Amidst dim candlelight, a single unicorn sat with his head bent down, eyes shut. He sat alone at the edge of a still pond, his reflection dancing in the water. The pond was nestled deep within Everfree Forest, the darkened trees and gnarled branches surrounding all sides like silent sentinels.
While most of Equestria had just shifted into spring, Everfree was still gripped by clinging bits of winter. Snow covered the ground and there was a lingering chill in the air. The unicorn’s hot breath left puffs of steam to curl and rise for a few seconds before disappearing into the night.
For a long while, the unicorn had sat in the utter silence on the edge of the pond, with only a few nearby candles for company. The light from the tiny, flickering flames fell upon his black coat, though it wasn’t his natural color. No, his whole body, mane included, had been dyed the deepest black possible. Even his cutie mark had been covered by the dyes, his flank appearing utterly blank.
Only the quiet sounds of the forest were audible, the creaking of the trees and shifting of the pond water. It was a scene of tranquility the unicorn needed to prepare for the task of the evening. Yet, as he took in another deep breath and released it, hoofsteps began to echo across the trees.
“Nexus, we’re ready when you are.”
The black unicorn, Spell Nexus, took in another breath, turquoise eyes opening as he turned to look at the pony who had approached him from behind. “I will be along shortly.”
The pony who had interrupted nodded, disappearing back into the forest. After waiting for the hoofsteps to fade into silence, Nexus lit his horn. As his magic flowed, he reached to his side with the arcane energy, levitating a number of items into the air.
“Our queen, guide me this night,” Nexus said as he turned his gaze skyward, “for it is beneath this full moon that our efforts come to fruition.”
Nexus spoke the words slowly, his voice carrying the tone of a pony well practiced in preaching, whose words could inspire the loyalty of his brothers and sisters. A voice that had drawn great minds and strong bodies to the cause, though at the moment he was speaking only to himself.
The black dyed unicorn lowered his head and touched a hoof to his chest as he said, “Let me be merely a vessel for your will and strength until the deed is done.”
The levitating items drew close to him: a cape of midnight blue with white stars all across its surface, a chest plate, comprised of grayish purple metal, with a turquoise crescent moon set in its center, horseshoes to match the chest piece, and an armored plate for the back of his neck.
“Let me bear your mane,” Nexus spoke as he drew the cape over his back, “both powerful and beautiful, a depiction of the endless sky. Let me stand in uniform,” he continued as the armor began to secure itself to his body, “in the armor that pays tribute to your image and greatness. Let me be your agent this night, for it is you I serve above all others.”
The final piece of armor levitated towards Nexus, a helmet made of the same metal as the chest piece. The unicorn guided the armor carefully, bringing it down across his horn as it fit snugly onto his head.
“May your power be with me, for, tonight, you shall breathe and taste the cool night air for yourself,” Nexus spoke as he rose to his hooves. “You shall look upon the world with eyes of your own, and no longer be forced to share a body with a weak foal as you have in the past. Tonight, you shall be your own mare, never again to be threatened by the Elements of Harmony.”
Nexus stood, looking at his reflection in the pond. He now appeared the ultimate doppelganger of his mistress, taking on the visage of an eager acolyte, ready to receive her power and knowledge. Through the efforts of him and his group, they would see their queen rise again. Yet it was only he that was allowed to look so much like the queen, to lead the spell that was about to be cast. It was his place of honor, one no pony would steal from him.
“Tonight, Nightmare Moon, your followers shall grant you a life of your own, and the tyrants of sun and moon shall fall.”
Mentally prepared, Nexus turned and began to walk into the forest, following the trail that connected the pond to another part of the Everfree. Another clearing, which came into view quickly and was occupied by several unicorns, pegasi, and earth ponies moving about the space as they constantly checked their work.
The ground in the clearing had been cleared of snow, though a few piles were left dotted about the space. On both the exposed ground and on the piles of snow there were wooden bowls filled with oil soaked powders. Paint had been used upon the ground to draw arcane lines of power, and in the air above cloaked pegasi worked to gather clouds, pushing them together to hide the clearing from prying, sky-bound eyes.
All the ponies Nexus saw wore the black cloak of the order except for three, who stood giving orders: a pair of pegasi and an earth pony. They, like Nexus, wore the honored armor, though he alone wore the flowing, star field cape and the helmet, vestments only he had the honor of wearing.
“How close are we, Night Wind?” Nexus asked as he approached the trio.
“Cloud cover is almost complete, and the pegasi only need a few minutes to get their bowls,” the dark purple pegasus answered, staring back at Nexus with her turquoise eyes, a sign of the order. Through the work of a spell, Nexus blessed each of the Children of Nightmare. It was a blessing that carried enlightenment along with special eyes, which bore their majesty’s regal turquoise color.
