It was a good plan! And it can still work! One foal going wrong doesn’t mean it didn’t work! Look at the others! They said they believed!”

    “So did Dusk three days ago, Pinkie!” Rarity shot back, rattled as she paced around in circles “And even if we do save the foals from it, then the chaos magic will use something else against us! We can’t win while it’s still there! And what will we tell Princess Luna?!” She stopped, looking somehow paler than she already was. “My stars. What will we tell Princess Luna?”

    Pinkie frowned, deep in thought. “We tell her the truth, and she’ll be fine! Right, Princess Twilight?” At Twilight’s uncomfortable expression, she deflated. “Princess Twilight?”

    “Oh my stars,” Rarity whispered, looking around for floor cushions. “I need to lie down.”

    “Wait, wait,” Twilight quickly said, trying to both calm her friends’ nerves and her own. “Maybe this is good! Remember what I said when I first came here? She might be doing this to herself! So this works for us! There’s no more excuses! If Luna is trapping herself in there, this is what will force her to deal with it!”

    Rarity stared at her, incredulous. “Deal with it?Twilight, don’t be daft! Deal with it? Think about what you’re suggesting! Think about what happened to you when I tried to make you deal with it!

    “It’s okay, Rarity! I know Princess Luna is fine!” Pinkie insisted, grabbing the unicorn’s attention. “I believe in her, and I know she believes in us, too! She wouldn’t leave me! Or any of us! I’ll tell her, and I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

    “Oh, Pinkie, please,” Rarity said, almost helpless. “Look at how she’s avoiding you! Look at how she’s running Twilight ragged every night, not letting her even sleep!”

    “Then when I—when Princess Twilight—tells her, she’ll see she’s being silly, and we’ll figure something else out! You just have to believe she’ll be fine, okay?”

    And when she was faced with their telling silence, Pinkie continued, unflinching.

    “Well… Well, that’s fine! I believed in Princess Luna my entire life, and I’m not gonna stop now, even if I’m the only pony who does!”

    Rarity finally relented, taking in a deep breath.

    “Fine. Fine, if that’s what you want, then we’ll tell her everything.” She turned to Twilight. “I suppose we don’t have a choice in the matter anyway, do we?”

    Twilight shook her head, bracing herself for the final night. “No. We don’t.”


    It wasn’t until long into the night that Twilight finally gathered the courage to face Princess Luna, wound-up after an hour-long conversation with the rest of the relevant adults. Rainbow, Applejack, Fluttershy, and the Professor had all but expressed the same sentiment that Pinkie had insisted upon.

    Princess Luna had to know, come what may.

    “It’ll be fine,” Pinkie promised, cuddling next to Twilight when the latter prepared to enter her dreamwalking trance. “You just have to believe!”

    You just have to believe, Twilight repeated as she closed her eyes, thought as she awakened in the dream realm, clung to when she saw Princess Luna waiting in the distance, looking at a couple of flashing doors.

    “Princess Luna!” she called out, trying to sound cheerful. Or should she sound serious? Would sounding cheerful make things worse?

    “Twilight Sparkle,” greeted the princess, and what a surprise when she stood up, tall and proud, but also… contrite? “You did not show up for practice yesterday.”

    “No. I…” Twilight swallowed. “I needed to sleep. Sorry.”

    The princess looked towards the doors in the distance. “That implies you did not sleep in Hollow Shades, did you?” At Twilight’s silence, her expression softened and she turned to the younger mare. “I… I am… It seems I’ve been foolish, and not just towards you.” She cleared her throat. “Regardless, I am pleased you got rest, then. We can continue with our training.”

    “Wait. You’re not upset?” Twilight asked, taken aback.

    The princess was silent a moment, before speaking up.

    “I reflected while you were gone, and I believe you are right. Pinkie took a week to come back to me. It has only been three days since Dusk’s birthday, and I have faith he will come back as well.”

    Twilight wanted to die. Again.

    “Oh. Right.”

    Princess Luna frowned. “Is something wrong? You seem displeased.”

    “No, no! I’m not!” Twilight blurted out, frantically trying to piece together how in Equestria she was about to say what she had to say. She swallowed the lump in her throat. “It’s just that there’s something I need to talk with you about.”

    “…I see. But it will have to wait.”

    “Iiiii really don’t think this should wait.”

    “Perhaps,” the princess said, and then gestured beyond Twilight. “But that cannot wait either.”

