A cool wind swept low across the field. The high grass danced in the breeze, shimmering golden beneath the clear blue of the sky. Somewhere, deep amidst the waving stalks, a small yellow earth pony lay curled upon the ground. She quivered – not from cold, for it was a warm summer's day – but from fear. She was hiding.
"Summer Sun!" cried a voice from somewhere nearby, calling out her name. Carried on the wind, it sounded distant and hollow, and scarily unfamiliar to the little filly. She shrank even closer to the ground like some burrowing creature trying to guard itself against predators. Summer shivered even more fiercely as she heard the sound of light hoof-falls approaching. "Please," she mumbled. "I just wanna be alone."
"Summer? Are you out here?"
Summer looked up. "Blue Moon? Is that you?"
"Of course it's me!" Another filly, white-coated and dark-maned, stepped forward through the waving grass. She looked down at Summer with bemused eyes. "What are you doing down there?"
"Oh…nothing." Immediately Summer rose to her hooves and came face-to-face with her sister. Both foals were small enough to remain hidden in the tall grass even when standing. "I'm sorry," she muttered, her eyes cast down in embarrassment. "I didn't know it was you."
"No, I'm sorry, Summer. I didn't mean to scare you. I just came out looking for you. Nopony knew where you went."
"Oh…I'm okay, Blue. I was just scared."
"Scared?" Blue Moon was puzzled. "Scared of what?"
"Of what Princess Celestia said," replied Summer. Her voice grew tremulous and her eyes widened in fright as worry seized her little heart. "Why did she visit us, Blue? What did she want? What did she mean about 'succeeding' her?"
"I don't know, Summer. I didn't hear everything she said. But I think it had something to do with our Cutie Marks."
"Our…Cutie Marks?" Summer echoed confusedly. She looked back down at her flank – on it was a symbol of a small yellow sun with pointed orange rays. It was a mark she had carried since birth.
"Mm hmm," Blue Moon affirmed. "She said something about them being a sign."
"A…sign? Of what?"
"I don't know. I didn't get to hear that part. That was when Mom and Dad noticed me and sent me out to look for you. I don't think they even knew we could hear them."
Summer sat down again, settling herself amongst the tall grasses. "I'm sorry, Blue. I just got really scared. Princess Celestia sounded so serious…I just thought something bad was gonna happen."
"It's okay, Summer," Blue Moon assured her. She sat down next to her, smiling. "Nothing bad's going to happen, I promise. I'll take care of you, okay?"
"Okay," replied Summer. She closed her eyes and leaned against her sister, who nuzzled her gently in return. They stayed there for a long while, peaceful and warm in one another's company, hidden in the grass while the wind-blown stalks whispered hauntingly in their ears.
It was nighttime in Canterlot, but the sky was ablaze with light. The moon glowed white against an inky backdrop dotted with countless silvery pinpoints, bathing the sleeping city in a cool, pallid glow. The Royal Palace was specially imposing, its pale spires and turrets shining with reflected moonlight and casting long deep shadows over the surrounding cityscape. Silence and stillness ruled the night air, and only the occasional sound of wind disturbed the tranquility of the late hour. Though guards stood at every gate and outer doorway, the palace grounds were devoid of any movement and lay cloaked in the castle's great shadow.
Within the palace, a lone pony trotted quietly down a dim hallway. She was lean and tall, winged and horned, and clad in the regalia of an Equestrian princess. Her coat was as white as radiant moonlight, and her long flowing mane and tail as black as a starless midnight, and on each flank she bore the symbol of a pale blue moon, slightly waning. She walked in silence, hearing only the sound of her silver shoes as they clacked softly on the marble floor.
At length she came to a stop before a large, arched set of double doors. Turning to face it, she lowered her head and closed her dark blue eyes in concentration. "Come on," she muttered softly to the doors. "Open. It's not that difficult." At her command, her horn started to glow with a bluish light. A similar glow appeared around the archway, but it was faint and flickered like a dying flame.
