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Origins of Sunny Town

By Zero Zivan  A.K.A. Skyjagged

A fanmade response to a fanmade game

Story of the Blanks

Inspired by My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

...Using the magic of the Elements of Harmony, she defeated her younger sister, and banished her permanently in the moon. The elder sister took on responsibility for both sun and moon, and harmony has been maintained in Equestria for generations since.

...Legend has it that in the longest day of the thousandth year, the stars will aid in her escape, and she will bring about nighttime eternal.

“Well, that one’s already been proven.” I closed the book and used my wings to carry it up to the top shelf where I’d found it.

Oh, sorry. I probably should have started by introducing myself. My name’s SkyJagged. Most ponies just call me Jag. I’m one of the Weather Team leaders for Ponyville. It’s my job to help make sure things go smoothly when we’re moving the clouds along. Although, frankly, I think that Rainbow Dash character is more capable of handling the job than all of us combined, being Manager and all. But, that’s another story. Weather isn’t all I do, of course. I have a thing for adventure. Pretty much everything I can use to uncover big secrets is myths and pony tales.

And that’s what I was doing that day. Princess Luna had returned to Canterlot only a day ago, and her first arrival as Nightmare Moon sparked an interest in me. That was one pony’s tale that had proven to be true, as far as her appearance was concerned. She didn’t ‘bring about nighttime eternal’, though. Those six mares were responsible for bringing Luna back to… well, herself.

But I was sure there might be something more to this myth, some other foretold prophecy that hadn’t been fulfilled. But, those were the last pages of the book that pertained in any way to the legend of Nightmare Moon. I figured it was time to consult somepony who I trusted more than anypony else with history. It was time to pay a visit to Great-Great-Grandpony Axel.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I respect the old prophets and theologists as much as any other pony. But my family was special. See, Grandpony and Grandmare Clockworks were really wise. I’m not bragging, really I’m not. But they had a gift: whenever something new happened in Ponyville, they made a record of it. Think of them the way Starswirl the Bearded was known in Canterlot. Whenever something needed knowing, they were the ones ponyfolk went to see.

The greatest gift they left me when they passed was that ruffled old book they kept their records in. I always love to go through it, at least to see what they saw when they wrote something down. I left Twilight’s library home and took to the skies. In seconds I was through the front door of my home sweet cloud-home. I passed the mirror along the main hall, and I admit, even in my hurry to revisit old times I stopped for a minute. My mane had gotten a little ruffled, see. That happened when I was in a rush, and I always had to push it back again. I gave the reflection a once-over. Now, I don’t consider myself a very handsome pegasus – I can’t imagine anypony being attracted by the seaweed color of my mane, contrasting the sky blue of my coat. Top that off with the hazel eyes and red shield cutie-mark, I find myself pretty unattractive. But hey, a colt’s gotta look his best. I pressed on.

The tanned leather volume was squared away in the center shelf, just where I always kept it. I glided over to my fluffy bed – for you ponies who don’t know, cumulus is a great mattress – and thumped down on it. The date of Luna’s banishment still fresh in my mind, I turned the pages to that entry and began to read. The first few pages mentioned her disappearance, and I noticed that the lines carried a heavy load of sorrow. I can only guess now that my grandponies were at least familiar enough with Luna to feel her loss. But then they cut into other things: tax changes, the arrival of a traveling market pony. But after a few pages, three days later, the story picked up again.

Today Princess Celestia visited us personally to establish the change in her rule over the kingdom, now that her sister Luna has been sealed away. Nopony had any argument, but there was one who expressed concern for the late Princess Luna’s whereabouts. Ө  ێ

ڃﻩﻩ (here I couldn’t help but stop and even try to rub the page to see if there was some dirt splattered in it, but the writing stayed firm) cited Starswirl the Bearded’s new prophecy: Nightmare Moon’s return on the night of the longest day of the thousandth year. He insists that although Equestria may be safe from threat now, there will be future dangers.

Even without closing my eyes, I could see the whole thing in my mind as I read on.

Princess Celestia begins to cry. Gently, silently. Enough that only the ponies that are standing closest to her can even notice the glimmer in her eyes. Her voice stays firm, however. “By ensuring the safety of Equestria, we have lost our dear sister. Please do not demand more of us.”

The unnamed colt stands equally firm, although the citizens of Ponyville have given him a wide berth of six steps in each direction. “We all mourn the loss of Princess Luna, Your Majesty. But we also know of the prophecy your wisest subjects have made. Nightmare Moon shall return, and what then will we do? If she is able to free herself from a prison the very Elements have made, what could hold her back from destroying our land? We are not safe here.”

“What, then? If Equestria is not a safe place, where would you live?”

“There is only one place I can name. The forests, south of here. A place that is untouched by pony hooves. There the land is rich, the weather free as a bird, and animals able to fend for themselves.”

A gasp goes through the crowd. Celestia herself is shocked. She waits for the murmurs to die down before responding, “Those forests are far from safe. Dangerous creatures have moved into that forest since our departure. Even if this were not so, the same prophets who foretold our sister’s return have felt a dark magic within. If you venture into those woods…”

Celestia’s voice becomes firm, each of her words stamped out like a hoof against stone, “We cannot protect you.”

“I had expected as much. But I cannot agree to stay here under a trembling foundation. Therefore, I will go into the woods, along with any who will accompany me. If it proves as dangerous as you say, we shall return. But if not, we shall remain. Any who wish to join me and my friends are welcome. I fear though, Celestia, that if you will not come with us, this will be our last meeting.”

The farewells are courteous but stiff. The colt, along with five of his closest earth pony friends, (the book offered five more obscure signs where names should be), venture into the dark woods.

I browsed over the pages one more time. But that was it, no more information about the six ponies or any background about where they were from. I had to assume they came from a place away from Ponyville. But the strangest part was how the page ended. In a darker, newer-looking ink, the last words regarding the six ponies were written:

They were never seen again.

Creepy. I felt a chill go up my back when I read it. Grandpony and Grandmare, between the two of them, always had at least a rumor, if not a quote from some letter, about a pony who had moved away. But nothing. That was it. “Never seen again”. Gone.

I put the book back on its shelf and, on a whim, walked over to the window by my bed. Peering down, I could see the edge of Ponyville, including Fluttershy’s house and the forest nearby. The Everfree Forest.

South. The book had said south. A forest where plants grew, weather came and went, and animals lived without supervision. That was the most accurate description of the Everfree Forest I’d ever heard. And it was the only forest I knew of that ponies feared because of that. But should I look into this one? They were never heard from again. If this was that same forest, and those six had gone in and never returned, would I be any safer than they had been?

I swallowed. Hard. But, there were two things I had that made me different from the other ponies in that story. First, I was a pegasus. Those other ponies were all described by Axel and Gera Clockwork as earth ponies. That meant no flying, and no magic. Second, their cutie marks. The six ponies may have had cutie marks, but mine is special. When I got my cutie mark, I had been standing up for one of the smaller colts in my high school class. The one doing the bullying didn’t back down, though, and tried to pummel me. I didn’t even know my cutie mark had appeared, but I did notice when the other pony went sailing through the air when I hit him. Apparently, my cutie mark helps me to beat the odds when I have a friend in trouble.

I still have no idea how that works, and I can’t control it. But whenever I get worked up, scared, or mad, my cutie mark seems to automatically find the best way to improve my strength or speed and fire up. I was pretty sure that if I got into trouble I couldn’t fly out of and I thought I was gonna get hurt, my cutie mark would get me out of it. But still, it would’ve been stupid to just go in there without warning anypony. I made sure to leave a message with one of my closest friends, Leech, that I was going into the forest. He’s an odd one, that Leech – probably from his upbringing and life in Canterlot – but that’s also another story. It was a good thing I had timed the visit just right, because it’s hard to get ahold of him any time before the sun starts to set, and he only seems to show up at night, when he wants to mess with you. Still, that meant that when I left him my message, I had only an hour before nightfall, and things went black. In the Everfree Forest, that wouldn’t go well for me. So I had to make this one a quick in-and-out.

And there I was, at the edge of the forest. Looking up instead of down, those trees looked a lot more intimidating, and the shadows inside seemed like they were gonna jump out at me. But I couldn’t back down. I forced myself to take the first step, then the next. “Calm down,” I told myself, trying to be as firm as possible. “Get over your nerves. This will be fun. Don’t let fear hold you back.” Something in the back of my mind whispered, Not now. Come back in the morning, when it’s easier to see. Ridiculous, of course; after a certain point, daylight made no difference in how easy - or rather, difficult - it was to see. I had to be tough. I had to be ready to face danger to find the truth.

I was terrified. It wasn’t long before I had lost sight of the way I came in, and then I found myself running. An animal twittered nearby, and in less than a second I was up a tree. But then two girls came walking by underneath me. One was Twilight herself. The other was a filly I didn’t recognize, a tiny little thing with a yellow coat and a bright red mane held back by a massive pink bow.

“Twi, she was right! Ah really couldn’t trust the night…”

Twilight didn’t slow down, but I could hear worry in her voice. “Well, I did tell you to stay with me, Applebloom. Did something in there scare you?”

Applebloom? Must’ve been from the Apple family, no doubt about it. She answered quickly, “Well, yeah, but Ah’m okay. Ah’ll be fine.”

I barely heard Twilight reply “Let’s get you home” before they disappeared from sight. I thought about following them back out, but then decided against it. Running out like a frightened little foal would be embarrassing, especially if two girls made it in and out just fine. “Yeah,” I muttered to myself. “If they can do it, no way you can’t.” I dropped back down to the ground and kept going. Soon, I found myself near a small patch of blue flowers. The stuff smelled odd, and if for no other reason than to protect my nose, I decided to stick to the path where they didn’t grow.

But, now that I thought about it, there was another path, barely noticeable apart from the larger, main one. It was a tiny grove worn out by hooves, just off to the left, and when I looked in I found that it led into a larger grove, this one a very obvious path. “Strange,” I muttered. Soon I was weaving in and out of thick lines of trees. Left, right, right, left, left, right, right, left, and right. It seemed to go on forever, and soon enough I was pretty sure I had gotten my directions mixed up and gone in a circle. It was too dark to see my own hoofprints, so retracing my steps would have been no help. I sighed, annoyed with myself for not bringing placemarkers of some kind with me, and pressed on. When I rounded the next corner, I was so surprised I thought maybe I had walked through the whole night and not even realized it. Right there, before my eyes, was a small arch leading right into direct sunlight! I thought for sure I had gotten so turned around in that twisting path that I had found another entrance to the Everfree Forest. Or, in this case, it would’ve been an exit. But when I set hoof inside that arch, I was in for a whole different truth.

An adventure – or maybe more like a horror story – that I could never have imagined was about to begin.

“Well, hello! Welcome.”

I jumped skyward. It was surprising enough to have somepony waiting right at the exit for me. But to find myself in a village I’d never have expected to see was something else.

That’s right, I had never left the Everfree Forest. There were still trees around the edges of this sunny haven. And like I said, it was a village. Straight ahead of me, there was a beautiful wood hut. The structure reminded me of the way my grandponies’ home had been built: old-fashioned, but strong and stable. Could this be the place the six ponies from Axel’s story moved to?

“Is something wrong?” I looked around. Somehow, I had been so surprised by the scenery that I’d just walked right in without realizing that I had completely ignored a colt nearby. I turned to face him. He was young, just about my age, with a grey coat and a black mane cut short. “Uh, s-sorry,” I apologized lamely. “I wasn’t expecting a place like this.”

“Ha ha ha!” The colt laughed pleasantly. “Don’t worry, you’re not the first pony who’s been so surprised at seeing this place. Not many have.”

“I should think not,” I replied. “How did this place… I mean, who built here? No, wait, I’m sorry. I should have asked your name first.”

“Well, now, I’m Grey Hoof! I guess you could say I’m the mayor of this town. Sunny Town! As for how the place was built, it was founded several centuries ago, I think. We didn’t find a written history anywhere when we moved in, so really your guess is as good as mine.”

Odd. I paused to soak that in, then asked, “So, how long have you been here?”

“Most of my life, actually. I had a falling out with some friends a long time ago, and tried to find a new home. Eventually I was running out of food and shelter, so I decided to make the forests a shelter until I could find a suitable place to live. And then, when I was leaving the forest on another trek, I accidentally found my way here. It was perfect. The sun shining, the beautiful scenery, and the good homes waiting to be used. I told some other friends, and they moved in with me. There’s two of them, now.”

He raised a hoof to the side, and I turned to look. Grey Hoof was right, he wasn’t alone. Sunny Town did have other inhabitants. A colt with yellow coat and blue mane stood near the first hut, accompanying a mare with a pure white coat and long red hair. “Ronio and Starlet,” Grey Hoof explained. “Oh, those two. Young love. What can you do? We’re just waiting for them to move in together.” The white mare, who I assumed was Starlet, caught my gaze for just a second, and then turned her head, hiding behind her mane. Ronio seemed to notice, because he looked at me, too, and waved. I nodded in return, and looked back to Grey Hoof. “So this is really a town?”

“Absolutely! One I love. We grow our own food and the sunlight keeps monsters away. It’s the perfect home.”

“I guess if you put it that way.” I looked around again. Somehow, I seemed to have missed the vibrant pink streamers holding up paper lanterns, and tables with cups and plates to match. “Hey, what are the party streamers and tables about?”

“Today’s a special celebration!” Grey Hoof beamed, apparently fired up by the new topic. “It’s a wonderful day. This is the anniversary of our town’s founding! I’ll tell you more about it later, but in the meantime you’re welcome to look around!”

“Oh… okay.” That was clearly my cue to leave, so I moved on. I decided to avoid Ronio and Starlet, as Ronio seemed to want a little time alone with his girlfriend. Hey, I respected that. I moved past the wood hut into a larger area of the town, with a lot more wood houses similar to the first one. There was another colt standing by the nearest house, this one with a brown coat and light blonde mane. I approached him. “Excuse me?”

He looked at me and smiled. “Yes? What can I do for you?”

“Well, I was kind of curious about something.” I walked closer, and just then I noticed a flicker in the other pony’s eyes. I couldn’t tell quite what it was, but I thought for a minute I might have hit a nerve. But it went away the next instant. “What’s that?” he pressed, when I paused.

“Um, well… I was just curious how many ponies live here, and if anypony knew who lived here before.”

“Well, there’s about ten of us now,” he replied. “Only six in town. A few went out for some reason or another. They haven’t come back yet.”

“Oh.” I looked around, but there was only one other pony I could see. With some quick head math, I realized the town was one short. “Where’s the sixth?”

“I’m sorry…?”

“Well, I’ve only seen five. Grey Hoof, Ronio and Starlet, and there’s you and that mare over there.”

“Oh, then you must mean her.” I blinked, noticing that he avoided saying ‘her’ name, but I decided not to press him on it. “She stays in the first house in town, over the way you came in.” He pointed back the way I had come. “Now, as for who lived here before… I’m afraid I can’t help you. We have no idea who lived here before we came in, so that’s kind of a mystery we can’t solve.”

“Hm. Grey Hoof said much the same thing.”

“Well, he’s no liar. He was the one who found this place and invited us in, after all. I don’t think somepony who’s willing to share a beautiful place like this with others would be the kind to lie about whether or not he saw anypony living here before.”

“That reminds me,” I cocked my head. “I also wanted to ask – that is, if I’m not being nosy – what your story was. What made you decide to live here, instead of where you lived before?”

“That? Well, there’s not much to tell. Let’s see… Grey Hoof was concerned about how our old town could support itself. We were low on resources we desperately needed, and he decided it was time to move away. I was happy where I was, I can’t deny that. But after he told me about this wonderful place, I had to know more myself. That’s why I moved here. It was everything he’d said it would be. Still is, really.”

“I can’t argue with you there. Well, thanks for your time.”

“Not a problem.” He tipped his head toward me. “Feel free to come back if you have more questions.”

“I will. Oh! One more question. I forgot to ask your name.”

“Oh, sure. I’m Gladstone. I’m the laughter here in town. I make it priority to make sure everyone’s happy. Especially newcomers. Hey, when you come back, maybe I can show you a trick or two.”

“That’d be great. Thanks, Gladstone!” I moved forward, aiming to circle the houses to talk to that fifth pony in the back of town.

“My pleasure,” he answered.

This fifth pony was someone I could relate to, at least by appearances. Her coat was a bright forest green, with a mane the color of evergreens. She knew I was coming, and waited patiently for me to approach her. When I did, she spoke up first. “Hello.”

“Hi. May I ask who I have the pleasure of speaking to?”

“What an… elaborate question!” She smiled. “I’m Three Leaf. I help around town whenever anypony needs help. I guess you could say I’m a committed odd-job worker.”

“Well, then, you like to help ponies! I’m a lot like that, too.” I smiled in return. Three Leaf – what an odd name. But as I’d noticed in Ponyville, some ponies’ names had some direct correlation to their cutie mark. I glanced at her flank to find…

Blank. She had no cutie mark. But now that I thought about it, none of the other four ponies I’d seen had one, either. Being curious as ever, I brought it up. “So, why don’t you or any of the other ponies have cutie marks?”

She frowned. “Cutie whats?”

“Well…” I was caught off-guard. Never in my life had I met a pony who didn’t have a clue what cutie marks were. “They’re… marks. They appear on a pony’s flank when they find out what their purpose in life is. Their special talent.”

“That sounds interesting. How does it happen?”

I decided not to point out mine, which I suddenly realized had been hidden under my wingtips the whole time. Better to stay on par with these ponies than try to prove I was better than them. “Um… I think it’s kind of like magic. It’s just, when a pony discovers their talent, it just appears. Like, poof! …And there it is.”

“Wow! That is very interesting. But, that hasn’t happened to anypony here. I wonder why…?” She cocked her head at this last statement, puzzling over her own query.

“Well, thanks for the help.” I left Three Leaf to ponder cutie marks for a while. This town’s story was getting stranger by the minute. Now I knew that not only did the ponies here have no idea about the original founders – who I was sure had to be the six who left Canterlot for a mysterious forest which HAD to be the Everfree Forest, but they had never heard of cutie marks before, much less seen them. It was a statistical impossibility. Nearly every pony in the world got their cutie mark before they got out of grade school. True, there were exceptions; I had never even gotten my own cutie mark until I got into the middle years of high school, myself. But still, I had seen hundreds of other ponies with cutie marks, heard them being talked about all the time, and I had one now. These ponies were about my age, if not a little older, and yet none of them knew a thing about cutie marks.

I headed back to the main entrance. I had met every other pony, so maybe it was time I met ‘her’. When I got to the first hut and went inside, the first things I noticed were the steel boxes scattered everywhere. Not only that, but the room itself was patterned like a maze, with little walls around the boxes. It was a play room of some sort, but then, who would want their house built like this?

Then there was the crying. I could hear a mare’s soft sobbing coming from across, around a wall by the door. I decided to cheat the maze and spread my wings to fly across. There, just beyond the wall, was a mare with a grey coat, and a bright red mane to match Starlet’s, lying on the floor. And she was crying.

Now, if there’s one thing to know about me, it’s that I’m a complete and total soft-serve. Whenever somepony is feeling bad or confused, I always want to support them. I hardly ever know the right things to say, but I just feel like it means something to be there for ponies who are under emotional stress. Even more so than those who just need help with heavy lifting or some other physical task that needs doing.

“Miss?” The mare gasped, her head shooting up to stare at me. “I’m sorry. Is it all right if I join you for a while?”

She looked away, crying even more quietly. With the voice of an ancient noble, she answered, “I should not be here.”

I lowered myself to her level and sat down on the hard wood floor. Tentatively, I reached out a hoof to touch her shoulder. She didn’t move away, but she shuddered at the touch. “If I may,” I started out carefully, “I’ve found that whenever somepony feels bad, it helps to talk about it.”

I think she laughed then, but it was so bitter that her laugh sounded more like another sob. “To explain this? It is impossible to explain. I cannot.”

I let her breathe in to try to bring down her crying. “What’s your name, miss?”

She shuddered more, and I thought she might be close to breaking into an outright downpour of tears. I waited in silence for a few minutes, and was just about to speak again when she responded, “I am Mitta.”

“Mitta.” I tried the name out once. “That’s a lovely name.”

Mitta sobbed some more. “Not for me. It is a name I despise.”

I blinked. “Why is that?”

“Because it is mine.” She shuddered, the tears still coming. I couldn’t think of a response to that comment, but I couldn’t just leave her there. Somehow, I thought Gladstone wasn’t doing his job right if he couldn’t cheer up one pony. But then again, he had sounded just a little spiteful when he mentioned ‘her’. Maybe the reason he didn’t like Mitta was because he just couldn’t find a way to cheer her up.

Well, not me. I was willing to spend the next few hours alone with Mitta until she could dry her tears. “Please don’t say that,” I pleaded. “It’s a beautiful name, like you.” I paused. “You know, everypony is born for a reason.”

“What gives you that idea?” she murmured, looking away.

“Because, if nothing else, every one of us has touched the lives of another. My princess, Celestia, was born to command the sun and bring daylight to us all. My grandponies were born to share stories with the rest of us. My friends were born to show kindness and compassion to each other when they needed it most. And, you know what? From what I’ve seen of you so far, you were born to give Gladstone something to work for, and to give me a chance to make a new friend.”

She sniffed. “What was that?”

“I would like to be your friend, Mitta.”

Mitta’s body shook again, and she sobbed again. “I do not deserve your friendship.”

“But I want it.” I patted her shoulder. “Will you accept? Please?”

She shuddered. The tears had finally stopped, and she was breathing again. “I could never be so callous as to turn down the wishes of another,” she answered. “For you, I will accept.”

“Thank you so much, Mitta.” I thought about hugging her, but left it alone. Better not to be too personal with a mare I had just met. After she had collected herself, I braced myself. “Can I ask something?”

Her eyelids lowered, and I think her face even went a little pale. But she answered calmly enough, “What is it?”

“Why do you talk like that?”

She looked at me, startled, her scarlet eyes gleaming from the drying tears. Clearly she had been expecting some other question. About the town, perhaps? I let that one go, though, and waited for her reply. “Why do I talk in what way?”

I frowned for a minute, going over how I could make more sense. Then I decided it would probably be best just to give her an example. I cleared my throat and, in the precise, fashionable tone she had been using, I began, “You speak with the words ponies have not used for a nearly a thousand years.” She blinked in response. I thought to add in, “Why is that?”

Mitta turned away again. You’re losing her, man, I thought. Stop pushing her away. But she responded, cutting off my thoughts. “I have lived a long time.”

But that couldn’t have been it. “The language was used a thousand years ago, Mitta. You couldn’t be that old.” Mitta sat up, looking me squarely in the eyes. “Why are you here?”

