Author's Note: This is a little something I'm writing for fun and hope that people have fun reading it. ^^ The following is dedicated to all of my friends, pony or otherwise. I'll be aiming to update this weekly... and if I fall behind, you all have the right to hunt me down and beat me with pinata bats.
I want to write this in kind of affectionate, episodic fashion, but there will also be an over-arching plot and the occasional multi-chapter arc. Please bear with me and if this actually has a significant readership your love will make me all the more energetic to write more! I will be taking your feedback very seriously, so please read and comment if you enjoy this fic!
All original content copyright me, all MLP:FiM copyright their respective owners.
Something Wicked This Way Trots , Part 1.
Equestria has faced dark days in the past. The threat of eternal night. But now a strange force seems to be brewing within the heart of the pony land. Our great ruler's wisdom has staved off eternal night and protected us from danger for ages past. But will she be able to guide us through this new, strange phenomena?
Aliens trot among us!
Aurora could not help but crack up at his own handiwork. The cream colored pony didn't mind the weird looks he got from the few that were gathered around the cloud. A tuft of his blue-green mane fell down against the paper and he brushed it out of the way. Three years of stone-faced editorial work and this was his masterpiece. His magnum opus. He settled his hands upon his camera, fondly, and smiled. His partner in crime. His long-time friend. It almost never left the strap around his neck.
The printers had even worked with him to ensure that day's Gracemareia Courier had been printed in black in white instead of color. He'd worked with a picture of a single errant gryphon above Equestria and fuzzed it until its form was indecipherable. He began to fold it up and tucked it into his saddlebag before walking towards the end of the cloud platform where his ride awaited.
Aurora's heart pounded as he trotted away. Soon he would be out of Gracemareia. He was getting away with it. His name would go down in infamy and everyone would fondly remember the name of the pony who--
The pegasus froze, one hoof barely above the red step of the carriage. The two driving ponies looked at him impatiently. He thought he'd try to bolt for it, but he flapped his wings and flailed uselessly against the massive hoof holding him in place. He knew that voice. And he would have to face it. He turned about and swallowed...
The editor-in-chief of the Courier was a massive beast of a pegasus, cinnamon shaded. He ate, lived, breathed news journalism. Even the mark on his flank was that of an unfolded newspaper. In a way he was Aurora's role model. On the other hand, he was ruthlessly strict.
The editor rolled up his own copy of the newspaper and thwopped Aurora square on the flank, pointing at his cutiemark: a bloomed flash of light. “When I let you start studying at the Courier, what did you tell me your cutiemark meant?”
Aurora's ears drooped. “That the truth can be illuminated in a single moment... a flash of light. That all the falsehoods in the world will be cast off with the power of my lens. And my fancy camera work.”
The editor brought down the paper gently between his ears. Aurora made a little huff.
“Were you just pulling my tail, son?”
“No! I mean, I just wanted to take pictures.” Aurora waggled the camera about his neck. “Come on! This stuff is great.” He tugged the paper open to the second page and pointed out an article: Head Editor; Stud of the Year. And he did crack a bit of a smile.
“Well. I will just release a statement that we misprinted an April Foal's issue,” he muttered. And then set Aurora down with firm resolve. “But none of these shenanigans on your exchange. I expect you to behave like a proper newspony and represent us to the best of your ability. We believed in you. That's why you were chosen.”
Aurora shrunk down and hid behind his wings a bit. “I, uhm...”
“Promise me you'll do your best.”
The young pegasus gulped, and nodded. “I promise.”
The old stallion gave him a gentle buck onto the carriage. Aurora winced and settled down into place. “Best be sticking to your word, now, or don't you think I won't make sure you get properly disciplined.” Then he gave a little salute to the two ponies braced to the front of the carriage. “Try not to let it be too bumpy, boys.”
The two pegasi grinned knowingly and then abruptly left off of the cloud, tugging the carriage forward into a freefall. The editor chuckled and waved a hoof as Aurora clung to the edge and yelled out. The wind whisked by as they fell and not until they could see the full panorama of the fields of Equestria did they pull up and even out. The young pegasus had flown down before but somehow, seeing the world rush by felt like something new. Something magical.
And he knew that his own adventure was just beginning.
* * *
Aurora was barely awake by the time that his chariot had reached Ponyville. He had to admire the pilots, their rugged dedication in carrying him all the way across the countryside. One of them eased it open and he practically stumbled out.
A pair of purple ponies lifted a hoof to greet him. “You must be the last transfer!”
He had to rub his eyes until the two ponies formed a single one. He would have recognized her even if he'd never seen her before. After all, Twilight Sparkle and her friends had been building quite the reputation the last year.
Twilight practically glowed, continuing on in spite of his exhausted silence. “It's so wonderful that Princess Celestia is encouraging ponies to get to know each other's lands like this. Oh, if you need anything, please ask me or any of the other ponies here. I'm sure we'd all be happy to help you.”
The pegasus smiled. “Thank you. Right now I'd--”
“You missed the tour earlier but I could probably take some time to show you around.” Twilight held her head high and pointed her horn back down the road. “Down this way is Sugarcube Corner. It's a good place to start from if you get lost. Plus everypony is there at some point or another.”
Aurora bobbed his head in agreement, though quickly found himself repeating the motion in an effort to stay awake. Twilight's voice was a haze as he trotted after her down the grassy roads. They were almost empty at night, and most ponies that were out were busy returning to their homes and shutting down shops.
Ponyville was far more sprawling than he expected it to be. Sure, it was a rural community, but so many ponies lived there! It must have been an hour before Twilight, still brimming with cheery enthusiasm, stopped abruptly in front of a large building built into a tree.
“... and this is the library. I'm pretty sure you know what one of those is.” She laughed nervously. “This is where you can find me most of the time. The princess was kind enough to let me stay here when I first arrived, and now I'm practically running the place. Not that I mind, mind you! It's just that some ponies can cause quite a mess when...”
The pegasus lifted a hoof. “Uhm, Miss Twilight...”
“... pony decimal system! And do you know how hard it is to get applejuice out of...”
“Twilight Sparkle?” An older mare cut in with both gentleness and authority. Both ponies paused and looked up at the tawny Mayor as she adjusted her glasses. “I need to borrow this one for a little, if I may?”
Twilight opened her mouth and only then seem to realize how much she had been going on. “Oh! Of course, Mayor.” She laughed. “Well then, if you'll excuse me...”
Twilight retreated with surprising speed, leaving Aurora with the mayor in a quick slam of the door. Aurora snapped awake long enough to realize that the older mare wanted him to walk with her.
“Things definitely have gotten more lively ever since that one arrived...” said the mayor, looking back at the library. “I assume you'll take a note not to cause too much ruckus for this poor town?”
“I promise~” Aurora chimed.
“Good. Now, just to make sure you know. You're more or less responsible for your own well being while you're here. There's a weekly stipend of bits as long as your work stays on track and you'll also be paid for any labor you get involved in. And you will be expected to work.”
Aurora's ears and wings drooped visibly at this. “What kind of work?”
The mayor smiled, albeit in a stern way. “Now, every pony has their own job around here. It's not terribly much but you are expected to pitch in. As a pegasus you'll be helping out the weather teams. Oh, but don't worry. You'll be given a few days to settle in before they show you the ropes.”
The pegasus sagged a little in relief. “That doesn't sound too bad. I've a little bit of practice...”
“As you should! Now, for your exchange I understand you'll be working with the Ponyville Chronicle.” She leaned in and whispered. “If you ask me, our paper could use a little livening up. I know it will never be on the level of the Equestria Daily, but if somepony can kick some life into it, it'd make my day.”
“Nothing but my best,” Aurora said, smiling as if his old boss' hoof were hovering above his flank. Then he realized that they had stopped. He tilted his head curiously and did his best not to groan. What else could there be?
“This is where you'll be staying.” The mayor laughed nervously and pushed her glasses up her snout. “The owners moved out after it was wrecked in a... rather unfortunate infestation. But, ah, we fixed it up good as new!”
Aurora scuffed his hoof against the dirt. “Thanks, um..”
The mayor shook her head. “Not at all. Only the best for our pony guests. Of course, I expect to see your most amazing work very soon!”
The pegasus nodded. They shook hooves and then the mayor departed, no doubt eager to be through one more of her duties. Aurora raised his hoof to knock on the door, then sheepishly realized that he was living there and tugged it open.
* * *
Twilight slumped down on the library floor as the door shut behind her. “Thank Celestia that's over. Now I can get back to practicing.”
She approached a book sitting on one of the tables and flipped to the next page using her magic. This section was entitled 'Color Magic and You: A Simple Guide to All Things Red, Yellow, and Blue. (And all the rest, too)' A mishmash of magical instructions and confusing arrays of arrows and pictures of ectoplasmic goo sprinkled the page. Twilight was used to decoding these more confusing volumes, by now.
“Seems simple enough...” she said to herself. Then she pointed her horn at a chair and chanelled a little magic.. and pop! The brown wood turned bright pink.
“Yay, it worked!” Twilight clopped her hooves together in a moment of private victory. Lately she'd been mastering spells with more ease, less effort than before. And it left her feeling... pleasant. Full of warmth and energy. It was unusual, but she thought it may have just been a side-effect of using her magic so much.
She turned back and puzzled over the book. “It'll turn back to its original color in 24 hours... that's fine and all, but I wonder if it will work on living creatures?”
Twilight grinned, and looked upstairs to where Spike was sleeping. The dragonling was fast asleep after running around with her all day. And a little magic wouldn't hurt him terribly much.
“Oh, Spike~ care to help me with a little magical experiment?” Twilight whispered as she began to trot upstairs.
* * *
What greeted Aurora upon opening the door to his new home was a total mess. The common area of the house, devoid of anypony, had been almost totally trashed. There were streamers and loose balloons everywhere. Pastry wrappers and old cake plates and empty punch bowls lined tables and shelves. The floor was scuffed, items were out of place, and it was very obvious that the pegasus had missed some kind of party.
“Oh, hey. You must be Aurora.”
He jumped up and then realized that he had mistaken his sense of aloneness. Two more ponies were lounging on a couch in the far end of the room. The first, the one that'd called his name, was a chocolate colored filly with an even darker mane and a cream-dipped cocoa bean on her flank.
“Wha-- hey, you're a colt!” The other said, disappointment dripping from his voice. He was a workhorse of a unicorn and a rather large one at that. Tawny red and a gold mane; his cutiemark was particularly elaborate: a black and white lute being struck by lightning bolts.
Aurora flustered. “Yeah. You expected otherwise?”
The unicorn laughed, apparently relieved. “Apparently Aurora is a girl's name.” She cast a devilish look at the other pony. “Told'ja he was a he. That'll be five bits.”
Aurora cleared his throat while the other colt begrudgingly gave up his money. “While we're on that subject, I should mention. Everyone back home called me 'Flash.'”
“No they didn't,” mused the filly, pocketing her change. “Besides, we've already come up with a nickname for you.”
“And what would that be?” Aurora sighed. It was happening all over again.
“Rory,” chuckled the older colt. “Be lucky she won the bet. I was going to call you 'Princess Rorapants.”
Aurora raised an eyebrow and his mouth hung open. There were simply no words.
“I'm Cocoa Bean,” explained the chocolate pony, “and this is oaf is Axel. You kind of missed the festivities. We saved you cake.”
Axel tweaked his horn and floated out a single slice of the vanilla and strawberry cake that they'd been hiding in the corner. It settled down on a table in front of Aurora and he nibbled a bit. His reluctance washed away in a sudden sense of hunger and he made quick work of the cake. It was incredibly indescribably delicious.
“Too bad I wasn't here for the mane event...”
Cocoa rolled her eyes and leaned back against the couch. “You're not nearly as torn up about it as the pony who did all this! She kept us waiting and waiting for you to show up.” And before Aurora could look too depressed, she sighed. “Of course, when it got to be too late, she was all, 'I know! I'll just throw another party tomorrow!'”
“I can't wait.” Aurora said, licking the frosting off of his lips.
Axel pushed himself up from the couch and grinned. “So what's your story?”
The pegasus pondered this. With a full belly and a day's worth of chariot lag, it was hard to think at all. “My story is that I am one tuckered pony. Where we got to cast down around here?”
“Hey, cool,” Axel sighed. “I guess we can get all cliquey tomorrow.”
“Rooms are upstairs,” said Cocoa. “Yours is at the end of the hallway.”
“Thanks.” Aurora waved a lazy hoof and then began to hover-flap his way up the stairs.
Cocoa gave a cheerful call after him. “Goodnight Rory~”
He could hear the two ponies laughing and chattering as he made his way to the upper hallway. A handful of doors. Three bedrooms, and his at the very end. A single window lit the way with moonlight. He made his way through it, the pearl light easing his eyes towards sleep.
He barely managed to make it it to his room and collapse into bed. For a moment he lamented how bare it looked, blank walls and only a handful of furniture. Something he would have to change. Tomorrow. When he was awake.
* * *
While most of the inhabitants of Ponyville slept, something on the road began to move. It had been there for a long time, in all places, slumbering. And it began as a ripple. A little sparkle like the first splash of rain. Then the shadows began to move like the tides, but only when no one could see or hear.
That night, everypony dreamed just a little bit. They dreamed of their world cast in shadow. The purple gumdrop haze of true evil. And the strange phantom spread like a disease, slipping between floorboards and into pastry shops. It tried to slip into the hearts of everypony while they were sleeping, but that was the one place it could not venture.
But the darkness had begun to move.
Aurora awakened to the sensation of something ruffling his nose, like a feather-duster. A weak sneeze escaped his snout before he rolled off of the bed and onto the floor.
“Oof!” he muttered, then winced. He hoped that he did not wake the others. He sat in the moonlight and tuned his ear to the house.
Silence. Too deep and too still. In the sky cities, you could always hear at least a little breeze beyond the cloud structures. Carefully, he crept to the window and opened it. It made a little squeak before giving way and letting in the cool night air.
Aurora sighed in relief, but it did not last long. Somehow he caught the glimpse of something moving in the shadows. At first he thought it was merely his eyes playing tricks on him, but he could track it darting between barrels and working its way down the road. A snake-like glob of purple, glowing energy. Without thinking, he lifted his camera and pressed the shutter.
The camera clicked and a bright FLASH illuminated the road, briefly, and the creature-- or whatever it was-- was gone. Then Aurora realized that his heart was pounding. He wouldn't get back to sleep now. Something sinister was lurking in the night. And he would get to the bottom of it.
Even if it did set his hooves to shaking.
Aurora flexed his wings and then launched out the window, into the night, hooves braced on his camera.
* * *
“Somepony! Come quick!”
Pinkie Pie's frantic voice echoed as she paced in front of Sugarcube Corner the very next morning, a single muffin balanced on her hoof. It wasn't long before Applejack answered her cries, galloping over and skidding to a halt. She stared at the pink pony and panted.
