The six ponies appeared under one of the streetlights that lit the road between Ponyville and Canterlot. Islands of light were strewn up and down the road in either direction, but all the attention went to a path diverging from the main road lined with the shifting silhouettes of trees rather than safe lamps.
“Is this the way?” Twilight asked.
“Eeeyup,” Applejack said.
Twilight began walking away from the main road. A light erupted from her horn, nearly as bright as the streetlights, showing the way down the side path. “I can’t believe I’m going to see such a historically important site,” she said as her friends followed after her. “I can’t believe I didn’t know that Maresdon Manor was so close to Ponyville.”
“It ain’t a place ponies really like talking about,” Applejack said.
“How come?” Twilight asked. “Winthrop Maresdon’s contributions to modern magical theory are undeniable.”
“Well, ‘cause it’s… haunted.”
Twilight paused in her stride. Then she laughed, and shook her head. “You don’t really believe that, do you Applejack? Ghosts aren’t real.”
“Maybe they are and maybe they ain’t,” Applejack said, “but I got no cause to go finding out one way or the other.”
“So you’re not going to take a look inside?” Twilight asked, confused.
“Inside? Twilight, that’s something I’d expect outta Rainbow, not you.”
“Is that because I’m not afraid of anything?” Rainbow asked, flying down low beside Applejack.
“It’s ‘cause you’re too fool to be frightened of anything,” Applejack retorted, although there was nothing but friendly ribbing in her voice.
“What could possibly be in there to be frightened of?” Twilight asked before anything could escalate.
“Rats,” Rarity said, “and bats, and cobwebs, and decades’ worth of dust. I’m sorry Twilight, but my mane doesn’t need to be subjected to anything else after this dreadful wind.” She paused to check the scarf holding her mane in place.
“It’s unfair the way ponies treat bats,” Fluttershy said suddenly, “they’re very cute and sweet and don’t want to hurt anything.”
“So you’ll come in with me, right, Fluttershy?” Twilight asked.
“Oh, no. I, um, just wanted to see the gardens.”
Twilight sighed. “Pinkie?”
“Seeing inside a scary super-spooky mansion seems swell, buuut…”
“I’m not going in with you,” Pinkie said solemnly, “because you dared Rainbow to go, not me.”
“Huh?” Rainbow Dash said. “What?”
“It technically wasn’t a formal dare, since Twilight didn’t say ‘I dare you’, but you did say you weren’t scared to go, so…”
Rainbow puffed up her chest. “Well, I’m not! It’s like Twilight says, there’s no such thing as ghosts, so there’s nothing to be afraid of!”
“Yeah!” Twilight agreed.
“Yeah!” Rainbow echoed. “Wait, why’d you stop?”
“Because,” Twilight said, “there’s Maresdon Manor.”
The curved path had terminated at the crest of a long sloping hill. Down a short set of stairs lay a tangled hedge wall marking the edge of the grounds, which spanned all the way into the shallow valley. Moonlight shone over the expansive estate, revealing the garden was made of bare branches and dried vines, skeletons left to rattle in the wind. In the center of the hollow garden was the Manor itself, an austere construction that looked as lifeless as the plants that surrounded it. It towered over the pale trees like a solitary tombstone.
The six ponies descended the stairs to be met by a tall gate made of heavy iron rods set into the dead hedge. Twilight teleported past the gate in a flash of light, then turned back to look at Rainbow through the bars.
“Coming?” she asked.
Rainbow nodded and flew over the hedge. She glanced back to see Rarity produce a light source from her horn similar to Twilight’s, though hers was a shifting purple hue instead of pure white. She turned back towards the Manor, following Twilight along the straight path between rows of leafless trees and bushes to the steps that led up to the front door.
Twilight opened the thick oak door onto a sparse, wide room dominated by a double staircase. Pedestals holding objects hidden under white sheets stood sentinel along the walls like pantomime ghosts. In the day, they would have appeared harmless, maybe even a little silly. In the single stark light source that came from Twilight’s horn and faded quickly in the dancehall-sized room, the wind shaking the dead branches behind them and urging them inside, the shrouded objects were a little eerie.