Now I was the one stunned by an unexpected question. “I… came in here to meet you.” That wasn’t the answer she wanted. Staring me down with an iron red glare, she asked, “Why are you here, in Sunny Town, sir?”

Okay. Now that she had elaborated, the question made more sense. “My name’s SkyJagged,” I started off. “Let’s not go on with ‘sir’ anymore. And, I came here because I was curious about something that happened a thousand years ago.” That last line clicked in my head. Mitta was talking like somepony from a thousand years ago. Possibly like a pony who had left the known lands of Equestria for the ‘safety’ of the Everfree forest. Could she be one of the six? Impossible! No pony could live that long other than the royalty of Canterlot! If she had any relation to—

“And what have you learned from your search thus far?”

Mitta pulled me out of my thoughts. I gathered myself and explained to her what I knew as facts. “When my princess’s sister, Luna, was banished to the moon, there was a colt who decided it wasn’t safe to live in the lands I come from, so he and five of his closest friends moved into a forest that ponies had never been in before, south of the Canterlot castle. This forest, Everfree, is south of that castle. I think they moved here, and if that’s true, then this town may have been built by those six ponies. But I still haven’t found out what happened to them.”

She leaned back a little. “Then you are close to discovering the truth. There is only one thing left for you to see. But when you do…” She trailed off, staring dismally into an abyss only she could see. Again, this particular mystery was becoming ominous. Disappearing ponies, as well as ones who claimed to have never seen or heard of a cutie mark, a mare who claimed to be much older than she looked, and now a warning about discovering the truth. And then, suddenly, I remembered the two mares who had left the forest almost exactly when I walked in. “By any chance…” I murmured, “Did you meet a little filly named Applebloom earlier today?”

Mitta shot up faster than if she had just sat down on burning hot sand. “You know her?”

I blinked. “She left the forest when I came in.” Not only that, she’d mentioned being scared by something to Twilight. Mitta was warning me that when I found out the truth, something would happen. It could only be something terrible. Something that Applebloom had seen, and that frightened her. Knowing the Apple family, I also knew that whatever scared tough ponies like them meant trouble for anypony else.

But then, could I back down? Could I leave this place now, knowing how Mitta was suffering, whatever it was Applebloom had seen?

Not a chance. I protected the ones I cared about. If something meant danger for Applebloom, it meant danger for my friends – Doc, Leech, and now Mitta. I flapped my wings once and pressed them tight against my sides, determined. “What happened to her? What did she see? I have to know, Mitta.”

She shuddered. She had been doing that a lot since my arrival. The promise cemented itself in my mind that her suffering had to stop. “It cannot be coincidence that we have been visited twice by two different ponies who wanted to find the truth.” She looked at me again. “Behind our village lies a shattered hut. It is the only one outside of the light. Inside, you will find what Applebloom had. It will lead you to the truth.”

I turned around immediately, but glanced back at her, for one last time. “You’re not coming?”

“I… I cannot, SkyJagged. This is something you must do alone.”

“Then I… well, I’d be lying if I say I understand.”

“You will.” She waved me off with one hoof, and I obediently flew over the barrier in the room and out the door. I was just barely able to hear her say, “I can never bear to watch this part.”

I circled around the edge of town as Mitta had instructed me to do, and she was right. Just beyond the fences that marked the border of Sunny Town, the forest again dropped into blackness. I was walking blindly for a while, until slatted beams of light marked my way left. Light was barely forcing its way through the boards covering windows spaced evenly away from the door of an old shack. A well sat nearby, but I ignored that, focused as I was on the prize. I pushed the door open and walked inside.

The shack was even more deserted inside than it had looked from the outside. Absolutely nothing was in there except for a table with scratches on it. Thankfully, the fireplace lit the room enough for me to see that much. I immediately looked the table over, but didn’t find anything. Aside from the scratches, nothing seemed out of the ordinary about it, other than it looking like it hadn’t been used in a while. The scratches had probably been made by some small animal that had wormed its way in here. Then I thought about the room itself. Maybe there was a hidden passage somewhere? I paced around the room, tapping on walls and feeling for hidden levers. Still nothing. I just couldn’t get it. “This isn’t all that scary. Annoying and confusing, maybe, but not…”

I sniffed the air. “Ugh, who keeps the fire up in this place? That smell is awful—” I froze when I looked into the fire. There were hardly any logs in there at all. All that I could see were smaller, white pieces of some other shape. I didn’t want to look closer, but something pulled me in, and I took a few more steps forward, leaning in until the heat made my eyes water. To my horror, my first guess had been right: the white bits in the raging fire formed the charred, skeletal remains of a pony’s body.

I’ll admit, I must have been standing there in shock for half a minute before realizing the full gravity of what I was seeing. There was no way a pony’s body could make it into a fireplace and light up on its own. Somepony else had to have done this. And worse, I knew that Mitta knew all about this.

I ran. Out the door, through the trees, and straight into Sunny Town. I had to confront Mitta. It was the only way to learn the truth— or so I thought. When I rounded the corner, Sunny Town had become a complete antonym of itself. It was dark, first of all. Just as much as in the woods behind me; the sunlight had vanished completely. The buildings were no longer solid and lasting. The wood was rotten, shingles hanging off the roofs. The road itself had been torn apart into mangled piles of roots, broken tile, and ashen dirt, meaning I had to weave through the gashes to move forward. And none of the six pony residents were in sight.

The entire place looked like it had been burned to the ground. “Hello?” I called out. “Grey Hoof? Gladstone? Three Leaf! Where are you?” I moved forward. This had to be a mistake. How had the town devolved into such a wreck? What did this have to do with the ‘truth’ Mitta had warned me about?

“We had no choice…” Grey Hoof’s voice carried over the wind. His voice was dark and dismal, and it gave me the chills. But I responded anyway. “Grey Hoof! What’s happened here?”

A brief silence, followed by “She was going to spoil the party…”

“What? Who?” Who was the pony I had seen back there in that fire? Spoil the party? That made no sense, unless… could it have been… Mitta?

“Come out!” I rushed forward. “Grey Hoof, show yourself!” I was just about to circle around the first cluster of houses, which now seemed more like an oppressive, barren wall, to head toward Mitta’s and the entrance when some motion caught my attention. A patch in the ground began to shake, and before my eyes whatever was underground rose up, erupting from the dirt like a pony who had been buried alive, and began to form a shape. I thought at first that it might be sticks and stones, but when they finished building up a moment later and two red points of light stared back at me, I knew it wasn’t what I thought at all. I was looking at the dead remains of a pony.

But not quite dead. The skeletal figure paced toward me, and then stopped. I could see rotten bits of flesh hanging from its bones, pockmarks in its flank and all four legs. The sight was the most disgusting thing I’d ever seen, but at the same time I was fascinated, in some odd, fearful sense, to the point that my hooves were rooted to the ground I stood on. Then its jaw moved, and I heard Three Leaf speak in time with its mouth. “She had the curse. She would have destroyed everything! We could not allow her to keep the child from us.”

“Yet she did,” Mitta cut in. The voice came from nowhere and everywhere all at once, echoing in the trees. For some sixth sense, or maybe just plain fear, I had the feeling that she was watching this whole thing unfold from some dark corner of the ‘town’.

“You helped her escape,” Grey Hoof snapped, his voice full of anger. “And you will be punished. You are lucky he has been here this long to forestall your judgement.”

He must have meant me. And as for ‘helping her’, I had to assume they were talking about Applebloom. Mitta had been willing to help me to find the truth, to realize that Grey Hoof and the others were dangerous. She must have done the same for Applebloom only moments before. But why were they so dangerous?

“Where are you? And why am I looking at a dead body?”

“I am Three Leaf, sir. Don’t you recognize me?”

I stared at the corpse. Just as I blinked, I saw the Three Leaf I knew replace it for a minute, and then the body returned. “No way…” But then it all clicked. Mitta’s old-age tongue and her claim that she had lived a while, and my knowledge that only the princesses could live as long as Mitta claimed to have all suddenly made sense. They couldn’t have lived that long, and they didn’t. Grey Hoof and the others had died, but somehow their spirits were still alive, trapped here. They really were the same ponies who had left Canterlot a thousand years ago.

“All we want is friendship,” the undead Three Leaf said. “We only want others, to help us feel less lonely in this solitude.”

They wanted me to become one of them. “Never,” I growled, backing away. But as I turned, another body rose out of the ground. In seconds, I was staring into the gaping red eye sockets of another pony, this one a squarish skull with strands of something hanging from its teeth. I didn’t want to think about what they might be. “Don’t go,” Gladstone pleaded, his eyes an even fiercer red than Three Leaf’s. “We would never do the same to you.”

“I don’t trust you!” I flew up above the next broken house and over to the entrance in a flash. Two more bodies joined the first ones, moving so fast I thought they had instantly broken into a gallop. I looked down. The exit was just below. I was in a sort of cavern, so the only way out was to lower myself to the ground, walk out the mouth of the cavern, and take off again. I dropped to the ground, but then another pony corpse rose up out of the ground nearby. Even before it had finished forming the body, the head turned, the same emotionless red glare as the others boring into my soul. I looked up, planning to take flight again, but the trees had somehow gotten lower to the ground, trapping me beneath them. I had no hope. Frantically, I turned, looking for another way out, to no avail. My last hope was my cutie mark, but it wasn’t even making a faint glow. I looked back at the door, now blocked by the sixth and final pony, staring in horror as it approached me. This one was different, somehow. Its head (not counting half of the jaw bone) and most of its body frame was fully intact, unlike the other heavily corroded bodies. It opened its mouth, probably to bite me, or do whatever it was they had to do to corrupt me. But instead it spoke.

“Stubborn fools. Again I say even in death they do not understand.”

I stared at the mare, mouth agape. “Mitta?!”

‘Mitta’ rushed the next body closest to me, tackling it so hard the thing went skidding away toward the others. “Stay away from him, Grey Hoof!” she hollered.

Grey Hoof pushed himself to his feet, his red eyes narrowing in a fearsome glare. “You cannot protect him, Mitta.”

“I shall. Just you watch and see.” Mitta was now standing at my side, and I glanced sideways to look at her. She had changed almost as much at the others had; her mane was now pitch black, tangled and dirty, her coat red and equally dirty, with holes in her legs and back. I could literally see her rib cage. The sight was frightening, yes, but somehow, I knew that even though Mitta had physically changed, her heart hadn’t changed a bit. “Thank you, Mitta,” I murmured.

She glanced back at me, whispered “Run,” and then returned her focus to her former friends. “This has gone on long enough. It is high time ponies knew to stay away from this accursed place.”

I turned and ran. Strangely enough, there was light in the forest now, a dull, creepy red, making it easier to see. Good thing, too, or I would have tried flying again and hit the trees. Here, too, they had shrunken closer to the earth, due to the same ‘curse’ the six had been talking about, I was sure. I had no choice but to hoof it, and I ran hard. But then, as I heard Grey Hoof call “Seize him!”, more bodies began to rise out of the ground around me. It was impossible! How could they possibly be moving underground?

Then I remembered what Gladstone had said. There were ten ponies total. Only the six had still been in the town. Who could the others be, then? But that was obvious. Applebloom had been to Sunny Town before me. Why wouldn’t others have been here before us? And clearly, four had been taken.

All this was going through my head as I ran. I wasn’t sure, but I felt like I had made it to the first large clearing, leading out to the tiny field of blue flowers, when I suddenly found myself surrounded. There were living corpses all around me, and all eyes were on me. No matter where I looked, there were glowing scarlet triangles looking back, the bodies of their owners each looking more gruesome than the last. Now, I’m not the kind of colt who gives up easily. So long as there was a fighting chance for me to get done what I needed done, I fought. And here, I had a fighting chance.

I was screwed.

Six ponies surrounded me. By my count, I had passed up more than all of the ones Gladstone had told me about. Clearly he had lied about the total. All started to close in on me in unison, step by step, almost like it had been rehearsed. My heart was beating heavily. I spun, staring at my rump, hoping for a sign of some sort. I was out of breath and scared. Why wasn’t my cutie mark helping me? “Come on! Help me here!” It was no use. Instead, another zombified form came running up from the path I’d followed at an unnatural speed, not slowing down for even an instant. For the second time, I closed my eyes and waited for the worst, but the sound of tilling soil nearby brought my focus back, and I opened my eyes to find that rather than strike me, the newcomer had skidded to a stop right beside me. The others had paused in their advance, probably from surprise. The newcomer faced away from me, with a tangled mane blocking a face with only half the jaw showing. “Mitta.”

“SkyJagged… I am sorry. She died because of me. I could have saved her.”

I frowned. “You mean… in the hut? The fire?”

The other corpses started to move forward again. Mitta lowered her head. Her scarlet eyes dropped to a paler shade. “I could have saved her, but I allowed them to… kill her. How could I have done that…?”

“Mitta…” I touched her shoulder without realizing what I was doing. Despite the situation, and the knowledge that I was touching a cold, rotten corpse, the urge to let Mitta know that she was still loved was stronger. And, remarkably, nothing happened. I didn’t change, didn’t feel a stun or shock as my mind was warped. Nothing. Mitta raised her head. “No more. SkyJagged, I will fight! This will end!” On that note, Mitta whirled, facing the other cursed ponies behind me. I copied her stance, leaning low to the ground, wings spread, ready to charge. I heard a gasp go through our unholy audience, and realized I had just revealed my cutie mark.

“He has one,” I heard Gladstone call. “The curse has reached him!”

I snorted. “I’m cursed? You guys really are messed up.”

“Don’t mind it,” Grey Hoof said, ignoring me. “When he has joined us, he will be freed of it.

I barely heard what they were saying, because Mitta was murmuring to me while

they monologued. “These bone fiends are slow and clumsy. You may outrun them if you try. There is no time. Soon Starlet will be here, and she is easily capable of outrunning either of us. You must flee, now.”

She was making no sense. Bone fiends? Starlet showing up soon? My leaving was really the only thing I understood, but somehow, it felt wrong to try. “Mitta, I’m not leaving you.”

But first,” Grey Hoof continued, “We will punish our betrayer. Before we turn him, Mitta, we will tear you to pieces.”

Mitta laughed harshly, her will unbroken in the face of danger. It was as if she had become a totally different pony. “To what end?” she asked, challenging the leader of the zombies. You cannot hurt me, any more than you yourselves can be hurt.”

“We can never know until we try,” Three Leaf replied. “Isn’t that right, Mitta?”

I snapped there. My fear abandoned me like darkness under a light bulb that had just been turned on, replaced by an unmatched rage stoked by the threats of the five. All that was going through my mind at that moment was that my friend was being threatened. And I was not going to let those threats come to fruition. “Don’t you touch her!” I snarled.

In reply, the six cursed ponies closed in on us again. I stiffened, ready to lash out. And then I realized that a light was firing up behind me. My cutie mark was actually glowing. One of the ponies sped up, Grey Hoof, I suppose. He jumped toward us, coming from my left. I charged forward to meet the attack, hoof drawn back for a swing. Suddenly, the light intensified incredibly, blinding me. And then I was falling. I hit the ground hard, chest-first, knocking the air out of my lungs and leaving me even more stunned than the light had. Someone started helping me to my feet, and I got up.

“SkyJagged… what’s happened?”

It was Mitta’s voice. She was still there, with me. “You’re all right?” I gasped, trying to breathe again.

“I am… unharmed.” She was avoiding saying that she was ‘fine’, I noticed. I’d have to talk about that later, when we got out of this. But for now, we still had to escape…

“Where are we, SkyJagged?”

I shook my head, trying to clear the fog surrounding my mind. My vision returned, slowly, but the light kept fading until everything was dark. “It’s night,” I muttered.

“The forest…” Mitta commented, as if she hadn’t heard me.

“Yeah, what?”

“We are outside of the forest, SkyJagged.”

“Huh?” I turned, and just a few feet away, I could indeed see the border of the Everfree Forest ahead. The leaves of the trees and vines were just darker than the night itself. “Whoah.” I looked behind me instinctively, even though I couldn’t see my own hoof in front of my face anymore. “Maybe it was my cutie mark… it took us out of there.”

“This is impossible… My curse… I cannot leave the area around Sunny Town!”

I looked at her. “But you’re out here. My cutie mark brought us here.”

“How is that possible?” Her voice was trembling. I think being in a place she shouldn’t have been scared her even more than being threatened should have.

“My cutie mark helps me to protect my friends,” I explained. “I think… Maybe it broke the curse on you.”

“If that were so, then why am I still alive?”

She did have a point. If the curse had really been broken, then by all means Mitta’s spirit shouldn’t have been in this world anymore. Yet it was. “I… I don’t know. But for now, I think I’ve had enough excitement.”

“Yes, of course. You wish to sleep.”

“No.” It was almost a lie; now that she had mentioned it, I felt incredibly tired. But there was something else that had to be done, first. After all that happened, I can’t sleep,” I added, giving my two bits as to why. Besides, I think we need to pay a visit to someone. An old friend of yours.”

Mitta’s ruby eyes widened. “No… I cannot do that! I do not want to make her suffer more than she must already, thinking we had died. To tell her that we suffer a fate worse than death…”

“She was your friend, Mitta,” I pointed out.

She paused at my sudden comment. “What makes you say that?”

“I read the records. Celestia was hurting after the loss of her sister. But to have the six of you abandon her stung something fierce. I think she would be happier knowing what really happened, if only to make amends with you, Mitta.”

“I… cannot…”

I put a hoof over her shoulder. “I’ll be with you, Mitta. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

We stood there for several minutes before Mitta finally agreed. We took the night train to Canterlot, and from there I paid a coach to carry us to the gates of Celestia’s castle. The trip probably took an hour or so, most of which was spent in silence, until Mitta decided to breach the topic of our escape again. “How is this possible?”

I thought for a few seconds, and started off as lightheartedly as I could. “Well, it doesn’t mean much for me to say it’s never happened before. I didn’t even know about your whole story until today. But, yeah, it is strange. Convenient, but thank Celestia it’s over.”

“Unless our struggle is not over.”

It was a surprisingly dark thought, and I could only sit there, stunned, for a few more seconds. “What do you mean? We got away. We’re here.”

“But what if it did not happen? I cannot imagine your mark causing our escape. Something else must have happened. I do not like the explanations that come to mind.”

“Why not? If we escaped, that’s good, right?”

“It could mean that the others can now do the same. Or perhaps we have never truly left, and this is some sort of trick to turn you into one of us.”

A few more seconds were spent in silence while I pondered her theories. “Well, I doubt it. If they can get out now, I think they would have come after me as soon as we appeared outside. I don’t think it’s a mind game, either. I don’t see why they would need to do that to turn me.” I cocked my head. “Do they? There were other ponies... this has happened before.”

“No, it has not. The Bone Fiends are the remains of ponies who fell to the forest long before us, most because of the dangerous creatures that live there. Their bodies were reanimated because they were so near our village when it changed.”

“Huh. Well, then I guess you have a point. But I trust you, Mitta.”

Now Mitta was surprised. “What does faith have to do with--?”

“I believe you’re real, not some figment the others made to break me. And I believe that if something were happening, you would find a way to tell me. The fact that you don’t know anything about this either is proof enough to me. We’re free. Sunny Town won’t ever bother us again.”

Mitta didn’t answer, looking at the floor of the coach instead. But she understood; I could see the gentle smile on her face as she pondered her freedom.

When the coach arrived, we got off and headed up the hill to Canterlot Castle. It would have taken a long walk and a lot of talking to make it to the Royal Chambers (if we would have even made it that far) if I hadn’t known about a secret path, thanks to the snooping Leech had done in his time living there. By circling around one of the towers rising above the high chambers and tapping on the rock wall, ‘just where there’s an opening’, Leech would always say, I found a switch that opened up a staircase leading straight up to a hidden escape. Leech had explained to me months ago that it was designed to help the princesses escape if magic and flight were unavailable. When we finally made it up the impossibly high flight of stairs, we found the doorway blocked by two night guards. These two were ponies I couldn’t recognize, although the lack of light in the dark sky didn’t help. Like Celestia’s personal guards, they were pegasus colts who had grown larger than most other ponies. Unlike them, though, these two had bat wings and fangs. I approached them anyway, and was met by a declaration of “Halt! Who goes there?”

“SkyJagged of Ponyville,” I responded politely. I knew a colt who was in the Royal Guard, so I knew at least a little about how they operated. “I’m here with an urgent message for the princess.”

“All messages are to be sent through the mail. Besides, the princesses are not receiving messages this late at night.”

“May I be allowed to speak?” Mitta asked from behind me. They were the first words she’d spoken in a while. She hadn’t really wanted anyone to notice a zombie pony anyway, I suppose. But the guards ignored her. After a pause, I spoke up for her. “Aren’t you going to answer her?”

“Answer who?” the lead guard asked.

It suddenly struck me that no pony had noticed Mitta since the train ride. In fact, one had almost bumped right into her if she hadn’t moved out of the way in time. Now, the guards not only couldn’t see her, but they couldn’t hear her, either. I decided I’d have to start from the beginning. “Were either of you around when Nightmare Moon was banished?”

“I was there,” the lead colt snarled. “Or don’t you recognize Captain Basilisk?”

I was surprised. Phalanx was the top guard of Celestia’s force, and the one pony who fell to just about his polar opposite was Basilisk, a colt I knew fairly more about than most. I had made frequent visits to Canterlot castle over the course of Nightmare Moon’s invasion, and most of my interviews were made with him. Basilisk had been essentially out of a job since Luna’s banishment those thousand years ago, usually assigned to grunt work like night watch and schedule operations. He didn’t seem to like me very much, although he had been willing to take the interviews in the first place.

Given the amount of interviews we’d had only days before, he must have been pretty annoyed to see me again, much less without my recognizing him. “Okay… sorry, Basilisk. Do you remember the six ponies who left Canterlot just after that?”

“The Six Betrayers. Of course I do. What does this have to do with the princess’s message?”

“One of them left a message for her. I think she should hear it.”

Basilisk paused. “‘Hear’ it?”

“They’re alive, Basilisk. They’re still alive.”

Basilisk looked about ready to throw me over the railing, but then he stopped and stared behind me. “Who… is that?”

I glanced back. Mitta was still there, but she had gone silent again. She was the only pony there, so I had to assume that Basilisk could, for some unknown reason, actually see her now. Surprisingly, he wasn’t freaking out over seeing a zombie pony. “That’s her, Basilisk. I brought her here to meet Celestia.”

The captain stared for a little longer, then turned and opened the door. “Keep them here,” he told his partner. Then he was gone.