“Good,” Nexus said before turning to the earth pony, “Stonewall, do you have the items?”
“They have not left my sight since our departure from Canterlot, Nexus,” the earth pony replied, motioning to the bowl that was currently resting on his back.
“And Gray Gale, is our special guest awake?”
“Oh yeah, she just woke up,” the gray pegasus of the trio answered, talking far more casually. “And boy is she scared!”
“That’s because you told her Stonewall would snap off her horn if she tried to escape,” Night Wind snipped.
“Hey, it kept her from trying anything,” Gray Gale defended.
“She couldn’t try anything even if she wanted to. She’s got an anti-magic brace on her neck.”
“You have all done well,” Nexus spoke, stopping the argument before it could go any further. “But now we must all take our places. Stonewall, take the sacred items to their place in the center of the ritual. Gray Gale, Night Wind, prepare your torches and head to the sky.”
The three nodded, going to their assigned tasks while Nexus turned his attention to one side of the clearing. There, lying on the ground was a pony, hogtied with rope and a cloth bag over her head.
Treading carefully, Nexus moved between the wooden bowls and approached the hogtied pony. When he was a few steps away, the cult leader used his magic to remove the bag. The unicorn captive was now fully visible, her violet coat dirty in a few places from the fact she was lying on the ground. Her darker purple mane was a mess as she looked up at Nexus in fear, undoubtedly noticing the resemblance the unicorn had with a certain fallen princess.
“I’m so happy you were able to join us this evening, Miss Sparkle,” Nexus said as he looked down at the purple pony.
“Who are you? What are you going to do to me?” Twilight asked in a panicked squeak, just barely managing to find her voice as she struggled at the ropes around her legs. She had likely tried to use her magic to escape, but she was not just bound physically: A metal brace, secured around the unicorn’s neck, kept her from making use of her magic.
“Inquisitive, though I should expect no less from Celestia’s star pupil,” Nexus replied, his horn glowing as he picked Twilight off the ground. With the unicorn floating in his magic, Nexus walked back towards the center of the clearing. There, the earth pony Stonewall had set up a metal pedestal, upon which he had set the wooden bowl from his back.
“What we have planned for you, Twilight Sparkle, is very simple. As to who we are... well, consider us simply the loyal servants of Equestria’s true queen, her regal majesty Nightmare Moon.”
“Are you crazy!?” Twilight asked, twisting a bit as she was carried upside down by Nexus’s magic. “Nightmare Moon is gone. How can you serve somepony who is gone?”
“It is much easier than you think, Miss Sparkle. I will not, however, spoil the surprise. For the moment, all you need to know is that your... contribution is appreciated,” Nexus replied as he placed the bag back over Twilight’s head, securing it tightly and placing a sound dampening spell across the fabric. The mare continued to protest, despite the fact her words were muffled by the spell-infused bag.
Leaving Twilight floating in the air, Nexus walked over to the metal pedestal. He examined the contents of the wooden bowl set upon the tall, narrow metal table, eyes glinting in anticipation. Inside the bowl were curled shreds of what looked like paper, but they were a purple color and one of the pieces had a big turquoise crescent moon on its surface.
He then turned his attention to a dagger resting beside the bowl, picking it up with his magic. The stallion then looked back at Twilight, who continued to twist, flail, and shout muffled protests. He drew close to Twilight, and, after lowering her a little closer to the ground, Nexus proceeded to give the mare a swift kick in the stomach.
The kick quickly made Twilight stop flailing, the unicorn hanging limply in Nexus’s magic as she tried to catch the breath that had been knocked out of her lungs. In the moment Twilight hung motionlessly, Nexus drew the dagger’s blade across part of Twilight’s leg, leaving a very shallow wound. It was no worse than a paper cut, but it brought muffled screams of panic from the unicorn, as if he had done far worse.
The wound began to bleed gently, a few drops of blood weeping out. Nexus set the dagger against the wound, gathering several drops of blood on the blade before placing it into the wooden bowl with Nightmare Moon’s remains.
“Yes, the spark of life from one who bears the Element of Magic. May it grant our queen invulnerability against those cursed Elements of Harmony,” Nexus whispered, levitating Twilight back to the edge of the clearing, dropping her unceremoniously at the base of a tree as he approached the metal pedestal.
Slowly, Nexus drew in a breath, releasing it and watching the puff of steam escape into the night air. Then, with one final deep breath, the unicorn leader looked out across the rest of the Children of Nightmare, his voice echoing across the trees as he preached to his fellows.