More power was brought into focus, and the glow intensified. She was exhausted mentally, her magical stamina utterly spent from hours and hours of rigorous training. Still she refused to give up; if she couldn't open a simple doorway just because she was a little tired, what chance had she of ever mastering the arcane arts?
At last the glow faded altogether, dying out of its own accord. She was simply too worn out to perform even so easy a feat of magic as opening a door, and this realization caused her heart to sink. Even after so much training, the simplest of spells still required tremendous effort and concentration. At times she feared she may never get the hang of spellcasting and this worried her terribly: how would anypony in Equestria respect her authority as the new princess if she couldn't even use her own horn properly? She made up her mind to step up her practice regimen in the coming weeks. But now, at this moment, she was just too tired to try any harder.
Sighing in defeat, she pushed the doors open with a hoof and stepped through into the royal throne room.
"Princess Aurora! You've returned!"
The princess started, but then relaxed once she saw who had called her name. He was a unicorn, gray-coated and maned, with a bushy white moustache on his snout and a monocle perched upon his left eye. He smiled at her, or at least seemed to smile, for his moustache obscured his mouth completely.
"Oh. Hello, Glass Eye," she greeted her advisor. "I wasn't expecting to find anypony here at this hour…well, anypony other than my sister, at least."
"I've simply been awaiting your return, Princess," he explained. "May I ask how your magic training went?"
A shadow passed over Aurora's face. "It was…." Her mind scrabbled to find the proper word. "…frustrating. But no more so than usual. Lord Stargazer tells me I'm making progress."
"And I'm sure you can trust his word on that matter. If it's not too much to say, your highness, I believe you are most fortunate that the University board selected him as your teacher. There is no finer scholar of the arcane arts in all of Equestria."
"I know, I know. He said that himself…too many times for me to count," said Aurora, muttering that last bit under her breath. Glass Eye merely continued to smile.
She glanced about the room. Her silvery-white throne stood on a raised dais of marble at the far end, and just beside it sat another throne, gilded and seated with deep red cushions. Both seats were empty. "Has my sister returned from flight training yet?" she asked, turning back to Glass Eye.
"She has, your highness," he answered her. "Princess Corona arrived not more than an hour ago. She was very tired, and left for her bedchambers to take a nap. She asked that I awaken her when you return."
"That won't be necessary," said Aurora. "I'll go and see her myself." She turned and made for the door once again. Already she could feel fatigue tugging at her eyelids. Though she was grateful that the Arcane University and Cloudsdale Flight Academy had found tutors for her and her sister, this late-night course schedule was beginning to wear on them both. It sounded like Corona had the right idea: a quick nap before dawn would be downright heavenly after so long and frustrating a night of training. By now the night was far too old for Aurora to get any sleep – indeed, by the clock it was almost dawn – but at least seeing her sister again would bring her some peace of mind.
"If I may trouble you for just a moment longer, Princess," Glass Eye called out, "there is an issue about which I'd like to speak with you first."
"Issue?" Aurora stopped in her tracks and turned back to look at her advisor. "What sort of an issue?"
"A matter of royal duty, your highness," he explained. "I've spoke with the advisory council earlier tonight. As I'm sure you know, we have handling most of the, shall we say, grunt-work of keeping the nation afloat during this transitional period."
"Of course. And I truly do appreciate that," said Aurora, speaking sincerely. Were it not for Glass Eye and his peers, she and her sister would never have been able to maintain their position on the Equestrian throne. Many of Celestia and Luna's old advisors had volunteered to work with them, and to manage the more complex political issues that arose while the new princesses learned to use their horns and wings.
"It's no trouble at all, your highness," Glass Eye assured her. "The interest of the entire nation is at stake, and we are all glad to help you however we can. But the council seems to be in agreement: it is time that you and Princess Corona begin taking on some governing duties of your own."
"Of our own?" echoed the princess. "What sort of duties are you talking about?"
"Fairly small ones, your highness, but quite important nonetheless." His horn glowed pale gray, and with his magic he summoned a scroll. "Just yesterday the palace mailroom received this: a compiled list of complaints and concerns from a small town called Ponyille. They've been receiving such letters from many small towns as of late – all of Equestria wishes to know that their new government is looking after their interests. The council thought that you and your sister ought to handle this one personally."