    Twilight turned around and noticed that the cluster of flashing doors she’d earlier seen had multiplied. In fact, looking around, it seemed the vast majority of the dream-doors were flashing with nightmares.

    More than she’d ever seen before.

    And all bearing the cutie marks of foals who’d witnessed Dusk’s outburst.

    “Oh no,” she whispered, horrified. “No, no, no, no, no.”

    “Strange,” Princess Luna mused.

    “Strange?!” Twilight yelped, later clearing her throat and practically squeaking out, “Strange how?” At Luna’s pointed stare, she laughed nervously. “Haha. Stupid question.”

    “There were no events today that I know of,” the princess continued, walking past Twilight and towards a nearby door. “The only time I’ve seen so many of them have nightmares is during Seeking Night.”

    “Wait, Princess Luna, please!” Twilight rushed to catch up with her. “Please, I need to talk with you! It’s important.”

    “It can wait, Twilight,” the princess said, stern. “Something is wrong. A collection of nightmares like these are usually linked to a similar cause. If we can find the source, we can—” She stopped herself and gestured to a nearly pitch-black door in the distance. “There.”

    “Princess!” Twilight insisted, stamping her hoof on the floor when Princess Luna teleported to the distant door.

    Having no other choice, Twilight followed after her, her dread growing at seeing it was Rhinestone’s door they were standing in front of.

    “Rhinestone?” Princess Luna murmured, guarded.

    Princess,” Twilight insisted, rushing forward and blocking the door. “We need to talk. Now. Please.”

    Princess Luna’s eyes darted back and forth between Twilight and the door for a minute, until her expression sobered up.

    “Something has gone wrong,” she stated, and at Twilight’s faltering, her horn glowed with magic and the door swung open behind the startled alicorn.

    “Wait!” Twilight blurted out, yelping when the princess all but pushed her to the side and disappeared inside the door. “Wait! Princess Luna!”

    She followed her past the door and into a literal and figurative nightmare, coming face to face with Rhinestone cowering against the Dreamland’s lobby wall, her and Princess Luna’s eyes set on the dream version of Dusk Star. A terrible dark aura surrounded the colt, his eyes glowing yellow as he stalked towards his sister.

    “That’s not true!” Rhinestone protested with tear-filled eyes. “Princess Twilight is an alicorn! She isn’t lying!”

    “They’re all lying!” the colt yelled. “None of them are real!”

    “What happened?”

    So distracted was Twilight by the foals, she hadn’t even realized the princess had addressed her until she thundered her question again.

    “Twilight Sparkle! What happened?!” she demanded, and much like Rhinestone, Twilight stepped back towards the wall. “Tell me now!”

    “I… I…”

    “She has wings!” Rhinestone yelled back, making it so hard for Twilight to think. The filly stood up and slammed her hoof on the floor. “And a horn! She can’t have both if she’s not a real princess!”

    They’re fake! See?!”

    Just like that, a pair of lavender wings appeared on the floor in front of the filly, twitching sporadically as if they had a life of their own. It was almost repelling for Twilight to see, her own wings similarly twitching against her body.

    “I took them from her! Because she’s lying!”

    “They’re… They’re fake?” Rhinestone asked, as betrayed as Dusk was. Her eyes filled with tears anew, and much like she had outside of her dream, she started to wail.

    “Enough!” Princess Luna exclaimed, clearly shaken as she moved towards Rhinestone, her horn flaring with magic. “This poor chi—”

    Princess Twiiiiiliiiight!” Rhinestone wailed suddenly, desperately calling out. “I want Princess Twilight! Princess Twiiiiiiliiiight!”

    And Princess Luna came to a complete stop.

    The magic in her horn died immediately after.

    She spoke.

    “What are you waiting for, Princess Twilight?” she said.

    Not afraid.

    Not concerned.

    Completely and chillingly composed.

    Not daring to look at the older alicorn, Twilight rushed past her and made herself visible to Rhinestone, the filly crying in relief at the sight.

    “Princess Twilight!” she gasped, cuddling up to Twilight when the princess scooped her up in her forelegs. “You’re really a princess, aren’t you?!”

    “Of course I’m really a princess,” Twilight said as she had earlier, her horn crackling and dispelling the construct-Dusk. Once that was done, she turned back to the filly and smiled. “You were just having a nightmare, but it’s over now.”

