Erases the past
A blank slate
Written upon by those who pass by
Get up! The pegasus floated alone in an inky, black void. The thought seemed not his own.
Move or you will die. The void vanished as white filled his vision, pain flaring in his right wing. His eyes snapped open at the sudden shock, his breathing quick and shallow. Thoughts were slow to come as the initial agony faded. He found himself lying in a snowdrift, his right wing pinned beneath him, throbbing in pain. He shifted his weight off the wing and stood, attempting to concentrate, to recall what had happened, but was immediately distracted by the frost forming on his muzzle with every breath. The chill air and frozen ground sapped what little warmth his battered body contained, numbing the pain, but momentary relief gave way to panic as the cold began to steal his other senses as well.
He glanced around in an attempt to gain his bearings. The sky was dark and clear, a lone cloud drifting slowly past the full moon, allowing its silvery glow to reflect off the snow and illuminate a small town with no more than a score of buildings lining its main thoroughfare. The air smelled faintly of woodsmoke, likely from the fires in hearths keeping ponies warm. The road was empty, the windows dark, but for a pale yellow glow in the uppermost window of a building carved out of a giant tree.
His only choice was to head towards the lone beacon before he succumbed to the chill night air or his injury, worry floating in the back of his mind that whomever lived there might not be able to help. He carefully made his way to the door and knocked, hoping that the pony inside was actually still awake. Voices floated down from inside, too muffled to make out the words, but gradually drawing closer. He breathed a sigh of relief as the door opened to reveal a baby purple and green dragon.
"What?" the dragon mumbled, managing to sound both sleepy and annoyed.
"Spike!" a voice from inside said. "Be nice. They must have a good reason for visiting at this hour." A purple filly walked up next to the dragon. "You do have a good reason, right?" she said, cocking an eyebrow.
The colt tried to speak, but the chattering of his teeth made forming words impossible. His entire body was shivering uncontrollably now. The cold had numbed his wing enough that it no longer hurt, but fatigue wracked his body.
"Oh my goodness," the filly said, noticing his condition. "Your wing looks awful! Come in, quickly! Spike, throw another log on the fire, and then go wake Nurse Redheart. And hurry!"
Spike grumbled some more. "I have to go outside in that cold? Dragons hate cold, Twilight." However, even as he said this he began bundling up.
"I know, Spike," Twilight smiled. "There will be a mug of hot cocoa waiting for you when you get back, with extra marshmallows, I promise." The baby dragon perked up at that, moving all the faster.
Vision blurred, thoughts muddled, the colt barely noticed the filly as she turned her attention back to him.
"Let's get you warmed up. Spike will be back soon with Nurse Redheart. She can take care of that wing for you." His body moved of its own accord as Twilight guided him to the fire and gently pushed him down. The warmth of the fire washed over him, pulling him into a deep and dreamless sleep.
* * *
The colt groaned as sunlight hit his eyelids. He began to stretch lazily, yawning, until a stab of pain brought memories of last night flooding back. He panicked momentarily before realizing he lay in a bed, wing set and splinted. Slowly, he stumbled out of the bed, taking stock of his surroundings. The bed sat in a loft next to a window in a room filled with shelves of books, their musty smell permeating the air. He opened the lone door to reveal stairs leading down to the ground level of the building. Bookshelves lined every wall of the sprawling room below, reaching all the way to the ceiling. Strewn about the floor and tables were haphazard stacks of books, somehow not collapsing despite their unstable appearance. The purple unicorn from last night was sitting by the fire, a book open in front of her. She looked up as he came down the stairs.
"You're awake! Are you feeling better?" She sounded worried. She hurried over to him, accidentally kicking her book away in the process.
"I think so," he said. "Thank you for helping me miss . . . Twilight was it?"
She held out a hoof. "Twilight Sparkle. And it was no problem, I'm always willing to help a pony in need. Nurse Redheart did most of the work anyway."
He started to lift his hoof to introduce himself. "I'm . . . ," he paused, putting his hoof back down. "I . . . ," he searched his thoughts. He remembered waking up in the snow, finding this house, getting help from Twilight Sparkle. He frowned, concentrating. Confusion gave way to fear as nothing came to him, no name, no memories before last night, nothing!
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
He shook his head. “I can’t remember anything from before last night. It’s just . . . blank.” His thoughts raced. What happened to me?
Twilight’s eyes darted to his flank. “That . . . might explain something Nurse Redheart and I were wondering about last night.” She pointed at his flank. “You don’t have a cutie mark. I’ve never heard of an adult without one. Perhaps if you forget your talent you lose its mark.”
He looked, and sure enough, there was nothing there -- no clue as to who he might be. Slowly, he walked over to the mirror hanging on the wall and examined the reflection -- a colt with a white coat and light gray close-cut mane. Ice blue eyes stared back from a face that was wholly unfamiliar. The effect was unnerving, to say the least, and he quickly turned away.
“I’ve read about this before,” Twilight said, scanning the shelves of books. Her horn glowed faintly as she found the one she sought, her magic carrying it through the air to the nearby table. Twilight kept talking as she read from the pages, her eyes quickly darting back and forth. “It’s called amnesia . . . “
The pegasus only half listened, his situation at the forefront of his mind as Twilight read aloud from the thick tome. Why was I outside on such a cold night? Why can’t I remember anything? He snapped out of the unpleasant thoughts when he realized that the filly was no longer reading from the book.
“ . . . but I can’t find any record of a pony having complete amnesia. I’ll keep researching. In the meantime, you need a name. I have to call you something and it might help you feel better.”
A name? He walked over to the window, examining the wintry landscape it revealed -- everything was covered with a fresh coat of snow that sparkled in the morning sun; a few errant snowflakes danced in a light breeze. The snow is where I woke up last night; with nothing before that, I may as well have been born there. “Call me Snowfall.”
“Snowfall,” Twilight nodded. “It’s good to meet you, Snowfall.” Twilight again held out her hoof to him. This time, he held out his own hoof and shook hers, smiling
As Twilight said the name it felt right to him; it filled a corner of the void in his mind -- a lone light shining in the darkness. His thoughts, however, invariably drifted to that emptyness, filling him with worry. What if his memories did not return? Could he lead a normal life having had no parents, no childhood, no experiences to draw from? He did not have any answers.
Snowfall’s thoughts were interrupted when the front door crashed open, in tumbling a blue pegasus with a rainbow mane and tail. The sight of her picking herself up and dusting off tickled something in the back of his mind. Not quite a memory, more a shadow of an echo, indistinct yet compelling familiar. Her. Do I know her? Snowfall didn’t realize he had been staring until a blue hoof waved in front of his eyes.
“Hello? Anypony in there?” the blue filly asked, her eyes meeting his.
The colt snapped back to reality. “Oh, I’m sorry, it’s just . . . I thought . . . never mind.” How could I explain? ‘I almost remember you?’ She’ll think I’m nuts.
“Where’d you find this guy, Twilight? He’s even weirder than you are!” The blue filly grinned.
“Rainbow Dash, this is no time for jokes. This is Snowfall, he showed up on my doorstep in the middle of the night with a broken wing and no memory. I’m researching to see if there is anything we can do to help him.” Twilight turned to Snowfall. “Don’t mind Rainbow Dash. She means well, she can be a bit tactless.”
Rainbow Dash’s smile slid off her face; she looked back at Snowfall, her eyes wide. “Oh, I didn’t know.”
“It’s okay, Dash. Now, could you show Snowfall around Ponyville, please? He needs to go see Nurse Redheart, too. She wanted to check up on him at some point today. Snowfall, you can wear my scarf while you are out.” Twilight turned back to the book she was reading, quickly becoming lost in thought again.
Dash motioned with her head towards the door. “Let’s go. She likes peace and quiet when she buries her head in those books.”
Snowfall followed Rainbow Dash out into the crisp winter morning -- downright pleasant compared to the bitter cold he had felt last night. He breathed in deeply, his nostrils flaring as they took in the smells of the town -- woodsmoke, fresh-fallen snow, pine trees. Around him, many ponies busied themselves with the tasks that kept the town running day-to-day such as clearing snow off the walkways and hauling food out of storage in preparations for lunch. Foals galloped through the snow drifts, giggling, not a care in their minds aside from how they should spend their afternoon.
“A broken wing, huh? That must suck,” Rainbow Dash said as they slowly walked through town towards Nurse Redheart’s place.
Snowfall glanced at his splinted wing. “I guess,” he shrugged.
“What do you mean, you guess?” Dash gave her wings a flap. “Flying’s great!”
“It’ll heal. I’m more worried about my mind.”
Dash folded her wings back. “Oh, right, your memories. Well, Twilight’s the smartest pony I know. She’ll figure something out.” She nodded as if that were the end of that.
“Yeah,” Snowfall mumbled. I hope so.
They arrived at Nurse Redheart’s infirmary, a small building with a red cross and hearts on its door. Rainbow Dash opted to wait outside as Snowfall went it. The nurse carefully examined his wing and, at the mention of his memory loss, his head as well.
“Have you experienced any headaches, nausea, or blurred vision?” she asked.
Snowfall shook his head. “Aside from the amnesia my head feels fine.”
“Well Snowfall, I don’t know what caused your amnesia, but on the plus side your wing injury isn’t very severe. The splint should be able to come off in a couple weeks and you will be as good as new! You’re a lucky pony,” she smiled at him. “Just try not to overexert yourself; you should rest.”
Snowfall left the nurse’s building in a daze. How am I lucky? I don’t know who I am. If anything, his visit had just raised more questions. He would have welcomed any explanation for his amnesia. Anything, any clue as to what had happened to him, how he had ended up outside in the middle of a winter night, would have been better than not knowing at all. He sighed.
“Bad news?” Rainbow Dash asked upon seeing his gloomy face.
“She doesn’t know what caused my amnesia.” Frustration rose in his voice. “I just . . . what should I do Rainbow Dash?”
“You’re asking me? I usually just let Twilight figure out hard stuff like that. Now come on, I’m supposed to be showing you around Ponyville.”
The first stop on their tour was a nearby boutique. “Just a moment,” a melodic voice called out from the back room when they entered. A white unicorn with a flowing purple mane appeared in the back doorway. Her face lit up with a smile as seeing Rainbow Dash. “Rainbow Dash! Well this is a pleasant surprise. And who is this dashing young colt with you? An acquaintance from flight school?”
Snowfall blushed at the compliment.
“No, I just met him today,” Dash replied. “Rarity, this is Snowfall. He showed up in the middle of the night at Twilight’s doorstep, and he doesn’t know who he is!”
“Rainbow Dash,” a hint of annoyance crept into Rarity’s voice. “If this is another one of your pranks, you should -- “
“It’s not a joke,” Snowfall interrupted. “I really don’t remember anything before last night.” Snowfall understood how the unicorn would think it was a joke, but it still pained him to hear it.
“Oh darling, I’m so sorry,” her face twisted into an expression of pity for a moment before breaking out into a grin. “Ah, I know just the thing. I shall make you a scarf. It can get cold in the winter and we can’t have you wearing somepony else’s scarf. No no no, a scarf must be designed to accentuate the pony who wears it.”
“But I have no way to pay you,” Snowfall protested.
“That’s quite alright, my dear. It’s on the house.”
“I don’t want to be a bother.” Snowfall couldn’t understand why she was being so nice to a pony that she had just met. He had done nothing to deserve such generosity. He couldn’t explain it, but something about it didn’t sit right with him. For some reason a vague sense of mistrust rose up within him. The feeling was as faint as the familiarity he felt when he looked at Rainbow Dash, indistinct yet there all the same. He did his best to suppress it, to humor the filly, but surely, he thought, the feeling had to be there for a reason.
“It’s no bother at all, darling. It’s what I enjoy doing!” Rarity smiled, already busying herself gathering the materials needed for her project. “Ah, this blue will go marvelously with your eyes!”
Snowfall could do little but sit there, lost in thought, as Rarity set to work. He had been awake for mere hours, but the events of the day had already sent him reeling. Amnesia, a pony that seemed familiar, a feeling of mistrust -- it was a lot to take in.
Snowfall stared at his reflection in the mirror. Rarity had fussed over him for a few hours, ensuring the scarf she was making would be just right for him. He still didn’t truly grasp that the unfamiliar colt reflected back was him, although he was starting to grow accustomed to the image. He felt uncomfortable accepting the gift from the unicorn, but he couldn’t help but admit she had done some fine work. The scarf was a deep shade of blue, the color of dusk, peppered with snowflakes that, at first glance, seemed arbitrary in their placement, but closer inspection revealed an intricate pattern.
“Well, Snowfall, what do you think?” Rarity asked. She looked at him, her large blue eyes seeking confirmation that she had done a good job.
“It’s lovely, Rarity. Thank you.” He couldn’t help but smile. He couldn’t explain it, but he did feel better, if only a little bit. He heard the filly breathe a sigh of relief at his praise.
As he and Rainbow Dash made their way to their next destination, Snowfall felt an itch on the back of his neck, as if he were being watched. He turned his gaze to the shadows of a nearby alley to see a dirt colored pegasus staring at him from the shadows. He turned back towards Dash. “Who’s he?” He asked, motioning towards the alley.
Snowfall turned back towards the alley, but the pegasus was gone. “Somepony was standing there, staring at me. A brown pegasus.”
Dash shrugged. “I dunno. He’s gone now, though.”
Snowfall trotted over to the alley and peered down it, but there was no sign of the pegasus. He had the feeling that the pegasus knew something about him. Again he felt mistrust rising up. Somepony watching him, vanishing when he was noticed; could Dash be lying?
“You comin’?” Dash shouted back at him.
Snowfall sighed, trotting back to Dash. He would have to find that pegasus when he had the chance. Next, they made their way to a cottage on the edge of a large forest where a soft-spoken yellow pegasus lived. It seemed strange to him that a pony would live so far away from other ponies. He didn’t like it.
“You live all the way out here by yourself, Fluttershy?” Snowfall asked her.
Flutterhy nodded. “I love taking care of the animals. It’s easier to do that out here.” The kind way in which she spoke showed that the animals meant a great deal to her. As they talked, Fluttershy busied herself attending to the woodland creatures in her cottage, speaking soothingly to each one. Flutterhy offered to look at his injured wing, but Snowfall politely declined, explaining that Nurse Redheart had taken care of it, which seemed to satisfy the pegasus.
Her reasoning made sense to him, yet he couldn’t shake the feeling he had, no matter how nice she had seemed. He wanted to trust the ponies he had met, truly he did, yet try as he might, part of him resisted. With the sun setting, he parted ways with Dash, who promised to finish the tour tomorrow. Snowfall wandered the town until the sun sank below the horizon, searching for the pegasus, for answers, but he found neither.
The events of the day left Snowfall drained. Awakening to a life he did not know, surrounded by ponies who did know their lives, how they fit in, was stressful. His interactions with them had been pleasant enough when he could suppress the strange feeling of unease he had, but he couldn’t help but think about what was missing within him. Then there was that pegasus who was watching him. Who was he? What did he know? Upon returning to Twilight’s house, he spoke to her only long enough to learn that she had no progress to report. Sleep was slow to come that night, and when it did his dreams offered little solace.
* * *
Rainbow Dash met him outside the next morning to continue his tour. She first took him to an apple orchard on the outskirts of town. In the large barn she introduced him to an orange pony named Applejack, who was fretting over a section of sagging roof. His stomach growled as the smell of apples wafted by.
Applejack smiled. “I was about to have breakfast myself. Come on, you ain’t eaten ‘til you’ve tried some of my apple fritters!” She nodded as if there was no way he could refuse.
Snowfall considered politely declining, but if his interactions with Rarity the day before were any indication, this filly would not take no for an answer either. He was glad he did accept her offer, as the delicious food warmed his belly. As with Rarity, it did raise his spirits somewhat. His stomach full, he thanked Applejack.
She shook his hoof in farewell saying, “It was nice meetin’ ya Snowfall. Stop by and visit any time! I’m usually busy somewhere on the farm, but I can always spare some time for a friend.”
A friend? They barely knew each other and yet this pony considered him her friend? Snowfall wasn’t sure what to make of this. He forced a smile and nodded. Snowfall knew the tour was supposed to raise his spirits, to get him settled in to what could very well be his new life in Ponyville, but it wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted his life back, whatever it was.
Their final stop turned out to be a confectionery called Sugar Cube Corner. Rainbow Dash stopped Snowfall with a hoof across his chest. “Before we go in, you should know that Pinkie Pie can be a little . . . energetic.” With that, they entered the building. Before long a pink pony with a mane that looked like a mass of cotton candy noticed them and bounded over.
“Hi Dash! Who’s this? I’ve never seen him before. Is he new in town? Oh, and he’s hurt! And he isn’t smiling, Dash. Ooh! I know what will make him feel better. A PARTY!” With this Pinkie Pie leapt onto her hind legs, throwing confetti into the air.