"Why is that?"
"As a test of your leadership abilities, mostly. They want to know if you'll be ready to run the country once your training is finished. After all, there's more to being a princess than just being skilled flyers and magicians."
"Of course," agreed Aurora. "That sounds like a fine idea. I'm certain we can…that we…we…."
A long and sudden yawn disrupted her train of thought; her exhaustion was at last starting to make itself known. "Err…on second thought," she began sheepishly, "do you think this could wait until later today? I'm in no shape to deal with anything right now – I think I'll go to bed just after sunrise, and we can discuss it after I've had some rest."
"Certainly, your highness. But I must press that this issue cannot wait indefinitely. It is not only a test of your abilities. Ponyville's problems are genuine, and need to be dealt with in a timely manner."
"I understand," the princess assured him. "And I really do care. But their problems will never be dealt with if I can't get some sleep."
Glass Eye "smiled" at her once more. "Very well. Then I wish you a good morning, princess."
"Good morning to you too, Glass Eye."
She left the throne room, quietly making her way up the long and winding torch-lit staircase to the uppermost tower of the palace, where she and Corona's bedchambers were located. Just outside Corona's door she stopped; it briefly crossed her mind to try and open this door by magic, but she thought better of it. She was far too tired, and such an attempt would be doomed to failure anyway. Instead she simply pushed open the door with a hoof.
A great yellow mass filled her field of vision the instant she set foot inside.
"Blue! You're back!" Aurora felt her sister's forelegs wrap themselves around her in a warm embrace. After a tight squeeze, Corona stepped back and looked her in the eye. She was slightly shorter than her twin sister, golden-maned, and her coat was a faint, soft yellow color. Her face was bright and her voice cheery, though her eyes were slightly bloodshot. "Come on in!"
"Hello, Summer," said Aurora, smiling warmly. More than anything, it was nice to hear somepony calling her by her own name, not "your highness," or "Princess Aurora." Here, she was just Blue Moon, sister of Summer Sun, and nothing more. It was something that she shared only with her sister. Their names were all that they had left of their old lives, and Aurora never wanted to let that go.
"I'm surprised to see you up and about," she said to Corona. "Glass Eye told me that you were taking a nap."
"I tried taking one, but I just couldn't sleep. I guess I was a little anxious, waiting for you to get back," Corona replied, her tone of voice darkening ever so slightly. "You were gone a lot longer than usual tonight. But I'm glad you're back now!"
"I'm glad to be back, too," Aurora said as she stepped into the room. It was a beautiful and spacious bedchamber, with rounded walls and a huge circular bed positioned neatly against the far wall. The bed was overspread by a white coverlet upon which was emblazoned a yellow sun with eight pointed orange rays. It had been tailor-made by the finest quilt-makers in Canterlot to match the new sun princess's Cutie Mark. Her gleaming fire-orange regalia rested by a dresser on the opposite wall from the bed.
Corona continued to beam at her sister. "So how was magic training?" she asked, her voice once again bright and cheery.
"Training was miserable," Aurora replied. She strode wearily to Corona's bed and threw herself across it, her long dark mane spilling over its opposite end. "And Stargazer was insufferable, as always. I could probably handle his high standards if he weren't quite so critical. It's as if he expects me to be as good at magic as he is."
"Well, he's kind of got a point, doesn't he?" said Corona. She crawled up onto the bed herself and lay at Aurora's side. "I mean sure, he's the best magician in the world, but you're a princess! You've got more power in that horn of yours than he could even dream of! All you need now is a little more training, right?"
Aurora rolled over onto her stomach, scowling fiercely. "Lord Stargazer is a Canterlot noble. If he's the finest magician in the world, it's only because he was born into a family wealthy enough to send him to the best schools, and buy him the best books, and to set him up at the best university. He didn't have to earn his status as the 'world's greatest magician.' It's been handed to him on a silver platter practically since foalhood. I have to start from scratch: no experience, no prior training, no instinct. He shouldn't treat me like a failure just because I'm not as good as he is. Once he gets around to teaching you, I'm sure you'll understand."
