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When Twilight Sparkle hits a wall in her research on Princess Celestia, a new face in Ponyville gives her the spark she needs to overcome it. But after his arrival, ominous events are set into motion. Soon, Twilight must choose her side in a conflict that will decide Equestria's fate.
by Tony “GaryOak” Genovese
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|| Prologue & I || II || III || IV || V || VI || VII ||
by Tony “GaryOak” Genovese
From here, she could see everything.
Stretched before her far below was the whole of the fertile valley that made up the heart of Equestria, from the dark clot of vegetation at the southern end of the Everfree Forest, to the golden wheat fields surrounding Canterlot. Yet, as she gazed over the land, she knew that what she could not see was more important. Twilight Sparkle was waiting for something, but it did not concern her that she didn’t know exactly what it was.
How did I get here? The idea floated around in the back of Twilight's mind, unable to force its way into her consciousness. Still waiting, Twilight shifted her weight, causing a couple of rocks to clatter down a steep slope. Twilight looked at the ground beneath her hooves, seeing nothing but black rock as the ground fell off sharply before her. I'm on the peak of a mountain, then, she thought vaguely. She went back to waiting and watching.
The idea came back, stronger this time. Why in the name of Celestia am I on the peak of –
An enormous explosion in the valley below shattered her train of thought, and caused her dark purple mane to flap wildly despite the distance. A rainbow, which seemed to originate from the same place, overwhelmed her field of vision. As her sight cleared, a pair of new light sources drew her attention. The first came from a tower in Canterlot Castle.
It intensified in a titanic surge of unrestrained magic. “I... I recognize that light!” gasped Twilight. But that's impossible... This happened over ten years ago! But... if I'm there in Canterlot... how am I here now?
The second light source began to grow more distinct in Twilight's peripheral vision: it was coming from Ponyville. As she turned toward it, her jaw dropped and her heart began to race. Ponyville was in flames. A thick purple cloud of noxious fumes rose from the inferno, spreading like a disease. Twilight's eyes widened as the fire spread, faint laughter reaching her ears upon the breeze.
The wind carrying the mysterious laughter began to pick up, blowing the purple smog in Twilight's direction. An icy chill overwhelmed her heart, and Twilight screamed as the smog continued to gain momentum, drawing closer with each passing second. Lighting her horn, she launched a bolt toward the oncoming smog, praying that her efforts would at least slow it. The spell had no effect; the purple cloud consumed it much like everything else in its path. With no time to escape or prepare another defense, Twilight gritted her teeth and braced for impact.
A split second before the smog made contact with its prey, the howling gale whistled in her ears and formed words. “You've got such potential... the likes of which I have not seen in thousands of years...” The ethereal words caused Twilight to go stock still. “It would be such a waste if we didn't put it to use...” Before she could begin to comprehend the words' meaning, the cloud consumed her, and Twilight blacked out.
As she lay flat on her back, Twilight Sparkle's eyes shot open, her coat drenched with cold sweat. “What kind of a nightmare was that?” she panted, taking note of her blankets on the floor. Rubbing her eyes and shaking herself, she clambered out of bed and made her way down the library stairs. So preoccupied was Twilight with the dream that she didn't notice the wide-eyed baby dragon looking up at her from the foot of the stairs.
“Twilight, are you okay?”
Twilight blinked in surprise. Did she want to tell Spike about her dream? She yearned to get it off her chest, but didn't want to frighten her assistant. Normally, she would ignore such a dream. Nightmares came easily to her when she overworked herself; however, no other dreams had ended as ominously as this. The typical nightmares of Twilight Sparkle involved subpar friendship reports, misplaced books and the like.
What did the smog and the burning of Ponyville have to do with that fateful day when the Princess had taken her under her wing? And that voice. The memory of the disembodied voice made her hair stand on end. Twilight started as a small, clawed hand waving in front of her face cut into her thoughts.
“Earth to Twilight! Are you in there?”
“Sorry. Yeah, I'm fine,” mumbled Twilight.
Spike cocked an eyebrow. “Uh huh, fine.”
“Really, Spike,” she said, “I just had a bit of trouble getting to sleep, is all.”
Heaving a sigh, Spike stepped aside, giving Twilight a suspicious look as she ambled past him, heading straight for a nearby bookshelf. “Just give it up already,” he said, watching her examine each title in turn. “You're overworking yourself and you aren't getting anywhere.”
“No, Spike, the answers are here somewhere... I just know it,” grumbled Twilight, procuring a hefty red book from a high shelf.
Spike folded his arms. “Oh, come on,” he said as Twilight began flipping through the tome's pages. “I swear, you've been through every book in here already. You've done nothing but bury yourself in these stupid things.” He adopted a more concerned tone. “It's unhealthy, and your friends are starting to worry about you. Just drop it.”
Twilight shook her head vehemently. “I've come too far to give up now.”
“But why do you want to know about Princess Celestia's past so much?”
“We've been over this a hundred times,” snapped Twilight. “If I really want to impress the Princess and learn everything there is to learn about magic, I've got to learn everything there is to learn about her.”
Spike rolled his eyes at Twilight's rebuttal, a statement he had heard too often in the past few days. He spent the entire morning grumbling to himself while Twilight tore through book after book.
As the afternoon dragged on, Spike's patience reached its limits. “I need some fresh air,” he muttered, stomping off toward the door. A split second before his hand reached the knob, the door swung open and pinned him firmly against the wall.
“Twilight! Have you heard, have you heard, have you heard?”
Twilight slowly closed her eyes in and suppressed a groan. “No, Pinkie, I'm still trying to study, remember?” When she opened her eyes, the beaming face of Pinkie Pie, which had somehow found its way between her and her book, greeted her. “Gah!” She jumped back and inadvertently sent the book sailing across the room.
Pinkie began bouncing in circles around her. “No, no, no! You don't understand!” she pressed. “This morning, I saw a pony I've never seen before, and you know what that means!”
Twilight froze, knowing all too well what Pinkie was alluding to. “Are you positive this is a new pony?”
Pinkie nodded, her mane bouncing everywhere. “I recognize everypony in Ponyville, and I've never seen this one before! It looks like he just got here, too. He was wearing this old black cloak, all full of holes and patches and dirt. If that doesn't say 'I need Pinkie Pie to throw me a super-extra-special welcoming party', then I don't know what does!”
Spike, sensing an opening, quickly jumped in. “A party is exactly what you need, Twi!” He retrieved the book as he spoke. “Take a break for once. Please?”
Twilight sighed. “Fine, but only for a little while.” At this, Spike and Pinkie cheered in tandem. Although she would have preferred to remain in the library, she knew there would be no respite from Pinkie until she accepted Pinkie's invitation; she'd lived in Ponyville too long to not know better.
Beaming, Pinkie nodded at Twilight. “See you at Sugarcube Corner!” With that, she was gone, bouncing out the door and out of sight.
“Thanks, Twilight,” said Spike, patting her on the back.
Twilight frowned at Spike. “Do you think I had any other choice? You know how Pinkie gets; I wouldn't hear the end of it for weeks.”
Spike chuckled. “Good point.”
“Hopefully, if I stop in and say hi, she'll get out of my mane about this whole thing,” said Twilight. “When did she say it was, again?”
Spike shrugged. “She didn't. Knowing her, it's probably starting right now.”
Twilight shook her head. “That makes no sense at all, but because it's Pinkie, it makes perfect sense...”
Jumping for joy, Spike leapt out the door in Pinkie's wake. “Then what are we waiting for? Let's go!” Spike urged as he beckoned Twilight over.
Trudging after Spike, Twilight left the library, grumbling. She shut the door with a little too much force, causing a flowerpot to fall off the nearest windowsill. Startled, Twilight looked at the broken porcelain. Am I really that annoyed at being forced to go meet up with my friends? “Maybe you were right,” she said.
“Oh?” said Spike. “Go on.”
“These studies are starting to remind me of how I was back in Canterlot.” Twilight looked apologetically at Spike. “I think I was beginning to forget the most valuable thing Princess Celestia has ever taught me: make some friends.” Twilight stopped and hugged him. “I'm sorry, Spike. I'll try to be less obsessive about this from now on.”
Returning Twilight's embrace, Spike hummed with contentment. “Thanks, Twi. Let's have some fun. Who knows – maybe tomorrow, when you can come back fresh, you'll find something new.”
Twilight grinned at Spike and nodded before resuming the short trek across Ponyville to Sugarcube Corner. Whistling a tune, Twilight did her best to try to push the thoughts of her frustrating studies and the incredibly jarring dream from her mind.
As they turned a corner, a cloaked pony abruptly appeared from the shadows. As vague as Pinkie's description was, this stallion seemed to fit the bill perfectly. He had a short, tousled mane of green and teal. The cloak – and undoubtedly its wearer – had seen better days.
“Excuse me,” said the grey pony, “I just got finished talking to a rather... hyperactive earth pony. I didn't get everything she said, but I think I'm supposed to be at a place called Sugarcube Corner. Do you know where that is?” His hooves shifted uneasily on the road as he spoke.
Smiling at the stranger, Twilight waved. “Hi! I'm Twilight Sparkle and –”
The stallion, who looked only a few years older than Twilight, gasped at this. “Miss Sparkle!” he said, staring at her with his blazing orange eyes. “Forgive me if I was being rude. My name is Greyhoof,” he said with a slight bow.
Twilight cocked an eyebrow. “Twilight's fine. And how do you know my name?”
“You're actually the reason I came to Ponyville,” said Greyhoof, continuing to stare at Twilight. “I have traveled across the length and breadth of Equestria in pursuit of my studies. When I heard rumours that Princess Celestia's own pupil was here in Ponyville, I had to come and see for myself.” Smiling sheepishly, he continued. “I'd like to spend some time studying magic with you, if that's okay. I've seen many things, but I think you could teach me a thing or two.”
She couldn't quite put her hoof on it, but she found Greyhoof's eyes captivating. As he spoke, they seemed to burn with a sort of inner fire. “Wait, magic?” said Twilight, shaking herself. Greyhoof's last statement made Twilight do a double take, blinking in astonishment. That was when she noticed his horn, which seemed to be considerably larger than normal. She usually noticed things like that the moment she laid eyes on a new face. “Yeah, Sugarcube Corner... Actually, there's a party about to happen. A party welcoming you to Ponyville!”
Greyhoof blanched at this. A look of concern crossed Twilight's face. “Is something the matter?”
Greyhoof's eyes shifted from side to side. “I... detest parties.”
Spike walked up to Greyhoof and shook his head. “No no, you don't understand. This is Pinkie Pie we're talking about. Her parties are the best!”
“Regardless, I must decline,” sighed Greyhoof. “They're far too noisy and disorderly for my tastes.” Meeting Twilight's gaze once again, Greyhoof cleared his throat slightly. “I would much rather spend my evening studying than engaging in such a frivolous activity.”
Grinning, Twilight had a revelation. “You know, you remind me a lot of myself a few months ago.” Greyhoof's only answer was a mystified expression. “I'm actually not too fond of parties either, but you need to have some fun once in a while. It'll only be for a few hours. Then you can get back to studies in the morning.” Twilight winked. “I have a feeling we both need it.”
Greyhoof bit his lower lip. “This Pinkie Pie... is she always so... noisy?”
“You'll get used to it,” chuckled Twilight. “Let's get going. We'll be late.”
Spike hopped on Twilight's back and the two ponies were off. To Spike's disgust, the rest of the journey to Ponyville's bakery consisted of Twilight and Greyhoof avidly discussing the finer points of arcane spells.
“So you mean to tell me that you actually know of old unicorn combat?” said Greyhoof breathlessly, his apprehension about the party momentarily forgotten.
“I've never actually used it,” said Twilight modestly. “I do know how to do it, though, in theory.”
“So, have you practiced?” said Greyhoof. “I mean, igniting your horn and all that.”
“Only occasionally,” said Twilight loudly over Spike's pretend snoring. “I've never had anypony to spar with or anything, or a situation when I needed to know it. There's a reason why most unicorns aren't taught it outside of maybe Princess Celestia's Royal Guard.”
“Yes, of course.” Greyhoof nodded. “It can be quite dangerous if done correctly. Fascinating subject, and quite useful in a pinch.”
When they reached Sugarcube Corner, Greyhoof cringed as Twilight opened the door, revealing the bakery's teeming interior. His ears drooped slightly as the loud racket of the merrymaking ponies washed over him. He began to backpedal as his eyes darted between the multicoloured streamers and balloons that festooned the bakery. Greyhoof perked up momentarily when he noticed the wide assortment of delicious-looking pastries, but even his obvious hunger couldn't curb his pessimism for long. “Can we leave now?” he hissed under his breath.
“Leave? But you only just got here, silly!” said Pinkie, oblivious to Greyhoof's yelp of surprise at her materialization. She threw a hoof around his shoulders. “I know it's not up to my usual standards, but I did my best on short notice!”
Greyhoof groaned loudly. “Fine. Pinkie Pie, was it? Can I please speak with you regarding the noise?” He began sidling off to a corner of the room, unable to shake the pink pony clinging to him.
“Okey dokey lokey!” said Pinkie brightly, steering Greyhoof to another room. “We'll be back before ya know it!” And with that, both ponies disappeared into the crowd, a shower of confetti heralding their departure.
Twilight exhaled as she watched them go. “Oh, I hope those two can get along. Or, more accurately, he can get along with her,” she said to herself. Scanning the bustling room, she quickly spotted a familiar brown cowpony hat amongst the crowd. Nudging through the partying ponies, Twilight made her way to the corner of the room, taking care not to knock over any of the food-laden tables.
Applejack greeted Twilight with a broad smile and a wave. “Howdy, Twi! I was afraid you weren't gonna make it.” She tipped her hat. “So, who's this new pony Pinkie's been goin' on about?”
Afraid I wasn't going to make it? Blood began rushing to Twilight's face. “I guess I've been cooped up in the library a little too much lately, huh?” Trying to ignore Applejack's raised eyebrow, she continued. “I actually bumped into the new pony on the way here. His name is Greyhoof. It turns out he's actually here to study magic with me in Ponyville.”
Applejack gave her friend a wry smile. “Studyin' magic, hmm?”
“Yes, studying,” said Twilight firmly as Spike hopped off her back. “I haven't met another unicorn quite like him; he seems to know a great deal about magic. I think we could learn a lot from each other.” Twilight perked up. “I know! While he's here, he can help me learn about the Princess!”
Spike made a loud show of gagging, then stormed off past a pair of approaching pegasi when he realized nopony was paying attention to him.
Rainbow Dash entered the bakery and walked up next to Twilight. “What's with him?”
“Hi, Rainbow,” said Twilight. “Spike's been a little cooped up lately. I can't blame him, really. He'll be alright; he just needs some time to enjoy himself.” Looking past Rainbow, Twilight spotted Fluttershy cowering behind her friend. “Fluttershy? Are you okay?”
Rainbow facehoofed. “She's been acting like this all day. Something about her animals.”
Her eyes widening with concern, Twilight knelt down beside Fluttershy and spoke as softly as the noise of the party would allow. “What's wrong? Are your animals sick? Can I help?”
Fluttershy shook her head. “They're... they're gone,” squeaked the pegasus.
“Gone?” Twilight reared up in surprise, then paused, and frowned. “Are you... absolutely sure about that, Fluttershy? Hasn't this exact thing happened recently? You know, back when Spike was sixty feet tall and destroying the town, didn't you say that all the animals had disappeared?” She raised an eyebrow. “And didn't it turn out that all those missing animals had just been hiding in their homes?”
“Well... yes... but...” stammered Fluttershy.
“And didn't all of those animals show up a day later, like nothing had happened?”
“See, Fluttershy? Nothing to worry about!” said Rainbow, tossing a hoof around Fluttershy. “Whatever it is, it can't be that bad. Look, Fluttershy, if it means that much to you, I'll help you search in a couple of days if they haven't shown up.”
Fluttershy averted her eyes from Rainbow and squeaked.
Twilight shot Rainbow a disapproving glance. “What?” asked Rainbow, shrugging. “She was worrying herself half to death. This party’ll be good for her. And besides, you know what Pinkie's like when you refuse an invitation.” She made a circular motion with a hoof next to her head.
The bright voice of Pinkie Pie filled the air. “Thanks for coming, everypony!” she shouted from atop a cake-laden table. “Please give Greyhoof your best Ponyville welcome!” Pinkie's smile wavered as she noticed Greyhoof glowering at her. “Um... a little more quietly, if possible...”
The crowd of ponies stamped their hooves on the ground, showing their approval as Greyhoof beelined toward Twilight. Waving him over, Twilight called out to him: “Greyhoof! I'd like you to meet my other friends.” Enthusiastically indicating each of her companions as she spoke. “This is Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, and... wait a minute, where's Rarity?”
“I have no idea! I couldn't find her anywhere,” said Pinkie.
“That's not like her,” said Twilight.
“Wait a second,” said Applejack, “I ran into Sweetie Belle the other day when she was on her way to the main road.” She rubbed her chin with a hoof. “She mentioned something about her sister goin' into a right panic about an order for Hoity Toity...” Applejack nodded to herself. “Yeah, that was it. Sweetie was pretty upset; she said that Rarity shipped her off to her parents' place for a few weeks.”
Twilight groaned. “Great. Well, Greyhoof, with any luck, you might get to meet Rarity if you stay here for a month.” She offered Greyhoof an awkward smile.
“So, Grey,” said Applejack. “Twi's been tellin' me that you're here to study magic?”
Greyhoof's wandering eyes snapped to attention when he heard Applejack's question. “Oh, yes.” He nodded. “I've been traveling across the land, searching far and wide for knowledge of the magical arts ever since I was a colt. I... don't know how long I'll be staying here. This noise... I thought I told you to put an end to it, Pinkie.” He shot Pinkie a glare.
“It... is quite loud,” murmured Fluttershy, whose eyes had been fixated on the door the whole time.
“I did ask everypony to be a little quieter,” said Pinkie, rolling her eyes at Greyhoof. “But this is a party, silly. Parties are noisy. Just smile and have some fun!”
Greyhoof sat on his haunches and huffed. Applejack desperately tried to change the subject. “Hey, Twi, I've got an idea,” she said. “Why don't you come over to Sweet Apple Acres tomorrow?” Noticing Twilight's puzzled expression, she continued. “It's just been so long since I've seen ya, Twi. What with bein' cooped up in your library for so long and all. Besides, it's quiet, especially now that most of the entire Apple family is on vacation in Fillydelphia.”
“Quiet, you say?” said an intrigued Greyhoof. “Go on.”
“Well, it's a farm,” said Applejack slowly. “There ain't much more to it than the apple trees and what have you.”
Twilight suddenly began smiling widely enough to draw Greyhoof's attention. “I know! I can grab a stack of books and we can study outside!”
“Ugh,” groaned Rainbow as she facehoofed. “You eggheads... I swear to Celestia...”
Twilight giggled. “Want to join us, Rainbow? I can bring along a copy of Dar–”
“Not another word!” snapped Rainbow, her cheeks reddening.
“So, Greyhoof,” said Pinkie, “what's with the cloak?”
Applejack eyed the frayed hems and loose threads. “Personally, I like it, but I know Rarity'll have a heart attack when she lays eyes on it.” She chuckled. “Anyway, tell us a bit about yourself. I'm sure you've got loads of interesting stories, having been all over Equestria 'n' all.”
Greyhoof nodded. “Indeed. As I've said before, I have traveled for the majority of my life. I was raised in a library in a small town near Galloping Gorge.”
Pinkie laughed. “Never heard of it.”
“Pinkie!” reprimanded Twilight.
Greyhoof narrowed his eyes at Pinkie before he continued. “As I was saying, I was brought up by an old librarian couple. They weren't my parents, however; I've never met them... but that didn't matter to me. I was like the son they'd never had. It was at a very early age that I discovered my love of magic and knowledge, but at the same time, I felt empty inside.” He let out a whimsical sigh. “Simply reading the books wasn't enough for me. I had to experience them. So, I left when I was still just a little colt.”
Ignoring the rest of the party, which had escalated into a raucous game of pin-the-tail-on-the-pony, Greyhoof looked at his cloak with affection. “As for this thing, it's kept me warm on many a cold night spent on the road. It was given to me as a token of appreciation by the residents of a small town by Neighagra Falls. They were mercilessly under attack from a band of raiding griffons.” Greyhoof paused for dramatic effect, or perhaps to remember how the rest of the tale went. “I managed to ward them off, sparing the village from their cruel talons. I was given this cloak as a token of their appreciation. As such, I have promised never to remove it.”
“Uh huh,” said Rainbow. “I'm sure you single-hoofedly took down a bunch of griffons.”
“Don't worry, Twilight, I believe him,” said Rainbow sarcastically. “I think I'll join on the next round of the game.” With that, she took off, flying over the other ponies' heads.
“Sorry about that, Greyhoof,” said Twilight. “She can be like that sometimes. Don't worry; she's a nice pony once you get to know her.”
“I'm sure,” said Greyhoof dryly.
Pinkie's party continued deep into the night until the myriad of exhausted guests began trickling out in small groups. Greyhoof and Twilight spent the entirety of the party talking amongst themselves about magic, completely ignoring the festivities going on around them. Once the noise began to finally die down, Greyhoof breathed a sigh of relief and briskly trotted toward the bakery's door.
Twilight began looking around the room for Spike, finding the baby dragon fast asleep face-down in a half-eaten pie. “Hang on. At least someone had a good time,” she giggled, picking up the snoring dragon with her magic and gently resting him on her back.
Applejack walked to the doorway, but stopped and turned around when she reached it. “So I'll see y'all tomorrow?” she asked. “It's been a little lonely over at the farm, what with Big Mac and Apple Bloom gone.”
“Thanks, Twi,” said Applejack, heading out of sight.
“Bye, guys!” Pinkie waved at the two unicorns. “Thanks for coming. And welcome to Ponyville, Greyhoof!”
Putting on an unconvincing smile, Greyhoof nodded at her. He took a few long strides before turning to face Twilight. “I guess I'll see you sometime tomorrow.”
Twilight smiled. “The sooner, the better. I've been hitting a wall recently.”
“Well, I can't make any promises, but I'll see what I can do to help,” said Greyhoof, smiling bashfully. Giving Twilight a quick nod, Greyhoof trotted off into the night.
Twilight looked after him for a moment before Spike's gentle snoring reminded her of where she needed to be. Walking as briskly as she dared, Twilight felt the cool evening breeze playing gently through her mane as she walked toward the library. Upon reaching the tree that she called home, Twilight opened the door and gently put Spike to bed before going upstairs to retire for the evening.
She lay awake, unable to sleep, her mind filled with the possibilities that tomorrow might bring for her quest. Eventually, she rolled out of bed, snuck down the stairs, and lit a single candle. Time for some late-night studies.
But where to begin? She had searched high and low through nearly every section of books she owned. Where should I...
She almost dropped her candle. How could I have missed this until now? Walking purposefully toward a section that she rarely perused, her eyes scanned the various tomes in the Old Ponytales category. If it worked for Nightmare Moon, maybe it'll work for the Princess.
It wasn't long before Twilight had found her first candidate, yanked it from its resting place, and cracked it open. Coughing as the resulting cloud of dust reached her muzzle, Twilight began tearing though the book Ancient Equestria. She lost much of her initial enthusiasm when she discovered that most of the yellowed, tattered pages depicted Equestria as it was before the rule of the royal sisters, but contained little actual information on the two alicorns.
The first few pages told of the wars between the tribes of ponies – how they had eventually settled their differences, only to be plunged into yet more wars as they faced the threats of the griffons, dragons, and eventually Discord himself. When she finally reached a promising chapter, Twilight almost cried out in anger at a most horrific sight: a great number of pages had been ripped from the book.
“How did this happen?” she said through clenched teeth. “The Princess herself gave me this as a gift out of her own personal collection. Who would do such a thing?”
Befuddled, Twilight began reading the next page, which – according to the header – was part of the middle of a chapter called The Zebra Scourge. Twilight's frustration was redoubled when she realized that the start of the chapter was missing as well, and the page even began mid-sentence. Sighing, Twilight started to read:
– swept across the land, the zebras were unable to resist his might. Being driven from their homes, they could do nothing but flee across Eternity's Crossing in their makeshift boats in hopes of reaching the lands now known as Zavros. The Scourge relentlessly pursued them, unable to be content until every last one of them lay dead at his hooves. As they desperately took to the seas, the Scourge allowed them to make just enough distance from Equestria's southern shore before springing his trap. With nowhere to run, the zebras were helpless before him. Many ships sunk to the briny depths that night by the iron hoof of the Scourge. When all seemed lost, from the heavens above, descended the Princesses of sun and moon. Together, they harnessed the almighty Elements of Harmony. The Scourge was eradicated from the land, never to rise again. With Equestria liberated once and for all, the twin alicorns brought peace and order to the kingdom, once and forever. Many of the surviving zebras settled in Zavros, living out the rest of their lives in tranquility. However, the –
Twilight almost cursed aloud when she saw yet more missing pages, bringing the riveting tale to a premature end. The possibility of the following page providing some precious insight into Princess Celestia's magic drove her mad. Twilight read on, blazing through the remaining pages of the book with renewed vigour, but found nothing of importance. It seemed that the tale of the Scourge was the last great upheaval that the Princess had faced, before the coming of Nightmare Moon.
Whimpering in defeat, Twilight dropped the book, not bothering to replace it on its shelf, blew out the candle, and climbed the stairs up to bed in the pitch darkness. When she finally clambered into bed, she didn't even replace the covers, which still lay in a heap on the floor. Fervently hoping that she wouldn't have a repeat of the previous night, she fell fast asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.
by Tony “GaryOak” Genovese
Into the Darkness
The smell of breakfast coaxed Twilight from her dreamless sleep. Seeing that the sun was higher in the sky than she would have liked, she hauled herself out of bed. Not even bothering to brush her tousled mane, she went down the stairs and immediately resumed her studies.
The growling of Twilight's stomach wasn't helping as she began reading through a nearby book, utterly bent on uncovering further information related to what she had seen in Ancient Equestria. Twilight became so immersed in her studies that she didn't notice a rap on the door. A second rap came, louder this time. “It's open,” called Twilight, not looking up from her book.
The door creaked open. “Am I interrupting anything?”
Twilight put her book down. “Greyhoof? You're here early.”
“Sorry, but you expressed excitement about this subject when we talked yesterday, so getting started sooner rather than later seemed like a good idea,” said Greyhoof, walking up to Twilight. “By the look of things, I was right.”
Twilight caught herself feeling a surge of annoyance at Greyhoof for interrupting her research. It's probably because I'm so hungry. Breakfast can't come soon enough.
“Well, take a seat and open up a book,” said Twilight, “maybe you can help me.”
“I'd be more than happy to. So, what have you been studying?”
“Well, lately I've been trying to go out of my way to impress the Princess with what I've learned. I want to understand the secrets behind the most powerful magic in all of Equestria – hers.” She looked up at Greyhoof, who, she was pleased to note, was hanging on her every word.
“Princess Celestia?” replied Greyhoof, a note of wonder in his voice. “What about her, exactly? Have you found anything?”
Twilight gave a moan of frustration. “No, and that's the problem. I can't figure out anything, and I've almost completely scoured the library!” She gestured at the pile of books around them. “I'm not even sure if I could find what I'm looking for in the Canterlot Castle library, either.” She looked at Greyhoof glumly. “I think that learning about her past might give me the answers I seek, but I'm not getting anywhere there, either; not a single history book has anything useful.”
Greyhoof fixed his eyes on Twilight – eyes that seemed to be full of a sort of burning determination. “I'm more than happy to help you in your quest for knowledge. Ancient Equestrian history has always fascinated me.” Sitting down next to Twilight, Greyhoof looked around admiringly at the assortment of books around the room. “So, where shall we start?”
Twilight gestured around her. “I don't know, use your judgment.”