“What's got you all-a-jitter?” AJ wondered, staring. The pink pony now stood stock still, extending the baked good carefully out in front of her nose.
“It's evil! An evil muffin! I found it among the fresh batch this morning when I was making sure we had enough sweets for the party and I thought it'd gone bad but no, this is an eeeeeeevil muffin.”
Applejack adjusted her hat and sighed. One of Pinkie's notorious pranks, probably, she thought. Still, the filly seemed rather upset. She leaned in and gave the muffin a scrutinizing look. It did look darker than a normal muffin, somehow. And the blueberry chunks were more like... purpleberry chunks. Definitely a baking mishap.
“Ah don't get it. What's so... evil about this here evil muffin?”
“It's eeeeeeeeevil!” Pinkie gasped, pointing at it dramatically. “Can't you see? What do we do? What do you do with an evil muffin?”
AJ tried not to chuckle at herself. Poor gal must have heard too many ghostie stories lately. Still, she had to put her friend at ease somehow. And she was feeling a mite famished.
“Maybe Twilight will know. There's probably a book on disposing evil muffins. Would that be under E, for evil? That doesn't sound pleasant...”
Applejack waited for Pinkie to become engrossed enough in her rambling that she wouldn't notice when she leaned forward and.... OMF!
Pinkie stared at Applejack as she chewed the whole muffin.
“'s one way to get rid of an evil muffin...” she chuckled, and swallowed, wiping her face with the back of her hand. “Oof. Definitely tasted funny, yeah.”
The pink pony gasped. “What have you done, Applejack!? What if you get sick? What if.. what if you...”
Applejack wobbled on her feet. There was a cold pain in the pit of her stomach. “Ahh... now that ya mention it, I don't feel too well m'self...” She continued to sway until she fell on her side against a barrel. Her eyes became distant and dark and that cold feeling started to radiate out to her hooves.
“Oh no. Applejack!” Pinkie rushed over and tugged her up by the mane. “We need to get you to a doctor, quick!”
Applejack murmured and pushed herself up onto her feet again. Something about her seemed... different.
“What was that?” Pinkie asked.
“Ah said I reckon I'm feeling just fine, actually.” Applejack grinned toothfully. There was something off about her smile. It was almost predatory. “That was actually a mighty good muffin... you should make a bunch'a those and give'm out to ponies for free. I can even help you make them...”
Pinkie shuddered. “No, no baking for you when you're all freaky deaky. It never goes right.”
Applejack tried to shoulder past Pinkie but somehow the pink pony managed to keep her in place.
“I'll just do it myself, then!” laughed Applejack. “Yup. And then Sugarcube Corner will be filled with all the apple products they can handle... then when they least suspect it... we buy 'em out!”
By now ponies were beginning to gather to witness Applejack's ravings. Pinkie nearly lost hold on her before Rainbow Dash swooped down from the rooftop, adding a second set of hooves to keep her in place.
“Whoa, now,” chuckled Applejack. “Ain't no fair ganging up on a filly like that. How about just you and me, Dash? I bet I could take you on.”
The rainbow pegasus flailed her hooves and mooshed Applejack down. “Okay, this was funny at first, but what the heck did you do, Pinkie? All this talk about evil muffins and now Applejack is all CRAZY.”
“I didn't do anything!” Pinkie squeaked. She looked around frantically and then produced a rope as if from nowhere. Dash blinked and reluctantly help restrain their friend who was, by now, putting up quite a fuss.
The two ponies dragged her into the pantry and propped her up against a couple of sacks of flour. At first she fought and hollered, straining her arms and legs against the rope. But when she found that even her earth pony strength could not break them, she became eerily still.
“Uh... would you ponies mind loosening those straps a bit?” she murmured.
Pinkie ignored her and sat down square in front of her. She looked imploringly to Dash. “Get Twilight! I'm sure she can figure out what's wrong with Applejack.”
“Got it!” said Dash, lifting into the air. She cast a worried look over her shoulder. “Hang in there, AJ.” And then she bolted through the door in a rainbow blur.
* * *
When Rainbow Dash got to the library, the windows were all open and the lights were still on inside. She peeked her head inside, then immediately ducked down as a bolt of magic zipped past her face! “Whoa!” She yelped, and then leered at Twilight. Then she noticed that the windowsill was now a bright snow-white.
“Sorry!” laughed Twilight. “I'm running out of things to change. I was practicing and I noticed my limit had gotten a lot higher... so far I haven't been able to push it. To be honest, I feel more awake than when I started last night.”
The whole library had been turned a rainbow of colors that rivaled Dash's palette. The pegasus flew inside and nearly blended into one of the bookshelves while Twilight continued to pop her horn at things.
“Nevermind that. Applejack is in trouble!”
The unicorn immediately stopped her barrage of painting magic and twisted about, wide-eyed.
“Oh no! Did something happen in the orchard? Is she stuck in a fence? Did a tree fall on her? Is she stuck in an apple tree?”
Dash tapped her hoof against her forehead. “No, it's--”
Both ponies' manes frizzed as Spike's bellow of terror came from upstairs. Not a moment later did he come stomping down, his glorious former purple scales now pink. He stared dumbstruck at the changed colors and threw his arms out in despair, glowering at Twilight. “You did this to me!”
“Aw, Spike,” Twilight giggled. “You let me practice my magic on you all the time!”
“But not like this,” the dragon pouted. “You usually ask me first.”
“And you hate it when I wake you up!”
“Can you change it back?”
Dash swooped in and gave Twilight a rather forceful nudge. “Come on. AJ? Evil muffin possession? Pinkified dragons later?”
Twilight puzzled over all of this for a moment. Then pointed her horn at Spike and let fly with another spell. It temporarily turned his scales purple, and then faded back to pink again.
“Sorry, Spike,” she said. “I think you have to just wait for it to wear off!”
“N-no!” Spike flailed. “I can't go anywhere like this. What if someone sees me? Can't you just... unmagic me?”
The unicorn hmmed. The idea was absolutely preposterous. That kind of magic, once done, was usually done and gone somewhere, or the energy balanced out. Still, it wouldn't hurt to try. She concentrated and focused on Spike, on the pink in his scales, the pink that she put there... tried to imagine the spell working backwards. The energy flowing back through her, and then back... a little spark of magic and...
Foom! With a brief flicker of light, the magic sucked back into Twilight's horn. Spike was back to normal.
“Awesome! You did it!” Spike cheered.
“I can't believe I did it.” Twilight giggled. She smiled apologetically at her scaled assistant. “I promise I won't use magic on you without asking first again.”
By now, she was scooting across the floor for some reason. That reason was Dash pushing her head into her flank and flapping violently, trying to urge her towards the door.
“Right!” Twilight snapped back to the matter at hand. “Spike, grab all the books you can find on evil or possession or whatever and follow me!”
“She's at Sugarcube Corner,” Dash said, exasperated. She could wait no longer, and zipped out of the door. Twilight hurried soon after, leaving Spike alone to browse through the miscolored books.
He drew his hand over a bright white cover with neon yellow text.
“E... is that an E? Jeez, Twilight... how am I supposed to read this?”
* * *
When Twilight arrived at Sugarcube Corner, the crowd still had not yet abated. There were some rumors trickling around about possessions and living shadows and even some whispering about the return of Nightmare Moon. That, of course, was preposterous, since Luna was still living peacefully under Celestia's care. Everypony knew that.
Still, the surge of magic and the weird happenings nearing the height of summer did make Twilight a little nervous. What happened on the Longest Night seemed all too fast. And the elements of harmony put to rest all too quickly.
A cacophony of tumbling and shouting broke Twilight's thoughts as she trotted into the bakery. She followed the sounds to the back and her eyes widened when she saw a near-black Applejack thrashing about between the oven and the taffy machine. Pinkie and Rainbow Dash together were barely enough to hold her in place as she yelled and bucked back and forth. And it didn't look like they were going to be able to hold on much longer.
“What happened to her?” Twilight asked, and applied a telekinetic force to help keep their friend in place.
“She ate a bad muffin,” Rainbow Dash said, still having difficulty believing the words coming out of her mouth.
“An evil muffin!” Pinkie elaborated, waving her arms wildly. “I don't know how it got there! I was trying to find out what to do when Applejack decided to eat it and oh why would you eat an evil muffin? Now she's all bluuuuuuh--” The pink pony made a face and let her tongue hang out.
Twilight rubbed at her forehead. “Okay. Think, how could this have happened...”
Not soon after, Spike tumbled in with a stack of books. He frowned and set them down at Twilight's feet. “I found some things that might help, but you're not going to like it.”
The unicorn strained to keep her friend still while she looked at the books. Exorcism for Foals. A Young Adventurer's Guide to All Things Evil. Several other titles she couldn't even make out in their color changes. As she flipped one open with a hoof, she realized that she couldn't read them, because the color had bled all the way through the pages.
“Uuugh. Great. We can't just leave her like this!” Twilight frowned. “She'll hurt herself. And goodness knows what else.”
Applejack forced a toothy smile. “Ah promise I won't hurt nothing, if you just let me go... Ah'll be real nice, Twi'.”
Twilight however wouldn't budge. She eased Applejack back. Dash let go and hovered, taking a long hard look at her friend.
“Why don't you just use your magic and get it out of her?” Dash suggested. “It's gotta be magic. I mean, what else can cause a good pony to go all loopy?”
It did feel like magic, Twilight thought. In a weird way she could sense it in Applejack. Like something in there that was distinctly not Applejack. Something that she could fight off, but... not nearly as well from the inside. Whatever was in the muffin was now...
And all she had to do was...
“Yes! Okay, I'm going to have to let her go. Hold her still.” She frowned. “Sorry, Applejack. I'll do this as quick as I can.”
“Ya'll will be doing no such thing!” Applejack flailed again as Dash and Pinkie held her hooves down. She was already straining the ropes.
Twilight braced her hooves and acted quickly. She began the process she did on Spike, when she removed the color magic. And she could feel it in Applejack. Strong. Dark. Evil. As she tugged the magic out of Applejack she let a little groan of pain. The earth pony writhed about as Twilight's magic began to tug the dark energy out through her mouth...
She couldn't absorb it. So she did the only thing she could thing to do-- the element of magic's power was still with her. She forced herself to extend her will... fed her thoughts into it.
Then with a sparkle and a flash the evil magic dissipated. Purified, it sprinkled harmlessly to the ground.
Applejack groaned, now her fresh and orange and (mostly) healthy self again. She fell onto her hooves, still tangled in rope and peered blearily at Twilight. “What in tarnation happened...?”
“You had a bad muffin.” Twilight smiled. All the ponies helped undo her ropes, though she seemed quite content trust lay on the floor for the time being.
“Thanks, Sugarcube...” she murmured to Twilight as she bucked her back legs free. “I feel like I've been off dreamin' somewhere...”
“That's all you have to say about that?” Dash exclaimed, and then flustered at the leering of her friends. “I mean.. it's good to have ya back.”
The peace did not last too long. Soon, the back door flung open and Rarity burst in holding Opalescence at arm's length. The white cat's fur had turned a dark indigo and she was flailing her claws at everything she could reach. Rarity's hooves took most of the scratches and she was doing her best to remain calm.
“Oh, Twilight! Something is wrong with Opalescence! Please, help her...”
Not seconds after, Fluttershy followed after with a handful of dark, squirming woodland critters. “Something is wrong with these poor dears, too. I tried everything but they're still not getting any better. Please, Twilight...”
Even more ponies began to pile into the pantry. Twilight sighed and rubbed her hooves on her face. “How many are there?”
“Too many!” Pinkie flailed. “Ponyville is dooooomed! I guess I'll have to get used to baking evil things...”
Twilight sighed. “Alright. We can handle this. Dash, go around town and gather up all of the uhm... affected ponies and things you can find. Get help if you need to and bring everyone to the town square.”
“Right!” Dash saluted, and then zipped off.
Twilight then turned to Pinkie. “You go get the mayor. Let her know what's going on.”
“Gotcha!” Pinkie left, too. Twilight smiled at Applejack who was already stumbling to her feet.
“You should probably rest,” she said. Applejack shook her head.
“Don't needta rest,” she murmured, and looked down. “'sides, ah really don't wanna be by myself right now.”
The unicorn smiled. “Alright. Then, maybe you can help me corral everyone up for me.”
Applejacked chuckled. “Ah reckon ah probably could.”
* * *
Almost everypony was gathered in the center of Ponyville. The actual number of ponies and things that the darkness had touched was not that great, but it was hard to ignore such a commotion. Aurora fluttered back against the crowd, ragged and tired, and finally returned to his house at the same time that Cocoa and Axel popped out.
“Where were you?” Cocoa wondered. “I went to check on you and you were gone.”
Aurora blinked. “Check on me? I was out getting a look around... Gathering information...” he cast a glance over his shoulder. “I'll tell you later. Come on! Something big is going down and we shouldn't miss it.”
None of them could quite argue, and soon the three were caught up in the tide of ponies drifting to the square. There, if one could squeeze in or hover high enough, they could witness Twilight Sparkle healing one pony at a time. Pony, or cat, or apple... so many things had been touched by the shadow. But she was freeing them with increasing ease. Aurora hovered a bit higher and began to snap more photographs, but nopony seemed to notice in all of the commotion.
It seemed then that things would settle, get back to normal. That life in Ponyville would continue on unhindered. But once things had begun to settle, a pony pointed and shouted.
“Something's coming from the Everfree Forest!”
Given what just happened, most ponies shrunk back instead of crowding forward to see what was going on. But Twilight Sparkle and her friends rushed towards the forest path to see what came from the trees.
A procession of ponies, many of whom they did not recognize. They were difficult to recognize at first, heads down, feet stumbling as if they'd recently come out of a long sleep.
Twilight, though, recognized the blue unicorn at the front.
When Trixie saw Twilight, she burst into a full gallop, breaking from the head of the line. She ran and ran until she found herself standing in front of Twilight and her friends, and their eyes met briefly. Confusion. Fear. Pain. Twilight opened her mouth to say something.
Trixie sobbed and threw her front legs around Twilight, trembling. “Oh, Twilight...” she said, voice hoarse. “I never thought I'd see you or anypony again.”
All Twilight could do was hold onto the Trixie, somehow both uncomfortable and sympathetic at the same time. Had it really been so long?
“What happened?” Twilight wondered. But the other unicorn said nothing.
And more ponies were wandering from the forest. The sunlight seemed to be doing them some good, but they were arriving by the dozens. Most of the citizens of Ponyville were afraid to come near them. A select few began to spring forward, though, to meet other ponies-- some just young fillies or colts-- in tearful reunion.
Aurora swooped back down beside Axel and Cocoa and folded his wings back determinedly. “Alright. Somethin' fishy went down in those woods and we need to get to the bottom of it.”
Axel, surprisingly, paled a little and leaned back. “Whoa. No. Even I know to stay away from that freaky place.”