Corona fell silent, seemingly unable to come up with a response. For a few moments the two sisters simply sat in mildly uncomfortable quiet, broken at last when Aurora spoke up again out of the blue.
"How did your flying lessons go?"
"Um…awesome! Yeah, they were great," Corona answered. "I, uh…well, I'm still having trouble taking off…and staying airborne…and, uh…landing…."
There was a short pause.
"Okay, so I'm not really doing all that great," Corona continued, her voice suddenly sullen. "But I'm trying, Blue Moon, I really am. It's just that there's a lot of studying involved, see? Flight mechanics and musculature diagrams and air resistance…so many things to think about all at once. It's a lot more complicated than just flapping my wings."
"I know, I know," Aurora assured her. She lowered her head ashamedly. "Flight training isn't going very well for me, either. I haven't gotten off the ground in over a week." She frowned, and Corona frowned with her. Then she remembered that they had a job to do. Sitting herself up, she rolled off of the bed and rose to her hooves. "Well, are you ready for the sunrise?"
"You bet I am!" replied Corona. The sun princess used her own magic to draw back the curtains and open the long glass doors which led to her balcony, and together they stepped outside.
The view from their balcony was splendid. From the high tower they could see all of Equestria unfolding far below them: moonlit mountains, wide rivers shimmering with reflected starlight, vast, grassy plains and dark woods stretching out in all directions as far as the eye could see. The moon hung solemnly over the scene, waiting to be put to rest so that the sun might rise in its place.
As one, both sisters closed their eyes in concentration. Aurora summoned her willpower and her horn began to glow soft blue. Though she couldn't see it, she could sense Corona doing the same just beside her. Her sister's magic radiated like warmth from a hearth, and from it Aurora drew strength for herself. Energy flowed in harmony between the two as they brought their magic into focus.
Mentally they reached out, spanning the length of the sky with their will. Each began to feel a tremendous weight straining upon her hold, but kept it under their control by using one another's magical willpower as counterbalances. The weight shifted between them, falling and rising in turn, and soon it settled into what felt like a comfortable resting position. After that, they both felt the weight diminish, and suddenly it seemed to lift itself from them entirely.
Aurora opened her eyes. The sky above her head was now a soft blue, and at the very edge of her vision a faint line of glowing orange peeked over the horizon, silhouetting the distant mountains and casting bold shadows across the landscape. The moon had vanished, and the sun had now begun its long climb across the sky.
Corona stood blinking by her side. "Did…did I do a good job?" she asked, her voice weak and worn-out.
"Of course," Aurora replied. "You always do."
"T-thanks." She took a step back and stumbled slightly. "I'm…I'm feelin' kinda tired…."
A realization crept slowly into Aurora's mind, accompanied by a tinge of guilt. Raising the sun was a difficult feat of magic, and Aurora had been so exhausted herself that she had allowed most of that burden to fall onto her sister. It was no wonder she suddenly seemed so drained.
"It's all right, Summer," she said, softly and caringly. She walked to Corona's side, giving her a body to lean against. "Let's get you to bed, okay?"
"M'kay," Corona mumbled. Already her eyes were half-closed, and sleep was beginning to take hold of her.
Carefully, Aurora led her unsteady sister back to bed, pausing only to shut the door behind them and draw the curtains over it. She pulled down the sheets and comforter and Corona crawled beneath them, resting her golden head against her pillow and wriggling into a comfortable position. As Aurora pulled the sheets back up to her neck, Corona began to speak again.
"D'you think…" she said softly, already half-asleep. "D'you think Celestia 'n Luna would be proud of us?"
A sad smile came to Aurora's lips. "Of course they would, Summer," she answered just as quietly. "I know they would."
Corona's only reply was a gentle smile, and a mumbled "G'night, sis."
"Good night, Summer," said Aurora, not bothering to remind her that it was actually morning. For a few seconds she merely stood and waited for another response, but one never came; Corona was already fast asleep. The dark-maned princess leaned in and softly nuzzled her cheek. "Sleep tight, sister."