The two unicorns sat side by side and began leafing through fresh stacks of books in silence. As the morning wore on and the stack of read volumes increased in size, Greyhoof's eyes absently flicked over to an older tome laying off to the side, prompting a sharp intake of breath.
“I can't believe another copy exists,” breathed Greyhoof, staring at Ancient Equestria. “Too bad we spent all this time perusing your collection; this book should have given you all the answers that your heart desires.” His eyes had not left the book while he spoke.
Twilight arched an eyebrow as she gazed at the book that had frustrated her the previous night. “What are you talking about? I was left with more questions than when I picked it up in the first place.”
Greyhoof blinked. “That makes no sense. If this is the same book I remember, then it contains a great deal of... curious information.” His eyes rested on Twilight's confused expression. “Am I missing something?”
Twilight sighed. “No, it's the book that's missing something. Look.” She opened it and flipped through the tome until she reached the section where the pages had been torn out. “This came from the Princess's own personal collection. Why would pages be missing like this?”
Greyhoof's eyes narrowed when he glanced at the book. “As I've told you before, this is a rare volume. I've seen only one other copy, and that was years ago.” His pupils glinted. “Until now, I believed it to be a work of fiction, but considering which pages have been torn and who it previously belonged to...”
Twilight gasped. “Are you suggesting Princess Celestia did this herself?”
“That is precisely what I am suggesting.” Greyhoof ignored Twilight's shocked expression and continued. “Fortunately for your research, I remember some of what was in that missing section.”
Twilight took a few steps closer to Greyhoof until her face was only a few inches from his. “Well? What was written? What do you know?” she asked.
Regarding her with a wary look, Greyhoof spoke slowly, as if choosing his words carefully. “What was written had led me to believe that it was the work of a creative mind and not that of a historian. But that cannot be true if the Princess removed the pages. I can't say I blame her; she wouldn't want to give you the wrong idea.”
“Wrong idea?” said Twilight, staring deeply into Greyhoof's eyes. “Tell me! This could be the answer I'm looking for!”
Greyhoof recoiled. “I... I really shouldn't be the pony to tell you this.”
Biting her lip, Twilight found herself on the verge of tears. “Please, Greyhoof. I've spent weeks searching,” she pressed, her resolve hardening. “I can't just give up now.”
Greyhoof's eyes smoldered almost dangerously. “Are you absolutely sure? This depicts a much... darker side of the Princess. I'm still not completely sure if I believe it myself.” Greyhoof exhaled slowly. “It could change your perception of her... forever.”
Twilight sat on her haunches much the same way as she had done so often during Celestia's tutelage. “It's a risk I'm willing to take. I must know.” Her voice remained even as she spoke, her determined words making Greyhoof pause.
Twilight waited with bated breath as Greyhoof stared at her, the gears in his head clearly turning. “Very well,” he said at last. “This is the tragedy of King Cosmo the Great. Until today, I had believed it a mere myth. Legend has it that there were three, not two, sacred beings, all an equal mixture of earth pony, pegasus, and unicorn, preordained to rule Equestria. These are, as you know, the alicorns. Essentially, they are immortal beings, though they are not above death entirely. The youngest of the three was Princess Luna, the warden of night. Her task was to oversee the behaviour of the moon and to ensure a long enough night for the day creatures to rest and the nocturnal to prosper. Then there was Princess Celestia, the bringer of light. Her purpose was to govern the days of the land, using her sway over the sun to balance out Luna's moon. She was to provide warmth and prosperity to the inhabitants of the land and to bring fertility to its crops.”
Greyhoof cleared his throat, his gaze intensifying as Twilight hung on his every word. “Last of all was their older brother, King Cosmo. His duty was to sit atop the throne of Canterlot, with all the lands under his watchful eye, to maintain balance between the Princesses and the subjects of the kingdom. Together, the three led the pony tribes through a great many endeavours, freeing them from the oppression of the griffon king, defeating Iniquitus in the Dragon Wars, and even ending Discord's reign of terror. Upon their discovery of the Elements of Harmony and the liberation of Equestria, the three took their rightful places as the possessors of the crown, having overcome the tribulations of their youth.”
“And what became of King Cosmo?” asked an enthralled Twilight, holding her hooves near her mouth.
Greyhoof's face hardened. “This is when our tale takes a turn for the worse. At first, the three ruled in peace and harmony, with the King watching over the land. As the centuries passed, the jealousy of the two sisters grew. Their covetous desires and their greed spurred them to a dreadful deed. Why should they, the divine beings who held sway over the very sun and moon, play second fiddle to their brother?” He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. “One fateful evening, the King was alone in the castle gardens. Seizing their opportunity to strike, Princess Luna veiled the moon in a thick layer of clouds. In the resulting pitch blackness, they assaulted and overwhelmed King Cosmo. The King, although he possessed great powers of his own, was no match for the joint surprise attack by his siblings, and fell. With the King gone, the Princesses erased his name from history.”
Twilight's jaw dropped. “T-there's no way that can be true!” she stammered. “This doesn't sound like the Princess at all.” She shook her head. “No, I refuse to believe it.”
Greyhoof's eyes fixated on a spot on the floor. “That's about how the story went,” he said heavily. “Take it or leave it. You can now see why I didn't put much stock in it – well, until now.” Greyhoof met Twilight's eyes once more. “If this was merely harmless fiction, then the Princess would've seen no need to remove the pages.”
“No, Greyhoof, I can't accept that.” Her voice still shook slightly as she spoke. “I've known the Princess almost my entire life, ever since I was a little filly. She would never murder somepony in cold blood like that, especially her own brother!” Twilight struck the floor with her hoof defiantly. “Princess Celestia has always advocated friendship, and she leads by example. We can't forget that she showed kindness to Princess Luna in spite of all the evil she did as Nightmare Moon.”
Greyhoof shrugged. “You may be right. You've known Princess Celestia for a long time, whereas I've never had the honour of meeting her,” he shot Twilight a cautionary glance, “but this cannot be blindly ignored.”
Twilight raised a hoof as she prepared to offer a response, but the arrival of Spike, breakfast in hand, cut the discussion short. Twilight's stomach rumbled loudly when she spotted the food-laden tray, reminding her of the mistake of not eating anything at the party. Digging into the food with a vengeance, the unicorns demolished it in a matter of moments.
“I'd forgotten how hungry studying makes me,” said Greyhoof gingerly. “I don't know what that was, exactly, but it sure hit the spot.”
“Sometimes with Spike's cooking, I don't want to know,” giggled Twilight. At this, Spike humphed loudly and picked up the tray of empty dishes, returning to the kitchen. “Aww, Spike, I loved it, honest!” Twilight called after him.
“I need a raise,” muttered Spike as he disappeared around a corner, tearing off his heart-emblazoned apron and tossing it on the floor.
Upon Spike's departure, Twilight hung her head low. With the distraction of a hot meal gone, the unsettling words of Greyhoof's story returned in full force. She tried to push even the notion of Celestia doing such a horrible thing out of her mind with every fibre of her being, but the missing pages loomed large in her thoughts. On her rare trips into the Princess's private library, she always remembered how perfectly maintained it was. Surely the Princess would never allow such harm to come to a tome as precious as this one. Even if it was an accident, the particular section of the book that was missing was far too convenient.
Greyhoof knelt down by Twilight with a slightly flustered expression. It was almost as if he wanted to comfort her, but was unsure of the manner in which to do so. “Look, Twilight, just forget about this whole mess. I really should've kept my mouth shut. I think I'd like to go for a walk. Why don't we go to Sweet Apple Acres once I return, after you've had some time alone to think about this?”
“But...” Twilight was silenced by Greyhoof softly raising a hoof to her mouth.
Greyhoof offered as comforting a smile as he could manage. “I'll be back in about an hour and we can discuss this further. Please, just try to relax.”
Twilight nodded glumly at Greyhoof, who brought himself to his full height. His horn shimmering slightly, Greyhoof gently let himself out of the library, Twilight blankly staring after him. The door closed behind Greyhoof with a soft click.
Twilight had barely moved from her place on the floor when Greyhoof left the library. Poring through book after book, she fruitlessly searched for something, anything that could possibly disprove Greyhoof's story. Eventually, her eyes swam out of focus as his words repeated in her head over and over again. The concept of Princess Celestia striking down one of her own siblings was ludicrous to Twilight. Sure, Celestia had done so once before, banishing her sister for a millennium, but she did so out of necessity alone.
How could one as kind, gentle, and wise as the Princess be responsible for such a horrific act? An act that was wrought out of jealousy and malice and not necessity. If Princess Luna once went mad with jealousy, what's stopping it from happening to her sister? thought Twilight, her mind rife with doubt. She suddenly felt a rock hit the pit of her stomach. If King Cosmo really did exist and he really was murdered in cold blood... Then what else is the Princess hiding? Have I really been lied to all these years? Twilight released the book she had been pretending to read, allowing it to hit the wooden floor with a dull thump. Twilight's inner turmoil was interrupted by barely audible rapping on the door.
“C-come in,” stammered Twilight.
The door creaked open, slowly revealing Fluttershy. Once it had opened all the way, she stood in the doorway, rocking back and forth.
“Fluttershy? Are you alright?” asked Twilight, trying to compose herself. “It's okay. I said you could come in.”
Fluttershy took a few cautious steps forward before striding purposefully toward Twilight, her eyes avoiding Twilight's gaze and instead darting from book to book as she moved.
“What's wrong? Can I help you with something?” said Twilight when she saw Fluttershy scanning her books.
“Um...” Fluttershy flinched as if Twilight's query was somehow painful. “Yes. Yes there is.”
“What's the matter? Will some of my books help you?”
“Well, maybe they can. I was wondering if...” Fluttershy's words quickly dissolved into an incoherent sort of mumble as her head drooped low enough for the bottom of her mane to touch the library floor. “Nothing.”
Twilight gave Fluttershy a quizzical look. “So you don't want help with anything?”
Fluttershy shook her head vehemently.
“So... you do want help?”
“What do you want help with?”
“Um, I uh... um...” Fluttershy lowered her head.
Twilight sighed. “Come on, Fluttershy. I know something's bothering you.” She rested a hoof on Fluttershy's shoulder.
Fluttershy's only response was a squeak accompanied by a shudder.
“Spit it out,” ordered Twilight sternly. “I know you have trouble with this sort of thing, but keeping it bottled up isn't the answer.”
Fluttershy eventually raised her head and looked directly at Twilight. “Rainbow,” she whispered.
“Oh, is that what this is about?” asked Twilight as understanding began to dawn on her.
Fluttershy's mane whipped up and down as she nodded. "I... I need your help to convince Rainbow Dash. She isn't helping me look for the animals. I've asked her as nicely as I could, but she's just being a really big meanie and ignoring me.” Fluttershy gave a quiet whimper. “Well, maybe mean isn't quite the right word... She has been pretty busy with this or that. Maybe I'm the pony being selfish because I'm expecting her to help me.”
Twilight looked at Fluttershy, dumbfounded.
"But the missing animals are just so important. Of course she should help me look for them. But she can't leave poor Scootaloo after promising for so long to give her a flying lesson. So maybe I should wait until she's done... but I have no idea where the animals are..."
Still mystified, Twilight raised an eyebrow at her friend. "Fluttershy, what are you..."
Fluttershy quivered for a moment before unfurling her wings and lunging at Twilight, embracing her and bawling into her shoulder. “Oh, Twilight, I'm just so worried! I've been so worried for days and I can't stop! I know you told me they'd be back, but I just don't think they will! I don't know where they are or what happened to them! I need somepony's help – Rainbow's or yours – but everypony just keeps ignoring me!”
Twilight was taken aback. “I... I didn't know you felt that way. I'm so sorry if it felt like we were ignoring you,” She gently patted Fluttershy on the back. “Rainbow did say that she'd help you out,” she said soothingly. “Remember, a promise is a promise. If anypony sticks by her friends and keeps her promises, it's Rainbow.”
“You're right!” exclaimed Fluttershy, looking up at Twilight with wide eyes. “But... what should I do in the meantime?”
“I'll tell you what,” offered Twilight. “We can look through a few books on the matter. It may help you figure out what the problem is.”
“Oh, no,” said Fluttershy, her mane swishing from side to side as she shook her head. “I couldn't. You're in the middle of studying. You've been in the middle of studying for weeks now. I can't possibly –”
“I think it would be a great idea,” insisted Twilight, trotting over to a nearby bookshelf. “Looking up some animal facts should be a lot less frustrating than trying to learn about what Princess Celestia was like over a thousand years ago.” She began scanning the spines of the books lining the walls with well-practiced speed.
Once she had procured a half dozen titles, Twilight cleared a space on the floor and gave half of the books each to herself and Fluttershy. They started reading, the each one's subject covering a different aspect of Equestrian wildlife, from behaviour, to migration patterns, to preferred diet.
It was not long before Twilight's voice sliced through the silence. “Hang on, I think I've found something.”
Fluttershy instantly looked over at the book nestled between Twilight's hooves. Twilight cleared her throat and started to read it aloud: “Animal Instincts: The Greatest Danger of All,” she began. “Perhaps the most peculiar and rarely seen of all animal instincts, this form of behaviour can occur in all creatures, regardless of species. The exact causes for it are largely unknown. However, it is only triggered when a sense of primal fear that vastly exceeds anything normally experienced is incurred upon them. While the causes may be unknown, nothing short of extreme caution should be observed if it is believed to be happening within the local wildlife. Whatever the threat may be is probably lethal to ponies as well. Such threats should be identified and dealt with or avoided as quickly as possible. The only common sign of this behaviour among the wildlife is mass disappearance. The animals will flee as far as they feel they need to until they deem themselves far enough from the threat to remain safe.”
Twilight looked grimly at Fluttershy when she finished reading. “Fluttershy,” she said, her voice etched with seriousness, “do you think this is what happened to them?”
“I-I-I don't k-know,” stammered Fluttershy, her lip quivering as she stared at the book, transfixed. “I can't be sure.”
“I hope you and Rainbow can get to the bottom of this,” said Twilight. “If you think, even for a second, that what happened to the animals is what was described in this book, come straight to me. It sounds like it could pose a threat to all of Ponyville.”
“O-okay,” said Fluttershy.
“Look, I mean it,” said Twilight. “You came here in a really bad state because you weren't assertive enough. I know you've been working on it, but I'm not sure it was your friends ignoring you. If you think that what the book says is correct, make yourself heard, express your concerns. We'll listen. I promise.”
“Thanks, Twilight. I will.” Fluttershy nodded resolutely and let herself out of the library, flying back to her house at a few feet above ground level.
“That girl,” said Twilight to herself. “I hope she took that to heart. I can't imagine how upsetting it must be to feel ignored all the time.”
Twilight closed the door, continuing to muse. Back to studying. She meandered over to the pile of books that she and Greyhoof had been consulting earlier in the morning. After re-shelving the volumes on animals, she settled down and immersed herself in her studies once again. She became so focused that she failed to hear the sound of the front door opening.
Twilight's head snapped up when she heard loud hoofsteps in front of her, seeing an annoyed Greyhoof. “Sorry I'm late,” he grunted.
“Greyhoof, what's wrong?” Twilight asked, Greyhoof's tone of voice jarring her back to reality.
“I was out in the field and I bumped into Rainbow Dash and a filly called Scootaloo,” said Greyhoof. “I'll have you know that your friend Rainbow seems to enjoy getting into arguments wrought from ignorance and pride at the drop of a hat.”
Blinking, Twilight shook her head as she processed Greyhoof's words. Not wanting to cause her new friend any discomfort, she put on a brave face and pretended to be over the ordeal from earlier this morning. “Wait – argument?” Momentarily forgetting the dull ache in her stomach, she continued. “Rainbow didn't give you any trouble, did she? Normally she isn't like this, but she can be quite brusque at times...”
Greyhoof looked away from Twilight, fixating his gaze on a nearby wall. “Trouble is an understatement. I was merely offering my wisdom during a flying lesson that she was giving to Scootaloo. I lent a hoof and she treated me like an enemy. Is it true that somepony so... churlish wields an Element of Harmony?”
Twilight looked at Greyhoof defiantly. “Don't talk about Rainbow that way! There has to be more to it. What happened? What did you say to her?”
“She started it,” insisted Greyhoof, taking a step back. “I offered that filly friend of hers nothing but help and kindness, and Rainbow threw it back in my face. Fortunately, my methods proved correct and I simply left Rainbow to realize the error of her ways.”
I've got a feeling her side of the story will be different. Twilight tried to get off the subject. “Well, that's something at least, but I hope you can make things up with Rainbow in the near future.”
“Why do you say that?” inquired Greyhoof.
Twilight put her hoof on her muzzle for a few seconds before answering, choosing her words carefully. “Well,” she finally said delicately. “Rainbow and flying can be... a bit touchy at times. Listening to others on the subject has never been her forte.” Her brow furrowed as she struggled to continue her explanation. “That said, Rainbow is a truly brave and loyal pony, and is one of my best friends. If it weren't for her, my friends and I wouldn't be here right now. As far as the whole flying thing's concerned, if I understand it correctly, flying school didn't exactly go over too well with her. I mean, she's the best flier I've had the pleasure of knowing, but...”
Greyhoof nodded as an expression of understanding began to appear. “I see, but expect no apology from me. As far as I'm concerned, she instigated the whole thing. She's not a filly; she's a grown mare. I may reconsider my position on her when she starts acting like one.” He took a quick note of Twilight's expression, her distress from earlier in the morning shining on her face like a beacon. “Hmmm, perhaps I should've been gone a while longer to let you collect yourself.”
Twilight subconsciously backpedaled. “What? I'm fine, honest.”
“You and – Applejack, was it? – said something about a trip to her apple farm today,” offered Greyhoof. “I think the both of us could use a nice, long walk, away from the stuffiness of a library and featherbrained pegasi.”
Twilight perked up. “Oh yes! Silly me, I'd forgotten all about that.” Her horn shimmered. “Give me a second. I'll grab some books –”
Greyhoof shook his head solemnly. “Many a time that I've looked in the mirror, I've seen the face that you wear now. I can put a petty squabble behind me, but you're clearly under a lot of stress.” He threw a hoof around Twilight's shoulder and steered her toward the still open library door. “You need some fresh air.”
“But –” protested Twilight.
“And no books.”
Once both of them had cleared the doorway, Greyhoof shut the door behind them. With Twilight in the lead, they headed across town toward Sweet Apple Acres. The streets of Ponyville teemed with afternoon activity befitting such a wonderful day, and bits of cheerful conversation from those around them reached their ears.
“You know,” said Greyhoof, breaking the silence between them, “it's been a while since I've been in a town this big.”
Twilight laughed. “This big? It took me some time to adjust to how small it is.”
Greyhoof grinned. “Not everypony is from Canterlot.”
“True enough.” Twilight continued to laugh.
Greyhoof looked at Twilight. “So tell me.” He paused for a second to allow her eyes to meet his. “What brings you to a town as quaint as this? I have little doubt your studies would be far more fruitful if you had access to the Royal Library in Canterlot.”
Twilight's simple answer caught Greyhoof completely off guard. He stopped dead in his tracks and tilted his head at her in confusion. “Friendship? What do you mean, 'friendship'?”
Twilight turned to face Greyhoof, confusion still written all over his face. “At first, I thought I was living a perfect life. I was the Princess's most prized student. I got to live in the Canterlot Library, home to the greatest collection of books in all of Equestria. With Spike as my assistant, I learned more and more about magic every day, but something was missing...” Her voice trailed off.
Greyhoof gave Twilight a wistful look. “It sounds wonderful. What I wouldn't give –”
“Friendship. Friendship was missing,” interjected Twilight, acting as if Greyhoof had remained silent. “On one fateful day, I read an old mare's tale – like the one you told me – that predicted the return of Nightmare Moon. Naturally, I informed the Princess about what I had discovered immediately. Do you know what her reaction was?”
Greyhoof shook his head as both unicorns resumed walking.
“She dispatched me to this place, Ponyville. The last thing she wrote on her missive was 'Make some friends,'” Twilight recollected. “I didn't understand it at first, either,” she quickly added, noticing Greyhoof's blank stare. “While ensuring that the preparations for the Summer Sun Celebration were in order, I met the five ponies that I have the great privilege of calling my best friends, four of whom you've already met.” Her tone became more stern and dramatic as Twilight began to get into her story. “It wasn't long before Nightmare Moon descended upon us and brought with her night eternal. We rushed headlong into the Everfree Forest to obtain the Elements of Harmony, the only weapon that could be used against her.”
Twilight paused to regain her breath as she spoke more rapidly. “We tried to stand against her, but all hope seemed lost. When Nightmare Moon was moments away from victory, I finally understood what the Princess had sent me to do.” Twilight beamed at Greyhoof as she reached the moral of her story. “To make some friends!”
Greyhoof looked at Twilight, nonplussed.
“You see, Greyhoof, the Elements of Harmony were able to defeat Nightmare Moon, and it was thanks to my five friends that the sixth Element, Magic, was unlocked.” Twilight looked at Greyhoof as understanding slowly started to dawn on him. “It was on that day I realized what friendship really was. I may spend a lot of my time studying, especially lately, but the truth is, I can't survive without friendship.” Staring intently at Greyhoof, Twilight drove her point home. “And neither could Equestria, as it turns out. Twice.”
Greyhoof took a while to form words as he struggled to process Twilight's story. “So, it was something as simple as friendship, and not your exceptional magical talent that defeated not only Nightmare Moon, but Discord as well?” he asked curiously.
“The sixth Element is indeed Magic,” Twilight explained, “but without true friendship, it is powerless.”
“I've... never been in one place long enough to make any friends,” admitted Greyhoof dejectedly. “Once I concluded my business in whatever city or town I happened to be in, I was off to my next destination. When I was a colt, I never really knew anypony besides my adoptive parents.”
Twilight gave Greyhoof a comforting smile. “Well, you're more than welcome to stay in Ponyville for as long as it takes.”
The tips of Greyhoof's ears reddened. “T-thanks,” he stammered. By now, they were well clear of Ponyville. “So... tell me about Sweet Apple Acres.”
“Well...” began Twilight, “it's a farm.” This earned her a facehoof from her friend. “Some of the best apples in all of Equestria are grown there. I’ll warn you, after trying some of the products they make, you probably won't ever want to leave Ponyville.” As she talked, Greyhoof looked back at the path they had trodden, distracted by the faint sound of hooves behind them. “On top of that, the Apple family is the nicest bunch of ponies you'll ever meet, though Applejack is the only one at the farm, currently.”
“Isn't that her now?” asked Greyhoof.
Twilight turned around. Sure enough, she could see Applejack galloping toward them, her ponytail mane flapped wildly behind her. When she reached them, Applejack mopped her brow with her hat, panting heavily. Twilight's heart skipped a beat when she noticed Applejack's face was almost as pale as her freckles. “Applejack! What happened?” cried Twilight.
“It's – Rarity,” wheezed Applejack. “I talked with her the other day. She was supposed to come to lunch this afternoon – ya know, to take a break from her dressmaking. She didn’t come, so I went by her house to drag her out here, but she wasn’t around.”
Twilight frowned. “That's hardly unusual. She’s probably out gathering materials for her dresses, or something.”
Applejack shook her head and wordlessly passed Twilight a crumpled piece of paper from inside her hat. Twilight unfolded it and immediately noticed Rarity's hoofwriting. Clearing her throat, she began to read the note aloud: “‘To whoever is reading this, I'm sorry that I'm not in at the moment. I am certain that whoever you are, you must understand how inspiration can be. In case you are unaware, Hoity Toity specifically requested an ensemble of dresses for the upcoming Summer Sun Celebration in Canterlot! Can you imagine it? My dresses, in one of the most important social gatherings of the year! Naturally, I couldn't just whip up any old thing, oh no! What a crime –’” Twilight shook her head in amazement. “You know, Rarity, most ponies just say where they are and when they'll be back in notes like this."
Applejack read along over Twilight's shoulder. “Skip down here,” she said impatiently, pointing to a sentence near the end of the note.
Twilight obliged. “Let's see... ‘And then it hit me. Platinum! Just think of how dazzling it would look! The sun, summoned by Princess Celestia herself, glinting off a fine platinum finish! Now I'm sure you know that it is no easy feat to come by the quantities of platinum I require. That is why I have embarked on an expedition to a cave north of Froggy Bottom Bog.’” Twilight looked up in shock. “What?”
“Keep reading,” grunted Applejack.
“‘Word has it that it is home to a rich platinum vein. With any luck, I'll be back in town at around...’” Twilight scanned the rest of the letter and looked up. “But that's yesterday evening! She's hours overdue!”
Applejack locked eyes with Twilight. “Exactly! She should've been back by now. There's somethin' fishy about that there cave she mentioned, too. If platinum is worth so much, don't ya think them rich Canterlot ponies would've tapped into it by now?”
“Of course!” exclaimed Greyhoof. “There's got to be a good reason for that.”
“A dangerous reason,” finished Applejack.
“Oh no...” gasped Twilight. “You don't think she's...”
Applejack shook her head. “There's no way of knowing until we go there and have ourselves a look-see. At least Rarity left a map to the cave. I got it right here.” She patted her left saddlebag.
“Where is this swamp?” asked Greyhoof.
“Far,” said Twilight glumly. “Far enough away that walking will take too long... I know! We can take my balloon! It's by the Ponyville schoolhouse.”
“Then what are we waitin' for? She might be in trouble!” shouted Applejack, turning to go down the path back to Ponyville.
“Wait!” exclaimed Twilight, stopping Applejack short. She pointed to Applejack’s saddlebags. “We need provisions – some food and water. Who knows how long we’ll be in that cave?”
Applejack nodded. “Yer right, Twilight. I’ll head back to the farmhouse and meet you at the school lickety-split.”
* * *
Twilight and Greyhoof, newly burdened with Spike’s leftovers and plenty of water, arrived at the schoolhouse to find Applejack engaged in earnest conversation with Cheerilee. As they approached, Twilight could see the lines of worry in Cheerilee’s face more easily.
“Finally,” said Applejack, when they were within earshot. “I'll tell ya what, Cheerilee: if everything goes well on our end and Twist is still missin' when we get back, we'll get to the bottom of it.”
Giving Applejack a quick hug, Cheerilee thanked her before beginning the task of rounding up her students.
“What was that about?” said Twilight, watching the schoolyard slowly empty.
“Twist played hooky or somethin’. Hasn’t been seen all morning. Now, how ‘bout we get that balloon flying?”
Twilight brought her companions around the corner of the schoolhouse. Sure enough, she found the balloon right where she left it. With the help of Greyhoof and Applejack, Twilight filled the balloon's envelope with hot air. Soon, they were off, quickly gaining altitude and flying northward through the afternoon sky.
* * *
After setting the balloon on its way to the Bog, Twilight had the opportunity to sit back and take in the view. Even in a situation like this, she could appreciate the beauty of the valley in springtime. Yet as she ascended, what she saw matched more and more closely the setting of her dream two nights ago.
Too many things to worry about. Princess Celestia, the dream, Rarity... There’s only one thing that should be on my mind right now. She shot a glance at her companions. Greyhoof's gaze was fixed on Canterlot, far in the distance. From the look on his face, it was clear he hadn’t flown before. Applejack, in contrast, was staring at the floor of the basket.
Twilight tried to make conversation. “We should be thinking about what we’ll do when we get to the cave. How should we start looking for Rarity? Should we start in the cave? Maybe she ran into trouble in the Bog.”
“‘Running into trouble in the bog’ would probably mean gettin’ jumped by the hydra or falling into the swamp and drowning,” said Applejack, shuddering. “I think it’s best if we just stick with the idea that Rarity’s walkin’ around in the cave, lost somewhere.”
“Rarity may have left some trace of her passage if she made it into the cave,” said Greyhoof. “The cave entrance should be the first place we search.”