“Yeah. You sure you're not possessed or something crazy, Rory?”
The pegasus was still determined. He began to drift towards the forest anyway. “Fine, I'll just go it alone. But don't say I didn't give you the chance.”
Axel tapped his hoof against his face. “You're serious, aren't you?”
Cocoa joined Aurora first, and Axel, not wanting to show any weakness, trotted after. The chocolate colored unicorn laughed blithely. “Well, what's the worst that happens. At least we'll get to do something together.”
“Yeah,” Axel muttered. “Liked get turned into stone. Or explode. Or explode and then turn into stone. Actually, that would be kind of metal...”
Either no one noticed the trio slipping back towards the forest or no one cared to chase after them. Twilight was too preoccupied consoling Trixie, who seemed to be regaining her composure. The other ponies laid down in the grass. Applejack and Pinkie were busy rushing to get apples and water and other supplies out to them. The others were hurrying about, talking to ponies and helping as they could.
“Many strange and terrible things have happened since we faced each other last,” Trixie said, pulling herself back at last. She tugged her hat loose from her saddle and placed it between her ears. Already she was beginning to look like her old self. “It will take some time to tell you the story. And some of us are a little worse off than others. I... would not refuse a simple offer of water, myself.”
Twilight nodded. “Okay. We'll make sure everyone gets tended to... and then I want to know everything.”
“I can see you haven't changed at all,” jabbed Trixie, turning her nose up. They shared a little laugh in spite of themselves.
Ponies were still filing out of the forest, though, and Twilight knew that it was going to take some time to get them safe and comfortable.
TO BE CONTINUED, FOALS
Author's Note: This is a little something I'm writing for fun and hope that people have fun reading it. ^^ The following is dedicated to all of my friends, pony or otherwise. I'll be aiming to update this weekly... and if I fall behind, you all have the right to hunt me down and beat me with pinata bats.
I want to write this in kind of affectionate, episodic fashion, but there will also be an over-arching plot and the occasional multi-chapter arc. Please bear with me and if this actually has a significant readership your love will make me all the more energetic to write more! I will be taking your feedback very seriously, so please read and comment if you enjoy this fic!
All original content copyright me, all MLP:FiM copyright their respective owners.
Yes, this disclaimer quite resembles the previous one. Pay it no mind.
Something Wicked This Way Trots, pt. 2
In the course of a few hours, the fields of Ponyville had been transformed into a makeshift camp. The mayor was having every free pony rush about, collecting names and trying to figure out where they were all from. In truth, they were from every corner of Equestria-- some barely missing a day, others having been gone for years. Young and old, single ponies or entire families.
Trixie was already beginning to feel like her old self. Already she had a couple of young colts polishing her hooves while she sipped sparkling water from a straw. Twilight herself was sitting flat on the grass, though they'd spared a cushion to keep the recently ailed Applejack comfortable. The earth pony nibbled on an apple and watched the two unicorns.
“Don't you think this is a bit... excessive?” Twilight wondered, raising an eyebrow at Trixie.
Trixie scoffed. “I need to be in top form in order to give this story the attention it deserves.” She drew another long drink and sighed dramatically. “You understand, don't you? The full breadth of drama and danger that I have faced this last year.”
Twilight was doing her absolute best to keep on good terms with Trixie. She tapped her hooves together. “O-of course! It would just... be really helpful if you could give us some idea what happened. None of the other ponies want to talk about it.”
“Of course they don't!” Trixie puffed her chest up. “Only the bravest of ponies can face the truth head on.” She waved the colts away from her hooves and sat back on a feather pillow with a sigh. “Much better. Now, I will have absolutely no distractions. No interruptions.”
Twilight forced and grin and then mimed her hoof across her mouth in a zipper-like motion. But Trixie was scarcely paying any attention. She began to wave her hooves and paint her own image in little lines of magical light.
“I'm sure you recall the last time that we encountered one another. After those two.. utter foals lured the Ursa to Ponyville, I knew that I was in trouble. Certainly, I've occasionally dramatized my feats. Ever-so-slightly! But never would I be so daft as to place my adoring public in danger! But you knows as well as I do how rumors spread. It would not be long until everypony would claim that I was responsible for the incident!”
Twilight winced and nodded.
“I had to do some damage control and fast. I knew that the answers lied somewhere in the Everfree Forest. Something that would redeem me in the eyes of Ponyville. I knew of the dangers and the risks involved... and how a talented unicorn could keep herself safe under such circumstances. But as I would unfortunately learn, safety would be the least of my concerns. Listen, and listen closely, dear magician, as I recount a tale most strange...”
* * *
The first thing a unicorn learns is to trust their horn. And when I felt an astounding pull, I knew that my destiny was waiting for me. Far from the old roads, deep through the underbrush. It was as if I was one with the night, the very thrum of life within the wilderness... the strange beasts paid me scarcely a wink as I moved towards that place. I did not realize until later that this was not out of kinship, but of fear.
Aurora hovered above the forest floor. The exodus of ponies had left a clear trail of hoof-pressed grass and moss leading deeper through the Everfree Forest. It kept winding left and right, even seemed to spiral at times but not once did it double back on itself as it worked deeper and deeper. The sounds changed subtly, chirping and rustling and cawwing growing more faint and distant. Fortunately the crunch of his companions' hooves on the ground.
“This isn't as bad as I thought it was going to be,” said Cocoa. Occasionally she would shuffle through the underbrush-- even throw a plant or two into her bag-- but even so, if she fell more than a few paces behind Axel or Aurora, she would quickly dart back to them.
“Ain't seen a single critter since we got here,” Axel said, sounding plainly disappointed. “Not even a wisp or a ghoul or...”
“A hooded pony!” Aurora whispered as loudly as he could.
“Yeah, one of them spooks...” Axel blinked at the sudden flash of Aurora's camera. “Ackpf!”
The ponies' vision cleared up in time for them to catch a fleeting glance of a pony-- or at least they thought so. The creature was covered head to hindflank with a dark cloak. Its eyes gleamed for a moment in the flash of the camera, and then it continued down the same path.
“Whoa. Okay, now that was something. Or someone...” Axel rubbed his eyes with a hoof. “How about a warning, next time?”
Aurora tugged his camera down against his chest. “Sorry, but if I had time to announce it ahead of time, it probably wouldn't be worth whipping this baby out.”
“If hangin' out with you is always going to be like this...”
Cocoa shook her head and shivered. “I do not like the idea of following that thing.”
Aurora continued on anyway, and the other two seemed to fall into step. “There's only one way to go. Maybe they're leading us somewhere...”
“That's what I'm afraid of.” Cocoa practically squeaked.
I must have traveled for an hour. It felt like an hour, but as you may have guessed time began to feel different. Everything did. If I didn't know any better I'd almost think that I accidentally stumbled through some sleeping nettles. My head began to feel heavy... and that was the beginning of it. Slowly I began to realize that it was not my horn that was leading me, but another force inviting me! Knowing that nothing could best me, I answered it. There were secrets there. Secrets that would become mine and more than make up for my embarrassment in Ponyville.
Each beat of Aurora's wings left him feeling a little more fatigued. He didn't know how long they had been traveling, but it had been long enough that he drifted to the ground and came to rely on his hooves to carry him instead.
“I think we need to take a break,” muttered Aurora, rubbing his head. “We've been at this a little too long.”
Cocoa galloped right up and began to push him forward from behind. “Oh, no. No no no, Rory. None of that. Not here. Are you crazy?”
“Crazy tired,” Axel murmured, licking his chops. “I could go for a wicked power nap.”
“Oh, that's a great idea.” Cocoa rolled her eyes and butted Axel forward, too. “Just curl up in the big spooky everypony-goes-missing-woods and hope everything will be alright. For all you know you might wake up and be dead.”
“That's not nearly as cool as exploding.” Axel frowned.
Aurora shook his head violently but the fatigue was growing heavier. The path in front of him blurred. It didn't help that he'd only had so much a nap since arriving. He stumbled forward one hoof at a time. “Sorry. I don't know if I can keep up.”
“I ain' carrying your fat pony butt,” muttered Axel.
Aurora's wings floofed out defensively. “Who's got a fat butt?”
“Girls,” Cocoa muttered. “You're both pretty. Now hold on a second. Where did I...” The earth pony rooted around in her bags, sifting through fresh plants and eventually producing a handful of small chocolate squares, which she promptly shoved into the mouths of the two colts.
“Hey, wh-mmf!” Aurora silenced quickly around the sticky treat and began chewing instinctively. Something like a mix of caramel, cocoa, and espresso exploded in his mouth in taffy deliciousness. It kept him and Axel chewing for a good while.
“Was hoping I wouldn't have to bust these out for a while...” Cocoa found herself yawning and staring bleerily at the chocolate colored cube in her hoof. “Condensed sugar and pure pony power extract. And a little something special.” She winked and popped it into her mouth. “Oughta keep us going.”
As he swallowed the treat, Aurora felt a tingle running from his feathers to his flanks, down to his hooves. Though the strange veil of lethargy still loomed over him, he felt simultaneously aware and able to push onward with little effort. Axel was perking up as well.
“This dark forest magic is making us all loopy,” said Aurora. “Maybe it's not worth it.”
Cocoa sighed and pointed a hoof backwards. “Thought of that a long time ago. Turn around. You won't like what you see.”
Aurora did in fact peek over his shoulder. The path behind them seemed to narrow and narrow until the forest plants completely engulfed where there once was a path.
“M-maybe we can just fly back...” The pegasus swallowed and began to lift off. Axel grabbed his tail by the teeth, though, and tugged him back to the ground.
“Mnuh-uh.” He spat, once Aurora was grounded again. “You got us into the mess, Rory, and you may as well see it through.”
“The lunk is right,” said Cocoa, peering all the way up to the canopy. “Go up there and you might not be able to find us again.”
“Right then.” Aurora put on his bravest face and clutched his camera to his chest. “With my camera, and your fantastic cooking, and Axel's big fat butt--”
“... nothing can stop us! Let's see this through to the end.”
Aurora liked the way he sounded in spite of himself. Even if he was doomed, or worse. At least he wasn't alone. And, it may have just been the sudden injection of sugar and Celestia only knew what else, but he was beginning to feel a lot better, too. With each twist and turn the forest seemed to actually grow a little more sparse. And whatever was at the end of the road, he felt, was close...
Even without my magic I knew that it was there! Right in front of me! Soon, all would be unveiled. I pushed my way through the last bit of underbrush... and I could not believe my eyes. What I saw before me then was no other than...
* * *
“Twilight!” Spike came tumbling over from the library with her other five pony friends in tow. His sudden interjection caused Trixie to gasp and stamp her hooves.
“I said no interruptions!” She huffed. “Now the whole story is ruined.”
“Sorry, Trixie,” Twilight said, trying to be diplomatic as possible.
“Sorry nothing.” Rainbow Dash huffed. “Apparently three ponies have gone missing.”
“A lot of ponies are in the middle of being lost and found, if you haven't noticed.” Trixie spat. “What's the big deal?”
Fluttershy found herself stepping forward, flustering at her own outspokenness. “It's a very big deal,” she insisted. “They're three of our... I mean, Ponyville ponies. Some ponies were saying that they saw them go into the Everfree Forest, following the old trail. They're not safe!”
“Hell's bells they ain't,” said Applejack, pushing herself up. She immediately began to wobble but tried her best to remain sturdy. “We need to go after 'em. Pull a rescue mission of our own.”
Trixie scoffed and pushed Applejack down with a single nudge of her magic. “You aren't in any shape to go anywhere,” she said. “But you're right. Someone needs to get those kids before they get in any trouble. And seeing as I just led hundreds of ponies away from that awful place...”
Dash landed briefly and looked at Twilight. “She's got a point. But I am going along to make sure she doesn't get into any funny business.” She and Trixie glared at one another. “Plus you're going to need somepony to get even more help when she gets us all in trouble.”
It didn't take long for all of the ponies to break into an argument, each voice ascending over the other until everyone nearby was staring at them. They continued to bicker undaunted until a single pony cleared her throat and put on her best smile. Everyone turned about to redirect their thunderous grief but stopped short upon seeing the mayor of Ponyville.
“I'd hoped I could find you here, Twilight,” she said. “And you too, Applejack.”
“Is there a problem?” Applejack said, stumbling to her feet. “With the farm? Is Applebloom alright? What's wrong?”
The mayor cleared her throat again. “There are just too many refugees... and we don't have anywhere to put them. Early reports are showing that they're from all across Equestria... Hoofington, Manehattan, Cloudsdale... all manners of places! None of them seem to remember how they got there, but we need to get in touch with their families. But until we do...”
“You need to organize them and give them places to stay.” Twilight rubbed her hoof to her head. “There's a lot of room in the orchard and enough food and water. But you can't start sending ponies without Applejack's permission...”
“You know I wouldn't decline a pony in need,” said Applejack before anyone could ask. She was already beginning to seem her old self, though she did wobble a little on standing again. “I should check on the family anyway. Catch'em up on the news and all that.”
“Thank you, Applejack,” said the mayor. “I'll send a request to the treasury to compensate the expenses. Twilight, you're the only pony I can turn to that can help me get this whole mess in order.”
Twilight sagged. She knew that her organizational skills had come to Ponyville's aid in the past. But managing a veritable second town of ponies? “I'll do my best,” she said. “But I need help. And there's more. A few ponies wandered into the forest... someone needs to go after them.”
The mayor tilted her head. “Goodness. Did anyone know what they looked like?”
“A pegasus, a big unicorn colt, and an earth pony...” Rainbow Dash recalled.
“Don't tell me those were our exchange students.” The mayor sighed. “And after promising not to stir up trouble... Dear Celestia, this is bad. I can't spare anypony as it is.”
“I think a few of us are more than up to the task,” said Twilight. “Just worry about taking care of these ponies.”
“Very well then.” The mayor clopped her hooves down. “I'm putting you in charge of organizing the refugees. I'll work with my staff to send word out to their families and continue relaying reports to Celestia. The sooner we can get them home, the better.”
Twilight nodded. The mayor quickly galloped off to begin her work. That left her to sort everything out. “Okay,” she said. “Before anything else. Trixie, what's in the forest? What happened to all of these ponies?”
Trixie raised an eyebrow. “But I can't just... the timing is all...”
“Trixie.” Twilight stamped her hoof down and narrowed her eyes. “Three ponies are in danger. I need to know what they are walking into, now.”
“Very well,” sighed Trixie. “At the end of my journey into the forest, what I found was...”
* * *
“Ponyville?” Aurora sputtered. No doubt about it, the forest path terminated at Ponyville. But at the same time it wasn't. It was almost as if someone had built a replica in the middle of the forest, down to the smallest detail. The major difference, of course, was that it was completely abandoned. Fortunately, the trees eased off a bit, merely forming a perimeter around the strange town.