Overall, I think we were waiting about half an hour before we were admitted into the castle. Basilisk led us through the secret hallway into a main audience chamber adorned with beautiful tapestries and filled with stained-glass images which, unfortunately, it was too dark to see. We were flanked by soldiers on all sides; apparently Basilisk hadn’t forgotten to point out Mitta’s unusual condition. But now that the room was lit up by the lamps on the walls, Mitta now looked normal. I don’t think many of them could see her anyway, but I could be wrong. Nevertheless, they were fully prepared for any kind of attack from me or my companion. When we had reached the end of the chamber, Celestia was waiting for us, with another alicorn mare that it took a second for me to recognize as her sister, Luna. The princess had grown quickly in such a short amount of time; her height had just about doubled, her coat was now a much darker blue, like the very night sky she was named for, and her mane had taken on the same wavy, magical appearance as her older sister’s. Then again, having been sealed in the moon for all this time had probably kept her from aging properly, and now those years had caught up. Both of them could see Mitta plainly, I could tell, because they kept glancing between us. Celestia dismissed the guards, and most left. Only two stayed near the door where we had come in.

There was an awkward silence for a while. Then Celestia addressed me. “SkyJagged.”

I bowed low to the ground. “Your Highness.”

“What makes you think that this pony with you is one of the six who left Canterlot all those years ago?”

Mitta spoke up. She started by explaining what had happened after she and the others had left Canterlot, recounting how they had found the sunny, sheltered area that they made their home, building houses and wells to support themselves, and how they had lost their lives. So Grey Hoof lied, I thought to myself. Must have been to keep from looking suspicious.

“To this day, we do not know quite how it happened.” Mitta stared at the ground, lost in recall. “By the end of our first week, we had noticed some strange changes. First, our cutie marks had vanished completely.” (Three Leaf had been lying when she claimed not to know anything about them). “We started to feel weaker each day. And then, one night, we...” she started to sob uncontrollably, collapsing to the ground in a hysterical fit of misery. I stepped forward and placed a hoof on her shoulder. Guessing what she was thinking about, I decided to put in my two bits. “Your Majesty, I’m afraid... at least one pony was directly hurt in Sunny Town. I found...” I winced, biting the words out as if they were rotten hay, “burning remains... in a fireplace on the edge of Sunny Town.”

Mitta shuddered again, and I could just hear her whisper the words “those flames will never die...”

It took a few minutes for Mitta to regain her composure, and then a few more to prepare herself to continue the story. “We all went to bed feeling far more tired than usual. When we awoke, our homes had been destroyed, and we were these… things. Dessicated bodies whose spirits could not move on. Burned... just as she had been...” Her voice shook, but this time she didn’t collapse. The only explanation we could think of was that the Everfree Forest itself was full of dark magic, and the worst of it had reached us.”

“That’s as good a guess as any, I suppose,” I put in.

Celestia stepped forward before Mitta could continue. “That’s a long story. It’s a bit farfetched, but I can tell that it’s the truth. You… truly are the Mitta I knew long ago.”

I decided not to comment on how Mitta had changed a lot in those years, seeing as Celestia seemed to want the company as what it really was, not worrying over petty details. “As for this curse, I think I can make an additional guess. I believe that when the six of you chose to leave ponykind behind for what you thought was safety, you threw away your very selves. I could sense a connection between each of you and some very powerful elements. Namely, the Elements of Harmony.”

I sat up. “The legendary Elements?”

“Yes. I noticed a connection in each of you, similar to the bond in Twilight Sparkle and her friends. I believe you, Skyjagged, could see something similar in them.”

“I… I think I see what you mean, ” I muttered in response.

“I believe that turning away who you were had a hoof in the loss of your cutie marks, and that, along with the actions of your friends, caused the curse that followed.”

Luna spoke up, her voice surprisingly loud and strong against Celestia’s own gentle tone. “This is impossible for us to believe… For a pony to become this… a shadow, and a spirit… Nevertheless, we are sorry for what happened to you, Mitta.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Mitta replied meekly.

“Mitta.” Celestia stepped forward, coming closer to us. I moved away, letting her approach Mitta, who stared at the floor. “Mitta, you don’t have to be sad anymore. You are back. And you have learned something very important from this experience. I am only sorry it was too late for you to see it before this curse befell you.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Mitta looked up, facing the Princess squarely now. “Thank you.”

Celestia nodded, and to my surprise, she actually hugged Mitta in front of us all. Mitta herself seemed more shocked than any of us, but I saw her smile and accept the hug. Then Celestia turned to face me. “Skyjagged, without your help, this could never have been. I know this was a great ordeal for you, but I am glad you did it. Thank you for this gift.”

I blanched, stuttering a response. “I-it was my pleasure, Your Majesty.”

She nodded to me. “Mitta is in a world now that she does not understand. I will leave to you the task of teaching her this new life.”

“I will, Your Majesty. I promise.”

Celestia nodded in turn. “If you will excuse us now, SkyJagged, we have much to discuss. This revelation over the town in those woods bears investigation.”

“NO!” Celestia backpedaled a little. I shocked even myself with the outburst, but I think Mitta, having burst out at the same time I did, was the most surprised. I could see her visibly withdrawing into herself. It was up to me to press the issue, so I swallowed hard and continued. “Your Majesty... that place is unsafe for any who enter. I don’t think investigation will yield any positive results. Too many have already fallen to this curse of Sunny Town.”

“Agreed.” Celestia nodded. “My meaning is that we must ensure the safety of others. Something must be done to ensure that it will not take any more victims.”

“How can we do that?”

“That is for myself, my sister, and the Royal Guard to decide. You should go home. Both of you. Rest. You’ve been through too much for one day. Have faith in us.”

I glanced back at Mitta. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

We left the castle shortly after that. I wasn’t entirely secure in the decision to make any move toward Sunny Town, but the Princess was right: it was far too dangerous to just leave alone. Like she said, I just had to have faith that they would do the right thing. In the meantime, I had to be strong for the newcomer to Ponyville.

That night, we returned to SkyJagged’s home in Ponyville. By some unspoken consent, and a knowledge neither of us could explain or cared to think about, he carried the cloud low enough for me to climb on, and then pushed it back into the sky. That night I slept better than I had in many years, but first I decided I had one final task to complete. With his permission, I found the history book SkyJagged’s grandponies had left him, and put in a new entry, recounting for one last time what had happened to me and my old friends in the Everfree Forest. I finished it with this note:

Because of young Applebloom and SkyJagged, I learned today that even in the face of trying times, the harshest truths are greater than the sweetest lie. Trying to make friends by carrying them into your troubles is no real friendship at all. But when a pony wants to support you, to help you carry yourself through the troubles, that is a true friendship that cannot be matched. I am thankful for him, and I will be strong for him in return.

A recounting of the lost:

Ronio – The Spirit of Generosity

Starlet – The Spirit of Kindness

Three Leaf – The Spirit of Loyalty

Gladstone – The Spirit of Laughter

Grey Hoof – The Spirit of Magic

Mitta – The Spirit of Honesty

Throughout Equestria, relics of the past lay, forgotten and alone

Never truly resting,

Awaiting recognition

The End

But the story's not over! They may have escaped from Sunny Town, but something is pulling them back in...

Chapter 2: Sunny Town - Deadly Nightmare

Sunny Town – Deadly Nightmare

By Zero Zivan  A.K.A. Skyjagged

A fanmade response to a fanmade game

Story of the Blanks

Inspired by My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

With a guest OC appearance: OverlordK’s Midnight Shadow

        I open my eyes. I’m standing in a dark forest, surrounded by nothing but trees and brush. I’ve been here before. Just like it was before, the forest is sealed. There are no exits. And although I am safe, I know that I soon won’t be.

        Scarlet lights begin to appear in the deeper recesses of the forest, hidden in shadows. Each line up close together, making pairs of eyes. It’s all I can see of what life was once held in them. Each pair of eyes stares at me, beckoning, menacingly. Their stares spell out only one word: death.

        The world shifts around me. Even though my legs aren’t moving, I am getting closer to those eyes. I try to back away, to go the other way, but there is no stopping it. My body continues to slide forward by some invisible pull. The red eyes begin to glow brighter. I’m close enough now that I can smell the rot coming off of them. Voices murmur almost inaudibly from their direction.

        I’m almost in the darkness with them, now. They have all clustered together, waiting for me. Mouths hang open, blackened teeth barely lit up by the eerie glow in their eyes. There are five of them, in all. I don’t have to wonder at who they might be. But worse still is the knowledge of what will happen next. It’s impossible; I know it would never happen. But that doesn’t close out the fear as I enter the trees. The five monsters staring at me move in. I can now see their mangled bodies, alight with the same red fire in their eyes. Flesh and bone separate and intertwine all along their frames. It’s not them I’m looking at, though, as I turn to my right. A sixth creature is right beside me, staring at me like they do. This one is different, though… or at least, I had thought she was different. She lurches toward me, her hollow red eyes and skeletal grin the last thing I see before everything goes red. My body is filled with an inexplicable pain; it feels like I’ve been set on fire from the inside out, the horrible pain eating at my flesh and destroying my soul. When it finally reaches my brain, I scream.


        I lurched out of bed, screaming in agony. My coat was covered in a cold sweat, and my sheets were soiled. I had to take several deep breaths before I could calm my racing heart, and then I rolled out of bed and curled up on the floor.

        This wasn’t the first time I’d had this nightmare. It had been only a week since my visit to Sunny Town- may that name burn along with the town that carries it- and for the past few days, the same nightmare has plagued me each night.

The nightmare of my return to Sunny Town.

        A bright grey hoof appeared in my doorway, followed by the head of a pony. Mitta looked in on me, her ruby eyes alight with concern. Her equally scarlet mane was ruffled from sleep, and she looked exhausted. “Jag?” she asked cautiously.

        I could only sigh, berating myself for intruding on her sleep again. “Yeah, same nightmare.” Mitta walked into the room, standing over me protectively. “Where were you?”

        “In the forest, just outside the path.”

        Mitta dropped to the floor and curled up next to me. “They are getting worse,” she commented. It was no longer a question to her; she’d heard the nightmare before.

        “Not worse,” I mumbled. “Just closer. It’s still just as bad as before.”

        She nuzzled me gently. “It is only a dream,” she said, but the encouragement sounded hollow. I sighed, knowing it was useless to challenge the idea. “Yeah, I know…” I said instead.

        “They can no longer hurt you.”

        “No…” I muttered, trying to fall back asleep. Failing.

        The rest of the night was spent in uncomfortable silence. I felt sure that Mitta was awake beside me the whole time, watching like a guardian angel. I couldn’t sleep anymore, so I kept watch, too. I only wished I could have said it was to reciprocate.

        That morning, Mitta encouraged me to see a doctor, and I agreed after a weak resistance. Unfortunately, the diagnosis was no better than it had been the last time I visited, even though I had specifically chosen a different doctor.

        “Physically, you’re just fine,” the tan-coated colt said, packing away his stethoscope. “Aside from a minor lack of exercise, there’s nothing wrong with you. The only explanation I can think of is emotional stress. You say these nightmares involve a close friend of yours, right?”

        I sat up on the examination bench and glanced at Mitta, sitting on the floor beside me. To all other ponies, she was essentially invisible and inaudible, a ghost, so the doctor couldn’t possibly know that there was a third pony in the room. “Yes,” I answered.

        “Was there a fight between the two of you?”

        I looked back at him. More than you know, I thought, but the fight wasn’t between us. Instead, I said, “You could say that.”

        “Then I think that’s where the issue is. I’d recommend counseling. If that’s what’s keeping you up at night, you’re never going to be able to sleep well until you get the problem solved.”

        “Okay.” I didn’t bother to mention that the counseling would be one-sided, considering that I would have to speak for both Mitta and myself, unless I explained to said pony a story that would turn their world upside-down and probably do far more harm to them than help to me. I climbed down off of the table and made for the exit. The doctor called out good-naturedly, “Have a nice day!”

        “You too,” I called back. This was the second time counseling had been brought up, but unfortunately I couldn’t put my faith in that system. The only solution I could hope to use without being branded a lunatic was to find something that involved me and me alone. Mitta tagged along as I walked. “I’m sorry it couldn’t have brought different results,” she sympathized.

        “There wasn’t anything for it,” I responded calmly. “Fact is, I’ve just had a little trauma. All I need is some rest and I’ll be back to my best.”

        “I only wonder how you can get that rest,” Mitta responded. I could tell that she was feeling a little down, herself, and I knew why. I stopped walking and faced her for a minute. “What happened was not your fault, Mitta. Not to her, and not to me. I don’t want you to be sad anymore, okay? I’m so happy to be your friend, and I just want you to be happy, too. Do you understand?”

        “Yes,” she responded, looking away. “I am sorry.”

        “Don’t be. Really.” I patted her shoulder and looked around. “Now, in order to get some rest, all I need is a little therapy. There’s, uh…” I looked down the road in Ponyville to the nearby spa. The ponies who ran the place were good at what they did, sure, but… somehow, an all-out spa treatment just seemed a little too girly for me. Okay, a lot girly. Besides which, it was pricey to get in.

        That left only one other place. It made me shudder to think of going there, but…

        Mitta stepped in front of me. “Is something wrong, Jag?”

        I blinked a few times, clearing my head. “Uh, yeah. I mean, no. No, nothing’s wrong. I was just thinking of where to go… I think Zecora’s place would be the best bet for me.”

        Mitta blinked. “Zecora? Is she not that… Zee-brah pony that you told me about?”

        “Zebra, yeah.” I shrugged, turning around to start out toward the local herbalist’s home. “Hey, she knows better about potions and remedies than the spa does.”

        “That is not what concerns me. Are you certain you want to go back? You should not push yourself so hard if…”

        “I’ll be fine, Mitta.” I leaned against her a little bit as we walked, trying to be playful. “That old forest doesn’t scare me anymore.”

        Mitta kept quiet as we walked. I could practically hear her thoughts in my own head, though. The forest where Zecora lived wasn’t what was supposed to scare me. Six mares had gone into the forest and come out just fine. Later, one of those same six had gone in with a little filly and again left safely. I had even gone in myself just as they were leaving, and gotten out unscathed.

        Well, unhurt, but probably not unscathed. It was during that trip to the Everfree Forest that I met Mitta and her… unlucky friends. On the night I went in, I learned not only that there was a town in the forest, but also the terrible truth behind that town. My subsequent escape was something that had haunted me for some time, but having brought Mitta back with me had made it less of a trial. I wanted to be strong for her, to prove to her that there was no longer any reason to fear Sunny Town, because we were never going to go back.

        And now, here I was, going into the Everfree Forest. It was hardly a return trip to that accursed town, but it was enough to give both Mitta and me our share of worries. As soon as we reached the edge of the path leading into the forest, Mitta hunkered low to the ground and wouldn’t budge.

        I didn’t bother asking what was the matter. “You gonna be okay, out here by yourself?”

        “I would not dare set hoof under those trees again.” Her words were firm, much unlike the wide, scarlet eyes that stared up pleadingly at me. “Must you go in?”

        Honestly, I blanched inwardly. If I had hesitated, though, I was certain that one of us was going to jump on it, and I would never be able to visit Zecora. For her, if not as much or more so for me, I responded immediately, “Yes. I do.”

        I didn’t mean for it to come out sounding authoritative, but I thought it did. I quickly bent down to apologize. “I’m sorry, I don’t want to be rude. I just… I can’t sit around, brooding like this forever. It’s a great way to get a grey mane at an early age, and I prefer green. Now, I shouldn’t be gone long. You just stay here, and if you see any red eyes, you run the other way. Okay?”

        That last part was meant to be a joke, but neither of us saw the humor in it. Mitta just nodded. “Okay,” she responded, copying my nonchalant vocabulary. “I will.”

        “Good. Back before you know it.” I left Mitta to stare at the ground in her silent way.

        Even in daylight, the walk through the Everfree Forest was as uncomfortable as I’d expected it to be. I kept glancing everywhere, making sure no eyes were following me, that the ground wasn’t stirring as something dug its way up from underneath. Twice I forced myself to keep my eyes forward, but it was an uneasy habit I just couldn’t shake. The discomfort forced me into a trot, and then a light gallop. In seconds, I was standing outside of an old tree, one that had grown so large that the owner had cut a door and two windows into the base. From the candlelight inside, I could see all sorts of colorful and oddly-shaped bottles hanging from vines. I decided to wait until I was inside to admire the decorations; staring into the windows would be prying and awkward. I lifted a hoof and knocked on the door.

        “Um… Miss Zecora? I have a problem I think you can help with…”

        No answer. I waited for a few seconds, then shrugged. Guess she’s not home, I thought, turning to walk away. Maybe it was for the best; I wasn’t all that good at making new friends, and introducing myself to a pony – well, zebra – from out of the country would be even more difficult. I sure wasn’t giving the spa a second thought, but maybe counseling wasn’t such a bad idea after-

        The door creaked open. “Who is this at my door I see?” a deep mare voice questioned to herself. “A brand new face; a pegasus pony!”

        I turned back. Zecora stood in the doorway with a friendly smile on her face. Even if those stripes weren’t unmistakable, the gold hoops draped around her neck, right leg, and tail and clipped into her ears definitely weren’t. “Um, h-hello…” I stammered.

        “Well then, come, come, my young pony friend!” Zecora turned and walked into her home, beckoning me to follow. “Let’s see what needs I must attend.”

        Her odd speech aside, I’ll freely admit I was a little curious to follow, if only to learn more about the herbalist and not to get help for my dilemma. I followed her inside and got my first look at her home.

        It was surprisingly well decorated, and as I looked around I had to wonder just how long our latest Ponyville addition had lived here. Masks adorned the walls, and even more bottles lined shelves all over the place. Where did she get all of this stuff? I found myself wondering. If all of this grows in the Everfree Forest, is it really as dangerous as we thought, or is it just the animals? She’s sure been taking care of herself easily enough. But, she is from another country… maybe they’re less gentle than we are. I mean – is that a leopard-skin bed??

        “Welcome to my humble home,” Zecora announced, sweeping a hoof around. “Now, what sickness do you need atoned?”

        “Oh. Well, it’s not a sickness, per se… at least, I don’t think it is. I’ve been having nightmares, and they’re all the same. I think I need to get something out of my head… I can’t think of much else.”

        “More details, please! I must know all to make the proper potion for your house call.” Zecora started to shift through herbs as she spoke. Even to a total stranger, she seemed surprisingly willing to help.

        “Um, okay… It’s about something I kind of stumbled into the last time I came to the Everfree Forest.” This was the first time I’d been prompted to discuss Sunny Town since my visit to the princesses a week ago. How could I possibly discuss something like this with a zebra I’d only just met? Maybe it was better to start at the beginning – no, a history lesson probably wasn’t what she needed. An acquaintance, maybe? Somepony who we both knew, who also knew about Sunny Town… no, impossible. Zecora only knew a handful of ponies, and only two could –

        Actually, now that I thought about it, Twilight Sparkle had been the main reason Zecora had managed to find a place in our society. And the only reason Twilight had been willing to face her was because of Apple Bloom, the same little filly who had left the Everfree Forest at the same time I went in that night. Not only that, but she had specifically said that “Zecora was right”, “she couldn’t trust the night”. Mitta had even corroborated my thoughts just before our escape from Sunny Town, saying that Apple Bloom had indeed seen just what I had seen. That was my best bet to keep from sounding crazy. Then again, if I was going to compare my sanity to the strong imaginations of little fillies…

        Zecora was now sitting on her flanks, watching me patiently, but obviously expectant of an answer. I swallowed hard. “Well, you know Apple Bloom, right?”

        “Indeed! How is the little one?” Zecora smiled again. “I have not seen her since the fear was done.”

        I had to guess from her odd, rhyming words that she meant either her acceptance into Ponyville, or the more recent escapade into Sunny Town. I chose the latter. “The fear? I guess you mean what happened a week ago, then.”

        Zecora cocked her head, the smile replaced with confusion. “Tell me, please, what do you mean? I recall no such time that I have seen.”

        “Well, it was really just hearsay,” I muttered, rubbing the back of my mane with a hoof. “I just overheard her talking about something you told her that night, that’s all. You said that she couldn’t trust the night, and she was talking about how she’d been scared…”

        I looked up, and instantly regretted saying anything. The zebra’s face had hardened considerably, and she was watching me almost in suspicion. Nevertheless, she continued to press me. “You seem not the pony to choose forests over sky. Is this what you are troubled by?”

        “Not exactly.” Her icy gaze was starting to creep me out. “It’s because I saw what scared her.”

        Zecora was not surprised. She got to her hooves and walked over to her cauldron, beckoning me again. After I was a few hooves away from it, she stopped me as she gathered ingredients and mixed them in, chanting all the while in a strange language beyond even her rhymes. I shuddered as smoke rose from the cauldron, somehow causing not warmth, but a chill to spread in the room. The candles all blew out at once, leaving only the green glow from the oversized pot for visibility. I almost tried to run out the door, but something kept me seated there, some enchantment or maybe just my own curiosity. Zecora sat back across from me, barely visible through all the smoke, and continued to chant, staring at the cloud forming overhead. I could see her eyes filling with fear, and somehow, deep in my bones, I knew that she was seeing what lay just outside of her home.

        The chanting stopped abruptly, the smoke withdrawing into the cauldron perfectly on cue. The entire enchantment had ended as suddenly as it had begun, and I jumped to my hooves in surprise. “What was that? What did you see?”

        Zecora only walked up to me and started to nudge me toward the door from behind. “Zecora, please, what happened?”

        “My help is not what you should seek,” Zecora said bluntly. “Your friendship is what started the events of this week. The only way to repair this terrible curse is to do what you did in previous verse.”

        “What does that mean?” I struggled to get my hind hooves firmly against the floor, but she was pushing me out the door too quickly. “Come on, Zecora, give me something to work with, here!”

        By now I was out the door. With one final shove, Zecora launched me out onto the dirt path that had led me to her home, and now held the door in one hoof, in case I tried to get back in. “It is not I who can help bring about amends. To put a stop to this-” Zecora raised her other hoof and pointed out of the forest – “look to your friends.”

        With those parting words, she slammed the door shut.

        I returned to Mitta dejectedly. She was exactly where I’d left her, though now she was watching the woods carefully, waiting for my return. “What did she say?” she asked, trotting up alongside me as I emerged from the woods.

        “I’m not really sure,” I mumbled. “She was talking in rhyme. But she did say that the only way to fix this is to get help from my friends.” I decided not to mention the ‘curse’ part Zecora had mentioned; it was probably nothing, anyway. Still, if the whole Sunny Town thing still had a role to play, I preferred not to tell Mitta she wasn’t done with that horrible place.

        “You mean one of your friends can help with your nightmares? Do you know a… sy… psy…chiatrist… personally?”

        I smirked, noticing how Mitta was freely accepting that Zecora would inexplicably know a cure for nightmares would be friendship related, even though it made no sense. “No, not a psychiatrist… but there are only two friends here, besides you, who could help.”

        “Then, should we visit them?”

