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The Turquoise Night of Neighshabur

by Ruirik

Time was fluid in dreams.

Luna had known this from her earliest years, just as she knew that the floating orbs around her were only projections. The true shape of dreams was, after all, formless—Feelings, locations, memories, all drifting about in unknowable ways. Each gave a subtle thrum, like a song unique to each and every dream that filled the Sleep with an ever present melody. She liked it, like a private concert only she was privy to.

It was Luna’s will, and the gift of her mark, that allowed her to give form to them. To perceive, and if she so chose to, be perceived by both the dream and the dreamer. If she desired she could share her gift with others. The spheres that she flew between could change to portals, platforms, or an endless row of doors. She found it helpful, in those rare occasions when she personally guided a filly or colt through a particularly unsettling dream to present it to them in a way their minds could easily comprehend. Experience had taught her that they more readily accepted her assistance when they weren't struggling to understand what was happening.

She flapped her wings, rising towards a dream bubble from which she sensed distress. Luna eyed the dream, pacing around it on paths that seemed not there.

Space was fluid in dreams.

Bending down, she touched her horn to the surface of the dream. Magic drew up from the base of her horn, following the conical swirl and pouring out into the orb. The application was minimal, like a hoof reaching out to steady a wobbling table. Luna kept up the flow of magic until she felt the dream settle, then moved along in search of another.

The symphony of the dreamscape felt quiet that night. More quiet than Luna had remembered in a long while. She liked it like that, it allowed her to stretch out, to feel beyond the dreamscape, into the cold void of deep sleep.

Luna took the moment of quiet to look out into the darkness, to enjoy the beauty of true emptiness. No expectation, no duty, no burden, only great potential. The potential for anything at all in the world.

Then, she felt a change in the dreamscape. A sound, like breath on winter winds or a sour note in the endless symphony that made her ear twitch, and she looked around for a moment to discern from where it came from. Near or far, loud, or quiet.

The world moved around her, yet Luna seemed to stand still. Once she was in the center of the dream state she closed her eyes and stretched out once again. Nothing greeted her ears.

Perception was fluid in dreams.

Once more she heard the sound and her ears twitched. She craned her head around, eyes narrowing while she searched. The darkness of deep sleep was all that she saw. Formless and stagnant.

Something made Luna’s ear twitch, though precisely what it was she could not say.

Then a chill settled in the dreamscape, and all too late she knew what it meant. Luna rushed forwards, towards the fading feeling. She found the dream, what was left of it, collapsing, though not from the dreamer waking. No, that was controlled, a slow fade of the dream to the waking world. This dream was shattered, the remnants of it dissipating into the dreamscape, and the dreamer was dead.

Luna had to act quickly, and focused her magic on the fragments to contain them. It was too late to save the dreamer, but she could prevent the aftershocks from infecting nearby dreams. She took a breath and felt the traces of the dream float towards her horn where they gathered into a dimly glowing orb.

She watched the dream flicker, heard the piteous cry it released as it collapsed, the last, desperate throes of consciousness struggling in vain to carry on. It flashed, memories of home, a dusty town, hot and secluded under an endless dome of turquoise skies. Yet, bit by bit, the light faded, like embers into the cool air of night. Luna closed her eyes and bow her head, a final respect for the lost dreamer.

When she opened them once more, she felt something, a chill that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end and sent a tingle from nose to tail. Craning her neck around, Luna gazed into the shadows, her eyes narrowing warily.

The shadows between dreams were deceptive. The thousand points of light given off by other dreamers created illusions, tricks on the eyes that took practice to see through. Luna had grown used to them and she knew when the light was playing tricks on her eyes.

So why did she feel like those shadows were looking back at her from beyond the threshold of the veil?

Luna stepped towards the shadows, wings flexing on instinct. A ball of magic formed in front of her horn, illuminating the shadows in the color of pale moonlight. The shadows seemed to recoil from her approach which perked Luna's curiosity, and she took a second step forward.

The shadow that seemed to linger in the darkness moved again, then seemed to retreat from the dreamscape, into the deep sleep. It gave Luna pause, and she shook her head. Was it possible something existed within the Sleep that she was not aware of?

Luna did not attempt to chase after it. The threshold between the Sleep and the void a boundary she dared not cross. What lay beyond it was unknowable, like the blackness far beyond the stars themselves. The Sleep would spread, as it always did, growing into that expanse as new lives flickered into being like newborn stars, their dreams filling her domain.

Could she too succumb to the power of illusion? No. Inconceivable. No sooner could a balloon of lead fly across the seas of the world than Luna could be given over to such foalish fantasy.

Then once more she heard it. That discordant note crying forth from the dreamscape. Turning sharply Luna flew towards the sound. The individual dreams flew past her, dreams of abstract fantasy, conquest, love, and all others lost in blurs of light that stung her eyes. She had to find the sour note. Had to find the source of its agony.