“Why would someone build this?” Cocoa wondered. “In the middle of the forest. It's... really creepy.”
“There's a lot of tracks around here.” Axel scuffed at the dirt. “A whole lot of ponies left in a hurry. This is probably where our crowd of missing ponies came from.”
Aurora pulled out his camera and got to work snapping pictures, brief flashes of light coating the copy village. The tracks, the buildings, and a little bit of the clear sky above. The sun was beginning its slow descent. An ancient castle loomed over the treetops, just its towers enough to make the shadows seem longer and deeper.
Cocoa scuffed her hooves. “We probably shouldn't stick around,” she said. “Something spooked everyone. And whatever happened to them could happen to us.”
“You're probably right,” Aurora admitted. “I'm going to head up and get a look, since you won't lose sight of me. Alright?”
“Fine,” muttered Axel. “Just come right back. I wanna get a look around this place.”
“You didn't strike me much as the exploring type...” Cocoa commented as Aurora took to the air. Axel shrugged and grinned.
“I love a good mystery. Makes for good inspiration.”
Aurora pumped his wings and flew higher and higher. Fortunately, Cocoa's weird snack seemed to do the trick of invigorating him at least long enough to get high enough to get a good view. The forest extended in all directions a surprisingly long distance. There was the castle-- and miles towards the setting sun was Ponyville, and Canterlot beyond. He took the opportunity to snap an aerial photo before spiralling down towards his friends again.
“Well?” asked Cocoa.
“We're quite a few miles from the edge of the wood,” Aurora explained. “Even if we can't find a path back, I know the old road that runs between the castle and Ponyville should still be there.”
“It's better than nothing.” Cocoa murmured. “I guess we should go, then.”
Axel snorted. “Go? And not take a look around? Aren't you the least bit curious?”
“No,” said Cocoa. “I'm really not.”
Aurora shrugged. “Either way, it's almost night. It's probably better we hole up here until morning.”
“No one knows we're here,” said the pegasus. “And no one is bound to notice if we sneak into one of these buildings. It's just one night, okay?”
“Fine.” Cocoa huffed. “But we're sticking together. We'll just... crash in the library or something.”
“Alright then, it's settled.” Axel began trotting towards the direction of the library, finding the other two ponies soon following skittishly. “Let's see just how well this place ripped off Ponyville.”
* * *
Rainbow Dash raced ahead of the other ponies, who could barely keep up even at a full gallop. Trixie came as promised, as well as Fluttershy, who simply couldn't leave innocent ponies alone in the woods. Besides, her particular knack with the wildlife might have come in handy. The rest of their friends had stayed back with Twilight.
“So it's an exact copy of Ponyville?” Fluttershy asked Trixie. The unicorn responded surprisingly pleasantly between panting. She seemed to rather revel in being the only source of knowledge.
“Exactly the same,” she said. “Though a magical unicorn like me can tell that it feels different. Every shop, even every book in the library was the exact same. It wasn't that bad, really, living there for a whole year...”
“Yeah, you probably had the whole town thinking you were some great hero.” Dash rolled her eyes and peered back. Trixie, of course, didn't deny any of this. “Sounds like you had it great. You probably didn't even try to 'escape.' What made everyone decide to leave, anyway?”
Trixie hmphed. “Everyone that came before me and after me seemed drawn there just the same. Except they were all in a strange fugue state. A couple days ago it just... wore off, and everyone kept having strange dreams. Eventually panic set in and people started remembering who they were and where they came from. So of course I wasn't going to leave them there alone. But believe me, before that, you couldn't have gotten them to leave if you tried...”
“It sounds like bad magic,” Fluttershy said, shivering a little.
“It's more than magic,” scoffed Trixie. “Something deeper... what I never understood was why it suddenly let everyone go.”
Dash flexed her wings. “It sounds to me like whatever was keeping everyone there didn't need them anymore,” she said. “Which might be a good thing. Or it might be very, very bad. I'm going to go on ahead. Don't get lost.” And with a sudden burst of speed, she tore through the forest, following the clumsy trail that the three ponies had apparently left behind them.
* * *
At sunset, many of the refugees had been moved from the green and into whatever space was available. They'd set up a small camp in the orchard, but they also shoved makeshift cots into the library, and every nook and cranny they could think of. The ponies that lived in closer towns were already beginning to depart, eager to head home. Others were still having trouble with their memories.
Twilight met Rarity near a huge stack of linen, where she was busy transforming sheet after sheet of cloth into simple but elegant quilts.
“Thank you for taking time off from your work,” said Twilight. As she sagged down against the ground, Rarity draped one of the nicer quilts over her.
“Not at all, dear. Everyone is doing their part and I'd hardly be able to call myself a lady if I merely sat aside and watched. Besides, I'm certain that my clients will understand the scope of this emergency.”
Twilight burrowed into the blanketing and hid all but her nose. “You don't have to tell me twice. Canterlot is all in a buzz. The royal guard is coming to investigate and I honestly don't know what to tell the princess. I don't think I've been this stressed since Nightmare Moon was released.”
“It seems that now that everypony is in motion, you just have to sit back and.. ah...” Rarity tweaked her horn and fixed a single stitch before lifting a stack of quilts into a waiting cart. “.... make minor adjustments as need be.” She paused and smiled at Twilight, producing a couple apple drinks. “To tell the truth, I'm always impressed with how organized you seem to be in a crisis.”
“Thanks.” Twilight wiggled forward a bit from her shelter and took a deep drink. She flustered at the compliment but something else weighed on her more than a polite response. “It's just... it's like that night all over again. Something in my horn... in my hooves is telling me that the worst is yet to come.”
Rarity chuckled lightly and set her drink aside before going back to work again. “Well, when it does, just remember that you're not alone. You have the lot of us to count on. And together, we can get through anything~ I'm absolutely sure of it. So just relax! Rejuvenate yourself. You've been working yourself positively ragged.”
“I know.” Twilight sighed and looked upwards, towards the emerging stars. Somehow, their glow against the red horizon gave her a little bit of comfort. They had faced worse, and come out of it stronger than ever. “It's going to be alright.”
* * *
Aurora felt a little guilty snooping around the library. Even if it was an alternate version, it still felt like he was invading somepony's privacy. Still, they needed pillows and blankets and those were things they'd only find upstairs in the private areas.
“How accurate do you think this is?” Axel wondered. He lifted the pillows and the mattress of a couple of the beds before the other two stripped them of anything comfortable and balanced them on his back.
“Not terribly, I imagine,” said Cocoa. “A completely different set of ponies have been living here. What were you hoping to find? Twi's diary?”
“Heh, yeah, that's a good place to start!” The unicorn grinned and wobbled over towards one of the reading desks, leaving a couple fallen pillows in his wake. He flipped open the purple-covered book that was there and flipped through a few pages. “Huh. That's weird. There's nothing written here at all.”
“That's not spooky.” Aurora sighed and pulled another book from the shelf. “... this one's blank, too. I bet they all look like that.”
“Ugh. Are you sure we have to stay the night here?” Cocoa squeaked.
“Do you have any better plans?” Aurora frowned. “We can always try another place. Or we could just try to head home.”
Cocoa shrugged just a little bit. Nothing particularly appealed to her. Aurora almost regretted bringing them on this trip. But at the same time, he was kind of glad that they were there together. And he had gotten some killer news material out of it. Now he just had to make it back in one piece to publish a killer story.
The sound of music caught Aurora's attention suddenly. Axel had produced from somewhere a small lute which he played an oddly serene tune on. At the same time it reminded him of an adventurous fairy tale he'd heard growing up.
“I didn't know you played,” said Aurora.
“What did you think I came to Ponyville for?” The unicorn grinned. “To sit around and look pretty? Granted, I could probably get by just doing that.”
“There's a pretty lively music scene,” Cocoa agreed. “Still, I don't think I've gotten the chance to actually listen to you play before. You're really good.”
Axel blushed and looked away. “Meh. I was just hoping to calm you dorks down a bit. Lighten the mood and all that.”
“Well, don't stop,” Cocoa said, flopping down on one of the pillows. “I want to hear the rest!”
Axel nodded and continued to play. His horn made a little flare, and the music seemed to grow in volume, as if it suddenly came from all parts of the room. Each note seemed to linger a while before fading out. Aurora considered his camera, but decided against making a spectacle. He settled on one of the beds and listened. As he soaked up the music, he remembered a story that his mother often told him before he went to sleep. It was a popular tale, usually cited by young colts with too much enthusiasm for adventure and not enough to do in the cities of the clouds. The music seemed to pull her very voice from his memory.
Once, there was a brave young pegasus who dreamed of being a royal knight. He trained night and day, mastering his flying skills and play-fighting with his friends. There were many things he learned as he grew as a young colt, but there was one thing that made him special. He learned to know all there was to know about the world around him just by listening to the wind. They say he practiced it to best his friends in combat, to find the most favorable flight paths, to predict the weather... even predict the future.
One night he heard the sound of a young filly crying on the wind. But he could not find out why! He set out immediately, leaving his family's home in the dark of night. He flew through dark clouds and descended to the land below. On the top of the highest mountain he found her there, hiding her sorrow in the furl of her wings. But she could not silence herself completely, and her found her there.
At first she was afraid of the strange colt, appearing out of nowhere. But then she hid her tears and greeted him with caution.
“Who is it that appears before me now?” She asked. “Are you an angel?”
“Nope!” he proudly proclaimed. “I am something even better. I'm a royal knight!”
“Are you really?” She could not help but laugh. “You look too small to be a knight.”
Well, that pegasus puffed his chest up as proudly as he could manage and swept his head low. “Small of body I may be, but my heart is great and my mind sharper than the tip of these mountains.” He, of course, was quoting an even older knight's tale-- that of the first knight to serve the royal family. “Surely, there must be some way that I can aid you.”
The boastful pegasus made her laugh and filled her with a little bit of joy. The truth was that he had already helped her, but she could not help but play with his intentions a little. “Perhaps there is. What is your name, sir knight?”
The pegasus remained bowed and replied, “Silvergale, of Cloudsdale. Humbly at your service.”
“Well then, Sir Silvergale,” the filly giggled. “I have lost something dear of mine. Perhaps you would assist me in retrieving it?”
“Of course. What is it that you have lost?”
Then the filly turned and gestured high into the sky with a hoof. “That,” she said. “Once my beloved gave to me a great gift. But then an evil enchantress stole it, and sent it to the sky. Now it is hidden in the sky, glittering in the stars themselves. If you think that you can reach it for me, I would be ever-so-grateful.”
“I will do my best.” Silvergale was nervous. No pony he'd known had ever flown to the stars. But when he turned his ear to the wind, it was as if Equestria itself was whispering the way. Then he nodded. “Return here tomorrow, if you will, and I will have your gift.”
The filly laughed. “I am in your debt.” And she thanked him, and there they parted. It was of course meant to be a gentle prank. The filly expected nothing more than for him to show up the next day and apologize, or offer some small token. Either way, his willingness to act as her knight made her a little happy inside. And, perhaps, they could become friends...
But Silvergale knew the way to the stars! He found the warm winds that carried him there, so far above Equestria. All the way into the heavens! He followed the hidden path and when he arrived at the spot that the filly had indicated, he found nothing other than the heart of a star itself. It was small and gentle, but also strong and sturdy.
Even though the journey felt like forever he still managed to come back to the mountain at night. Imagine her surprise when she found that he had not only traveled to the roof of heaven, but also brought back the star! So great was her surprise that she was speechless.
“Is it not what you have asked for?” Asked Silvergale, confused. She shook her head and accepted the star with trembling hooves.
“It is exactly what I have asked for,” she said, still unable to believe what was before her eyes. She smiled at him and said, “Such a strange and wonderful pony you are. You are indeed my knight!”
“My lady,” he said, and found that he was blushing and grinning like an idiot. Even though she was just a stranger, being recognized as such filled him with pride. “Perhaps... you will tell me who I serve.”
The filly flustered, and pondered. And after a long while she opened her mouth. “Yes. I am...”
Aurora heard something clatter outside. Axel immediately stopped playing and the three of them looked up.
“What... do you think it is?” Cocoa murmured, hiding under her blanket.
Aurora peered up and looked out the window. To his surprise, he saw a young blonde colt looking around the village. He then began to trot down one of the roads.
“It's another pony!” Aurora threw open the window and peered back at Axel. “You two stay here. I'm going to see if he's okay!”
“Wait!” Cocoa reached up but could hardly speak before the pegasus had taken off. Axel sighed and strummed a chord out on his lute.
“So much for sticking together.”
Aurora dipped out into the night in a fashion he worried he was growing too used to. The sudden excitement of seeing another pony compelled him forward. And he followed the echo of hoofsteps where he thought he remembered the colt going.
Then he caught sight of the blonde colt somewhere near Sugarcube Corner, ready to peek inside.
“Hey, wait up!” he called.
The young colt turned around and gasped. He seemed stricken with fear and bolted the moment he saw Aurora, saying nothing. The pegasus pursued but the earth pony was surprisingly fast for his size. They wound down streets and between buildings and closer and closer to the perimeter of the forest. It was near the carousel that he lost crack of the strange pony.
And found something else.
Aurora's eyes widened as he saw the purple shadow. It was much larger than he ever remembered it, bigger than the biggest pony and growing in size. He tried to bolt but the sticky shade was much, much faster than he was.
* * *
Dash burst into the copy of Ponyville first. She took to the air and scanned every road and window and couldn't find a single thing. Before she could conduct a more thorough search, though, Fluttershy and Trixie managed to catch up. She zipped down to join them.
“I can't see anypony here,” she said.
Trixie had broken out into a cold sweat. “No...” she said. “There's several ponies here. I can tell. T-they're with... it.”
“It?” Fluttershy repeated, sounding rather nervous.
“Whatever was behind all of this,” said Trixie, swallowing. Then her eyebrows furrowed and she stamped the ground. “Fine. We'll find them. And finish this.”
“Sounds like a plan to me.” Dash took off, and then zipped back. “... where are they?”
Trixie turned her horn to the air and closed her eyes briefly. “.... this way. Come.”
Dash hovered around the two as they went. They came closer and closer to the Carousel. As they did, Fluttershy hunkered down more and more.
“There aren't any animals here...” she said. “Not even any dangerous ones. Everything in the forest is avoiding this place. It's almost like Nightmare Moon's castle.”
“And that's not too far from here.” Dash nodded. “Thankfully we won't have to go back there again.”
“No,” said Trixie, “but we have to go in there.”
The door of the carosel was half-open. She took a cautious step forward. Her heart was pounding as she eased into the building. The other two didn't need magic to tell them that something was very wrong. They'd felt this way before, the first time they came together to free Princess Celestia. It was the same foul energy that surrounded Luna before she'd been freed of Nightmare Moon.