        “Well, Leech isn’t easy to find until nightfall,” I said, thinking out loud. I noticed Mitta wince, drawing another smirk from me as I remembered their first encounter. I let it go and pressed on. “Then again, the Doc is hardly ever around anyway. Always says something about how he has to fix problems in the timeline, or something… I guess we may as well search for Leech. Doc’ll probably show up sooner or later.”

        Mitta frowned. “Will he be as much trouble as the last time we met?”

        “Aw, come on, Mitta. He’s not that bad.”

        “He called me a foal,” Mitta mumbled, finding something interesting in the dirt again as we walked.

        “He called you a ‘dummy’, and that was because he thought you weren’t real. Like a statue. I thought we discussed this that night.”

        Mitta still wasn’t happy. “Cheer up, Mitta. If you don’t want to talk to him, you don’t have to. I can find him on my own, if you want. You won’t even have to see him-”

        “Too late.” A third voice jumped into our conversation as a colt’s face dropped from the air just in front of us. Mitta stopped in mid-stride, while I jumped back, making a foalish whinny of surprise.

        “Aww, I’m not that scary, am I?” The tanned colt asked, putting on a fake frown and turning over in mid-air. The Pegasus lowered himself to the ground on equally dust-colored wings, folding them over a vanity-mirror cutie-mark. “I heard you two talking about me. Wasn’t it the last time we met you said something about ‘we have better things to discuss than your ugly mug’?” he grinned, as if he’d accomplished some major triumph.

        “You are being vain,” Mitta responded, turning her snout up a little in the air.

        “Just stop, guys,” I held out a hoof to Leech’s chest. “You’re giving me a headache.”

        “Ruin my fun,” Leech shrugged. “Well, you were looking for me. What did you want?”

        “Well, since Mitta and I got out, I’ve been having nightmares.”

        “Pssh.” Leech grinned. “That’s all? You don’t think maybe it’s just because you had a bad night? I’m pretty sure it’s normal to have nightmares after you walk into something that serious-”

        “They are the same nightmare,” Mitta snapped. “He is pulled into the forest and killed. And every night, he is closer to the forest than the last. I believe this is a message.”

        “Oh, please. You two are just overreacting.” Leech jumped into the air and started to circle us on his wings. “I guarantee if you want this out of your head, just go to a haunted house or something – a good one, mind you, not those stupid fake ones – and you’ll end up having nightmares about that, instead. Seriously, colt up. It’ll pass.”

        I thought that over for a minute. Maybe he was right… maybe this really was all just in my head. Something that time would fix. Mitta, however, was not convinced. “There is more to it than that.”

        “Fine. If you insist, I’ll scare it out of you myself.” Leech swerved in the air, poising as if he was about to tackle me.

        “That’s not going to work,” I said, watching him closely. “If you can’t help, say so. Don’t beat around the bush with all that ‘I’ll scare it out of you’ stuff.”

        “I didn’t say I couldn’t help,” Leech answered, his good attitude spoiled by my belittling. He glared at me as he dropped to the ground again. “Scares are a perfectly good solution to these kinds of problems.”

        “Pass. Honestly, just drop it.” I picked up where I had left off before Leech had appeared, continuing toward Ponyville. Mitta silently followed behind me. “Maybe Doc will have something for me.”

        “What?” Leech didn’t take the cue to leave, and instead trotted up on my left, opposite Mitta. “You think some crazy old guy with a bunch of electricity and metal is going to have more for you than me? That’s dumb.”

        “It’s called ‘technology’, and it’s a far sight better than your stupid scare tactics.” I picked up speed, trying to outdistance him as politely as possible. My attention was aimed fixedly at the main entrance to Ponyville, so I didn’t notice the strange shape darting out of the trees to my left. Before I could react, the dark black shape of a pony had plowed into me, knocking me sidelong to the dirt. Mitta screamed, but before she could do anything, I felt something sharp dig into my neck.

        I thought for a minute that the sudden nature of the attack had stunned me so badly that I couldn’t even feel my body changing, the way I could in my nightmares. At least the lack of agony was comforting…

        Somepony started to spit. “Well? Pffffft… bleck. Well, did it work?”

        My eyes opened slowly, and I only then started to realize that I’d closed them. “Huh?”

        “Get away from him!!” Mitta practically screamed, shoving my attacker off of me. “What is the matter with you??”

        My assailant got to his feet, the pockmarked legs recognizable even before I saw the rest of him. The insect-like shell that ran along the back branched off into equally hole-filled bug wings. Normally, the wings, combined with the horn on his head, would have given the impression that he was an Alicorn. Then again, Leech’s kind was far from being normal ponies. “No!” I yelled. “No, Leech, it did not ‘work’! I told you to forget about that scare tactic! Ugh… I think you gave me a freaking heart attack!”

        “Good, then my work’s done!” Leech grinned yet again, showing off the vampire fangs that he’d dug into me. In his true form, Leech looked possibly more fearful than Mitta and her old friends did. But then, I knew what the Changelings were like, and their brand of misbehavior did not even begin to compare to that of the Nightmares. “Just holler if you need anything else.”

        “Why am I friends with you, again?” I growled, rubbing my neck. “Am I bleeding?”

        “Undoubtedly.” Mitta’s voice was stone-hard and ice-cold.

        “Again, you two are overworked.” Leech rolled his eyes as he pointed at me. “You’re not bleeding, man, I barely got the tips of my teeth in your neck. See? Check your hoof. Any blood?”

        I didn’t bother to comply. “Come on, Mitta. We still have to find the Doc.”

        “Awww, why’s it always gotta be like that?” Leech trotted up alongside us yet again. “Come on, don’t brush me off like that. I’m a sensitive colt.”

        “You’re so full of it.” I glanced over at him as we followed the beaten path. “Honestly, some friend you are. All you’ve ever done is get yourself into trouble and generally piss me off.”

        “Not until recently.” Leech lifted himself into the air so that he could raise a front hoof in objection, his wings buzzing like a fly’s. “Ever since Mitta showed up, you’ve been a lot more touchy. Besides, if it hadn’t been for my help, you would never have even gotten her up to the Princesses. Or was that a lie, too?”

        I sighed. Unfortunately, he was right. My escapade in Sunny Town had left me far more sensitive than usual, and if I’d never met him, Mitta would never have been able to be at peace with the royalty of Canterlot. “All right, all right. You’ve had your share of usefulness.”

        “Darn right.” Leech smirked, but I noticed a glimmer in his eyes of genuine pleasure.

        I decided that had to be corrected. “Still doesn’t explain why you’re following us around, though.”

        “It is obvious,” Mitta put in. “He is lonely, and has nothing better to do with his time than to prey on the only ponies who will at least tolerate his presence.”

        “Oooh, cold burn,” I murmured, smiling.

        “Now, that’s not fair,” Leech said, now hovering over the two of us. “You know I literally can’t live without you two. I feed on love, and you’re the only friends I have.”

        Mitta glanced at me. “I was not aware there was love here.”

        “Neither was I.” I looked up at Leech. “There something you know about us that we don’t, Cupid?”

        “We’ve been over this,” Leech said, folding his legs over his chest and pouting like a foal. “Any positive emotion toward another pony is a form of love. Friendship might not be as powerful or tasty as direct love, but it’s definitely enough to keep a Changeling alive.”

        “Well then, I’d say I’ve paid you back for all the little favors you’ve done for me.”

        “And well beyond,” Mitta added.

        “Oh, knock it off, you two. I may be a punk, but I don’t hold a grudge.” Leech patted our shoulders from his buzzing midair perch. “I still want to help. So I’ll stick around until your little nightmare problem is solved.”

        “What joy,” Mitta mused bitterly.

        After a long walk, we had managed to ask everypony who might have had even a minor clue as to where the Doc might have been about his whereabouts, with absolutely no luck. Leech had switched back to his tan-coated disguise just as we entered the town, and had even flirted with some of the mares as we came and went (with as much luck as we were having on our search, much to the amusement of Mitta and myself).

        “This bites,” he grumbled, hanging upside-down in the air. “Is your buddy always this hard to find?”

        “You’re one to talk,” I answered, my good mood back in full swing now that he was getting his. “The Doc’s got a pretty odd job. Most of what he says doesn’t make sense, but from what I’ve gathered, he travels across time and space to fix problems with-”

        “Whoa, whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa.” Leech moved up in front of us, swinging his hooves to signal a stop. “Time and space? Please tell me this ain’t one of your friends from that ‘God’ world with two-wheeled carriages and weird holidays.”

        I grinned openly. “Well, now that you mention it, yeah.”

        “Oh, Celestia.” Leech covered his eyes as if he was fighting a migraine, and then turned to Mitta. “This is exactly why you can’t be around him all the time. You’ll feed his ridiculous ideas, like this crazy scientist pony who doesn’t exist.”

        Leech was getting the wrong idea again, although with him it wasn’t all that surprising. Lifting a hoof, I said, “He’s not a scientist. Well, he doesn’t call himself that, anyway. He goes by-”

        “The Doctor,” a new voice put in, this one the bright English tone of a colt who had fun even in troubling situations, and never gave two bits all the while. “Yes, that’s me!”

        “Speak of the devil,” I muttered, glancing between Mitta and Leech with a knowing smile before turning around to meet our new arrival. “Doc! I’ve been looking all over town for you, man, where were you?”

        “Actually, I’ve been here for about an hour, but I can’t find anything in this sleepy little town to suggest a break in the timeline,” the milk chocolate-colored colt replied, offering a hoof, which I shook. “I thought perhaps the TARDIS had experienced a bit of a flutter, but the old girl just won’t let me leave. Tell me, what’s the trouble out here in Ponyville?”

        I blinked. “Um, there’s not a situation here, as far as I know.”

        “Shame. Well then, I suppose I’ll just have to keep searching! Be seeing you, SkyJagged, my friend!” He turned to leave, flashing his hourglass cutie-mark.

        “Um, wait, wait a minute, Doc, I just wanted to ask if you could help me out with a problem of my own.”

        He turned back. “Well, of course! Maybe that’s the problem I’m looking for! What is it?”

        “Well, something pretty bad happened when Luna returned to Ponyville. You know, the Princess?”

        “Of course, all too well. What exactly happened, then?”

        “Well, I think it’s been resolved, but I’ve just been having some pretty bad nightmares since then. They’re all the same thing. I was just wondering if you had some way to help me out with that.”

        “Hm.” The Doc rubbed his chin. “Is that all? …Well, I suppose that this could affect your well-being and change whatever contribution you have in the future. That’s easy enough to fix. There’s a sort of hypnotist living in Canterlot who specializes in dreams. His name is Midnight Shadow. I’m sure that if you visited him, he could help fix this problem of yours.”

        “Canterlot?” I sat back and rubbed my eyes. “That’s a ways off. Last week’s trip up there burned out my savings, and I haven’t had much better pay for weather duty. Barely have two bits to rub together…”

        “Well, if that’s the only trouble, I’d be happy to take you there myself. That is, of course, if the TARDIS will be willing to let me travel now.”

        The announcement was far from what I had expected. For just about the third time that day, I had been completely shocked by the turn of events. “…What?”

        “Well, what better way to see if this is the event I’m looking for than to help you out, eh?” He turned tail and started off on his merry way. “Come on, come on, then! We haven’t got all day!”

        I turned back to Leech and Mitta. Both seemed even more put off than me, but Mitta, at least, was doing her best to be supportive, waving me on with a small smile. Leech was just staring after Doc. I smiled at them, trying to offer my condolences for having to leave them behind, when Zecora’s parting words rang through my mind. “To put a stop to this, look to your friends.” It wasn’t a singular; Zecora had said ‘friends’. I had a feeling – just a feeling, nothing more, but still, it felt like Zecora’s purpose in that last line wasn’t just to keep the rhyme scheme going. I stood up and took a few hoofsteps forward. “Uh, Doc, I can’t just leave like this.”

        He stopped and turned back. “What’s stopping you, SkyJagged?”

        “Well, I just have this feeling… I want to have my friends with me. If it’s all right with you, I’d like them…” I stopped, realizing that Mitta was invisible to anypony who’d never heard of her. “Uh, I mean… I’d like my friend with me.”

        “Not a problem, none whatsoever!” He turned away and continued walking, oblivious to my correction. “Your little friend and the other Pegasus are perfectly welcome to join us. Come along, then, best be on the move!”

        I didn’t realize he had mentioned Mitta until the she and Leech fell in at what were apparently their official positions at my sides and we walked on. “Dude, he just said ‘your little friend’,” Leech whispered in my ear. “Have you told him about Mitta?”

        “Not a word,” I muttered back. “Haven’t seen him since before this whole incident. But he is a Time Lord, so maybe he’s able to see things normal ponies can’t.”

        Leech frowned. “But, then… why hasn’t he said anything about me?”

        “What about you?”

        There was more confusion in my voice than my face, but I think he noticed both, because he growled and rolled his eyes at me. “If he can see Mitta, what’s to say he can’t see what I really am?”

        “Oh.” He had a fair point; the Doc hadn’t confronted Leech as being a Changeling. I couldn’t speak for him, but after a few seconds to think about it, I decided to give the best explanation I had. “Well, he didn’t say anything about Mitta being a zombie pony. Maybe he can only see part of what you look like. Sort of like… being able to see the good in a pony from the outside.”

        “I don’t like it,” Leech grumbled, his eyes drifting ahead again, to where the Doc had stopped. “Not sure I want to come along on this trip anymore. Especially if it’s in that thing.” He pointed a hoof at the small building the Doc was waiting by, parked in a small patch of grass. Well, small was an understatement. It was hard to see how the thing could fit him alone, much less the four of us. But, if the thing was able to cross universes and time itself, maybe it worked like a wormhole or something. Step in from one side, and instantly step out through the other.

        “Everyone inside!” the Doc called, pulling open one of the walls, which was apparently a door. From a closer perspective, I recognized it as an old phone booth from the world Leech was so skeptical about. Overhead, the words POLICE BOX were printed on the frame. The old thing looked about as English as the Doc himself. But then, it made sense. “Step lightly,” he continued, ushering us inside. “Watch the buttons, and don’t be pulling any levers. That’s my job.”

        I went in behind Leech and Mitta, followed shortly by the Doc, who locked the door. The room was entirely different from what I had expected; rather than standing inside of a cramped phone booth, having to climb over each other for space, we were standing in an expansive metal room. It looked pretty plain, aside from the round booth in the center that offered all shapes and colors of buttons and levers to work with, but given that we were in a room that defied the limits of reality, the drab interior design was a minor deficiency. Openings on each side of the room led into even more rooms, revealing that the TARDIS was even more expansive than this single entrance implied. I started to move toward one, but the Doc cleared his throat, gathering our attention. “Now then,” he said, pulling out a small machine from a hidden drawer, “I’d like to know why you’ve got a beastie of a pony following you around.”

        Mitta and Leech blanched, glancing around as covertly as possible, probably searching for a hiding place. I sat back and raised my hooves. “Doc, I can explain…”

        “It seems we have a bit of an infestation here,” he continued, brandishing the odd cylinder, which seemed to be a laser, in his mouth. “I think he had better leave, or we may have trouble.”

        “Whoa, hold on! Wait a minute!” I waved my forelegs, trying to bring down the threat level in the room. I heard a loud thump and skittering hooves against metal, which told me Leech had ducked for cover, probably behind the control panel. “Doc, he’s not a threat! He’s a friend!”

        “For each encounter with a Changeling I’ve ever had, not one has been friendly,” he replied, skillfully moving his tongue around the device in his teeth. “How can you prove that this one is any different?”

        “That’s easy! Because he’s been here for years, and nopony’s been hurt in all that time! Isn’t that proof enough?”

        I glanced back behind the console. Mitta had joined Leech in his cover, and was apparently consoling him. I couldn’t make out a word she was saying, mostly because I was already focused on my own discussion. “I haven’t been here in that time,” Doc said. “And there’s no way you can know for sure that he hasn’t caused some manner of trouble here in Ponyville. I need proof from the man himself.”

        The lack of the pony-related speech impediment that we had a common disconnection from aside, it was clear that the confrontation relied entirely on how well-behaved Leech could be.

        He was dead.

        We all turned to where Leech was still cowering behind the control board. “Well, come on, then.” The Doc tapped a hoof on the floor. “Get over here, Mr. Leech. I need to hear it from you.”

        Surprisingly, Leech obediently got to his hooves, and with some light nudging from Mitta he walked up to the Doc, face-to-face. There was a moment of silence, and nopony stirred. After a few seconds, Leech dropped his disguise and started to speak.

        “Look, I don’t know how to prove myself to you. Really, I don’t. All I can say is that I want to be around to help out here. I was following them because I want to make sure Jag gets some peace of mind. That’s all. You can lock me up or something if you want, just… please let me do this one thing.”

        The Doc’s eyes narrowed. Mitta started to turn away, but my eyes were glued on the thin ice ahead of me. The Doc seemed just about ready to bite down on the button to his little contraption…

        “That’s good enough for me.” He turned and walked back over to his secret drawer and opened it to drop the item inside. Then, without another word, he made his way back to the computer and started pushing a few buttons.

        I found myself sharing stares between Leech and Mitta. “So…” Leech mumbled. “That’s it? You’re just… okay with that?”

        “It’s a matter of profession to know when I can trust someone, Mr. Leech, and I can assure you that what you’ve just told me is all I need to know for you to have my trust. At least for the moment. Now then, once I’ve pushed this button here…”

        He had slipped into a total monologue, leaving the rest of us to ponder his behavior. Leech turned away, beckoning us to follow him. “Is he for real?” he asked, covering his snout with a hoof. “Seriously, this has got to be a mind game of yours.”

        “I told you already, I haven’t seen him in weeks. This is all new to me. Maybe you should just be happy he didn’t blast you with that whatever-thing of his and stop being secretive like this, before he changes his mind.”

        “Don’t worry, Mr. Leech, I promise that my sanity is in tip-top shape,” the Doc called from behind us, clearly realizing just what we were talking about. “The only thing we- Ah! Well, would you look at that, we’re moving!”

        Mitta glanced around. “Are we?” she asked. “The room is not moving.”

        “Shock absorbers, my dear!” The Doc replied, circling around the control booth. “The old girl’s full of them. Makes it far less of a bumpy ride than without, I can assure you, but unfortunately it doesn’t help much in the event of a crash.”

        “Crash?” Leech’s ears shot up. “This thing has hit stuff before…” his eyes grew wider as the Doc stepped up beside him, “…and you’re not even driving??”

        “Any time it has happened, Mr. Leech, was because the TARDIS was either under attack, bumping into other ships, or crossing an anomaly in space-time. I really doubt there are other ships or any kind of threat within space-time in this universe, and anomalies hardly even bounce the TARDIS, so just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

        “We’re on a freakin’ death trap, and you expect me to relax? Especially after having a weapon aimed at me?”

        “Oh, the sonic screwdriver’s hardly a real weapon, friend. I use it for repairs around the ship! Can’t even be used to harm a living thing, anyhow. The worst it’d probably do is knock you back a few paces.”

        Leech’s glowing blue eyes dimmed. “You mean… that whole thing back there was a bluff??”

        “Well, of course! I never threaten anyone if it’s within my power to send them on their merry way. I’m no killer, my dear Mr. Leech.”

        “You scared the hay out of all three of us!” Leech yelled. “And worse still, you two don’t even care!” he glared at Mitta and me. “How am I the only pony here who’s bothered by this?”

        “Leech, calm down,” I sighed. “He had to make sure you wouldn’t be a gremlin. Especially not on board a moving vehicle.”

        Leech just cried out, holding his head. “English, man!”

        “Meaning someone who causes trouble. Well, someone who will break things or hurt us. You’re plenty of trouble.”

        He dropped to the ground, looking more miserable by the minute. “Not now, dude… I’m not in the mood for more belittling.”

        “Oh, get up and stop whining. We’re all friends here.” I started to nudge his side with one hoof, and was minorly surprised to find that, despite the tough shell along his back, his body was actually still as soft as a normal pony’s. I poked him a few more times for good measure, honestly enjoying what little time I had to mess with him.

        “We have arrived!” The Doc announced, turning toward the door where we’d come in and opening it slowly. “Everybody out, please. Watch your step, miss. Ah, Mr. Leech, are you coming?”

        Leech had stopped just behind me. “Yeah, just a minute…” With a quick green flash, Leech disguised himself once more as a tan Pegasus colt. “I forgot how annoying it was switching back and forth all the time…” he muttered as he hovered over us.

        “Well, it’s still pretty cool that you can do that at all. It’s just sad that those with powers always end up being better than those without. Sooner or later, I’m sure earth ponies will be looked down on. Then maybe Pegasi. And then, assuming Alicorns have repopulated by then, the Unicorns.”

        “That is a very dismal thought,” Mitta said.

        “Well, that’s why I think it’s necessary to emphasize what makes us the same, not different,” I answered. “We all have hearts, we all live in the same world and time. We all get around on four hooves. And, most importantly, if we didn’t have this kind of diversity, Equestria would be one boring place to live.”

        “Seconded.” Leech lowered himself to the ground to my left. “It’s a lot more fun having different ponies around to spend time with. Although, knowing an Earth Pony and a Pegasus isn’t as interesting as being around a Unicorn who can bend reality to their will.”

        “Wow, big words! I’m impressed.” I chuckled. “Yeah, well, I don’t meet all that many Unicorns. The only ones I know about are the library pony, that turquoise harp one, and the white jazz one that does the cross-country DJ stuff.”

        “Yeah, point made. Not many Unicorns in Ponyville.” Leech turned to look at the Doc, up ahead of the rest of us. “Hey, Doc, where are we going?”

        “Just up the hill here,” he called back. “We’re looking for an office with blue shingles. It’s set up just near the Royal Guard headquarters, which should be just around here… Ah, here we are!”

        The Doc stopped around the corner, looking up at what had seemed to be the borders of Canterlot castle from behind the curb. Now, though, it was obvious that there was a larger entrance built out from this side of the wall. “This is the Royal Guard HQ, so somewhere nearby here should be the office of one Midnight Shadow-”

        “Do you mean this building?”

        We all turned to find Mitta standing across the street, looking into the window of a smaller building which offered the name ‘Midnight Offices, Psychiatry of Dreams’. The Doc moved across without pause, with Leech and myself following after checking the road for coaches. “Good show!” he said, patting Mitta on the back. “Yes, this is it. I think you’ll not find a better man for sleeping problems than this fine fellow.”

        “Personally, I think it goes beyond a simple sleeping problem,” I replied as I opened the door to a tinkling bell, “but you’ll find that out during the session, I think. Assuming he won’t have any problems with letting you guys in.” I stopped and turned to the desk on the left. “How does this work, anyway?”