Even with Dash’s forewarning, Snowfall was taken aback at the boisterousness of the pink filly. “My . . . my name is Snowfall.”
“Hi Snowfall. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Pinkie Pie. I love meeting new ponies, don’t you? They are so much fun to meet and a party is the best place to meet them. Everypony enjoys a party and you look like you could use a party. You’ll make so many new friends you’ll just want to smile, because if I see a sad pony that makes me sad too, and I don’t want to be sad. Do you?” Pinkie Pie’s grin slipped momentarily, returning moments later.
“I do want to be happy. I’m just . . . not sure a party will do the trick.” A party for me just because I don’t feel like smiling?
“Sure it will, silly,” Pinkie Pie said, apparently not noticing the doubt Snowfall felt. “We’ll have a party for you tomorrow. You’ll see, it will make you happy again.” Pinkie Pie bounded off, already busy with preparations.
The tour was over and Snowfall parted ways with Dash. His time spent with her the past two days had been pleasant enough. He felt comfortable around her, as if somehow things could be right in the world again. He did not get the strange feelings of mistrust with her like he did with the other ponies he had met. He walked slowly back to Twilight’s house, taking in the sights of the town. Movement on the edge of his vision caught his attention. He turned to see the colt from yesterday again staring at him from the shadows between two buildings. The colt smiled, turning around and trotting away.
“Hey,” he shouted at the retreating colt. He galloped to the alley entrance to see the colt disappearing behind one of the buildings. Snowfall gave chase, rounding the building in time to see the colt spare one last glance back at him before leaping into the air and flying off towards the forest. “Wait!” Snowfall nearly tried to fly after the colt before remembering his injured wing. He grumbled, returning to his wanderings through town, alone with his thoughts, until the sun began to set.
* * *
For the next few days Snowfall was left to his own devices. Twilight was always engrossed in her books and Rainbow Dash had her own work to do, so he had little else to do but wander around town. Perhaps, he thought, if he helped the ponies around town, he might rediscover what he was good at -- find out who he was. He offered help to them, asking for any work to keep him occupied. The mistrust tugged at him no matter what he tried, yet he did his best to ignore it.
As he worked, his thoughts turned inward. He had nothing to keep his mind occupied except for thoughts of his past. His encounters with the ponies on the tour floated through his mind. Rarity, Fluttershy, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, they all knew who they were, how they fit in to life here in Ponyville. Would he ever know the same? He could only hope. The thoughts did nothing to help his mood, a sense of malaise took root within him. Yet he kept working. It was the only thing he could do. Sitting still would just make things worse. The work itself felt good, at least. Snowfall hadn’t realized while simply walking around town just how strong his body was. He easily hauled loads twice as heavy as those of the other ponies, and he didn’t feel fatigued from it at all. In this respect, he felt some manner of contentment as he worked, more than he had felt when Rarity made him the scarf or when Applejack shared her breakfast. Although the exertion gave his muscles a pleasant ache, his emotions had only only gotten worse as the days went on; he was no closer to figuring out who he was.
One afternoon, as he worked under a drab gray sky that hinted at snow that was not forthcoming, Rainbow Dash landed in front of him. “There you are! I’ve been looking all over for you. It’s time for your party!” She motioned with her head as she turned around, walking towards Sugar Cube Corner. Snowfall followed, unsure if the party would really help. At least I’ll be near Rainbow Dash. He hadn’t realized how much of a difference being with her made until she showed up.
Sugar Cube Corner was packed with ponies. Pinkie Pie, Applejack, Rarity, Twilight Sparkle, Fluttershy, and of course Rainbow Dash, along with many other ponies that Snowfall had not yet met, all smiling and shouting their hellos when they saw him enter. Streamers of every color hung from the walls; balloons floated around the room; the air was thick with the smell of sugary treats; cheerful music played, audible even over all the laughter and talking of the party-goers; colorfully wrapped presents with tags indicating that they were for him were piled on a table. Presents! Snowfall had not expected such an outpouring of love -- love that he felt he had not earned. Everypony here looks so happy, I’d just ruin the mood. Snowfall felt tears welling up in his eyes.
“Are you okay?” Rainbow Dash looked concerned, stepping towards him.
“No . . . ,” Snowfall said weakly before galloping back out the door past startled ponies. He thought he heard Rainbow Dash shout something behind him, but he couldn’t make it out. Tears streamed down his face as he ran. When he finally stopped, too tired to run any more, he was outside of the town, just inside a small copse of trees. He sat down, head slumped forward, tears leaking from his eyes. Why me? Why can’t I have a normal life like everypony else?
“Wow, you’re pretty fast for a pony with a broken wing!” Rainbow Dash floated down in front of him. Rarity, Twilight, Pinkie, Fluttershy, and Applejack were close behind. “Now, you wanna tell me what that was all about?”
Snowfall looked up at Rainbow Dash, his tears subsiding. “Everypony has been so nice to me, but what have I done to deserve such kindness? I’m a stranger to everypony, including myself. I’m empty inside, Rainbow Dash. Seeing all those other ponies, full of happiness and purpose . . . what’s my purpose? What cause do I have to be happy? For all I know my memories may never return and I’ll always be empty. Memories of my friends, my family, my childhood . . . all gone. I can’t bear to think of it.” He lowered his head, ears drooping down.
Rainbow Dash brushed a tear off Snowfall’s cheek with her hoof. “Hey hey hey. Don’t talk like that. Twilight is the smartest pony I know. If anypony can find a way to help you, she can. But until then, we’ll just have to work on getting you some new memories. Awesome ones!” She gave Snowfall a playful hoof to the shoulder and smiled.
Rarity chimed in, “Darling, you haven’t done anything to not deserve our kindness. It doesn’t matter to us who you are, we love you all the same.” The others all spoke up, affirming what Rarity had said.
Snowfall nodded and got up, drying his eyes of the tears that remained. He still felt that connection to Rainbow Dash, and her words comforted him, more so than the words of the other ponies. Seeing Rainbow Dash smiling at him warmed his heart. She’s right. Dwelling on a past I cannot remember doesn’t help anything. I need to find my place here and now. I’ll find my purpose.
The dark of night
Hides the past
Lit only by twinkles
Of stars in the sky
The next week was a blur for Snowfall. He filled his waking hours with physical labor, helping the ponies around town, as well as hanging out with Rainbow Dash when she had free time. He always kept an eye out for the brown colt, but he was either no longer watching Snowfall, or being much more stealthy about it. It was difficult, but he had managed to suppress the suspicions within him for the most part. He wanted these ponies to be his friends, needed them to be his friends, so he did his best to achieve that. Occasionally the dark thoughts forced their way to the surface, though.
Snowfall found another way besides working to banish these dark thoughts, thanks to one of the ponies he had helped -- Berry Punch. He had helped her haul casks of wine a few times, and she had repaid him by sharing it. He found that he had a fondness for the drink, not as much as Berry Punch herself, but he did like the feeling it gave him. It dulled his mind enough that the suspicions he felt about other ponies -- his frustrations at seeking his identity -- vanished, at least for a few hours.
"Thanks, Berry. This means a lot to me," he told her one night as they shared some wine.
"Oh it's no problem, Shnowfall," she slurred. "I like having a big, strong colt around to help. Big Mac is usually too busy on the farm." She pouted for a moment, staring into her glass of wine, before turning her gaze back to him. "But you're just as good as him, right?"
He shrugged uncomfortably, then drained his glass of wine. "I guess so."
"Oh! Your glass is empty! Let me refill that for you."
He blocked her attempt with a hoof. "No, that's alright. I've had enough for tonight." He had discovered his tolerance for the drink the hard way on the first night after he helped Berry. It was a thin line between how much would calm his mind and how much would upset his stomach.
She seemed disappointed as he bid her goodnight, but said, "Okay, Snowfall. Sleep well."
Twilight didn’t approve of either of his methods of burying the unwelcome thoughts.
“You should be resting, not working. How can you expect to get better if you don’t allow your body the time it needs to heal? All that wine can’t be helping either,” she admonished.
“I can’t do that, Twilight. Sitting still just . . . it makes me feel worse. I won’t figure out who I am laying around all day. And my mind gets stressed sometimes. The wine helps.” Did she want him to remain ignorant? No, that was a foalish thought, he told himself. He quickly turned his thoughts to the chores he would do tomorrow -- Applejack needed help repairing a hole in the barn roof caused by too much snow, Fluttershy wanted some winter-blooming herbs gathered from the Everfree Forest, and Rainbow Dash had the evening free to spend with him. She absolutely loved the fact that he hadn’t seen all her tricks and stunts like everypony else had, taking great pride in showing them off to him given the opportunity.
Concern etched lines on Twilight’s face. “I understand, Snowfall, but--”
“Do you?” he snapped. Twilight took a step back, her ears wilting. He hadn’t meant to sound so harsh, it just came out that way. He softened his voice, “I’m sorry, but look, Twilight . . . I know you mean well, but please . . . let me handle this in my own way. You have no idea what I’m going though.” He walked past her, heading up the stairs. “I’m going to bed. Good night.”
* * *
The next morning, Snowfall could tell that Twilight’s opinion had not changed. As he headed towards the door she stepped forward, opening her mouth to say something, but she remained silent. He was a few steps outside when Twilight called from the doorway. “Just don’t overdo it. Please?”
Snowfall turned back to her and nodded, smiling. “I’ll try, Twilight.” He was still amazed at how quickly the residents had accepted him into their community. The amount of love and kindness they showed him was nothing short of remarkable. The thought warmed his heart, and he realized he was beginning to care for the ponies of this town as well; he had gotten to know many of them while helping around town.
Snowfall did his best to keep his promise to Twilight while working on Applejack’s barn. He hauled light loads of lumber while other ponies did the more dangerous work up on the roof itself. Applejack understood his desire to work harder; she explained to Snowfall that she had bitten off more than she could chew on more than one occasion, which caused nothing but trouble, not just for herself but her friends as well.
“Friends’r there to share your burdens with you. When ya let ‘em help, everything turns out better in the end,” she explained.
Snowfall saw the truth in her words, but physical burdens were one thing, sharing emotional burdens were another thing entirely. He wanted to open up to these ponies, to let his emotions pour out, but he was afraid. Everypony is so happy. How could they understand my sorrow? So he put on a brave face, keeping the knot of sadness around his heart.
Before he knew it, his part in the repairs was complete. He trotted up to Applejack to bid her farewell.
“Thanks for the help, sugarcube,” she smiled. “Here’s a little token of my appreciation.” She put some apples into Snowfall’s saddlebags. “Yer welcome here any time, ya know. How ‘bout you come by tomorrow and see the finished roof?”
“I’d like that,” he smiled. “And . . . thank you.”
“For what, sugarcube?”
“The advice, it . . . helped.” With that, Snowfall departed, making his way to Fluttershy’s cottage. There were medicinal plants that grew in the Everfree Forest -- a place most ponies, Fluttershy included, feared to tread -- that she wanted gathered. Snowfall hadn’t heard the stories told about the forest, so he had no such fears and was happy to help. He arrived at the cottage early in the afternoon to find Fluttershy preparing some drawings of the plants she needed.
“This one is called Luna’s Tears,” Fluttershy explained, pointing to a drawing of a small bushy plant with many small blue blossoms. “It tends to grow near stones. It’s useful for treating rashes.” Fluttershy pointed to a drawing of a tall, slender plant with a single white blossom at the top. “This one is called a Winter Lily. You can find it in the more open areas of the forest. I can use it to treat upset stomachs. If you could find as many of these as you could that would be a great help.”
Snowfall examined the drawing until he was sure he could recognize the plants, and then carefully tucked them into his saddlebags. As he and Fluttershy made their way to the forest’s edge she shared her knowledge of the various medicinal plants that could be found in the forest throughout the year: a fern called Pegasus Feathers that aided in closing wounds; the root of a plant called Mare’s Sorrow -- Fluttershy didn’t know why it had that name, but even the oldest books Twilight could find used it -- which was useful in easing pain; and a rare blossom called Dragon’s Flame -- Fluttershy had never seen one, but it was described as having petals of a red so vibrant they seemed to glow -- that was said to be able to bring a pony back from the most dire of injuries -- Fluttershy didn’t believe it, but it was a nice thought nonetheless.
As they reached the edge of the forest, Fluttershy turned to Snowfall. “T-Try not to venture too deep into the forest, I, um, I don’t want you getting lost, and you don’t want to be here after the sun sets.” Fluttershy shivered momentarily at the thought.
Snowfall nodded, smiling. “I’ll be fine, Fluttershy. Don’t worry.” Snowfall had spent little time alone since his arrival in Ponyville, but he figured he could use the opportunity to ruminate on Applejack’s advice. Snowfall bid Fluttershy farewell as he entered the forest.
Despite being the dead of winter, the forest felt alive. The scent of pine permeated the air; bushes rustled as he passed, dead leaves crackled under steps that were not his own; the feeling of being watched was strong, sending a shiver up his spine; in the distance a strange animal cried out, a mix of anger and pain. He could only imagine how much worse the effect would be during the summer, when the shadows cast by the trees would be deep. For all the life the forest had, it was still difficult to find the plants Fluttershy requested.
Alone with his thoughts, Snowfall pondered the advice Applejack gave him. Maybe . . . maybe they don’t need to understand my pain to help me though it. Maybe they’ll know what to say. Maybe just letting my feelings out will help.
Lost in thought, Snowfall wandered deeper and deeper into the woods. The sun had moved noticeably lower in the sky when thought to turn around, afraid he might have ventured too far into the forest. As he glanced around to get his bearings, he noticed a clearing through the trees, and walked over to investigate it. Flat paving stones sticking out of ground dotted the clearing, remnants of a plaza long since lost to time. The center of the clearing held a fountain -- a massive circular basin, the center of which held a statue of a unicorn rearing up on its hind legs, raised above the basin on a pedestal. Although time had smoothed away the finer features of the statue, it was clear that great care had been used in its construction. Luna’s Tears surrounded the fountain, their blossoms a vivid blue against the browns of the grasses that filled the clearing. Vines climbed up from the basin, wrapping around the statue’s legs as if to prevent it from escaping.
Amazed, Snowfall stopped in his tracks at the sight. Likely very few, if any, ponies had seen this place in centuries. Snowfall could do little else but admire it breathlessly for a few moments. As he entered the clearing, he got the same feeling as he had when he looked at Rainbow Dash -- as if he should know this place, but the memories were just beyond his reach.
As he began to gather the blossoms the feelings struck more strongly than ever, pushing away all other thoughts. Images danced through his mind; Rainbow Dash, the connection he felt to her tugging at him; the fountain, radiating a need for his presence; a moss-covered tower rising above the forest canopy, green eyes in the darkness, fear and desire clashing in his mind. Darkness.
Snowfall blinked. What just happened? The shadows had lengthened considerably; the sky glowed orange. The sun was setting! Panic rose in Snowfall’s chest, his heartbeat quickening, his breathing shallow. He began to hurry back the way he thought he came. It was difficult, however; much of the forest looked the same and the waning light made the going treacherous, rocks and roots looming out of the shadows causing him to stumble. As the shadows lengthened, the air of menace grew. He could see no tangible reason for this fear, but he felt it all the same.
He finally emerged from the forest some distance away from where he had entered, the sky now a deep purple. He breathed a sigh of relief, his heart finally calming down, the feel of the forest no longer pressing down on him. About a hundred feet away he saw Fluttershy pacing, occasionally turning towards the forest and taking a step before quickly backing away and resuming her pacing. He started toward the yellow pegasus, who hurriedly approached the moment she noticed him.
“Snowfall, you’re okay! I was so worried. You were gone for hours and it’s getting dark out. I was afraid something had happened.” Unshed tears glistened in Fluttershy’s eyes.
“Relax, Fluttershy. I just got a little lost, that’s all.” If Fluttershy heard the lie in his words, she didn’t show it. I can’t tell her the truth about that, she would just worry even more. Snowfall looked her in the eyes. “I’m sorry I worried you like that.” He gave Fluttershy the plants he had managed to gather before bidding her good night and heading home.
When he arrived at Twilight’s house, Rainbow Dash was waiting for him. “You’re late! I can’t show you my trick now; it’s too dark out.”
“Sorry Dash, I got lost in the Everfree Forest. Ended up spending more time than I intended in there.” Snowfall wasn’t ready to tell anypony the truth of what happened in that clearing. He didn’t fully understand it himself. He did, however, feel he was ready to tell Rainbow Dash everything else. And so he did. He took all the emotions, all the pain that he had knotted around his heart in the last week and a half, and released them; he spoke of how he still felt he was a stranger, even to himself; of how he feared he would never regain his past, but also feared what he past held.