After that, Aurora crept quietly from the room. She crossed the hall to her own bedroom. It was modeled much like her sister's, but with the color scheme altered to reflect her own Cutie Mark. After taking a moment to remove her regalia, she walked to her bedside and pulled back the covers. For a pony so exhausted, the blank white linen looked like a cloudy heaven. She crawled beneath the sheets, laid her head on her soft blue pillow, and fell at once into a sound slumber.
She dreamed of home.
Hide and Seek had never been Summer Sun’s favorite game – at least, not when she played it with her sister. The basic premise involved separating herself from Blue Moon for a long period of time, and she didn’t like that at all. Having to be “it” was always the worst, but hiding was no picnic either. Either way there was always that fear in the back of her mind that she may never see her sister again. It was a silly thing to think, of course – it was just a game, after all – but she’d never been able to shake the feeling. It just bothered her, and there was nothing she could do about it.
The big problem was that Blue Moon loved to play Hide and Seek. It was just the sort of challenge she enjoyed trying to overcome, one that tasked her attentiveness, her skill, and her patience. She knew it sometimes troubled her sister, but there simply wasn’t anypony else around to play with; so from time to time Summer gave in and agreed to play.
Now was such a time. Summer was “it,” and Blue Moon had been hiding for nearly an hour. Her search had led her deep into a nearby wood. The trees grew thick and close together, their broad trunks covered with moss and ivy. Vines hung from overhead, and the foliage below was so dense that she often found herself crashing wildly through the green in her efforts to forge ahead. By now her soft yellow coat was flecked with dirt and covered in tiny scratches.
She was quite lost; of this much Summer was certain. It had been a mistake playing Hide and Seek so close to the woods, she now realized. The forest was frightening and unfamiliar, but she had been determined to find Blue Moon as quickly as possible, and so she’d made the reckless decision of charging in unprepared. Only just now did she come to see how great a mistake that had been.
It was getting late. The orange sun sank to edge of the horizon, and in the gloomy evening the woods seemed even more frightening than ever. Gnarled, twisted trees leered down at her from all sides, and their shadows grew deeper and darker as twilight began to fall.
At last she could take it no more. “Blue Moon? Where are you?!” she called out, her voice frantic. “I don’t wanna play out here anymore! I’m scared!”
“I’m right here, Summer.”
Summer wheeled around at the sound of her sister’s voice. She spied Blue Moon’s head rising from behind a huge fallen trunk.
“I’m sorry, sis. I didn’t mean to scare you.” She climbed over the log and quickly made her way to Summer’s side. “We don’t have to play this anymore if you don’t want to.”
“It’s just these woods,” said Summer, glancing at their surroundings. “I didn’t wanna play so close to them. I don’t know how to find my way around.”
This was true for both fillies: not long ago, their family had moved closer to Canterlot for reasons that had not been made entirely clear to them. Blue Moon suspected that it had something to do with the visit Princess Celestia had paid them a few months ago, but of more than that she was unsure. Their new home had a wide backyard that ended at the edge of this unfamiliar forest. It was a very pleasant place to live, but it was all new to the two sisters and they had yet to learn their way around.
“I wanna go home, Blue,” Summer continued, “but I’m pretty sure we’re lost.”
“Don’t you worry, sis. I drew us a map. We’ll be home in no time!” With that, Blue Moon reached with her mouth into the foal-sized saddlebag she wore and drew out a folded piece of parchment.
“A map? When did you make that?”
The dark-maned filly laid the map on the ground between them. “I’ve been working on it for a week,” she explained. “See? We’re still just on the edge of the woods.” She indicated a large tree marked on the map, then pointed to a nearby elm. “If I’m right, that tree’s got a hole on the other side of it facing home. All we have to do is go that way.”
The two walked around to the other side of the tree; and sure enough, a great hole opened in its trunk. Birds appeared to be nesting in it.