“Wow,” Twilight said, stepping on to the smooth wooden floor. Enough polish remained to reflect her light, a floating twin in the floor tracking her movements. “And I thought it looked big on the outside.” She turned back to Rainbow and grinned. “Scared yet?”
Rainbow took a couple of tentative steps inside. “No way. It takes more than an old house to frighten Rainbow Dash.”
Just as she finished speaking, a booming noise exploded from the doorway. Rainbow was in the air in the blink of an eye. She spun around and saw the door had shut on its own. A prickling chill crept over her whole body.
“Rainbow? What’s wrong?” Twilight asked, seemingly unconcerned with what had just happened.
“We’re…” Rainbow swallowed. “We’re trapped.”
Twilight blinked. “What? No we’re not.” She pushed the door open with her magic, revealing the night, the gardens outside, and the path to Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, and Rarity watching beyond the gate. Pinkie waved.
“It was the wind,” Twilight said with a weak smile. She waved back to Pinkie, then walked to the door to close it before it could slam itself shut again.
Rainbow let out a long breath. “So, I may have been a little startled.” She purposefully avoided looking at Twilight when she said this. “Not scared, though,” she hastily added.
“I was startled too,” Twilight confided, “it is kinda spooky in here. But it’s not like there’s anything that can, you know, hurt us.”
“I know. But if we do see any ghosts,” Rainbow said with the shadow of a smile, “I’m counting on you to do all the magic to drive them off.”
Twilight laughed, and Rainbow joined her. “Deal,” she said.
They went systematically from room to room on the first floor. At first Rainbow was on guard in case they encountered something out of the ordinary, but all there seemed to be in any of the rooms were sheet-covered furniture and little details of architecture or old paintings that Twilight studied with intense focus before moving on to the next thing covered in dust. She made comments about how old everything was and how things weren’t made that way now. It reminded Rainbow a little of taking a trip in school to any one of dozens of ancient structures that were within twenty minutes flying distance from Cloudsdale, but Twilight’s endless supply of random facts were more interesting that anything she could remember from any school trip. She put this down to not being expected to complete a quiz on what she had learned when she got back to the library. After checking out all of the rooms on the first floor – the highlight to Rainbow being the massive ancient stove in the kitchen, but that may have been because she was starting to get hungry – and deciding the door that led to the basement should probably stay locked if it was bolted closed with such a large padlock, they eventually took the huge staircase in the entrance to the second floor.
“So, Rainbow,” Twilight said as she walked, pivoting her head to see inside another room stacked with furniture shrouded in white cloth, “I was wondering if you could help me with something.”
Rainbow walked behind Twilight, watching her. She was less interested in exploring the Manor, now that that they had been inside for a while without anything really spooky or awesome happening; conversation was welcome. “Sure. What’s up?”
“I’ve been thinking about the three versions of the Maresdon Manor story everypony knows, and I can’t quite figure out what your version means.”
“What do you mean, what it means? It’s just meant to be a scary story.”
“Well, yes.” Twilight stopped to examine a painting on the wall. Rainbow saw it was of the gardens in full spring bloom. “But what makes something scary varies, especially local legends that are passed from pony to pony without ever being written down anywhere. These kinds of stories often can tell you a lot about the ponies telling them.”
“You sound like you’ve been reading a book about this, or something,” Rainbow said, looking at the way Twilight’s light caught in the pictureframe.
Twilight smiled. “Well, I have been looking into folklore recently, for fun. Where local stories come from, how they change over time, the common themes that show up in areas that had almost no contact with each other. It’s interesting. It’s kinda like fairytales for grown-ups.”
This made Rainbow Dash snort laughter. “Yeah, I guess it is, kinda,” she said. “So what sort of thing should my story mean? What’s it supposed to say about me?”
“Well, Applejack and Pinkie’s version was easy enough to understand. There’s often a strong current of distrust for magic that runs through earth pony legends.” Twilight moved on from the picture, and Rainbow followed.
“You mean Applejack and Pinkie Pie distrust magic?”