        “I’m not quite sure about that myself, actually,” the Doc said, moving past me. “By my understanding, he will put you to sleep and then observe your dreams, possibly for abnormalities or small representations caused by your mind that he can point out to you, to prevent the nightmare from being quite so painful or frightening. I believe that’s why I like him so much; he’s a man of science and fact, and uses that to fix what should not be.”

        “Yeah, sounds like a real sugar cube.” I turned back to the desk, looking over the edge at the secretary sitting behind it. “Excuse me, ma’am, but I’d like to make an appointment.”

        “Certainly,” she answered, offering a smile. “May I ask when you were planning your visit?”

        “Now, if possible,” I answered bluntly. “I have the feeling it’s a matter of some importance, and it’s a drain on my physical health, too.”

        “I see,” she answered, offering a look of sympathy. “Well, it seems you’re in luck. We have no more patients to visit today, so it’s possible Doctor Shadow will be willing to see you in. I’ll warn you, though: last-minute appointments aren’t something we’ve had before. He may not have the time to see you today.”

        “That’s all right.” I nodded politely. “If it’s not time he has to spare, then I’m sure it can wait until tomorrow.”

        “I sincerely hope you won’t have to, if it’s affecting your health,” she offered her sympathies again. “Well, please have a seat. He should be out shortly.”

        We took our seats. All but the Doc, anyway, and I had to jump up and chase him out the door. He hadn’t made it more than a few paces outside when I managed to get his attention. “Doc, please… I think I may need you around for a little bit longer.”

        “Why is that?” he asked. A smile spread across his face. “You’re not going into something dangerous, are you?”

        “I really hope not,” I answered. “But if it comes to that, I’ll need your help. You need to hear the whole story, starting from when it began a thousand years ago. I’d prefer discussing it with this Midnight Shadow guy in the room. It’s a little harsh to discuss more than once.”

        The Doc stared at me, probably doing that same trust-stare he’d used on Leech only a few minutes ago. With a resigned sigh, he shrugged. “If the anomaly is not yet repaired, then I suppose I have no choice. Very well, I will accompany you for this.”

        “Thanks, Doc.” I smiled weakly and opened the door, allowing him back in ahead of me. The time had finally come to fully confront that horrible fear that had been plaguing me for days, but now that it had come, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through with it. I couldn’t very well go through with this whole thing again-

        Then Mitta’s entry in the old Clockworks journal came to mind. Even in the face of trying times, the harshest truths are greater than the sweetest lie. Mitta had realized the day she’d been set free that no good could come of hiding the truth. Just as she had embraced that, now I had to, as well. But what would my friends think of my dragging them into this? They might support me, yeah, but could I really live with revealing something to them that was beyond frightening? Neither Leech nor the Doc knew the full story behind Mitta’s existence. How would they react? Another passage from Mitta’s entry cut through my thoughts.

When a pony wants to support you, to help you carry yourself through the troubles, that is a true friendship that cannot be matched. Leech had begged the Doc to give him the chance to go with me into this Dream Specialist’s office, even if it meant being chained up, maybe even imprisoned forever, to make sure my well-being was assured. The Doc, too, made it his business to correct problems that could and would adversely affect other ponies’ lives. It would be a crime to deny them their right to help. I looked over the room at each of their faces: Mitta’s gentle, caring smile, Leech’s arrogant grin, and the Doc’s seemingly aloof stare, which betrayed compassion and attentiveness unmatched by most. They were truly my friends, and I felt so blessed to share life with them.

Just as I took my seat between the Doc and Mitta, the door at the far end of the room opened, drawing my attention to it. A large white Pegasus stallion with a flowing blue mane marched out of the back room, followed by a smaller, dark-coated Unicorn colt wearing square-rimmed glasses. “Good luck in that examination of yours,” he was saying. “Just remember my advice and you’ll be well on your way to a speedy recovery.” He noticed us, then, and offered a curt nod. “Gentlecolts. What can I do for you?”

“Doctor?” The secretary spoke up. “These folks are here for a session.”

“This is Doctor Shadow?” I muttered to the Doc, looking over Midnight Shadow’s nearly-black blue coat. “He looks like he could be Nightmare Moon’s twin. Well, bar the magic mane, but…”

He smiled. “That’s been a common topic for his visitors. Try not to bring it up.”

Doctor Shadow turned to us. “I see. Well, I haven’t taken any on-the-hour appointments before. Besides which, I wouldn’t have the time to see all of you today.”

“This is just for me, sir,” I interrupted, standing up and offering a hoof. “SkyJagged. I’ve come here from Ponville to meet you.”

He accepted the hoof and shook it. “Midnight Shadow,” he introduced himself. “Pleased to meet you. But, I am confused… If you’re the only one here for an appointment, then who are these two ponies?”

“We’re here because he asked us to join him,” Leech spoke up, also standing up.

“Excuse me?” Dr. Shadow blinked. “I don’t follow.”

“Well, sir, it’s about nightmares I’ve been having. To be honest, I get the feeling that they’re caused by an outside influence.” This only got even more confusion from the darkly-colored colt. “In any case, I’d like them to be present. I can explain once we’ve all gotten comfortable.”

Dr. Shadow glanced around the room, but got no response from the two of my friends he could actually see. He sighed. “Well, this is unorthodox, I’ll admit, but if you feel more comfortable having them present, then I’ll allow it. This way, please.”

“Thank you, sir,” I offered, following him into the back room.

He led us into a fairly large office which offered two chairs and a couch, each obviously meant to give any given visitor as much comfort as they could get. With different upbringing came different comfort zones, of course. But then, I doubted even Unicorns could replicate the comfort of a cloud into cloth and cotton. Still, it was far from my place to complain about the help this would theoretically offer me, and took a seat on the sofa. Leech took up one of the chairs, and after a brief and quiet argument between Mitta and the Doc (which Dr. Shadow watched with growing confusion, making me remember that she was invisible to him), she accepted the seat, leaving him to stand behind the sofa.

Dr. Shadow cleared his throat. “Well, then. Mr. SkyJagged, was it?”

“Jag is fine.”

“All right, Jag. Before we begin, I’d like an explanation about these dreams of yours. You say that you think they’re being caused by an… outside influence? If you have any ideas why, I want to hear about this, first.”

“Yes, of course.” I paused, looking for the right words. “A thousand years ago, Princess Luna felt as though she was being shunned from all of the natural world. The resulting resentment caused her to become Nightmare Moon, a mare who desired to cause eternal night, so that no pony could deny the beauty she could create.”

Midnight Shadow nodded, patiently listening to the story. But I got the impression that he knew this part already. “Skip ahead about two days,” I continued. “Starswirl the Bearded has already made a prophecy that Nightmare Moon will escape from the moon. Though most ponies don’t fear this prophecy, because they will be long gone in that time, some fear for the well-being of their descendants. One confronts Princess Celestia personally, declaring essentially that she is unable to protect them from such dangers. He suggests moving out of Equestria, or as far from it as possible, to ensure that no threat will come to them. But his only viable plan is to settle in a forest that had long since been abandoned by the Princesses themselves. Therefore, few are willing to join his resettlement. Five of his closest friends, however, do.”

At this, he blinked, cocked his head, and picked up a sheet of parchment and a quill in a glowing blue grip of magic energy, marking down some notes.

“From there, the story takes a turn for the worse.” I close my eyes, realizing that I can no longer keep myself balanced unless I do so. “The six ponies do manage to find a safe shelter near the edge of that forest, where no creatures roam. What they do not realize, however, is that the reason it is safe from other creatures is because it is a place of darkness that even the sunlight cannot protect them from.”

It took me several minutes to recount the full story as Mitta had told it to me and the Princesses, and just after I told him the most critical point, Midnight Shadow suddenly interrupted.

“Ma’am! How did you get in here?”

I looked up, noticing that he was staring right at Mitta. I opened my mouth to speak, but the Doc was quicker. “Why, she’s been here all along. Didn’t you notice?”

“Certainly not! You two were the only other ponies to come in here-”

“If I may, doctor,” I cut in. “She truly was here this whole time. You see, she’s been affected by a curse. I’ll continue, and I think you’ll realize what exactly that is.”

He paused, once again looking over each of us again. I think he was particularly disturbed by the feeling of not being in control of who entered his office. But the simple fact that he was able to see Mitta proved that he at least believed my story. At least, I hoped it did. I had told part of the story to Leech before, and later that day he had met Mitta. Maybe he had believed me, maybe not. I just hoped for the prior. But, Dr. Shadow indicated for me to continue, showing that I hadn’t quite lost him yet.

“All right. After the murder… well, the six ponies went to sleep feeling very drained. I think some of them even realized what was causing it. But nopony was prepared for what happened when they woke up the next morning. The sun was dim, covered by dark clouds. When they left their homes, the town was a rotting black wreck, everything looking like it had been burned…” I quoted Mitta’s horror-filled statement from our encounter with the Princesses- “just as she had been. Their bodies had decayed similarly, and each of them looked like they had been dead for years.

“Mitta, here, is one of them.”

Midnight Shadow looked over his paper at me, waiting for an explanation.

“A week ago,” I said, breathing deeply, “I found a page of records my great-grandponies had written that mentioned the six ponies leaving. They had no idea what had happened, or if those ponies were safe. They had never been heard from since checking out of Canterlot, after all. So I decided to investigate myself. I didn’t know that the Everfree forest had once been a place the Princesses ruled over, but based on the descriptions of a forest where the ‘weather changed and animals took care of themselves, untouched by pony hooves’, I was pretty sure that was where they had gone. Probably by dumb luck, I stumbled into a town there, just like the book had said. The ponies there called it Sunny Town, and through the few minutes I spent there, I learned several things; first, that none of the ponies in town had cutie marks. Second, that a little filly had been there just before me, and had left in a panic. And third, that a pony had died there, and her remains left in a fireplace. This last part I learned only after being sent to the outskirts of town by Mitta, after a little bit of arguing about whether I should leave immediately. Obviously, I was against that idea. When I returned to the town, I found everything just as I described it to you. Burned, desiccated, and with only zombie ponies there to indicate any life. The five of them attempted to catch me, saying something about making me one of them. It was only through Mitta that I manage to make it as far to the edge of the Everfree Forest as I did, and even then, I was trapped at the exit with nowhere to run. When Mitta arrived to defend me, a bright light filled the area, and when it cleared, we had been transported outside of the forest. I can only guess that something about my cutie-mark helped me to escape with her alongside me.”

“So, you’re saying that these six ponies are alive, and she is one of them.”

“Yes. If you don’t believe me, you’re welcome to relay my case to Princess Celestia. I was able to get an audience with her and explain the story. She also believes that Mitta is who we say she is.”

“Well, getting a response from her on short notice will be unlikely, so I’ll take your word for it. Is that all?”

“Almost.” I grimaced, picturing those nightmares again. “Since our escape, I’ve been having nightmares about the incident. In each one, I’m outside of the Everfree Forest, with those five ponies staring out at me. They aren’t normal, though, they’re in the zombie forms I last saw them in. The glowing red eyes are all I need to see to know that the dream isn’t going to be good. In each one, I get pulled into the forest by something I can’t see, and once I’m inside, they close in on me. But…”

I clamped my teeth together. This was the hardest part to talk about, because it was the one thing I hadn’t told Mitta, and I had no doubt it would hurt her as much as it did me. I braced myself and forced the words out. “Before any of them do anything, Mitta appears beside me, and… attacks me… herself.” I sighed and collapsed into the sofa. Now that the words were finally out, I couldn’t bear to look at her. “I can feel real pain at that moment, as if I’m on fire, burning up from the inside.” I looked up at Dr. Shadow, feeling weaker by the minute. “In each dream, I’m a little bit closer to the forest each time, and whether I turn to run, or try to convince myself that it isn’t real, the same thing happens every time.”

Midnight Shadow put down his writing utensils. “So, then, the outside force that you think is causing this…?”

“I have no doubt that those other five are still in the forest,” I answered. “Maybe because Mitta is connected to me now, or some other thing I can’t explain, I don’t know, but I think they’re purposefully making me experience this. It feels like a warning, like there’s no question that what happens in my dream will actually happen. And from the fact that I’m closer to the forest each time, I get the feeling that it will be soon.” I took another deep breath. “That’s all. That’s my story.”

Midnight Shadow stood up from his chair. “My specialty is dreams, Jag. In this case, it’s finding ways to prove to the ponies who suffer from nightmares that what they’re experiencing isn’t as real as it seems. What I’m going to do now is cast a sleep spell on you. As you dream, I’ll be watching you and what you see. If necessary, I can guide you to where you need to go. The pony psyche is a very complex place, so I can’t afford to meddle too much.”

“What if something happens while I’m dreaming?” I asked.

“In the event of an emergency, I also know a spell that will force you to wake up. But if you become violent during these dreams, I can’t let your friends stay.”

Mitta sat up. “I live in the house with him. SkyJagged has not moved while he dreams; only woken up… screaming…” She sounded reluctant to talk about it, and given what she’d just learned about her role in my dreams, her withdrawal wasn’t surprising at all.

“I won’t be any trouble,” I added. “But, I only wanted them here so that they could know about Mitta and my dreams. In case I do end up back in the Everfree Forest, I just want them to know that it’s better not to come looking for me.”

“That ain’t gonna happen,” Leech piped up.

“Certainly not,” the Doc added, nodding. “You won’t have to revisit a place like that so long as I’m here. In fact, give me just a moment. Thank you for giving me your time, Jag, Doctor Shadow. I may be back shortly, but until then, goodbye.”

He walked out the door. Dr. Shadow brought back my attention. “They are right, Jag. It may not be at the end of this session, and it may not be until the end of the month, but I promise that we can put a stop to these nightmares. All you have to do is trust us.”

“I will, Doc,” I answered, nodding grimly. I curled up on the sofa, the way I normally do when I sleep. “I’m ready.”

Dr. Shadow’s horn filled with the blue magic energy he held in his body. “Just remember, if you feel lost or need help, I will be watching. All you have to do is ask, and I’ll help in any way I can.”

“I will. Thanks.”

He touched his horn to my head, and then I was out cold.

I opened my eyes to a dark, vine-filled jungle. As usual, I was in the Everfree Forest. This time, though, I hadn’t started off outside. I was already inside the forest, and that meant that the Sunny town ponies weren’t far away.

Actually, they weren’t as close as I thought they’d be. The red eyes gleamed in the darkness, but as always they were distanced from me, watching from even darker shadows.

I looked around. There were only five sets of eyes, and this time Mitta wasn’t nearby. I wasn’t sure if I should be disturbed that she was no longer with me, or relieved by the fact that she wasn’t attacking me. Either way, I didn’t like it.

Grey Hoof was the first to speak. “Glad you could join us again!” he said. “We were so hoping you wouldn’t miss the party.”

It was something else different. Until now, none of the ponies had spoken, either to each other or to me. Suddenly I realized I had no clue what would happen in this dream.

In that case, it wouldn’t hurt to try talking back to them. “Where’s Mitta? This isn’t what happened last time.”

“She’s waiting for you at the back of town,” Three Leaf replied, her voice a lot smoother than I remembered it. “Why? We’re not enough company for you?”

“Stay out of my way. I’m going after her.” Somehow, I just knew that was where I had to go. My mind was set.

“Go ahead,” Grey Hoof answered. To my complete and utter astonishment, the eyes shifted to each side of me, offering an opening in the woods for me to enter. “Just remember,” he continued, “you may not like what you find.”

I glared at the eyes suspiciously. “Dr. Shadow? You can guide me?”

“Yes. Wherever you need me to.”

“Okay. Let me know if they come at me.”

Gladstone laughed, harshly. “We knew you would try to get help, SkyJagged. Your viewer isn’t going to change what happens here.”

“Shut up, all of you!” I snapped. “I don’t have time for this!” With that, I rushed forward. As I had expected, one of them moved toward me, but this time they didn’t wait for me to see it. “On your right, Jag!” Shadow called, and I obediently ducked left, hearing something land on the ground behind me. In a mad run, I circled through the walls of Sunny Town’s ruins, following the horseshoe path that led out to the old hut. More zombie ponies rose out of the ground, these ones in even worse condition than Grey Hoof and his followers. I recognized them as the Bone Fiends Mitta had told me about, the dead ponies whose bodies had been reanimated after the town had been built. They were a lesser threat than the others, but I knew better than to let them get near me. Moving between shredded paths and sluggish dead ponies, I managed to get past the gates that divided Sunny Town from that old hut. When I turned left, it stood just where it always had, against the trees. This time, though, a red light glowed through the shutters of the building, revealing the fire inside.

“Mitta!” I called out, rushing up to the door. “Mitta, are you in there? Come out!” As I neared the door, I reared and kicked it with my hind legs, breaking it down easily. I spun back and went inside, looking around for any sign of her. “Mitta! Come out!”

Doctor Shadow spoke to me again. “In the fireplace, Jag.”

Shocked, I walked up to the fireplace, hoping against hope that what he was suggesting wasn’t in there. On top of the burning wood, I could see the blackened remains of a pony’s bones burning. They were in the same position I remembered them being in last time. “No,” I said. “That’s not Mitta.” Relieved, but still disgusted by the sight of a pony’s body so desecrated, I turned away.

“Actually, it is.” Three Leaf’s voice again, unfortunately. Of all the ponies of Sunny Town, she was the one I liked the least, but I wasn’t quite sure why. “That isn’t Ruby, SkyJagged. It’s Mitta. You couldn’t protect her, and now she’s gone.”

“That’s a lie,” I snarled. “The real Mitta is here, with me, in the office room. You can’t fool me. This is only a dream.”

“Foalish colt,” she answered. Suddenly, another light started up in the room. I glanced left, wondering what it could be, to find a pair of hollow red eyes staring at me. Teeth appeared, silhouetted by another red light. They moved in time with Three Leaf’s words.

“This is far from a dream.”

Three Leaf rushed me, and before I could react she had me pinned to the floor. I felt something against my neck, and then the pain I knew all too well was filling my body again. I was in untold anguish, set ablaze once again. There was nothing I could do to stop it, despite my wordless protests against the injustice. Then the pain stabbed into my brain, and I screamed.

Mitta and I watched the two of them in silence, Jag lying on the sofa, with one of his front hooves now dangling against the floor, and the Midnight Shadow guy standing over him with his eyes closed.

“I don’t like this,” I muttered. “If they were making this happen to him, they could probably do worse now that somepony’s connected to him.”

“I feel that it could be worse than that,” Mitta answered. I turned to face her, and when her ruby eyes connected with mine, I could see genuine fear in them. “I believe that they planned for this all along. Down to the very point where he seeks medical help.”

“You really think so?” I asked, and turned back to look at them. “Maybe we should stop this.”

“I wouldn’t recommend that,” the Doc put in, pushing open the door to the office and bumping it into us. As we scooted away from it, he walked the rest of the way into the office and closed it.

“Doc. Where’d you go?”

“I am a Time Lord,” he answered, raising a hoof to his collar. “It is my duty to repair any abnormalities in time. I traveled back to repair the damage that this town caused.”

“What?” I sat back, staring at him. “You idiot, you probably reset so much stuff that we never even meet! Isn’t that a time parody thing? What did you even do, keep Luna from getting jealous?”

“No.” He stared at me like I was the real foal. “Changing an event like that would, indeed, cause a time paradox. No, I was referring to preventing the murder of this young mare. That would have prevented the curse from befalling them, I believe.”

“Wait… so, did you?”

“I believe not,” Mitta answered. “I am still here.”

“Quite. Unfortunately, I was unable to find you, Mitta, and by the time I arrived, they had already killed the poor girl. The bloody TARDIS didn’t arrive inside the forest, as I predicted; it stopped on the edge.”

“So, you didn’t do anything at all. Good job, dude.”

“In my profession, it is entirely fair to accept that certain events are unchangeable. I believe I may still be able to correct this problem, though, if I visit the town now. Perhaps there will be some way to reason with them, now that they have had so many years to ponder their actions.”

“They’ve had this long, yeah. So don’t you think if they did regret what they did, they might have… you know, moved on or something?”

“There is no way of knowing until we try,” he answered. “Besides, we can’t assume-”

An awful scream shook the room, and I whirled to see Jag and the doctor. Jag had fallen to the floor, curled up into a fetal position and shaking like a scared foal. His eyes were squeezed shut, which told me he was in pain.

“I think it’s happening again,” I said. “I think they got him.”

“His flank,” the Doc said, pointing. “Look at his flank!”

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but there was no way to explain it. Unless we were hallucinating at the same time, something was actually bending reality. Right in front of us, SkyJagged’s red-tipped shield cutie-mark was actually fading in and out, disappearing from his body and then reappearing a second later.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, another wail split the air, this one female, and right next to us. I turned back in shock. Mitta was leaned back against the wall, holding her head and baring her clenched teeth. Doc spoke up first. “Tell Dr. Shadow to wake him up,” he said.

“Don’t tell me twice!” I bounded completely over the chair that was in my way and tapped the guy’s shoulder. “Doc, you have to wake him up! Right now!”

Midnight Shadow shuddered, his own eyes squeezed tightly shut, too. I grabbed his shoulders and shook him. “Come on! You have to wake him up!”

That got through to him. The doctor opened his eyes, and after a quick glance at me, he walked over to Jag, leaned down, and touched Jag’s head with his horn again. Jag’s eyes snapped open instantly, and he jumped up. Relieved, I turned back to the Doc and Mitta, only to get yet another shock. Our eyes met, and I could see that he was as worried as I was. But before any of us could talk, Jag spoke up.

“Ughhh…” He shook his head, rubbing his eyes with one hoof. “Did… did it work?”

“I’m not quite sure,” Doctor Shadow answered. “This time, you were already in the forest, and although one of them attacked you, you were allowed into the village to find Mitta before they got to you. That’s much different from the story you told me.”

“I think we have a bigger problem than that,” I put in. “We have to move, now.”

“What?” Jag looked up at me, then the Doc. “What’s wrong?

“Uh… actually, maybe the Doc should tell you.”

“Me?” he stepped back as I turned to him. “You were the one who brought it up. It may as well be you who explains yourself.”

“Explain myself?” I bristled. “I didn’t do anything!”

“Tell him, then.”

“No, you tell him!” I snapped, pushing him away. “I ain’t about to piss him off!”

“Tell me what?” Jag asked, annoyed beyond all belief, from what I could see.

I sighed. “All right, fine. The biggest thing is… well, your cutie mark disappeared for a minute when you hit the floor.”

“What?” he looked at his flank, apparently making sure it was back. “How is that possible?”

“We believe that event was connected to your dream,” the Doc put in.

“Well, we’re pretty sure both of them are,” I corrected.

“Both? What else happened?” he looked around the room. “Wait a minute, where’s Mitta?”

I took a step back. “Well, she’s gone.”

“What? And you two didn’t stop her? Which way?” he leaned low to the ground, ready to rush out the door like an athlete.