* * *
Using the map and the letter to find the cave proved easy enough. “A view like this makes navigating effortless,” said Greyhoof, as he directed Twilight to the base of what Rarity had called a mountain but which was more like a rocky hill. All that remained was the trek up.
This isn’t going to go well, thought Twilight, as she eyed the path, or lack thereof, up to the cave.
She was right. Soon, Greyhoof and Applejack were standing impatiently at the cave mouth, neither looking like they'd broken a sweat, as Twilight took step after agonizing step to reach them.
“You should come applebuckin' with me sometime,” said Applejack, as Twilight reached the top and collapsed into the dirt. “It makes little hills like this a cinch.”
“Little. Ha ha. Very funny.”
Greyhoof shrugged. “I'm used to it. Traveling around Equestria turns out to be a pretty good stamina builder.”
Applejack smiled at Greyhoof. “I didn't think unicorns were known for strength.”
Greyhoof laughed, the sound reverberating in the cavern in front of them. “In my opinion, one must sharpen both body and mind in order to truly become proficient in the magical arts.”
“Can – can we – wait just a few – more minutes – please?” pleaded Twilight as she spotted Greyhoof and Applejack taking a few steps forward.
They waited for her. Twilight took the opportunity to look at her surroundings as she rested. She couldn’t see far into the cave, which sloped downward sharply. Outside the cave, rocky crags lay to the right of her, with marsh to the left and behind. And in the dirt, about twenty feet away –
“Hoofprints!” Twilight gasped, springing up. “Greyhoof, Applejack. Are those yours?”
“I don’t reckon,” said Applejack, as she came over. “I don’t think either of us went over that way after we got to the top.” She took a closer look at the prints. “These are a mite smaller than mine, and I think… yep, smaller than Greyhoof’s too. Rarity made it to the cave, looks like.”
“No time to lose, then, yes?” said Greyhoof. “Let’s get going.”
They of them entered the cave. The sound of their hoof-falls echoed off of the walls as the dark cavern seemed to swallow them. Twilight shivered as a few drops of water fell on her from the ceiling.
“Hey, that was my hoof!” exclaimed Applejack a while later.
“Sorry,” said Twilight, “I can't see anything in this blackness. I’ll just...”
Greyhoof lit his horn, illuminating the cave around them. “There.”
Twilight turned to face the group. “Thanks, Greyhoof.” She nodded. “Right. What do we do now?”
Applejack peered down the cave's path. “Only one way down, looks like. No reason not to just keep walking until we get to a fork.”
“Uh, right. We’ll just... keep walking, then,” Twilight concluded lamely.
The ponies proceeded through the long, winding route, their progress aided by the constant downward angle of the tunnel.
“Just how far down does this thing go?” said Applejack some minutes later.
“A while yet, I'd imagine,” replied Greyhoof. “Platinum is, after all, a precious metal. Generally, precious metals are found within subterranean rock,” he said almost mechanically. “One would assume, therefore, that if a platinum deposit really exists, these caverns will extend far underground.”
Applejack kicked a loose stone in agitation. “Fantastic.” An uneasy silence followed. “There's just something about this cave... I don't know what, but I don't like it. It just don't feel right...”
Twilight would have offered some words of comfort, but what Applejack said reflected her own feelings of foreboding. She looked in Greyhoof's direction. Twilight was hardly surprised to see that his expression had changed very little and took a modicum of comfort in how calm and collected he appeared. When she looked into his eyes, though, that comfort was quickly dispelled: the twin orange orbs flickered wildly like a candle that was about to be snuffed out.
Twilight remained silent, hanging her head a few inches lower than normal as the ponies journeyed onward. During their descent into the mountain, the clopping sound made by their hoof-falls was their only companion. As they walked, she noticed the air becoming thick and damp. Moisture gave the rocks a slick appearance and drops of water coalesced and fell from the ceiling. We’re under the bog, I guess.
After what felt like hours, the path leveled off and opened up, revealing a vast cavern with numerous tunnels many times larger than the one they had been trudging through.
Twilight was unable to suppress a loud gasp. “I can't believe such a place has been here all this time without us knowing.”
“Whoa nelly...” breathed Applejack in amazement. “Ya could fit the whole barn in here, no sweat... Where to now, Twilight?”
“We just need to pick any tunnel, I suppose. Why don’t you choose?”
Applejack frowned as she looked at each passage one by one. “Well... I think –”
“No,” stated Greyhoof flatly, his interjection silencing her.
A few seconds passed before the silence was broken. “Uh... beg pardon?”
Greyhoof turned to face the mares, the fire in his eyes rekindled. “That would be an asinine course of action.” He maintained his characteristically flat tones as he spoke. “First, we will mark our location using loose stones; there's no telling how many of these paths double back on themselves. I for one will not spend the rest of my days navigating this maze.” Greyhoof's horn shimmered as over a dozen rocks of various sizes floated toward the cave mouth that they had come from and arranged themselves into a sort of crude statue. “Next, we will –”
“Now hang on just a second!” cut in Applejack. “Who died and made you king of Equestria?”
Greyhoof stiffened momentarily before resting his blazing gaze on Applejack. “If you stopped to think for a moment, you'd realize it would be wise to heed my words.” He stared determinedly into her eyes until her continued silence was assured. “Now, we shall test these tunnels systematically. Each time we encounter a cavern such as this one, a similar marker will be erected to mark our progress. With any luck, we'll find what we came for.”
Applejack simply stood there and spluttered furiously. Twilight blinked in surprise and shook herself. “I can see your reasoning, but –”
Greyhoof raised a silencing hoof in Twilight's direction. “No, Twilight, this isn't the time. Something's giving me the feeling that it isn't completely safe down here. It would behoove us to make this trip as short as possible.” Greyhoof began walking toward the leftmost tunnel. “We will try this one. Now.” He led the way, and, after a pause, Twilight and Applejack reluctantly followed.
Twilight had never seen this side of her new friend before. On one hoof, she couldn't deny the cold logic of Greyhoof, but his approach conjured up many unpleasant feelings deep within her. Now I can see why he and Rainbow would have had their differences. As she thought back to the last few days, more troubling instances of Greyhoof's unpleasantness came to mind – his treatment of Pinkie Pie during the party, for instance. Is this really who he is? She felt sick to her stomach as they continued to walk, the inner turmoil stirred up by Greyhoof's outburst refusing to be silenced.
Twilight was suddenly struck by a burst of insight. Maybe this is just a result of dedicating his life to study. If I had stayed cooped up with my books and hadn't ever come to Ponyville, is this how I would have turned out? She gave Greyhoof, still leading the way down the tunnel, an empathetic look that he couldn't see. Her heart was filled with a sudden resolve to teach him the same friendship lessons she had learned what felt like so long ago. Princess Celestia always taught me to try to find the best in everypony. I'll do more than that. I'll show Greyhoof the best in him.
In silence, they moved forward through the winding tunnels. More than once they came to a place where three or more passages met, and more than once they found that a path had led them in a circle or a dead end. The rocks they laid showed them the ways they’d already been, as well as the way to the surface. As the hours passed, the passages were eliminated one by one. They kept walking, until –
“Wait a sec.” Applejack stopped in her tracks, her ears perked. “Y’all hear that?”
Twilight froze, straining her ears, at first hearing nothing but the fading echoes of their hoof-falls and the dripping of water all around. Something in the distance lay at the limit of what she could hear – an indiscernible something which grew into an unmistakable sob.
“It’s her,” breathed Twilight, not bothering to wait for anypony’s lead as she took off down the passage.
It didn’t take long for them to find Rarity. She sat in the middle of a tunnel, mane filthy, head in hooves, only reacting to the light of Greyhoof’s horn when they were less than fifty yards away. She stood up, knees shaking, only to be knocked back down by Twilight’s tearful embrace.
Applejack had no tears to shed. “What – were – you – thinkin’?” she said through gritted teeth, emphasizing each word with a firm poke in the ribs. With Twilight locking her down, Rarity could hardly defend herself. “Goin’ out to Froggy Bottom Bog, alone. Goin’ spelunking in a strange cave, alone! Why, you coulda broken a leg, or been eaten, or... or...”
Applejack ran out of steam, turning away. Behind them, Greyhoof pawed the ground impatiently.
Twilight let Rarity out of her grasp. “You’re probably famished. We brought some food and water. I’ve got some sandwiches, and Applejack brought...” She opened up Applejack’s saddlebags and peered inside. “Didn’t you pack anything besides apples?”
Applejack shrugged. “What more d’ya need?”
They ate together, waiting for Rarity to find her voice and tell them what had happened. Finally, she began to string sentences together, her voice hoarse. “Thank... thank you, all of you.” She took a big bite out of an apple. “I got lost down here almost immediately. I didn’t know right from left, and I just kept moving forward, trying to make my way back out. But then, I found this on the floor of this tunnel.” She opened up her bag and brought out a small nugget. “Exactly what I was looking for... and it meant that I wasn’t anywhere close to the entrance. I was hungry, thirsty… I just laid down right here and felt sorry for myself.” She made a face as she remembered. “I can’t believe I gave up, just like that!”
She turned to Applejack. “I’m sorry I didn’t ask for help. You all just seemed so busy, Twilight with her studies, you with the farm... I just didn’t want to be a burden.”
She caught Greyhoof’s blank stare. “You came along to rescue me, but I don’t think I know you. Have we met?”
“No, we have not. My name is Greyhoof. I’m happy to meet you, since that means we can finally get out of this cave. Are we all ready to head back?” He glared at his companions as if daring them to say no. “If yes, then…”
“Ah,” said Rarity, putting the nugget back in her bag. “I can’t say that I’m ready to leave just yet. You see, I haven’t got what I came for.”
Applejack, Twilight, and Greyhoof stared at her blankly. It took a while for her meaning to sink in.
“You’re kidding, right?” said Twilight, speaking for the three of them.
“I’m so close, Twilight!” said Rarity, with a sudden burst of energy that made them all jump. “This cave, this very tunnel, has the platinum I need. It has to be close. There’s no way I’ll leave without it, not after what I’ve been through. How foolish it would be for me to give up now when the goal is right in front of my face!”
Twilight didn’t try to continue the argument. When Rarity was like this, contradiction was futile.
Applejack knew it, too. “We’ll head to the end of this tunnel, and that’s it. We don’t find anything, we go home. Deal?”
“Deal,” said a triumphant Rarity, lighting her horn and setting a quick pace down the tunnel without a backward glance.
Twilight looked after her, mouth agape. “How is she able to keep going after all that?”
Applejack gave Twilight a wry smile. “Apples, Twilight. Like I said, what more d’ya need?”
It wasn’t long before the jaunt further underground bore fruit. Every five minutes or so, the light from Rarity and Greyhoof’s horns struck a small chunk of platinum on the cavern floor. Rarity’s elation grew with each discovery, but Twilight didn't share her feelings. With each step, the cave seemed to grow darker, damper, and more stifling.
Rarity picked up yet another piece of platinum, and when she put it in her bag, it made the noise of metal hitting metal instead of the cloth bottom. “Fantastic! At this rate, I’ll have more than enough to –“
CRACK! Rarity was cut off as a loud noise split the air.
Twilight leapt high into the air; the sound had come from directly beneath the stalagmite that she was resting on. She landed a couple of feet away from it, holding a hoof to her chest and breathing harder than usual.
Rushing to Twilight's side, Applejack threw a comforting hoof around her shoulders. “Are you okay, sugarcube?”
“I think so,” gasped a rattled Twilight. “I think we should get moving.”
Nopony needed telling twice. In moments, the four of them had put considerable distance between them and the stalagmite. They proceeded quickly, but cautiously, as if the sound of their hoof-falls upon the rock were somehow responsible for the noise.
CRACK! It was even louder this time.
“D-did you hear that?” stammered Rarity.
“Um, yes?” muttered Applejack, no less shaken up than the rest of them. “I knew somethin' wasn't right,” she whispered in a barely audible voice. “I... I don't think we're alone...”
The four ponies looked at each other, their eyes widening in fear. Twilight took an inadvertent step back, the thought of somehow being watched causing her to recoil reflexively. Another crack, the loudest of them all, came from directly under where Twilight was standing. Before she could react, the floor broke from beneath her hooves and a large, clawed hand connected to a massive, muscle-bound blue arm shot out of the ground. The hand was so huge that it encircled Twilight's torso with ease and yanked her down the hole.
“HELP MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” screamed Twilight as she was violently pulled away from the group, her shout trailing off while she was dragged down the new passage at an alarming speed.
“Twilight!” cried Applejack, Rarity, and Greyhoof in tandem as Twilight disappeared into the dark abyss below.
by Tony “GaryOak” Genovese
The deafening sound of falling rocks in the tunnel below created by the creature masked Twilight's cries within seconds. “I'm comin, Twi!” yelled Applejack. Before anypony could stop her, she dove headfirst into the hole.
“Applejack!” cried Rarity in alarm, peering as far as she dared into the hole. She turned to face Greyhoof, desperation written on her face. “What do we do?”
“We go in after them,” said Greyhoof earnestly. He took a step toward the hole and prepared to leap in after Applejack, but paused when he noticed that Rarity was frozen in place. “Well? What are you waiting for?”
Rarity blanched. “Surely you're not suggesting we charge headlong after them?” she babbled. “No, no, no, no, no! We need a plan, a strategy, something!”
Greyhoof glared at Rarity, his burning eyes causing the mare to flinch as they bored into her own. “There's no time!” he shouted, his voice reverberating around them. “If that creature is what I think it is, both Twilight and Applejack are going to die if we don't get moving.”
Without another word, Greyhoof followed Applejack's lead and plunged into the tunnel, leaving Rarity alone in the cavern. She bit her lip and frantically looked around her, the light provided by Greyhoof quickly disappearing down the tunnel below. Rarity's expression hardened with resolve as she closed her eyes – not that it made any difference in the pitch-black chamber – and jumped.
Rarity plummeted down the long, wide tunnel, reaching unknown depths beneath the surface. Just when she was sure that the steep tunnel would never end, she shot out of it and landed hard on her rump in the middle of a massive cavern. She slowly got up and gingerly rubbed her bruised rump. Noticing a faint light in the distance, Rarity galloped toward it as quickly as she could.
“Wait for me!” she yelled, chasing the light as it rounded a bend in the tunnel. It wasn't long before she had caught up to Greyhoof, who had halted to allow Rarity to catch up. “Where's Applejack?” she panted.
Greyhoof's eyes flicked deeper down the passage before them. “She must've gone ahead of us. Hurry!”
Rarity and Greyhoof charged down the tunnel at top speed until they heard the sound of another set of galloping hooves. Not too far ahead of them, Applejack came into view, her pace slowed by the lack of visibility. Quickening their pace, they soon fell into step with her.
“'Bout time y'all caught up,” greeted Applejack gruffly. “There's no time to waste! That creature could be doin' who-knows-what to Twi!”
Greyhoof looked at Applejack as he drew parallel with her, his eyes ablaze like wildfire. “Did you catch a glimpse of the creature that took Twilight?”
Applejack frowned as she continued to stare determinedly ahead. “Not really, but I saw it going down this tunnel. I was tryin' to follow the light from the torch in its mouth, but it got too far ahead.” She paused for a few seconds. “I don't know what it was, but it was big. Very big.”
Greyhoof looked grim. “I have my suspicions. If they're correct, making it out of here alive will be no simple task.” He quickened his pace, galloping faster than even Applejack. “Well, I think we now know the reason why the platinum veins within this cave have remained untapped for so long.”
“Yes,” gasped a wide-eyed Rarity, forcing the words out between breaths, “that's why the tunnels are so huge!”
A faint scream in the distance interrupted their haphazard conversation. Greyhoof's ears stiffened. “Hold on, Twilight!” he shouted. “We're coming!”
Rarity, Applejack, and Greyhoof noticed a new light source flickering ahead of them. As the passage took a sharp turn, Rarity beheld a sight that caused her to let loose what would've been a scream, but her fear was so great that only an almost inaudible squeak escaped her throat. The three ponies came to a grinding halt inside the largest cavern they'd entered yet, blazing torches, ringing the walls.
A pair of immense clawed hands clutched a stone mound in the centre of the cavern – the same hands that had snatched Twilight. “So, the prey seeks the predator...” boomed the creature. “A most intriguing, yet delicious reversal of roles.” Its long, blue scorpion-like tail swished from side to side, its burnished gold stinger that matched its claws glinting in the torchlight.
“I... I know what you are...” said Greyhoof, his voice shaking. “You're a masticore!”
Applejack looked uneasily at Greyhoof. “A what now?”
Greyhoof didn't take his eyes off the three-mouthed lion's head while he responded to Applejack, staring intently into its blood-red eyes. “It is a distant cousin of the manticore, but I would rather have found a whole nest of manticores than one of these,” he said. “Their existence was supposed to be nothing more than a myth. In the old stories, ponies who did not run away were usually crushed, stung, or eaten.”
The masticore huffed in amusement. “It would seem that you are more knowledgeable than the average pony.” Greyhoof cautiously edged his way to the right as the masticore spoke. “A pity it won't save you.”
“Twilight!” shouted Greyhoof as he spotted her far behind the masticore, bound to the far wall of the cavern with a crude piece of rope that hung around her neck like a noose. “What have you done to her?”
The masticore licked its lips with two of his mouths while speaking with the third. “She will be of no use to you.”
Rarity gulped and darted behind a small rock, trying to get a good look at Twilight from her tiny piece of cover. Being the only one to stand her ground, Applejack glared at the masticore defiantly, as if she could intimidate the much larger creature. “You. Let. Her. Go. Or. Else!” she threatened through gritted teeth.
The masticore laughed. It was a deep rumbling sound that felt like it shook the entire cavern. “Or else what, my little ponies?” All three of its mouths now bore the same feral grin. “It has been far too long since I have had fresh meat.” Its burnished gold lion's mane ruffled. “I shall savour this meal.”
In a flash, the masticore lunged forward at Greyhoof. Reacting in the nick of time, he ducked a deadly swipe of its claws. The masticore thrust his stinger at Greyhoof with lightning speed. With little chance of dodging in time, Greyhoof projected a small barrier of light blue energy. The stinger bounced off the magical shield, striking the floor beside him, loudly splintering a rock. Gritting his teeth, Greyhoof's horn shimmered once again as he began to muster his powers offensively. His foe was too quick; as soon as the masticore spotted the energy coalescing around Greyhoof, it viciously backhanded him in the side of the head. The blow sent Greyhoof crashing heavily into the wall of the cavern.
The masticore raised one of its hands, preparing his coup de grace, all of its mouths sneering triumphantly. Applejack's eyes widened in desperation as she charged toward the fight. When she came within a couple of feet of the monstrous creature, she spun around and kicked it in the stomach with both of her hind legs with enough force to fell a large apple tree. The blow merely caused the masticore to sway slightly to the side, grunting with pain as it turned its attention to Applejack.
Although her attack had barely left a mark, it had served its purpose. Using the lapse in the masticore's concentration, Greyhoof stood back up and prepared his counterattack, coughing up blood as he did so. The few seconds of buildup that he required passing by undetected. The masticore charged at Applejack, but before it could strike, it found itself enveloped by an immense field of magical energy. Despite Greyhoof's best efforts, it was only enough to slow the beast.
“Rarity, don't just sit there, do something!” Applejack shouted as she readied herself for another charge.
Rarity, looking on in horror from behind her small rock, stood paralyzed with fear. Her friends were in danger and she had no idea how to help them. Greyhoof's magical capabilities far exceeded her own and they proved to be more of an annoyance than an actual threat to the blue behemoth. Even Applejack's might, wrought from years of applebucking, could hardly even faze the creature. What could she possibly do? Her fear turned to panic as she saw the masticore turn around and slowly make its way toward Greyhoof, drawing closer inch by inch.
“I – can't – hold – it – off – forever!” grunted Greyhoof. “Free – Twilight!”
Shivering, Rarity gulped audibly. “Okay, here goes nothing!” she told herself before galloping full-tilt across the chamber. She may not have been able to help, but if there was anypony capable of tipping the scales in their favour, it was Twilight. Rarity leapt to the wall where the rope hung. Igniting her horn, she sliced through the bonds like a knife. Twilight's eyes remained closed.
Rarity shook her. “Twilight! Twilight!” Then she noticed the sizable cut on her side. “Oh, Twilight, what happened to you?” Tears began welling up in her eyes when she saw that Twilight wasn't moving. “This is all my fault! If I hadn't insisted we come down here to get my stupid platinum, this would never have happened!”
Twilight's eyes fluttered slightly open. “R-Rarity?” she mumbled. “That you?”
“Twilight, you're okay!” Rarity hugged her fiercely.
Twilight looked at Rarity weakly. “Stung,” she said. “Stung me when it took me. Can barely move...”
“We need your help!” urged Rarity, helping her friend to her hooves. “Greyhoof's magic alone isn't enough. I mean he's quite good, but he's no ursa-defeating unicorn like you are!”
Twilight steadied herself and looked over at the masticore as he drew closer to Greyhoof. She closed her eyes and reached for her reserves of power, but found nothing there. “My – my magic!” she cried in alarm. “Gone!”
It was all Rarity could do to prevent herself from fainting. “Gone? What do you mean, gone?”
Suddenly, Twilight collapsed, clutching her side in pain. “The sting! Something inside of me – sapping my strength –” Twilight winced. “Rarity... it's all up to you...”
Rarity closed her eyes and clenched her teeth as she concentrated with every fibre of her being. She began to feel the power welling within her, but as she drew near the limits of her reserves, her heart sank. This... isn't anywhere nearly enough... what can I do? she desperately thought. She opened her eyes and saw a ball of light blue energy crackling from the tip of her horn. Frantically scanning the chamber, Rarity's eyes fixed on a sizable boulder on the other side. Focusing her energy, she manipulated the loose magic and used it like a lasso. The boulder hurtled across the cavern, directly at the masticore's head. It was unable to evade the rock or ready a defense – thanks to being still encumbered by Greyhoof's spell – and the boulder struck home, splitting into dozens of pieces from the impact. The masticore cried out in pain as its ability to resist Greyhoof's magic was momentarily cut, allowing the spell to tighten its grip like a vice.
Greyhoof continued to maintain his spell, his face drenched with sweat from the exertion. “Strike now, Applejack, while it is weakened!”
Applejack didn't need to be told twice. She barreled at the masticore, her eyes narrowed with determination. Leaping into the air, she spun around and delivered a tremendous blow with her back legs. It proved too much for the masticore. Aided by Greyhoof's magic, the attack sent it flying into the wall beside him, creating a great spiderweb of cracks originating from the point of impact.
Exhaling loudly, Greyhoof released his magic, closing his eyes as he tried to recover from the immense strain. Shaking himself, he opened them again and spotted another passage leading out of the masticore's lair. “Quickly, take Twilight and go down that tunnel!” he commanded, pointing to it. “I'll hold it off!”
Carrying Twilight on her back, Rarity trotted to where Applejack was standing. “You... you have to come with us,” Twilight implored.
“That can't happen!” Greyhoof countered. He pointed at the fallen masticore, who was slowly clawing its way back to its feet. “This battle is far from over.”
“Then let us all fight it, together, as friends!” pleaded Twilight, sliding off of Rarity's back and trying to stand on her hooves. She would have fallen from the effort had Applejack not caught her.
Greyhoof shook his head solemnly. “You are in no condition to fight,” he said, his voice almost unnervingly calm. He turned around and looked at Twilight, his eyes smoldering like a bonfire that had recently been doused. “You can't even stand up on your own, let alone run. You'll need to be carried, and Rarity will have enough trouble running on her own without additional weight. Applejack cannot possibly stand against such a creature without magic. I am the only suitable candidate to remain behind.” He looked down at the ground with regret. “Besides... it was I who said that we come down this particular passage. It is only right that I'll be the one to buy you time.” Greyhoof spun around as he heard the masticore growl ominously behind him. “What are you waiting for? Get out of here! NOW!”
Applejack lifted Twilight on to her back and turned around, facing the tunnel that Greyhoof had indicated. “Ya heard him...”
“What?” cried Twilight and Rarity in protest.
“We can't just leave him!” shouted Twilight, flailing weakly from atop Applejack.
Applejack blinked back tears as she galloped toward the tunnel, Rarity following close behind her. “We've got no choice!”
As the three ponies reached the entrance to the new tunnel, Rarity yanked one of the blazing torches from the wall and they took off. The steadily fading sounds of combat could be heard above their loud hoof-falls as they galloped down the immense passage. The whole time, Twilight had her face buried in her hooves and was quietly sobbing. “G-Greyhoof...” she choked, her voice muffled by her own hooves.
Twilight continued to ride on Applejack's back while she and Rarity put as much distance between themselves and the masticore as possible. A combination of guilt and the masticore's venom made her writhe in pain. I can't believe we abandoned him... If he couldn't defeat that... that thing with our help, then what chance does he stand on his own? What kind of a friend am I if I just left him to die? Applejack and Rarity came to an abrupt halt, cutting into her miserable thoughts. Twilight lowered her hooves to see what had caused them to stop, and when she did, her jaw fell open.
Rarity smiled for the first time in hours. “Platinum!”
“There – there's gotta be enough of the stuff to decorate all of Canterlot!” said Applejack in a awed, hushed tone.
“This must be the masticore's hoard!” Rarity squealed in delight. “It's so beautiful! Look, there are even piles of it just laying here! I don't even need to mine them!”
“Well... you've got what you came for...” sobbed Twilight.
Rarity's smile vanished. She opened her saddlebags and took all the platinum she needed from the masticore's hoard. Rarity had achieved what she had come down here to do, but now she felt like she was robbing Greyhoof's grave. It only took Rarity a few seconds to fill her bags and fasten them shut once again. She motioned toward another tunnel leading out of the chamber. “Let's get out of here.”
Applejack patted Twilight gently, trying to bring her out of her grief. “Look, sugarcube, Greyhoof did what he felt was right. Who knows – maybe he's got a plan to make it out or somethin'.”
Twilight gave Applejack a hug made awkward by her position on her back. “I hope you're right...”
Applejack eyed Rarity's saddlebags suspiciously. “Ya ain't gonna be able to move too quickly with those.”
“Well, hopefully I won't need to,” said Rarity, picking up the torch once more. “Now come on!”
Once again, the ponies were off, moving as quickly as they could, considering their heavy burdens. The dreary tunnel stretched on for what seemed like miles, its twists and turns masking its true length and direction. Eventually, they came upon another huge cavern, this one riddled with other tunnels.
“Which one do we take?” Applejack scratched her head.
“Try to find one that goes up. With any luck, it'll lead us back up top,” Twilight offered.
Rarity was already scampering to a nearby tunnel. “Excellent idea, Twilight!”
Applejack and Rarity split up, poking their heads into tunnel after tunnel, none of which seemed promising. Eventually, Rarity cried out in triumph. Applejack rushed over to where she was standing, and sure enough, the tunnel before sloped up sharply. Their progress was considerably slower than before, which was understandable given the addition of the incline to their heavy loads.
It was not long before Twilight voiced what they had all been thinking. “I hope Greyhoof made it...”
“Didn't he say he's spent his whole life roughin' it and studyin' magic and whatnot?” Applejack asked with as much optimism as she could. “That's gotta count for somethin', right?”
Twilight shivered involuntarily. I hope Applejack's right... she thought gloomily. But I can never forgive myself if he can't escape. What kind of plan could he possibly have? If he gets hit even once by that stinger, he's done for. Twilight shivered again. She couldn't explain it, but the thought of losing Greyhoof – a pony whom she had just met – conjured up feelings deep within her that she had only felt once before. This... this is just like what I thought I had lost all of my friends forever at the hands of Discord... She cherished all of her friendships greatly, and despite the short amount of time they'd spent together, this one was no different; for the first time in her life, she had met a pony that was every bit as magic and knowledge obsessed as she was. Not only were their interests nearly identical, she even found a bit of herself in him. Or rather, what she might have been in five years had she not experienced the magic of friendship. It was then she realized that not everypony was as lucky as she was to have somepony as wise and gentle as the Princess to give her a push in the right direction.