The three ponies stepped into the copy of Rarity's shop. It did not take them long to notice that in the place of the manequins, there were six ponies. Dash recognized Axel and Cocoa. The cream pegasus must have been Aurora. Those three seemed held in place by a dark energy.
The other three were earth ponies. The three trotted forward and spoke as if one.
“So nice to see you again, Trixie,” they said. “I didn't expect you back here so soon.”
Trixie whimpered and began to build up a brilliant sheen of magic in her horn, and Dash and Fluttershy braced for whatever might have followed. But before either of them could spring forward, Trixie ever-slightly indicated back behind her shoulder and mouthed one word.
A curtain of light exploded from Trixie's horn in time to splash against the purple energy that rushed towards them from behind. But it did not take long to recover and already soaked through Trixie and Fluttershy's hooves, sticking them to the floor. Only Dash was fast enough to evade the lunging spears of dark energy. She kicked at it, once, and barely managed to shake it off before it started to crawl up her leg.
“Get out of here, you idiot,” Trixie hissed. “You're not going to dodge it to death!”
“Get Twilight...” Fluttershy gasped. “Get help!”
Dash had a rare moment of hesitation. It didn't feel right, leaving her friends behind. But there was nothing she could do. “Hang in there,” she said. “Help is on the way.” And then in a rainbow blur, she was gone.
The three ponies smiled as darkness continued to engulf Trixie and Fluttershy. “We did not think we could catch the rainbow one so easily,” they mused. “But it does not matter. One of you should suffice.”
“You won't get away with this.” Trixie hissed.
“We already have,” the voices echoed. “Long before you even stumbled upon this place. The wheels were already set in motion.”
As the shadows crept up Trixie's mane she looked over and gave an apologetic smile to Fluttershy. “Twilight will get us out of the mess.”
Fluttershy, surprisingly smiled. “I know,” she said oh-so-quietly.
Then the dark magic took their vision away. They were at once there and nowhere at all. And then they were all moving.
* * *
Dash managed to catch Twilight before she left Rarity. She nearly broke the sound barrier in her race back, arching over from the forest in a broad rainbow. She skidded to a stop and nearly tumbled over herself.
Twilight was immediately alarmed. “What's wrong.”
“Darkness...” Dash panted. “Evil thing that almost got Applejack. It's stronger. Got the others. We need to... go help them. Now.”
Twilight stood and stared upwards. “I don't think we have to go after it,” she said. “I think it's coming here.”
Like a storm cloud the darkness came towards the center of Ponyville. It announced its presence with a great rumbling that made everypony either peer out of their windows or hide under their beds. Twilight and her friends rushed towards the center. They arrived one after the other, with a scant few other ponies. Applejack and Pinkie arrived as well. And as if the force was waiting for them all, it descended. The dark cloud churned in a cyclone and then slowed before finally spitting a handful of ponies to the ground.
Aurora, Axel, Cocoa. Fluttershy and Trixie. They all lay on the ground, fully awake and their hooves bound together by shadow.
The three ponies wore hoods now. But they pushed them back and smiled at Twilight.
“There you are,” they said. “After all this time. All this time of recovering and planning and waiting.”
Twilight lowered her horn and glared. “... Nightmare Moon?”
The three ponies shook their head. “No. And yes. Nightmare Moon would have been a great champion to our cause. But we were not born until you separated the princess from us. We were not born until you set those magics to dissipate... and later find their kin. In a way, we owe you our existence. In a way you created us.”
“If that is what we did, then we will send you right back where you came from.” Twilight said.
“Give us back our friends!” Dash took a swoop past and nearly knocked one of the ponies over.
“We think we will hold onto them for the time being,” said the three ponies. “Our greatest obstacle was always our fear of the Elements of Harmony. We had to be clever. We had to grow strong. And that time was already upon us. But we did not expect to be so lucky as to have one of you in our possession.”
Twilight was already beginning to draw upon the magic, assembling the elements. But there was something between them and Fluttershy. Something just enough of a barrier to strain her progress. And the ponies lifted a hoof, and a great pressure forced against her skull.
“If you so much as think about bringing the Elements of Harmony against us again,” they said, “we will just destroy the Element of Kindness.”
“You leave Fluttershy alone!” Twilight yelled. But what could she do? Her friends were in danger. “What do you want?”
“We want one of you. Just one.” The trio shrugged. “It does not have to be this one. Whoever it is will not be harmed. Actually well taken care of, really! We merely wish to ensure that you do not have the ability to hamper our plans.”
“I...” Twilight stared at Fluttershy. “I can't. That's not...”
“Not fair?” The trio smirked. “Life isn't fair, Twilight. Make your choice. Or don't. It makes no difference to us.”
Twilight and her friends sagged. She knew in her heart that any one of them would give themselves up for Fluttershy. But they shouldn't have to give up. There had to be a solution! Some way to free them. But even a slight show of force would put Fluttershy in danger. She didn't have long to think...
“If that's your decision,” said the three, “we'll be going then.”
“Wait!” Twilight said, lifting a hoof. For the crucial moment she froze. There was nothing she could do.
Then another familiar voice pierced the night.
Every pony turned to see Princess Luna reared back on her hindlegs. It was as if she'd appeared from the shadows themselves. And with a single spark of magic, the binds surrounding the five captive ponies' hooves receeded. They all gasped for air.
Luna advanced towards the trio of darkened ponies, unfettered by the building commotion around her appearance.
“How did you...” they rasped. “Where did you...”
“I was once a slave to your like,” said Luna. “But no longer, thanks to these ponies. And I will not allow you to harm any of my subjects. Or any of my friends!”
Another brilliant flare of magic ripped from her horn. Like the light of the moon itself it cast upon the trio of ponies. And they cried out in pain as they stumbled back. She ushered every pony behind her, and Fluttershy returned to Twilight's side.
“Now, use the elements,” said Luna. “Banish this evil from our land.”
Twilight nodded. “Right! Everyone, with me...”
A familiar magic resonated from within them. As if from nowhere, from some secret place the elements emerged and adorned them. Twilight, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Applejack, together as one they rose into something greater. The power from their very centers assembled, and Twilight provided its channel. The great prismatic wave washed from her horn, a brilliant rainbow of positive energy that crashed into the three ponies.
Their voices quickly began to become distinct as the dark cloud emerged from them and begin to dissipate. “This is not over,” they said, more weakly. “You are merely delaying the inevitable.”
Then the spell completed. The power of the elements washed away every trace of the shadow. And the trio of ponies collapsed on the ground of the square. Now, ponies began pouring out of the buildings to see what had happened. And to see Luna, standing full and proud against the back light of the moon.
“What happened? Who was that?” Twilight asked, immediately. Then she flustered and offered a bow to Luna; the rest of the ponies followed. But Luna waved them quickly up as she explained.
“I don't know exactly,” she said, and looked down. “When I was Nightmare Moon... it was that. But it is also something more. Those three ponies are innocent.” She gesture with a wing to the stirring, groaning trio. “It is likely that the evil force possessed them out of convenience. It could have been anyone. Do not blame them for what has happened.”
“I don't,” said Twilight, meeting Luna's gaze. Her meaning slipped through her words and she flustered, adding, “I won't.” The other ponies all nodded in agreement.
Luna smiled just a little. And then flinched at a flash of light as Aurora took a picture. When she looked over, the young pegasus shrugged. And everyone laughed. A great belly laugh from every pony that seemed to wash away even the slightest trace of darkness from the night.
“I will stay around a while to make sure that everypony is safe,” said Luna. “If possible, I would like to speak with you all later. But for now I should check the rest of the town.”
“Of course,” said Twilight. “It would be an honor.”
And just like that everypony began to chatter. Aurora took a few more photos. Everyone lingered for hours, grateful for each other's company and for the calm atmosphere that seemed to evident that everything is and would be alright.
* * *
Both the refugees and the natives of Ponyville eventually settled down to sleep. Aurora returned with the others, who felt immediately grateful to flop down in the living room and stare into space. Aurora began fiddling with his camera and rolling out a blank parchment.
“I can't believe the mess you got us into,” Cocoa groaned. “I am never going anywhere with you again!”
Aurora grinned over his shoulder. “Really? What exactly did we get into?”
“Getting lost in the forest, scared witless,” Cocoa practically yelled. “Captured by an evil force. Made other ponies come to rescue us. Almost caused the end of Equestria.”
Axel pulled out his lute and played a few experimental notes. “Saw an awesome battle. Got to meet Princess Luna. Learned about all kinds of wicked creatures...”
“Sounds exiciting, if nothing else.”
Cocoa rolled over onto her back and stared at the ceiling. “I guess,” she said. “It was... interesting. But next time maybe we can just go get lunch or something.”
The three chuckled. Aurora began scribbling down on his parchment, laboriously recalling all that had happened that day. Axel's music had faded into a gentle snoring as the unicorn all but passed out. Cocoa was very near to it herself and showed no desire to move from the couch she was sprawled on.
“What are you doing? You should get some rest.” Cocoa peered at Aurora.
The pegasus shook his head and grinned. “No way. After all that? I need to get a story into print as soon as possible. The things we've seen... the photographs... everything. Ponies everywhere need to know. And I'm not going to waste this opportunity.”
“Fine by me...” murmured Cocoa. “Just don't wake us up.”
Then the earth pony dropped off as well. In the dim light, Aurora continued to write in spite of the heaviness of his eyelids building upon him. But nothing, not even a sleeping spell would prevent him from recalling all that had happened.
Ponyville is notorious for being the center of fantastic happenings in Equestria. Today saw a great new threat. And a few familiar faces rose to face it. Though danger may always be brewing in the darker corners of the world, there will always be great friends to help each other through adversity. And our great rulers, Princess Luna and Celestia, no doubt labor without end to keep us all safe.
If you should find a darkness such as this, spread the word. And the light of the truth shall bring every pony together. Nothing can shake the bonds that hold us together. This report is not one to evoke fear, but to give hope and to spread the world on how to know and how to handle those who may otherwise do us harm.
Aurora worked and worked and told his tale the best that he could. It was but two days, one article. One adventure put to rest. One of many that he would undertake in Equestria. Though his quill would eventually rest that night, it would not do so for long. And nor would he.
Because there would be many stories to tell, and he would be there to capture each and every one.
Author's Prattle: Oh goodness I'm behind. And I've only received a mild amount of punishment! Well, anyway, I was traveling for two and a half weeks and promptly fell over sick when I returned. So much for excuses. This chapter turned out to be two chapters, so here you go! Please, be kind, but if nothing else be informative! I do like to think some ponies read this. :3
Chapter 3 – Hanging with the Guise
After a day and a night of rigorous danger and adventure, Aurora slept like a pony-shaped log. Flopped right over in the common area, because somehow being in the same room with his new friends put him at ease. And quite strangely, he dreamed what felt more real than waking. Of all the things that had transpired, the coltish faerie tales lingered in his head.
In his dream he was far above Equestria, so far that he could not see more than a sea of clouds and a dim sliver of dawn on one horizon and dusk on the other. The air was unbreathably thin and it was cold, but he felt the bone-chilling breeze waft off his feathers and be replaced with a silvery warmth. Flying was effortless. He reached up, laughing, twirling and looping and moving wherever his mind would take him. Towards the moon and perhaps what lay beyond, as if he was Silvergale, reaching for the stars themselves.
Thunder cracked below and the shock waves shook his body as he yelped out in surprise. He tumbled and struggled to regain control of his flight. And when he did, and his vision cleared from the spinning, he saw an odd silhouette of clouds in the distance forming the shape of a castle.
Bells sounded from one of the towers, growing in volume from a faint chime to a deafening roar. He tried to fly closer, to see what was making such a racket, but before he could get close enough to the strange place the force of the sound kept pushing him back. Then the twelfth bell tolled and the sound hit him with a very real force, and he fell backwards until smacking against another colt. He twisted around to face another pegasus.
The young knight spoke but no words came out. He stared through Aurora, beyond Aurora, but eventually his voice came. It hardly seemed to fit the young hero, instead sounding old and weary and distant.
Beware what Summer Solstice brings
after Heaven's black bell rings.
Hope shall crumble, life shall fade
and all Equestria will be unmade.
Beginning with the Sun's last breath,
what once brought life will now bring death.
Our tale does not have to end this way
if each light rises on the fated day.
If the broken balance can be mended,
then our world can be defended.
Once the colt finished speaking, he heard another voice that now followed his lip movements. Aurora flitted a bit closer and tilted his head. “What?” he asked.
“Get up already, you lazy colt!”
* * *
Aurora's stirring and murmuring ceased quickly as something rainbow colored gave him a healthy cuff to the flank.
“I said get up,” said Rainbow Dash, clearly quite cross. “Did you forget? How could you forget? You were supposed to meet me after sunrise!”
Aurora rubbed at his eyes, trying to fill in the blanks. “Rainbow...?”
“Rainbow Dash,” she finished.
“Aurora... and I'm supposed to apprentice for...”
It all came back to the colt at once and he sat bolt upright. He fell off the couch but didn't hit the ground, suspended in midair as Dash impatiently tugged him up with his tail in her teeth.
“Oh geez, I'm so sorry.” Aurora righted himself with a rapid flutter of his wings and waved his hooves in profuse apology. “It's just that so much as happened right after I got here and I know that this is getting off to a really really bad start but I promise I'll do anything to make it up to you.”
Dash stared at him for a good long moment before she felt a sliver of sympathy and then released his tail. “Okay, whatever. I usually do this by myself anyway.”
Aurora tapped his hooves together and looked down. “You didn't already...”
The rainbow pegasus laughed. Her mood seemed to improve as she began to think of a myriad of uses for an eager, if groggy pony. “Oh, no. No no no. Not when I've got my own 'apprentice' to do my bidding.” She landed and trotted towards the door, looking back expectantly. “You'll have to start right away, of course. We need to start preparing for the start of winter. So you'll be clearing clouds and helping bring in new ones.” She paused, one hoof outside as she looked skyward. “And then you'll help me with a new routine.”
“Right!” Aurora smoothed his feathers and tried to bring up some fresh enthusiasm for the days ahead. The dream rang fresh in his mind, and he eyed one of his blank scrolls. If only he had time to write the strange words down... but Dash was already leaving, and he didn't want to get on her bad side any more than he already had.
As he trotted outside he looked up at the sky. Although far from gloomy, there were bits and scraps of the white fluffy clouds everywhere. He swallowed. “I've never actually done any cloud kicking before...” he admitted.
Rainbow Dash looked back at him, surprised. “Really? It's super easy. Come on, I'll show you.” She then launched straight into the air and called back. “If you do a good job, I'll think about forgiving your little snooze fest.”
Aurora huffed and hurried after. He was probably only going to get one solid demonstration, and he didn't want to miss it. The pegasus boy barely managed to reach eye level before Dash slowly (for her, at least) aligned herself with a cloud and hovered there.