“Brothers and Sisters, for months, we have toiled in secrecy. We worked behind the backs of the guards and tyrant princesses, putting our own safety at risk. Personal fortunes have been spent along with many hours to bring us to this point. But now we are ready; the spell is prepared.
“Tonight we, the Children of Nightmare, shall see our queen given life, blood, and form of her own.
“Once, she and Luna were one and the same, but the Elements of Harmony could not destroy what our queen was. No, that power could only peel her away from the weak foal Luna, could only trap her essence in these precious shreds. It was a horrible fate, but it is because of the Elements of Harmony’s inability to destroy our queen that we can stand here tonight.
“For tonight, this spell will give the essence of our queen life of its own. Never again shall she be shackled to the meek Princess Luna, and, with our aid, she will come to rule all of Equestria within a year of her tragic defeat.
“Now lend your magic to the spell, for the time of our victory is at hoof!” Nexus called out, rearing back triumphantly before slamming his fore-hooves into the ground.
“Let Nightmare Moon be born anew!”
The cult members quickly went about their work. The unicorns formed a circle around the clearing, their horns glowing as the lines of paint they had drawn on the forest floor came to life with a blue incandescence. Stonewall, one of the few earth ponies walked around the circle and, with a torch, lit the bowls filled with oil soaked powders, which burned with an eerie blue flame. As the fires grew, the air in the clearing became so thick with magic it was almost tangible.
Above the ritual, the cloaked pegasi cult members also held bowls of burning powder. With torches of their own, the armored Gray Gale and Night Shade flew around to light the bowls kept aloft above the clearing.
When all the bowls were lit, Nexus used his magic to take the fire from one, gently holding it in the air and keeping the flickering flame alive. He brought the fire over the bowl containing the shreds of Nightmare Moon and the bloodied dagger, and then dropped the flame inside.
The contents burst into flame almost instantly, Nexus quickly retreating to the edge of the circle to join his fellow unicorns. There, they all began to twist and form the magic in the air, working like potters with clay. They shaped the free magic, molded it, and began to force it down into the bowl that contained the shreds of Nightmare Moon.
After a few anxious moments, Nexus saw what he had hoped for; the blood soaked dagger started to float above the fire. The blood was drawn up from the dagger by the spell and formed into a single crimson sphere before the dagger itself was launched away, its polished metal surface sinking deep into a nearby tree.
Black smoke billowed from the central bowl, the shreds of Nightmare Moon starting to burn. The smoke began to form and swirl around the large drop of blood. The fires from the wooden bowls were drawn in, swirling and orbiting the spell’s focal point like water in a whirlpool.
The drop of blood became encased in a black sphere, and that black sphere began to slowly grow. It drew in the fire and smoke and everything, and grew larger with each passing moment.
“Yes... it is working my brothers and sisters. She is beginning to take shape. Our queen shall soon be-”
The cult ponies jumped probably a foot in the air when a single bolt of lightning raced down from the sky and struck the very center of the spell, sundering the metal podium and wrapping the drop of blood, the shreds of Nightmare Moon, and the wooden bowl in crimson flames.
Eyes turned upward to the source of the lightning; the cloud cover the cult’s pegasi had carefully placed was blown back as a full battalion of royal guards flew down from the sky.
“FREEZE! YOU ARE ALL UNDER ARREST!!!” several of the guards shouted as dozens of other gold armored pegasi landed in the center of the clearing. Still, not a single pony froze, the cultists instead charging the guards in an all out assault.
Nexus stood flabbergasted, watching as the center of the spell and the precious shreds of Nightmare Moon were destroyed. All their plans, decimated by a single surge of magical lightning: lightning that could only have come from one source.
Turning his eyes skyward, Nexus glared at the next figure to float down through the hole in the clouds. With a single flash of her horn, the figure brushed away the rest of the cloud cover like froth from a cup of hot cocoa.
“Celestia...” Nexus forced out through gritted teeth, his turquoise eyes locked on the sun princess as she floated down amidst the fighting, casting back anypony that dared attack her with barely a flick of her horn. Inside him, a hatred billowed. Every fiber of Nexus’s being wanted him to attack, to smite down the sun princess for daring to interrupt the ritual, but he knew better.
“Don’t think you’ve won today, Sun Tyrant. You have merely delayed me at best,” Nexus hissed, his own horn starting to glow. Gray Gale, Night Wind, Stonewall, and a number of cultists gathered near Nexus as magic flowed from the unicorn’s horn. The group then seemed to disappear into thin air, though a number of hoofprints took shape in the soft ground as the now invisible cultists fled into the Everfree Forest.
“Have you apprehended all involved?” the sun princess asked, her eyes locked on the guard that stood before her.