Sharper and sharper the note grew, like a note being played while the string was tightened beyond its breaking point. Only mere moments after the dream came into view, she saw it flicker, then shatter. Another dreamer dead, and cold pit filling her stomach.

Luna stopped over the shards of the dream, brows furrowed and lips pulled into a pained frown. Images flickered in the remains, the last flashes of light before the dreamer passed the threshold into darkness. She lowered her head, offering the dreamer a final bow, and observing the last moments.

A garden of lavender.

Grains of sand dancing in spiraling winds.

The turquoise night illuminating a waning moon.

Darkness. A candle lost to the consuming void, and eyes of black that stared into her soul.

Luna gasped and reel back, the Sleep collapsing around her. She opened her eyes, once more in her own garden at the Palace. A warm wind from the east brushed over her face cooling the sweat that beaded on her brow. Delicate stems of lavender swayed, their delicate scent soothing her racing mind.

She paused a moment, taking time to catch her breath as Celestia so often taught her to. The lessons of the venal and all too often pointless court life offering her some profit for a change. When Luna opened her eyes once more she turned her head up to the heavens. Clouds thick and black mottled the sky, their shapes obscuring the light of the moon.

Neighshabur.

The name echoed in her mind, the memory of sands swirling in spirals of bitter desert winds consuming her.

She had to go to Neighshabur.

—-

The journey took her days, flying alone through the solace of night carried by warm summer winds and a sense of lingering unease. She hardly landed at the outskirts of town, clad in a black cloak and hood to obscure her identity when she heard the wailing.

It was a funeral procession, dozens long, carrying a body of a pony wrapped in white linen from the city. She watched it for a few moments, listened to the pained cries and somber music, then made her way towards the stone gates of the city where a stallion in the white robes of a doctor stood watching the scene with a sullen face.

“What has happened here?” Luna asked of him.

“This city is cursed,” he answered with a sorrowful sigh. “A puzzle that has vexed me or weeks now.”

“Vexed you?”

The stallion nodded. “I am Bashir, the doctor and leader of Neighshabur. I have seen our city through drought and war, but I cannot understand what causes this.”

Luna rolled her lower lip through her teeth and took a step forward. “Might I converse with you in private, Master Bashir?”

He raised an eyebrow in puzzlement from her request, and turned to face her fully. “And who might be requesting such and interview, my lady?”

Turquoise magic flared from her horn, pulling back the cloak enough to reveal her obsidian regalia crested the the sigil of the moon. Bashir recognized it immediately and nodded his head in rushed agreement.

“Welcome, Shahdzadi,” he said, prostrating himself before her. “Had we known you were coming I should have prepared a proper welcome.”

Luna’s ears twitched at the title. She recalled the term from years earlier when she’d come with her sister to that quiet city in the dunes. Celestia told her it was their word for Princess. Or at least an analogous position in the desert tongues.

Together they observed the procession for a moment longer, then discreetly made their way into the city. Luna kept her questions to herself until at least they arrived at Bashir’s home atop the hill that was the center of Neighshabur. In the courtyard she saw a garden of lavender, and in the center a temple of white marble that housed a magical fire Celestia had created as a gift to the city a century earlier. Only once the heavy oaken doors were closed behind them and privacy was secured did Luna remove her cloak and turn to face him.

“I have been seeing things in the dreams of ponies from this city. The symphony of the Sleep is disturbed. I pray you might have an explanation for why I sense the key to this puzzle lies here.”

Bashir lowered his head and sighed. “I know not, Shahdzadi. I have known almost every pony in my city. Yet I have no logical explanation for this. Ponies young and old have been claimed in their sleep. There families talk of hearing the most terrible screaming, then silence. They cannot be roused from their dreams. They simply thrash and wail out until they expire.” He paused motioning his head towards the window where in the distance Luna could see the procession making their way to the burial grounds.

“That was a young filly named Alloy. A bright young thing. She had a talent for metal working.” Bashir walked over to his desk and touched the edge of his hoof to a small lead sculpture of a balloon. “She made this last year. She wanted to fly away from these arid lands to a place where water flowed and soft grass grew. I told her a lead balloon cannot fly,” he paused to laugh, but the notes were sorrowful.

“By itself no,” Luna said, her horn glowing veiling the sculpture in the pale hue of magic. “But in a dream even a balloon of lead can sail the skies.”

Bashir fell silent, his thoughts his own for a few moments before he returned his attention to Luna. “I do have a theory, but you might think this old stallion mad.”

“I am listening.”

Nodding, Bashir walked to his bookshelf and browsed the worn and cracked spines. A sliding ladder let him ascend to the upper shelves where he eventually produced a heavy tome that looked older than Luna and Celestia combined.