    “Are you always going to take care of my dreams?” Rhinestone asked next, rubbing her eyes.

    Twilight hesitated.

    “Err… Well…”

    Before she could finish, blue magic enveloped the filly and she promptly fell asleep, much to Twilight’s surprise.

    “Huh?” She looked up, just in time to see the magic fade from Princess Luna’s horn. “Oh. Uh. Thanks.”

    “Does she know what happened?” the princess immediately asked. Composed.

    Twilight swallowed, nervous. “Yes, but—Hey!” She watched, startled, as Rhinestone was ripped from her forelegs and floated up into the air. “Princess Luna?”

    The magic enveloping Rhinestone pulsed once.

    “Princess Luna!” Twilight exclaimed, standing up. “What are you doing?!”

    The princess didn’t bother to reply, her magic pulsing a second time and forcing the scenery around them to change. Foals of all ages surrounded them, a construct-Rhinestone among them, and when the bakery doors slammed open and Dusk appeared, Twilight realized what was going on.

    “Princess Luna, stop!” Twilight pleaded, even as the memory continued, Dusk yelling to all the foals that it was all a lie. “This isn’t the way to do this! This is wrong, you can’t just force the memories out of her!”

    “This does not hurt her. This is what dreamwalking is. We search the memories of others to understand their distress,” the princess curtly replied.

    “But you’re not doing this to help her!” Twilight protested. “You told me dreamwalking should never be used for our own gain!”

    Princess Luna didn’t deign her with a reply.

    Instead, she continued to watch, her expression growing more somber as the memory continued.

    She watched as Dusk called her nothing but a lie.

    Watched as the foals listened, torn between believing and not.

    Watched as they rushed to Twilight, because they certainly believed in her, didn’t they?

    Eventually, once she’d seen enough, Princess Luna’s horn flashed one last time and the dream began to fade. The foals disappeared, the Dreamland did as well, and Rhinestone’s expression softened back to a sleeping foal.

    It wasn’t until she’d deposited Rhinestone on the floor that the princess spoke.

    “Your training is over.”

    Twilight blinked.

    “What?”

    “Your dreamwalking training is over,” the princess repeated, turning around and making her way towards the door. “You are clearly fully capable of taking over my responsibilities.”

    “Wait, what? Wait!” Twilight ran after her, following her outside into the dream realm. “Taking over?! What do you mean taking over?! I can’t take over! This is your domain!”

    Princess Luna turned to her, angered.

    “It is your domain now, Twilight Sparkle. It is what we have been training you for months now!”

    My domain?” Twilight asked, aghast, and then terribly vindicated. “I knew it! I knew learning how to dreamwalk was a terrible idea! You still thought I’d replace you! But I won’t! I didn’t agree to this, I only agreed to dreamwalk so I could make the plan work!”

    Princess Luna’s wings flared up.

    “The plan?! The plan that has failed?!”

    “We don’t know if it failed! I told you—”

    “You told me it would work!” Princess Luna thundered, stepping forward as Twilight stepped back. “You told me that this would free me! You told me that giving them a teddy bear would make them believe in me! You told me many things, Twilight Sparkle, many stupid things I foolishly believed! And all I see is failure! And now he’s told every single foal who believed in me that I do not exist! Do not tell me what you told me, for all you told me were lies!

    “I never lied! I never said this would work for sure!” Twilight protested, trying to keep herself together, even though every word stung. “And Dusk having told the foals doesn’t mean anything! You saw for yourself how they still believed in us!”

    “Believed in us? Believed in you, perhaps, but in me?!” She gestured to the doors. “Look for yourself!”

    “What are you talking about?!” Twilight asked, turning around to the doors. “There’s nothing… wrong… with…”

    They were fading.

    Nearly every door she could see was fading, flickering in and out of existence.

    No. No, they had said they believed! How was this possible?!

    “It has already started!” Princess Luna continued. “Already their connection to the dream realm is being severed!”

    “No! No, this can’t be right!” Twilight stammered, trying to grapple with this terrible development. This was impossible! “They were fine literally less than a second ago! It wasn’t until you said anything that they…”

    She drifted off.

    It was almost as if Princess Luna had commanded them to start to fade, Twilight thought, and the more she considered this, the more she realized that was probably exactly what had happened.

    “Princess Luna, please! You can stop this!” Twilight turned to her, ready to use the last weapon in her arsenal, what she believed for a fact was the real source of it all. “You’re doing this! You’re keeping yourself in here!”