At first as he talked he paced back and forth, but as the emotions took hold and he began to cry he lay down by the fire. Rainbow Dash just keep glancing to Twilight, a perplexed look on her face. She wasn’t used to dealing with such outpourings of emotion. At Twilight’s urging, she sat next to him, muttering encouraging comments, but Snowfall could tell she wasn’t entirely sure what to say to him. That was fine, though, as her presence was enough to comfort him as he wound down. She quietly left as he drifted off to sleep.
* * *
That night, he dreamt of the clearing. He stood in the clearing, his back to the fountain in the center, staring out at the treeline. Only the nearest trees were visible; everything beyond was shrouded in unnatural shadow. The forest was completely still, silent. A cry of alarm brought his attention to the fountain. Instead of the statue, the pedestal held Rainbow Dash. Vines writhed up the pedestal -- thornier than those he remembered -- binding her hind legs.
“Snowfall! Help me!” Rainbow Dash cried out, struggling against the vines, digging the barbs deeper. The vines were moving quickly, beginning to wrap around her wings. Blood oozed from numerous cuts caused by the thorns.
Snowfall wanted to help, but the pedestal was out of reach, his wings refusing to obey his commands. More vines twisted their way up the pedestal, lashing out at Rainbow Dash’s forelegs, their barbs gaining purchase in her flesh. Rainbow Dash cried out again as the vines tightened their grip, constricting their thorns into her flesh. As the vines began wrapping around Rainbow Dash’s neck and head, Snowfall leapt into the fountain’s basin, tearing at the vines where they grew from the soil. More vines sprung from the soil whenever his hooves tore one up, some climbing their way up the pedestal, others wrapping around his legs, binding him in place as well. He looked up to see that Rainbow Dash was now nearly completely enveloped by the vines. Blood dripped from them, pooling on the pedestal. Rainbow Dash managed to get out one last anguished cry before the vines completely enveloped her.
Snowfall awoke with a sharp intake of breath, struggling against his bindings until he realized that it was a blanket, not vines. He breathed heavily, his heart pounding in his chest. He looked around. He lay in front of the fireplace, the room dark but for the orange glow from the dying embers that remained. Gradually, his breathing slowed, his heart calmed. Just a dream. Sleep was slow to take him this time.
* * *
The next few days Snowfall’s emotions were a tangle. Having emptied his heart of negative emotions, he found that there was now room for positive ones. He began to smile more; engaging other ponies in conversation. He even let himself relax, allowing his wing to better heal. Always in the back of his mind, however, lurked the dream . . . and the clearing. Telling himself that it was just a dream did little to comfort him. I have to find that clearing again. I have to know what this all means. When opportunities arose, Snowfall snuck off to the Everfree Forest. His searches proved fruitless, though, the clearing and fountain eluding him. If it weren’t for this broken wing I could fly over the forest and find it easily! Still, he kept trying, searching for answers.
* * *
Before he knew it, nearly a month had passed since his arrival in Ponyville. Life now held a semblance for normalcy for him. Not only that, but his wing was finally healed! Rainbow Dash came with him to visit Nurse Redheart to get the splint removed.
“I bet it feels good to get that thing off!” she grinned.
Snowfall tentatively stretched the healed wing out, then gave it a slow flap. Although the muscles were atrophied, they still felt strong. Once outside, he took to the air, slowly at first, but gaining speed as his wing demonstrated to him that it could take the strain. He alighted on a cloud, getting an aerial view of Ponyville for the first time. Rainbow Dash gently touched down next to him.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked.
Snowfall responded with the first thing that came to mind. “It’s home.”
Snowfall spent the next few hours simply enjoying the new-found freedom his healed wing gave him, flying around Ponyville with Rainbow Dash. He was the happiest he had been since his arrival waking from his injury. Snowfall’s wings began to burn with the exertion of flight and he landed, breathing heavily.
“That was fun!” Rainbow Dash laughed, landing next to him. “We should do it again sometime. Maybe I can teach you some tricks.”
Snowfall nodded, smiling. “I’d like that.”
After he and Rainbow Dash parted ways, Snowfall returned to Twilight’s library for rest and food. Sufficiently restored, he set out on his own to fly over the Everfree Forest, determined to find the clearing again. He flew slowly over the treetops, eyes watching the ground for any sign of the clearing. Eventually he found it, deeper in the forest than he thought he had ventured when gathering plants for Fluttershy. No wonder I couldn’t find this again on the ground. However, the sight that awaited him was not what he expected. Two pegasi stood in the clearing, having a conversation. One of them was the brown pegasus that had been watching him! Quietly as he could muster, he landed out of sight and listened.
“ . . . been a month,” one of them said. “I’m getting tired of waiting.”
“Yeah, yeah,” the brown one replied. It was obvious from his tone of voice that this was not the first time he had heard this complaint. “Once his wing heals he’ll find it quickly enough. He found this place before, he won’t be able to resist coming back.”
Snowfall’s breath caught in his throat, thoughts racing though his mind. They’re talking about me! He was tempted to walk up to these ponies and accost them -- ask them who they were, who he was, ask them about everything -- but something about them cautioned him. He couldn’t really explain it, but they felt . . . off, to him. I should get Rainbow Dash, she’ll know what to do. The other ponies continued to talk, but Snowfall, lost in thought, heard no more. Carefully, he walked away from the clearing until he felt he was far enough to take flight unseen by the mysterious ponies in the clearing.
By the time he reached Ponyville again, it was too late in the day for another trip into the forest, so he resolved that tomorrow he would take Rainbow Dash to the clearing. Even if those ponies were not there, maybe having the two things that seemed familiar would, together, trigger something more, and if they were there, Rainbow Dash would even the odds.
* * *
The next day, he sought out Rainbow Dash. He told her about the clearing he found, about how the brown colt that had been watching him was there, that the colts there seemed to know something about him, and that he was afraid to approach them alone.
“Well then let’s go!” Rainbow Dash shouted enthusiastically. “We might finally figure out who you were. Wouldn’t that be great?”
They set off, flying over the Everfree Forest. Snowfall found the clearing quicker this time. The two ponies from the day before were not in sight as they landed.
“Whoa. What is this place?” Rainbow Dash looked around the clearing.
Snowfall took a few steps toward the fountain. “I don’t know, but this place . . . it holds some kind of familiarity to me, as if I used to know it. Not only that, but . . . “ Here goes nothing. “I get that feeling with you, too, Rainbow Dash. I don’t --” A thumping sound from behind interrupted him.
Snowfall spun around to find the brown colt standing over the unconscious body of Rainbow Dash, a malicious grin on his face. Snowfall barely had time to wonder where the other one was when a blow to the back of his head sent him spiralling into darkness.
The light of dawn
Hints at the past
Shadows of memories
Revealed to the eye
Snowfall awoke in an unfamiliar bed, head throbbing. Glancing around revealed an austere room made of stone blocks, furnished with little more than the bed, a wash basin, and a small table. Aside from the pale glow of moonlight pouring in through the lone window, the room was dark. The temperature of the room was pleasant, despite the fact that the window held no glass. He went to the door and tried the handle. Locked. He then approached the window and looked out. The full moon hung high in the sky, illuminating the forest below. The window was too narrow for him to squeeze through, trapping him in the small room.
Snowfall returned to the door and knocked on it. “Hello? Is anypony out there?” There was no response, save for the sound of hoofsteps gradually getting father away. Snowfall began to pace in the small confines of the room, trying to figure out what had happened. Those ponies in the clearing apparently knew him. They had expected him to return, and he had. I should have just gone alone. I shouldn’t have brought Rainbow Dash into this. I’m such a foal!
It wasn’t until dawn that a clicking sound from the doorway brought him out of his thoughts. The door opened and a unicorn mare walked in. Her coat was a deep garnet, her long, flowing mane black and royal purple, her eyes a penetrating emerald. On her flank were the images of three pearls, arranged in a triangle.
“You are awake. Good,” she said, her voice smoky. “I am sorry about your treatment back there at the fountain, but it was necessary. I understand you call yourself Snowfall, now,” she smirked at that, as if the name amused her somehow.
Snowfall didn’t know what to make of this mare. He had never seen her during his month in Ponyville, yet she knew the name that should only have been known to those ponies. “Where am I? How do you know my name?” A blow to the side of his head left him seeing stars.
“I expect to be shown the respect I am due. You shall resume calling me ‘Mistress’” The mare’s voice remained calm as she spoke.
“Where’s Rainbow Dash?” Snowfall’s temper flared. This time the blow sent him sprawling on the ground.
“I do not like to repeat myself, foal. Now get up, and clean that blood off your face.” The mare’s voice still carried no hint of anger.
Snowfall staggered to his hooves and glaring daggers at the mare, anger still smouldering within him. He spat, bloody spit landing in front of the her.
“I see,” she said flatly. “Perhaps another day in here will cure you of this insubordination.” She turned around and walked out of the room, the door closing behind her, the lock clicking into place.
No no no! I’m useless in here. “Wait,” he cried out. After a few agonizing moments the lock again clicked and the door opened, the mare stepping in again, annoyance showing on her face.
“You have something else to say?”
“I-I’m sorry . . . ,” he paused. The mare cocked an eyebrow, waiting. “Mistress.” It pained Snowfall to say it, but if he did not placate this mare he would be stuck in this room, helpless, full of worry over the fate of Rainbow Dash.
“Very good,” the mare sounded pleased. “I dislike it when those under me disobey. You would do well to remember that. Now, clean that blood off your face.”
Snowfall did as he was told.
The mare’s smile didn’t touch her eyes. “You wish to see your precious Rainbow Dash, correct? Perhaps if you were to grovel I could grant such a request.” She placed a hoof on the ground in front of him. “Kiss it,” she commanded.
Snowfall lowered himself to the floor and kissed her hoof. “Please, Mistress. I would like to see Rainbow Dash. I want to know that she’s well.” He felt humiliated, but he had see Rainbow Dash. If I hadn’t brought her to the clearing, this wouldn’t have happened.
The mare laughed. “You are learning. Good. I suppose you may see her for a few minutes.” She turned around and walked out the door, joining a guard that had been stationed there. “Come.”
Snowfall got up. “Yes, Mistress.” His thoughts raced as he followed the mare down a narrow and twisting staircase. This mare was apparently the leader here. What does she want with Rainbow Dash? How did she know I would be in the clearing? How is this connected to my past?
The door at the bottom of the stairs opened to a walled courtyard. Snowfall turned around to look at the building he had just exited. It was a tall, moss-covered tower -- the one he had seen in the vision the first time he had visited the clearing! There were numerous ponies in the courtyard, sparring, running drills, eating their morning meals. The other side of the courtyard held a large stone keep two storeys in height. Large, deep-purple banners with a crescent moon on them hung down from the crenelations at the top, gently fluttering in the morning breeze. Snowfall glanced up at the sky.
The mare, as if sensing his thoughts, turned towards him and spoke. “I would not recommend trying to escape. There are a dozen unicorns on these walls, ready to shoot you down. Even if you were to get past them, you would have no idea where you were; you would freeze to death.”
She was right, of course. Snowfall sighed and kept silent. The mare eyed him for a few moments longer before giving a satisfied nod and resuming her course towards the keep on the other side of the courtyard. Snowfall followed, his head lowered.
The inside of the keep was expensively decorated. Elaborate rugs covered the floor, and many tapestries covered the walls, depicting triumphant looking ponies standing above other ponies that had looks of awe and worship on their faces. It was not until they had gone down a few hallways that Snowfall noticed that all the scenes depicted on the tapestries took place at night. The mare led Snowfall down a flight of stairs to a hallway where the only light came from sparsely placed torches. Wooden doors with small, barred windows lined either side of the hallway. Snowfall glanced in the windows are they walked past. The rooms were cells! All of the cells were empty save for the one at the which mare stopped. Snowfall peered into the small cell. Rainbow Dash lay on a tattered blanket, her hind legs chained to the wall. She was asleep, or perhaps still unconscious.
“Why is it that she is chained in a cell while I have a bed?” Snowfall asked, quickly adding a “Mistress” when the mare frowned.
“Because, my dear, she is not yet one of us,” the mare responded, her voice sweet.
“But I am?” Snowfall didn’t think he was going to like the answer, but he asked anyway.
“None can truly leave us, not once they’ve joined. You are still of use and shall be treated well; at least, until you give us a reason not to.” Despite the mare’s calm voice, the threat was clear: he could either freely roam the grounds, or be confined to a cell like Rainbow Dash.
“Yes, Mistress,” he said, glumly. He could not help Rainbow Dash while locked in a cell. He would have to formulate a plan to get her out, and then somehow find the way back to Ponyville.
Snowfall was given leave to wander the grounds as he saw fit. The only areas off limits to him were the basement of the keep where Rainbow Dash was held, as well as its second floor. As Snowfall wandered around, he tried to interact with the other ponies. However, they appeared to want nothing to do with him. Some spat at him, some called him a traitor, and many outright ignored him. He began to feel like he did a month ago in Ponyville. He was in a strange, new place, with no idea who he was or how he fit in. Only this time instead of being treated with love and kindness, the ponies treated him like dirt.
At dusk, Snowfall returned to his room in the tower. It was no longer guarded, and he would not be locked in at night. There was a piece of paper on the table that had not been there before, a hastily scrawled note written on it.
I was relieved to see you were still alive. Meet me behind the tower when the moon is high.
Snowfall read the note again. Apparently not everypony here hated him. If this ‘S.’ was willing to talk to him, perhaps he could finally get some answers.
* * *
That night, Snowfall waited behind the tower. He was about to give up when he heard hoofsteps and a pale green pony with a deep red mane stepped out of the shadows.
“Good, you’re here,” she said, her voice soft. She hugged Snowfall, startling him. “I didn’t know what had happened to you. It’s been hard here, without you.” A single tear rolled down her cheek.
Snowfall took a step back. “I’m sorry, but who are you?”
Her eyes met his, searching. “You don’t remember . . . ,” she said breathlessly. “My name is Spring Blossom. Oh Celestia, what did that horrible mare do to you?” Frustration was apparent in her voice.
“I was hoping you would know. I don’t remember anything beyond a month ago, not even my name. I had to come up with a new one: Snowfall.”
“You and I, we have both served here for quite some time. You were my commanding officer. About a month and a half ago I was sent on a mission with you and . . . ,” her eyes watered at the memories. “Consider yourself lucky that you don’t remember what happened that night. Upon our return, I spoke to you in private. I expressed my doubts about what we were doing, that I couldn’t do it any longer. I no longer cared about what punishments would come. Imagine my surprise when you told me you were having the same thoughts! For the next two weeks we kept each other’s secret. We tried to figure out some way we could leave this place. We . . .,” she blushed. “We grew close. You were my only comfort here, after that.”
Snowfall stared at the blushing filly. His eyes followed the contours of her body, the lean muscle just beneath her skin, the way her tousled mane spilled down her neck and over her shoulders. “Oh,” was all he could think to say, clearly the wrong thing by how her ears drooped.
“Somehow, she found out. She had you taken to the second floor of the keep. That was the last time I saw you until today.”
Snowfall wasn’t sure what to make of the pony’s story. He had been an officer here? If this filly spoke the truth, then she wanted to leave as much as he did. He sat down. “This is all a lot to take in. I do want to leave here, but . . . how do I know I can trust you, that this isn’t some twisted test of hers?”
“I-I suppose you don’t,” the filly looked hurt at the accusation. “I had hoped you would remember me.”
Snowfall sighed. “Well, you seem to be my only chance at getting out of here. I guess . . . I guess I don’t care if it is a trap.”
The filly breathed a sigh of relief at this. “Good to hear. I’ve been stockpiling supplies. There’s a secret tunnel that goes under the wall we can use. Nopony else knows about it. We can leave as early as tomorrow night.”
“I can’t leave. Not yet. I can’t leave Rainbow Dash here.”
“The tunnel entrance is in the keep, um, Snowfall. We may be able to get her out on the way. We--” The filly was interrupted by the sound of hoofsteps. “I’ll be in touch,” she whispered before hurrying into the shadows.
Snowfall made haste around the tower and back up to his room, hoping they had not been spotted. His thoughts raced. He had been presented with an opportunity to escape, but he was not sure he could trust this filly. If she spoke the truth then she was counting on him to help her escape, and he could come up with no other way to escape with Rainbow Dash other than trusting this pony. If she lied, and it was a trap set by that mare, then all hope of escape would vanish. Sleep was slow to come to Snowfall that night. When finally sleep did overtake him, he was tortured by dreams of failure; time and again he watched the filly and Rainbow Dash hurt or killed when he tried to help them.
* * *
“GET UP,” a gruff voice shouted.
Snowfall was rudely awakened as he was dumped from his bed by a burly looking guard.