“Everything you need is already in the hooves,” she said, rather proud of herself. “You go at it anyway you want, really, but that's where you'll get the most oomf!” And she kicked as she spoke, obliterating the puffy white cloud in a single stroke. She looked over long enough to accept Aurora's awestruck look and then nodded. “Your turn.”
All in the hooves. Aurora drifted to a nearby cloud and imitated the blue pegasus as best he could, reeling back and delivering a fierce buck. He barely felt the vapor rush around his hooves. For a moment he thought he missed, but when he looked over his shoulder the cloud was gone, vanished into mist.
“How was that?” He grinned and looked back towards Dash. She'd already drifted to another cloud and reclined, eying him when he spoke.
“Yeah, good job, kid,” she said, sounding excited for all the wrong reasons. “Now finish the rest of them and we'll move on to phase two.”
Aurora looked up at the sky full of small clouds and did his best not to sigh. It was going to be a long morning.
* * *
Sunlight. Luna was used to sunlight, really, since she was used to pittering around for a bit of the morning or evening. Dawn or dusk. But she wasn't used to being outside of the castle, in the open of Ponyville. Friendly or not she could feel the ponies stare at her, at her wings, at her horn, at her mark and into her core. Wondering. Judging. It was enough to make her shiver and hide under her wings a little. She quickened her pace towards the library.
“It's the princess! What's she doing here?”
“Is something bad going to happen again?”
“Can I get you anything, your majesty?”
Pony after pony offered their greetings and respects. Luna felt a small panic coming on. “P-pardon me, but I have business I just have to attend to right now,” she said, trying to sound as diplomatic as possible. She nickered and hurried on.
The crowd didn't pursue her, and while she was grateful she was still a little alienated. She never got used to any of it. Especially the ponies who tried not to let her notice them scrambling away.
Luna pushed it out of her mind and exhaled. She shoved the library door open with a hoof and trotted inside. In her brief experience she knew that the library was always impeccably clean or in total disarray; never in between. This time, it was the latter. Stacks of books on the floor, more delicate articles on tables, and even more volumes on Twilight's working space. At the moment, though, she was dictating a note to Spike.
“Dear Princess Celestia...” she started, tapping her hoof on her mouth. “Oh, what am I supposed to say? I haven't been able to find anything on the shadows or the lost village or... argh!”
The young dragon hesitated his quill. “Do you want me to write that?”
“Yes. Wait, no!” Twilight waved a hoof. “It would be inappropriate. Write something more like, 'I've been rigorously studying the recent phenomena, but as of yet...”
She stopped when Luna gently cleared her throat and asked, “is this a bad time?”
Twilight twisted about and her mane frizzed a bit when she saw Luna there. The filly made a quick move to bow but when she saw that Luna only smiled and flustered a little at the action, she sat back and laughed.
“No. Well, yes. But it isn't that big of a deal.” She nodded to Spike. “We can finish the letter later.”
Spike set the quill and scroll aside and peered at Luna. “Um, okay Twilight.” And he shifted just a little behind his unicorn friend.
Luna smiled nervously. “My sister and I didn't think you'd find anything in here. It's a thorough selection but it's not quite... old enough.”
The young princess' horn flashed and she began to produce several books from thin air. They were bound in a thick material that looked a lot like dragon scales. Twilight peered at the titles and shoved Spike out from behind her.
“Could you put these on the podium, Spike?” she asked, giving the dragon an encouraging nudge. Spike inched a little closer and reached a hesitant hand out toward the magically levitating books. Twilight laughed and assured him, “the princess won't bite.”
Luna clicked her teeth together and giggled nervously.
“Dawn and Dusk: A Chronicle of the Sister Cities,” Twilight read off before Spike could put them away. “Three volumes... I've never seen any of these. Even in the royal library!”
“They're from our private collection,” said Luna. “I know you'll take care of them.”
Twilight's eyes glimmered. “Really? Oh, I promise I won't let anything happen to a single page.” Spike sneezed, and she winced, glancing over her shoulder. The young drake shrugged.
“There used to be a town near my... the old castle. Before the forest was the way it is now.” Luna looked out the window toward the Everfree Forest. “But it disappeared not long after I did. It might have some clues as to what happened with the copy of Ponyville, though.”
Twilight nodded. “I'm sure! There's so much here...” she peered at another title and lifted and eyebrow. “'Granny Grimm's Book of Mare's Tales?”
Luna bumped it towards her with her snout. “My old book. It's actually a favorite of mine. It... means a lot to me.”
“I'll keep it safe,” Twilight promised, curious but uncertain.
“You should read it,” Luna said, almost defensively. “I know it's not as dry.. uhm... as descriptive as the histories. But all myths are born from a seed of truth. And what we're looking for might be older than those other books.”
There was some truth to this, so Twilight didn't protest. She let Spike place it on top of the stack and then smiled awkwardly at Luna. “So... can I get you anything?”
Luna glanced towards the door. “No. Thank you.” Then she hesitated and looked Twilight in the eye. “Actually, yes. There is something.”
The ruler of the night swallowed. “How did you learn to get along with the ponies here? I mean, Celestia always talks about how everyone looks up to you and gets along with you and... I just can't seem to make friends. Or talk to anyone.”
Twilight tried to hide her blush with a hoof at hearing such praise. “Honestly, I probably couldn't have done it without my friends to help me out. It's easy now, but... I think I have them to thank.”
“Oh.” said Luna, looking down. “I don't know anypony here well enough.”
Twilight tapped her horn and then an idea sparked in her head. “Ah! There's nopony that knows this sort of stuff as well as Pinkie Pie. She should be working at Sugarcube Corner this morning, but she'd never say no to a pony in need!”
“I think I'll say hello to her, at least.” Luna smiled. “Thank you, Twilight Sparkle. If you're not too busy writing to my sister, maybe you can send me a little note now and then too.” She peeked at Spike, who was still rather shying away from her. “If that's okay with you. Don't want to wear your poor claws out.”
“I can handle it,” Spike said proudly, puffing his chest. Then he shrunk again when he remembered who he was speaking to.
“More reports?” Twilight ventured wearily.
Luna shook her head. “Just whatever you feel like. It's nice to actually talk to somepony without worrying about formalities and...” she sighed. “Oh, listen to me grouse. I'll see you again soon. And let me know if you need any more books. I'm sure I'll be able to find a few things to surprise you.”
“I love a surprise as much as anypony,” said Twilight.
“Well then, thank you for everything.” Luna dipped her head and then made for the exit of the library. Without looking back she could already tell that Twilight was eager to pour over the books. Sure, she'd probably start with the histories. But her enthusiasm still made Luna feel a little warmer inside. She couldn't help but hope, just a little, that things might go back to the way that they used to be. Long before most any pony could remember.
There was only one way to find out. And that was to go to Sugarcube Corner.
* * *
Unbeknownst to Aurora, Cocoa had awakened far earlier than the pegasus. She wasn't sure exactly how she'd come to the kitchens of Sugarcube Corner, or how she became so thoroughly inundated with sugar that she was fully lucid in spite of the persistent weight around her eyes. A cheery, perhaps pink voice bounded around her, chasing the pony who had introduced herself as Pinkie Pie.
“So your name is Cocoa? That must be because of your coat. Oh! I bet your favorite thing ever is chocolate cake. Chocolate pudding? Chocolate moose! Chocolate reindeer?” The pink pony tapped her head with a hoof thoughtfully. “No, that doesn't sound right.”
Cocoa found herself almost apologizing. “Actually, it's strawberry shortcake,” she said.
“I love strawberry shortcake. And tallcake. All the cakes, really.” Pinkie rewound herself a few steps and peered at the chocolate-covered strawberry on Cocoa's flank. “I get it. You're a cocoa and you love strawberries?”
Cocoa flicked her tail across Pinkie's nose and snickered. “Close. Maybe. Well, I always said, 'everything's better with a little cocoa.'”
Pinkie thought this over far too long and grabbed a tin of cocoa. “I never really thought about it that way. I'll have to give this a test!”
Before the pink pony could go crazy dowsing everything in sight in chocolate powder, Cocoa raised her hoof. “You can just take my word for it. So what was it we were supposed to be doing this morning?”
“Preparing for a party,” Pinkie mouthed around a chocolate-dusted dandelion sandwich. “Hm! Not bad.”
“And what does that entail?” Cocoa wondered.
“Lots of sweets, and lots of other things, too, but all you have to worry about is getting the food ready. Normally you're going to be helping me work on the bakery stock, but I want to see how you do things before I set you loose on Ponyville. You wouldn't believe what used to get through before I started worrying about quality control.”
Cocoa flinched. The legend of the baked bads had spread quite far over the past year, after hitting Ponyville like the plague. She could understand why the shop would want to take certain... precautions.
Pinkie glided a clipboard with a list-- well, almost a list. It had sketches of cakes and cupcakes and other small treats and empty check boxes on it. “Cool, huh? So do you know how to make all of this?”
“I think so...” Cocoa gave the list a discerning look. “Yeah.”
Pinkie shut her mouth in disappointment and Cocoa could swear she heard the first hints of a drumbeat cease. “Oh, alright. Show me what you're made of, pony girl!”
Cocoa laughed off Pinkie's choice of words and took a quick assessment of the kitchen. In spite of the pony's apparent manic habits, everything seemed impeccably organized. It didn't take her long to gather all the ingredients she needed to start on her first batch of cupcakes. All the while Pinkie followed her about at a distance that seemed physically impossible at times.
At least I'm used to cramped kitchens, she thought.
Pinkie leaned over the bowl as Cocoa administered portions of flour and baking soda and salt. By the time she'd gotten up a respectable batter, Pinkie abruptly swiped a hoof in the mixture and gave it a lick.
“That's good~ keep going.”
Cocoa smiled and reached over Pinkie's mane to recover the tin of cocoa. She didn't even watch as she chocolized the batter. “Don't you have those huge orders to fill?”
Pinkie gave a confused look over her shoulder to several filled ovens and a stack of muffins already cooling on a rack. “I guess I am going a bit slow, but that's okay because you're here to help me.”
Cocoa's jaw dropped. “When did you...”
“While you were getting ready, silly! I've been doing this for a long time so I guess it just comes naturally.”
“I guess so...”
“Try beating it counterclockwise. I find it's more delicious that way.” Pinkie propped up against the counter and watched Cocoa with a deadpan stare. “So you've been here for about a week. Making a lot of friends?”
“A few,” Cocoa murmured. She hadn't been going out that much between settling in and beginning her apprenticeship. And her insane adventure, of course.
“Oh, like who? I bet I could introduce you to a few ponies you'd really like. Like I think Caramel really likes brown fillies. I'm not sure why.” She paused. “Come to think of it, I haven't really had a chance to meet your other friend. Aurora?”
“The pegasus kid?” Cocoa began to beat the batter a bit faster. “He's only been here a couple days, but I can already tell that he sleeps too much. He's nosy and gets into trouble all the time and I'm sure I'm going to be involved in half of it.” She propped her whisk against the side of the bowl and gave it an experimental twist. “Insufferably enthusiastic and... and...”
“You like him, don't you?”
Cocoa rolled her eyes and blushed. “No, I don't,” she said. And she didn't add in the part where she already had her eyes on another particular pony. She tried not to think about it too much, even, because Pinkie might be able to read her mind. She couldn't tell.
“Well he's fun at least, isn't he?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Cocoa let the conversation dwindle while they both set about pouring their batter and setting it to the ovens. Once that had been done Cocoa took a moment to break and poured herself a glass of water. She'd have to come up with another batch of cupcakes at least.
“So what was it like being all captured by icky globby shadow stuff?”
The question made Cocoa freeze in place. How did it feel? You can't possibly imagine how horrible it was. Like being locked in a dark, cramped cabinet but worse. Like that cabinet was buried under a hundred feet of ice. Like being trapped in a nightmare, fully lucid... knowing your friends are nearby and being unable to sense them. It was...
The kitchen doors swung and Princess Luna trotted in, looking about curiously. Cocoa simultaneously tensed up at the presence of the princess and was grateful to hide away the question of her previous plight. They bowed, and Pinkie sprung up rather quickly to go to Luna's side.
“Hi there, Princess! What brings you here? Cupcake craving?”
Luna laughed. “Not quite. I was hoping I could talk to you.”
“I think you're doing that right now, silly.”
Luna blushed. “So I am. I mean...” she glanced over at Cocoa. “A word in private, perhaps?”
Pinkie grew serious and bobbed her head. “Ooh, top secret. I gotcha. To the supply closet!”
Luna blinked in confusion but did not protest as the pink pony began to lead her towards a small door in the corner. Pinkie stopped long enough to wave at Cocoa.
“I'm leaving everything in your hands!”
And then the ponies disappeared into the closet. The door slammed shut and the kitchen was almost painfully quiet, save for the sound of the ovens. Cocoa soaked it in and set to working double-time. She compared the lists to what she'd already made, and looked over what Pinkie made... but something struck her as odd.
Some of the muffins were chocolate, but one of them was blacker than the others. Cocoa recognized the shadowy formations on it immediately. It tantalized her with the promise of delicious black licorice evil and chocolate. She picked it up in a hoof and it seemed to tremble, begging her to shove it between her lips and...
Cocoa carried the muffin across the room to a cylindrical tube with a spiral grating. She stepped on the switch and held it down; the door to the incinerator swooshed open revealing the glow of fire below. It didn't strike her as terribly odd that the kitchen had an incinerator. As a matter of fact it seemed to perfectly suit her needs. In this case, in disposing of a vile villain.
“Not today, you fiend,” she muttered as she cast the muffin towards oblivion. It sailed silently down the tube for what seemed like minutes, exuding a sense of remorse and sadness. Then it struck the flame and turned to ashes. The world seemed to right itself a bit. Cocoa popped another caramel into her mouth and rubbed her eyes.
“Now, where were we...”
* * *
There was barely enough room in the closet for both Luna and Pinkie to fit somewhere between bags of flour and a pile of tin cans. Pinkie raised a hoof and turned on the swinging light bulb.
“Your wish is my command, your highness,” Pinkie said cheerfully.
Luna flustered. “No commands or anything like that. I just wanted to ask you, you know, how you make friends.”
Pinkie considered this and gave a puzzled look. To her that was a lot like, 'how do you breathe'? “Talk to them. Give them cake. Remember birthdays, that's important. Just remember to have fun!”
Luna shrunk back a bit. “But uhm... what if they're scared of you and won't even talk to you?”
“Oh, that requires some extra work,” Pinkie groused. “Usually you just bug their friends until they give in.” She looked up to see Luna smiling hesitantly and saying nothing. Then it dawned on her. She switched the light off and on again in sequence. “A-ha! Everyone is scared of you because of the whole eternal night thing, right?”
Luna shrunk back. “Yes.”
Pinkie fumbled around, tossing bags and cans and springs as she went. “Then all you need is a little secret identity until they get to know you better. Sure it's a little unethical but sometimes you just have to go the extra mile!”