    I am keeping myself trapped?! You having done that to yourself does not mean that I’ve done the same!”

    “But you are!” Twilight protested. “That’s what he does! Uses us against ourselves! He used my guilt against me! And he’s using your insecurities against you!”

    “I am trapped, Twilight! Trapped in a cave with no light and no physical body! Why would I do this to myself?!”

    “I know it sounds ridiculous! I thought the same thing! But I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t think it was what’s happening!” Twilight pleaded, sincerely. “Please, Princess, if you’ll just let me help you, we can fix this. We can get better!”

    “You?! Let you help me?!” the princess asked, enraged. “You’re the reason we’re in this mess to begin with!”

    If time could stop, it would have stopped for Twilight. It felt like it did, everything slowing to a halt—her breathing, her heart, her life—giving her a staggering clarity even as she lost the last shred of patience she had.

    Me?!” She felt her wings flare up, felt the boiling blood rush through her veins. “I wanted to talk to Discord! I wanted to reform him! Actually reform him! None of this is my fault! It never was!” she yelled, tears of indignation filling her eyes. “You made me trick him!”

    “I did not!”

    “Yes, you did!” Twilight insisted, refusing to back down. “You, and Cadance, and Princess Celestia! And I did it because I trusted Princess Celestia and—!”

    The princess’ derisive laughter interrupted her.

    “Yes! Yes, you would, wouldn’t you?! Trust my sister and do whatever she commands, because she has always been perfect. You would throw yourself into the sun if she asked it of you!”

    “Princess Luna, are you serious?! I haven’t seen Princess Celestia in a thousand years!” Twilight snapped. “The only contact I’ve had with her is three sentences months ago! I don’t even know where she is!”

    Princess Luna smiled. “That explains why you came to find me first then, doesn’t it?” she asked, and Twilight Sparkle realized if it were not for Luna’s current predicament, she might have killed her.

    “No! Of course not!” she said, desperately trying to help somepony who clearly did not want to be helped. “I came here because I wanted to! Not because—!”

    She choked on her words, the mention of Celestia’s letters reminding her that yes, actually, she’d come to Hollow Shades in part because Celestia told her to.

    “What? What!” Princess Luna pressed at her silence. She laughed, jokingly. “Did Celestia send you?”

    And when Twilight faltered in her denial, Princess Luna stepped back, almost amused.

    “I see.” And she laughed and it was bitter and unimpressed. “You truly are your teacher’s student, aren’t you, Twilight Sparkle?”

    “No! No!” Twilight interjected, because she did care about Luna! She cared, and she cared that her words kept being twisted and twisted and twisted some more. “I came here for you! Because I believe in you! Because Princess Celestia believes in you! Because we all do!”

    “Believe in me?! As you did when you rejected my help when Discord asked for Spike?! As Celestia did when I asked to help her?! As Equestria did when even a thousand years ago, they forgot I existed and preferred sister’s sunny days?! A thousand years have changed nothing!”

    “That’s not true! Hollow Shades—!”

    “Hollow Shades?!” she interrupted.

    And then she laughed. Laughed and laughed, until the joke wasn’t funny anymore and she assaulted Twilight with her words, blinded by her emotions.

    “For a thousand years, I have taken care of them! For a thousand years, I have looked after them! Helped them with their fears! Helped them grow into adults unafraid! Helped them even as they forget me!” she yelled, tears bordering her eyes. “And what have they done in return?! Called me a story! A foal’s bedtime story to profit from! Selling trinkets and toys at my expense for centuries even though I have taken care of every single one of them! And the one time I ask for something in return! The one time I plead for their help! It is denied! Denied! Why?! Because they don’t care! Because no pony has ever cared!”

    “Pinkie cares! Pinkie has always cared!”

    “Pinkie is not HERE!” the princess roared, slamming her hooves on the floor.

    “Because you’ve been keeping her out!” Twilight protested. “Just like you’re making this worse for yourself!”

    ENOUGH!” Luna roared, slamming her hooves against the floor, enraged.

    And that’s when it happened.

    Only then did Twilight see the sudden aura surrounding Princess Luna, dark and familiar and chaotic, seeping into the dream realm, consuming the older alicorn.