“Mistress will see you now.” The tone of the guard’s voice brooked no argument. He led Snowfall out of the tower and towards the keep. The courtyard was bustling with activity in the gray pre-dawn. Ponies stopped what they were doing as he walked by, watching, glaring, their eyes even harder than the day before.
Once inside the keep, the guard took Snowfall down into the basement, to the cell that held Rainbow Dash. Mistress -- No! The mare. I will not think of her as Mistress -- was there, as well as Spring Blossom, her eyes downcast, her face bruised. Rainbow Dash was awake, her eyes wide with fear. Relief filled her eyes upon seeing Snowfall.
“Snowfall, you’re okay! Where are we? I can’t get a straight answer out of this mare.”
Snowfall’s mind roiled with emotions; relief at seeing Rainbow Dash awake, worry at how he was going to get back to Ponyville, fear at why he was called here. He moved towards Rainbow Dash to embrace her, but the guard’s hoof shot up, blocking his path.
“You will stand over there,” the garnet mare ordered, pointing to a corner.
“Yes, Mistress,” he murmured, moving to the corner.
“Mistress? Snowfall, what’s this all about? Why are you listening to her?” Anger flared in Rainbow Dash’s voice. Snowfall could see the hurt in her eyes; she must have felt he was abandoning her.
The mare’s hoof smashed Rainbow Dash across the face, stunning her. “Be silent! I shall deal with you momentarily.” She leveled a calm gaze at Snowfall. “Now then, Snowfall, have you been conspiring against me with this foal?” She pointed to Spring Blossom.
Fear flared in Snowfall’s chest, his face drained of blood. She couldn’t have found out already. She couldn’t have! “P-please, Mistress, it was my idea. Don’t bring her into this.” His voice quavered as he spoke.
The mare sighed. “I do not tolerate lies, Snowfall,” she said, her voice cold. “This one has already told me the truth. I am disappointed that you did not.”
Spring Blossom began sobbing in her corner. “I’m sorry, Snowfall. I’m so sorry, but I had to tell her. You don’t know what she is capable of. She threatened to . . . ,” she couldn’t finish, words turning into further sobs.
“Guard, take her to another cell. I shall finish with her later,” the mare ordered.
Spring Blossom’s sobs turned into wails as the guard roughly pulled her out of the room.
The mare turned her attention back to Rainbow Dash. “Now then, my dear, I suppose you are wondering why I had Snowfall bring you here, yes?”
The hurt in Rainbow Dash’s eyes grew as she darted her gaze between Snowfall and the mare. “Snowfall? You . . . ?”
“Yes,” the mare continued. “He brought you here, just as I ordered, and I must say, he did marvelously.”
Snowfall stepped forward. “Don’t listen to her, Rainbow Dash. She’s lying! I would never--” He was cut off as the mare turned toward him, her horn glowing.
“BE SILENT!” Her voiced boomed, and Snowfall’s voice vanished. Snowfall tried to move, but found his hooves frozen in place. The mare’s horn continued to glow as she turned back to Rainbow Dash. “My Lady has need of your skills, Rainbow Dash. You would be wise to serve her.”
“Your Lady? What are you talking about?”
The mare grinned. “You know her as Nightmare Moon.”
Rainbow Dash laughed at this. “I don’t know who you think you are, but we defeated Nightmare Moon with the Elements of Harmony. She’s gone!”
The mare’s velvety laugh sent chills down Snowfall’s spine. “Celestia did not tell you? Oh, this is rich. Your precious Elements of Harmony did not defeat Nightmare Moon. What you merely accomplished was separating her spirit from that of Luna’s. My Lady need only find a suitable host so that she may rise again.”
“Why doesn’t she just use Luna again?”
“Ah, if only that were possible, but Luna is beyond even my Lady’s reach, now. There are other, more . . . vulnerable, ponies closer to hoof, though.”
“You don’t mean me, do you?!” Fear had crept into Rainbow Dash’s voice.
The mare paused for a moment, as if listening to a voice only she could hear. “Perhaps, but regardless, your skills will prove useful here. You could rise quite high in the ranks. Think about it; ponies would look up to you, respect you.” Rainbow Dash opened her mouth to respond, but was not given the chance. “Your dream has been to join the Wonderbolts, has it not? Why, then, have you not joined them yet? You have proved your skills to them time and again, but have they offered you a position on their team? Have they even given you a tryout? They have not! Why do you think that is?” The mare paused momentarily, giving Rainbow Dash a chance to think, before continuing. “I’ll tell you why: they are jealous of you, Rainbow Dash. If they were to let you join, you would outshine them all, and they do not want that. But here . . . here you would get the recognition you deserve, your talents would be appreciated. Think on it.”
A mixture of emotions showed on Rainbow Dash’s face; fear, anger, pain. Snowfall ached to tell her not to listen to the mare, that it was all lies, but his voice still did not work. Tears streamed down his face.
“Now as for you,” the mare said, turning her attention to him, “you can still be useful to me as well. My Lady has taught me a great many things. After your treachery a month ago, she taught me an ancient magic. Compulsion.” Pleasure filled her voice as she said the word. “The ability to completely bind anypony to your will. Can you imagine the power held in that spell? You were the first I used it on. The mind is a delicate thing, and even a small mistake with this spell can prove disastrous. Consider yourself lucky it only caused you to lose your memories, some of the ponies I experimented on lost their minds completely, or became imbeciles. Perhaps your amnesia was for the best; perhaps it better allowed you to befriend the ponies of Ponyville, to gain their trust, to bring Rainbow Dash to me. Worry not, though, for I have had practice since then. Your memories will remain, this time.” The mare’s horn began to glow brighter. “You are to return to Ponyville. You will tell them there was an accident in the forest and that Rainbow Dash is dead, her body unrecoverable. You will not tell them about this place. You are not to return here under any circumstance.”
Snowfall looked at Rainbow Dash as the mare spoke. Her head hung low, her ears drooped. She looked resigned to her fate. Rainbow Dash, I’ll come back for you, somehow. I promise! I’ll -- .
The compulsion took hold.
The glow of dusk
Renews the past
Another day written
The pale winter sun hung low in the sky when Snowfall finally stumbled out of the forest. Numerous bruises covered his body, his usually white coat stained with blood and dirt, one eye swollen closed. After the compulsion, Mistress’ guards had beaten him to help lend credence to his story. It was not long before the wounded colt was noticed. A few ponies rushed to his aid, calling out his name, concern clear in their voices. Others galloped off, probably to fetch help for him. Snowfall stopped walking, exhaustion finally taking over. The rigors of his trek through the forest, combined with the creeping chill of dusk, took their toll on him; his aching legs gave out. Voices filled his ears, but his mind was too sluggish to understand them, his body too weak to respond. His good eye drifted closed.
* * *
Snowfall opened his eyes to find himself lying on a bed in Nurse Redheart’s infirmary, bandages wrapped around his injuries. Twilight sat nearby, her brow furrowed with concern. Her features relaxed when she saw his eyes open.
“Snowfall, thank goodness you’re okay. You and Rainbow Dash have been gone for two days. What happened? Have you seen her?”
Snowfall’s heart burned with the lie he was about to tell, tears welling forth in his eyes. “We went exploring in the Everfree Forest and . . . ,” Oh Celestia it hurts so much. “There was an accident.”
Twilight stood up, urgency rising in her voice. “An accident? We have to help her! Can you take us to her?” She began making her way to the door, but was stopped in her tracks when Snowfall replied, his voice a whisper.
“It’s too late, Twilight.” Please forgive me. “She’s dead.” His tears were an unending stream, now. “It’s all my fault,” he mumbled. “My fault . . . “
Twilight’s face went slack as she collapsed on her haunches. “No . . . she can’t be . . . “
Snowfall looked away. He could not bear to see the sorrow he had brought upon Twilight. He could do little else but lie there and cry, sobs wracking his body, as a feeling of helplessness washed over him. He burned with the desire to tell the truth -- that Rainbow Dash yet lived, that it was possible to save her -- but the compulsion sealed his lips when he tried.
Twilight slowly made her way to Snowfall’s side. “Don’t talk like that, Snowfall. You said it yourself; it was an accident. Don’t blame yourself.”
Snowfall shook his head. That it was his fault was the only truth Snowfall felt he had uttered. “I’m so sorry, Twilight.”
* * *
Word spread quickly, and within a few days a funeral was held for Rainbow Dash. Everypony in Ponyville attended -- Rarity, her black dress contrasting with her white coat; Fluttershy, even quieter than she normally was; Applejack, her cowboy hat nowhere to be seen; and Pinkie Pie, missing her ever-present smile. Twilight Sparkle gave the eulogy.
“I haven’t had the pleasure of knowing Rainbow Dash for as long as many of you have, but I counted her among my best friends. She was one of the first ponies I met when I arrived in Ponyville, and she remained a steadfast friend since then.
“Rainbow Dash was always a bit of a prankster, but her pranks never failed to elicit a laugh. Her skill in flying was unmatched by any pony I know. She was always there to lend a helping hoof if somepony needed it.
“When a pony who has lived a long and fulfilling life dies, we feel it right to celebrate their life, and give thanks for the time we knew them; but when a young pony is taken from us, we may not be as comfortable with this. We may feel anger, hurt, disbelief; but hidden beneath all that, we know that there is something to celebrate: that we all knew Rainbow Dash, that she was part of our lives, that she was our friend.”
* * *
As the days went on, Snowfall grew more and more despondent. The happiness he had finally felt in the days before leading Rainbow Dash into the forest were replaced with a feeling of self-loathing, a gnawing pain deep inside him. At first he tried to take his mind off dark thoughts with work, like he had done to forget his amnesia what now seemed a lifetime ago. It didn’t work; the events in the Everfree Forest were still fresh in his mind. He saw Rainbow Dash’s face -- eyes full of pain -- whenever he closed his eyes.
With work unsuccessful at easing his mind, Snowfall began to withdraw from contact, spending more and more time staring at Rainbow Dash’s grave, praying for a forgiveness that did not come; he ate less and less.
Rarity approached him one day as he sulked by Rainbow Dash’s grave. “Snowfall, darling, can we talk?”
Snowfall said nothing, but looked at her and nodded.
“We’re all terribly worried about you, my dear. Rainbow Dash’s death hurt all of us, but you’ve been taking it especially hard. You have to understand, it wasn’t your fault. We’ve all mourned for her in our own way, but we’ve also continued on with our lives; it’s what she would have wanted. You understand, don’t you?” Concern was apparent in her voice.
“I’m sorry for worrying you, Rarity, but you don’t understand, not really.” His voice was rough from disuse.
“Well can you explain it, then, darling? I want to help you.”
Snowfall shook his head. “I want to, I really do, but I can’t. Rainbow Dash . . . “ She’s alive, what happened to her is my fault.
‘Won’t you at least come inside and have a warm meal? You’ll catch cold if you stay out here.” Rarity took her scarf off, wrapping it around Snowfall.
Snowfall hadn’t realized just how cold he was until Rarity mentioned it. He forced a smile, nodding. “Okay, Rarity.”
The oatmeal warmed his belly, and despite his protests, Twilight Sparkle and Rarity made sure he ate every last bite in the bowl.
“Snowfall,” Twilight said. “There’s another reason Rarity brought you here. I’ve been doing research about a cause for your amnesia and I believe it may be magical in nature. With your permission, I’d like to try something.”
A spark of hope -- not for regaining his memories -- his experience in Mistress’ camp made him unsure that he would want those memories returned -- but for breaking the compulsion -- came to life inside Snowfall, a beacon of light pushing away the darkness within ever so slightly. He nodded his assent, sitting on his haunches in front of her, eyes closed.
“Okay, here goes . . . ,” he heard Twilight say. “Let me know if you want to stop at any time.”
At first, nothing seemed to happen. Snowfall slowed his breathing, trying to relax his mind, to clear it of all thought. Then he felt it, a delicate probing, skirting across the surface of his consciousness.
“That’s . . . odd,” Twilight said. “It’s like there’s something blocking me. I’ll keep trying.”
Pain suddenly shot through Snowfall’s mind, a thousand white-hot needles pressing in from all directions. It was an agony unlike anything he had ever felt. He didn’t realize he was screaming until the pain suddenly stopped.
“Snowfall! I’m so sorry, I must have done something wrong.”
“No!” Snowfall panted from the exertion of his scream. “Keep going. Keep trying.”
Snowfall closed his eyes, gritting his teeth for the pain that was to come. It struck suddenly, pushing away his other senses. Pain was all he knew. He was not sure how long he had been floating in that void of pain when something . . . shattered, the pain vanishing in an instant. His eyes snapped open. Twilight stood in front of him, clearly drained by the extended use of her magic.
“Did it work?” Her voice was hesitant.
Snowfall searched his mind. The emptiness where his memories belonged remained, but something felt different. “Rainbow Dash . . . she’s . . . alive.” The strain of Twilight’s spell, combined with the shock of finally being able to speak the truth drained Snowfall. His eyes rolled up in the back of his head and he collapsed into unconsciousness.
* * *
When Snowfall opened his eyes again, he lay in a familiar bed, his head thrumming with pain. Had it really worked? Was the compulsion gone? “Rainbow Dash is alive,” he spoke. An immense feeling of relief washed over him at hearing the words leave his lips. The spark of hope flared into a raging fire, extinguishing the darkness. He could -- no, he would -- rescue Rainbow Dash and punish the garnet mare for what she did.
“Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” Twilight’s voice startled Snowfall. He hadn’t seen her in the room.
“I’m sorry, Twilight. I never wanted any of this to happen. I didn’t want to hurt anypony.” Snowfall went on to explain everything that he had learned at the encampment in the forest: that he had served willingly, the compulsion, the cause of his amnesia, what had happened to Rainbow Dash, that Nightmare Moon was still a threat. Twilight’s face paled at that news.
“Now,” Snowfall said as he got up, heading for the door. “I’m going back there. I have to save Rainbow Dash.”
“Snowfall, you can’t do this alone. Let your friends help you.”
Friends. That Twilight still considered him a friend after everything that had happened warmed Snowfall’s heart. “Okay Twilight. Gather them quickly, we don’t have any time to waste.”
Within half an hour Twilight, Rarity, Applejack, and Snowfall were gathered at the edge of the Everfree Forest, warmly dressed and with saddlebags full of supplies. Fluttershy was too afraid to venture into the forest; Pinkie Pie remained behind to keep her company, as well as to prepare a party for their return.
Gray clouds hung low in the sky, promising snow, as the party began their trek into the forest. The tower and keep were deep in the forest; deep enough that they would have to make camp for the night midway through their journey. They walked in silence, the only sounds those of the forest itself.
“Snowfall,” Applejack broke the silence. “If this place is as guarded as you say, how’re we going to get Rainbow Dash out?”
It was a valid question and one that Snowfall wasn’t entirely sure of the answer to. He spoke about the tunnel that Spring Blossom had mentioned to him; he didn’t know where it was, but finding it was a better plan than just waltzing in the front gates.
As daylight faded, the group made camp for the night, clearing a small area of snow and setting up their tents around a roaring fire to push away the cold. While eating their evening meal they continued to discuss strategy. Snowfall drew out as best as he could remember the layout of the fort they were heading to, including the inside of the keep where he last saw Rainbow Dash. Twilight had brought a book which contained spells she felt might be useful, flipping through its pages as they talked. With darkness descending, they settled down into their tents for the night.
They awoke at first light to find that the clouds had made good on their promise; snow had begun to fall during the night, small flakes lazily drifting downwards, coating everything in a brilliant white. After a quick breakfast, they resumed their trek through the eerily quiet snow-covered forest, the only sound the susurration of the falling snow. The snowfall got thicker and heavier as the day went on, limiting visibility to only a few yards by the time they reached the fort.
“Well dang, how can we find the tunnel in this weather?” Applejack asked.
“I think I can help with that,” Twilight said as her horn glowed, her book floating out of its saddlebag. “There should be a finding spell in here somewhere . . . “ Pages flipped by as she scanned them. “Aha! Here it is.” Her horn glowed brighter, a pale orange orb appearing in front of her.
The orb circled around them a few times before heading off to their left, meandering through the trees. Slowly, it led them to a section of the outer wall that looked no different from the rest, hovering lazily.
“Twilight, my dear, where’s the tunnel?” Rarity asked.
Twilight frowned, walking up to the orb. “The spell says it should be here, maybe --” She stopped talking when she heard the hollow sound her hooves made on the ground directly under the orb. Twilight’s horn glowed, the snow and foliage covering the area moving away to reveal a small wooden hatch in the ground, which she then opened, the rusty hinges squealing in protest.