Upon seeing this, Summer sighed in relief. “Thanks, Blue,” she said. “It’s amazing how you’re always thinking ahead. I was afraid we’d never find our way home.”
“You won’t ever need to worry about that,” Blue Moon replied with a smile. “I promised I’d take care of you, remember?”
Summer returned her sister’s smile. “Of course I do! You’re always taking care of me, sis. Thanks.”
“You don’t have to thank me, Summer. It’s what I’m here for.”
Guided by Blue Moon’s map, the two fillies started to make their way towards home.
Corona awoke feeling a little confused. Though her curtains were drawn, daylight still streamed into the room from around their edges; but it seemed too warm and too bright, not like the pale yellow light of early morning. Curious, she rose groggily from her bed and walked to the balcony door. Still too sleepy to bring her magical energies into focus, she simply pulled back the curtains with her mouth. Immediately her suspicions were confirmed: the sun was already high overhead, the sky was a bold shade of blue, and the air was warm and breezy. It was mid-afternoon.
Now she knew something was off. Had she simply overslept? It certainly felt that way, for her sleep had been so deep and restful that it must have lasted for many hours, conceivably all morning. But why had no one awoken her earlier?
She thought back. Vague memories of yesterday arose in her mind as sleepiness subsided. She recalled last night, chatting with her sister, and raising the sun together…but after that, nothing. She must have fallen asleep then.
A soft growl disturbed Corona’s thoughts. She glanced quickly about her room, searching for its source, only to realize moments later that it had been her empty stomach. She’d barely eaten a thing all yesterday because of her long flight training session, and now she found that she was starving. Breakfast was called for – or rather lunch, at this hour. Taking a moment to don her regalia, she left her room and climbed quickly down the tower’s long staircase.
Near the base of the tower was a modest-sized private dining hall, reserved for the princesses and their personal staff. It being mid-afternoon, too late for lunch but far too early for dinner, there were no other ponies in the hall save for a royal chef. He happily prepared a meal for Corona, which she ate alone and in silence.
Her hunger sated, Corona decided at once to find her sister. Aurora was usually there to greet her when she awoke, explaining her plans for the day and keeping Corona’s mind occupied. Without her sister close at hoof, the sun princess felt rather aimless – though she had flight lessons scheduled again for later in the day, there seemed to be nothing to bide her time until then. Surely Aurora would have something for her to do.
First she checked the throne room and found it vacant. Some guards were posted near the door; when asked, they said that Princess Aurora and Glass Eye had been about much earlier in the day, but had since departed. The Royal Court, where the princesses’ council of advisors now convened, yielded similar results: no one there had seen Aurora recently, or had any idea where she might be found.
Soon Corona was reduced to wandering up and down the palace hallways, sometimes passing guards or other ponies and asking them if they had seen her sister. (Nopony had, or else it had been many hours since they last saw her.) The long passageways all looked more or less the same: round-roofed and walled with white stone and golden candle-holders, and richly-colored rugs spread across the floor; but as her wandering dragged on they seemed less and less familiar, ending and intersecting in places that didn’t seem quite right in the princess’s memory. Before long she realized that she was lost.
Since coming to live in Canterlot, her presence had only been required in a small number of places: the throne room, the main hall, sometimes the Royal Court, and so on. She had never taken the time to truly explore the vast and labyrinthine building in its entirety. Now, standing at a bewildering four-hallway intersection, she wished she had done so a long time ago.
“Blue Moon? Where are you?” she called out – she had little hope of actually finding her sister at this point, but she didn’t know what else she could do. “I’m lost! This place is huge!
“I’m right here, Summer.” With uncanny timing, Aurora stepped out from behind a corner.
“Blue!” Corona cried in happy surprise. “What’re you doing here? How’d you find me?”
"Good guesswork, mostly," her sister replied with a sly, knowing smile. "This is the exact same part of the palace where I lost myself earlier today. It’s pretty confusing around here.”
"You got lost here too? What were you doing out here?"
"Trying to find the library."
"We have a library?!"