“It feels like we're rats in a maze,” whined Rarity some time later.
They'd lost track of time in the tunnels, the monotony of their trek occasionally broken by a cavern with yet more tunnels. Even Applejack ignored Rarity's complaint and pressed on as if nothing had happened. On and on they trudged, through tunnel after tunnel, cavern after cavern.
“We're going to die in here, aren't we?” said Rarity in despair after entering what felt like the twentieth new cavern.
Die... The word deeply resonated within Twilight. I've left him to die. She felt as if this thought had been branded into her with a white-hot iron. If she made it through this alive, when would she forgive herself for what they had done? Could she forgive herself? I'm lauded as the Element of Magic, forged from the power of friendship. How can I embody the magic of friendship after what I've done? How can I call myself a good friend? Twilight felt the bitter taste of bile in her mouth. She spent the next several minutes picturing scenario after scenario of Greyhoof fighting a hopeless battle against the masticore, each ending in a death more gruesome than the last.
Twilight was once again consumed by her thoughts, completely oblivious to her surroundings and the bumpiness of riding on Applejack's back. In spite of the relative comfort of her method of transportation, Twilight's coat was matted with sweat. Whether it was feverish symptoms brought on by the masticore's venom or the stuffiness of the tunnels, she did not know. Eventually, Rarity's wail of despair jarred her back to reality when they entered yet another large cavern.
“Oh, be quiet,” Applejack muttered barely loud enough for only Twilight to hear.
Twilight would have normally reprimanded her friend for her almost silent outburst, but she felt far too addled to worry about such things. Sliding off of Applejack's back, Twilight hoped to relieve her of her burden, at least for a short while. “I'm not sure how much further I can make it,” she said a few minutes later. The masticore's venom was steadily sapping her strength, causing her to feel lightheaded. Twilight suddenly tripped over a pile of rocks near the entrance to one of the tunnels. She stared at it for a moment, refusing to believe what she was seeing. “Girls, come quick!”
Applejack rushed to her side, helping her back to her hooves. “Are you okay, sugarcube?” she asked with concern.
“What is it?” inquired Rarity, joining the other two ponies.
Twilight pointed to the familiar pile of rocks. “Look!”
Applejack's eyes widened. “Is that?”
“It is!” Twilight smiled and would have fallen over if Applejack hadn't caught and steadied her. “We've almost made it!”
Applejack lowered herself, inviting Twilight to climb onto her back. “I think it'd be a good idea if you let me carry you again, Twi.”
Twilight nodded gratefully and silently got back on. When Applejack was sure she wouldn't fall off, she rose to her full height and began trudging back through a somewhat familiar tunnel. The ponies' hearts steadily rose as they drew closer and closer to the end of the seemingly endless tunnels. Finally, when they rounded one final bend, there it was. Light. Glorious, refreshing light. The ponies all blinked as their eyes struggled to adjust to it, despite the day quickly giving way to nightfall. Twilight, momentarily forgetting the poison coursing through her veins, leapt off of Applejack and shambled down the mountainside with the others as they rushed toward the balloon with reckless abandon.
Once they reached the balloon, however, Twilight's ailment returned with full force. “Greyhoof...” She collapsed on the ground.
Applejack removed her hat and held it to her chest, her eyes downcast and ears drooping. “I'm sorry, Twi... there's nothing any of us could've done.”
Rarity clambered into the balloon and solemnly removed her bulging saddlebags, setting them on the basket's floor. “Oh, I wish I was even close to as good with magic as you and him...” she lamented.
Twilight struggled back to her hooves, unaided by Applejack this time. “Where are you going?” she demanded of Rarity.
“Home. We need to get out of here.”
“No you don't,” said Twilight flatly. “We're searching.”
“Twilight...” Rarity remained in the balloon basket, her voice pleading. “Just look at the state you're in. You've been poisoned. You can barely even walk. We need to get you to a hospital, Twilight.”
It took almost every ounce of strength Twilight had left to stay standing. She gritted her teeth. “No. Don't you get it? Greyhoof sacrificed himself for us. For you. For your platinum.” She stared down Rarity through heavy-lidded eyes. “We aren't leaving without him.”
Applejack gently put a hoof around Twilight's body, steadying her. “She's right, Rarity.”
Rarity's gaze moved from Twilight's eyes, which were now nothing more than slits, to her legs, which looked to be on the verge of buckling. She cast her head downward as her eyes filled with tears, and she gave a silent nod in acquiescence as she moved to get out of the balloon. Rarity leapt to the ground and landed elegantly beside Twilight and Applejack. Taking a deep breath, she resolutely marched toward the mountain.
“Not that way,” Twilight called after her. “Remember how many tunnels there were? There might be a hidden entrance we missed.”
“Where should we start?” asked Applejack.
Taking a few unsteady steps away from her supporter, Twilight moved toward the mountain. “The base of the path upwards should be a good place to start. Check under foliage first.”
“Do you need me to carry ya again, sugarcube?” asked Applejack.
Twilight stayed her slow but steady course. “I'll be fine.” She looked back at Applejack's concerned face. “Really. Don't worry about me.”
The ponies began circling the small mountain, their search made gradually more difficult by the rapidly fading sunlight until Rarity lit her horn. Their spirits steadily dropped as they came closer to a full circuit of it, with neither another tunnel nor Greyhoof anywhere to be found. The loud chirping of crickets reminded them of just how long they had been on this expedition.
When the balloon came into view, Twilight fell to the ground as if she had been struck. “Greyhoof...”
“It's no use, Twi, we have to get you back to Ponyville,” insisted Applejack desperately. “I know we can't just leave Grey on his own, but you might die if we stay out here too much longer.” Applejack paused for a moment, fighting to hold back tears. “I – I won't lose two good ponies today.”
Applejack helped Twilight up yet again. When she looked into her face, Applejack felt tears roll uncontrollably down her cheeks. The look on Twilight's was not only one of pain, misery, and despair, but one of deep loss. Applejack hugged her and sank to her knees, both of them crying uncontrollably. Rarity only stood in place, staring at the ground.
“So... everypony made it out alright. I'm glad.”
Everypony froze from the sound of the voice. When they looked up, they saw a bright light emanating from the horn of Greyhoof. Choking in disbelief, Twilight wiped away her tears and ran at him, her limbs filled with a fresh surge of vitality. She wordlessly embraced him, waves of relief coursing through her. Greyhoof, taken aback by Twilight's sudden outburst of affection, tentatively returned her embrace, gently patting her on the back.
“Where in the hay did you come from?” demanded Applejack in astonishment. “We thought you were –”
Greyhoof released Twilight and gently levitated her into the balloon. “We need to get back to Ponyville at once. I can explain while we're en route.”
Greyhoof, Applejack, and Rarity climbed into the basket beside Twilight. His horn shimmered as the balloon refilled with hot air and began to climb into the night sky. Breathing a sigh of relief, Greyhoof looked worriedly at Twilight, who had passed out.
Rarity involuntarily took a step back when she inspected Greyhoof, taking note of his appearance. “Oh, Greyhoof, you poor dear! You're hurt!”
“Never mind that now.” Greyhoof looked solemnly at Rarity, his eyes burning like the torches in the masticore's lair. “After the three of you had escaped, the masticore was ready for a second round. Obviously, he was full of confidence now that it was just him and me, not to mention the frustration of having been deprived of a feast. He came at me with everything he had. The slashes of his claws were merely a distraction so he could hit me with his tail. If that thing so much as grazed me, I was finished. It took every trick I knew to evade him.” Greyhoof remained stone-faced during his entire recount.
“Evade him?” asked Applejack, taking a good look at the dried blood matting parts of his coat and various open wounds.
Greyhoof winced in pain. “Evade is a relative term. I wouldn't be lying if I said these gashes hurt a great deal, but they were only glancing blows. If that beast actually hit me even once, I'd have been cut to ribbons.”
“Boy howdy...” breathed Applejack, beginning to realize just how serious the wounds were. “How did ya fend him off? I don't know much about magic or nothin', but ya must've been tired after what you did back there.”
“I was,” said Greyhoof, tearing off a piece of his cloak near his neck and tying it around a particularly large cut. “I think I have you to thank for my life, Applejack.”
“When you sent the masticore crashing into the wall, I think it gave him a concussion. When the fight resumed, his blows were much less accurate and far more clumsy were at the start of the battle.” Taking a deep breath, Greyhoof continued. “Although I could relatively escape harm – for the moment – he and I both knew that I was no match for him. Left with no other choice, I fled down the nearest tunnel. Unfortunately, all of them are large enough to accommodate a behemoth of his size with room to spare. It turns out that masticores are swift runners.” He allowed himself a humourless chuckle. “When it became apparent that he would overtake me, I did the last thing I could think of. I turned around and blasted the ceiling of the tunnel with everything I had, causing a massive cave-in.”
Rarity gasped audibly and held her hooves to her muzzle. “You could've been killed!”
Greyhoof shot Rarity a regretful glance. “Do you think I had any other choice? Luckily for me, the rocks fell on the masticore and spared me from harm. I highly doubt the beast perished, but at the very least it bought me ample time to escape. I was immediately faced with another crisis: I was completely lost, having galloped headlong down an unknown passage. I made the best time I could, hoping that you had not left without me.”
Applejack looked at the sleeping Twilight and gave her an affectionate smile. “You have Twi to thank for that.”
Greyhoof's expression softened as he allowed a smile to creep onto his lips. “I am most grateful. Now, Rarity, did you at least get what we came for?”
Patting the overfilled saddlebags, Rarity nodded. “There's plenty for the entirety of Hoity Toity's order, with an ample surplus!”
Unceremoniously collapsing, Greyhoof closed his eyes. “Good,” he said, passing out.
by Tony “GaryOak” Genovese
The Path to Recovery
Twilight woke with a start, springing to her hooves and looking around wildly. She stood in the middle of Ponyville, each of its colourful structures ablaze. Twilight set off toward the library at a full gallop. What in the wide wide world of Equestria is going on? I have to get Spike out of here! she thought, her mind racing.
A familiar cloud of purple smog stopped her before she got far. Hushed, eerie laughter reached her ears. Her heart beat much faster than normal. Her horn shimmered, but before she could mount an offensive, the cloud sped in the direction of the library. Twilight's eyes widened. Ignoring the flames raging around her, she redoubled her effort to reach the library. Twilight skidded to a halt near Sugarcube Corner when she saw a cream-coloured filly bolting down the street, the smog giving chase.
“You're too late!” whistled the wind mockingly.
Shouting in alarm, Twilight rushed to help the defenseless filly escape from the oncoming cloud. When she drew near, something that felt like a large iron hand closed firmly around her whole body and flung her forcefully into the wall of a burning house. Twilight crashed through the weakened timber and narrowly avoided being scorched by a nearby patch of flames. Staggering to her hooves, she watched from a distance as the smog surrounded the filly and enveloped her entirely, forcibly choking the life from her body.
“Twist!” cried Twilight, a flaming wooden partition crashing down inches from where she stood.
Twilight leapt out of the building, firing a bright burst of magenta at the cloud. It dissipated, leaving Twist's limp body on the ground. Twilight knelt beside the filly and picked her up tenderly, holding a hoof in front of her muzzle to check for any signs of life. Feeling not so much as the slightest breath of air escaping, she slowly set her down, eyes filling with tears.
The purple smog coalesced high above her. “She was the first of many!” The cloud began to sink, bearing down on Twilight. “You are the only one who has the power to stop me, yet you don't use it...”
Twilight looked up at the cloud, her eyes wide with confusion and fear. “What do you mean? Who are you? Why are you doing this? What are you?”
Her torrent of questions was met only with more of the ethereal laughter. “You can prevent this... Destroy the evil one! It is the only way...”
Twilight wanted to scream, but found her breath being caught in her throat as she felt the cloud permeate her. Struggling, Twilight slowly sank to her knees, her vitality fading fast. The laughter grew steadily louder as it slowly forced the air from her lungs.
“Twilight!” She couldn't tell who this new voice belonged to. “Twilight!” The voice again. Her vision began to blur as she felt herself being shaken by an unseen force. “TWILIGHT!”
Twilight let out a startled gasp as her surroundings melted before her eyes. She looked around and found herself in a Ponyville Hospital bed. Fluttershy, Applejack, Rainbow, and Greyhoof were looking anxiously at her. “W-what happened? Where's the fire?” she mumbled.
Greyhoof sat up in a bed adjacent to Twilight's. Sporting numerous bandages, he looked a few shades paler than usual. “You were screaming about something. The only word we could make out was 'Twist'. Are you okay?”
Twilight winced. “Oh, my head...”
“Don't worry, sugarcube, you're safe.” Applejack tried to comfort Twilight, unable to completely keep her voice from shaking.
Rainbow remained at the foot of the bed. “So, what exactly happened, anyway? We came as soon as we heard.”
Opening her eyes, Twilight tried to clear her mind. “It was... a manticore.”
“Masticore,” corrected Greyhoof.
“It grabbed me,” continued Twilight groggily. “I... I tried to fight, but it stung me. I don't remember anything after that...”
“We followed him down into his lair,” said Applejack, picking up where Twilight left off. “We tried to distract it, buyin' Rarity enough time to free Twi, but she lost her magic somehow.”
“Not exactly,” said Greyhoof, ignoring a sigh from Rainbow. “While I am unsure of the exact properties of its venom, I know it is debilitative to such a degree that using magic is impossible.”
“Anyway, we got poor Twi out, and luckily, all of us made it out alive,” finished Applejack.
“Barely,” said Greyhoof, wincing as he lay back down.
Twilight heard a loud squeal as Fluttershy rushed to the bed and hugged her gently. “Oh, you poor thing!”
Twilight patted her on the head. “I'll be alright.”
Greyhoof snapped his head toward Twilight, eyes widening. “What happened? Something caused you to scream in your sleep. Do you remember?”
Twilight's eyes locked with Greyhoof's. “It was a dream, nothing more,” she lied. I can't just tell everypony what I really saw; I don't want to scare them unnecessarily, especially since it might be connected to my first nightmare. It has to be because of this venom. That's it. Once I'm cured, I'll never have a dream like this again, she firmly told herself. “The poison is getting to my head – making me see things.”
“It sounded like a heck of a lot more than 'things', Twi,” countered Applejack, her voice full of doubt.
“W-what exactly is a masticore?” Fluttershy asked fearfully.
“Uh, well, it kinda looked like a manticore,” said Applejack, “except bigger, meaner, and tougher. It –”
“They have three mouthes, a blue coat, and a gold mane,” interjected Greyhoof, ignoring an annoyed huff from Applejack. “Living deep underground, masticores hoard platinum found within the rock. They are so rare, in fact, that many believe their existence confined to that of myth.”
“Not something you'd want to be on the wrong side of,” said Applejack.
Crestfallen, Fluttershy stared at the bedsheets. “Maybe if I was there, I could've talked to him and avoided this whole mess...”
“Yeah!” exclaimed Rainbow, flying a lap around the room before landing with her chest puffed out at the foot of the bed. “You were lucky to make it out alive without us pegasi!” She jabbed at the air with her front hooves. “I'd have shown him not to mess with the Dash!”
“I'm afraid not,” Greyhoof said flatly, clambering out of bed and walking toward Rainbow. “Even your speed and agility coupled with... whatever Fluttershy does... would simply have given the masticore more targets of opportunity. Without powerful magic, fighting such a creature would be a useless gesture. Why, even with my full –”
Rainbow stuck her head in front of Greyhoof's, her face inches from his. “What's that supposed to mean, huh?” she challenged. “You just think you're better than everypony else because you're a unicorn! And look where that got you!”
Greyhoof stared into Rainbow's eyes, his own blazing with greater intensity by the second as he prepared a scathing verbal counteroffensive. But before he could utter any rebuttal, Applejack cut in defiantly. “Now look here, RD! I know you and Grey got off to a bit of a rough start, but –”
Rainbow turned to Applejack angrily. “But what?”
“Calm down, Rainbow,” pleaded Applejack. “I know he can be a bit persnickety sometimes, but he saved our lives. He was even willing to sacrifice himself, just to save us.”
Rainbow's planned retort caught in her throat and she took a step back. “I – I didn't know...”
“We really do owe our lives to him,” coughed Twilight, clutching Greyhoof's front hoof with her own.
Greyhoof looked at Twilight for a moment before staring blankly at the ground. “Rainbow, we had our differences earlier today, but I don't want to fight anymore.” Everypony looked at him. “Something happened in that cave. When I arrived, all I wanted was to study, but then I met all of you. There is something about this place. I can't put my hoof on it, but something about Ponyville and its inhabitants fills me with an irrepressible desire to help everypony I can. I felt it clearly right as the masticore was preparing to kill us all.” Lifting his head, Greyhoof turned to each pony in the room individually. “While I've only known most of you for a few hours, it is clear to me that I have acted poorly. I'm sorry.”
As Greyhoof's words faded into the air, an awkward silence permeated the room. Everypony stared blankly at various points of little interest. Only Twilight's gaze rested on something of note: Greyhoof, who didn't notice her attention. Twilight wore a proud smile, nodding at him. I'm actually getting through to him.
The room's only door swung open on well-oiled hinges, granting a white pony wearing a nurse's hat atop her pink mane, which was tied into a neat bun, entrance. “Out of my way, everypony! Quickly!” She carried a tray adorned with a few simple pieces of food and a mug of unknown liquid.
Bustling past Twilight's friends, Nurse Redheart set the tray down beside Twilight and picked up the mug. “Drink this, dear. It's manticore vaccine,” she said in soothing tones, putting the mug next to Twilight's mouth. Holding a hoof under Twilight's muzzle to steady her, Nurse Redheart gently poured the liquid down Twilight's throat until she had emptied the mug's contents. Twilight spluttered, but swallowed all of the strange fluid.
Redheart dabbed Twilight's forehead with a damp towel before taking a step back and giving her a concerned look. “If you're feeling up to it, please try to use your magic.”
Twilight closed her eyes and gritted her teeth as she attempted to levitate one of the plates on the tray. Concentrating with all her might, she reached deep within her for any scrap of magic she could find, as if she needed to summon enough power to fend off an ursa attack. After a few seconds, she opened her eyes and stared at the plate. It hadn't moved an inch. She looked up at Redheart, who solemnly shook her head.
Redheart looked at Twilight apologetically. “I've never seen a case like yours before. In all honesty, I haven't dealt with a case of manticore venom, although this medicine was supposed to –”
“That's because manticores are entirely different creatures,” Greyhoof interjected. “Your unfamiliarity with the properties of masticores is unfortunate. I doubt you will find anything of use in your medical hoofbooks. Case in point: your use of medicine used to cure manticore venom. However, I can't say I'm –”
“What are you doing out of bed?” snapped Nurse Redheart, eyeing his bandages. “You should be laying down and waiting for the plate of grass and flowers that I'm about to bring you, not telling me how to do my job!”
Greyhoof's nostrils flared, expelling a small puff of steam. “That's hardly what I'm doing. I am simply providing knowledge where there is ignorance.”
“Well then, what do you propose?” huffed Redheart indignantly.
“What about Supernaturals?” suggested Twilight. “There's bound to be something in there.”
Redheart give a disapproving humph.
“It's not what you think,” Twilight defended. “It contains hundreds of obscure natural remedies.”
“Natural remedies?” Redheart's voice was dripping with skepticism. “And what of medical science, hmm?”
Greyhoof turned to Redheart, his glare boring a hole into her. “Medical science surely does wonders for ailments contracted from creatures that it does not acknowledge the existence of,” he quipped. “This book sounds like our best chance.”
Taking a moment to steady herself, Redheart silently ground her teeth. “Very well,” she said reluctantly, “but nothing too funny will be administered to my patient on my watch. Got it?”
“Do you want me to go fetch the book, sugarcube?” asked Applejack.
Twilight gave her a sly smile. “I already sent Rainbow to get it.”
Applejack blinked. “When?” she asked.
“While those two were arguing,” said Twilight. Suddenly, the sound of loud rapping came from the door. “That must be her now.”
“I'll get it,” said Greyhoof. An explosion of balloons and confetti nearly knocked him flat on his back when he tried to open the door.
“Watch where you're going, Clumsy McClumserson!” giggled Pinkie as she stepped around a shocked Greyhoof, carrying a massive box on her back.
“Pinkie Pie...” Greyhoof muttered under his breath, scowling as he got back on his hooves.
“What's in the box?” asked Redheart suspiciously as Pinkie set it on the foot of Twilight's bed.
Pinkie popped open the box to reveal a grand white cake. On top of the cake, there was a crude icing drawing of Twilight, Greyhoof, Rarity, and Applejack standing triumphantly on top of a manticore-like creature with X's where its eyes should have been and its tongue comically sticking out. “It's a congratulations-on-beating-the-big-meanie-masticore-and-get-well-soon cake, silly!” she chirped. “Oh, and on my way here I bumped into Rainbow. She was carrying this.” She reached under the cake box and pulled out the book Supernaturals.
“Excellent!” exclaimed Greyhoof, completely ignoring the cake and yanking the book out of Pinkie's grasp. He hastily flipped through its pages until he found what he sought. “Hmmm.” He turned to Nurse Redheart and levitated the book in front of her. “Do you possess any of these ingredients?”
Redheart's brow furrowed as she skimmed the page. “I don't believe so. Are you sure this will work?”
Greyhoof floated the book beside Twilight. “It's the best chance we have. Twilight, do you happen to know where we can obtain these?”
Twilight shook her head. Greyhoof sighed and let the book drop next to her, the page still open to the treatment of masticore venom. Pinkie looked about ready to burst as everypony was ignoring her cake, even Rainbow, who had just returned. Before she could say anything, Fluttershy took a peek at the book and let out a quiet squeak.
“What is it?” Twilight asked her, suddenly concerned.
“I think I've seen those plants before,” said Fluttershy.
Rainbow flared her wings and peered over Fluttershy's head, looking at the open book. “Where?”
“The Everfree Forest...” Fluttershy whimpered.
“Oh, come on! You're not still afraid of the forest, are you?” sighed Rainbow in exasperation.
Fluttershy took a step back and gulped. “Yes.”
Pinkie whipped out a large knife and cut a sizable piece of cake. Dumping the hospital food off one of the plates, she replaced it with the slice of cake and handed it to Fluttershy. “This will make you feel better!”
“There's no time for cake. Twilight's condition could worsen,” pressed Greyhoof, approaching the door.
Pinkie cut off the section of cake that depicted Greyhoof in icing and zipped in front of him, holding the plate between her teeth, smiling broadly. Greyhoof stared into her wide, puppy-dog eyes for a few seconds. Slowly, a smile cracked on his face and he lifted the piece of cake next to his mouth. He took a nibble of the cake and his ears perked up. On the spot, he sat down on his haunches and began to eagerly gobble it.
Everypony laughed as they each took slices and joined him. While they ate, the past day's perils and fatigue seemed to melt away. Even Twilight's spirits were lifted, her predicament presently forgotten. When the lion's share of the cake had vanished, Fluttershy hugged Pinkie appreciatively before closing the box. “I was wondering if I could keep the leftovers,” she asked her aside. “I still haven't found any of the animals, and I was hoping that maybe this delicious cake might help lure them out.”
Pinkie smiled. “Sure! If you need more, just come down to Sugarcube Corner and I'll bake some for free!”
“Say...” said Twilight, licking a few crumbs off her lips, “has anypony seen Rarity?”
“I think she's working on her dresses, or sleepin', given the late hour an' all,” said Applejack.
Rainbow grinned. “Her loss! There ended up being more cake for me!”
Grabbing a quill and parchment, Greyhoof jotted down the ingredients required for the medicine. “So, where in the Everfree Forest do you think we can procure these?” he asked Twilight.
Twilight frowned. “I don't know, but I do think Zecora will be able to help us.”
Greyhoof arched an eyebrow. “Zecora? That's an odd name for a pony.”
“Well, that's because she isn't a pony at all,” said Twilight, “she's a zebra that lives in a tree deep in the forest. She should have just about everything we need.”
Greyhoof's eyes sparked. “A zebra, you say? There shouldn't be many left in Equestria.”
Twilight held a hoof to her muzzle and looked at the ceiling. “Now that you mention it, she is the only zebra I've ever met. Either way, she's friendly, though maybe a little strange at first. A bit of a loner.”
Rolling her eyes, Applejack gave Greyhoof a playful poke in the belly. “I've sure never met anypony like that before!”
Everypony except Greyhoof chuckled. Greyhoof grinned sheepishly. “Come on, let's get going. There's no time to waste.”
Nodding to each other, the five ponies began leaving the room, one by one, until only Applejack and Greyhoof remained. She turned to Twilight and tipped her hat. “We'll be back with the cure before ya know it, sugarcube. I promise.”
Nurse Redheart moved in front of Greyhoof. “Oh no, you aren't going anywhere – not in your condition!”
Greyhoof sighed. “I would be lying if I said I wasn't in a great deal of pain, but that isn't important right now. The wounds have been properly dressed and will heal easily enough. This mission cannot fail, and my magic may be useful in such a dangerous place. Injured or not, I'm going.”
Redheart reluctantly stepped to the side. “Fine, but if you get yourself in more trouble, don't come crying to me!”
Twilight smiled and waved as Applejack left the room, Redheart closing the door behind her. Once they had left the hospital, Applejack, Greyhoof, Pinkie, and Rainbow briskly trotted toward the Everfree Forest. Before long, they had reached the forest's entrance, its wild trees looming over them ominously.
Greyhoof fell into step behind Applejack and Rainbow, who took point. “So tell me, which way to this zebra's house?”
Applejack set a pace that was a little more brisk than Fluttershy would've liked. “We should get there if we follow this here path.”
“Good. With any luck, we should have Twilight cured by morning.” Greyhoof purposefully stopped, letting Fluttershy, who was at the back, catch up to him. “Why are you afraid of the forest, anyway?”
“Don't you know? Monsters live here!” Fluttershy gasped.
Rainbow took flight and hovered over the two of them. “Of course he wouldn't know! He's only been in Ponyville for a couple of days.” She laughed brashly. “Monsters, schmonsters. Who cares? If that cockatrice tries to attack us, you can just stare him down no problem! I'm sure we can handle anything the forest can throw at us.” Rainbow flew next to Greyhoof. “Oh, and by the way, don't touch the blue plants.”
“A cockatrice lives here?” Greyhoof raised his eyebrows. “Poison Joke I am familiar with, but a cockatrice is a different matter entirely. I did presume that some monsters inhabited it, but not to that degree.”
“Didn't you hear what I said?” Rainbow flew higher into the air and did a somersault. “All Fluttershy has to do is stare it down and we'll be fine! She's done it before.”
Greyhoof gave Fluttershy an intrigued look. “That's reassuring. Many monsters are handled easily enough, as I've read about how to deal with them. The vast majority are well within my power, but magic will do me no good if I'm petrified.”
“Yeah, I'm sure you can deal with monsters easy,” quipped Rainbow. “It's not like you're covered head to hoof in bandages or anything.”
“Masticores hardly fall under the category of 'vast majority',” muttered Greyhoof sullenly.
Despite the reassuring nature of their conversation, the ponies consolidated and formed a tight group, with the exception of Rainbow, who flew overhead. To their relief, the forest seemed quite devoid of life, hostile or otherwise. Once they had gotten over the intimidating nature of the forest's dark canopy, they actually began to enjoy themselves as they made their way deeper into it.
“There it is!” said Rainbow with elation some minutes later, pointing in the distance.
When the ponies rounded another bend in the trail, they could see what Rainbow did from her vantage point in the air. Zecora's house stood before them. Greyhoof approached the door and knocked loudly. No answer. He peered in through the window. There were certainly signs of life, although the house appeared deserted. The pot in the middle of the house was boiling, and there were various books, herbs, and assorted utensils scattered about the place.