Opening the hatch revealed a narrow staircase descending into darkness. Twilight was the first to head down the staircase, the others following close behind. The soft white glow emanating from her horn illuminated a stone hallway. The dust covering the floor was unmarred by hoof-prints; the air smelled musty, old; it was clear that this passage had not been used in quite some time. The hallway lead straight for about one hundred feet before ending in a staircase similar to the first. Snowfall took the lead, carefully opening the hatch at the top of the stairs just a fraction so that he could peer out unseen. The room above was just as dark and dusty as the hallway. The room they entered was small and empty, save for a pile of decaying rags in one corner. Only one wall held a door, locked from the inside with a chain. A dim orange light flickered under the crack of the door.
“I can get that open for ya right quick,” Applejack said.
Before anypony could suggest that they should try and open the door quietly, Applejack braced herself and gave the door a mighty buck. The door shuddered but remained standing. The second buck sent the door crashing to the floor, the sound echoing down the hallway. The group cringed, hoping that they were not heard. Their hopes were dashed, however, when they heard hoofsteps approaching. They backed into the shadows of the room as two colts rounded a corner at the end of the hallway and began to approach the door.
“I’ve never been down this hallway before,” one of them said. “What’s in that room?”
“I don’t know,” the other replied, approaching the doorway. “It looks old, though. The door probably just fell off its hinges. Nothing to --” His words were interrupted when Snowfall’s kick hit him in the head with a sickening crunch.
The other colt rushed up with a wordless shout. Snowfall was about to kick this one as well when the colt froze in place, his eyes darting wildly between the ponies he now saw. Twilight’s horn glowed as she held the colt in place.
“Is he . . . ,” Twilight said in a whisper tinged with fear.
Applejack knelt beside the downed colt, quickly examining him before nodding at Twilight.
“Snowfall, you killed him!”
“He deserved it,” Snowfall said simply. “And so does this one.” These ponies had Rainbow Dash, they had used him to get her. He didn’t care what happened to them. Snowfall felt a burning anger rising within him. He would rescue Rainbow Dash, and he would kill that horrid mare. He again prepared to kick the now immobilized colt when his leg was grabbed by an invisible force. He glared at Twilight.
“No, Snowfall,” she pleaded. “He’s no threat to us, now. We can just leave him here; my magic will hold him.”
Snowfall continued to glare for a moment longer before he was able to calm his anger, pushing it down into a small spark, his desire to hurt the colt waning. “Fine,” he said, coldly. His hoof was released as the colt slowly floated to a dark corner of the room.
The white colt led the way down the now quiet hallway, trying to find the hallway with the cells where he had last seen Rainbow Dash. Aside from the two colts they had already subdued, the halls were strangely empty. A couple twists and turns found Snowfall in the familiar row of cells. A lone guard, his back to them, stood by one of the cell doors. Snowfall nodded at Twilight, whose horn began to glow. As the guard stiffened, held in place by Twilight’s magic, Snowfall approached the guard and dealt him a solid blow to the head, just hard enough to knock him out. The guard collapsed as Twilight’s magic released him.
Snowfall glanced through the barred hole in the door, but it was not Rainbow Dash he found, but Spring Blossom. She staggered off her tattered cot and up to the door when she saw him peer in.
“Snowfall! Is that really you? Did she bring you back again?” Her voice quavered.
“I’m free of her, now. I came back to rescue Rainbow Dash. Do you know where she is?”
Spring Blossom shook her head. “They took her out of her cell not too long ago, but I don’t know where they took her. Please, take me with you,” she pleaded.
Snowfall nodded. “Step away from the door.” Once she had done so, he turned to Applejack. “If you would do the honors.”
Applejack opened the door with a mighty kick. Spring Blossom emerged from her cell, hesitantly at first, before embracing Snowfall in a tight hug, whispering her thanks over and over while tears streamed down her cheeks. Once she had composed herself and introductions had gone around, she relayed what information she could about what had been happening. The keep was so empty because most of the guards were outside, watching from the walls and the main gate for anypony that dared approach. Mistress -- Snowfall could tell that she was trying hard not to use that name -- had been nervous lately for reasons she certainly wouldn’t share with a prisoner like Spring Blossom.
They began to cautiously make their way to the first floor of the keep. When they arrived at the massive wooden door that led into the courtyard Snowfall turned to face the group.
“We should split up; we’ll find Rainbow Dash faster that way. Applejack, I want you, Spring Blossom, and Rarity to search the rest of this building. Twilight and I are going to the tower on the other side of the courtyard. We’ll meet back at the tunnel in half an hour. If anything should happen to me, promise me you’ll at least get Spring Blossom out of here safely.” He looked each of them in the eyes until they nodded.
Snowfall opened the front door of the keep, revealing that the weather had not changed. He and Twilight stepped out into the snow, sparing one last glance back at the others before they were hidden by the falling snow. They saw no other ponies while traversing the courtyard to the tower, but the limited visibility filled them with uncertainty. Before they knew it, the tower loomed at them out of the white, along with a very surprised guard. Before the guard could recover, Snowfall lowered his head and charged, slamming into the ribs of the startled colt and sending him sprawling. Twlight took the opportunity to open the door and hurry in, Snowfall following after giving the now wheezing colt a kick in the head.
As Twilight and Snowfall made their way up the tower, they checked every room for Rainbow Dash, but she was nowhere to be seen. It was not until they reached the roof of the tower that they found her. She lay on an altar, her hind legs chained to the stone, her eyes wide with fear. The garnet mare stood over her, her horn radiating a black aura that seemed to absorb the light. Strangely, the snow did not seem to be falling on the tower.
“Snowfall?” Disbelief showed in Rainbow Dash’s eyes.
The mare turn around, the darkness fading from her horn. “You? Impossible!” Her eyes widened, a momentary look of fear passing across her face, quickly smoothed over. “I do not know how you broke my compulsion, but I will find out.” She turned to Twilight. “Was it her?”
Twilight glared at the mare. “So you’re the one behind all this? We can’t let you bring Nightmare Moon back!”
The mare laughed, a rich laugh full of amusement. “Foal! You really think you can stop me? With the power my Lady has given me, you do not stand a chance.” Her horn began to glow again.
Snowfall felt the tendrils of her spell spreading across the surface of his mind, his will to fight beginning to leave him. No. Please no! “Twilight,” he managed to choke out. “Get Rainbow Dash out of here!” He lowered his head, gritting his teeth, fighting with all his might the spell that was burrowing into his mind. He closed his eyes. Images danced across his mind. Twilight Sparkle, Rarity, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, all the friends he had made in his short life in Ponyville, their faces smiling, their eyes full of love. Looks of terror replaced those of love as Snowfall saw a wave a darkness spread across the land, enveloping Ponyville, ponies screaming, running, crying. So this is how it ends? I’ve failed everypony . . . . No! It can’t! Deep within Snowfall the spark of anger he had kept contained flared into a brilliant flame, pushing away all other thought; the tendrils in his mind vanished.
“NO!” His voice boomed. “YOU CANNOT DO THIS.”
The mare’s eyes opened wide in fear, her mouth hanging open. She staggered back a few steps as the spell broke, bumping up against the low wall of the crenelle. Snowfall felt more tendrils attempt to burrow into his mind, but the flames of his anger burned them away. He charged at the mare, slamming into her, sending them both tumbling over the edge, falling to the frozen ground below.
* * *
Twilight Sparkle collapsed when the spell that was holding her suddenly vanished. “Snowfall!” She cried out, running to the spot where he had fallen over the edge. Blood drained from her face as she saw the grisly sight below. Snowfall and the mare lay in a tangled heap on the ground, their bodies twisted at unnatural angles, blood staining the snow around them. Neither pony moved.
“Twilight?” Rainbow Dash asked from behind her. “Is he . . . “
Twilight turned to face Rainbow Dash, releasing her shackles with a simple unlocking spell before returning her gaze to the ground below. Rainbow Dash walked up beside her, following her gaze. She gasped at the sight below, quickly turning away.
Twilight placed a comforting hoof on Rainbow Dash’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Dash.”
Voices began to float up from below; guards had discovered the bodies.
“The Mistress, she’s dead!”
“Finally, I am free of this accursed place!” Other voices cheered their agreement with this.
“What? TRAITORS!” Voices grew angry as sounds of fighting began.
The sound of hoofsteps quickly coming up the tower stairs brought Twilight’s thoughts back to what she should be doing.
“Can you get us down?”
“Sounds like I don’t have much choice in the matter,” Rainbow Dash said, stretching her wings.
There was little time for mourning as they made their escape. Only brief words were exchanged when Twilight and Rainbow Dash met up with the others in the keep. Rarity and Applejack both gave Rainbow Dash huge hugs, relieved to see that she was well. Spring Blossom’s ears dropped when she saw that Snowfall didn’t return with them.
They journeyed back to Ponyville in silence.
* * *
“Snowfall came to us a stranger, not just to us but to himself as well. We welcomed him with love and kindness, but that was not enough. Without knowledge of his past, Snowfall was not sure how he could fit into life here in Ponyville. It was not until Rainbow Dash was captured by a servant of Nightmare Moon that he knew his purpose: he would undo the damage he had done and save her. In the Everfree Forest he made the ultimate sacrifice. He gave his life to save Rainbow Dash’s, to save everypony’s lives. Although his time with us was short, he will always remember and love him.”
As Twilight’s eulogy ended, snow began to gently drift down from the sky.
End of Part 1
The Dragon’s Flame is a flower so named due to its vibrant red hue and the distinctive shape of its petals, which resemble the head of a dragon. Given its rarity, knowledge regarding its curative properties is sparse. I was extremely fortunate to be able to acquire just one blossom for my studies.
Folklore states that the petals of the Dragon’s Flame can heal a pony from even the most dire of injuries, however lacking any mortally wounded ponies to test this on, I was forced to test its use on lesser injuries -- cuts, fevers, and broken bones.
When applied as a salve to a cut the wound was observed to heal much faster than it would have using more traditional methods and with virtually no scarring. When taken orally the patient’s fever broken within minutes and they were up and walking within the hour as if the fever had never been. Applied as a poultice around a broken limb caused the bone to knit within days instead of weeks.
With the petals expended, I attempted to grow some for further study with the seeds that I had left over. Unfortunately my attempts were unsuccessful. The seeds seemed to simply die in the soil, despite the fact that other plants were thriving. It would appear that this flower’s rarity is due at least in part to the difficulty in growing it.
Summer Dawn, Hidden Horticulture: The Miracles Grown in the Everfree Forest
Spring Blossom stood on the outskirts of a small town. Her commander, a white-coated pegasus with a gray mane and ice blue eyes, stood to her left. Beyond him were two more colts under his command. The sun was setting ahead of them, the long shadow of the nearest house just reaching their hooves. Mistress had sent them to this town to recruit a pony whose skills she felt would help her cause.
Since her arrival at the encampment the filly had not left its walls; the mare forbade anypony from leaving unless under orders from her, and only those favored by her were given the opportunity. The gardener had been surprised when Mistress offered her this opportunity. She was among the ponies at the encampment who were not required to participate in the sparring drills, and she had only seen those that did participate chosen. As much as she wanted a chance to get out of the Everfree Forest for a while, she had been unwilling to fight for that benefit. Just the thought of fighting another pony made her sick, even if it was just sparring. Mistress assured her it was so that they would be ready should a denizen of the forest attack, but Spring Blossom didn’t care. She was just a gardener and she was happy that way, but when Mistress offered her the chance to go on an assignment outside of the forest she leapt at the opportunity. Surely there wouldn’t be any actual fighting. Mistress wouldn’t lie to her, would she? A thought formed at the edge of consciousness, but she pushed it away.
“Wait here,” her commander ordered them before walking up to the nearby house and knocking on the door.
The mare that answered the door matched the description that Mistress had given them. The pony’s eyes began to widen in fear as the commander spoke to her. He gestured back towards Spring Blossom and the other two colts, letting her know that he had not come alone. The fear turned to panic as the mare slammed the door. Her commander trotted back to them, scowling.
“Looks like we have to do this the hard way,” he grumbled.
The other two colts grinned.
Spring Blossom swallowed. “But sir, she clearly doesn’t want to come with us.”
“So? Mistress wants her and so Mistress shall have her.” He removed his saddlebags and turned towards Spring Blossom. “There’s oil and matches in there. You’re going to have to burn her out. Go around back and make the fire as big as you can.”
Her heartbeat quickened, thrumming against her chest. The thought returned, stronger this time -- a vague sense of wrongness at what was happening -- but again she pushed it away.
“Well?” her commander snapped, startling her back to attention. “Are you going to do it, or do I have to tell Mistress of your insubordination instead?”
“N-no, I’ll do it.” She had seen what Mistress did to ponies who disobeyed. Everypony had to watch those punishments. It helped to ensure their loyalty, Mistress told them. Their screams . . . . She shuddered at the memory.
Spring Blossom took the saddlebags and headed to the back of the house. A small part of her could scarcely believe what she was about to do, yet rationalizations for her actions floated in her mind. She had her chance to come willingly, and She’ll get out of the house. She spread oil over as much of the back of the house as she could, breaking a window and tossing some into the room beyond as well. The oil expended, she took her matches and set it alight. The fire spread quickly, the dry timbers of the house welcoming it. She heard screaming within, and the front door of the house bursting open.
Spring Blossom returned to the others to find the mare now held by the colts, screaming incoherently, trying to lunge out of their grip, back towards her house. Her eyes met Spring Blossom’s, pleading. “Please,” she managed to croak out in between screams.
What could be so important that she’d want to run back into a burning building? The fire nearly completely engulfed the building now, a blazing inferno whose heat caused Spring Blossom to sweat, even as far away as she was. It was then that she heard another sound, nearly drowned out by the roar of the fire and the screams of the mare -- smaller screams, coming from the house. Spring Blossom turned towards the source, a small window on the upper floor. Her blood ran cold at what she saw -- two foals, young enough that they probably didn’t even have their cutie marks yet, banging on the window, crying, the fire raging in the room behind them. Spring Blossom’s thoughts gained clarity for the first time in weeks, the horror of the sight before her blowing away the clouds in her mind. Oh dear Celestia what have I done? As the building began to collapse, so too did the captured mare, her screams becoming sobs.
* * *
Spring Blossom awoke sobbing. Memories of her past had been haunting her more and more often as of late. She hated dreaming of that event. She barely managed to stick her head out of the open window near her bed before she started retching. She had killed! Foals! That was a stain she feared would never be lifted from her soul.
It wasn’t until the incident with the burning house that she had realized that Mistress had been in her mind, changing her thoughts gradually over the weeks, keeping her obedient. She could tell that her commander had been similarly affected, his gaze distant as they had returned to the encampment, their quarry in tow. The other two colts, however, had laughed, taunted the captured mare; they truly were in Mistress’ grasp. It was that night that she had approached her commander, voiced her concerns to him, and they had begun planning what would end up being their failed attempt at escape.
After that night she had not left the encampment again on assignment from Mistress. The garnet mare didn’t mind that Spring Blossom had passed up these opportunities as long as she was focused on her other duties. Her commander, however, had not been afforded that choice. He had refused to tell Spring Blossom what occurred during those missions, but she had been able to tell that he was shaken up by it. It wasn’t until her former commander -- then calling himself Snowfall -- had returned with allies that she had finally been able to escape. With nowhere else to go, she remained in Ponyville with Snowfall’s new friends.
Spring had arrived, and with it new life, not just for the plants and animals, but for Spring Blossom herself. She had moved into an unoccupied house on the edge of Ponyville where she spent most of her time tending a garden. It was a relaxing life, for the most part, except for when memories of her time serving Mistress bubbled their way to the forefront of her thoughts. Spring Blossom sighed; today was going to be one such day. Perhaps a walk will help. She nodded to herself. Yes, a walk would do her good. As she ambled away from her home memories she tried to keep hidden, not just from herself but from her friends as well, forced their way into her thoughts.
It was a crisp autumn day as Spring Blossom tended her garden, caring for what few plants would thrive in the autumn and winter months. She was humming quietly to herself as she worked when the shadow of a pony came up, blocking the sunlight. Spring Blossom turned around, smiling, expecting that perhaps a friend had decided to pay her a visit. Instead, she was greeted by a unicorn mare she had never seen before with a garnet coat and a black and purple mane.
“You would be Spring Blossom, yes?” The mare asked.
“Y-yes, I am,” she replied. Spring Blossom couldn’t precisely put her hoof on it, but something about this mare unnerved her; she had a force of presence that seemed to say that this was a mare who was used to getting what she wanted.
“I am in need of a pony with your talents.”
“Me? But I just tend to the flowers.”
“Do not sell yourself short, child. Flowers require a delicate and exacting touch that few ponies possess. I have in my possession some very rare seeds that require special care, and I would like you to tend them for me. In exchange I offer you access to my private library; I have many books on botany that, I assure you, you have never read.”