“We call it the Bakhtak ,” he began, setting the book on the floor and flipping through heavy papyrus pages. Luna couldn’t read the writing painted in faded ink on the pages, but her eyes settled easily enough onto the image. A creature black as pitch, no face, no eyes, a vague shape of a sinewy pony with an ethereal mane. It left a chill in her spine and a fear in her heart. A fear that at least had a name now.

“It is said that it was one of the ancient gods to a tribe long extinct. Starved of the faith it needs to live it turned to feeding on the dreams of the young. Others say it is the shade of a sorcerer caught practicing forbidden magics. Some call it the Nightmare. Others the Tantabus. But it is said to be a demon of the night, one that attaches itself to a pony’s dreams. It feeds off them, driving them to madness, despair, and eventually death.”

“Tantabus,” Luna mulled the word over in her mouth while tracing the page with a hoof. “I thought it was a fantasy told to scare foals.”

“I believe it is quite real.”

“And why is that, Bashir?”

“When you eliminate the impossible, Shahdzadi, all that is left is the improbable,” He answered. “Not one of the ponies who has died here was in poor health. They have been young, old, middle aged, and always healthy. We eat the same food, drink the same water, so what else could be causing this curse on our homes?”

“I suppose. But even if you are right, how would we tell, and how could we fight the creature?”

“There is another thing,” he said, glancing away from Luna as though in shame.

“Yes?”

“I have started to see it in my dreams. It is always there on the edge, like a beast in the night stalking me as I walk through my garden.”

Eyes shooting open Luna took a step closer to him. “Then if you are right I shall help you. I will not let another pony suffer under this abomination.”

“The Bakhtak cannot be destroyed, nor does it release its prey once it has attached itself to them.” Bashir started, leaning down to read the notes left by the ancient scholars. “Bakhtak lives beyond the threshold of dreams, in the void of darkeness where light dare not follow.”

Luna flinched.

Shadows moved in her mind, she stood at the precipice. Eyes blacker than night watched her from beyond the Sleep.

“The light creates the shadows,” he said, looking over to Luna. “One cannot exist without the other. It is a puzzle with no piece to solve it.”

“Surly there must be a way,” Luna growled and began to pace the office. “If I could catch it before it starts to feed, seal it in a dream bubble of its own, then it might well starve to death.”

“Or it would simply slip free,” he countered. “A creature of dreams might be impossible to destroy in a dream…” Bashir paused, eyes getting wide as an idea lit up his mind. “But if…”

“If?”

“If you were to let it feed on my dreams,” Bashir said with a look of resolve on his face. “You could seal it within me. Amputate the diseased limb and make it impossible to infect another.”

Luna shook her head. “Out of the question. I will not sacrifice-“

“My lady please,” he cut her off, prostrating himself before Luna. “This is more important than one life. The more this demon feeds, the stronger it grows. If my life is the price of severing this chain of misery, then I ask you to let me pay it. All I request is your help.”

“Bashir,” Luna said, ears folding as she laid a hoof on his shoulder.

“If I am to die,” he said, the resolve hardening his voice. “Let me die doing something of worth.”

A silence filled the air, now heavy with the implications of what had to be done. And relucntantly, Luna bowed her head to Bashir.

—-

Matter is fluid in dreams.

Luna waited, lurking in the Sleep as if it were any other night. It had been three nights of this. Each time she watched, each time she started to hear the discordant note. Yet every time she got to Bashir’s dream the presence had fled. Discussing it with the increasingly exhausted stallion they had come to a new idea.

That night she had waited for Bashir to sleep, then cast her spell. The dream she gave him was that of Bashir with Alloy. They flew in that leaden balloon, sailing through the arid skies of Neighshabur towards the green and fertile fields of Equestria.

Hours passed, and Luna had nearly given up hope when she heard that sour note ring forth into the Sleep once again. The warm glow of the dream attracted the darkness like a moth to flame, and Luna set upon it with all the haste she could muster.

Magic flared, and she wrapped Bashir’s dream in a sealing spell, smothering the golden glow in a blue shield. The dream flared, contracted, and like ink poured into water a blackness swelled and stained it black.

A scream, guttural, wild, divided Luna’s attention. In his bed Bashir thrashed and flailed. His eyes grew wide, now black as the void itself. Luna stood firm, mind flashing between the Sleep and the waking world. It was all she could do to hold the spell, contain the presence that pressed outwards from the barrier with wild abandon. Yet int he waking world Bashir had thrown himself from the bed, mouth foaming as he writhed on the floor, and Luna unable to move so much as a feather lest she loose her concentration.

She heard the shattering of glass, the scrabble of hooves over stone, and finally the unearthly howl when Bashir threw himself into the Celestial pyre. The dream light up, and for the briefest of moments Luna saw Bashir and Alloy smiling at her, the last of the puzzle pieces seeming to snap into place before the dream disappeared into embers.

Luna collapsed, her body and mind exhausted.

Black legs clad in violet armor stepped forward.

The Nightmare looked down at Luna. Down upon the mare she had once been.

Time was fluid in dreams.