The pink pony produced something and promptly plunked it down on Luna's nose. She almost sneezed to feel something fuzzy on her snout and above her eyes. “What is this?”
Pinkie held up a small mirror. Luna stared. A pair of plastic glasses adorned with an oversized nose and giant bushy eyebrows (and one glorious moustache) hid most of her face. The frames somehow made her eyes seem just a little bit googly. She adjusted them with a hoof, laughing and sighing in the same breath.
“Pinkie, I appreciate the thought, but...”
“Just give it a try,” said Pinkie. “You'll be surprised.”
Luna sucked in a breath. How much could it hurt? “Alright. We'll see what one of our friends has to say about this.”
“That's the spirit!”
They shut out the light and crept out of the narrow pantry closet. Cocoa was whipping up a storm of batter and dough when the two came out. The chocolate colored pony peered over her shoulder and lifted an eyebrow.
“Who's your friend?” she asked.
Luna's mouth hung open a little bit and she stared at Cocoa. Cocoa stared back.
“This is my new pal Lul-”
“Eluna,” Luna 'corrected' Pinkie, scuffing a hoof. “Pinkie was just showing me around the kitchen.”
“Well, this is it,” said Cocoa. “Hopefully she doesn't have much more work to do.”
Pinkie gestured to stacks and crates of baked goods that Cocoa could swear weren't there before. “Already done~” she said. “You finish up. I wanna show her off around town.”
Cocoa sighed and shook her head. “You trust me with that?”
“Yep! Keep up the good work.”
Luna waved as they left out the back door. And yet she was hesitant. It could be that she was on the verge of embarrassing both herself and the crown. Perhaps her sister wouldn't punish her too badly...
* * *
Aurora worked clear into the afternoon clearing the skies above Ponyville. He had the inkling suspicion-- only encouraged by the sheer number of pegasi that seemed to be watching him just out of sight-- that there were usually more ponies assigned to this job. Still, he didn't complain, and even though his wings ached he kicked every last cloud. Even the one Dash was dozing on, much to his embarrassment.
“Who what huh?” she muttered before spiraling towards the ground, and then caught herself with an alarmingly well-practiced maneuver. . She gave a brief glare to Aurora but didn't hold it. “Oh, looks like you're finally done here.”
“Yep!” Aurora puffed up his chest proudly. “So what do we do now?”
Rainbow Dash smiled.
Clouds. Aurora found himself moving even more clouds in setting up for Dash's new trick, though she set most of it up herself. Even half the ones he brought in she made minor corrections on until she was satisfied with the lay of the course.
“Run this through with me one more time,” said Aurora. “You're going to do a sequence of inverse rolls through the top layer...”
“Triple backwards somersault off the spire, twist through there, and use a bit of lightning to launch myself outward destroying everything in my path.”
The blue pegasus was clearly in love with the idea of the trick. Aurora thought it sounded pretty cool, too, but one thing still eluded him.
“What am I supposed to be doing?”
Rainbow promptly forced a small checkered flag into his mouth. “Kick me off,” she said. “And take pictures! Take a bunch, and then meet on the last stretch.” She pointed with a hoof to the area just above. “Get oooone more and then get out of the way. Got it?”
“Yeah,” said Aurora. “I think so.” But she was already off at 'yeah'.
She was barely a speck by the time she got into position. Aurora flashed the flag, then tugged up his camera and got to work. He did the best he could, trying to keep track of her moving about, twisting the camera as she went. Even with all of his practice he could barely keep her in the viewfinder, which, he had to admit, was kind of cool. And not bad practice.
“Oh, is Dash trying out a new trick?”
Aurora looked away from his camera for a split second. It was Fluttershy, and Axel not far behind, looking rather uncomfortable and tweaking the strings on his mandolin.
“Something brand new.” Aurora snapped a few more shots. “Can't really talk about it.”
“I understand.” Fluttershy hopped up into the air. “I should give her some words of encouragement. She likes that sort of thing.”
Aurora smiled. He couldn't help it, really. As he moved to adjust his view, Axel tromped up behind him. Dash was plummeting through the cloud layer about then.
“So this is what they call work for you pegasi, huh?”
Aurora waved a stray hoof. “We finished up earlier today.”
“Me too. Fluttershy is a great instructor, but our tastes in music don't exactly click that well.”
“Too much teeny bop for her?” Aurora teased. He kept shuffling around but found that Axel was almost always in his way, anyway.
“Too much rock.”
“You can rock on that thing?” Aurora looked up for a second.
“Like no other!”
“Play something. It'll fit the... hold on.” Aurora stuck out his tongue and flashed another picture as the rainbow-maned pegasus became a twisting blur in the air. “Shoot. I've got to get in position.”
“That's what she said.” Axel mused as he played a chord.
Aurora sighed and took off into the air. Fluttershy was making little movements and throwing her hooves up, cheering on Dash with surprising enthusiasm. Axel started playing with more than just the mandolin. Somehow he was using his unicorn magic to amplify the sound, and it screamed through the area. Aurora didn't have time to be surprised. The notes got faster and faster.
Aurora barely managed to get his camera up before Dash hit the charged, black cloud with the back of her hooves. It catapulted her forward and swaths of clouds began vaporizing in her wake. There wasn't much time. He flexed his wings and arched upwards, then aimed his camera at Dash again.
Fast. She was coming on too fast and too close. Dash tried to turn around but was still being carried by the momentum of the thundercloud and flailed in circles before colliding with Aurora. They both fell to the ground in a heap as Axel's performance reached its climax. Aurora noticed that some of Dash's coat had been singed by the lightning.
Fluttershy hovered down over them and clapped her hooves together. “Wow, that was amazing, Rainbow Dash,” she said with muted sincerity. “Though the landing could use a little work.”
Dash, quite used to the aftermath of her new stunts, pried herself up and dusted her wings off. “Meh. It's just not flashy enough for me. Sure it's cool, but...”
Aurora groaned and rubbed at his eyes. He fluttered his wings. Nothing's broken... he slumped a little in relief. Dash rather abruptly tugged him to his feet.
“And you need to really work on your reflexes. It'll help you in the long run.” she smiled. “Can't wait to see the pictures. We'll try this again tomorrow. After I make a few adjustments.”
“Sure thing,” said Aurora, without really thinking about it.
“Cool.” Dash inspected Axel for a moment before tapping Fluttershy on the shoulder. “I think you and I need to have a little chit chat, Fluttershy. You're done for today, right?”
“Oh. Yes.” She peeked back at Axel. “If that's okay with you.”
Rainbow Dash nodded. “Right. The two of you are free for the rest of the day, then. You can get back to napping or whatever it is you colts do when no one is looking.” She dragged Fluttershy into the air. “So, where was I.”
Aurora took his camera off his neck and gave it a generous shake. Satisfied at the absence of clattering parts and broken glass, he replaced it and sagged. “Things sure are lively around here, aren't they?”
Axel stroked out another chord. “Surprisingly. My kind of town.”
“So what do we do now?”
“Chow,” said Axel. “Obviously.”
A great big gurgle came from Aurora's stomach when he realized that he hadn't even eaten that day. “Good thinking.”
“There's a nice cafe near our place,” he continued. “Why don't we go there. I'll treat.”
“That's... awfully kind of you.”
“Well it just means that you're buying next time.” Axel shouldered his mandolin and stamped his hoof. “Think we need every friend we can get, you and me.”
Aurora smiled. “Yeah. Alright.”
Aurora's head still spun a little from the impact earlier. He couldn't quite remember the way back, but it didn't matter too much. Axel seemed to move with such confidence. And thinking back, there wasn't anyone he'd ever managed to get close to in his old home.
“So... you seem to be having more luck with the fillies than I am,” said Axel.
* * *
Chapter 4: Hanging with the Guise, Part 2.
Much to Luna's surprise, the whole of Ponyville was completely receptive to her company now that she'd found a proper... a suitable... well, a functional disguise and moniker. It might have just been Pinkie's company, but they didn't seem nervous at all anymore. They smiled and chattered and she even got dragged into a game of lawn volleyball until one of the unicorns accidentally popped the ball.
The princess wiped sweat from her brow as she and Pinkie sat down for a cold glass of lemonade.
“I never realized that having friends is this exhausting...” she said. “How do you keep up with it all?”
“It's what I live for!” Pinkie said, draining the entire glass in one go. “You get used to it and when all else fails you can always rely on sugar to keep you going.”
Luna's eyes widened. The sweet lemonade she was drinking did pack quite a punch-- in spite of being merely lemonade-- and she felt the rush going all the way down to her trembling hooves.
One of the green earth ponies from nearby leaned in and grinned at Pinkie. “Showing off another one of your new friends, huh?”
“Yep~” Pinkie chimed.
“Well, don't wear her out too badly.” The pony leaned in and whispered to Luna. “The first time I met Pinkie we somehow ended up stuck on top of the belltower. Just be careful.”
“Um, I will.” Luna laughed. “Thank you.” She then leaned in close to Pinkie and sighed. “I can't help but wonder if you're doing all the work for me, Pinkie. Would this still work if I was alone?”
Pinkie hummed long and loud. “I don't know. Maybe you should give it a try.”
Luna sipped her lemonade and surveyed the crowd. How to just pick out one? And why pick out one in the first place? It seemed odd, among pegasi, unicorns, earth ponies... to pick one that was more worthy to be her friend than the others. Absurd even.
Somepony caught her eye, though. A blonde young colt that seemed to be shuffling about one of the apple stands. For some reason that she couldn't shake, he seemed awfully familiar to her.
“Wish me luck,” she murmured to Pinkie.
Luna carefully hopped over the fence separating the cafe from the street and meandered towards the blonde colt. He seemed to notice her in an instant, and gave quite a fright. He reared back and almost bolted but for some reason he stopped halfway and gave her a nervous smile.
“Hello there,” said Luna, adjusting her fuzzy glasses. “Have we met before?”
The blonde colt scuffed his hoof on the ground. “I don't think so,” he said. “I would remember someone as... interesting as you.”
Luna raised an eyebrow. First the boy was afraid, now he was trying not to laugh at her? Not the politest in the world by far. Still, she had to persevere. “That's a shame. I'm Lu... er, Eluna.”
“Maple,” the colt replied. “I'm still in school but pa thinks I'll be a workhorse someday. Taking the fields. Says it's a good way to meet uh...” he rubbed his mane and flustered. “Good ponies I guess.”
“And you can't meet good ponies otherwise?” Luna hmmed. “I'd like to think of myself as one. Perhaps we could be friends?”
Maple's ears perked and he looked left and right. “Y-yeah, sure.” he swallowed. “I think I hear my mom calling me. I'll see you later, Eluna.”
The fright seemed returned to the boy. Pinkie approached as he scurried off, head tilted.
“It's okay,” she said. “Sometimes that happens to me, too.”
Luna looked after the pony but couldn't see where he had gone. “He said he'd be my friend. But he's something of an odd fellow. I can't shake the feeling that...”
“Oh, nothing.” Luna clopped her forelegs against the ground. “I'm having the best time. Let's try to meet some more people!”
“Okie dokie! I know just the place~”
* * *
Twilight spent the day pouring over the new books she'd received from Luna. Even the most dry passages fascinated her. Such as the tendency of Luna's city to host a generous peach crop, around the blooming of which was a particular festival. Not even the tromping of hooves from the stairway could pull her nose out from between the pages.
“Is this really what you do with all your time?” Trixie yawned. She looked quite a mess, her typically glorious mane frizzed in all directions.
“No,” said Twilight. She flustered and turned the page defiantly. “Not anymore, but this is important. Did you sleep alright?”
“That spare bed of yours is so cramped,” fussed Trixie. “And I'm used to traveling in a cart. But... I guess it was cozy.” She tipped her horn up and began brushing her hair. “Things seem to have quieted down a bit.”
“Ponies around here are used to this kind of thing,” said Twilight. “I think it's in their blood, if these books are at all accurate. Apparently not everything weird comes from the forest.”
Trixie pulled up beside Twilight and looked only once at the tight columns of text. “There's not even any pictures. Are you sure we can't just let this go?”
“No, Trixie. There's something out there that's still threatening Equestria. I can't just leave it.”
“Of course not. Not Celestia's protege... that would be a travesty.”
Twilight rolled her eyes and turned another page. Trixie meanwhile grabbed the copy of Granny Grimm's Book of Mare's Tales and scuffed it across the table towards her. “Now, this looks a sight more interesting!”
“Careful with that,” Twilight said, carefully straightening the book against the table. “These aren't mine. They're Luna's!”
“Oh, please. You can tell these are well loved. She'll hardly notice.” Trixie tipped open the cover, revealing a double-page span of illuminated text. Its Golden borders almost seemed alive, swirling about armored ponies, silver towers, creatures of stars and darkness. She giggled and looked a little closer. “I dare say this is a little more my style.”
“Just don't hurt it.”
Trixie smiled and glided her hooves across the pages as she turned them, cooing. “Oh, I wouldn't dream of it. Not this precious book. Now, why don't we read a story...”
Twilight shook her head and tried to focus on the histories, but to no avail. The other unicorn began to read out a random story from the book.
There is a place that is said to be very close to Heaven where many great and mystical ponies once lived. Far above the highest clouds, a kingdom long isolated from both the ground and cloud dwellers of Equestria. There, the ponies lived in peace and harmony, but also guarded some of the most powerful and ancient magics ever known.
Only a scarce few ponies have ever ascended to this kingdom. The young knight, Silvergale, was one of these, and one of the only to ever have been accepted by its inhabitants. But it was not so easy. A night and a day of circling the skies and riding the winds. He alone could listen to their fickle currents and learn the secret path to the island kingdom.
On the night of his arrival, a marvelous island as big as a city. It was covered in towers and buildings made out of white, shining stone, and capped in sapphire and other lustrous stones. Much to his chagrin, however, none of the ponies came out to greet him! The few that were out to realize his coming all hurried indoors and locked themselves away.
Except for one.
There was one young pegasus boy, a scrawny thing with a blue coat but the most fascinating mane. It seemed to unroll like water everywhere he went, with the color and sheen of quicksilver. And on his flank was the bright image of a shooting star, which, of course, he would promptly introduce himself by.
“Who are you?” The boy wondered, hanging upsidown in front of Silvergale. “I'm Shooting Star, but most ponies call me Star.”
The wandering pegasus was taken aback by this sudden show of gregariousness. By the time he had remembered to speak, the colt was already spinning about, zipping amongst the reeds. “I'm Silvergale,” he said, “and I'm a knight of the Lunar Kingdom. I'm seeking a...” The colt then cursed the winds that had led him there, for he had found not a star from the sky above, but a pony bearing that title!
“That's a long way from here, Silvergale,” said Star, suddenly close again. “Why come here? You seek something?”
