The Shadow Alphabet, and other tales for Nightmare Night

by Cold in Gardez

Chapter 1: The Shadow Alphabet

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The note was on the pillow beside Twilight Sparkle’s head when she woke.

She sat up and stretched before picking it up. A message from Spike, no doubt, or one of her friends. She vaguely recalled that Rarity was heading to Canterlot this week, and she must’ve left this note for Twilight before departing on the train. She yawned and considered slumping beneath the covers for another ten minutes, but finally curiosity won out and she unfolded it with her magic.

Her reward was a single line of gibberish. Alien characters, centered in a row and evenly spaced. She blinked and rotated the paper, but that solved nothing – from every angle the marks on the note remained incomprehensible. They were like no language she had ever seen.

She peered at the page, turned it over, inspected it for any other mark, even sniffed and tasted it, but it was only paper and the strange symbols were the only writing on it. She chuffed in quiet annoyance and carried it downstairs.

* * *

“So it was just, like, next to you when you woke up?” Spike said. He had his adorable frilled apron on, and held a sizzling pan over the stove as he made them pancakes.

“Mhm.” Twilight took a tiny sip of her coffee and closed her eyes to savor it. She liked to pretend her brain in the morning was a dry sponge, and coffee the life-giving fluid that swelled it with thought.

“That’s creepy,” he said. “What’s it say?”

“I’m not sure. It’s some odd language, or a code, perhaps.”

The note was laid out on the table. Her investigative spells had revealed no author, no history, no touch other than her own. It was as if her dreams had given birth to it. The twenty-two glyphs written in a single line tugged at her mind, teasing at her memory like fragments of a song half-heard in the marketplace. She stared at them again.

“So what’s it mean?”

Twilight blinked. There were pancakes steaming on her plate. She hadn’t even noticed Spike finish cooking breakfast.

“Nothing, probably. It’s just a prank.”

All the same, she kept the note. It was too intriguing to discard with the morning’s trash.

* * *

That evening, Twilight sat with a book, but she did not read it.

It wasn’t the book’s fault – it was never a book’s fault – but she couldn’t seem to muster the interest to plow through more than a few sentences. Never had the history of the Griffin Republic seemed so dull. After reading the same page for the fourth time, and remembering not a word, she sighed and pushed it away.

The note weighed too heavily on her mind. She floated it closer. Its twenty-two characters seized her eyes, and she read them, over and over. Something about them seemed familiar, though she’d spent hours earlier in the day comparing them with every known language in the world. They matched nothing.

Investigations of her pillow hadn’t turned up anything new, either. Her windows weren’t locked, per se, but the design of her crystal castle meant they were impossible to open from the outside – certainly she would’ve woken if somepony had tried to force them. That left the possibility that the note came from within the castle, but neither Spike nor Starlight Glimmer seemed like the types to play such an unusual prank.

She squinted at the note again. It remained unmoving on her desk. Smug.

That wouldn’t last long. She would break it eventually. She pushed aside the forgotten tome of Griffin history, and in its place she opened a slim volume from her school days, a treatise on advanced symbology.

In time, the sky outside her window grew gray and light. Her candles, unneeded, burnt themselves down. Still she read.

* * *

They were letters, she decided. Part of a cypher.

Each of the twenty-two symbols corresponded with a letter in the Equish language. She had no idea what they sounded like so in her mind she mapped the sound of each familiar, native letter to one of the strange glyphs. A simple, straight-forward substitution. As an experiment, she picked up her quill and wrote the word Quill with the new letters. It seemed surprisingly natural. Almost legible.

She wrote it again. The motion of the quill was easier this time. She barely had to reference the note to remember how to form each of the alien characters. When she reached the final letter, the second L, she added a little flourish, as though she’d been writing such letters her entire life. Staring at it, she could read the word quill as easily in this new language as her native tongue.

Interesting. She opened her mouth, silently sounding out each letter of the word. Quill, quill, quill.

“Quill,” she whispered. But her tongue formed the word not with the shapes of Equish letters, but rather this new script. The sounds twisted in her mouth, dripping from her lips like drool. They sounded the same and wrong and weird and perfect to her. She said them again, louder: “Quill.”

As she spoke, the quill lying on the paper seemed to shift. It bent, drinking in the light around it, casting a new shadow on the page, larger and darker and sharper than before. Her mind bent with it, seeing it anew. Quill changed, and her understanding of quill changed, and she changed as well.

She smiled.

* * *

Soon Twilight could speak easily with the new alphabet. She no longer even had to look at the note. The strange characters had ceased to be strange – they simply were. She laughed.

She spent the day naming everything in her room with the new alphabet. As she called them out, each item became greater, darker, more perfect in the telling. Her pillow wrapped around itself, cloaking itself in livid shades that bled out to infect the bedsheets. The curtains embraced their new names and began to billow in an unseen wind.

It took an hour to name every book on her shelves. They shuddered as she opened their covers. The pages fluttered and sighed as they changed. What a joy it would soon be to read them.

On and on she went. Shadows welled up from the cracks in the floor, smothering everything, until only one item remained untouched. She froze, seized by a sudden realization. A flash of fear washed over her like cold water.

But fear was for foals. She was a princess, now. She could only ever be greater. She inhaled and viewed the old world for the last time.

Twilight Sparkle,” she said.

* * *

Later, the being that had been Twilight Sparkle, but now was something so much greater, left her room to its darkness. The candles and their wicks and their flames had all simply vanished when she spoke their names – the new alphabet needed no light.

She floated down the stairs, her hooves never touching the crystal steps. She gazed around the castle with wonder. So many things, all waiting for her to speak them. Waiting for her to share this joy.

A beautiful chorus heralded her as she reached the castle foyer. A choir assembled to exalt in the glory she had found. It was Spike, screaming. She smiled at him in passing as she went out the door.

She had to find her friends.

They needed perfect names as well.

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