Greyhoof frowned. “She's not home. Strange, given the time of night.”
“Oh no, what do we do?” Fluttershy hung her head low enough for her mane to touch the ground.
“We wait for her to come back, silly!” Pinkie began drawing a network of strange lines in the ground. “And I've got the perfect game just for times like these! Gimme a few seconds to finish drawing the board and I'll explain how we play!”
Rainbow landed next to Greyhoof, who held the list of ingredients. “Hey, Greyhoof, gimme that list and tell me what those plants look like, and I can fly around the area to see if I can find any before Zecora gets back.”
“I like it. Maybe I can help too,” Applejack added.
Greyhoof shook his head. “No. We're doing this my way.” He cleared his throat authoritatively. “If she's not home, there's nothing from stopping us from breaking in and taking what we need.” He ground his hoof in the middle of Pinkie's elabourate dirt diagram.
Rainbow's jaw fell open. “You're not gonna –”
Greyhoof's eyes glittered dangerously as he glared at Rainbow. “Yes, Rainbow Dash, I am. A few herbs will hardly set this zebra back. Besides – if she knew the situation, she'd understand. It's for the greater good and you know it.” Greyhoof walked up to the door, his horn and the handle shimmering light blue.
Landing in front of him, Rainbow stood on her hind legs and spread her front legs wide, blocking his progress. “Oh no. You're not just gonna break into her home like that! We'll find the plants somewhere else. Now apologize to Pinkie for stepping on her... whatever that was, you big jerk!”
“Every second we waste puts Twilight in more danger. There's no knowing if masticore venom will become lethal if left in her system for too long – or worse, prevent her from using magic ever again.” Greyhoof's horn shimmered. “No. There is a time for morality, but this is not it. We have a life to save, and I will not stand idly and let you put her at risk. Get out of my way before I make you.”
“Hold on a second!” shouted Applejack. “I understand how you're feelin', Grey, but Rainbow's right. We can't just break and enter like this.”
Greyhoof's eyes burned as he turned to glare at Applejack. “I've never truly had friends. Even before I moved away from home, the only ponies my age were those that came and went as they withdrew books, nothing more. Twilight... she's the closest thing I've ever had to a friend.” He kicked the ground savagely. “I won't let her be taken away from me. Not now.” Greyhoof turned back to Rainbow once again. “Now, out of my way.”
Rainbow ground her teeth. “Make me!”
“If you insist.” Greyhoof's horn glowed light blue, which encapsulated Rainbow and flung her unceremoniously to the ground a few feet from where she had previously stood.
“Horseapples,” Rainbow spat, looking up at Greyhoof as he worked on the door's lock.
“Hey, what'd you do to RD?” demanded Applejack, adopting an aggressive stance.
“What I had to. She's fine.” Within seconds, the door to Zecora's house flew open and Greyhoof stormed inside. “Zebras...” he muttered half-disgustedly, wrinkling his nose. As he began rummaging through the cabinets for the necessary ingredients, Greyhoof's eyes narrowed when he noticed that he was the only pony inside. “Well? What's everypony waiting for? Get off your flanks and help me!”
“Oh, I'll help you, alright!” came Rainbow's voice from outside.
Before Greyhoof could turn around, Rainbow hurtled through the open doorway, crashing into him headfirst, sending him smashing into the cabinets he'd been examining. Trying to collect himself, he gingerly rubbed his flank as he got up, staring daggers at Rainbow. No sooner had he gotten back on his hooves than Rainbow shoved him back down.
“Please stop this!” cried Fluttershy.
“C'mon, Rainbow, enough is enough!” shouted Applejack. “He ain't worth it. Besides, no need to be messin' up poor Zecora's hut. Again.”
“Fine,” humphed Rainbow, turning around and flicking Greyhoof in the muzzle with her tail before flying outside.
Cursing to himself, Greyhoof swatted a metal pan that landed beside him, sending it skipping across the hut. Giving a resentful glance outside, he trudged over to the bookshelves to begin his search.
“I'll have no part in this!” Applejack called into the house. “If you wanna break in, don't expect me to help.”
Pinkie zipped in while Rainbow and Applejack remained adamant about not entering. Fluttershy nervously poked her head in for half a second before ducking back out and standing outside. In mere moments, the house looked as if a small hurricane had swept through it, but in spite of Greyhoof's frantic search, he came up empty-hoofed.
“Where in Equestria are those herbs?” he cursed.
“Right here!” chirped Pinkie brightly, dropping a small bag full of plants in front of Greyhoof.
Sticking his head inside the bag, Greyhoof looked up at Pinkie in astonishment. “That's... all of them. How did you...”
“Don't ask,” Rainbow said, still outside. “Now let's get out of here before Zecora catches you two. I can't believe you helped him, Pinkie!”
Pinkie bounced out of the house, the bag on her back. “Well, Greyhoof already broke in, and he is kind of right about helping out poor Twilight.”
“'Kind of' ain't it, Pinkie.” Applejack glared at Greyhoof. “That don't make it any more right. Stealin' is never the answer.”
“We should've just waited for her to come back, or gathered the herbs ourselves,” said Fluttershy, her tone stern. “That fight was... scary.”
“Scary for him, maybe,” quipped Rainbow.
“I'd be more worried about Zecora if I was you,” Applejack added flatly. “She dang well won't be too thrilled when she sees her hut in the state y'all left it in..” She held up a hoof to stifle Rainbow's forthcoming retort. “I ain't saying it's all your fault, Rainbow, but it takes two to tango.”
Ignoring the others, Greyhoof wordlessly followed Pinkie out of the house, closing and re-locking the door behind him. They began their journey back to Ponyville at a brisk pace, with Greyhoof earnestly leading. Greyhoof's actions had left a bitter taste in Rainbow's mouth. Several times, she resisted the urge to physically lash out at him again. As they neared the forest's edge, the first traces of sun began creeping over the horizon. To her surprise, she found Greyhoof waving her over.
Rainbow flew over to Greyhoof and fell into step beside him. “What do you want?” she demanded.
“Look, I just wanted to say, I'm sorry.” Greyhoof's words caught Rainbow completely by surprise. “You were right about earlier. What I did was wrong. I let my concern for Twilight cloud my judgment. I should never have lashed out at you. As often as I try to let it on, I am far from perfect. I know we've had our differences in the past, but now I beg for your forgiveness.” Greyhoof barely managed to choke these last few words out.
Before Rainbow could offer a reply, Greyhoof plowed on. “I know I took away a bonding moment between you and Scootaloo. I know I broke in someone else's home and stole from it like a common criminal. But please... know that everything I've done was with everypony's best interests at heart.”
A heavy silence followed Greyhoof's words. The only sounds were the hoofsteps on the forest floor. Nearly a full minute later, Rainbow finally found words. “I know,” she said at last. “But you know what? That doesn't make it okay. Somepony needs to teach you a lesson, and a hard lesson at that.”
“But I –”
Rainbow hovered above Greyhoof, glaring at him. “No, no buts! You used magic to toss me around, like I was beneath you! Well, that's downright unacceptable! Nopony does that to me, especially not big-horned jerks like you! Look, I know why you did what you did, but you should've just taken a step back and listened to me! Of course I want to do what's best for Twilight, but no, you went ahead and did as you pleased, like my opinion didn't matter to you!”
Greyhoof avoided Rainbow's stare. When the tongue-lashing subsided, he held out a forehoof in a gesture of peace. “Can – can we be friends?”
Rainbow swatted the hoof away angrily. “No!” Before Greyhoof could further implore her, she zoomed off in the direction of the hospital.
Clenching his teeth, Greyhoof stomped the ground, sending a small cloud of loose foliage and dirt flying before resuming the trudge toward the forest's edge and rejoining the others.
“What was that about?” asked Applejack.
Greyhoof ambled past, barely acknowledging her. “Nothing.”
When they reached the end of the tree line, Fluttershy ground to a halt. “That was quiet and pleasant. Well, mostly... too quiet and pleasant, for the forest. The animals from Everfree... are they in hiding as well?” A sudden worried tone permeated Fluttershy's voice.
“Wait, you still haven't found those animals?” Greyhoof asked her in astonishment.
Fluttershy looked chagrined. “No...”
Greyhoof pointed away from Ponyville. “I think it's best that you go, then. Get some rest.”
“But – Twilight –” Fluttershy protested.
Shaking his head, Greyhoof gave Fluttershy a gentle smile. “No, we can take it from here. We're clear of the forest and we've got what we came for. Twilight will be fine. I promise.”
At first, Fluttershy trotted slowly away from the group, but after a few seconds, she took flight, flapping off into the distance. Pinkie waved goodbye and started bouncing happily in the direction of Sugarcube Corner, the opposite way from the hospital.
“And where are you goin'?” Applejack called after her.
Pinkie looked back but retained her present course. “I've got something to do, silly! What's the use of getting over potentially fatal poison if there's no sugary stuff to eat afterward?” Applejack couldn't help but laugh as Pinkie's silhouette faded on the horizon.
* * *
“Are you absolutely sure this will work?” asked Redheart skeptically. She looked disapprovingly at the pouch of herbs Greyhoof and the others had obtained, along with a list of instructions on how to prepare them.
“No, but it's the best shot we've got,” answered Greyhoof.
Redheart reluctantly accepted the pouch and the sheet of parchment and bustled out of the room, leaving Twilight alone with Greyhoof, Applejack, and Rainbow. The sound of the closing door brought Twilight out of her light slumber.
Rubbing her eyes, Twilight looked around the room and perked up when she spotted her three friends. “Was Zecora able to help you out?” she asked anxiously.
Greyhoof coughed. “Well, yes and no...”
Twilight angled her head slightly, as if the masticore poison was making her delirious and she had misheard him. “What?”
“He means Zecora wasn't home and he up and pillaged the place. The varmint even picked a fight with RD,” Applejack informed her dryly. “I told him it wasn't right, but he went and did it anyhow. I'll have you know I took no part in it, not one bit.”
Twilight covered her mouth. “Greyhoof, how could you?”
Greyhoof closed his eyes and flinched in shame. “I know, it was wrong. What other choice did I have, Twilight? Masticores are so rare that there is little knowledge of their venom's properties. You know this as well as I. I couldn't just risk letting you lose your magic forever, or worse, your life.”
“I suppose you're right...” Twilight slumped back, “but make sure you apologize to Zecora! And Rainbow, for that matter! We can't have her think that somepony wants to vandalize her home!” Twilight took on a firm tone. “And don't ever let me catch you doing anything like this again.”
Rainbow jabbed Greyhoof none too gently in one of his bandaged areas, prompting a yelp from him. “Don't worry, Twilight, I'll make sure he apologizes. You can take that to the bank.”
The door swung open to reveal Redheart carrying a mug full of foul-smelling glop. “Remedy coming through!” she announced, hurrying to the bedside.
Twilight took a whiff of the medicine and blanched. “I have to drink – that?” It looked like she was about to be sick from the smell alone.
“Every drop,” said Redheart sternly. “Bottoms up!”
Twilight grimaced as she drained the mug's contents. When she finished, she knocked the mug onto the floor and began gagging loudly. Turning away from Redheart, Twilight nearly yelped in surprise when she saw a broadly grinning Pinkie Pie sitting next to the other side of the bed, another sizable box on her back.
“Pinkie? What? How?” mumbled Twilight, thinking that the strange liquid was making her see things.
“I came in while you were drinking that yucky icky stuff!” said Pinkie in a sing-song voice, deploying the box on the bed.
“So that's what set you off in such a hurry?” laughed Applejack.
Pinkie beamed at Applejack. “You betcha! Sorry these aren't quite as super-special as the cake, but I think they're alright considering the short notice.”
When Twilight peered inside, she saw a plethora of differently shaped chocolate treats. Some bore a resemblance to Greyhoof, others looked like Twilight, while more of them had a similar appearance to her other friends. Pinkie gestured warmly at the box. Needing no further prompt, Twilight dug in, making at least a dozen of the delectable treats disappear in a matter of seconds.
“Feeling better?” Pinkie asked eagerly.
Gritting her teeth, Twilight once again tried to call upon her magic. The smallest, most minute spark fizzled from her horn. It only lasted about a split second, but Twilight let out a delighted cheer. “It worked! It worked!”
Twilight began to get out of bed, but the firm hoof of Redheart held her in place. “You're far from cured yet, dear,” she said soothingly. “One more night here, then you're free to go, assuming you're magically fit once more.”
Nodding, Twilight settled back into a laying position and realized just how tired she was. The medicine expunging the venom from her body quickly replaced the temporary surge of energy she had experienced from the sugar in Pinkie's treats. Twilight turned on her side and closed her eyes, rapidly drifting off to sleep.
“Off!” Redheart waved a hoof at the three other ponies in the room. “These two need rest, and plenty of it. You can see her in the morning, and, with luck, escort her out of the hospital.”
Applejack and Rainbow allowed themselves to be ushered out of the room by Redheart. Greyhoof clambered on to an adjacent bed and curled up on top of it, his cloak serving the same purpose as the bedsheets. “Sleep well,” he whispered, closing his eyes and smiling affectionately at Twilight.
by Tony “GaryOak” Genovese
Twilight awoke in bed, her coat matted with sweat. How did I end up here? she wondered as she found herself trotting down the stairs in the direction of the door. It was unusually stuffy in the library today, almost suffocatingly so. When Twilight opened the door, she uttered a high-pitched scream at the sight that greeted her eyes. Tall flames rose from every structure of the town within her field of vision. An all-too-familiar cloud of purple fumes coalesced high above the centre of the city as if it gathered strength from the rising smoke.
Gritting her teeth, Twilight glared at the cloud. “You're not real!” she shouted defiantly. “The venom is leaving my system, and so will you!”
As the cloud continued to grow in both size and density, its retort quickly reached her ears. “I am more real than you know.” The whispered words took on a condescending tone. “Twist was the first, and she will not be the last. As long as the evil one continues to reign supreme, I cannot be stopped!”
Twilight's jaw dropped as she saw the cloud begin to take a physical form. It appeared to be a dark purple mare made entirely out of the strange fumes. “What are you? Answer me!” she demanded as it galloped toward her though the sky.
The ethereal mare came to a stop in front of Twilight, its form slightly wispy. “I am the lucid dream...” it whispered. “I am the monster in your nightmares. I am what has transpired and what has yet to be.” It let out a long, raspy laugh. “Cower before the fate of this village!”
Suddenly, the streets of Ponyville were crowded with the shadowy forms of fillies, colts, mares, and stallions as they ran in terror from the flames. As soon as they appeared, the mare charged toward them with blazing speed, the constantly rising flames strengthening it. Twilight could make out no details of the ponies themselves, but she saw them fade one by one as the mare systematically attacked them. When Twilight tried to intervene, both the mare and the shadowy ponies vanished in a puff of smoke.
Her horn crackling with a significant amount of raw magic, Twilight looked around frantically. “Show yourself!” she challenged.
Hearing laughter once again, Twilight saw the shadow of a mare emerging from a nearby burning building. She barely managed to stop herself from firing a magical blast at the mare. As it broke free of the blazing structure, she realized it was not the mysterious smog at all. It was a light pink unicorn with a brilliant mane of yellow, blue and purple. Twilight vaguely remembered that her name was Holly Dash. Scarcely had Holly cleared the building than the dark mare charged out after her in hot pursuit.
“Holly!” yelled Twilight, launching all of the magic she had gathered directly at the dark purple mare. The blast connected directly with its target, exploding in a brilliant shower of white light and purple fumes.
Holly turned around, tears of joy brimming from her eyes as she looked upon her saviour. “Thank you, Twilight! Th–”
The words caught in her throat as the cloud of smog reformed itself directly in front of her, the air permeated with its eerie laughter. Both Twilight and Holly screamed as the dark mare rushed at Holly, turning itself back into vapour and launching itself down her throat. Twilight helplessly looked on in horror as the smog seeped out from its victim's orifices. When the entirety of the smog finally left Holly, it reformed itself into the mare. Holly stood in place for a moment before her eyes rolled back into her head and she fell lifeless to the ground.
“Holly!” Twilight yelled again, rushing toward Holly's corpse. The scene before her faded into white light as the mare continued to laugh manically.
Panting heavily, Twilight blinked as she clutched her heart. The white light began to melt away in favour of the calm, familiar hospital room. She leaned forward and looked outside of the window. As she suspected, she was greeted by a warm summer's afternoon. There was no fire, there were no screaming ponies, and there was no purple cloud of mysterious fumes.
Sighing and trying to relax, Twilight turned her attention to the rest of the room. To her surprise, she was alone. She could understand Nurse Redheart's absence, but not a single one of her friends was waiting by her bedside. Even the bed where Greyhoof had slept had a pile of discarded bandages on it as its only sign of former occupancy. It was then that she noticed a scroll of parchment on the bedside table.
Twilight took a deep breath. Here goes nothing... Reaching within her, she grasped for her magic and focused on the scroll. To her delight, she effortlessly levitated it over to herself and unrolled it. When she had gotten over her elation, Twilight began to read the short note. It was written in Spike's familiar scrawl.
Hope you are well. I'm sorry nopony is here to see you out of the hospital. If you're better, please come to Sweet Apple Acres ASAP. This is an emergency. Will explain when you get here.
Twilight dropped the parchment and blinked. What in the wide wide world of Equestria is going on? Swinging out of bed, she planted her hooves firmly on the ground. Taking a steadying breath, Twilight opened the door and trotted out of the room as quickly as she dared. Despite feeling slightly woozier than usual, Twilight was delighted. I think this medicine really worked! But I can't for the life of me think of what's happened. I hope it isn't too serious...
Twilight had eagerly clambered down the last flight of stairs, taking two at a time, before she was confronted by Redheart in the hospital lobby. “Out of bed? Where do you think you're going? You are not to leave this hospital until you've undergone at least twenty-four hours of observation, young lady.”
“I'm feeling just fine, thanks,” said Twilight dismissively, trying to edge past Redheart as she spoke, but the nurse would have none of it.
“I'll be the judge of that,” she said firmly.
“Well, how about this,” offered Twilight brightly, “if I can teleport out of the hospital, that means my magic's working just fine! Here, let's see if I can.”
Before Redheart could utter a word of protest, Twilight vanished and reappeared at the opposite end of the lobby. Ignoring the nurse's shouts of protest, Twilight made good use of the distance she had put between the two of them and galloped out of the lobby uncontested.
As soon as Twilight cleared the hospital, she took off toward Sweet Apple Acres at a full gallop. The gentle summer breeze swept away any remaining weariness she felt, filling her with renewed vigour. A chilling thought suddenly struck her mind. What if that cloud was right? What if these dreams have some significance? When Twilight neared Sweet Apple Acres, her ears perked up at the sound of dozens of voices. Her heart sank when she felt the worried vibes of the commotion before her. The gathered ponies shuffled amongst themselves uneasily, some even looking around frantically. Increasing her speed, she arrived in the middle of what looked like the entire Ponyville population. The Mayor stood on a wooden crate in front of the barn, with Applejack and Cheerilee at her sides.
“Make way, y'all! Let her through!” shouted Applejack when she spotted Twilight's approach.
The crowd parted as Twilight made her way to the front to speak with them directly. “I just got Spike's letter and came as fast as I could. What's going on?” she panted.
Cheerilee gulped, her features and unkempt mane evidence of a sleepless night. “It's – it's Twist.”
Twilight felt as if an anvil had been dropped in her stomach. Oh no... She took an uneasy breath. “Twist? What happened?”
“Her parents came to me late yesterday and were looking for her. They thought I'd kept her after class or that she was playing with her friends,” Cheerilee hastily explained, “but as it turns out, nopony has seen her since early yesterday morning. We spent all night looking for her and found nothing.”
Applejack tipped her hat at Cheerilee. “That's when I stepped in. I was going to Ponyville early in the mornin' to set up my apple cart early when I bumped into her. I'm sorry I wasn't there for you when ya woke up, Twi, but I went straight to the Mayor when I heard the news.”
“How can I help?” asked Twilight earnestly.
Looking down from the box, the Mayor cleared her throat. “I figured the best course of action would be to form search parties. Your friend Greyhoof was quite insistent that he organize everything himself, but due to... heated persuasion, we reached a consensus to wait for you.”
Twilight nodded resolutely. “Get me a map.”
“Rainbow Dash is already on it,” said Rarity as she emerged from the crowd and stood next to Twilight. Her eyes flicked skyward in the direction of Ponyville. “That should be her now, if I'm not mistaken.”
Sure enough, when Twilight followed Greyhoof's gaze, she spotted a rainbow speck. Turning to face the crowd, Twilight looked sternly at the gathered ponies. “Listen up, everypony!” she announced. “As soon as Rainbow gets back with –”
Rainbow landed beside Twilight and unrolled a large roll of parchment from her mouth, setting it on the ground. “The map!”
Twilight thanked Rainbow before continuing. “Right. We're going to split into groups to make this go as quickly and efficiently as possible. Somepony, pass me a quill please.” When a quill was produced, Twilight grabbed it and started drawing on the map of Ponyville. “Each group will be assigned a small search region. With luck, each search should only take a few hours and we can meet back here by sunset. If Twist is anywhere near Ponyville, we'll find her.”
“Excuse me, Twilight?” asked the Mayor, causing Twilight to pause in her map sectioning. “Wouldn't it be faster if we had smaller search areas and split up the search parties to one pony each?”
“That has got to be the worst idea I've ever heard,” scoffed Greyhoof, provoking a loud groan from Rainbow. “If you paused for a moment to think, then you would realize that a very real possibility is the filly has been ponynapped.”
The gathered crowd burst out laughing at Greyhoof's words.
“Did he say ponynapped?”
“And you are?”
“Who would believe that?”
“What a joke!”
The Mayor began eyeing Greyhoof over her glasses. “How would you know she's been ponynapped and hasn't simply gotten lost?” she chortled. “Where did you come up with such a radical theory?”
Rolling his eyes, Greyhoof huffed impatiently. “Once again, you are failing to analyze the situation. This isn't exactly Los Pegasus we're dealing with. This is a small town where everypony knows each other. Do you really think that a filly of school age would get lost?” Greyhoof took a couple of steps toward the Mayor. “There is no viable alternative to traveling in pairs. If we indeed have a ponynapper on our hooves, then the worst thing we could possibly do is be on our own.”
Twilight held a hoof to Greyhoof's chest and shot him a worried glance. “Easy, Greyhoof. Don't you think you're overreacting just a little bit here? You said it best: this is a small town where everypony knows each other.”
“Twi's right,” Applejack added. “I've known everypony for years, what with the Apple family business and all. I can honestly say that nopony here would do somethin' like this.”
Greyhoof's eyes flashed dangerously. “Whatever we do, we cannot rule out the possibility of foul play.” He raised a hoof to preemptively silence any forthcoming responses. “All I'm saying is that it would be foalish to rule out the possibility of murder. The most effective way to combat this is to travel in groups.” Greyhoof turned to glare at the Mayor. “I will not stand for the chance of Twist being the first of many, and neither should you.”
An icy silence fell over the crowd in the wake of Greyhoof's words. Twilight's eyes glazed over as she vividly remembered what the cloud from her nightmares had told her. “Twist was the first, and she will not be the last...” A chill went through her whole body. I know it was just a dream... but to see Twist being killed like that... It was just so vivid, so real... Twilight pawed at the ground uneasily. What if Greyhoof's right? Does this mean my dreams really are true? She forced herself to focus and scanned the crowd until her eyes fell upon Holly Dash's unique mane.
It can't be right, can it? Are these dreams more than my overactive mind producing nightmares based on the stress I've been feeling? Twilight gulped and looked glumly at the Mayor. “I think Greyhoof's right. As outrageous as what he's saying is, it's not worth taking the risk.” She turned to Greyhoof and rested a hoof on his shoulder. “Look, I know you mean well and have a good head on your shoulders,” she muttered just loud enough for him and those close to them to hear, “but can you please try to be a little less... aggressive? I know it can be tough at times, but if you try to be more tactful and modest, you won't receive as much grief. Let me take it from here. Trust me.”
Greyhoof's eyes were almost searing by this point, but he wordlessly took a couple of steps back and sat down, shifting his attention to the map on the ground. When he remained silent for several seconds, Twilight resumed delegating groups of ponies to different sections of the map. Each group consisted of three to six ponies and always included at least one pegasus and earth pony and, when possible, a unicorn to help ensure versatility.
Gradually, the crowd thinned out, the ponies going to their assigned sections of the town. Twilight used her quill to draw one final circle on the map's edge. “That leaves us. Greyhoof, Fluttershy, and Rainbow, we'll form the last party.”
Looking at the map, Greyhoof nodded slowly. “So, this is your plan. Not exactly what I would've done, but it is sound nonetheless.”
“Ooh, let me see!” Rainbow stuck her head in front of Twilight's and looked at the map eagerly. “Uh, which one are we again?”
Levitating the map so all four of them could see, Twilight drew a large X near the outline of trees. “Here, in the Everfree Forest.”
“Not again...” whimpered Fluttershy.
Rainbow flew to where Fluttershy stood and gave her a reassuring nudge. “Relax, Fluttershy. Nothing happened last time,” She puffed herself up proudly, “and if something does, I've got your back, and so does Twilight.”
“As do I,” Greyhoof added.
“Oh, right, you're here,” sighed Rainbow. “Thanks for reminding me.”
“I... guess...” said Fluttershy reluctantly.
Twilight started to walk toward the forest. “We don't have time to waste. We've got the longest section to search, so if we want to get back on time, we need to move quickly.”
“Yeah, we wouldn't want to be tardy or anything,” quipped Rainbow.
Sighing, Twilight set off at a brisk trot, the others in her wake. Noticing that Fluttershy was lagging behind, Greyhoof turned around and fell into step beside her. “We'll be fine, I promise.”
Rainbow flew beside the two of them. “Hey, Fluttershy, if we have time tomorrow, I'll help you search for your animals.”
Fluttershy's eyes went wide with joy. “You will?”
“Of course! I know how much they mean to you, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't getting a little worried about what happened to them myself. They've been gone for what, two days now?” Rainbow clapped Fluttershy on the shoulder.
Flying up, Fluttershy embraced Rainbow tightly. “Thank you... so much!”
“No sweat,” said Rainbow.
With Fluttershy's apprehensions at least momentarily set by the wayside, the ponies resumed their short journey to the Everfree Forest. Try as they might, they couldn't prevent themselves from thinking back to Greyhoof's speculations about Twist's fate.
“Um, Rainbow?” Fluttershy asked. “What if... you know... Greyhoof was right? What if something did happen to Twist? Or... what if somepony did something to her?”
“Lighten up,” said Rainbow casually. “She was a bit of a dork. Maybe she went to play in the woods and got lost. Besides,” she shot Greyhoof a disdainful glare, “I'm not listening to him anymore, and neither should you.”
“Rainbow!” reprimanded Twilight. “But... I hope you're right. Honestly, it's the only alternative to Greyhoof's theory, as far-fetched as it is.”
Greyhoof looked back at the others. “Is it truly so radical a theory, then? I did not come up with this on my own; many of these cases have been found in the annals of towns much like Ponyville. Believe me, I'm more than happy to be wrong in this instance, but I fear for her life.”
“Maybe she got turned to stone by the cockatrice!” Twilight suggested hopefully, before feeling slightly sick when she thought of what she had just said and the tone with which she conveyed it.
“P-perhaps another filly dared her to wander into the forest,” Fluttershy suggested. “We did ask the fillies about this, didn't we?”
“I think so,” Twilight mused. “There's no doubt that Cheerilee would've at least asked her students about Twist, and if she found anything suspicious, she would've told us.”
“Hey, maybe they did dare Twist to go into the forest and she did get turned to stone by the cockatrice,” countered Rainbow. “If I was a filly and this happened, I wouldn't be too eager to fess up about the whole thing.”