“Dude, listen to us! She’s gone, okay? She didn’t run out. She disappeared!”

“Where to?” he asked, sounding really mad.

“That’s not the point. She disappeared, Jag. She screamed right after you hit the floor, and when we looked, she faded away. Like a shadow, or something. Just like your cutie-mark.”


“Mitta is gone, Jag,” the Doc answered, somberly.

I snorted. “A hundred bits says we know where.”

“Welcome back, Mitta,” Grey Hoof’s voice whispered to her.

She was trembling violently, but she did her best to follow SkyJagged’s advice to her: ‘Be brave and don’t let anyone tell you you’re not worth it’. “Stay away from me,” she ordered, though the words came out as more of a whimper.

“You knew this day was coming, Mitta,” Ronio told her. “You shouldn’t have pretended it was a dream. When you realized he was having the same dream, you knew what was happening.”

“You can’t make him come back.” She stood up, glaring at the creatures around her. “There is nothing you have to hold against him.”

“Have you learned nothing from those dreams?” Three Leaf answered, her sweet tone hiding a far more bitter heart. If she yet possessed one, of course. “We already know he will come. It’s his allegiance to you that brought him this far. We don’t have to bring him back.

“You already did.”

To be concluded…

Chapter 3: Sunny Town – Village of Despair

Sunny Town – Village of Despair

By Zero Zivan  A.K.A. Skyjagged

A fanmade response to a fanmade game

Story of the Blanks

Inspired by My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

        “What’s your plan?” Leech demanded. “Just go in after her? That’s exactly what they want! You can’t just rush in like this and expect not to get hurt!”

I pushed open the door to Doctor Midnight Shadow’s office and stomped outside. “Getting hurt is not my concern. She’s been dragged back in, right after she thought she was safe. It’s unfair. I’m going to fix it.”

“By your own recounting, you escaped purely by luck,” the Doc argued, as he and Leech followed me out of the building. We were in the main square of Canterlot, just outside of the gates leading to the royal palace, Princess Celestia’s home. Normally, being able to visit such a beautiful city would have filled anypony with awe. Unfortunately for me, recent events had severely downturned that sentiment.

My name is SkyJagged. One week before this, the arrival of Nightmare Moon sparked an interest in me to see what kinds of mysteries might have risen up during her banishment a thousand years ago. Only one had appeared; the story of the six ponies who I learned much later were referred to as ‘the betrayers’. That night, I investigated the last known place those six ponies had disappeared to, and as a result found Sunny Town, a small settlement inside the Everfree Forest. After getting greetings and odd responses to my questions from five of the townsponies, I found the sixth, Mitta, hiding inside one of the huts in town. She was very different; unlike the other five, she was miserable, not cheerful. When I asked her questions, although she was averse to answering them, she eventually opened up in a way the others did not. It was through her warnings and guidance that I was able to discover the truth behind Sunny Town, its odd inhabitants, and the horrible curse upon it. I had been lucky enough to escape with my life… just like the Doc was telling me now.

“That’s not important,” I growled over my shoulder. “She does not belong there. She had a second chance, and they stole it back from her. I am going to get her out, and destroy them all if I have to!”

In the chase that had followed my discovery, Mitta had defended me, allowing me to escape Sunny Town through its only entrance. Then, when I had been cornered at the edge of the forest, she had appeared again, willing to stay until there was an opening for me to get the rest of the way out. It hadn’t worked out that way, though. As the ponies surrounding us had closed in, one of them threatened Mitta. Given the kindness she had shown me, I had snapped. All that mattered in that moment was that Mitta, not me, be safe. After the escape, I had assumed that my cutie-mark, the one that helps me protect my friends, had magically transported Mitta and me out of the forest. Now, though, Doc and Leech seemed convinced that the escape had been engineered by the five ponies attacking us. That just didn’t make sense to me.

“Your nightmares, Jag,” Leech said, using his wings to propel himself up to my side as I trotted on. “They knew all along that you’d come back. They’re prepared! This time, you will not escape. Period. They’ll have ponies to guard the door, and this time they’ll have Mitta tied down or something so she can’t help.”

For the past week after our escape, nightmares had been haunting my sleep, every night dreaming of my return to Sunny Town. In those dreams, I would always be pulled into the forest, where the five ponies surrounded me. And worst of all, each time I went in, Mitta herself would attack me, turning me into one of them. I couldn’t be sure if the dreams were actually connected to those five ponies until I visited the office of Doctor Midnight Shadow, a dream specialist who had put me under and connected himself to my dreams. This time around, the five ponies had spoken to me, saying they had known all along that I would try to get help. When I made it to the back of town, I found the same exact scene that had revealed the truth to me in real life. But one of the ponies had told me then that the bones in that fireplace were not the pony they had murdered, starting their curse. It was Mitta herself burning in that fireplace. Then the pony had attacked, leaving me in a pain beyond explanation, just like in every other dream.

As I lay on the floor in Doctor Shadow’s office, writhing in pain, Doc and Leech had apparently heard Mitta scream, and then watched her literally fade away. They also said that my cutie mark had disappeared for a few seconds, too, so I didn’t know what to attribute to their imaginations and what to believe. One simple fact, though, was that Mitta was gone. The three of us agreed, at least, as to where she was now.

“Once she’s untied, that won’t be a problem.” Mitta couldn’t have been in that fire. She just couldn’t. She had still been in the office right up until the point I had been attacked. Which meant that, as I had said, the ‘Mitta’ I saw in the fire wasn’t real. A dream. Or Three Leaf had been lying when she had claimed it was Mitta, and not the mystery victim, in that fire. She had lied when I first met her, after all, claiming not to know what cutie-marks were.

I stopped when I got across the street and down the path to where a large rectangular box stood in a grassy path. We had travelled to Canterlot in the Doc’s time machine, the TARDIS, and it was my only chance of getting back to Ponyville quickly. “Open the door, Doc. We have somewhere to be.”

“I won’t take you back until we have come up with a plan, Jag,” the brown colt replied firmly.

“Fine! I’ll just have to fly, then.” I flapped my wings and took off, but the faster, stronger Leech caught up to me instantly and tackled me to the ground. The Doc only opened the door once Leech declared that he had me, and once he had entered Leech dragged me, kicking and flapping, inside of the time machine.

“Now,” the Doc said, sealing the door, “we have to make sure that we have everything planned as well and carefully as we possibly can before rushing in to this situation. I respect your desire to help Mitta, Jag, but we need more preparation.”

That line stopped me from struggling. “We?” I looked up from the floor. The Doc didn’t correct himself, and Leech had no objections. I raised my hooves and pushed on his chest. “Get off me, Leech.”

“Promise you’ll shut up and listen?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“I’ll listen,” I snapped. “I talk, too.”

“Fair enough.” He backed up and brushed some dirt off of his tan coat where I had kicked him. I stood up and looked at them again. “You can’t come,” I said. “They’re expecting me, just like you said. I can’t expect to face them and make sure you two are safe each step of the way.”

“Well, I appreciate the sentiment, SkyJagged, but we are quite capable of taking care of ourselves. I have seen my share of battles, and the undead, whether they are ponies or not, are not the worst I have seen.”

“And I have my own skills,” Leech put in. “They won’t be able to touch me if I keep moving and use what they have against them.”

“Look, guys, I appreciate the offer. Honestly.” I sat back and did my best to summarize the story I had told them again. “But you guys can’t match five fully intelligent ponies that can’t be hurt, one, by the way, who is incredibly fast, and the other… I don’t know, ten or so whose only purpose is to catch you. I can’t let you go into this.”

“You can’t stop us, dude,” Leech answered. “She’s our friend as much as she is yours. And we’re not letting either of you get into trouble without us along to bring you back.”

“I agree,” the Doc added. “So please, let’s stop this pointless arguing and focus on our plan of attack. How can we get in, and what do we do once we’re inside?”

I glared at them silently for a few seconds, trying desperately to get them to back down. Unfortunately, even I knew they were right. Even since walking into Midnight Shadow’s office, I had known that they were as much a part of this conflict now as I had been when I set foot in the town. Since that morning, it had been made clear that my friends would be there to help me with this problem. At the time, I had no idea it would escalate this far, or that I wouldn’t want them with me.

But still, it would be nice to have some friends to watch my back, and each other’s. I just didn’t want to think about what would happen if we failed. “Fine.” I dropped the act with an exasperated sigh. “I know where the entrance is to Sunny Town. The main problem is that there’s only one. If we have any hope of getting out, that path has to stay clear the entire time we’re in.”

Leech leaned back on his haunches. “Sounds good. I haven’t had a good fight in a while; this should be fun.”

“Which brings me to problem two,” I said, watching him pointedly. “From what Mitta’s told me, these ponies have the power to change you by touch alone. You two saw what it did to me while I was sleeping. So above all, do not. Let. Them. Touch. You.”

“That may be more difficult,” the Doc put in. “Didn’t you just tell us that there is one pony in there who is particularly fast?”

“Yes, Starlet,” I answered, nodding. “I’m not sure how exactly it works, but somehow being the quietest of the group has made her the most dangerous. She’s the one you have to keep a close eye on.”

“How will we know which one is her?” the Doc asked, while Leech snorted behind me, muttering “It’s always the quiet ones…”

“I can’t help you there,” I answered. “I had no idea which one was after me at any given time, because they all looked the same in zombie form. Assuming that they don’t have colors, all you can do is track the one that moves faster. Otherwise, keep an eye on the white one. That’s her.

“While you two are keeping the escape clear,” I continued, “I’m gonna go in and look for Mitta. Once I have her, we’re going to run. I don’t care about the others, so long as we can get her out of there.”

“Was there nothing inside the town to indicate a way to break this curse?” the Doc asked.

“None.” I shook my head. “Remember, the curse theoretically came about because they were living in a dangerous part of the forest, and they murdered a pony. I don’t think there’s anything we can do to break it.”

The Doc nodded, but I think he was still pondering alternatives.

“That’s the plan,” I said. “I don’t think we have any armor or weapons, so the best we have is to stay on the move and stay alive. Agreed?”

“Wait a minute,” Leech interrupted. “No weapons? This whole ship is full of tech! Why not use something from in here?”

“The TARDIS is used for transportation, Mr. Leech,” the Doc responded. “I do not carry weapons.”

“Okay, fine.” Leech turned to face him. “What about some… what was that word… indirect weapons? Like that screwdriver that can push things?”

“The sonic screwdriver is a multi-purpose tool built for repairs and hacking, not weaponry!” Doc looked like he was getting offended at the idea of using anything as a weapon, so I stepped in to cool them down. “Enough! If you two are coming, you have to be ready to work together, not argue.”

“I’m just trying to help with some ideas,” Leech grumbled. “Fine, I’ll stick to myself, then. Maybe, if I copy one of them, I won’t be affected if they touch me.”

“That’s high-risk. What if they have some sort of hive mind or something that’ll fry your brain if you try that?”

“Pshhh.” Leech waved a hoof in the air. “I’m a Changeling. I don’t think some stupid curse is going to get to me just by mimicking those ponies. Let’s move on.”

“You watch yourself,” I growled, pointing at him. “I don’t want that hotheadedness getting you and then the rest of us killed.”

“Oh, I’m not particularly concerned about that,” the Doc cut in. “I’m sure that, were I to die, a regeneration would eventually make its way back. Possibly even away from this odd pony world.” He paused. “Well, I’m not quite sure how I feel about that idea. I have gotten a bit attached to this universe.”

His odd comment only got stares from Leech and me. I was the first to shake off the confusion. “I’m gonna assume you’re talking about backup copies or something. I don’t want details,” I added, holding up a hoof as he opened his mouth to explain, “just pay attention. They won’t exactly kill you, per se. I noticed one main theme during my escape last time, and that is that they’ll try to turn us first. Maybe we won’t become as psychotic as they did, and maybe we will. What worries me, though, is that they’ve never managed to change a pony from outside of their town before. If they get to us, they might be able to leave town, or be able to visit Ponyville and, say, change everypony there?”

Leech and the Doc frowned. It was obviously a theory that hadn’t come to mind. Even I had only just thought of it, and the idea made me shudder. “My point is, we don’t even know if getting caught will affect only us. At all costs, we can’t let that happen.”

There was a short silence, which told me both of them were silently begging the question, ‘then why are we doing this?’ And they also knew the answer. Someone was suffering. And none of us were willing to just sit back and let it happen, regardless of the risks to ourselves.

I turned to the Doc. “You mentioned earlier that the worst the screwdriver could do was push things. If that’s the case, you should probably use it. Keeping your distance is the critical part of this operation. If you can’t outrun them, the screwdriver will keep them back.”

“I had thought of that,” he replied, nodding. “And you’re right. It certainly will come in handy.” He peered at me. “Jag, you seem the least prepared out of the three of us.”

“What makes you say that? I’m the one who has the critical information about the town.”

“I mean your fighting ability, Jag,” he held up a hoof and inclined his head, trying to signal patience. “Mr. Leech is able to mimic other ponies, which should protect him from the dangers present to us. I have been in combat situations before, and have a reasonable defense. But you have no weapon, no special skills, and are still going to travel deeper into the forest than either of us. I fail to see the logic in such action.”

“Look, I may not have a sonic screwdriver, and I may not be able to copy other ponies, but I am not less prepared than either of you!” The outburst was not like me at all, and taking that into account, I paused to take a deep breath. “Listen,” I continued, more calmly, “I’ve been here before. I know how they act, so it’s best if I go in. Besides which, my cutie-mark is the only one here that can help to beat the odds. Mitta is in trouble, and I’m doing this to help her. My ability is protecting my friends. So, if only through my cutie-mark, I can make it to town and back here. I have to be the one to do this, anyway. She’s here because of me.”

Leech blinked. “She’s here because of a murder, dude. This has nothing to do with-”

“My nightmares, okay? If I had found some other way to deal with those nightmares, or moved somewhere else, this whole thing wouldn’t have happened! It has to be me.”

Doc’s expression turned harsh. He walked up close to me and planted a hoof firmly on my chest. “This is not your fault, Jag. If you are going to think that way, then I will lock you inside the TARDIS and Mr. Leech and I will handle this matter on our own. If you aim to fix this, you must first realize that you are trying to help repair a problem that has existed for a thousand years. One week is not enough time to correct it, and it may be several years before this whole mess is abated, with or without my help. Once you acknowledge the facts, and not your personal opinions, you will be able to examine the issue in a more capable fashion.”

He was using a lot of big words, but the general message got through, and I nodded. “Okay.” I nodded. “It’s not my fault. But it’s my responsibility. I’m the only one Mitta has to rely on. I am not going to betray that trust. Since you two are so eager to help, I know you feel the same way. So, in that spirit, I think we’ve wasted enough time here as it is. We have to go.” I swallowed. “Back to Sunny Town.”

We made it back to Ponyville in almost a minute, and then we were off running. Neither of my friends spoke; I had to assume that they were getting mentally ready for what was waiting for us in Sunny Town.

It was getting dark out. Just like last time, the confrontation in Sunny Town was going to take place at night. The idea didn’t fill me with confidence, but this time I didn’t even hesitate. I charged through the streets and out the back entrance to Ponyville, toward Fluttershy’s house and the Everfree Forest just beyond. Leech, disguised for the moment, followed close behind on his wings, and the Doc galloped after the two of us. Soon we were inside the collection of trees, with the exit lying just behind us. The sight in the clearing surprised me more than anything else would have, and I dug my hooves into the dirt, struggling to stop. I had been running too fast, and my momentum dragged me forward too quickly. I almost slammed headfirst into the problem, and was barely able to spread my wings and take off, looping back around. Leech managed to stop himself easily, and the Doc, having seen the commotion, slowed to a stop as he caught up.

Ahead of us, there would have been a collection of blue-leafed flowers, but they had all been removed. Just as well, too; I wouldn’t have had time to pick my way through the odd-smelling stuff and charged through it, anyway.

But the lack of flowers wasn’t what had startled me. Laying in the trees, blocking the path to Sunny Town, was a large boulder with the words KEEP OUT UNDER PENALTY OF DEATH printed on it. I looked back at the others. “This wasn’t here before.”

“No kidding.” Leech dropped out of his disguise and tapped a pockmarked hoof on the stone. “Well, it’s solid. Not going anywhere.”

“Who would have placed this here?” the Doc asked. “Maybe that Zecora friend of yours? She didn’t sound happy when you mentioned that you knew about the town.”

“I don’t think Zecora has the resources to push a big rock like this around,” I answered. “In fact, it would take some pretty strong ponies to…”

I slapped a hoof against my forehead, realizing only then what the problem was. “Of course. When Mitta and I told the Princesses about this, Celestia mentioned some sort of security. She must have decided to seal off the entrance.”

“Then what do we do?” Leech asked. “I’m not sure she’ll be willing to have it moved if we ask her.”

“No time for that, anyway,” I said, circling around to one side of the rock. “We’ll have to push it. Come on, help me out here.”

“Fine.” Leech followed my lead and pushed on the stone with both hooves. Unfortunately, our combined strength couldn’t even budge the big rock. We pushed, shoved, and kicked for a few more minutes before we both ended up lying on the ground, panting for air.

Leech looked up at the Doc. “Why aren’t you helping?” he growled.

Doc looked up at the stone, contemplating our dilemma. “I believe this stone is secured by that unicorn magic I’ve seen so much of. Trying to force it away, as we’ve seen, won’t help.”

“Ugh.” I stood up. “Of course, the security had to be so good that even the good guys can’t get past it.” I leaned against the stone, trying to figure out a way we could get by. “Well, we can either try to find a unicorn who can teleport us in, or get the Princess to undo this spell.”

“Teleporting in would be faster,” Leech said, leaning over me, “but how are we going to get out afterwards?” He tapped a hoof on my head to make his point clearer.

“Fine! Back to Canterlot!” Leech was really getting on my nerves, and at the time I should have realized that the problem was my own annoyance at being so unable to help Mitta. But, of course, I wasn’t thinking of it that way. I got ready to lead the way back out, but before I so much as raised a hoof, the Doc called out, “Jag! Look out!”

The warning stunned me, but not enough to keep me from jumping away from the rock. As I whirled to face whatever was coming at us, I saw an odd white glow moving around the stone face. The odd, wispy behavior of the stuff reminded me of the Princesses’ manes. As we watched, the odd plasma withdrew back inside the boulder, and then, to our surprise, the thing actually moved. Somehow, that white wisp was rolling the stone out of our path!

Leech took a few steps forward, but stopped before he got too close to the opening, peering in cautiously. “I don’t see anything.”

“That doesn’t mean much,” I said. “They can hide in the ground, remember? Plus, again, they knew we were coming.”

“Yeah.” Leech looked over his shoulder at me. “But did you see that ghost last time, too?”

“That wasn’t a ghost,” I waved a hoof at him. “It was magic. Maybe it recognized me and opened up.”

“Oh, sure. Doc and I saw eyes, dude. Two yellow ones.”

“That’s right.” Doc moved up behind him. “Any ideas as to who it might be?”

“You’re both delusional,” I muttered, pushing my way between them. “Shape up. We’re going into a combat zone. Doc, you got your screwdriver ready?”

“Right here.” He pulled out the small item – from where, I had no idea – and put it in his mouth. “If I have to run, it’s best I use it like this.”

“Fine. Leech? You’d better… I don’t know, turn into Mitta or something.”

“Pass. I’m copying the fast one. That way I’ll have a better defense.”

“All right. Don’t stay in one place, and watch everywhere. The only place they can’t get you from is the air. So stay on your guard.”

The warnings were as clear and concise as I could make them, and we were as well equipped as we could hope to be. But I still couldn’t shake an awful feeling of dread, as if no matter how hard I tried, someone was going to get hurt.

As expected, the ground started to move once we were just a few feet in. Doc and Leech each turned outwards, facing the oncoming threat head-on. I glanced back at them. “You two be careful. It’s going to be a pain if I have to de-zombify you.”

Leech chuckled as he locked eyes with one of the distorted bodies near the trees and transformed into it. “Don’t worry about us,” he said, with a scratchy, unreal voice.

“Time is short,” the Doc said, brandishing his screwdriver. “Go.”

Reluctantly, I turned away from them and charged into the forest, following the walls of trees toward Sunny Town. Most of the Bone Fiends appeared just as I was leaving the main clearing, which could only mean the Betrayers were more concerned with taking my friends down than me. Pity for them; I was the one they had to worry about.

As I charged through the entrance to Sunny Town, my eyes darted everywhere, searching for any sign of the five. The town was as black and rotten as I remembered it being during my escape. It was difficult to see anything, which was half the reason my escape had been so fear-inducing. It was never good to be running from something deadly in the dark. I searched as carefully as I could for a threat, but nothing stirred. Needless to say, I didn’t like it. Even though their intentions to get to my friends were clear, it made no sense for them to leave nothing to handle me. But nothing moved from within the house ahead, nothing stirred the ground. And certainly none of them were talking to me in that creepy omnipotent voice.

        A white light glimmered from inside the house. I was reminded instantly of the thing that had moved the covering to the path, and thought about calling out to it. Then again, it was already helping me. Trying to get its attention would be a waste of effort. Besides, it would be just as dumb to draw attention to myself if any of the cursed ponies were still here, which at least one of them had to be. I crept up to the rotten old hut and poked my head in. “Mitta?” I whispered. “Speak up. Where are you?”

A mare’s quiet laughter echoed in the house, and I instantly pulled my head out. The gentle laughter continued for a second, and then the mare’s voice called out, “Not here, Jag…”

It was Three Leaf. Again, the one pony I liked less than any of the others was watching me. There had to be some kind of connection there, but I just couldn’t place it. And I really didn’t care. “Where is she, then?” I growled. “I’m not in the mood for your games. And I’m sure you don’t want to waste time toying with me, either.”

There was a brief pause. “Waste time?” she answered a minute later. I moved on to the next house the light shined into, but found only another empty building. “We’ve been here for a thousand years. How can we possibly waste time when we have all the time in the world to get to know each other?”

The next house, then. This one, by some miracle- or a curse- still had the door attached. I broke it down with a quick buck and turned around to face forward. Still nothing. Oddly, Three Leaf didn’t seem surprised by the light. Maybe she was the one causing it, giving me what I needed to see. “But then, we have gotten to know each other already, haven’t we?”

I couldn’t help but answer to that one. “How does giving me the same nightmare every night help you to learn about me?” I asked, moving around the next building.

Three Leaf only laughed quietly again. “It wasn’t just in your dreams, Jag. Mitta showed us everything, even if she was too foolish to notice it. We know all about Ponyville, and the Princesses, and how you refuse to abandon your friends. It’s why we were convinced that this was the best time to bring you back.”