Spring Blossom’s interest was piqued at the mention of rare plants and books. Tending the common flowers and herbs in her garden was enjoyable, certainly, but the chance to work with something her friends had likely never seen before was a rare opportunity indeed.
“Ah, I can see you are interested,” the mare continued. “Think of the recognition and respect you will garner from your peers, the knowledge you will gain from my books, the sense of accomplishment you will feel having done something nopony has done in centuries.”
“I’m not sure,” Spring Blossom hesitated. “What exactly do you want me to do?”
“As I said, I have some rare seeds I need tended. They are called Dragon’s Flame; you have heard of this flower, yes?” She continued after Spring Blossom nodded. “Well, the Dragon’s Flame requires . . . particular conditions in order for it to grow, and I happen to have access to a place with these conditions. I need a talented pony such as yourself to tend these seeds for me so that I may study them.”
The gardener’s eyes widened at the mention of the rare blossom. “It actually exists, and you have its seeds? How did you--”
“How I came by these seeds is not your concern, child. You need only concern yourself with ensuring they are properly cared for.”
“Oh . . . and where would I be caring for them?”
The mare paused a moment before responding. “The Everfree Forest.”
“The Everfr--are you serious?” Suspicions began to grow inside Spring Blossom. Nopony ventured into the Everfree Forest, not without great need, at least. Her curiosity, however, overpowered her suspicions at first. Dragon’s Flame! A plant so rare it was thought to just be a story, and this mare had its seeds?
“You are afraid,” the mare said, her horn glowing, her voice soothing. “I understand your worries, child; the Everfree Forest is a frightening place, but I can assure you that no harm will come to you there. The safety of those at my encampment is my utmost concern.”
You will be safe. Spring Blossom relaxed somewhat, the mare’s words washing over her. Although she barely knew this unicorn, Spring Blossom felt that she could be trusted; she had a warm smile. The gardener nodded. “Okay, I’ll do it.”
After packing some belongings, Spring Blossom followed the mare into the Everfree Forest. Their journey was mostly in silence but for the sounds of the forest. She couldn’t help but glance around nervously at every sound, eyes straining to peer into the deep shadows. She felt safe as long as she remained close to the mysterious mare, although she could not explain why.
The journey to the encampment was long, leading Spring Blossom much deeper into the forest that she had ever dared venture. Dusk fell and they made camp. Spring Blossom huddled close to the fire, its flickering light causing the shadows around her to dance frightfully. The sounds of the forest intensified as the sun set, yet there seemed to be a calmness centered around the mare as she sat impassively, her horn glowing.
“Get some sleep, child. Nothing shall harm us tonight.”
Spring Blossom nodded, yawning, as she lay down and drifted off to sleep.
Their travels the next day were much the same as the day before. At one point the mare stopped walking, her eyes going unfocused, her head cocked to one side, listening. Her lips began moving in a whisper which Spring Blossom could barely hear. “Yes, my Lady, I have found her. She will tend the seeds.” A moment of fear passed across her eyes as she again listened. “Yes, my Lady.”
Spring Blossom took a step back, fears and suspicions rising anew. Something was clearly wrong with this mare. What am I doing? This was a mistake.
The mare’s eyes focused on her once again. “My apologies, child. I tend to get lost in thought from time to time. Come, we mustn’t dawdle, the sun will set soon and we are almost there.” She resumed walking, passing by Spring Blossom, who could only stare.
“I’ve changed my mind.”
The mare stopped again, turning to face her, horn glowing. “What was that, child?”
“I don’t want to do this. Please, take me home.”
The mare sighed. “I am disappointed in you, Spring Blossom, but we cannot turn around now. If you truly wish it, I shall take you home tomorrow, but I would ask that you sleep on this decision, as it is not one you should make lightly.”
Spring Blossom agreed, reluctantly, and they finished their journey in silence. The sight of the encampment made her jaw drop -- a two-storey tall keep, a moss-covered tower, and a courtyard all surrounded by an imposing wall. In the courtyard were many other ponies, running drills and sparring . . . sparring!
As they entered the courtyard a horn sounded overhead on the wall, three sharp short blasts. Everypony snapped to attention, forming into regimented ranks. An older looking colt approached and saluted the mare, who inclined her head slightly in acknowledgement. “Report,” she ordered.
“We lost a guard last night; the foal followed a Forest Light. Should I send out a search party?”
The mare’s expression darkened. “No. He’s as good as dead already. Let this be a lesson to the others; the forest is a dangerous place.” She glances at Spring Blossom as she said this.
The colt saluted again before trotting off to the others, shouting orders.
“What is this place?” Spring Blossom asked.
“This,” the mare responded, “is the safest place in the Everfree Forest.” Do not even think about trying to leave, her tone of voice seemed to say. “Come, you must be tired after our travels. I have a room ready for you.”
It wasn’t until hearing the mare’s words that the filly realized how tired she was. Was I this tired a moment ago? She stifled a yawn as she follow the mare -- who showed no signs of fatigue -- into the keep. She was so busy concentrating on putting one hoof in front of the other that she barely noticed the banners and tapestries that decorated the keep’s walls. Another yawn cracked her jaw as they stopped in front of a door.
“This will be your room should you decide to stay. I trust you will come to the right decision.”
Spring Blossom simply nodded as she entered the room, the mare closing the door behind her. As the mare’s hoofsteps faded into the distance, her weariness seemed to lessen as well. She began to pace back and forth, pondering her situation. Her mind and her heart would not agree on what she should do. Her heart told her that something was very wrong here and that she should leave, but her mind told her that the mare could be trusted, that this was a great opportunity and she would be a foal not to stay. In the end her mind could not explain exactly why it trusted the mare and her heart won out. Not even the opportunity to grow the Dragon’s Flame is worth staying in this strange place, it told her.
With the dawn came the strange mare. “I trust you have decided to stay?”
“N-no,” she lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry, but . . . I just don’t feel comfortable here. I’m grateful for the opportunity, but I would like to go home now.”
The garnet mare scowled. “I am sorry, child, but I simply cannot take you home. I do not have the time,” she said, her horn beginning to glow. “You understand, yes?”
Perhaps it’s not so bad, here. The thought came to her unbidden, the voice in her mind growing stronger, the voice in her heart waning. “But you said--”
“I know what I said, but surely you can stay here a while longer. This is an opportunity you will not get again.”
You can do great things, here. “Y-yes, I guess I can stay.” Her heart’s voice vanished, and with it her fears and suspicions about the encampment. What was I afraid of? She tried to recall, but the thoughts were fuzzy, distant. “Um, I just realized, you know my name, but I never got yours.”
The mare smiled. “You shall call me Mistress.”
* * *
As the days went by, Spring Blossom became accustomed to life in the encampment for the most part. Her days were spent much the same as they were before Mistress had found her -- tending a garden -- the only difference being she now had somepony telling her what to do. She couldn’t remember why she had feared this place initially, thoughts of her fears and concerns floating just out of her reach no matter how hard she tried. Mistress spoke with her every day -- always a glow around her horn -- to inquire about progress in growing the Dragon’s Flame as well as making sure Spring Blossom was adjusting well to her new surroundings. She beamed with pride when Mistress praised her progress and felt terrible when Mistress was disappointed. She began to dread disappointing the garnet mare and did everything in her power to make sure it would not happen.
“Ah, child, these blossoms are coming along beautifully,” the mare said to her one day.
“Thank you, Mistress!” The gardener felt a mild euphoria at the praise. Growing the Dragon’s Flame had been no easy feat -- much tougher than the common flowers she had grown back at home; she was proud of herself.
“I believe you deserve a reward. I know that the forest can be oppressive at times. Would you like the opportunity to get out for a day?”
Her eyes widened. She was being given the opportunity to venture outside the forest? “Yes, Mistress, I would!” Truly she must be doing well in her duties for Mistress to reward her with this!
“I thought as much.” The mare pointed to a white colt, on his flank a single orange flame, who was overseeing sparring exercises. “He is your commander, report to him for the details.”
As Spring Blossom’s thoughts wandered the past, her body walked through the beautiful spring morning in Ponyville. A cool breeze flowed through her mane, rustling the newly grown leaves on the trees, carrying with it cheerful birdsong. The air smelled fresh and clean, a hint of the rain that fell overnight still clinging to it. Only a few white clouds floated lazily in the sky.
She did not notice when her walking took her beyond the outskirts of town. She did not notice when she entered the Everfree Forest. She did not snap out of her reverie until she stumbled upon a strange clearing, an overgrown fountain standing in its middle. Gazing up at the fountain was the last thing she expected to see: a white colt with a grey mane, a single orange flame on his flank.
Snowfall tumbled off the tower, his body entangled with Mistress’. The frozen ground rushed up to meet them, the impact sending waves of pain across his body. Numbness spread though his limbs as he lay there, listening to the ragged breathing of the mare. She had survived the fall as well. Not for long, he thought. Darkness was already encroaching on the periphery of his vision. He heard shouting, but could not make out the words. A sense of peace flooded him as consciousness faded. He had saved Dash and killed the garnet mare. It was over.
Awareness slowly returned. Was this death? He could neither see nor hear. He was alone with his thoughts. Memories flooded back, slamming into his head with incredible force. Not memories of his time in Ponyville, but memories of before.
He arrived in Mistress’ encampment like all the others had. Mistress felt that his skills would prove useful and recruited him. He didn’t understand why he was being recruited, or for what for that matter, but the drudgery of daily life had gotten to him lately, and the appearance of this mare was a welcome change of pace. The appearance of Mistress’ encampment was not what he was expecting, although he wasn’t entirely sure what he was expecting. A few dozen ponies populated the courtyard, some dueling with each other, some practicing moving as a unit.
“Mistress, it looks as if you are preparing for war.”
War was unheard of among ponies. The last time ponies had gone to battle was over a century ago when an overly ambitious gryphon took it upon himself to capture more land for his country. Few ponies knew of the bloody battles that had resulted. He only knew about it from reading a musty old tome owned by his father. Battles fascinated him; the complex strategies involved, how one small change in a plan could turn the tide, it was all so interesting.
“Perhaps,” the mare responded. “Although I would prefer a peaceful resolution.”
He pressed her for more information but none was forthcoming. Mistress told him to mind his place and do as he was told. It was just like in his book. Leaders did not have to share their reasons with those under them, they just expected obedience, and he understood and accepted that.
* * *
The colt quickly proved himself to be an accomplished fighter, routinely beating colts stronger than him in the sparring drills. Mistress noticed his prowess and set him up training others. He adapted to his new role and soon had those under him performing better than the others in the encampment not only in one on one combat but in group exercises as well. This further impressed Mistress and she promoted him to captain, one of only three in the encampment. With new responsibilities came new privileges as well. Mistress would finally tell him of her cause.
“You have heard of Nightmare Moon, yes?” she asked him.
He nodded. “Wasn’t she defeated by the Elements of Harmony?”
The mare seemed to weigh her words before responding. “Yes and no. The pony you know as Nightmare Moon was a . . . merging of my Lady and Princess Luna. The Elements merely separated them again. My Lady seeks a new host through which to accomplish her goals.”
“Her goals, Mistress?”
“I-- She would see Celestia’s kingdom shattered.”
The coolness with which the Mistress spoke shocked the captain. A lofty goal indeed. A goal he could get behind, at that. Celestia and those so-called nobles in Canterlot stood on the backs of ponies such as him. They did not lift a hoof to work as far as he knew, while other ponies toiled, harvesting crops, building houses, doing everything that made life in Canterlot the cushy thing that it was. How was that fair?
“I’m with you, Mistress. Whatever it takes.”
Mistress smiled. “I chose well with you.”
* * *
“A word with you, captain.” Mistress approached him one day in early winter. She pointed to a young filly, the gardener if he remembered correctly. “I do not yet fully trust that filly. I believe a part of her still resists me. She had to be . . . pushed, to join me here. She is too important to lose, you understand?”
He didn’t, not really. She was just a gardener. “What would you have me do, Mistress?”
“Take her on your mission tomorrow. Test her loyalty. If she plans something, then string her along. I need her complacent for as long as possible. Pretend to be on her side if you need to.”
He saluted. “Yes, Mistress.”
* * *
As Mistress expected, Spring Blossom did resist. He tried to put a concerned look on his face as they walked back to the encampment, to make it seem as if he were affected by the events of the evening as well. Sure enough, the filly approached him back at the encampment.
“I just can’t do it, sir. It’s not who I am. I realize now that Mistress has been manipulating me. Tell Mistress, if you must, but I cannot serve her anymore. I want to leave this place.”
Her eyes were puffy and red from crying. She sat there, looking at him, quivering. By Celestia, she was weak, he thought with disgust. “I understand,” he said, hoping he managed to sound sympathetic enough. “I . . . feel the same way. Mistress assured me that there would be nopony else in that house.” It felt strange, speaking ill of the Mistress. It left a bad taste in his mouth.
Fresh tears sprung up in the filly’s eyes as her muscles relaxed. “Y-You do? Oh thank Celestia! What . . . what should we do?”
He leaned in closer, speaking softly as if he were afraid they would be overheard, even though they were alone. “We escape. It will take some planning, though. We’ll need supplies, and a way out. Mistress keeps the entrance well guarded. In the meantime, I’ll talk to her, get it so that you don’t have to do something like that again. Just stick to your gardening duties for now. We’ll figure something out.”
“O-Okay. Just, please hurry. The sooner I get out of here the better.”
He wrapped her in one of his wings reassuringly. “I promise.” He smiled. Gaining the filly’s trust had been easy enough. Now he just had to string her along as long as he could.
“Thank you,” she whispered as she lay her head on his shoulder, her warm tears dripping into his fur. They sat like that for a time, her quietly crying with relief, him trying to be patient. Eventually she stood up, thanked him again, and left.
He couldn’t help but admit to himself that the warmth of her body pressed against his had been pleasant, but he also hated her for her weakness. He would humor her for now, of course, like Mistress ordered. If he got to feel her warmth again for putting up with her crying, well, that was a bonus he would happily take.
Shortly afterwards, he reported his findings to Mistress.
“Very good, captain. You never cease to surprise me. Develop that relationship further. If she will not trust me then I would have her trust you, heart and soul.”
“Mistress, I can only string her along for so long. Sooner or later we’ll have to do something.”
“You are correct, and you can rest assured that I have a plan. You just keep her occupied and let me worry about that.”
He knew exactly how he would keep the filly hopeful. He would ‘find’ extra supplies that they could use for their escape. He would also ‘discover’ the secret entrance beneath the keep. Few ponies in the encampment even knew about that passage aside from Mistress herself. He had to be careful, though, not to tell the filly too much. Mistress would be very displeased if she actually managed to escape under his watch.
* * *
They met covertly every day. He always hinted that they were making progress, that they were closer to their grand escape. He comforted her whenever memories of the mission bubbled to the surface, wrapping a wing around her, pressing his body up against hers, whispering assurances that everything would be fine. Spring Blossom worked hard at her duties. In fact, Mistress told him, she was working even harder than before, likely to allay any suspicions. Some nights, when the filly could not bear to be alone, he shared his bed with her. She would sigh contentedly, nuzzling him as she slept.
The day he finally told her that he had found a way out was the happiest he had ever seen her. She showered him with kisses, thanking him repeatedly. “We can finally leave this place!” She cheered.
Her eyes showed so much hope and relief, it was almost a shame he would have to end it. Likely after whatever Mistress had planned he would no longer be able to share his bed with the filly. Ah well. I can probably get a few more days out of this before I have to tell Mistress.
“Soon,” he told her. He sought an excuse. “The weather isn’t good for it right now. It should clear up in a few days. Then we’ll leave.”
Her large, watery eyes stared up into his. “You promise?”
Spring Blossom seemed to really enjoy those last few days. She spoke to him of starting a new life, just him and her, somewhere far away where Mistress would never find them. They would be safe, happy. She began to pay less attention to her work, opting instead to daydream, to spend time with him. She grew more intimate with him. A pity it had to end.
* * *
“I’ve done all I can, Mistress. I believe it’s time for your plan.”
“You did well, captain.” Mistress nodded slightly in thanks. “I hear she is quite taken with you.”
He was shocked. “How--”
“Do not think me blind to what happens here, captain.”
He ducked his head. “Of course, Mistress.”
“Now, meet with your wench tonight. I shall handle the rest.”
* * *
He spoke with Spring Blossom that night in her room in the tower, promising her that tomorrow would be the day. She was giddy with anticipation at the news. She brushed up against him, her tail tickled his flank. “Shall we celebrate?”
This time, however, he pushed her away. He had gotten to accustomed to the feel of her, it wouldn’t do to get attached. “Save it for afterwards. We’ll need all our energy to get out of here.”
She looked disappointed, but she nodded. “Okay, it’s--”
The filly was interrupted as the door crashed open, two guards standing on the other side. She screamed as they entered the room. The captain stepped to the side to give the guards a clear path to her, yet it was him they moved towards.