Twilight forced a chuckle. “Would you say that you have experience in such matters, Rainbow?”
Rainbow's ears and cheeks turned a brilliant shade of magenta. “No, of course not! I'm... I'm just speculating!”
Twilight couldn't help but join the others in laughter. She was taken aback at how soothing the simple act was. Even if it was just for a few seconds, the relief of the stress wrought from their present situation felt every bit as cleansing as the anti-venom. With their spirits lifted, the ponies found themselves in front of the inviting and yet intimidating opening in the canopy of trees that was the Everfree Forest.
“Rainbow, I'd like you to fly as high as you can within the forest,” Twilight ordered. “I'd like you to do some advance scouting. Fluttershy said the animals are still missing, so maybe that also applies to any monsters that live in the forest. Let's use this to our advantage. If you see anything, monster or filly, let us know.”
Rainbow tossed Twilight a salute. “Got it. You can count on me!” With that, she took off and was quickly swallowed by the darkness of the forest.
Fluttershy gulped. “Y-you don't want me to do that too, do you, Twilight?” she asked fearfully, taking a step back.
Twilight shook her head and smiled softly at her. “No, no. We need you with us. Your natural gift with animals is what I'm relying on to keep us safe. Now let's get moving. We've got a lot of ground to cover and precious little time to do it.”
Noticing that Twilight and Greyhoof were beginning to make their way into the forest, Fluttershy scampered up to the two unicorns, not wanting to be left behind. “O-okay.”
They made their way into the deadly quiet woods, their hoofsteps muffled by the soft forest floor, save for the occasional sound of snapping twigs. For hours, they meticulously ventured through the forest, their sojourn only impeded by the large, gnarled roots and other mundane obstacles on the ground.
Fluttershy broke the eerie silence impressed upon them by the forest, her eyes frantically darting from deserted birds' nests and old animal tracks branching off in every direction as she spoke. “Um, Greyhoof?”
“What is it?” Greyhoof asked almost impatiently.
“How come you're so... so...” Fluttershy couldn't quite the last word of her query out despite multiple attempts.
“So what?” prompted Greyhoof.
“Bossy,” Fluttershy whispered. When she realized that he had heard her, she yelped and jumped back several feet.
Twilight's ears perked up and she focused intently on Greyhoof. Her knee-jerk reaction was to intervene before Greyhoof went on another one of his tirades, something they could ill afford. Instead of speaking up, however, she decided to remain the silent observer, at least for now. I wonder what he's got to say for himself.
While Greyhoof's expression retained its usual neutrality, his eyes sparked like a fire that had suddenly been fed too much extra kindling. “I am not bossy, I'm projecting my wisdom upon others – forcibly, if I must.”
Greyhoof's answer took Twilight aback. While it was something vaguely similar to what she'd expect out of him, it was a far cry from his usual response. It's a good thing Fluttershy's so disarming, she thought. I have a feeling he wouldn't react like this if it was Rainbow asking.
“Allow me to explain.” Greyhoof filled the uneasy silence. “I've been in many situations over the course of my travels where all I've had to rely on was knowledge that I've gleaned from books or firsthoof experience. I've seen lives saved and lost depending on how action is taken.” He paused to stomp the ground angrily. “I have long since come to the conclusion that I shall brook no less-informed pony to simply turn my wisdom aside.”
“But Greyhoof,” Fluttershy squeaked, “even if you are right and what you're saying is usually for the best, being too mean and bossy can just hurt somepony's feelings.”
“Don't be so naive,” Greyhoof snipped. “I understand your views, but you simply lack my experience in these matters. A lack of will and action can cause greater suffering. I'd much rather step on a few pairs of hooves that I'll likely never meet again than allow innocent ponies to die fruitlessly.”
“And... what if you're wrong?”
Greyhoof narrowed his eyes at Fluttershy. “Wrong? Unlikely. I have more experience and knowledge than almost anypony in Equestria, and you would do well to remember that. When it comes to being wrong, I am the least likely culprit.”
“You're forgetting something,” interjected Twilight, having heard enough. “As far as I'm concerned, you're here to stay, at least for a good while. You will be seeing those sets of hooves again, and you have been wrong before. Remember the cave yesterday? That's where friendship comes in. There's more than one way to get your point across, you know. I'm not asking you to do it perfectly all the time, but at least try to learn where you can improve, and to be willing to admit you might be wrong.”
Greyhoof sighed reluctantly. “Very well. I suppose I still do have a lot to learn, don't I?”
Twilight nodded. “Yes, and I'm only too happy to teach you.” Suddenly noticing how dark it was getting, Twilight glanced overhead until she spotted Rainbow and called her down to them. “Find anything?”
Rainbow shook her head. “I think I know where I'm going to search next. Twist has gotta be here somewhere.”
Twilight held up a hoof. “That will have to wait, I'm afraid.”
“What?” Rainbow flared her wings and adopted an aggressive stance. “We're not just gonna give up!”
“Twilight's right,” said Greyhoof. “We're going back.”
Rainbow turned angrily to Greyhoof, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “Oh, I see how it is. You put her up to this, didn't you?”
Hastily moving in between Rainbow and Greyhoof, Twilight firmly rested a hoof on each of their chests. “Rainbow, Greyhoof, calm down! We have enough problems on our hooves without the two of you getting in an argument.” When she was sure they would let her continue, she lowered her hooves and sighed. “Look, it's getting close to sunset, and we need to be back at Sweet Apple Acres to see if the others found anything.”
Rainbow reluctantly folded her wings and backed down. “You're... right. It just burns me up to have to go back so soon, you know?”
“Oh, I hope the others found her,” lamented Fluttershy.
The four of them earnestly began making their way through the steadily darkening forest. At Rainbow's suggestion, they took a slightly different route for their return trip in the hope of covering extra ground. Their new route was more difficult to navigate and proved just as fruitless as their original search had been. When they finally emerged from the forest, any traces of the sun were gone and darkness had fully set in.
“Oh no,” groaned Twilight when she looked at the moon high in the sky. “We're late! I hope nopony's worried about us!”
“If this forest is as dangerous as it's made out to be, then I'm sure they'll expect we might be a little late,” observed Greyhoof, not allowing his pace to slow. “If I'm not mistaken, those are multiple campfires in the distance. They're waiting for us.”
Rainbow took to the air. “I'll tell 'em you three are coming.” She sped off toward Sweet Apple Acres at top speed.
It was not long before she returned from the farm. When Rainbow landed beside Twilight, she was out of breath and looked pale. “Twilight! To the farm! Quick!” she panted.
Twilight felt her blood run cold. “What is it?”
“No time! Hurry!” gasped Rainbow before she took off again.
Looking at each other for a moment in confusion, Twilight and Greyhoof began galloping toward Sweet Apple Acres with Fluttershy in tow. When they arrived, they found every pony who was present at the morning gathering huddled around the campfires. Twilight couldn't make out any conversations, but their overtones were plain as day. Something was wrong.
Twilight and Greyhoof carefully made their way to the centre of the circle, where Rarity, Applejack, Rainbow, and the Mayor were waiting for them. Fluttershy flew over the crowd to join them. “What's the matter?” panted Twilight.
“It's – it's –” stuttered Rarity.
Applejack took off her hat and held it to her chest mournfully. “I dunno how to tell ya this, sugarcube... but Twist ain't the only pony missing...”
The Mayor's face was almost as white as her mane. “When we returned – one of the groups –” She gulped, her glasses ominously reflecting the dancing flames of a nearby campfire. “Somepony from a search party was missing! Upon further investigation, she was nowhere to be found, even at her house or the duck pond where she was last seen.”
“I thought everypony was supposed to stick together,” snarled Greyhoof.
Twilight dreaded asking the Mayor to elabourate, fearing that she already knew who it was, but curiosity got the better of her. “Who – who was it? Was it another filly, like Twist?”
The Mayor shook her head. “No, this was a fully grown mare. It was Holly Dash.”
Twilight fell flat on her flank as if she had been struck by a powerful uppercut. She couldn't stop herself from crying as the scene before her faded, replaced by the nightmare she had experienced this morning. The memory of the purple fume that had strangled Holly so effortlessly vividly played in her mind. How is this even possible? Am – am I seeing the future somehow? Could I have prevented this?
Rarity rushed over to Twilight and hugged her. “Twilight, darling, there was nothing you could have done!”
Twilight buried her face in Rarity's shoulder and continued to sob. “I... I think there was...” she managed to choke out between sobs. “Somehow... I think this is all my fault!”
Greyhoof looked at Twilight in alarm. “What do you mean? You were with us in the forest the whole time. What do you know?”
“I'll tell you later,” Twilight whispered, finally withdrawing from Rarity's embrace and wiping her still-leaking eyes.
“What do you know, Twilight? Tell me!” interjected the Mayor forcefully, taking a few steps toward her.
Applejack threw herself in front of the Mayor, preventing her from taking another step closer to Twilight. “Leave the poor girl alone!” she cried loudly. “Can't you see she's in pain? After what she's been through in the past few days, ya can't blame her.”
Greyhoof's brow furrowed. “I'm not sure how to tell you this...” his words lacked their customary steely assuredness, “but I have read tales of situations much like this one that occurred centuries ago. If there is any correlation between them, then Twist was merely the first...”
“Just what are you on about this time?” asked Rainbow in exasperation.
Greyhoof took a deep breath, closing his eyes. “To my knowledge, the last occurrence of something like this was over a few hundred years ago.” He glanced first at Rainbow, then at the Mayor, and finally rested his burning gaze on Twilight. “Look, maybe I'm just being paranoid, but I don't want to put anypony at risk. The last time this happened, one of the ponies that had the town's full trust went berserk, in a way. They systematically ponynapped and supposedly murdered ponies they would call their friends. Bodies were generally not found in either case, and the abducted ones never returned. Of course, the killers were caught every time, but not before tearing many families apart.”
“You know...” said Rainbow slowly. “Something may be wrong, but I think you've been reading too many weird books. Save your wacky theories for somepony else.”
The Mayor recoiled and interrupted Greyhoof's forthcoming rebuttal. “You don't mean –”
Rainbow stomped a hoof on the ground, kicking up a small dust cloud. “Yes. Think about it. First Twist, now Holly. Something, or somepony, has been ponynapping, or worse. Greyhoof may be nuts, but something's going down.”
“Who would do such a thing?” cried Applejack. “It just don't add up.”
“Yes, it does!” countered Rainbow defiantly. “I'm sorry, Applejack, but somepony is up to no good.” She eyed the crowd suspiciously, as if doing so would oust the hidden perpetrator. “Two ponies missing in only a few days. We all need to watch our flanks.”
Greyhoof craned his neck and surveyed the crowd. “I promise you, I will do everything in my power to help get to the bottom of this.”
“Me too!” chirped Pinkie, hopping out from the crowd and brandishing a large feather quill threateningly. “I'll make 'em talk!”
Twilight looked up at Pinkie's beaming face. “Sorry Pinkie, but this just isn't the time.”
Pinkie looked crestfallen as she dropped the quill. “No funny no funnerson... I just wanted to lighten the mood...” She trudged off into the crowd.
“Thank you for your offer, Mister Greyhoof,” said the Mayor, ignoring Pinkie's interruption. “I've never heard of anything like this happening in Ponyville's history, though...” she added perturbedly. “I can't shake the feeling that I'm to blame.”
“Miss Mayor,” said Fluttershy, gently putting a hoof around her shoulders, “please don't say that. I know you have everypony's best interests in mind and you're doing everything you can to protect us.”
The Mayor shook her head. “This is my town, and now ponies are missing, or worse. I've failed all of you as a mayor.”
Fluttershy shook her head vehemently. “I think you're being the best mayor you can be.”
The Mayor looked at Fluttershy, and smiled for the first time all day, and nodded gratefully. “Let's all get some rest, everypony. I don't think we're doing much good worrying ourselves sick out here. Let's come back at this fresh in the morning.”
“Y'all heard the lady!” said Applejack loudly, kicking dirt on one of the fires.
The crowd exchanged worried glances, and concerned conversation permeated the air as the congregation disbanded and they began returning to their homes. Greyhoof lowered himself to his knees as he looked at Twilight, his eyes burning with concern. “Hey, will you be okay?”
Twilight slowly got back on her hooves and wiped her eyes again. “I'm not sure, but I'll make it back to the library.”
Twilight and Greyhoof began their trek across town, the hardships of the day finally taking their toll on the unicorns. When they reached the first buildings of Ponyville, Greyhoof once again looked at Twilight, unable to contain his curiosity. “What importance does this latest disappearance have to you, Twilight? Was Holly Dash a close friend of yours?”
Twilight shook her head. “No, not particularly,” she answered guiltily. “I know this is going to sound insane but... I've been having dreams, Greyhoof. Not just dreams – nightmares.”
Greyhoof swallowed nervously. “Go on...”
“In these dreams... I see things... terrible things...” Twilight took a long, uneasy breath. “This morning, I had another nightmare. Ponyville was burning, and a dark cloud of purple smoke formed itself into a sort of strange mare. This mare pursued – and killed – Holly Dash.”
Greyhoof stopped dead in his tracks, his jaw dropping. “What?”
Twilight shuddered uncontrollably, the utterance of her strange visions and Greyhoof's reaction cutting into her heart like a knife. “The day before, I had a similar dream about Twist, only in that one the cloud seemed weaker and didn't take any shape. Am I somehow seeing the future?”
“Magical dreams...” Greyhoof said slowly, awe creeping into his voice. “I've read stories about them, but I never imagined I'd meet somepony that's had them. I don't know much about them at all, but I do think there's something more to these dreams of yours. What it is, I have no clue. You must be cautious, and thoroughly document what you see. If the previous two were any indication, the next one, if it does happen, could give us some insight into this mystery.”
Resuming her journey back home, Twilight nodded solemnly. “Is there anything that can be done?”
“I don't know.” Greyhoof shrugged. “I may be able to come up with something in the morning, but for now all we can do is sleep and hope. I'll come by first thing.”
“Sleep and hope...” Twilight repeated when the library came into view, candlelight visible from its window on the ground floor. “No, I think you should spend the night here. We need to get to the bottom of this without delay.”
“Thanks for the offer, but it's no trouble.”
“I insist,” said Twilight. “Spike usually keeps the guest bed ready in case of company anyway. This is urgent. Besides, where were you sleeping, anyway?”
“Outside. And the hospital, at least last night.”
“Well, that settles it,” said Twilight with a note of finality. “We're getting to the bottom of this tomorrow the second we wake up, and not a moment later.”
When Twilight opened the door, she found Spike asleep next to a lantern at the foot of the stairs. “Aw, the poor little guy was waiting for me this whole time.” Twilight levitated Spike into his basket and tucked him in gently. She was pleased to see that both beds were made and waiting for them. She gratefully climbed into her bed. “Sleep well.”
Curling up into a ball on the other bed without bothering to tuck himself in, Greyhoof closed his eyes. “I really should be wishing you that.”
Twilight cringed at these words and turned the lantern off, quenching the flame within before sleep took hold over her.
by Tony “GaryOak” Genovese
A deafening explosion jolted Twilight awake. Her eyes shot open and she called out to Greyhoof in panic, but when her gaze fell upon the guest bed, she found it empty. She tried to take a steadying breath, but the suffocating smell of smoke made her gag and splutter. Looking downstairs, Twilight cried out in alarm when she saw the entire ground floor in flames which were beginning to make their way up the stairs toward her.
Unsure of whether she could fight the flames, Twilight turned tail and galloped toward the only available escape route: the bedroom window. Blasting it to smithereens, she leapt out as far as she could, and not a moment too soon; she had scarcely cleared the window when a gout of flame billowed out in hot pursuit. Landing hard on her back leg, she heard a loud crack accompanied by a sharp burst of pain.
Twilight grunted as her leg gave out beneath her. Desperately trying to get up, she cried out as her leg refused to cooperate. Wincing through tears, she looked back at the library. Twilight could do nothing but watch as her home was entirely engulfed by the inferno. The library was far from the only structure ablaze; the entirety of Ponyville was being mercilessly consumed by hungry flames. Gritting her teeth, Twilight used her three good hooves to limp away from the burning town.
“Let me help you!” The voice came from a lavender pegasus with an amber and yellow mane. “Grab my hoof!”
Cloud Kicker swooped down to carry Twilight off to safety, but a split second before Twilight's hoof made contact with her own, an inexplicably solid wisp of dark purple smoke swatted her away like a fly. Twilight kicked the dirt with her good hoof when she saw the smoke coalesce into the dark mare. Only this time, it seemed larger and of greater density.
“How quaint...” mocked the dark mare, advancing on Cloud Kicker. “You thought you could escape me, Cloud Kicker, or perhaps you thought that Twilight could save you...”
Cloud Kicker struggled to pick herself back up, the blow she had received appearing to have done serious damage. “T-Twilight... what is that thing?” Each of her words was permeated with terror.
Twilight's coat was matted with sweat. Whether it was from the heat of the inferno or sheer panic, she could not say. “Run!” she screamed. “Run away as fast as you can!”
Cloud Kicker didn't need telling twice. She flared her wings and took off in the opposite direction from the dark mare at a speed that would have made even the Wonderbolts turn their heads. She might as well have laid down and allowed her attacker to take her, for all the good it did. Within seconds she found her path blocked by the creature, who had galloped on thin air at an impossible velocity.
Twilight felt an icy fist clench around her heart when she realized what was about to happen. “NO!” she shouted. “I won't let you take her too!” Her entire body surged with power as magenta pulsed around her like an aura. Uttering one last, valiant battle cry, Twilight blasted the dark mare with everything she had. The immense burst of magic struck home, causing a blinding flash of light that forced Twilight to throw a hoof in front of her eyes to shield them from its intensity.
When the blast cleared and Twilight could see again, she slumped back in despair. Although she had put enough power into her attack to give even a mighty ursa pause, it failed to leave so much as a dent in the vapour that comprised the mare. Loosing a mirthless chuckle, the mare wrapped itself around Cloud Kicker, who struggled futilely against it. Cloud Kicker's feeble screams were muffled as the dark mare dispersed itself into vapour and enveloped her completely. Suddenly, Cloud Kicker fell silent and Twilight heard a loud crack. Cloud Kicker fell to earth lifelessly, her neck visibly broken.
Twilight looked at the body in the distance, where it had landed in a crumpled and broken heap. “What is happening? Why are you doing this?” she sobbed.
The dark shape reformed itself in front of Twilight, balefully regarding her through its nonexistent eyes. “For somepony who possesses as much raw ability as you, you are powerless...”
“Enough of your riddles! Enough of your games!” Twilight attempted to grasp the shape with her magic in hopes of strangling it, but it felt as if she were grasping at thin air.
“Games?” chuckled the dark mare. “This is far beyond the boundaries of a simple game, young filly. This is a warning.”
“A warning about what?” demanded Twilight through gritted teeth.
The sound of collapsing buildings could be heard in the distance as the fire consumed their partitions. “One would think that somepony as clever as you could figure it out!” snipped the creature. “I do not exist.”
“Finally, something we agree on,” quipped Twilight. “Now, get out of my head and leave me alone.”
The mare chuckled. “Although I may not exist, I am a manifestation of past, present, and future. I cannot be destroyed. Only the demise of the evil one can bring about my end.” The dark mare raised a hoof, as if it was preparing to stomp on its defeated foe. “You can choose to deny it all you want, but until you embrace your fate, those around you shall die, one by one, until somepony you hold dear is taken from you!”
Twilight's eyes widened. “Somepony I hold dear? Who? What am I supposed to do? What do you want from me?” she screamed out her last question in rage and confusion.
“That would ruin the surprise, wouldn't it now?” mocked the dark mare. “Your potential is the key, Twilight. Only you can vanquish the evil one...”
Before Twilight could utter another word, the mare brought its hoof down on her skull. Normally, such a blow would've crushed it like a watermelon under a cartwheel. Instead, Twilight felt a splitting pain in her head, accompanied by a blinding white light and the dark mare's eerie laughter.
When the light faded, the laughter went with it. Twilight suddenly felt the familiar comfort of her bedsheets and mattress, as well as the absence of the pain in her leg. She opened her eyes and noticed several things at once. She was in the library, a pleasant mid-morning day shone through the window, and Greyhoof was still curled up in a ball, sleeping deeply on the guest bed. Sitting up, Twilight took several deep breaths as she went over what she just saw.
Twist, then Holly Dash, and now Cloud Kicker... I can even feel pain – real pain in my dreams. Just how real are these? She felt a chill ripple through her body. Does this mean that Cloud Kicker will go missing as well? Even if it is true, who would possibly believe me? What if they think I'm the pony doing this? They'll really think I've finally lost it... Twilight swung out of bed and softly trotted down the stairs, taking care not to wake the slumbering Greyhoof.
When she reached the library's ground floor, Twilight slumped backward, her latest dream weighing her down like an anchor. What can I do? Maybe my friends will believe me, but how do I convince the entire town that Cloud Kicker's in danger? She looked around the bookshelves aimlessly. Then it came to her. Greyhoof said he'd heard stories of magical dreams! Maybe one of my books in the basement has the answer! I'm getting to the bottom of this. Twilight flung the door open and galloped down the stairs with renewed vigour.
In a matter of seconds, Twilight surrounded herself with a whirlwind of books that she stripped from their shelves. As soon as she settled on a promising volume, she dropped the others in a scattered mess and began delving through with a vengeance. None of its pages contained any useful information, so she set the book aside and grabbed another, refusing to be discouraged. The stack of books at her side grew higher and higher as she tore through them.
“Ah-ha!” shouted Twilight triumphantly as her gaze fell upon a page that outlined magical dreams in great detail. “Oh no...” she muttered as she read through the pages. The information she gleaned was contradictory and unreliable. “I should've known that the study on this sort of thing was a bunch of incomplete nonsense.” She was about to drop the book in defeat when a paragraph at the bottom corner of a page caught her eye.
“Hello, what's this?” Twilight scanned it carefully and began to smile. “It's unreliable like the rest of the stuff written here, but it may work. And I know just the pony who can help me.” Nodding to herself, Twilight trotted up the stairs, the book floating beside her. She even found herself humming a merry tune as she ascended the steps. The prospect of being finally free from nightmares was quite uplifting.
“Good morning, Twilight. Did you sleep well?” Greyhoof tossed her a smile as he ambled down the stairs.
“No.” Twilight shook her head, “but I did get some healthy research done while you were sleeping the morning away.”
The tips of Greyhoof's ears reddened. “What happened? What did you find?” he asked Twilight, his tone going from casual to serious in a heartbeat.
“Well, I had another nightmare. A pegasus pony named Cloud Kicker was murdered.” Twilight looked at him grimly. “If my last two dreams were any indication, that means that who or whatever is out there will be going after her next.”
“Do you remember anything else about the dream?” pressed Greyhoof. “It could possibly be even more important than the victims.”
Twilight shivered involuntarily. She remembered the dark mare's threat that she would soon lose somepony close to her. For reasons she could not explain, she chose to withhold this particular piece of information from Greyhoof for the time being. “Yes. Each time I have one of those dreams... that mare made out of dark purple smoke that I told you about gets more powerful. This time, I attacked her with everything I had, but it didn't even slow her. She keeps saying I can prevent this from happening if I use my true potential to destroy this 'evil one' she keeps talking about. I – I don't understand.” Twilight let a drawn-out sigh. “Ponyville being burned to the ground in each and every dream isn't exactly helping matters.”
Greyhoof's brow furrowed, his ears flattening themselves against his head. “That is... curious, to say the least. I have no doubt that the 'evil one' being referred to is the ponynapper... or the murderer. I cannot imagine where Ponyville's destruction fits into all of this. Is this evil one's ultimate goal to destroy Ponyville?”
“I don't know. The way the mare was talking, I think what's happening isn't this evil one's work, at least not directly.” Twilight raised a hoof to her muzzle. “Perhaps...” she said slowly, “these disappearances are only happening at the evil one's command. If I understand what the mare was saying, once I destroy the evil one, all of this will stop.”
Greyhoof laughed mirthlessly. “Great – all you have to do is find out who the evil one is and destroy it. Simple, right?”
Twilight frowned. “Therein lies the problem.” Her face suddenly brightened, her frown being washed away by a broad smile. “Princess Celestia! She'll know what to do!” She galloped around the library happily. “I can't believe I didn't think of this sooner! Now, where did Spike get off to?”
Greyhoof grinned sheepishly, his hooves shifting from side to side uneasily. “Um... I guess he's still out.”
“Huh?” Twilight's face had confusion written all over it. “I never sent him on an errand.”
Greyhoof cleared his throat nervously. “I did.”
Twilight eyed him suspiciously. “Greyhoof? What did you do?”
Greyhoof guiltily avoided her gaze. “You see, I woke up in the middle of the night and discovered that I had skipped dinner, so...”
“So?” demanded Twilight.
Greyhoof backpedaled. “Let's just say that your kitchen isn't exactly well-supplied right now...”
Twilight facehoofed and groaned. “You didn't wake him up, did you?”
Greyhoof quickly shook his head. “Oh, no. I left him a note explaining what happened. If he's not here, I'd imagine he's shopping right now. He should be back soon.”
Twilight sighed. “Well, I may as well write the letter now and have Spike send it as soon as he returns. And since we're out of food, I guess we'd better go to Sugarcube Corner or something and grab a bite to eat.”
“Good plan.” Greyhoof nodded. “So, why do you need Spike to send letters, anyway?”
Twilight grabbed a scroll of parchment, a quill, and a bottle of ink. “Oh, it's quite simple, really. Spike has magical dragon breath that sends and receives letters from the Princess instantly.”
“I thought as much,” said Greyhoof. “I have heard of such a method before, and being her personal protege, such a method of communication seems fitting.”
“Exactly.” Twilight began to write with haste, the quill strokes not up to her usual standard.
Dear Princess Celestia,
This may come as a great shock to you, but things are not well in Ponyville. I've been having a series of vivid and troubling dreams for the past few days. The first was me on a mountaintop on the day that you took me as your student. The next dreams each depicted a Ponyvillian being murdered: first, a young filly named Twist, then a unicorn called Holly Dash. The scary part is, both of those ponies disappeared recently. Last night, I had another dream in which the pegasus Cloud Kicker met a similar fate, and I fear the worst. In each dream, Ponyville was also burning.
A dark cloud of purple smoke has been warning me of the presence of an 'evil one' that is responsible for the horrors in my visions. It has told me that only my full potential is capable of destroying it. Each time I see it, the dark cloud grows more powerful. Now it appears in the shape of a fully grown mare and it seems to be impervious to anything I can throw at it. Do you know what these dreams, mean? What can I do? Please, Princess, I have nowhere else to turn. I can't put my friends lives or the whole of Ponyville in danger any longer.
Your faithful student,
Satisfied, Twilight rolled up the scroll and set it on a desk. She quickly scribbled a note that read “Spike, please send this scroll to the Princess ASAP. Twilight.” Taking the book she had brought from the basement, Twilight opened it to the relevant page and laid it beside Greyhoof. “I need your help with something.”
Greyhoof's eyes flicked to the scroll before returning to Twilight, his expression more serious than was usual for him. “It has to do with the dreams, doesn't it?” He glanced at the open book next to him. “So it does. What did you find?”
Twilight's face fell as the momentary relief she'd experienced from the act of writing about her troubles faded away, replaced by the dread she'd almost grown accustomed to. “Nothing at all conclusive,” she said dejectedly. “However... there is something...”
As he leaned closer to Twilight, Greyhoof's eyes continuously darted between her and the book. “What? What did you find?” he asked again, his tone earnest.
“If you look at the bottom of the page, there is a spell that should help free me from the nightmares.” Twilight indicated the passage she was referring to. “The only catch is, I can't perform this spell on myself. I need somepony who's magically gifted to do it.”