“Well, the visit’s only for a few minutes, so enjoy it while you can.” I didn’t care for how she was blaming Mitta for the trouble they were causing, but in a way it made sense. Mitta had a share in the curse, and since she was connected to me, maybe they could have learned everything that they did from what she had seen and heard. The real question was, once I got her out of there, how could we completely sever her connection to these insane spirits?

“She’s not in the houses, Jag,” Three Leaf said, as I peered into another house.

“Yeah? Then where is she?” I turned back. The light was now hovering in one area, just above the ground. As it floated there, I noticed two yellow orbs near the top of the shape, and then a nose. Leech and Doc had been right; the thing was a ghost. I couldn’t tell exactly who the pony spirit was supposed to be, but if Three Leaf was controlling it…

“We both know where,” she snapped, pulling me out of my thoughts. “I’m not playing games, either. Go outside. It’s where this whole thing started. For us, and for you. It’s only fair to make it our ending point, too.”

“I’m not going in there,” I snapped back. “You’ll be waiting for me.”

“You want to make sure this isn’t an ambush? Fine.” Three Leaf was playing some kind of angle, but what exactly she was going for was beyond me. I turned to look into the last house when the ground started to shake underneath the ghost, and it faded away. A pony’s hoof and skull appeared first, and just like every other time, the ghastly sight made me want to turn and run. The thing was blocking my path, though, so all I could do was stand and watch. I turned back to make sure nothing was walking up behind me.

“I’m alone, Jag,” Three Leaf said. I turned back. Now that the bones and flesh had formed up outside of the ground I could see that the pony was, indeed, Three Leaf. Her mane was tangled back away from her head, just as it had been when I last saw her. Her mouth hung open on a loose jaw, but somehow that didn’t stop her from continuing to nag me. “You and I are the only ones here. Well, aside from Mitta. But in a sense, even she doesn’t matter. You’ll see that soon enough. But what you’re looking for right now is proof that I’m not trying to get you inside a building where I can trap you, right?”

She moved toward me, her hollow red eyes locked on me, but she kept as far away as possible, strafing the side of the opposite building. I jumped forward, out toward the old shack, keeping my eyes on her. But Three Leaf just stopped where I had been standing and sat down, still watching me. I looked around again, and then squinted at her. “Why?”

“One reason only: I want you to know the truth before you join us. Interesting how Celestia called her by that element,” she added, turning away for a moment, “because she is what will prove to you what I’m trying to say.”

“You’re still playing a game.”

“I am not.” Three Leaf raised a rotten leg and pointed the hoof behind me, toward the old hut outside of Sunny Town. “Just go. I’m giving you what you came for. So go and get it.”

The staring contest lasted for a few more seconds before I decided to keep moving, though I often looked back to make sure she wasn’t following. She was, of course, but each time I looked back she was sitting again, almost like she knew the exact moment I was going to turn around. The idea creeped me out, but focusing on it was just going to mess up my focus even more, so I pressed on.

Around the bend lay the old hut where, as she had put it, this entire story had begun. Here, they had killed an innocent pony. One who, as Mitta had put it, ‘was only trying to help’. And now, I thought, here I am, doing the same. It was here that Apple Bloom and I had, a week ago, discovered the horrible secret of Sunny Town. And it was here that the nightmares had become reality only about half an hour earlier. And now, Three Leaf seemed convinced that this was where the stories my friends and I had to tell of our own lives would end.

I stopped at the door. Here, unlike the other houses, the building had withstood the trials of time with far greater resistance. The door was undamaged, the wood solid. The fire inside still burned eternally. Undoubtedly, their curse had made this place, the origin of their punishment, the only thing that could not be destroyed.

I turned back, sitting on the porch. Three Leaf was still the same distance away, and as always she looked as if she had never gotten up. Beyond her, the light glimmered on the outskirts of the forest, and I could see the glowing yellow eyes again. Seeing the ghost made me think of another possibility, and I figured I may as well try to follow up on it.

“Why did you kill her?” I asked.

“Because she got in our way two times already,” she answered, shrugging, her red eyes dimming for a minute, as if she had blinked.

“Not Mitta. I know better than to believe you could kill one of your own. Otherwise, you would have killed yourselves hundreds of years ago. I’m talking about her.”

Three Leaf stared in silence. I thought for a minute that she was refusing to answer, but then she did. “Ruby.”

So that was her name. “The one you killed a thousand years ago.”

“Of course. I’d forgotten Mitta hardly told you anything about her.” Three Leaf’s eyes dimmed again, giving me the thought that she had ‘closed’ her eyes to imagine the past in her mind’s eye. “It was on the ninth day,” she began. “We were only just beginning to accept that our cutie-marks had disappeared. Gladstone thought it might be a curse from Celestia, to punish us for leaving her kingdom. Ronio and Starlet thought maybe it was because we had left other ponies behind. They were quite surprised when we learned that Celestia thought the same, by the way. But Grey Hoof thought that it might be because we had learned better than to live in a world of danger. That by finding safety, we no longer needed the cutie-marks to find our purpose. We had risen above what other ponies considered their reason for living. And then she came along.”

It was a moving speech, but something about it seemed off. I listened patiently, occasionally glancing around to make sure I was still safe. The two of us were still the only ones in the clearing. “Ruby,” she said again. “Just a little pony, trying to be friendly to others. Like you, she was confused by our lacks of cutie-marks. At the time, we decided to tell her the truth; that they had disappeared. That was when things got… out of hoof.

“She had just found Ronio’s lost ruby. It was a gift that he had been saving for Starlet. As soon as she returned it to him, the thing appeared on her flank… a cutie-mark. A magnifying glass, to prove her ability to find things. The sight amazed her, and she started to believe that if she was able to get a cutie-mark in the same place we had lost ours, then maybe she could help us get ours back. Grey Hoof and I didn’t like that idea, and the others didn’t believe it was possible. And then she said that she liked our town. That she wanted to stay, and live with us.”

She fell silent. I stared at her, wondering if she was as lost as the rest had seemed to be the last time we’d met. All they could talk about was my staying with them, to share in their pain. But now she was telling me they had killed a pony who just wanted to live in the town, starting this whole disaster. Could they really be trying to fix the past by ‘redoing’ the entire thing with me as their visitor? “So you killed her,” I pressed, my teeth clamped together in a fierce rage. “She only wanted to be friends with you, and you killed her.”

“I think it was you who made the proper comparison,” she answered. “As you were visiting the doctor’s office. ‘Those with powers always end up being better than those without’. The simple fact is that we did not want another ‘superior pony’. Ruby had a cutie-mark, and we did not. Allowing her to stay was asking for trouble. In time, that cutie-mark would put her in a position above us, and we would soon have another Princess who we relied on for every part of our lives. That we could not have. But simply refusing to let her stay would not be enough. We tried reasoning with her, but she refused to believe that cutie-marks were something we did not want, or that she did not belong in the town, ‘helping’ us. Her cutie-mark would help her to find a way in, and ways to ‘fix’ what she was so convinced was a problem. We had no choice but to eliminate her.”

“So you killed her. And the next day, you were monsters. And you mean to tell me that you didn’t believe killing her might have caused this whole mess?”

“Of course we thought it was the cause!” Three Leaf’s eyes flashed in bright red. “But allowing her to stay would have ruined everything. We should have found a way to just keep her out of the town… it was the killing itself that did this. It had nothing to do with the mark!”

“Keep telling yourself that.” I stood up and tried the door behind me. It opened without any difficulty. “I’m getting Mitta and leaving. She had nothing to do with this. She doesn’t deserve to be locked up with the rest of you.”

“Oh, she deserves it,” Three Leaf replied as I turned around. “She did nothing to stop it. I’d say she deserves it even more than the rest of us. She didn’t try to stop us, or to warn Ruby. She just turned the other way.”

This was a bit of a different conflict than most I’d ever been involved in, and one of the rare occasions where the person I was supposed to be fighting was equally as willing to talk with me as I was to them. This pony was male, as was made plain by the square snout and his voice. There were only two possibilities as to who it might be, but I was certain that the pony talking with me was Grey Hoof. I found it odd that the leader of Sunny Town would not be trying to stop SkyJagged from interfering again, but ultimately, it was for the better that he be more intent on me.

“You’re a colt of science, I’ve noticed,” he said. “It’s an impressive feat, using things most ponies don’t understand to help others. But didn’t you notice that that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for all this time?”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand that,” I replied. “Killing someone harmless doesn’t seem to relate to protecting your friends. I would like to know your reasoning.”

“It’s simple,” Grey Hoof replied, walking in circles around me. I had noticed that the forest had become much darker, and I could no longer see or hear Mr. Leech nearby. Clearly, this curse on the ponies living here also affected those who visited. “The girl was going to ruin our party. We were celebrating our freedom from oppression, and yet she appeared and brought it back. And she insisted on staying until it had returned.”

“I can respect a need for freedom from authority,” I answered, tracking him with my screwdriver. “That still doesn’t explain why you had to kill her.”

“Because she would not leave.” Grey Hoof stared back at me with a set of hollow eye sockets that glowed in a dark scarlet. “You really believe we didn’t try to get her to leave? She simply refused to accept that we wanted our marks gone. And trying to keep her away from the town would not work. Her talent was to find things, and that would have included ways back in. Can’t you see our dilemma?”

“There had to have been another way. Can’t you see that what you have done is hurting those you care about?”

“Every day.” Grey Hoof stopped pacing and watched me. “My story is one of misery and despair, and it has spread to my friends. But despite this, you and I are not so different.”

“I am nothing like you!” I snapped. “I do not kill under false presumptions! I do not go around attacking other people!”

“Please, Doctor.” Grey Hoof stopped in mid-stride, and I slowed to keep my distance. No matter what happened, I had to keep my distance, as SkyJagged had said. “Let me continue.”

I didn’t offer any further objections, and so he started his explanation again. “You use the methods available to you to ensure happiness to your friends. To all of your kind, in fact. I am the same way. But you, Doctor, have never been too late to stop something catastrophic; never had to bring happiness to those friends in the face of an event that was beyond your power to fix. So, then, let me ask you something, sir… what would you do in that situation?”

His argument was well-founded. It was difficult to see fault in someone who had only wanted the best for his fellows. But there was one very critical flaw in his argument. “I would do what I could to find the best in the situation. Granted, there is no good in your curse,” I continued as I noticed Grey Hoof’s jaw move, preparing to speak. “so I would only be able to do one thing: to search for a way to repair the damage as well as possible.”

“Precisely.” Grey Hoof nodded. “That is what I have been doing for a thousand years. Searching for any possible way to end this curse. There was only one way I could think of: redemption. For years, we examined our feelings about the killing. Every one of us was filled with regret for taking another life. Even trying to defend ourselves was no excuse. But even accepting that, we could not move on. The curse was endless, something that we could not be freed from until the end of time. Perhaps not even then. And then, one night, another pony wandered into our town.”

I had heard this story already, of course, during SkyJagged’s nightmare interview. But, out of respect, I allowed Grey Hoof to recount it. “The little filly who we now know as Apple Bloom wandered into our town. We still have no idea what led her to us, but it was a blessing. We could at last get help from somepony, understanding from a living soul. But she was only a filly; we had to tell her the whole story slowly. We tried to be calm, to keep her from getting suspicious. But then Mitta had to go and ruin the whole thing. She didn’t even realize it, I think. But her jabberings about how ‘this is not right, the same thing over and over again’ worried the little filly. And then, she found the old hut.”

This was, of course, where the murder had taken place. It was, therefore, the sole reason that little Apple Bloom and SkyJagged had learned the truth about this place. “Needless to say, we could no longer pretend that nothing was wrong. Our disguises were shattered by the knowledge that she had found, so the only thing we could do was attempt to reason with her in secret. But once she saw Three Leaf, she ran. It was all too much. We had waited so long for the chance to right the horrible thing we had done, and that chance was quickly slipping away. To make matters worse, Mitta got in our way, actually helping her to escape, as if she wanted this curse to go on.”

It was a total load. I knew better than to think that Mitta could ever want something as painful and depressing as this curse to last. They knew it, too. This was all just a trick to get us off our guards. So far, they’d managed to separate me from Doc. They wouldn’t pull off any more than that. Still, though, it made sense that they would want somepony to understand. This new story only left me with two questions.

“Then tell me something, Ronio,” I said as my powers flickered again. Throughout the fight, I had been copying Starlet’s power, using her speed to help defend Doc and me at the exit. But somehow, my powers were starting to fail. The copy had started to fade in and out almost instantly, which left me vulnerable for a second before it returned. Luckily nopony had gotten to me yet, but it could happen at any time. “Why bring us all here? What was the point of getting us all into the forest?”

“It’s because Mitta wouldn’t tell you the whole truth,” Ronio answered, his red eyes tracking me. “We think it might be because she didn’t believe us. Even you don’t seem to trust us. But it’s the truth. No matter what you may think, we only want this to stop.”

“So what happens now that we know the truth?” I asked.

“You can help us lift the curse. We don’t know how yet, but it’s the only explanation. You have to understand in order for us to be set free.”

“What gave you that idea?”

“Mitta did.” Ronio turned his head, staring off into the distance to a place I couldn’t see. “When she and SkyJagged were transported out of the forest, they were guided by some sort of pure power. But there was something else. We could see a connection between them in just those few seconds, something that had never happened before. They could understand each other, heart and soul. It took understanding and compassion for her to escape.”

“But she’s not free.” He seemed honest enough, but like Jag had told us, the curse had messed with their heads. Even the smartest stuff they said had some sort of problem with it. “She’s still cursed. All she could do was leave the forest.”

“It’s the first step. Having somepony understand has to be the first part of setting us free. It might take a long time, but now that you’re here, we have the chance to break this curse.”

Time for the critical question, then. “Then why’d you try to keep them here? You wanted to keep A.B. and Jag from ever leaving. How can you expect them to understand if you try to turn them into one of you?”

“Now that it’s passed, we think it was two things. First, that when they found the fire, it forced us into appearing as what we really are, which also pushed us into the old mindset that anypony with a cutie-mark is dangerous. We wanted to keep them here so that they would never be ‘tainted’.” He sniffed. “I don’t care about that anymore. All I want is for Starlet and me to be free. If a pony with a cutie-mark can get us there, that’s just fine with me.”

“Yeah? And what’s the other thing?”

“That it would be easier for you to understand if we let you go.” Ronio stepped towards me. I backed away, but my rump hit a tree. He stopped, though, apparently noticing that I didn’t want him to come closer.”

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. “I’m just trying to show you that I’m sincere. When SkyJagged gets back, we’re going to let you leave. We just want you to help us.” He raised a hoof, offering it to shake. “Please?”

I sat on the floor of the old hut for a long time, unable to think of anything to say. When I could finally speak, all that came out was, “How?”

The fireplace burned brightly, and the skull inside only stared at me blankly, offering no reply. The fire had been kindled a little differently this time; now, instead of one set of bones, there were two. They had destroyed Mitta in the fire.

“She was the reason this whole thing became a mess.” Three Leaf was sitting behind me. Under normal circumstances, I probably would’ve panicked at being trapped in the room with her. But seeing Mitta in this state was devastating. “If she hadn’t been so emotional, believing that we never deserved a chance to be set free, then you two wouldn’t be afraid of us. We might have already moved on, by now.” She paused for a minute. “We did this to keep her from interfering again.”

My whole body shook. Despite everything I had gone through, they had killed my best friend. Worse than that, she had also been their friend, for many years. Whether or not they liked her anymore, she had still been a part of their lives for all this time. And they had killed her. “You expect me to understand… after what you did to her?”

She couldn’t be dead. She just couldn’t.

Three Leaf sighed. “No, honestly, I don’t. It was an act of impulse, just like trying to stop you and the little filly from leaving. And they’re actions we can’t take back. All we want is for this to stop. To be free. Maybe we even did her a favor; maybe she’s in a better place.”

I stared into the fire, my mood still darkening. The skeleton stared out at me, equally as dismal. This whole expedition had been for nothing. For all I knew, they still didn’t want us to leave, and this was all a clever game to trick us.

A white light flickered in the fire. For a second, I thought I had imagined it. But, right in front of  me, Mitta’s remains shuddered, and then collected themselves as best they could in the cramped space of the fire. The orange tongues of flame moved away from her body, and I could see the same red light in her eyes as in the others. With shaky steps, the skeleton pulled itself out of the fire, and then collapsed in front of me. From a shorter distance, I could see that almost nothing remained except her bones. The red light flickered in her eyes, as if she was trying to tell me something. But then they went out, and all that was left in front of me was a pile of bones.

“So she is still here,” Three Leaf said. There was another pause. “At least you have your friend back. That’s more than we can say. All of our friends are long gone. Our families, our heritage, and our very lives. All gone. Don’t you understand? We don’t want to live like this. We don’t want to live forever. Can’t you find a way to stop this?”

“I don’t care about what you want,” I said, staring at the bones. Mitta’s message had gotten through, all right. I still couldn’t trust them. No matter how convincing they tried to be, I couldn’t let myself be fooled. “You’re still willing to kill to get what you want. You’re no different now than you were a thousand years ago. Now, you’re saying you’re willing to let me and my friends go. Fine, then! I’m testing that theory. We’re leaving.”

I got to my hooves, but before I could move, Three Leaf stopped me, putting a hoof on my shoulder. “Take a look, then, SkyJagged, before you go.”

Her touch didn’t hurt me like I thought it would. Instead, it showed me the entrance of the forest, where the Doc and Leech were still facing off against the other Nightmares. But instead of fighting, they were both talking to Three Leaf’s comrades. Just talking. And others were moving in behind them. They were being distracted until they were caught.

“You stay away from them,” I growled, but my horror at watching the rest of my friends fall destroyed any strength in the order.

“We just want them to understand,” Three Leaf said. “Why can’t you?”

“You’re going to kill them,” I said. “You’re going to sneak up behind them and kill them.”

Three Leaf shouted, sounding exasperated. “Fine! For the sake of argument, let’s say that’s what we’re doing. We’re still killers. We’re planning on hurting you. How did this happen, SkyJagged? How did they get into the position they’re in now? You brought them here. You made this whole thing an argument about protecting your friends. If you’re so willing to keep your friends safe, then tell me: whose fault is it that they are where they are? If we’re the ones who’ve betrayed who we really are, then what does that make you? In trying to save one of your friends…”

I knew what she was going to say before she even said it. “…you doomed them all.”

The pain started up, just as soon as I realized what I had done. Three Leaf was right. In my selfish desire to help Mitta, I had willingly walked into a trap, leaving my friends to fend for themselves while I tried to finish a lost cause. Mitta had already been long gone. But I had stubbornly refused to let her go, and now my friends were going to suffer for it. I don’t know what came over me in that moment, but something drove me to grab Mitta’s remains in my forelegs and fly from the old shack, completely slamming my way past Three Leaf and into the forest outside.

Somehow I was able to keep flying against the pain, even as it spread from my shoulder through the rest of my body. When it struck my mind, I was already moving without thinking. It was less unbearable now than it had been in my dreams, but that was probably because I already knew that everything I loved was lost forever. My spirit was being destroyed, but I no longer cared.

I thought over his idea again. Everything he was talking about made sense, except for the part where I was standing in the forest alone. So long as I couldn’t see or hear the others, I just couldn’t trust them. End of story.

“If you’re so willing to let us go, then why did you divide us all up? You got Jag to go off by himself, and somehow you got the Doc and me separated. This is a game, and I ain’t buying. You want to get me to understand you? First you gotta prove I can trust you.”

Ronio’s eyes flashed brightly, and the forest around me actually started to vibrate, as if the trees themselves were under his control. The whole area brightened just a little bit, but in the better light I could see that Starlet had been standing right next to Ronio this whole time. If she had snuck up on me, I might have been…

But I was still in disguise as her, with the shape still fluctuating in and out. She would have had to time the attack carefully. Maybe she just wasn’t smart enough to do something like that.

The Doc spoke up behind me. “Glad to see you are still present, Mr. Leech,” he said, drawing my attention just long enough for me to glance back at him. “Where have you been?”

“In the dark, talking to Roneo.” A thought came to mind. “Same with you, huh?”

“Actually, my companion was Grey Hoof,” he said. “But that is strange. Why would they separate us?”

“Simple. They want to get to us. Ain’t that right?” I turned my head back to face Ronio and his girlfriend. But neither of them had an answer for me. Instead, they had turned to face the clearing that Jag had charged into. Their odd change of attention gave me a sinking feeling. “Doc?” I asked, following their stare. “You haven’t figured out how to fix this curse, have you?”

“I’ve only received suggestions from Grey Hoof,” he answered. “And his ideas are not direct.”

“Then we have a problem,” I said, leaning in low to the ground. “Get ready to dodge.”

“Why?” the Doc stepped up behind me, still facing toward Grey Hoof. But when he looked where I was looking, he got the point. “Oh, dear.”

A Pegasus was bearing down on us, fast. In the darkness, it was impossible to see Jag’s bright green mane against a bright blue coat. But even if it had been brighter, he would have looked just as black as he did from this distance. After all, his eyes had turned red.

SkyJagged was one of them.

“You guys are going to pay for this,” I growled, looking around. The other zombies had started to close in on us, and now that we were up against an army, as well as one fast pony and another with wings, we were pretty much doomed. “Doc, we’d better go. I think we can find a way to get him back if we go find a Unicorn who’ll help us.”

“There is just one problem with that idea,” he answered. “It seems the stone has moved back while we were chatting with our new friends.”

“What?!” I whirled back to make sure he wasn’t pulling my leg. To my misery, he wasn’t. The stone was back exactly where it had been when we first came into the forest. Only now we were trapped on the other side, with the ones who were trying to kill us.

“I think we’ve established that it will be impossible to understand their reasoning,” the Doc said. “They have dragged us into the forest using Mitta as blackmail, claimed to wish us no ill will, and are now closing in on us. Perhaps they are all suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder as a result of this curse…?”

“Doc!” I yelled, trying to get him out of his scientific junk. “Thinking later, we have to get out of here first!”

I turned around just in time to see Jag up close. His entire coat had gone black, his wings looked ragged, and even his mane had gotten a lot more messy than it usually looked. And of course, he had the hollow red eyes to match the rest of them. It was freaky to see him with that dark look in his eyes, but my instincts kicked in before I froze up, and I double-stepped to one side, calling out to Doc, “Look out!”

He got the warning. I didn’t hear the jump as Jag whizzed right past me, but even before I turned around I could hear him landing on the ground. I moved up next to him, ready to pummel any of the zombies nearby before they could get to us. The Doc stood up, staring at the ground next to him. “Leech,” he said. “Look.”

He was pointing to something lying there. I followed his hoof and saw a little pile of something sitting in the dirt. A few of them looked like sticks, but when I noticed the big, round part on top, I knew exactly what it was.

“Bones,” I hissed, shuddering. “Is that who I think it is?”