“Not really. It’s just a part of the earth pony experience. Most earth ponies don’t tend to grow up around advanced unicorn magic – most unicorns don’t tend to either, to be honest – so it’s always going to be a little unfamiliar. I guess I feel the same way about flying; it’s still a little unusual for me to balloon to somewhere and get to see so much of the area from so high up.”
“I get it. What about Rarity’s story?”
“That one had me wondering until the end, when she said it was the gardener ponies were supposed to be frightened of afterwards instead of Winthrop Maresdon. Unicorns have their own hang-ups about magic that come out in stories.” Twilight paused in a doorway to an empty room with a fireplace at the far end.
Rainbow stood beside her and asked, “Like what?”
“Guilt,” Twilight said. “For hundreds of years unicorns believed they were superior to earth ponies and pegasi because of their magic, so there are many variations on stories that warn against using your magic against other ponies, or where a unicorn thinks other ponies are beneath her and that becomes her undoing in the end.”
“But,” Rainbow said, “but that was all so long ago! I mean, you don’t feel guilty about your magic, do you?”
“Well, I don’t, and I doubt many other unicorns do either, but sometimes the moral of the story stays even when society has moved on. That’s what’s interesting about folktales. Finding how the stories fit into history, where they line up with actual events and what happens to them over time. It gives history a flavor, you know?”
Rainbow had never been very interested in history herself – too many dates and sites of famous battles and names of famous commanders to confuse – but when Twilight spoke about something she was interested in, she had a shine in her eyes and a change to the pace of her voice that made Rainbow reconsider her dismissal of the whole subject for a moment. “Yeah,” she said, “that sounds pretty cool.”
“But what I haven’t been able to figure out,” Twilight said, “is what the pegasus version is about, underneath. It’s similar to the earth pony version, but it’s not quite the same.”
Rainbow thought for a moment, then her eyebrows shot up. “Oh, I know! It’s…” She paused, and she suddenly found looking away slightly difficult due to how close she was to Twilight with them standing together in the doorway. “This is gonna sound kinda dumb.”
“I’m sure it’s not dumb,” Twilight reassured her. “What is it?”
“Pegasi have a thing about plants,” Rainbow said. “Especially plants that do things plants don't normally do. There's something that pegasus parents say to their foals, if they’re going down out of the clouds: stay away from strange plants.”
“That actually seems like pretty good advice,” Twilight said, considering.
“It is,” Rainbow agreed, “but it’s kinda extreme sometimes.” Rainbow lowered her voice, as if someone might overhear what she was about to say. “When I was a filly, I thought that all plants were poisonous. I wouldn’t have eaten anything that wasn’t, y’know, already a meal.”
Twilight giggled a little. “Really?”
“Applejack had to kick an apple out of one of her trees and bite into it right in front of me before I believed anything she grew was safe to eat,” she said with a sheepish smile.
“That’s so…” The smile on Twilight’s face faded. It was replaced by a blank look, as if she was trying to hear a whispered conversation.
“What,” Rainbow asked, a note of panic in her voice, “what is it?”
“Do you…?” Twilight’s eyes were unfocused, staring into a distance beyond the walls of the Manor. She backed out of the room and took a couple of steps sideways down the hall.
“Twilight? This isn’t funny, stop trying to freak me out.”
“I can feel something… I think it’s coming from…” She stepped around a corner in the hallway, and Rainbow trotted to keep her in sight. The corner led to a spiraling staircase tucked halfway behind a wall with a single yellowed potrait hanging on it.
When Twilight put her hoof on the first step, Rainbow had to speak up. “Twilight?” She swallowed. “Are you sure that’s such a good idea?”
“There’s nothing to be worried about,” she said, but her voice was distracted, distant. “I just want to see what’s up here.” She started ascending, and added as an afterthought: “You can stay down there, if you’d like.”
No way. Rainbow had told her share of ghost stories to know that one of the things you did not do under any circumstances with dealing with spirits, shades, or the supernatural was to split up. She rushed up the stairs to fall in one step behind Twilight.