Celestia currently sat in the Ponyville library. After rescuing Twilight, the princess had taken her student home and sent her straight to bed. Twilight resisted a bit, but, after going through such a stressful situation, it didn’t take much to get the unicorn to fall asleep. Celestia had turned the library into a base of operations, keeping guard of her student personally while having her guards bring their reports to her.
“We have captured a great number of those involved, but we believe some were able to escape by using magic to disguise themselves,” the guard reported, head bowed respectfully to the alicorn. “We followed their tracks but they eventually ended, as if they realized their mistake and corrected it before we could catch them. Still, we are continuing to search the forest with the aid of the zebra that reported your student’s ponynapping.”
“Yes, Zecora. Please make sure that she is properly thanked for all she has done this evening. Also, please extend her an invitation to the palace so that she may join Luna and I for dinner on an evening of her choosing.”
“Of course, Princess,” the guard answered as he raised his head. “Though, if I may ask, what were these ponies trying to do?”
“I do not know,” Celestia admitted. “All we were able to get from the information we gathered prior to this night was that something was going to happen, and that Twilight had her head covered by a thick sack for most of her ponynapping. She doesn’t know enough for us to ascertain this group’s purpose.”
“What about the spell?”
“The spell is not something I recognize. If it is from a book or ancient scroll, then I have not read of it, but it could just as easily be a new spell. A ritual crafted for a specific purpose, though that purpose still remains to be unearthed. Make sure that the details of the spell itself remain preserved; it will need to be studied.”
The guard snapped into a salute. “Of course, Princess. We will gather any evidence at the scene and have it taken to the castle until such time it can be examined.”
“Good. I have no doubt that the spell’s purpose was dark, and I will not stand for my student being threatened,” Celestia said, her eyebrows furrowing with determination. “I want the truth of this revealed, Captain, with all haste.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
The unicorn guards searched the area, sweeping it with their magic to try and detect anything left behind. What remained of the wooden bowls were gathered and any unburnt powder was collected together into a single bag. Everything and anything that was not natural to the Everfree Forest was taken from the clearing, though the guards did not extend their search into bordering trees and bushes once it became clear the ritual’s radius ended at the treeline.
All that was gathered was loaded into a waiting chariot, and once the unicorns were finished, the pegasi hitched to the chariot took flight. They rose quickly into the sky before banking towards Canterlot as the unicorns below watched their fellow soldiers until they vanished beyond the treetops.
“All right stallions, let’s go join the groups searching the forest for any of the cult members that might have escaped,” the lieutenant directing the clean-up ordered. “Give higher priority to any that appear to be unicorns; one of them used some kind of crazy magic to get away, and we don’t want that to happen a second time.”
“Sir, shouldn’t some of us remain here?” one of the soldiers spoke up, a newer recruit to the royal guard.
“What for?” the lieutenant snapped, glaring down the soldier that dared to question his orders.
“To guard the crime scene, sir,” the younger soldier replied, standing in staunch attention as the lieutenant walked right up to him.
“No, we’ve gathered everything of importance.”
“But what if the cultists come back, sir?”
“Listen close, cause I’ll say this only once,” the lieutenant snapped, glaring down the overly vocal soldier. “Any criminal worth his salt will get as far away from the scene of his crime as possible. These ponies are crazy, but they’re not stupid. They won’t be coming back.
The younger guard opened his mouth to speak, but the lieutenant continued on, ignoring him. “Besides that, this isn’t the central park in Canterlot. Everfree is dangerous. There are monsters in here that could eat a pony twice my size in a single gulp, armor and all. This isn’t a place where we want to spend any more time than necessary.
“But, if you want to stay here and guard the scene of the crime, be my guest. Just watch out for the hydras,” the veteran guard concluded, beginning to walk out of the clearing. The rest of the soldiers followed behind him, heading out into the forest to join the search. Only the guard who had spoken up did not move, remaining in the clearing as the others disappeared amongst the trees.
He remained there for a minute at best before the lieutenant’s words got to him. The soldier broke into a gallop as he left the clearing, sprinting to catch up with his comrades.
Still, the magic that lingered in the air like a heavy mist began to shift, sparkling a bit in the cool night air as it was drawn to one side of the clearing. There, hidden away by a bush, a black sphere lay amongst the dirt. A sphere which was cast away from the center of the spell by Celestia’s bolt of arcane lighting. A sphere that, at its heart, contained the blood of a certain purple unicorn.
The magic that lingered in the clearing flowed into the sphere, drawn to it like metal to a magnet. As the arcane energy was absorbed, the sphere grew, continuing the process begun by the spell Celestia had been interrupted.