“I believe so,” he said. “I think that’s Mitta.”

“Oh, you are all so dead!” I roared, turning back around and getting ready for an attack. By now, though, I was having a lot more trouble keeping up my form as Starlet. I think the lack of positive emotion in the area was making it hard to keep up my strength.

“I’m blinking out,” I warned him as he faced out opposite to me, his screwdriver still clamped in his teeth. “I won’t be able to fight them off for much longer.”

“I’m not certain the screwdriver will be of any use for much longer, either,” he said. There was a pause as we braced ourselves for the inevitable. “I’ll admit, I was not hoping for this outcome.”

I snorted. “You and me both. Jag was our friend, and we were stupid enough to follow him into this death trap. Then he lost us completely.” We had switched positions now, so I could see Jag pacing toward us from the entrance, his eyes glowing as brightly as the rest. Along with his color, I could see now that his cutie-mark was gone, just like it had disappeared in Midnight Shadow’s office. “Just wait, I’m sure he’ll even be the first to get to us.” I noticed that the others still weren’t moving. Strange that they weren’t taking part, but for the moment, one alone was enough for us to deal with.

“This was a poor plan, yes,” he said. There was another moment of silence. “But I don’t regret coming along. It was with good intentions that we all came here. What happens next is of no importance.”

“Yeah,” I said, watching as Jag moved closer. My powers had now gone into critical, and if I wanted to stay awake, I would have to stop using my disguise. Grudgingly, I let my only defense go, and returned to my true form. “Yeah, you’re right. I’m not sorry, either. At least we got to have an adventure.” I thought about that for a minute. “Always wanted to go out having fun, anyway.” Not that there was anything remotely fun about this.

I watched Jag move closer and closer. With each step, he seemed to get slower and slower, the wait for our deaths dragging on painfully. And then Jag stopped completely. I blinked, wondering what had happened. “Doc? Did you do something?”

“Time has stopped,” he said in wonder. “Something has frozen them.”

“I did,” a mare’s voice spoke up in the dark atmosphere. This one, though, seemed peaceful, and nothing about it made me worry. As we stood there, wondering what could possibly have happened, a bright light appeared nearby, making it impossible to see the others. Not even the trees were visible anymore as the light began to turn into something else. It became a pony, a mare, from the look of her. She had a blonde mane that ran down to her shoulders, and a gray coat just like Mitta’s. She even had glowing eyes, like the others, but hers were a bright yellow. I could see a cutie-mark on her flank, but it was hard to see it from the front. That wasn’t what bothered me, anyway.

“It’s you, isn’t it?” I asked. “You’re the pony they killed. Ruby.”

“Yes.” The ghost- it couldn’t have been anything else- nodded her head. “I’ve been here ever since that fateful night, but most of them couldn’t notice me. It’s been a while since I had to do something like this.”

“You have stopped the flow of time,” said Doc, from right next to me. Apparently, he was standing beside me now, even though neither of us had moved. Maybe this was another one of those things that Ronio and Grey Hoof had been doing a minute earlier, to confuse us.

“Yes,” Ruby said again. “It’s something I didn’t know I could do until a few seconds ago. But that isn’t important.” She walked toward us, her serious expression brightening a little. “There is still a chance for you to escape. I can help you to get out of the forest.”

“Escape?” I asked, squinting at her. “How? What’s in it for you?”

“I want nothing more than to see you leave safely. Right now, you have two options. I can either move the stone for you, as I did when you needed to get in, so that you can get out.” Her face drooped, and I could guess why. “Leaving Jag and Mitta behind?” I asked.

“Yes.” She looked up, her eyes now hard and determined. “If you do this, then you will never see them again.”

“Then what is the other option?” the Doc asked. “What is your other plan?”

“This will be far more difficult, and it ultimately depends on the strength of both Mitta and SkyJagged, but we may still be able to save them.”

“Both?” I glanced between the two of them. “Wait a minute, Mitta’s gone, isn’t she? We saw her bones right there in front of us. If she’s still alive, she would have come back by now, wouldn’t she?”

“They burned her in the fire, the same way they did to me,” Ruby answered, making the same sad face. Her emotions seemed to be jumping around, but I guess it was probably fair. This was a strange situation for both Doc and me, so it was probably the same for her. “Mitta’s spirit is still here,” she continued, “deep in the darkness. If you decide to stay, I will enter her remains and try to bring her back. I’m certain that she is suffering, possibly even delusional, and so she may not be willing to wake up. If that happens, I will have to open the door for you. There is no way to save them unless both Mitta and SkyJagged are cooperative.”

“We understand,” the Doc answered. “What will happen if she wakes up?”

“If she does, then I will enter SkyJagged’s body and attempt to bring him back. This will be even more difficult, because he is now directly at odds with himself. He, too, is suffering, because he believes that his actions have hurt you.”

“Well, they kinda have.” I looked at the ground, feeling a little guilty for calling him out like that. “But that’s not important!” I added. I looked back up, facing the two of them while I thought up what to say next. “We came here because we wanted to help. He didn’t drag us into it, and we can’t just give up on him. Not then, not now.”

“Well said.” Doc nodded his head and turned back to Ruby. “What exactly can you do to bring him back?”

“SkyJagged’s soul has been clouded by the effects of the curse in this town,” said Ruby. “Because of this, like them, he has forgotten who he truly is. It will take some effort, but if I am able to make him see reality, even for a moment, and realize that the three of you are unharmed, and again, if he will not think it is an illusion, then he will wake up.”

“Well, what about the others?” I asked. “Even if we can bring them back, what happens then? Won’t Grey Hoof and his pals just attack us themselves?”

“The five of them have been… ‘reset’… for lack of a better word,” Ruby answered. She looked down at the ground. “Whenever they make a mistake, like hiding the truth from Apple Bloom and SkyJagged, or spreading the curse to SkyJagged, their minds are affected by the curse. They forget any good intentions and start to become violent. But I believe if we can correct this mistake, they may settle down again, and keep their promise not to harm you.”

“That’s a huge gamble,” I muttered as I sat back on my flanks and rubbed a hoof against my forehead. “First, hoping that Mitta will wake up. Second, hoping that Jag will wake up. Third, hoping that everypony else will wake up. This is a great big nightmare.”

“Then… you are giving up?” Ruby asked.

That got my attention immediately. I lowered my hoof and glared at her, annoyed that she would even think that. “Absolutely not. I came here because I wanted to do my part to make sure the two of them would never have to suffer again. From the sounds of it, they’re even worse off now than they ever were before. That’s getting fixed if I have anything to say about it.”

“Agreed.” Doc stepped forward. “My life is devoted to correcting anomalies in the timeline. Sunny Town is an unfortunate effect of several mistakes that these ponies have made. It is my duty to ensure that no such errors damage time as it ought to be. There is no question that SkyJagged, at least, does not belong here. I am also here to make sure that this problem is put to an end.”

“I was hoping you would say that,” Ruby said. Her eyes brightened, and she offered a radiant smile. “Then, you will stay to help them?”

“Plan B, Ruby,” I said, giving her my own smile. “Until those two are free, we’re gonna fight.”

Another terrible scream split my head. Even curled up as I was, there was nothing I could do to prevent the onslaught of images and sounds assaulting my mind. I could repeatedly see SkyJagged, Leech, and the Doctor being attacked, maimed, and left to die in ever-more-horrifying manners. Mixed in with the images were their voices, begging for my help; asking me why it was all happening.

“I don’t know!” I screamed, clutching at my ears. Tears ran down my cheeks in unending cascades, being the only thing I could do to try to cope with the agony. “Stop! Make it stop!”

The terrible visions would not go away. I could not even begin to guess how long I had been trapped in this awful, unending nightmare, but it seemed like it had started since Ruby’s death. Only now, it had become something that filled my mind entirely.

The wails and images continued to flood my thoughts, no matter how hard I closed my eyes. I had been fooling myself to think that I could be happy; I had instead brought three other ponies into the town to be murdered. My sin was trying to look the other way and ignore what pain my actions would bring to others. I had only realized it after it was too late.

“Mitta…” a voice called, among all the others. It was a girl’s voice, one I recognized as Ruby’s. Now thoughts of her death filled my mind along with those of my friends. I recoiled from it, trying to curl up even tighter, but nothing worked to still my suffering. It was, after all, what I deserved. I continued to cry, surrendering myself to the punishment I could not escape.

“Mitta,” Ruby’s voice said, stronger this time than before. I sobbed again, trying to shut her voice out. The thought of hearing her voice was more fearful than anything else. I could not bear to hear the voice of the pony who I had ignored since I learned of the danger she was in, could not bear the condemning note in every word she said, no matter how gentle.

“Mitta. Open your eyes.”

I trembled, fighting the urge to obey the voice. “No!” I screamed again. “You are not real! You are a dream! Go away!”

Something touched my shoulder, and I recoiled again. Until now, I had not felt anything actually touch me. It was a sign that these terrible visions were becoming much, much worse.

“Mitta, I am here. It’s really me. Please, open your eyes.”

“No! You are only another nightmare! You will hurt me, just like all the others! Stay away from me!”

“Mitta!” Ruby yelled. “You can still save them! They are not gone yet!”

The shock of her statement made me open my eyes, whether or not I wanted to. I was instantly met by even more vivid images of my friends’ deaths, and I instantly closed my eyes, screaming once more. “Lies!” I yelled. “They are gone, and you are a trick! Leave me alone!”

I felt something touch my face and turn it forward. “Mitta, open your eyes and look at me. You have to listen! Please… they need your help.”

“You are a trick,” I sobbed. “Leave me alone!”

“They are alive. You must open your eyes and listen to me… Please, Mitta.

“……I forgive you.”

Her last comment shocked me into opening my eyes again. The nightmarish images swirled in the edges of my vision, and the screams still filled my ears. Before me was Ruby, staring at me with golden eyes as bright and ominous as the red eyes I could always see in myself and the other ponies. She was looking down on me. She didn’t forgive me at all.

Another scream echoed, and I started to turn away, but Ruby held me, refusing to let me look away. “Focus on me, Mitta. You must hear what I have to say. You can still save them, Mitta. You have to wake up.”

“You are not real,” I cried, the tears still flowing from my eyes. “Ruby would never forgive me for what I’ve done!”

“Mitta,” she answered, smiling gently at me. “You, Grey Hoof, Three Leaf… I have forgiven all of you. You must forgive yourself. And you must save your friends. If you hide in here, you will suffer forever. You deserve more than this. Think of the truth, Mitta. You are the Element of Honesty. What makes you believe that you do not deserve a second chance?”

“I have only brought pain to others!” I shouted back to her. “If you are the real Ruby, then you know the terrible things I have done! I ignored you, I turned my back on the warnings in SkyJagged’s nightmares, and I brought him and his friends here to die!”

“Mitta, you are his closest friend. He came back here because he would not let that happiness die. The three of them were not brought here by you. They came because they care about you. And you must show the same care for them. Don’t you see that?”

Her words felt truer than anything I had heard in many long years. But I resisted them. I had to. “I could not bear to cause them more grief,” I said. “If I come back to them, I will only cause them pain.”

“You are wrong, Mitta,” Ruby answered. “If you try to ignore them, they will suffer as much as you are, now. They want you to come back, and the only thing that is keeping you from returning is your fear of hurting them. The only thing hurting them is that you refuse to return to them. Mitta, you must wake up. You must help them. If you do not, then they will suffer.”

Ruby released me and stepped closer. The terrifying images filled my thoughts again, and then were suddenly erased. Ruby was hugging me tightly, in a fond embrace I had felt from only one other pony. The feelings of warmth and love calmed me now just as they had then, and I sighed, accepting the hug as it washed away my pain.

“Wake up, Mitta,” Ruby said again. “You three are the only ones who can bring him back. You have to wake up.”

I opened my eyes once more. There was no denying that I had been sleeping for some time, because I was outside of the fireplace, back in the forest. I saw Leech and the Doctor standing above me, watching me intently. It was very dark.

“Mitta!” Leech called out. “Mitta, can you stand?”

It took a few seconds for me to speak. I gathered myself together, but it was very difficult to stand. My body felt weak and frail, and I could hardly bring the bones in my body together the way I could before. “I will try,” I said, struggling to get my feet under me. The fire had apparently damaged me greatly; much of my flesh and muscle had been burned away, leaving nearly nothing but the skeleton. I was finally able to stand, but my body trembled, ready to fall apart again at any moment. “Where is SkyJagged?”

“He’s behind you,” Leech answered, pointing with a hoof. “He’s been changed. We have to wake him up.”

I turned carefully, trying to keep from collapsing. As Leech had said, SkyJagged was standing just behind me, though now he was as black and fearsome as the rest of us, blackened by the curse, his eyes hollow and red. “No,” I whined, starting to back away. “I was right… he is suffering!”

My hindquarters bumped against Leech’s legs, and the Changeling pushed me forward. “He’s not gone, Mitta,” he said. “He’s just sleeping. He thinks that it’s his fault all of this is happening.”

“No,” I said, shaking even more. “No, that is not true! The fault is mine, not his!”

“Lies!” the Doctor snapped, walking up beside me. “This is not your fault. This all happened because of a simple mistake. What we must do now is find the truth. Ruby claims that you are the only one who can do that. Therefore, you must be prepared to see what has truly happened, and not take the blame.” He looked at me sternly. “Mitta, you are our friend. Nothing will change that. It is high time you accepted that.”

I looked from him to Leech. Both of their faces carried the same determination, the same allegiance, and the same compassion as SkyJagged once did. As I saw this, I could feel the truth in it. This was no time to back down. As I had done when SkyJagged escaped from Sunny Town, I had to stand strong.

“All right.” I looked forward, where SkyJagged stood before us. A white glow passed over him, and I knew that Ruby had gone to try waking him up. He looked far more fearsome now that I could actually look at him, rather than turning away. The sight was terrible, but it was a lie. This was not the true SkyJagged, and it was time for him to wake up. The others stood behind me, supporting me all the way.

“This is not you, SkyJagged,” said the Doctor. “You must see that.”

“Snap out of it, dude. You’re still our friend; this town can’t break that.”

I stepped forward, placed a hoof on his chest, and looked deep into his eyes.

“SkyJagged. Please wake up.”

They stood like that for a few minutes. No one moved, and the only sounds in the forest were Doc’s and my own breathing. It seemed like Ruby’s time-freezing thing would last forever. But then Jag lowered his head, staring back at her. His hollow red eyes flickered, darkening to a shade of brown. Mitta gasped quietly, probably as surprised as we were. But Jag’s eyes turned back to red.

Mitta turned around slowly, her body still wobbling in a way that worried me. When she had finally finished facing us, she opened her mouth, mumbling in an odd voice, “Stay behind me and get down.”

Then her own eyes flickered, and she raised a hoof to her mouth, looking a little shaken, but it was hard to see the expression on a skeleton. Even still, I could guess what it meant, and I waved her back over to us.

Jag’s message was even more clear when he turned away from us, facing out to the other zombie ponies. Right on cue, the one right in front of him charged forward, rushing us at high speed. Jag’s wings spread slowly, and his front hoof drew back. The pony leaped toward us, and he flapped his black wings, pushing his body forward as he swung the hoof. The blow hit the zombie pony right in the head, strong enough to send it flying back where it had come from. It landed on the ground with a sickening crunch, making me think it had broken something on impact.

Jag stepped back and lowered his hoof to the ground. Just as he did, his body flashed in white, and in just that instant, all of the color returned to his coat, and the bright red shield cutie-mark returned to his flank. With the authority of a military pony, he shouted, “Stay away from them, Grey Hoof!”

The zombie pony got to its feet, but I could see one of its hind legs was bent at a weird angle. “You can’t leave,” it said. “We need you here… to break our curse…”

        “You listen to me!” Jag snapped. “There is nothing we can do to break your curse. I know what you were all thinking by bringing us here, and the simple fact is that you’re wrong. No matter how many ponies you bring here, they will never be able to break your curse. You are the only ones who can do it.”

        Mitta stepped forward and opened her mouth. I had completely missed it, but somehow she was completely fixed- well, she was still a zombie, but now she looked just like she did when I first met her outside of Jag’s home. Most of her body was covered by a black coat, and her mane had returned. Just like Jag, she had been brought back!

        “There is only one thing here that is keeping you from being free,” Mitta said. I glanced back at her, grateful that she had come back for my sake. I had been so foolish, thinking that I had let her be hurt by the others. When Ruby had spoken to me, she told me one very specific thing: that we were only allowing the ponies of Sunny Town to hurt ourselves. Mitta and I had let ourselves be tricked by false logic. It was fear that had tricked Mitta into believing that she was worth nothing, and fear that had tricked me into believing that I had become something I was not. If it hadn’t been for Leech and Doc standing strong against Ronio and Grey Hoof, then none of us would still be standing here.

        Mitta spoke up again, with a firm voice I had never heard her use before. “We all knew that killing Ruby was a grave mistake. Despite that, we were all willing to go ahead with it, even me. That day, we betrayed everything that makes us ponies; we betrayed what we believed since the day we were born: that life is precious. When we moved here, we thought that by doing so we were keeping safe. But there is no worth in a life that is spent secluded from others, never sharing in the joy and sorrows of our fellows. I learned this the day that Apple Bloom and SkyJagged walked into Sunny Town, and you started to plan ways of keeping them here, either in mind or body. Ways to keep them from ever forgetting our town. But I knew that they did not belong here. Nothing good could come of trapping them with us. So I helped them to escape.”

        Mitta stepped forward, facing down all of the ponies around us. “We became what we are because we thought that we could be better than other ponies!” She spat on the ground. “Lies! We became far less than any of them just by thinking that. When we lost our cutie-marks, it was because we thought safety came before friendship. When we lost our lives, it was because we thought that that safety was worth taking the life of another. I was able to leave not because I understood that killing Ruby was wrong. I was set free because I knew that our very reason for leaving Canterlot was a lie! We could never be happy so long as we believed that we were safer alone than with others.” She paused. “So you stay here, believing that this is what you wanted. Or you can wake up to the truth. See that this was a mistake from the first day.” She turned and looked back at me. “As for me, I will go back to Ponyville, and live with my friends… where I belong.”

        Something in the forest changed at that moment. Everything became a little less dark. We could see things a little more clearly, now. Mitta changed appearances, shifting into the form of a normal pony. A few of the others changed, too, and I could recognize Three Leaf and Gladstone in the crowd. Five of them turned to talk to each other, while the others continued to stare at us abysmally. Finally, their discussion ended and they looked back at us.

        “You’ve given us a lot to think about, Mitta,” Grey Hoof said. I noticed that he hadn’t changed back into his normal self. “We’ll let you go. We aren’t going to trouble you again. Whether you’re right or not, we can’t keep you here and expect our curse to go away. So go. You aren’t welcome here any longer.”

        Grey Hoof and the others turned and walked away, back into the shadows of the forest. Only Three Leaf remained, and when Gladstone noticed it, he stopped and turned back as well. They looked at each other, and Gladstone spoke to us.

        “I’ve always been the one in the group to cheer everypony up,” he said. “For a thousand years, though, I could never find a way to make us feel any better. But you’ve all given us hope again. Maybe now we can finally move on. Even if we can’t, though… it’s good to finally have some clarity. Thank you.”

        Three Leaf smiled. “I didn’t want to betray my friends, so I went along with the plan to get rid of Ruby. Now I see that by doing that, I was really turning against them. Even though I thought I was being a friend, I was only helping them become… something they weren’t. We were all sorry for Ruby’s death, but now I understand that this went far deeper than that. I want to thank you, too.”

        I smiled. Even though Mitta wasn’t going to stay any longer as the voice of reason, I could see that the Sunny Town ponies were in good hands now that two others understood the truth. I opened my mouth to respond, but a bright light silenced me again. Ruby’s spirit appeared between our two groups, watching her old friends. She was smiling brightly. “I’m so happy,” she said. “I only wanted to help you find out what you needed to know. It’s been so long, and it might be a while before the others accept it, too, but now that I can see you, the way you were before, I know that there’s still hope.” She turned sideways, looking between us and her newly-reformed friends, still beaming. “Bless you all.”

        With that, she faded away. Three Leaf and Gladstone turned and walked away into the forest, also fading into the darkness until we could no longer see them.

        Something rumbled nearby, shaking the earth. The four of us were caught off-guard, and we turned toward the sound with excited nerves, expecting some other kind of trouble. What we found instead was the stone blocking our exit, rolled away again. We were free to leave. I grinned at the others, embarrassed by my jumpiness. Leech made a snide comment about what a wimp I was, and got a hoof to the face from Mitta. Doc and I laughed.

        We all left the forest talking together, feeling as lighthearted as if nothing had ever happened to cause us grief.

        For one last time, we left Sunny Town.


        It’s been a while now since that whole mess finally came to an end. I haven’t seen or heard from the Doc in a while, so that crazy TARDIS thing of his probably teleported him somewhere into the future to fix some other problem. Leech still visits – quite a lot now, actually. I’m sure that his need for love to survive is a little greater now that he used up so much energy helping to defend himself and the Doc from the ponies at Sunny Town. I never expected to hear from them again, either, but on occasion, Three Leaf or Gladstone will visit me in my dreams to discuss what happened, what sort of ponies in Ponyville stuck out at them (they can still see things through Mitta; I think part of the reason they can’t move on is the fact that they’re all connected), and even some ponies that they want me to look out for. They truly are the good ponies they once were, a thousand years ago.

        …… I’ve figured out something that the others may or may not have, but now that I’ve asked them, they all agree, and I’m sure the Doc will, too, if I ever get the chance to tell him. What I’ve learned is that we all represent an Element of Harmony. Some, if not all of us, represent more than one, maybe even all of them. After all, it was my loyalty to my friends that made me charge in to save Mitta, and the feeling that I’d betrayed them that corrupted me for a while. Doc’s use of science, although most ponies think of it as magic, to solve problems, most closely represents that final element. And it was Leech’s generous desire to hear out my problem, and also to give his time to make sure it was resolved, that drove him. Mitta’s connection to the Element of Honesty helped her to show the truth to her friends. It was their loyalty to Mitta, and from them to me, that saved us both from desolation. And when we left the forest, sharing laughs and joy with each other, it meant at least a touch of the Element of Laughter.

        The point is, we all carry the Elements of Harmony in our spirits. As Mitta, Three Leaf, and Gladstone figured out, we’re not meant to keep that harmony to ourselves. It ruins the whole point. We exist to share the wonderful joys of those elements in the way we live our lives, among other ponies. If we try to ensure joy in our own lives by closing out all others, we’ll only end up as miserable wrecks. Only by living that joy with others can we achieve something greater than ourselves. That’s how we can really be happy, and the way we can bring harmony to everyone, not just family, close friends, or our own personal being.

        So get out there and shine.

        The End