“A star,” muttered the knight. And then he inidcated upward with a hoof. “One of those, I'm afraid. I doubt you'd want to be a gift to my lady, anyway.”
“A star for a lady? No, that wouldn't be me.” Star laughed. “But perhaps I can help you. You've come this far, after all.”
“Help me reach a star?” Silvergale repeated. “I thought it impossible. But still I try...”
“Perhaps it normally is,” said Star, puffing his chest up to twice his normal size. “My special talent, though, is to grant wishes. I'm not sure if it's magic or just persistence. But that's how I got this mark.” Star indicated his flank. “My father is an astronomer. If there is some way to retrieve a star, then he probably knows.”
What choice did Silvergale have but to agree? So the two ponies went into the kingdom together, and through the windows the citizens of the kingdom could see that the stranger had made fast friends with one of their own. Over time they would learn to welcome him, and the other knights as one of their own.
Star's father was a powerful pony indeed, and it was only through his help that the three of them were able to pluck a star from the heavens themselves. He only agreed after learning that it was meant for the Princess, though, and in exchange, he was asked to return in three days time with an offering of her own.
This adventure, though small, forged a powerful friendship between two pegasi that would become exemplary of the bond between Lunar Knights.
Trixie folded the page and sighed. “Looks like that's it. This entire section... a lot of this book is actually about these so-called 'Lunar Knights.'”
Twilight's stared at the illustration of Silvergale and Shooting Star. “Luna said that this book was important. Do you think that they might have been... her knights?”
“Oh, probably,” scoffed Trixie. “Even if they were, that makes them a thousand years old. At least! They're long gone.” She tossed her mane a bit. “I guess even wish-granting ponies can't last forever.”
“I guess,” murmured Twilight. She stared at the histories again and tried to get back into her reading mode. But the gears in her head were already turning. Questions were being formed. Why would Luna want to point her to these old children's stories? There had to be something more to them, especially if she was willing to even lend her memories of her old friends.
Trixie shut the cover and tossed her mane. “I don't know how you can just read and read like that. I'm going to get one of those barley shakes.” She then gave a rather rude bump to Twilight's flank. “And I'm bringing you, one, too. Honestly, dear, you could really use some more meat on those bones of yours.”
The purple unicorn made an indignant squeak and hid herself further in her book, refusing to come out until the rude obnoxious totally not personal space respecting unicorn left her presence. And then she flipped to the index of the history and began to scan it.
“Lunar Knights... I wonder if there's something in here for them.”
* * *
As long as it may have seemed to many of the working ponies, the day was drawing to a close. And anyone who was anyone-- and then some-- found themselves crammed into the downstairs of the intercity boarding home. Aurora, Twilight and her friends, and many others could hardly resist the festivities.
“Who do you think that is?” Aurora asked Axel. He pointed his wingtips over the crowd. Axel loomed upward and squinted.
“Which one? There's a whole flurry of them.”
“The blue one with the wings.”
“You mean Dash?”
“No, no... with the eyebrows.”
“The wall-eyed dame?”
“Oh, give me a... stand still, you.” Aurora braced the unicorn steady and promptly scrambled up onto his back.
“Ow, hey! What's the big idea? I'm not into you like that.”
“Just stuff it and hold still.” Aurora braced himself on his friend's back and wobbled a bit before he could get a clear view. Several ponies turned and laughed a little at him but it didn't stop him.
Axel grumbled and scuffed the carpet. “Couldn't you just have used your wings?”
“Suppose so.” Aurora grabbed Axel's ears and pointed him towards Luna, who seemed to be chatting it up with one of Pinkie's friends. “Her, there. Isn't that Luna?”
“Eluna,” Axel muttered, pointing to the banners which read Welcome, Aurora! all of which had a hastily scribbled and Eluna! at the end. “Completely different person you're thinking of.”
“You're off your rocking horse.” Aurora rubbed his eyes. “Well she certainly seems to be having a good time.”
Having finally had enough, Axel gave a brisk toss of his mane and promptly tossed Aurora onto the floor. “Whatever you say, mate. Maybe you ought to take some notes.”
Aurora peeled himself off the rug and fluffed his wings out. “Are you saying that I can't cut loose?”
Axel tapped him on the shoulder and laughed. “Maybe.”
“Interesting.” The pegasus smiled. “Alright. First one of us to get a filly to dance with 'im wins. Deal?”
Axel gave a keening look over the crowd and then nodded. “Alright. You're on.”
The two of them pressed into the crowd. It wasn't Manehattan or anything, but Aurora was so used to spacious skies and ponies somewhat sensitive about their space that it felt like the whole world was standing next to him. He tried to find a friendly face in there, one that might have matched best with him, but he kept getting distracted by the constant bumps and motions and more than once muttered a sorry as he stumbled across the room.
His unicorn friend did not waste much time, apparently, as Aurora soon heard him extending the invitation. “Would you give me a dance? Just a quick one.”
Aurora hopped up to see him propositioning a perplexed Cocoa.
“I don't know. What's your game, Axel?” she wondered, lifting an eyebrow.
“It's to make Aurora lose a bet.”
Cocoa laughed and tossed up her hoof. “In that case, sure.”
Aurora flapped above the other ponies for a few moments and shook his hoof. “Oh, come on now. That's just not fair!”
He heard a mill of laughter as he fell back into the pile of ponies and couldn't help a little chuckle himself. Now that he'd lost good and proper, maybe he could one-up the unicorn somehow. He peeked through towards where he'd last seen the princess-- if that was even the princess to begin with-- but she was gone.
The music thrummed from the record as he hopped up. Someone dimmed the lights and now colored spots spun around the room. When he'd given up all hope of finding her, he saw a moon-graced flank moving towards the doorway.
Now, where could she be going...? he wondered, and could hardly resist. The sudden shift to club-like atmosphere made it easy enough to slip away without notice-- perhaps the same thing she had taken advantage of. By the time he got out the window, he could only see her shadow as she took to the air. Aurora smiled over his shoulder and sighed towards his friends.
“Sorry, you lot, but I'll have to leave you for a bit.”
* * *
Aurora followed Luna into the sky, up and out of Ponyville. He swooped silently above the clouds and strained his eyes trying to keep track of her. It was easy to stay out of sight, but she was fast and intent and several times he thought he lost her. It was almost like chasing a ghost.
Luna landed, eventually, near a mountaintop not too far from the village. It was an odd little plateau, and Aurora couldn't shake the fact that he'd seen it before. But there wasn't much more there than a polished round of obsidian buried in the dirt. Luna sat in front of it and lowered her head.
“A thousand years and you're still stuck up there,” she said, letting a little laugh. “In a way, it's kind of like I'm still imprisoned too.”
Aurora settled behind a small set of bushes and crept a little closer, ear perked. He felt his camera bump about at his neck and for once resisted its call.
“No, that's not fair,” Luna continued. “I've regained my freedom, and yet...”
Her voice began to shake, a little. Aurora forgot himself for merely a moment and leaned forward, enough to snag his wing on a branch and cause quite a ruckus. Luna whipped back and stared at him.
“You followed me?” she asked, shortly.
“No,” Aurora fumbled, trying to hide his camera. “Yes. Maybe. It's not what it looks like.”
The princess raised an eyebrow at the pegasus and his camera. “What is it, then?”
“You seemed distraught at the party,” he said, tugging the camera strap against his neck. “I wanted to make sure you were okay. I... I don't know. I didn't think things all the way through.”
She stared as long and hard as she could but it broke down into a small smile eventually and she turned back around, this time facing the night sky. “You remind me of someone, you know that? Just a little. An old friend of mine... from a long time ago.”
Aurora shook off the loose leaves and twigs and stepped out onto the plateau. “How long?”
“Longer than anypony should have to worry about.” Luna drew her hoof over the smooth surface of the stone. “I believe his name was...”
Luna glanced over her shoulder and laughed, leaving the pegasus flustered. “You like faerie tales, don't you?”
Aurora looked at the dirt and scuffed it with a hoof. “Oh... yes.”
“So did he. It's kind of funny, really. You want to be so much when you're young. Want to save the world, win the fillies over, think you can do anything. And you can.
“But there are prices to pay. Friendship is strong, but our paths pulled us apart. I didn't see them for years, before everything went wrong. And even though everything happened the way they did... my friends went to save me. Without a second thought. What did they get for their selflessness? The same imprisonment that I suffered.”
Aurora folded his wings and closed his eyes, but soon felt the touch of Luna's nose.
“I shouldn't be telling you this. When I'm here, my thoughts just kind of come rolling out...”
“Can they come back?” Aurora wondered.
“Yes. I believe so. My sister and I are doing everything in our power, but it's such a daunting task. I don't know how long it will take...” she trailed off and shared a glance with the colt. “I know you want to ask me. I can see it in your eyes. It's okay.”
Aurora swallowed and even with permission couldn't bear to look up at her. “What was it like? Being Nightmare Moon.”
For a while Luna didn't answer. He thought he could hear her, pacing around the ridge and then he thought she'd left. But he heard her laugh somewhere close.
“Honestly? It's kind of absurd. Being the big bad you always read about in storybooks. What was it Pinkie Pie called me?” She gestured both hooves skyward dramatically. “Queen Meanie! Oh, I totally was. Faerie tale villain. Me. Can you imagine?” She batted her eyelashes.
Aurora smiled. “Not really.”
“I know! But that's what happened. I thought I had all the power in the world, but I kept getting buried under responsibilities, and no one would treat me like a normal filly, and my few good friends were scattered to the edges of the world, and... it was just too much.
“You know the rest. I'm glad that my sister... that Twilight and her friends did what they did. Took the nightmare away. It doesn't feel good. But I'm glad.”
Aurora shivered. It was hard to believe that so recently, the young-- well, so she seemed-- princess in front of him was the harbinger of darkness. And even the parts of him that he hated... he couldn't imagine them being ripped out, forced away. Even trying to pretend it he felt a little hard pit in his chest, his heart pounding.
And Luna still had that serene smile. He opened his mouth, closed it. Every word that fell out of his brain seemed stupid, childish. In the end he settled with, “I want to help you, somehow.”
“You already have,” she said. “But if there is something you could do for me, I would not mind the favor.”
The wind brushed through their feathers a little and the sound of leaves shaking was a little like rain. Luna rolled her shoulders back as if letting some drape fall to the ground and trotted back to the edge, priming her wings. “We should get back to the party. Pinkie may put up a fuss if we're missing for too long.”
“Oh, yeah.” Aurora said, fidgeting with his camera. “Can I... get a picture first?”
Luna pondered this for a while. “Alright. But only if you get it like this.”
When she turned around, she was wearing the moustache glasses square on her snout. Aurora's mouth hung open a little. Then he shook his head, laughed, and snapped a photograph. Luna scarcely winced at the flash.
“I'll write something nice about Ponyville's mysterious visitor,” he mused. Then they both took flight.
“Oh, yes! I think I'd love to do this again... it would be nice if people remembered me.”
* * *
Aurora did the polite thing and came back a steady ten minutes after Luna did. Just to spare the other ponies any of their conspiracies. And when he did trot in it was almost like he'd never left. Piles of ponies were crammed from the sofa to the ceiling, getting their groove on even as their energy dwindled with the night. The pegasus drew up some punch and quietly wondered if their living room would be occupied with half of Ponyville more often that not.
“And where were you off to?” Cocoa asked. She and Axel had somehow managed to creep to either side of him before he could notice. He leaned back and together they watched the crowd at work.
“Just getting some air,” said Aurora.
“You were gone nearly an hour.” Axel lifted his hooves and clopped them together sideways. “By air you totally mean getting a right snog on with some filly, right?”
Cocoa somehow managed to hit them both in one stroke. Aurora gave her a pleading look, but she did not yield.
“Nothing like that,” he insisted. “I was just chasing more stories.”
“Oh, no,” said Cocoa. “I know what happens when you start sticking your nose where it doesn't belong.”
Axel almost mouthed snogging but Cocoa shot him another dirty look.
Aurora tugged his camera against himself defensively. “You'll see when the story makes print tomorrow.” Then with a dramatic twirl of the strap he secured it again and aimed himself at the crowd. “I guess this is my party. Try to live a little.”
Cocoa spat something unintelligible after Aurora but the two of them joined him anyway. And still he was amazed how many ponies they could cram into such a narrow space, especially when they were dancing and trotting wide enough to cover half of it themselves. Ponyville ponies were, he decided, a group of ponies who were quite comfortable being in close quarters. It's probably the pink one's fault, he thought, and considered an editorial before the groove caught his think train and kept him for the better part of the hour.
And then each passing minute left another pony apologizing and laughing before stumbling out and back, one would assume, towards their beds. More floor and less sound. Even the three friends began to unwind after a while and drifted back towards the couches.
One, Aurora noticed immediately, was occupied by Luna who had fallen asleep in the middle of them. Her glasses had slipped off of her nose and tipped back and forth with the motions of her breath. This naturally attracted the concern of Twilight, who gave a worried look. Her friends drifted over soon after.
“Do you think it's okay for her to sleep all night?”
“Sure it is,” Applejack cut in. “She's out on 'royal business' after all, and she's gotta tend to her needs.”
Twilight still fussed over the snoozing princess. “I guess she has someone on retainer, but... still. It doesn't seem proper for her to stay here. On a couch.”
Aurora gently cleared his throat. “Well, technically this building is just assigned to us by the city, and that makes it a government building. I think the common room is technically... well, what I mean to say is that it would be alright.”
“You would say that, wouldn't you?” Axel chuckled. “Still, I don't have a problem with it. Cocoa?”
“Huh?” The filly rubbed her eyes. “Oh, you won't catch me complaining. So long as no one is stealing my bed.”
Twilight rubbed her temples. “Fine. But I'm staying with her.”
Aurora blinked. “I... don't see anything wrong with that.”
Applejack clopped her hooves together. “I reckon we're all tuckered out but we may as well make it one of them fancy slumber parties.”
“Well, we've already had the party.” Pinkie giggled. “All that's missing is the slumber!”
Everyone agreed. Aurora was surprised at the enthusiasm with which a bunch of strangers decided to crash in their living room, but he certainly didn't mind it either. Their chatter made a pleasant background while he cobbled together photographs and worked on the articles for the next day's paper. Even Axel and Cocoa seemed happy enough to stick around even though they didn't have work to do. He barely, barely managed to make it through his coaxing story of Ponyville's star moustached visitor before promptly clonking with his head on the parchment.
The colt didn't dream that night, though he had the sneaking suspicion that he should have... and there was one blank scroll that he'd set aside that he could not simply remember the cause for.
* * *
Some Days Later...
“Spike, wake up! I need you to send this!”
“Nnnh... Twilight? What time is it?”
“I'm so sorry to wake you, but the Princesses need to see this. I've found it!”
“What? What did you find?”
“It's hard to explain, but I found a spell. I think it can bring them back.”
“Bring back who?”
“The Lunar Knights.”