Greyhoof offered Twilight a smug look. “Say no more.” He focused intently on the section Twilight had indicated, muttering to himself. Nearly a minute later, he looked up at her and nodded solemnly. “This is unlike any spell I've seen before, but it looks simple enough nonetheless. Now, close your eyes and try to relax. I'm honestly not sure what will happen, but if all goes well, your subconscious should be shielded from further troubling visions.” He paused for a moment. “I must ask, is this truly a good idea?”
Twilight blanched. “What in Equestria do you mean? Of course it's a good idea! These dreams... they hurt me, Greyhoof.”
Greyhoof inched closer to Twilight, his gaze blazing. “Your dreams may be providing you foresight on what's about to happen. If we work quickly, we may be able to save Cloud Kicker if she's really in danger. They may eventually even lead us to the one responsible for this whole ordeal. Are you absolutely sure that this procedure is wise? We could potentially be throwing away our only chance at stopping this before it gets out of control.”
Twilight felt Greyhoof's eyes burning a hole straight through her conscience, but she refused to back down. “I'd never thought of it that way, but you forget one important factor: Princess Celestia. The moment she gets my letter, she'll be over here and will put a stop to this herself. Trust me, the Princess has always cared deeply for each and every pony under her rule.” She craned her neck to bring her eyes level with his. “I want you to try. Please. Knowing what will happen only makes me feel helpless when I can't prevent it.”
Closing his eyes, Greyhoof exhaled slowly. “Very well.” His horn began to shimmer. “Remember, close your eyes and clear your mind. I hope this isn't too unpleasant.”
Twilight rested a hoof on Greyhoof's shoulder. “I have complete confidence in you.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I'm ready.”
Greyhoof brought the tip of his horn to Twilight's head, lightly making contact. “Get ready,” he muttered.
Twilight's whole body shivered when Greyhoof's horn touched her. Ripples of magic began pulsing from it, slowly enveloping her. Within seconds, it formed a sort of tight bubble around her head. The sensation was somewhat pleasant at first, but it quickly turned into a migraine as the bubble suddenly began contracting. It took all of her willpower to not open her eyes and scream in pain.
After what felt like an eternity, the magic stopped its contraction and focused on a small spot deep inside her skull. All of the visions Twilight had seen in her nightmares began flickering in her mind's eye, and with each passing second, the scenes before her faded into darkness. Once the surreal slide show had ceased, the pain faded along with it.
“There...” said Greyhoof, sounding slightly winded. “How do you feel?”
Twilight rubbed her head. “I – I don't know. I hope it worked.”
“Time will tell,” mused Greyhoof. “Now if you don't mind holding off on lunch for a little while longer, I have a matter of utmost importance to discuss.”
Twilight's stomach growled defiantly. “Are you sure this can't wait?”
Greyhoof slowly shook his head. “I'm afraid not. I've been doing some thinking about this whole situation – expanding on my theory, if you will.”
Twilight swallowed. It wasn't Greyhoof's stony expression or the seriousness of his voice that caused her to feel fear – she had grown accustomed to these mannerisms by now – but the searing fire in his eyes. “You now believe things to be worse than you'd originally thought, don't you?”
“I'm afraid so,” he said grimly. “As you know, there have been cases like this in the past. Throughout towns similar to this one, chains of murders occurred through the ages. Recall how I said the culprit never seemed to have rhyme or reason for going berserk?” He paused, allowing his words to sink in. “What if they didn't just go berserk? What if those murders happened for a reason?”
Twilight was momentarily rendered speechless by Greyhoof's latest theory. She mouthed words a few times, but nothing came out. “I'm not sure I understand,” she finally said.
“Think about it,” pressed Greyhoof, “do ponies simply go berserk in such a manner? And, if so, what do you think the odds are of it playing out in such a similar fashion each time?” He spoke with a tone of eagerness that Twilight had never heard in his voice, as if reciting his theory was making him reach a breakthrough in the mystery. “What if they weren't acting of their own accord?”
Twilight gasped. “You don't mean?”
Greyhoof struck the floor with a hoof, as if he was disgusted by his own revelation. “Mind control. If I'm right, that means it'll be even more difficult to link clues together, as motives won't likely come into play.”
Twilight's mind raced as the implications of what Greyhoof said began to hit home. “You mean like the 'Want It, Need It' spell?”
“Possibly, but something far more subtle, and far worse,” said Greyhoof pensively. “If I'm right, it means that the pony behind this possess powerful magic. I can't imagine a spell like that being a simple task to perform. That could greatly narrow down the list of suspects...” Greyhoof's gaze slowly drifted to the scroll laying on the desk.
“Greyhoof!” shouted Twilight. “You aren't saying what I think you're saying, are you?”
Backpedaling, he raised a hoof. “I'm saying we cannot rule out the possibility. It all fits, in a bizarre sort of way.” He sighed apologetically. “It certainly is a link between these cases, and the power of mind control makes it a perfect crime. When her use for the pony has come to an end, the pony 'slips up' and is caught.” Greyhoof's expression softened as he rested a comforting hoof on Twilight's shoulder. “I'm not saying that this is the only answer, but... due to our recent... discoveries...”
“So, the Princess killed her brother, and is now mind controlling her subjects to murder her other subjects?” Twilight seethed. “You may want to think that, but I refuse to believe it. That's not who she is. There has to be some other answer.”
Greyhoof continued to backpedal cautiously. “Please, Twilight, I don't mean to offend. I am merely stating a plausible theory. This doesn't mean I'm unwilling to accept others. Trust me, I want to be wrong. I'd much rather have Princess Celestia with us than against us.”
“I'm sorry, I think I overreacted,” said Twilight, backing down. “All of this has just been getting to me. I'll try not to snap at you again. I know you're just doing your best to solve this.”
“Thank you.” Greyhoof smiled at her. “Now, how about that lunch?”
Twilight opened her mouth to respond, but another loud growl from her stomach spoke for her. Greyhoof laughed and opened the library door. The streets of Ponyville were blessed by a warm sunny day, but the inhabitants were treating it as if there were dark storm clouds overhead. They darted from place to place quickly, eyeing each other suspiciously and going about their day-to-day activities in an almost hostile manner.
“This is bad...” said Twilight as she took in the scene before them.
Greyhoof took a step forward, motioning for Twilight to follow. “The town is rife with fear. I hope Princess Celestia can get to the bottom of this soon.”
Twilight tried to reply, but she was so distracted by the state of the town that she only managed a sort of mumble. Her heart sank further and further as they walked through the streets of Ponyville on their way to Sugarcube Corner, the town looking no less bleak than when they left the library. Whatever happens, I can only hope the culprit is caught, and caught soon, she lamented.
It hurts to even think of it... but what if Greyhoof is truly onto something? Images of the Princess exerting her vast and terrible power on helpless ponies in villages throughout Equestria flashed before her. I... wish this didn't make so much sense. As outrageous as Greyhoof's theory seems, I can see a connection of sorts. Twilight cringed as she had just realized what she was thinking. Am I really thinking of somepony who is practically my second mother this way? She can't be some sort of tyrant who murdered a member of her own family and uses her magic to maintain her crown. She just can't.
As they drew closer to Sugarcube Corner, she could vaguely hear Greyhoof speaking to her, but the words sounded like unintelligible garble to Twilight. No, she thought. I refuse to believe it. The Princess can't and wouldn't do something so evil. There is another explanation for all this, and I'm determined to find it. She nodded absently at Greyhoof, who was giving her a concerned look. That whole story about King Cosmo is just an old mare's tale written by some crazy pony hundreds of years ago to make a few bits. Somepony's gone off the deep end, and nothing more.
She was shocked back to reality by Greyhoof, who now stood in front of her. They were almost at Sugarcube Corner, and he wore an annoyed expression. “Sorry, I've just been thinking about things,” said Twilight sheepishly.
“About what I've been saying regarding the Princess and this crisis, no doubt,” said Greyhoof sagely. He looked inside the bakery window and heaved a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank goodness, there doesn't seem to be any party going on. Maybe we'll be able to enjoy a good, refreshing treat in peace.”
“Ah-ha! Just the ponies I wanted to see!”
Greyhoof groaned. “Not her. Not now...”
Putting on the best face she could, Twilight smiled and waved at a pony behind Greyhoof. “Hello, Miss Mayor. Are there still search parties looking for Twist and Holly?”
“Yes, several,” said the Mayor, coming to a stop next to them. “I've been meaning to talk to the both of you all day, since the two of you seem to have a good idea about what's going on. Have you figured anything out?”
Twilight opened her mouth to answer, but Greyhoof spoke before she had a chance. “Nothing conclusive, I'm afraid.” The Mayor's face fell as Greyhoof continued to look grimly at her. “Unfortunately, while some theories have been voiced, the only firm one seems to be last night's. Somepony is likely on a killing spree, and for what reason or to what end, I cannot say.”
“Really? Nothing at all?” asked the Mayor dejectedly.
Greyhoof held up a hoof to silence Twilight's forthcoming reply. “I'm sorry. If we find anything, one of us will inform you straight away.”
The Mayor sighed before thanking Greyhoof and walking back toward the town hall. Twilight's cheeks flushed as she turned to Greyhoof angrily. “What do you think you're doing? We could've told her your expanded theory, warned her about Cloud Kicker, or –”
“Please, Twilight.” Greyhoof's tone was soft, almost pleading. “Even if one or both of us are right about what we think or what we've seen, how do you think that would go over with the Mayor? She'd either think we're insane or would send the town into a full panic. Look at the ponies around us!” He waved a hoof at the various ponies in the streets. “This is them scared. Until we can truly prove part of our theories, is it worth risking panic?”
Twilight slumped, her head lowering. “I suppose you're right.” She took a few steps forward and opened the bakery door. “Let's eat. Maybe that'll clear our heads.”
Greyhoof followed her into the shop. “My sentiments exactly.”
After ordering a pair of pastries and a half-dozen cupcakes, Twilight and Greyhoof sat in a corner of the bakery and ate their lunch. In a matter of seconds, the scrumptious meal had vanished, leaving behind only a few crumbs as evidence of its existence. Rising to her hooves, Twilight smiled and nodded at Greyhoof, the meal filling her with renewed determination.
“Spike should be back soon,” noted Twilight. “Once he's sent the letter, I think we should lay out the victims' profiles to see if they've gotten on anypony's bad side, as well as their last known whereabouts before they went missing. Maybe we can find a connection.”
“Good idea. I think I need to take a bit of a walk first, however. I may have jumped to certain conclusions a bit too easily, and I wanted to apologize for that. I was out of line and I need some time away from everypony so I don't make that mistake again this evening.”
Twilight hugged him. “Thanks. It means a lot to me to hear that. Please, come back soon.” She paused for a moment. “What about Cloud Kicker? Somepony needs to warn her.”
Returning her embrace, he smiled at her. “I can take care of that if you tell me where to find her. We will get to the bottom of this. I promise.”
As she watched Greyhoof trot in toward downtown Ponyville, a thought struck Twilight. I hope Rarity's alright. She began striding almost mechanically toward the Carousel Boutique. I haven't seen her for a while. I can't believe I didn't check on her sooner.
“Ouch!” Twilight was so engrossed in her own thoughts that she hadn't noticed the dress shop directly in front of her, nor did she prevent her muzzle from crashing into its door with a loud thump.
“Can I help you?”
Twilight staggered backward and rubbed her muzzle before opening the door. At least Rarity seems to be okay.
The shop was an absolute mess. Paper and fabric were strewn about the floor as if a small tornado had recently passed through. The only semblance of order were a few mannequins outfitted with what looked to be platinum-embroidered dresses, which Twilight would've stopped to admire on almost any given day except this one.
“Rarity?” called Twilight, her eyes darting around the shop, but finding her friend nowhere in sight.
“Twilight, darling, is that you?” came Rarity's voice from somewhere in the back. A door opened and Rarity stepped out, a pincushion and measuring tape floating along beside her. “What brings you here? Have you come to get a sneak preview of my brand-new platinum line?”
Twilight mumbled something about the weather and gave Rarity a half smile.
Rarity looked at Twilight, her face suddenly full of concern. “Is something the matter, dear?”
Before Twilight could say anything, Rarity discarded her dressmaking tools, cleared a path in the Boutique, and steered Twilight toward another door with surprising firmness. It wasn't long until Twilight found herself sitting down at a table with a cup of hot tea in front of her as well as a small plate of crumpets.
“Go on, help yourself,” said Rarity, pushing the crumpets a quarter of an inch toward Twilight.
“I just ate,” said Twilight, staring at her tea. How do I tell her?
Rarity cleared her throat. “Twilight, I know something's bothering you.”
“It's – it's nothing.”
Taking a sip of her tea, Rarity narrowed her eyes. “It's hardly nothing! Now come on, Twilight. There's no use in hiding your feelings from me.” She set her teacup in its saucer with a soft clink and trotted over to where Twilight sat. She gave her a gentle pat on the back. “Let it out. It'll help.”
Twilight's whole body quivered and she screwed up her face, looking as if she was resisting the urge to be sick. Her eyes glistened with tears as she slowly turned her head to meet Rarity's worried gaze. Exhaling, Twilight paused for a moment before she began explaining everything that had been happening, starting from her first dream a few days prior.
Her explanation came as an unabated torrent of words that washed over an increasingly horrified Rarity. She gasped when Twilight told her of the vividness of the dreams, and how they seemed to predict a catastrophic future, and frowned when Twilight ended her tale with Greyhoof's spell. Twilight took care to leave Greyhoof's theories regarding Princess Celestia out of her recount.
“Oh, you poor dear! I can't believe you didn't come here sooner!” cried Rarity. “But, I must ask... you say you're absolutely sure that you can trust him?”
“Of course I am,” snapped Twilight. “Greyhoof is the most gifted unicorn I've ever met. He'll make sure Cloud Kicker is safe. Or did you forget how he saved my life – and yours?”
“You may be right...” said Rarity reluctantly. “But... this spell of his that he did. is it safe?”
“It's not his spell, Rarity,” Twilight corrected. “I found it, as a matter of fact, and I have complete confidence that he performed it properly. Whether or not the spell will work is another matter.”
“Well, be that as it may now, but what about the dreams themselves?” asked Rarity. “I simply can't imagine anything like it. Seeing tragedy before it happens... what a curse. I'd have gone to pieces days ago if it was me. I don't know how you do it, Twilight.”
“Me neither,” she replied glumly. “At first, I came here to see if you were okay. Because of... you know... But really, I think I just needed somepony to talk to. I also hoped you might be able to give me some advice.”
Rarity took both of Twilight's hooves in hers. “You were right in coming here. Talking about something always helps, and I'm here for you. As for dealing with it, all I can think of is to hope that whatever you had Greyhoof do worked. In the meantime, you can always do what I'd do in a situation like this: a nice day at the spa.”
“That does sound quite relaxing,” said Twilight, wistfully envisioning herself being massaged and pampered by Aloe and Lotus.
“I'm sorry I couldn't be more helpful,” said Rarity. “But I've never dealt with something like this before.”
“I don't think anypony has,” said Twilight. “I do think you're right, though. I need to go and forget about this whole mess for a few hours. Worrying about it right now will only make things worse.”
Rarity nodded. “Good. Now how about some tea before you leave?”
“I'd love to.”
Twilight had scarcely raised the teacup to her muzzle when she heard a loud crash from the front of the shop. Startled, Rarity opened the door and Applejack charged into the room, looking winded.
“Twi!” she gasped. “Ya gotta come quick! It's Greyhoof!”
* * *
“So, why are we here again, exactly?” asked an exasperated Rainbow Dash, flying a few feet above the ground of Whitetail Wood.
“To look for the poor little animals,” replied Fluttershy patiently. She opted to trot on the forest floor instead of flying. “Well, you said you'd help me look for the animals, remember? I volunteered to search for Twist and Holly here because I haven't searched for the animals here, either.”
“But what makes you think they'll be here?” pressed Rainbow. “I mean, you said they weren't in their homes, so why would they be in Whitetail Wood?”
“Why not?” countered Fluttershy. “I think it's as good a place as any. I can't explain it, but... I feel like we might find them here, somehow.”
Rainbow sighed. “I hope you're right. At least out here it's... uh... nice and quiet?”
Fluttershy nodded enthusiastically. “Oh yes, it's great! The perfect atmosphere for finding those animals!”
When she was sure Fluttershy wasn't looking, Rainbow facehoofed. This really is a waste of time... She looked down at Fluttershy, who continued her progress through the woods with a look of pure optimism on her face. But I guess I should humour her. A promise is a promise, and it is sorta peaceful out here...
Rainbow and Fluttershy began moving off the beaten path in the hope of finding animals in the more secluded sections of the wood. In spite of the dire situation, the beauty of the forest in the midsummer afternoon was strangely calming. It was fairly hot, but the gentle breeze rustling through the browning leaves counterbalanced the heat. The only thing preventing it from being a perfect trip through the woods was the distinct lack of the local wildlife.
Rainbow noticed Fluttershy's demeanor steadily declining toward sadness as they continued their trek. Fluttershy's face lit up for a moment each time she poked her head into a den or warren, but moments later she trudged away from it dejectedly, finding nothing. It was well into the afternoon when they neared the eastern edge of the wood – the mountain that Rainbow fondly remembered tricking Applejack into going up during the last year's Running of the Leaves coming into view.
Flying down next to her friend, Rainbow gave her a consoling hug. “Look, Fluttershy, I think it's time we turned back, or looked somewhere else in the woods. We're not gonna find anything up there.”
Fluttershy unfurled her wings and shook her head. “No, Rainbow, I say we should go up the mountain.”
Taking to the air, Rainbow narrowed her eyes and focused intently on the mountainside, finding no signs of life. “But why?”
Fluttershy joined Rainbow midair, following her gaze. “I – I don't know... but at the same time... I just... know.”
“Fine, we'll circle it once, then we're looking somewhere else.” Rainbow sped toward the mountain, Fluttershy only a short distance behind her. Wow, she's flying pretty quick. She must really be onto something here.
When they reached the mountain, Fluttershy took off toward its northern face. That was then they saw it. A fairly large cave at the end of a narrow, winding trail – mostly obscured by vegetation – came into view. Without a moment's pause, Fluttershy landed at the cave mouth and beckoned Rainbow to do the same.
“This way, Rainbow, hurry!” she squeaked, galloping headlong into the tunnel as if she were possessed.
“Wait!” Rainbow called after Fluttershy, but it was no good. “Oh, horseapples.”
Rainbow flew in as quickly as she could, determined not to lose Fluttershy in the darkness. They didn't make it far into the tunnel before they heard a loud, ominous rumbling noise. It was drawing closer, and it was fast.
Finally catching up to Fluttershy, Rainbow landed in front of her and stood on her hind legs, spreading her front legs wide as if to shield her from what was coming toward them. “Fluttershy, get back! I'll hold 'em off!”
Fluttershy rested her hooves on Rainbow's shoulders gently. “No, Rainbow,” she said calmly.
As the rumbling grew almost deafening, its source was revealed. A myriad of various animals leapt past Rainbow and jumped on Fluttershy, hugging her fiercely. Rainbow stood there, blinking in disbelief as Fluttershy became engulfed by hundreds of animals of all shapes and sizes.
“Now why were you hiding here?” Fluttershy asked them in an almost scolding manner. “I was worried sick!”
Rainbow gently removed a badger that had been hugging Fluttershy's face so she could speak with her more easily. “When did they run away, again?”
“Well, I think it was the night of the party...” Fluttershy answered slowly as she thought back.
“The night of the party!” shouted Rainbow.
Fluttershy shushed Rainbow and began cooing the animals around her. “It'll be okay, little ones. Big mean Rainbow Dash won't hurt you.”
“No, no!” pressed Rainbow. “That was right before Twist went missing, wasn't it? What if the thing that scared the animals also got Twist?”
Fluttershy gasped, covering her mouth. “But... who – or what – could do that?”
Rainbow shook her head. “I don't know, but I think we've finally got a clue. Let's get the animals out of here and tell Twilight what we've discovered.”
Fluttershy gasped. “Oh no...”
“What's the matter?”
“I just thought of something Twilight showed me, about the animals,” said Fluttershy. “Rainbow, I think you're right, and that means we're dealing with something terrible – much worse than just a ponynapper!”
* * *
“He's innocent!” Twilight yelled at the Mayor.
The two ponies stood by a podium at Ponyville town hall, surrounded by a throng of townsfolk. Rainbow flew over the crowd with Fluttershy in tow. The setting sun cast everything into bleak shadow. Landing beside the podium, Rainbow adopted an aggressive stance. “What in the name of Celestia is going on here?”
“It's Greyhoof,” choked a sobbing Twilight. “He's – he's –”
“Greyhoof has been convicted of the abduction and murder of three ponies,” said the Mayor sternly, hairs falling out of place in her unkempt mane as she spoke. “As such, he is to be detained unless he is absolved. Bring forth the prisoner!”
Emerging from the town hall, two burly stallions escorted Greyhoof, who wore heavy manacles around his hooves and a chain leash around his neck. “You have to believe me,” he shouted, looking at the Mayor. “I've done nothing wrong!”
Fluttershy landed beside Rainbow, the jubilation at finally finding the missing animals fading in a heartbeat. “Oh no...” she squeaked. “W-what did he do?”
“Greyhoof was caught on his own this afternoon,” said the Mayor accusingly. “There has been another abduction today as well. A pegasus named Cloud Kicker, the very pony Greyhoof claimed to be after. She was reportedly last seen near the spa. He's known too much about this whole catastrophe all along.” The Mayor ignored Twilight's protesting sobs and continued shrilly, trying to drown her out. “Nopony here would do such a thing! These murders didn't start until right after he showed up. It's clear as day that he's the one behind all of this.” She gave Twilight a dirty look. “It wasn't until Twilight kept insisting that I have no actual evidence that it was decided that he will be merely detained pending further investigation, instead of being publicly executed, here and now.”
“I told you, town mayors haven't had that sort of power for seven-hundred and eighty-three years!” screamed Twilight, her vocal cords raw from the effort. “Decree of Princess Celestia Number –”
“I know the damn law!” barked the Mayor. “Surely in a case like this, the Princess wouldn't mind if somepony took the initiative! Regardless, his life will be spared – for now.”
“But he saved my life!” cried Twilight, taking an aggressive step toward the Mayor. “Think about what you're doing! You haven't given him a hearing, a trial, nothing! If it weren't for Greyhoof, I wouldn't be here right now, and neither would Applejack or Rarity!”
“Be that as it may,” said the Mayor dismissively, rubbing her eyes. “For now, he shall reside in the clock tower. Take him away!” She motioned to the two stallions. “Ponyville can rest easy once again. There will be no further killing sprees as long as I am mayor of this town!”
As Twilight saw Greyhoof being slowly dragged away, she felt as if a piece of her went with him. “No. No! I won't let you do this!” she screamed, staring daggers at the Mayor. “Do you not understand the magic of friendship? The very friendship that saved Equestria from both Discord and Nightmare Moon? Friendship is not skin-deep, Mayor. Greyhoof is my friend, and I can assure you with no uncertainty that he is innocent! Just because it's convenient to pin everything on him doesn't mean it's right.”
Twilight continued to scream, magic crackling from her horn and surrounding her whole body as she began to lose control. “There are too many other things going on. Greyhoof isn't responsible for this! He's been with me for most of his stay in Ponyville, and I won't stand idly and watch you throw an innocent stallion in prison!” Tears streamed down her face unabated as she didn't even bother to wipe them away. “I swear by my status as the disciple of Princess Celestia – no, on my own life – that my dear friend Greyhoof is not to blame for this ordeal!”
The Mayor only responded by looking away. Her mind was racing wildly, though it was a slightly calmer now that she had vented some of her anger and frustration. This is like what happened with the masticore, only worse! Why isn't Greyhoof using his magic to free himself? Twilight knew the answer to her own question, however: If he uses force to defy the Mayor, then that only reinforces her heinous claims...
Twilight tried to ignore the jeers of the crowd, and the cries of astonishment and outrage coming from her friends. She could feel an anvil being dropped in her stomach as she saw Greyhoof being torn away from her, and all she could do was stand there and watch. She knew that as outrageous and unjust as the situation was, she didn't dare interfere, lest she became branded a criminal herself.
Greyhoof closed his eyes and bowed his head as the stallions led him away from the town square. The crowd parted to let them through, slinging insults. Some even threw pebbles at him. As a particularly sharp stone struck the side of Greyhoof's head, drawing blood, Twilight lost what little composure she had left. As she saw the blood run down his face, Twilight collapsed onto the ground and sobbed openly, unable to watch any longer. Nopony, with the exception of Rainbow, Applejack, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Pinkie, paid the slightest bit of attention to her as Greyhoof was dragged forcibly toward the clock tower, which the sun was ominously setting behind, ushering in a dark nightfall.
by Tony “GaryOak” Genovese
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
“Open up!” screamed Twilight, bashing a hoof against the Ponyville clock tower door as hard as she could. “Let – me – in!”
“They can't hear you.”
Twilight felt the blood freeze in her veins. I recognize that voice... but... how is this even possible? She spun around, knowing what she would see. A few feet behind her stood the creature, but there were two significant differences. The first was that Ponyville was not on fire; it was a cool, tranquil evening. The streets were desolate with the exception of Twilight and the dark mare. The second difference unsettled Twilight more than the first. It now possessed a pair of large, lantern-like eyes that glowed a bright white.
“W-what do you want?” spluttered Twilight, anger dripping from her every word. I don't understand! That protective spell should've worked! Why is this happening again?
The mare chuckled. “You continue to foalishly disregard my warnings. Now you are facing the consequences.”
For a moment, Twilight prepared herself for battle, calling upon her magic. Then, she paused. I – I can't fight this – whatever it is... it's just too powerful. Exhaling slowly, she released her grip on the magic, lowering her defenses completely. “What do you want from me? Who is this 'evil one' that I'm meant to destroy?” she demanded.
Remaining stationary, the thing's eyes bored into Twilight like a pair of white-hot branding irons. “The answer has always been laid before you. All you must do is listen...” It turned its bright eyes to the left. If Twilight didn't know better, she would say that it was grinning.
A light purple earth pony with a puffy white mane emerged from the shadows. “Hey, Twilight, what's with all the racket? I'm –” Cotton Top stopped mid-sentence when she noticed the dark mare. She opened her mouth to scream, but the dark mare's eyes glowed even brighter.
“You're next!” hissed the mare, enveloping Cotton Top in a thin veil of purple smoke. Within seconds, Cotton Top was over fifty feet in the air, the smog around her growing more dense as she ascended.
Twilight tried to free the helpless pony, but her magic was unable to pierce the surrounding smoke. “Put her down now!”
“Normally I don't take requests...” The dark mare's eyes flashed and Cotton Top suddenly burst into flames high above the two.
Twilight could only watch in horror as the ball of fire that was once Cotton Top hurtled toward the clock tower like a meteor. Upon impact, the entire tower exploded, creating a blazing shockwave which covered the entire town in flames. Feeling her legs buckle beneath her, Twilight fell to the ground, overcome by pain and confusion, the inferno roaring around her.
“This is your last chance to destroy the evil one, Twilight Sparkle!” jeered the creature, its voice cutting into Twilight like razorblades. “Soon, somepony close to you shall be claimed by the evil one, and you will be powerless to stop it!”
The flames suddenly closed in on Twilight. Unable to slow them with her magic, she flailed her hooves wildly as the fire overtook her ineffectual defenses. Her vision abruptly went black, and the flames vanished. She opened her eyes to find herself in her bed in the library, her blanket in a crumpled heap on the floor, no doubt the result of her flailing.
Twilight vaguely remembered storming off to the library after Greyhoof's imprisonment, ignoring everypony she met along the way. She could feel the pillow beneath her head was still slightly damp from when she had cried herself to sleep. When she finally brought herself to climb out of bed, she was startled to see her five closest friends gathered downstairs, waiting for her.