“What’s the meaning of this?” he shouted at they grabbed him and began hauling him out of the room. “I’m loyal!” He struggled, tried to get away, but it was useless.
“That’s not what Mistress said,” one of the guards told him.
He managed to shoot a panicked look back at Spring Blossom as she cried out his name before he was dragged through the doorway and out of sight. As he was dragged through the courtyard, other ponies -- ponies that had served under him, looked up to him, and respected him -- shouted curses and insults at him, glared and spat. They dragged him, kicking all the while, to a room on the second floor of the keep, where they tossed him to the floor before leaving the room, slamming the door behind him. He glanced around the room as he stood and saw Mistress watching him.
“Oh good, you came.” Mistress said as if he had simply walked into the room.
“Mistress, what is this? I’ve served you faithfully, haven’t I?” Panic began to rise within him.
“Indeed you have, and you shall continue to do so.”
“I don’t understand. Are you punishing me?”
“I cannot punish Spring Blossom, not directly. That runs the risk of leaving her incapable of fulfilling her duties here. So instead, she shall see what happens to the pony she loves as a result of her actions. Do not think of what I am about do to as ‘punishment’. If all goes well, you should still be the same when I am done.”
The captain backed away. “No, this isn’t fair.”
The mare frowned, a frightening sight. “You forget your place, captain. You are expendable, she is not.” Her horn began to glow and he found himself frozen in place. “My Lady has taught me a new spell. You shall be the next pony I test on.”
Panic turned to outright fear. “Mistress, PLEASE--” That was all he could say before the glow intensified and awareness vanished.
The colt groaned, slowly opening his eyes. He glanced around to find himself laying in an ornate bed set in the corner of a spacious room. Mistress lounged on a pile of pillows on the other side of the room, watching him over the rim of a goblet. Despite his fall off the tower, he felt fine. The mare looked uninjured as well.
So she's alive. Good.
No, another voiced seemed to say. She should be dead for what she has done.
He felt a moment of shock at the thought. I serve Mistress, I would never--
She used me to get to Rainbow Dash! She punished you for nothing!
The voice was right, and yet, here we was, alive and well, with Mistress.
"Mistress . . .," the word was nearly a whisper.
"Welcome back, Ashe."
Ashe. Yes, that was his name, wasn't it? "How did--?"
"You spoke in your sleep. It was clear from your words that your memory had returned."
He shook his head. "I mean, how are we alive? I--"
"Very nearly killed me?" Mistress gave a sly smile. "Do not think me so unprepared, Ashe. The flowers I had Spring Blossom growing were not merely decoration. It is a pity I had to use two of the blossoms already."
"So why waste a blossom on me? Why not let me die?"
"I would hardly consider it a waste. The way I saw it there were two possible outcomes: either you would regain your memories and serve me as captain again, or you would remain as Snowfall and I could give him the punishment he deserves for knocking me off that tower."
The voice inside his head wailed.
Shut up. Shut up. SHUT UP! The colt didn't notice he had begun talking aloud until he saw Mistress watching him quizzically.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
"No. Mistress, you used me! I served faithfully, always! Then you used that . . . that compulsion on me."
"I do apologize for your loss of memories. Truly I do. I thought I had worked out all the kinks in the spell. You must understand, though, that I needed Spring Blossom cowed, and you were the means to do it. In truth, I worried that you had grown too close to her, that you had begun to sympathize. Using compulsion on you solved both of these problems. Were it not for the memory loss, you would have felt no different. Hardly a punishment, is it?"
See, the voice said. She doesn't even trust you!
No, it was an accident. She was just being cautious. He pushed the voice down before it could made him say something he would regret.
"Your will is your own, now, Ashe. Will you serve me again, or would you take Snowfall's punishment instead?"
He nodded. "I'll serve, Mistress." He still believed in her cause, and besides, what choice did he have?
Mistress sipped from her goblet. "Good. Your first task will be to speak with Spring Blossom."
She's still here? And the others too? He felt a flash of sorrow, quickly suppressed. That voice was beginning to annoy him.
Ah, perhaps I shall have a good night, tonight. No doubt Spring Blossom still thought he cared for her.
"My, er, Snowfall's rescue attempt was not successful?"
"No, they all escaped. You will tell me how they did that, later. Spring Blossom, however, is not entirely out of my grasp. She will meet you at the fountain. Bring her back, if you can. She did good work here, and it would be a pity to lose her. Do not force her, though. I will not have dissidents in my camp."
"Mistress, about that . . . I'm sorry." He lowered his head.
"Do not concern yourself with the past, Ashe. It cannot be changed, now. Come, join me in drinking this wine so that we may celebrate your return."
They drank long into the night. He took big gulps of the sour wine; it seemed to quiet the voice in his head. Mistress only seemed to ever take small sips, content to let him have the bulk of the bottle.
"Mistress," he slurred. "He's still in me."
The garnet mare raised an eyebrow. "Who?"
"Snowfall," he tapped his head. "He talks to me. Tells me I shouldn't trust you."
"I see," her voice grew cold, her horn began to glow. "Do you listen to him?"
He looked at the mare with blurring vision. How much had he drunk? His addled mind struggled to concentrate. "N-no, Mistress. I try not to, but it's hard."
"Good. Keep it that way. Snowfall has caused me enough trouble."
* * *
The next day found Ashe standing in the familiar clearing, staring up at the vine-choked fountain. Mistress had told him of the pony memorialized by the fountain, once. Although her name had been lost to time, her deeds had not. She had been a powerful unicorn, one who had created a great many wondrous spells. Young unicorns from across Equestria flocked to the school she founded in the hopes that they would be chosen as one of the few apprentices she would accept.
What the history books did not mention, however, were her later years. During those years few ponies knew what she was doing. She became reclusive, closing her school and sending away all but her most trusted students. Most ponies figured that she had simply grown weary in her old age, that she couldn't keep up with the demands of running a school and just wanted some peace and quiet. In reality, she had become curious about the pony mind, at how magic could affect it. Such an avenue of study was dangerous, forbidden since even before Nightmare Moon had possessed Luna.
Her experiments at been subtle at first, slight manipulations of a pony's thoughts and emotions, just a gentle shove to try to get things to go her way. As she grew more skilled, she could change the emotional mindset of a pony completely. She was able to instill fear, pleasure, melancholy, whatever she wished, at a whim. This, in time, led to her most dreadful creation: compulsion. The few students she had kept grew ambitious. They turned against her, using her own spell on her before she could use it on them. Shortly thereafter, all of them, teacher and pupils, vanished. How Mistress could know any of this Ashe could not begin to fathom. He had long since given up trying to understand that mare.
Lost in thought, he had not heard the filly approach. He turned around to see Spring Blossom. She had arrived, just like Mistress said she would. Looking at her, she seemed weary. Dark circles lay under eyes that showed a growing hope as the filly watched him.
He shook his head at the filly. No, although Snowfall remained within him, he was not that colt any more. He was himself again.
The filly seemed to think for a moment before speaking hesitantly. "A-Ashe?"
Before he had finished nodding she was upon him, giving him a fierce hug. Her hot tears stained the fur on his chest.
"I thought I'd lost you," she cried. "Twilight told me you were dead. Oh, she'll be so glad to see you're well."
"I can't go back to Ponyville, Spring." Surprisingly, Snowfall's voice echoed his own. I'm a killer. I don't belong there.
She stepped away from him. "What? Why?"
"I serve Mistress."
The smile left Spring Blossom's face. "She lives, too?"
"Yes, all thanks to you." Why must you tell her that? Snowfall sounded angry in his head. Just leave her be, please!
The filly collapsed on the ground with a wail. "No, Ashe. Please. Say it isn't so!"
"It's true. The Dragon's Flame saved our lives. Why do you think she had you grow them?"
"She . . . she said she wanted to study them." Spring Blossom seemed to be grasping for any excuse she could find to deny the truth.
"Mistress already knows all about them. You weren't the first to grow them for her, and you won't be the last."
Spring Blossom moved on to a different avenue of thought. "But Ashe, why are you serving her? You wanted to be free of her as much as I did. We were going to escape together, remember? You -- er, Snowfall -- tried to kill her! I-I thought you loved me."
Please don't say it.
“I was just following orders. Mistress wanted you complacent and a relationship with you seemed to be the easiest way to do it.”
The filly seemed to wilt even further, but then her face took on a determined cast as she stood up. "I won't accept that. It was real. You couldn't have faked that."
Ashe remained silent. Had it been real? He was unsure, himself, now.
"Ashe, why are you here? To torment me?"
"Shouldn't you be asking why you are here?"
The filly blinked. Her eyes widened as the question churned in her head. Had the thought really not crossed her mind?
He continued, "Mistress wants you back. She--"
"I won't," she shook her head. "I can't." Ashe suspected she would say as much. Spring Blossom's only happy times at the encampment were those she spent with him, planning their escape. Truth be told, he enjoyed those times too. Being a captain under Mistress was stressful. Around Spring Blossom he could relax. Selfish as it was, he wanted her to come back as much as Mistress did.
"Hear me out, first. Mistress is grateful for the work you did growing the Dragon's Flame. She would like you to continue to grow them for her. That is all you would have to do, nothing more. No fighting, no missions, just tending a garden. You would be treated well. What more can you ask for?"
"Ponyville's my home now. I can garden there, with my new friends."
"Have you told them what you did? That you killed two foals?"
That struck a chord. Fresh tears welled up in her eyes as her face twisted in anguish. "No, of course not! That . . . it wasn't me. Mistress -- she was in my head."
"She merely gave you a push in the direction she wanted you to go. You took the steps yourself." It pained him to say that to her, but if it would help convince her to return then he would say it. It was only partially true. Mistress' pushes could be quite strong.
"That's not who I am . . .," she mumbled weakly.
"Would they forgive you?"
"Your friends. Would they forgive you if they knew?" He remembered the look on Twilight's face when he killed the guard. He didn't think she would forgive him for that.
Stop this, Snowfall shouted in his head. He felt an overwhelming urge to hug Spring Blossom, to apologize for the things he had said, to follow her back to Ponyville. He pushed it down violently.
No, I don't belong there.
Spring Blossom stared at the ground, her mouth moving wordlessly.
Ashe stood there a moment allowing her a chance to think. She gave a start when he finally broke the silence. "Hard times are coming, Spring, for those who don't serve Mistress. You will be safer with her." He paused a moment before adding, "With me."
Spring Blossom lay in bed, staring at the ceiling of her bedroom, listening to the drumming of rain on the window. She had wanted to go with Ashe. Oh Celestia, how she had wanted that, but she didn't want to give that mare the satisfaction of having her back. She replayed their conversation over and over again in her head. Ashe claimed that he had served Mistress all along, that he had faked their relationship so that she would stay. But she had seen the look he got in his eyes when they were together. The way he spoke, it didn't sound empty. Perhaps he was doing it because Mistress told him to, but part of it had to be real, right? He must have cared for her, even if he wouldn't or couldn't admit it.
Oh Spring Blossom, you are such a foal! She tried to consider the reasons why Ashe wouldn't return with her. She didn't like any of them. He might truly serve Mistress, in which case their relationship was a lie. Perhaps he loved Mistress. The thought of him laying with Mistress as he had with her made her face flush with anger. Maybe Mistress had used her compulsion on him again -- he wanted to leave, but the compulsion held him. Or perhaps it was fear that held him -- fear that Mistress would find him again -- or guilt over what he had done. She couldn't fathom the ponies of Ponyville forgiving him, or her for that matter, for murder. She couldn't even forgive herself.
The filly didn't know what to do, anymore. Life was simpler when she thought Ashe and Mistress were dead and gone, but there he had been, alive and well. She knew she should probably tell Twilight about what had happened. Some of it, at least. What could they do, though? A daring rescue like Snowfall had staged couldn't work again. Surely Mistress would have better sealed the secret tunnel by now, not to mention the fact that they wouldn't have the cover of snow again. They wouldn't stand a chance against the ponies at the encampment, head-to-head. And what if Ashe truly did not want rescue? It all seemed so hopeless!
She got out of bed. Telling Twilight was the only thing she could do. The unicorn might think of a better plan then she could.
* * *
Twilight was shocked to hear the news that both Ashe and the mare were alive. She had been the one who saw their bodies at the base of the tower after Snowfall charged Mistress.
“If anypony can help us, it’s Celestia,” she told Spring Blossom. “Spike, take a letter.”
Dear Princess Celestia,
There is a problem in the Everfree Forest that I feel you should be made aware of. I regret not telling you about it sooner, but it was not until today, with news that Spring Blossom has brought, that I realized that the magnitude of the problem was beyond the abilities of the ponies here to solve. There is a garnet colored mare residing in an encampment in the Everfree Forest who only goes by the name Mistress. She has many ponies serving her, training to fight.
This past winter, one such pony showed up here in Ponyville, although he had no memories. He took the name Snowfall and lived here peacefully for several weeks before unwittingly facilitating the kidnapping of Rainbow Dash. When he returned to us, he said that she had died in an accident. Later, when I attempted to use a spell to fix his amnesia, I broke another spell that had been cast on him. This 'Mistress' had used magic to bend him to her will! We managed to rescue Rainbow Dash, and Spring Blossom as well, when Snowfall gave his life to kill the mare. That's what we believed, at least, until today with the news Spring Blossom has brought me. They are both alive and well due to a flower called Dragon's Flame.
Princess, I am unsure what to do. Any help you can provide would be most welcome.
The wait for a response from Celestia was long and tense.
“What’s taking her so long?” Spring Blossom asked.
“It’s a difficult problem,” Twilight explained. “She’s probably just thinking it through.”
Finally, a response arrived. Spring Blossom paced nervously as Twilight read, and then re-read, the letter. "Well," she asked, "what did Celestia say?"
Twilight frowned. "She says she took care of everything, that we're safe. There's something about her letter, though. I can't put my hoof on it but it seems . . . off."
"Let me see." Spring Blossom trotted over to Twilight and read the letter herself.
My faithful student,
I was most alarmed upon reading your latest letter! I
normally don't concern myself with what goes on in the
Everfree Forest, however news like this is cause for an
exception. I found the encampment you spoke of. It was as
dangerous as you had described. Fortunately, I was able to
halt all the magic that was thrown my way. I subdued the
evil mare that led there. You can rest assured that your
lives are safe, now. Thanks to you, the mare's
plans have been foiled.
It did seem a little off to her; a strange word choice or two, oddly structured sentences, and her writing did not use the whole width of the page. What concerned her the most, however, was the fact that Celestia didn't say a word about the other ponies at the encampment. "What about Ashe? Is he okay?" Would Ashe be punished because he served Mistress? How did Canterlot handle murderers, anyway? It was such a rare occurrence that Spring Blossom had no idea what would happen. Could an exception be made because of Mistress' mind altering magic? She departed Twilight’s home, seeking answers.
* * *
Her Royal Highness Celestia, Princess of the Sun, Divine Ruler of Equestria, stood before the garnet mare. The letter she had received from Twilight Sparkle had concerned her. Compulsion was an evil magic. She had forbidden it centuries ago for a good reason. If somepony had rediscovered it, she would want to put a stop to it before things got out of control. Celestia’s head throbbed as she warred in her mind against the magic coming from the unicorn. She had not expected the mare and her allies to be so powerful. The combined assault of their magic had shattered the wards she kept around her mind, allowing the mare to enter. The mare thought she had control of Celestia, but she was wrong. Even as the Princess’ wards had shattered new ones had sprung up in their place. She had let the mare in to fool her, to bide her time as she awaited reinforcements.
The sight of this mare had surprised the Princess. Very little surprised her, anymore, but she had not expected to see this mare again. It had been centuries since she had last seen the unicorn. Somehow this mare, the very mare who had discovered compulsion, was still alive, despite the fact that only alicorns had such long lifespans.
“Ah, Celestia, this is an unexpected pleasure! Will you stay for tea?” The mare paused, but Celestia did not respond, as if she was actually held by the mare’s magic. She laughed, “Oh of course you will! We shall have fun, you and I. I expected perhaps that Twilight Sparkle would show up again at some point, but you,” the mare practically giggled. “I could not have hoped for a better outcome.”
Celestia’s eyes widened fractionally at the mention of Twilight Sparkle’s name. Let her think me ignorant.
“Do you know her?” the mare asked.
“She told me about you,” the Princess responded.
The mare’s smile widened. “You came on her behalf! Well, surely she is eager to hear of your success here, yes? Come, write her a letter. Tell her you defeated me.”
Celestia wrote her letter carefully. At first glace it would look like a simple letter saying just what the mare had asked her to write, but Twilight was a smart filly, she would see the real message hidden in it.