The stairs led up to a single small room with a sloped ceiling on either side and one large window covered with a heavy black curtain at the far end. A desk, which was the first piece of furniture either pony had seen in the Manor not draped in a white sheet, sat in the middle of the room, seeming lonely in the otherwise empty room. Twilight headed straight for the desk, and Rainbow followed. Three objects sat upon it with a queer precision – a candle lamp to the left, complete with an unburnt candle, a quill from some colorful bird to the right, and in the center, a small but thick leatherbound book.
Twilight wasted no time opening the book. Rainbow bit her lip and cringed away, but when nothing happened after Twilight examined the first page, then the second and the third, she relaxed a little.
Twilight flipped rapidly through all the pages. “I don’t understand,” she said, more to herself than to Rainbow Dash, and flipped the pages one more time.
“What is it?”
“This book… it’s giving off some kind of strange magical energy. It’s like it’s been enchanted, but I’ve got no idea what sort of spell feels like this…”
Rainbow looked at the pages of the book as Twilight fanned them back and forth – it looked like all of them were blank. “It looks like a diary,” she said. “Maybe whatever’s written there is, y’know, hidden by some magic or something.” A similar thing had happened in Daring Do and the Submerged City.
“Maybe,” Twilight pondered, “but why make the spell so complicated…?”
“I wouldn’t want anyone reading my diary. Would you?”
Twilight went into deep thought following this question. Rainbow was about to nudge her shoulder when she said, “Or… or, it’s not a diary at all, but notes. Research notes. Mare Winthrop’s research notes!” Twilight turned to Rainbow, her eyes bright and shining. “Mare Winthrop wrote letters to other unicorns living all over Equestria. They were exchanging new magical theories, and just before she died her letters implied she had been right on the edge of a big breakthrough in potioncraft, but nopony ever found any record of what she had discovered! What if this is it? And what if I can decipher it? And what if I can finish her big breakthrough? It might change all of modern magic! There’s been so little advancement in potioneering, not since the Eleventh Law of Exponential Returns was formally recognized… if Mare Winthrop was really on to something, that would be amazing! Don’t you think?”
“I’m sure it would be,” Rainbow Dash said, studying Twilight’s expectant face in the glow from her horn, “if I had any idea what half of what you just said meant.”
It was unclear if Twilight was listening or not. “I’ve got to get back to the library, I have to start work on breaking this spell.”
“Wait!” Rainbow shouted, and grabbed Twilight by the shoulders.
Twilight blinked and furrowed her brow at Rainbow Dash. “What?”
“I thought you were going to teleport away.”
“Well, yeah, I was, until you grabbed me.”
Rainbow realized she was still holding on to Twilight, and put her hooves back on the floor. “Were you planning on taking the rest of us home too, or…?”
Twilight’s eyes went wide. “Oh! Um. Yes.” She glanced at the floor. “Sorry. It’s just, this-” She indicated the book. “-Is kind of… well, potentially-”
“A really big deal?” Rainbow finished for her.
“Yeah.” Twilight smiled, unable to contain her excitement.
“I get it,” Rainbow said. She gently nudged Twilight’s shoulder. “Just don’t, y’know, forget your friends or anything.”
“You remind me, okay?”
Twilight smiled again, then closed her eyes. A bright flash of light brought them out to the edge of the gardens where the other four were waiting.
“Hi Rainbow! Hi Twilight!” Pinkie exclaimed. “It’s good neither of you were eaten by ghosts!”
“I didn’t say I thought they were eaten by ghosts,” Rarity huffed.
“Then I suppose it was somepony else who was sayin ‘The light, the light, cover your eyes, cover your eyes,’ huh?” Applejack said. Rarity chose to busy herself with tightening the scarf keeping her mane secure rather than answer.
“What did you see?” Fluttershy asked. “Was it interesting?”
“Very,” Twilight said. “We-”
“I hate to be rude and interrupt,” Rarity said, “but could we maybe have this conversation inside?”
“Oh. Yes,” Fluttershy agreed, “that would be nice.”
Twilight took a moment to prepare. “Hold on, everypony.”
The six ponies disappeared in a bright flash. None of them saw the white light – thin and pale compared to the light Twilight had produced, but not dissimilar – coming from behind the curtain of the highest room.