“Girls – what – what are you doing here?” asked Twilight in astonishment, pausing halfway down the stairs.
“We figured ya could use a shoulder to cry on, sugarcube.” Applejack removed her hat and set it down beside her. “Spike let us in a while ago. We didn't wake ya because, well...”
Twilight nodded. “I certainly needed the rest. Spike did send my letter to the Princess, didn't he?”
“Yeah huh!” said Pinkie. “He definitely said something about that. He also –”
Fluttershy flew up to Twilight and hugged her so hard, it nearly sent her tumbling down the rest of the stairs. “What they did to poor Greyhoof was horrible, just horrible!”
Gratefully returning Fluttershy's embrace, Twilight thanked her and ambled down the rest of the stairs, giving the rest of her friends a forlorn look.
Rarity's mane swished as she turned her head indignantly. She let out a humph. “This is simply outrageous! The Mayor's lost her mind!”
“I know what you need...” exclaimed Pinkie gleefully, shuddering with excitement. “A pa–”
“No!” interrupted Rainbow, unfurling her wings. “Don't you pay attention, Pinkie? Considering what's going on, this is not the time.”
Pinkie's expression went from jubilant to crestfallen in the blink of an eye. “Oh, you're right, Dashie...” Turning dejectedly, she began walking out of the room until something on a nearby desk caught her eye. “Ooh! Lookie what I found! Spike probably left it here. I think this'll help for sure!”
What in Equestria is she on about? Twilight looked in Pinkie's direction and immediately perked up when she saw what Pinkie was indicating. “A letter!” Dashing toward the desk, Twilight grabbed the rolled scroll with newfound enthusiasm. “Yesterday I sent a letter to the Princess about this whole mess. I'm just glad she got back to me so quickly. Maybe she can even help free Greyhoof!” Wasting no further time with explanation, Twilight feverishly unraveled the scroll and began to read.
How are ya doing, kid? I know I promised I'd write more often after my honeymoon, but being a Prince is really time-consuming. Retiring as Captain of the Royal Guard has made little real difference. I do hope Phalanx is handling his promotion okay. I'm sure he's doing fine. Anyway, I'm afraid I won't be able to see you until the Summer Sun Celebration in Canterlot, which Cadence and I are being sent all around Equestria to promote.
Really, who needs to be told about the Summer Sun Celebration, especially when it's being held in Canterlot itself? When I brought this up to the Princess, she insisted that Cadence and I attend to these matters, saying something about it being some royal tradition or other. Bah!
At least Stalliongrad is nice. It's just north of the Crystal Mountains, so we're staying there while we visit the northern Equestrian cities. I should show you around, if I can ever find the time. Maybe we can –
Clenching her teeth in frustration, Twilight incinerated it, the ashy remains slowly falling to the floor.
“Twi!” cried Applejack in alarm. “What's wrong? What'd it say?”
“It wasn't from the Princess at all,” said Twilight bitterly. “It was from my brother. Since he's technically royalty now, the Princess sent him to northeast Equestria to do something or other related to the Summer Sun Celebration.”
Fluttershy slowly approached Twilight and began to nuzzle her left cheek like she would a wounded animal. “I'm sorry to hear that... I'm sure Princess Celestia will send a reply soon.”
Twilight couldn't help but smile faintly. “So... what's happening today? More search parties?”
Shaking her head solemnly, Rarity rested a comforting hoof on Twilight's shoulder. “They're... holding a funeral.”
Twilight froze. “A funeral? Whose funeral?”
“It's...” Rarity winced, as if breaking the news was too much for her to bear.
“Twist, Holly, and Cloud Kicker,” said Rainbow. “The Mayor thinks now that Greyhoof is safely behind bars, the best idea is to just give 'em a funeral and move on.”
Twilight began to feel the pure rage she had experienced the night before swelling deep within her, blossoming into a deadly force that threatened to take over her whole body. “She – did – what?” she demanded, grinding out every syllable.
Applejack picked her hat back up and placed it on her head a little harder than usual. “Trust me, we ain't too fond of the idea, either!”
“This is far from over,” said Twilight almost threateningly. Everypony froze and stared at her. Noticing their shocked expressions, Twilight sighed, allowing her anger to subside. “Look, there's something I haven't been telling any of you. I've been having nightmares for days. These aren't ordinary nightmares, either; they're somehow connected with reality.”
Rainbow arched an eyebrow and gave Twilight a look that suggested she was questioning her sanity. “What are you talking about?”
Twilight shuddered as she called upon her memories of those horrific visions. “I – I saw them getting killed. All of them, in my dreams. What they were murdered by isn't real, but when I saw one of them die in my nightmare, they wound up missing the next day. Yesterday, I saw Cloud Kicker killed...”
“Why didn't you say somethin' sooner? We could've saved 'em!” cried Applejack.
“At first... I said nothing to anypony. How could I? Everypony would think I was insane,” said Twilight defensively. “There's a lot more to the dreams than just ponies getting murdered – things I don't understand. Yesterday I had Greyhoof perform a spell on me to prevent the dreams, but it seems to have done nothing.” Twilight looked at the floor in despair. “Last night I saw another, an earth pony named Cotton Top, getting murdered. Her life may already be forfeit.”
“We have to warn her!” shouted Rainbow in a sudden outburst that made everypony jump. “Twilight, open the window!”
Twilight nodded at Rainbow. Her horn shimmered and the library window opened. The second there was room enough, Rainbow shot out at blinding speed. The others stood in there in silence after Rainbow's departure. Eventually, Twilight decided to break speak. “I've got it.”
Applejack cocked an eyebrow at Twilight. “Got what, sugarcube?”
“Everypony will be at this big funeral, right? It's the perfect distraction!” Twilight's left ear began to twitch as she spoke. “If the Mayor won't see sense, I'll just use my magic and break Greyhoof out of prison!”
“Um, I don't think that's a very good idea,” squeaked Fluttershy, slowly backing away from Twilight.
“Please, darling, I know this is wrong, but that isn't the answer!” Rarity implored gently.
Twilight felt her stomach knot up. “It is the answer!” she snapped. “My friend is sitting in a prison for unjust reasons! Helping a friend is the least I can do. I – we need him; we're having a hard enough time solving this as it is, and it'll only get worse without him. With Greyhoof free, we just might stand a chance. By breaking a few asinine rules, we can save lives.”
“Twi, listen to yourself!” Applejack shook Twilight. “Regardless of whether it's 'for the greater good' or not, it's breakin' the law! You saw how the Mayor and everypony treated Grey, didn't you? If anything, you'll be lumped in with him as a criminal!”
“I don't care,” spat Twilight, “I'll become a fugitive in Ponyville until we catch the real killer if I have to! Who cares if we defy the Mayor, as long as we save lives in the process?”
Applejack shook her head. “No, sugarcube, there has to be another way. Do you remember when Grey broke into Zecora's hut to get that cure for you? Remember how you gave him what for? This is no better than what he did.”
Twilight slumped. “You're right...” she moaned reluctantly, “but what can I do otherwise?”
“Duh!” exclaimed Pinkie. “Throw on your detective cap and get to work, silly!”
“Pinkie, you're a genius!” Twilight leapt forward and hugged Pinkie so forcefully, it almost knocked her off her hooves. “Why didn't I think of it sooner?”
“Oh, that's easy,” said Pinkie, patting Twilight on the back. “You've been going through a lot lately. It's no wonder things would be getting to your head a little.”
Twilight released Pinkie and exhaled slowly. “Right,” she said to herself more than anypony else, “I'm going to need scrolls. Lots of scrolls. Everypony in all of Ponyville is going to be accounted for, as well as the whereabouts of all of the missing ponies. Once I've compiled all of that information, I can begin cross-referencing them with the possible motives of everypony else. This is going to take some time...”
“You get right on that, sugarcube,” said Applejack. “Meanwhile we'll keep an eye out for anything that happens while yer doin' all this here detective work.”
Applejack's words went unanswered, as Twilight was already immersed in a whirlwind of scrolls, which began to form a small mountain in the centre of the room. Once they were stacked, Twilight grabbed one at the top of the pile and laid it out before her. She grabbed a bottle of ink and a quill, and began to write furiously.
Twilight had scarcely written more than a dozen lines before Rainbow hurtled through the window like a small meteor and crashed into the mountain of scrolls, sending parchment flying in all directions.
“Uh, sorry about that...” said Rainbow sheepishly.
Twilight cleared the scrolls from around Rainbow and began rearranging the pile next to her. “It's okay,” she said, mildly annoyed. “So, did you warn Cotton Top?”
Springing to her hooves, Rainbow unfurled her wings. “No! I couldn't find her anywhere, and I mean anywhere. Either she's on vacation, or...”
“Oh no!” Fluttershy covered her face.
“W-what do we do?” stammered Rarity.
Twilight put a hoof down loudly in front of her. “We make the best of this.”
“Uh, come again? Somepony else just possibly went missin'.” Applejack cocked an eyebrow at Twilight.
“It's so simple,” said Twilight, a grin slowly creeping onto her face. “If another pony went missing after Greyhoof was put in jail...”
Rarity's face lit up. “Then that means –”
“We've got evidence!” Twilight finished breathlessly. “Once they hear of this, they'll know Greyhoof is innocent! If we're lucky, we can save Cotton Top as well. Girls, what do you know of the funeral plans?”
“I reckon they're gonna be starting soon,” said Applejack. “I was helping them set up before we came to see you.”
Spinning around, Twilight abandoned the parchment on the floor and advanced purposefully toward the door. “Good. We're going to the funeral. Now.”
They had scarcely left the library when Twilight slammed the door loudly enough to make Fluttershy give a startled yelp and jump a few feet into the air.
“Um, Twilight?” said Rainbow, flying beside her as they made their way through the deserted streets of Ponyville. “Are you feeling okay? It's just that –”
“Just what, Rainbow?” snapped Twilight.
Rarity cleared her throat delicately. “Well, you've –”
“You've been actin' kinda strange, sugarcube,” finished Applejack. “I think I can speak for all of us when I say, we're worried about ya.”
“What do you mean?” asked Twilight, her voice faltering.
“It... almost feels like... that you're becoming a different pony,” said Rarity, wincing as she spoke. “This is so unlike you, darling.”
Twilight's eyes widened. “What?”
“Not five minutes ago, ya were talkin' about breaking Grey outta prison, just like that!” exclaimed Applejack.
“A-and you – you thought of how to use poor Cotton Top's disappearance to our advantage instead of what we could do to help that poor pony...” added Fluttershy.
“The point is,” said Rainbow sternly, “that you don't seem to be the same Twilight. You're... different, somehow.”
Twilight's face scrunched as she tried to bite back the well of emotions that her friends' words had suddenly conjured up. Are they right? What am I doing? Was I really planning on doing something so irrational and careless? She exhaled slowly. “I don't know, girls, I really don't. These nightmares have been weighing on me, bringing me down. It's like I'm being shown the future, a dark future, and I'm powerless to stop it. In my dreams, I fight the dark mare with everything I've got, but nothing I do has any effect on it. Each time, it seems to get even more powerful, and everypony it destroys in the dreams vanishes not too soon after I wake up.”
Pausing for a moment, Twilight used her hoof to wipe tears from her eyes. “Greyhoof felt like the last bastion of sanity I had. He seems to understand what I'm going through, and is the only pony with enough knowledge and magical ability to truly help me. I'm... sorry. I promise I'll try to think more clearly before I propose something as drastic as breaking the law. It's just... without him, I don't know what to do or who to turn to. Princess Celestia hasn't even replied to my letter...”
“You can turn to us,” said Fluttershy. “I know I can't magic away your dreams, or free Greyhoof, or stop that mean, nasty ponynapper from taking more ponies, but I will be there for you and help you in any way I can.”
“Even if I can't catch the ponynapper or help you with your dreams, I can throw you a party when you catch him!” chirped Pinkie.
“Just have faith in yourself, Twi,” said Applejack. “And if you ever need to, lean on us. We'll be there.”
“If worse comes to worst, and the Mayor won't see reason... I suppose I could try to practice that spell you had Greyhoof perform, at least as a substitute,” offered Rarity. “I know it won't be as good, but I would think it'd be better than nothing.”
Looking from side to side, Twilight smiled as she saw her friends trotting faithfully beside her. “Girls, I just wanted to say... thank you for everything.”
“Don't sweat it, Twilight,” said Rainbow, giving Twilight a friendly nudge. “We'll always be here for you, and you know that.”
Twilight smiled. “You have no idea how much this means to me. I know I've been out of sorts lately, but the whole situation seems to be getting worse and worse with no end in sight. Sometimes, I just don't know what I'm supposed to do.”
“I'm sure you'll think of something,” said Rarity. “You always do.”
Twilight glanced at the clock tower as they moved past it, and felt a familiar sense of gloom seeping back into her body. “I hope so, before it's too late...”
“Too late for what?” asked Pinkie, who, to Twilight's dismay, bounced merrily alongside her.
“The dark mare – it said... that somepony close to me is next.” Twilight gave the clock tower one last forlorn look as they rounded a corner. “I don't know who it was talking about. Maybe the Mayor is planning on executing him...”
“I will not stand for such an atrocity!” exclaimed Rarity.
“And neither will he,” added Applejack. “Some of us have seen what Grey can do. If they try to lay a hoof on him beyond what they've already done, I don't think he'll just sit there and let 'em have their way with him.” She shook her head. “Nope, he'll show 'em how he's able to fight a masticore!”
Twilight tried to smile, but an ever-present sense of dread kept her spirits low. “That may be, but what if it's the killer after him? What if... the dark mare meant it was one of you?”
Rainbow puffed her chest out. “Don't talk like that! I'm not letting some dirty ponynapper get me!”
“Yeah, you've gotta wake up pretty early in the morning to pull one on Pinkie Pie!”
As they turned around another corner, the grim sight of the funeral greeted them. The Mayor stood on a ramshackle wooden platform next to three headstones. Twilight froze as the scenes of their deaths at the dark mare's hooves flashed before her all at once in a flurry of carnage. She hardly noticed her other friends walking past her and joining the crowd solemnly gathered before the Mayor, whose words sounded unintelligible to Twilight.
The spectacle before her seemed to melt away as Twilight began vividly recalling the previous days' events. First, discussing the situation with Spike back at the library after he had sent the letter, then the growing unease she had felt when Greyhoof did not return. Some hours later, she had abandoned her research and began frantically looking for him in town, only to find that the Mayor had issued a warrant for his arrest. The pain she felt when her pleas for sanity fell on deaf ears as the Mayor announced a town meeting to publicly imprison him came back in full force and nearly brought her to her knees.
Twilight closed her eyes and bowed her head. Who does she think she is, saying that Greyhoof is to blame? The Mayor is just afraid, and all she's doing is using him as a scapegoat. Well, I won't let her. Twilight looked up and glared at the Mayor bitterly. “ENOUGH!”
Whatever the Mayor was saying was halted mid-sentence by Twilight's sudden outburst. Everypony in the crowd turned around and stared at Twilight as they began to murmur uneasily. The Mayor cleared her throat loudly. “I would think that you might show more respect for the dead, Twilight Sparkle.”
Twilight stormed through the crowd, which hastily cleared a path for her, allowing her to stand next to the Mayor on the platform. “This whole thing is a farce!” shouted Twilight. “You've got the wrong pony, and I can prove it!”
The Mayor shook her head. “No, Twilight, we are not having this discussion here –”
“Shut up.” Twilight didn't scream or shout, but the even calmness of her statement silenced the Mayor. “Everypony in Ponyville is here now, correct?” Noticing the Mayor nod slowly, Twilight continued. “Good. I have a way to settle this once and for all. If everypony in Ponyville is gathered here, and the 'killer' Greyhoof is safely behind bars, then nopony will be missing if we do a headcount, right?”
The Mayor blinked. “Well, I suppose so –”
“Then do it,” demanded Twilight.
“You seem awfully confident.” The Mayor eyed Twilight suspiciously.
“Miss Mayor!” said Rarity incredulously. “You are not suggesting that Twilight has something to do with this, are you? Why, she's been asleep and we've been with her ever since she's woken up.”
“Ya heard the lady!” hollered Applejack. “Just call it a hunch.”
The Mayor glanced nervously around her, first at Twilight, and then at her friends gathered in the audience. “Fine. The memorial services will be postponed until we have completed a headcount. Bring me the town census.”
A grey pegasus took off toward the town hall upon hearing the Mayor's words. The crowd stood in silence as they awaited her return. Only a few minutes had passed before the pegasus returned with a hefty scroll in her mouth, which she unrolled on the platform next to the Mayor. Gruffly clearing her throat, the Mayor began to rattle off the names written upon it. The tension in the crowd began to dissipate as the Mayor made it through the A's and B's without incident. Some of the gathered ponies began shooting Twilight glares as the Mayor was plowing through the C's.
“Cotton Top,” said the Mayor mechanically. There was no answer. “Cotton Top,” she repeated, increasing the volume of her voice. Silence was once again the only response. “Cotton Top?” shouted the Mayor a third time. Dread rippled through the crowd like a wave as the Mayor's knees buckled beneath her and she fell on her flank, looking blankly in front of her. “Oh no...” She gulped. “S-send a couple of pegasi to her house! Where was Cotton Top the last time anypony saw her?”
Two pegasi took off toward Ponyville, soaring overhead. A light pink earth pony named Millie half-galloped to the stage. “I-I was with her just this morning!” she stammered. “S-she was going to pay Rarity a visit, I think. Yeah, it was to check out that order of dresses she's been working on before they were shipped to Canterlot.”
“Has anypony else seen her after that time?” asked the Mayor. When nopony answered her, she bowed her head. “That means... unless she's at her house –”
“Miss Mayor!” shouted Flitter, one of the pegasi that had been sent to town. “Cotton Top's house is deserted!” She landed next to the Mayor, panting as she was joined by Cloudchaser.
The Mayor slowly turned to Twilight. “I... think I owe you an apology,” she said. “All I ever wanted was the best for Ponyville. I'm so sorry. I've made a terrible mistake.”
Twilight could feel joy beginning to blossom inside of her. Finally, this injustice ends! It won't be long now, Greyhoof. I promise. Yet, while her relief was immense, a dull ache filled her stomach. How many more have to die before the end of this? “Greyhoof and I will find the killer. I promise.”
“Thank you.” The Mayor gave a quick pause before standing back on her hooves and stepping beside Twilight. “It seems we have made a gross misjudgment. Let it be known that Greyhoof is an innocent stallion. Return to your homes at once, everypony, and travel in groups of three or more at all times. Greyhoof is to be released immediately. Twilight Sparkle and Greyhoof as well as anypony willing to lend a hoof will lead the investigation to get to the bottom of this catastrophe.”
After she finished speaking, the Mayor stepped off the stage, Twilight joining her. Unable to contain herself any longer, Twilight set off toward the clock tower at a full gallop. By the time she arrived, Twilight found herself gasping for air. Pausing to catch her breath, she looked around and found nopony in sight. Giving the handle a try, she found the door to be locked.
Narrowing her eyes, Twilight fired a magenta blast from her horn, which caused the door's handle to shatter into a thousand pieces. Kicking the door open, she bolted up the wooden stairs, which emitted a loud creak with each of her hoofsteps. Upon reaching the top, Twilight spotted a hallway on her right. She grimaced when she spotted the same two stallions, had taken Greyhoof away, standing at the end of it. They were standing guard over a cell with steel bars.
“Greyhoof!” shouted Twilight.
Rising to his hooves from a crude bed of straw, Greyhoof blinked and advanced forward until his face was at the bars of his cell. “Twilight?”
“State your business,” said Vigilance, the brown stallion with the silver mohawk, gruffly.
“Greyhoof is an innocent stallion. Release him, now!” ordered Twilight, struggling to keep her voice even.
The light brown stallion with a short brown mane and tail, Jim Beam, looked impassively at Twilight, and rubbed the stubble on his muzzle. “On whose authority?”
“Papers?” grunted Vigilance.
Twilight blinked. “What?”
“Papers,” he repeated. “If you have no proof of this statement, then I'm going to have to ask you to leave.”
Taking a purposeful step forward, Twilight gritted her teeth. “She's coming here now. Let – him – go.”
“Halt!” barked Jim.
“Twilight, what happened?” asked Greyhoof.
“There's been another abduction,” said Twilight, exhaling slowly. She flicked a furious glance toward Vigilance. “All the more reason for you two to release him immediately.”
Greyhoof hung his head low, ears drooping. Twilight looked at him, but found herself at a loss for words. He thinks this is somehow his fault, doesn't he? Trapped in here while the killer still roams free, unable to lift a hoof to help save lives. And yet here I stand, full of more relief than remorse for Cotton Top's fate. The sound of a set of hooves clopping up the stairs behind her cut into her thoughts. Finally!
A few seconds later, the Mayor stood at the end of the hallway, breathing heavily. “Release him.”
“Ma'am?” asked Jim in disbelief.
“I said release him,” repeated the Mayor. “We've got the wrong pony.”
The stallions looked at each other, blinking in surprise. It took a second reiteration of the Mayor's command before Jim reached for a set of keys and opened the cell door. The moment there was sufficient clearance, Twilight lunged through the door, hugging Greyhoof fiercely.
“I thought I'd lost you,” whispered Twilight, crying into Greyhoof's shoulder.
Gently patting Twilight, Greyhoof smiled. “Thank you for freeing me. I promise you, I will not let this happen again, and I will get to the bottom of this.” He withdrew from Twilight's embrace and looked at her, and then the Mayor, his eyes ablaze.
Drying her eyes, Twilight nodded at Greyhoof. “Let's go home.”
Twilight and Greyhoof began to leave. As they reached the end of the hallway, Greyhoof looked back, first at the Mayor, and then at the stallion guards. Finally, his gaze rested on his cell. For a split second, his eyes flared as his face contorted in pure rage. “Next time, don't be so hasty about locking somepony up. Part of being a wise leader is thinking things through before acting.”
Leaving the Mayor to dwell on this, Twilight and Greyhoof briskly trotted down the stairs and left the tower behind them. When they left the prison, they saw the beaming faces of Applejack, Pinkie, Fluttershy, Rainbow, and Rarity, waiting for them.
“Glad to see you're free,” said Rainbow sarcastically. “I was beginning to get used to you being locked up.”
“Not the time, Rainbow!” said Twilight darkly.
“Whatever,” said Rainbow, flapping away from the group, landing at least thirty feet away from them.
“Grey, are ya okay?” Applejack clapped a hoof on Greyhoof's shoulder, staring into his smoldering eyes with a worried look.
“No,” said Greyhoof. “I know that I only walk free because of the probable demise of yet another innocent pony. This can't continue. It's getting late. All of you should travel in pairs and head back to your homes. Twilight and I will get to the bottom of this... I hope.”
The ponies nodded to each other and went their separate ways, traveling in pairs as per Greyhoof's suggestion. When they were alone, Twilight and Greyhoof walked at a leisurely pace toward the library. Despite the gravity of the situation, Twilight couldn't help but smile at Greyhoof for most of the journey. When they reached the library, they found Spike snoring in his basket. Twilight gave the sleeping Spike a soft smile as she levitated his basket to the top floor, gently setting it beside her own bed.
“What's that for?” asked Greyhoof, closing the door behind them.
“You were right,” said Twilight. “This has got to stop. I know it's been a long day, but I feel we should get started tonight.”
“About that,” said Greyhoof, smiling sheepishly. “Do... you have anything to eat? The food at the clock tower wasn't exactly Manehatten cuisine, you know.”
Twilight laughed a little louder than she'd have liked; she heard a snort from upstairs. Pausing until she heard Spike's snores resume, she smiled. “I'm sure I've got something. I'll tell you what. Tomorrow, we can get something from Sugarcube Corner. I'm sure Pinkie will have something whipped up for us, actually.”
Greyhoof nodded. “I guess I can ignore my hunger until then. So, what were you working on yesterday?”
“Well,” said Twilight, indicating the mound of scrolls. “I was beginning to write up short dossiers on everypony in Ponyville, listing motives, known recent activity, and –”
“Stop.” Greyhoof raised a hoof. “I have a feeling that those will not be much help to us. I'd be happy to help continue work on those tomorrow, but now we have something more important to discuss.”
Twilight gulped. “Your... mind control theory?”
“Yes,” said Greyhoof. “I may not be right, but if I am, then these documents are all but worthless. All we will be able to do with what information we have is to make an educated guess based on the whereabouts of the ponies just before they went missing.”
Greyhoof nodded again. “I refer to my previous stories of similar incidents. Murders without rhyme or reason, ponies seemingly going on berserk killing sprees. Of course, they were executed as soon as they were discovered, making the possibility of mind control as the culprit impossible to uncover. Call it a hunch.”
Twilight's heart sank. “Then how do we catch whoever it is?”
Greyhoof averted his eyes from Twilight. “I don't know. We have one advantage: knowledge of the 'Want It, Need It' spell. You said you knew how to reverse it, correct?” Noticing Twilight's nod, Greyhoof met her eyes once again, regaining his focus. “Then, if I'm correct, that will be our sole advantage.”
“Well, it all depends on what sort of mind control we're talking about,” said Twilight. “This spell works differently than true mind control. True mind control requires a great deal of power – more power than I think either of us are capable of.”
“Indeed; there are few ponies who can accomplish such a feat,” said Greyhoof heavily. “Though I fear that we are, in fact, dealing with true mind control. Apart from being panic-stricken, everypony seems to be acting relatively normal, don't they?”
“I think so...” said Twilight. “At least I hadn't heard of anything unusual before this all started.”
The fire in Greyhoof's eyes intensified. “Wait, did you ever send that letter to the Princess? What's her take on the situation? We could certainly use her wisdom at a time like this.”
Twilight struck the floor with a hoof. “Nothing. She hasn't responded at all, and I don't understand why. Normally, Princess Celestia would answer a letter as serious as this one within minutes. It's been over twenty-four hours.”
“Remember what I said earlier? I was truly hoping that I was wrong, but –”
“No, don't say it,” whispered Twilight.
Greyhoof rested a hoof on Twilight's shoulder. “I know, and I won't. But the nature of these murders and her lack of response are not good signs. The both of us know that few ponies possess the necessary power to use mind control magic, and Princess Celestia is one of them. It's the perfect weapon, if you think about it.”
Staring into Twilight's eyes, Greyhoof's face fell. “At first, I imagined that mind control magic would force a pony to act oddly, as their will was no longer their own, but now it seems that this isn't the case. Whoever our killer is, he or she must be acting normally, and is likely even ignorant of being responsible for this. Only in the moments of the act will they lose control and obey their mistress. I've heard an old saying that rings true in this circumstance. None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe that they are free.”
Twilight shuddered. Why do his words make more and more sense the more I hear them? I can't believe I'm beginning to agree with him, but who else could be capable of such a spell? The Princess herself said that she'd never met a unicorn with my potential, and even I couldn't do this even if I wanted to. What's more, if this happened mere centuries ago, Princess Luna is ruled out, as she was imprisoned in the moon...
While Twilight was lost in her own thoughts, Greyhoof had grabbed the sheets from his bed and set up a small cushion on the floor. Once his work was done, he extracted over a dozen books from the shelves in the library and sorted them into two stacks next to it.
“I think these are most of the relevant books in your collection,” said Greyhoof, snapping Twilight out of her stupor.
“Wha, huh?” mumbled Twilight.
“If we get to work on these books, we should be able to devise a spell that can break the mind control magic. I can only hope that we won't need it, but there's no sense in being unprepared.”
Twilight curled herself up on the cushion and smiled at Greyhoof as he sat next to her. “Thank you, Greyhoof. Thank you for everything. I was starting to lose hope, but with you at my side, I know we can do this.”
Twilight affectionately began nuzzling Greyhoof's neck with her head, wrapping a hoof around him. Greyhoof's face flushed as he smiled awkwardly and levitated the topmost book on one of the stacks, opening it in front of them and turning to page one.