* * *
Twilight sent a follow-up letter to Celestia. She wanted to believe that Celestia had succeeded, that the garnet mare had been taken care of, but the strangeness of Celestia’s initial response still gave her pause. With no response immediately forthcoming, she became worried. The Princess was always prompt with her responses to Twilight, and in a case such as this she would expect that even more-so. Something was wrong. She would have to formulate a plan. Go to Canterlot? Would they believe her, there? Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. She opened up the door to see Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash. She glanced at the clock. She had been thinking about what to do for hours.
"Is there something you need, Fluttershy?" Twilight asked.
"Oh, you look busy. I can just come back later." She began to turn around.
"No, it's okay, Fluttershy. What is it?"
"Well, Spring Blossom was supposed to meet me hours ago to help me plant some herbs, but she never showed up. Dash has been helping me look for her, but I was just wondering if you had seen her."
"Not since she left my house this morning. Have you checked her house?"
“Not yet. We were going to head there next.”
“She’s been feeling down, lately. Maybe she forgot that she said she’d help you. Let’s go visit.”
Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash followed as Twilight led the way to Spring Blossom's house. Twilight knocked on the door. "Spring? Are you there?"
There was no response.
Dash flew up to the second floor window and looked in. "She's not in her bed." She entered the window to look around further.
"Spring, we're coming inside. We just want to talk, okay?" Twilight opened the door and looked around. "Hello?"
The house was silent. A note rested on a small table near the door.
I'm sorry. I couldn't stay any longer. Thank you all for your hospitality.
* * *
Rainbow Dash came down the stairs to find Twilight reading a note.
"She left." Twilight said quietly.
"She didn't go back there, did she?" Rainbow Dash asked. She couldn't imagine anypony wanting to return to that encampment. Spring Blossom had looked relieved after their rescue as they headed back to Ponyville. Relieved, but sad. The filly had known Snowfall, too, hadn't she?
"I don't know, Dash. She cared for Ashe very much. Maybe-"
"Who?" Dash interrupted, a confused look on her face.
"Oh. Ashe. That's Snowfall's real name. She found out he was alive yesterday, and his memories are back." That was huge news, and yet Twilight said it so matter-of-factly. If it weren't for Snowfall, Dash wasn't sure what would have happened that day on the tower.
"He's alive? Where is he?" When Twilight didn't immediately respond, she continued. "He's not still there is he? Twilight, we have to do something." The least she could do for Snowfall, or Ashe, whatever his name was, would be to rescue him like he rescued her. He belonged here, in Ponyville. She missed showing him her tricks.
* * *
Thoughts roiled through Spring Blossom's mind as she made her way through the Everfree Forest. Life had been less complicated just two days ago, when she believed Ashe and Mistress were dead. Sure, she still had her own problems to deal with, then -- the knowledge of what she had done ate at her -- but at least then she knew she had nowhere else to go. Ponyville could have been her home. Her memories would have faded eventually, right? But then Ashe had to show up, alive, hurtful words on his lips. Why, then, am I going back to him? He had to love her, he just had to! Mistress may have ordered him to do it, but it had become real. She remembered the way he smiled, how he sighed contentedly when she nuzzled him.
What he had said was true, too. The ponies of Ponyville wouldn't forgive her if they learned what she had done. In Mistress' thrall or not, murder was still murder. She belonged with Ashe, that's all there was to it. If she was lucky, Twilight's letter from Celestia was true and Mistress was defeated. She would find Ashe and they would start a new life together. If not . . . well, Ashe had said that she would only need to garden, and she would be left alone otherwise. She thought she could live with that. Being near Ashe would certainly help. It wasn't just Mistress that wanted her back, Ashe did too.
Ashe found her quickly when she entered the encampment the next day. He seemed pleased to see her again, and yet, under the surface, the filly thought she saw disappointment as well. He embraced her, though, whispering that he was glad to see her. "Come, let's go see Mistress. She will be glad that you returned."
Spring Blossom stopped walking. "No. I'll grow those flowers for her, but I will not speak with her."
Ashe nodded. "I understand. I'll talk to her. Your quarters should still be as you left them. Make yourself comfortable. I'll come by later."
* * *
Ashe entered the keep and headed to where he knew Mistress would be. The mare was lounging in the same room he had awakened in just a few days prior. Celestia stood in a corner of the room. The colt could scarcely believe that Mistress had captured Celestia. He was not surprised that Spring Blossom had returned, though. Even Snowfall wasn't surprised. Both he and Snowfall were happy to see her, although at the same time Snowfall was morose.
She doesn't belong in Ponyville. You know that, he told Snowfall.
She doesn't belong here either, Snowfall replied.
Where would you have her go?
Away. With us.
Mistress would find us.
Snowfall had no response to that but a rising feeling of anger that began to bleed over into Ashe's own emotions. Ashe took a deep breath, pushing the anger, and Snowfall, back down. That was new.
"Mistress," he reported. "Spring Blossom has returned."
The garnet mare smiled. "Ah, I knew she would come around. She just needed to realize she belonged here. Where is she, now?"
"She refuses to speak with you." Ashe cringed as he said it. Nopony refused anything of Mistress. "She'll grow your Dragon's Flames, but she doesn't want to see you."
Mistress chuckled. "Very well. If she wishes to believe that she is not doing this for me, I suppose I can grant her that." She turned towards the corner. "Celly, dear, pour some wine for me and Ashe, would you?"
The Princess calmly walked out of the corner and did as she was told. There was something about her manner, though, about the way she looked at Ashe that made him think she was the one really in control.
"Thank you, Celly. Now, I must speak with Ashe alone. How about you . . . go clean the latrines. Yes, that will do."
The Princess bowed stiffly before leaving the room.
"Ashe, I'm going to be blunt. Celestia's arrival here has complicated things. It takes all I have to keep her under my control. Releasing her would be disastrous for me and my plans. This is not the first time she and I have crossed paths. Previously, I had always been able to escape, to disappear before she found me. I fear that I cannot escape, this time. Since I need to devote my energies to controlling Celestia, I am giving you full command over the encampment."
This was not the first time Celestia had disrupted Mistress' plans? Just how long had this mare been plotting against the Princess? Ashe gave a start at her last words. He had not been expecting that. "Me, Mistress?"
The mare nodded. "You are the most capable pony I have. I expect that a rescue attempt for the Princess will find us sooner or later. I need everypony ready when that happens. You are the pony that can do this for me."
This is our chance, Snowfall said. Let the rescue come. Celestia will capture this mare. We can leave with Spring Blossom!
Ashe downed his wine in one gulp. I can't do that, I serve Mistress. I--
Still with that excuse, Snowfall interrupted. His voice had been getting stronger. After all she's done to us, do you believe in her that strongly? Or are you afraid you have nowhere else to go?
I don't have anywhere else to go! Mistress cares about me . . .
You're deluding yourself! You're expendible, she said so herself. She's just using you in some personal vendetta against Celestia!
Mistress' words broke his thoughts. "I realize this is a big responsibility, but I am confident that you can handle it. I need you on this, Ashe."
"Yes, Mistress," he mumbled.
"Excellent. Now go, I need some time to think."
So do I. He remembered thinking as Snowfall that he wanted his memories back. Yet the return of his memories hadn't made his life any better, only more complicated. His time as Snowfall had changed him, was continuing to change him. He wanted out. Snowfall had finally made him realize that this place wasn't for him, and it certainly wasn't where Spring Blossom belonged. So where, then, did they belong?
* * *
The room was exactly as she had left it. Her bed sat against the far wall, a small end table to its left in the corner. A flower pot rested next to the only window in the room, the flowers in it having long since withered and died without her there to care for them. Her bed was unmade. She had been dragged out of it that night after her meeting with Snowfall, taken to the basement of the keep, where she had remained until Snowfall returned and saved her. She barely knew Snowfall, but Ashe, she had spent many evenings and nights in this room with him. The filly sighed. She had wanted to escape, then. Perhaps he had, too. It seemed that was not to be, though. She looked up as the door opened and Ashe entered. He wasn't smiling.
"Ashe! What did she say?"
"She won't bother you," he mumbled.
Spring Blossom let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "Oh thank Celestia!"
"You're more right than you know, with that."
She furrowed her brow. "What?"
"Mistress captured Celestia. She has to devote most of her energy to keep Celestia in check. She just gave me full command over the encampment."
The blood drained from the filly's face as her hind legs gave out. She had feared as much. If Celestia's letter had been true then nopony should be here. After the shock wore off the other part of what Ashe said struck her. "Full command? So you don't want to leave, then." Her ears drooped. Maybe her hopes had been too high when she thought Ashe could change. It seemed that his devotion to Mistress was stronger than whatever he felt for her.
There was a long pause before the colt spoke again. "I do want to leave, Spring. I finally understand that my place is with you, but not here. Not here."
Her heart skipped a beat. "So what do we do?"
"Mistress wants everypony to be ready to defend against a rescue attempt for Celestia. We need that rescue to succeed. If I'm careful I can lead them poorly enough for this to happen, but well enough that the ponies here won't suspect anything."
The plan seemed a long shot, but Spring Blossom could see no alternative. Simply leaving was out of the question. Even if Ashe managed to convince the guards that they would return, Mistress would find out eventually and have them hunted down. Then there was Celestia. If a rescue attempt came and somepony besides Ashe led the defense, the attempt could fail. A disastrous prospect that the filly did not want to think about.
"I trust you, Ashe."
He looked her in the eyes and smiled. "I'm sorry I brought you back into this, Spring. I should've . . . I should've said something different to you there, in the clearing. Told you to stay away, to live happily in Ponyville."
"It wouldn't have mattered, Ashe," she spoke softly. "Just seeing you alive was enough."
He moved towards her. Their foreheads touched. "We'll get out of here this time. For good. I promise."
The filly could only smile.
* * *
Ashe did his best to subtly sabotage the encampment's defenses over the next few days. He gave conflicting information to the different squads so that their actions would be uncoordinated and less effective. Sometimes it was difficult to get them to listen to him, though. They respected his skill and knowledge, but many still hated him for what he did as Snowfall. Perhaps their mistrust of him would help; without a leader they could trust they would be disorganized, inefficient.
He had little time to prepare before the attack came. It was a small force, though, half the number of ponies the encampment held. Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash stood there as well.
"We know you have Celestia," the colt wearing the most elaborate armor shouted. "Release her and nopony need be hurt. We only wish for her safe return."
Mistress and Celestia stood in the courtyard behind the arrayed defenses, their presence taunting the assembled force outside, urging them forward. Ashe stood on the wall. Spring Blossom waited for him in the tower. He hoped she would be safe in there, hidden from the battle.
This is it. Ashe breathed in deeply. “Come then. I’ll not stand in your way.”
Confused shouts rose behind him among Mistress’ assembled forces. He turned to face them. All eyes turned to face him as he spoke again. Mistress’ eye were a harsh glare. “Brothers and sisters, you do not need to serve Mistress. Her cause is not right, and it is not just. She cannot hold Celestia for long. Submit to Celestia now and clear your conscious.”
The assembled ponies exchanged glances, looked at Mistress. He scanned their faces. They're afraid. Mistress has lost and yet they still fear her. His eyes met Mistress'. Her face was a mask of anger, but hiding underneath it he saw fear. She knows that this is her end.
* * *
Spring Blossom watched from the top of the tower. Ashe had told her to wait inside the tower, where she would be safe, but she couldn’t resist going to the top where she could watch what happened. This was the deciding moment. Would the ponies side with or against Mistress?
Fighting began to break out among the gathered ponies as they made their allegiances known, those that remained in Mistress’ thrall shifting to form a protective wall around her as the others tried to reach her and strike her down. The royal guard rushed in upon seeing this, joining the fray.
Ashe leapt off the wall and glided down to where Rainbow Dash and Twilight stood outside the wall. He began speaking with them, but he was too far away for Spring Blossom to hear what they said.
The fighting below was growing intense. Lightning flashed out of the clear, blue sky, striking pegasi out of the air, their bodies hitting the ground in a shower of dirt. Those pegasi still flying were diving at the ponies on the ground, while the earth ponies delivered brutal kicks to each other. The circle of defenders protecting Mistress was collapsing, its ponies falling one by one to the assault.
Spring Blossom cringed, the cries of the ponies below momentarily bringing back memories of the foals crying in the burning house. Ashe had been right to want her inside the tower, sheltered from the sights below. Ponies were dying down there, brutalized by hooves and magic. She turned away, unable to watch it any longer.
She instead turned her gaze to Ashe and the fillies he spoke with. They remained away from the fighting, although Rainbow Dash looked like she would have rather been in the thick of things herself. Twilight and Ashe were both speaking with her. Twilight was scowling at the pegasus, probably telling her that joining the fight would be foalish. Ashe’s ears drooped as he spoke. He had brought her to harm here before, and he didn’t want it to happen again.
* * *
Panic flared in Mistress’ head, so strong she felt she might sick up. Ever since Celestia had arrived she had wracked her brain trying to think up some way -- any way -- to escape from Celestia. The alicorn was simply too powerful. Mistress had stayed hidden for so long by avoiding direct confrontation with the Princess, but now it was inevitable. Her defenders were dropping quickly; that damnable Ashe had turned most of the ponies here against her.
You’re a failure, the voice in her head whispered.
The voice. It had first spoken to her shortly after she had discovered compulsion. Quiet at first, it grew in strength as her own abilities grew. The more she experimented with compulsion, the more the voice told her to use it. At first, her interest was purely academic. She could find very little information on the subject, even in the massive royal library in Canterlot. The books that did mention it all said it was an evil thing, not to be used. But how could a magic be inherently evil, she wondered. It could be used in evil ways, to be sure, but what magic couldn’t? Surely there was a way this magic could also be used to help. So she continued researching it, but as she did the voice spoke to her. It told her of the power she could attain using it. She listened. Why shouldn’t she have power? Had she not earned it through her years of service? She began to use compulsion on ponies, testing her abilities.
Somehow -- she never did figure out how, though it was probably one of her students -- Celestia caught wind of her research. It was sheer luck that she escaped, fleeing into hiding. From then on she worked in the shadows, continuing her research where Celestia would not find her. Until now.
As her last defenders fell, Mistress looked up at the Princess, still standing next to her. She flinched back at the scowl Celestia gave her.
“It’s over,” Celestia said. Her voice was quiet, yet everypony there seemed to hear her. The encampment became still.
* * *
With the fighting over, the ponies began to gather up, those that had served Mistress standing in a separate group from the royal guard. Spring Blossom emerged from the tower, and she and Ashe joined the first group, while Twilight and Rainbow Dash stood with the royal guard they had arrived with. Mistress was prostrated before the Princess, quivering, her eyes squeezed shut.
"Please, Princess. I beg your forgiveness," she cried.
"No," Celestia responded, coldly.
The mare opened her eyes, looking at the Princess. She spoke so softly that Ashe could barely hear her. "I'm sorry." She lowered her head.
Celestia swept her gaze over the assembled ponies. She seemed to linger on Ashe for a moment before continuing on. "For her crimes against Equestria, for her use of magic best left forgotten, this mare must be punished." Celestia paused, letting her words sink in.
The mare whimpered.
Celestia’s horn began to glow. The mare’s eyes widened as her horn broke off with a sickening snap. She collapsed to the ground with a wail next to her now-useless horn.
A few ponies near Ashe gasped. Some exchanged nervous glances with each other, wondering what fate awaited them.
"Let it be known that today, justice has been done," the Princess proclaimed. She approached Ashe's group. "As for you, I thank you for fighting for me today. However," she continued. "I cannot allow you to remain in Equestria. You are all hereby banished from my kingdom on pain of death."
Some ponies wept upon hearing Celestia's judgement. Others breathed a sigh of relief, simply glad that they would live. Many, Ashe included, appeared unsure what to think.
Twilight stepped forward. "But Princess! Ashe is--"
The Princess turned her gaze towards the filly. She spoke, her voice cold. "Twilight Sparkle, this is not open for debate." Her voice softened. "I will speak with you later in private, if you'd like, but you must understand that what I am doing is necessary."
"Yes, Princess." The filly turned her watering eyes towards Ashe.
As much as Ashe knew he didn't belong in Ponyville, he realized something: he would miss the ponies there. They had been good to him for the short time that he knew them. His life would be less for not having them in it. Perhaps if he had known them before he met Mistress, things would have turned out differently. He approached the Princess and bowed. "Princess, if it is alright with you, I would ask one favor before my banishment."
The Princess nodded. "You may ask."
He glanced at Twilight and Rainbow Dash, then beckoned the Princess to lower her head, whispering his request in her ear.
Celestia smiled. "Very well."
"Thank you, Princess." Ashe bowed again, then trotted over to Twilight and Rainbow Dash.
"What did you ask her for?" Dash asked.
Ashe grinned at the fillies. "One last party."