    “Princess Luna, please!” Twilight begged, her anger evaporated in the face of the worst case scenario, fear now consuming her. Discord could not enter the dream realm, but his magic could if it had the right carrier. She rushed to her, grabbing her. “Please, you need to stop! You need to wake up! You’re activating the chaos magic inside wherever you are!”

    “No!” Luna violently pushed Twilight away. “Let it have me! If dreams won’t make them remember me, perhaps nightmares will!”

    NO!” Twilight gasped, again getting up and going to her, desperate. “Please! Please, you can’t! I know how it feels! It feels easy! I know it feels like there’s no other way out, but there is! You can’t let it! Please, Princess Luna!”

    “Princess Luna is GONE!”the princess howled for the realm to hear, a blast of magic discharging from her body and forcing Twilight to quickly step away, nearly blinded by it.

    And when Twilight looked back, her future suddenly felt as bleak as Luna’s pitch-black eyes.

    “Princess Luna…please…” Twilight pleaded, her voice barely above a whisper.

    “Princess Luna is gone. Forgotten,” replied the mare, and she almost sounded gentle. “But that is all right, Twilight Sparkle. If the ponies of Hollow Shades will not believe in Princess Luna…”

    She stood up on her hindlegs, her horn crackling with contaminated magic, and promised with a grin:

    “They’ll believe in Nightmare Moon.”


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    1. A Deer
      Jun 5, '24 at 6:49 am

      I almost forgot how intense these chapters get near the end here. Luna’s descent is very well paced and really hits hard at the end of the chapter. You can feel the unease as the chapter goes on. It feels like that anticipation when something goes wrong. And it’s very well done! Luna’s break into Nightmare Moon was built up well up to this chapter and with a nice subtleness that really makes it authentic feeling. I can really feel her hurt and anger. I think that it’s the excellent character writing and the way emotions are expressed so well in the story that really deliver such a powerful experience. A wonderful chapter!

      Also I need to find someone to devote myself to at a level i would throw myself into the sun like Twilight has with Celestia

    2. Lei Silen (Sinclair)
      Mar 3, '24 at 10:05 am

      oh man. oh boy. oh pony (?)

      i have been binge-reading this series since a 3 days ago. it’s quite hard to put down.

      i’ve read the first author’s note on the FiMFic site for this, and i remember going “oh geez this is going to hurt a lot isnt it,” and here i am, hurting.

      the way you write your characters is so deeply engaging. TEK moreso because i see myself in twilight; her fears, frustrations, uncertainties, confusions, and whatnot. i find myself panicking alongside her everytime she notices something wrong. its like everything that made up me put into this silly horse and i’m just merely looking at anecdotes of me. is that weird to say? hopefully not.

      the moment i read “when it rains, it pours,” i just know it was gonna be harsh. the way everything has built up, that things were going way too well, but then somebody flicked a tile and that just caused the rest of the tiles to fall over and make everything crash.

      re-reading this now and i realized i have not been specific, but i mean to say that you are a wonderful writer. and this chapter was just a iced-water filled bucket reminder for me to say that.

      i am scarred and hurt in the best possible way ever, and, in an odd way, this whole story has helped me reflect.

    3. Zanna Zannolin
      Oct 31, '22 at 7:12 pm

      THIIIIISSSSS IS NOT WHAT I WAS EXPECTING BASED ON THAT CHAPTER TITLE I’LL GIVE YOU HTHAT!

      oh god i don’t even have thoughts im just going “oh no oh no oh no oh no oh no oh NO” over and over under my breath as i write this. oh god oh fuck ITS ALLLLL GONE BAD. i guess i should have seen this coming what with that foreshadowing….yknow….back in TEL…..about luna thinking if discord hadn’t trapped her she might have become something worse…aha well *twirls hair around finegr* bad news princess luna.

      god from an outsider pov it’s sooooo frustrating like i want to tear my hair out even though i KNOW luna’s stance and i KNOW why she’s like this but i am at the point where i agree with applejack….hire a therapist we all need it by now. luna PLEEEAASEEE luna i’m on my knees begging.

      and NOT LUNA SAYING IT WAS ALL TWILIGHTS FAULT LUNA SHES FRAGILE LUNA!!! LUNA NOOOOOO. this is the genuine worst case scenario. christ alive. we’re doomed.

      i have to say i ammmm very interested to see where we go from here because wow this did not end well. there is no way this is gonna go swimmingly. this is uhhhh gonna be. interesting!!

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