Aurora nodded. "I didn't know about it either until Glass Eye told me. I've always gotten my magic books from the Arcane University's library, so I've never had to use the royal one. But it's here – well, actually, it's over there, just down the hall." She motioned with a hoof, indicating a doorway some distance down the hall from whence she'd come. "Glass Eye offered to take me to it, but I told him I'd rather find it myself…which is, of course, how I got lost. I stumbled across the library by luck.”
Now Corona's curiosity was piqued. "Why did you need to find the library, anyhow?"
“For research,” said Aurora. She started to walk back down the hall towards the library doors. “Come on, I’ll show you. And don’t worry about getting lost again – I’m drawing us a map. We’ll have this place figured out in no time.”
Once inside the library, Aurora filled her sister in on the morning’s events. After waking up and finding her sister still asleep, Aurora had gone to see Glass Eye; he had spoken with the advisory council about finding ways for the princesses to make themselves useful in running the country, and had even gone so far as to select a task for them.
“Ponyville,” said Aurora, laying open a thick brown tome upon a library table. The title page read: "Ponyville: History of a Small Town," with a black-and-white photograph of a group of ponies standing in front of an old town hall. “This is the town the council has selected for us to assist personally. It’s not big or politically important, but its history is rich. I wanted to get a better understanding of the town we’re going to visit beforehoof, just in case we need any background knowledge.” Her horn lit up, and using her magic she flipped forward through the pages one at a time.
Corona stood at her side, marveling at the images and words on the pages before her. She and Blue Moon had come from a rather small village themselves, but she never would’ve imagined that so modest a community could have been so important in the history of Equestria – at one time, the bearers of the Elements of Harmony had dwelt there, which Corona found amazing. The town seemed to have a rich history of its own, too: among other things, it was home to the oldest apple orchard in the known world, maintained for the past thousand years by a single family line.
After a while Corona spoke up. “So…what’re we gonna do when we get there? I mean, what kind of problems do they need us to solve?”
Aurora's horn glowed again and she summoned a scroll she had set across the table. "They're listed in here," she explained, unrolling the scroll and levitating it at eye level for them both to read. She frowned at the first item. "This first issue is the one that really troubles me. There's been a spike in foalnappings recently."
“Foalnappings?” Corona’s eyes widened.
“Yes,” Aurora said, more than a hint of anxiety in her voice. “Over a dozen foals have gone missing in the past few months, mostly on the border of the Everfree Forest.” She returned to the book on Ponyville, magically flipping back through it until she found a large map spread across two pages. Corona took a look: just outside of Ponyville’s borders stood an enormous forest, thick and dark-colored, extending even beyond the borders of the map.
“Ooh. Looks spooky,” said Corona. “What kinds of things live in that forest?”
“There’ve reports for years of everything from hydras to manticores,” Aurora replied, rattling off some of the information she had picked up from her talk with Glass Eye. “But nothing that would account for so many disappearances. The letter said that many in Ponyville were blaming it all on a ‘local legend,’ but it didn’t go into any further detail than that.” She issued a heavy, resigned sigh. “So yeah, we have practically nothing to go on until we actually get there.”
“Oh. Okay, then.” Corona turned her eyes back to the scroll. “What else is on the list?”
Again, Aurora raised the scroll to eye level. "Second, their town hall is in serious need of repair."
“And they want us to fix it?”
“No,” said Aurora. “They just need us to see what sort of shape it’s in, and decide whether or not Canterlot can spare a team of builders to come and fix it.”
“That sounds easy!”
“Not necessarily. I spoke with Glass Eye about this earlier. The Canterlot Corps of Engineers is quite busy with large-scale renovation the city of Manehattan at the moment. It would inconvenient and expensive to take any of them from their work there and bring them to Ponyville.”
“Oh. That sounds less easy.”
“I know, I know. From what I’ve gathered, this is what a princess’s duties entail: looking at complex situations and making tough decisions.” Aurora’s face darkened and she looked aside in thought. Her voice sounded weary and troubled. “We haven’t really done any of that since we came to the throne. I wonder if anypony in Equestria even thinks we know what we’re doing. That’s why this job is so important. We have to give Ponyville a good impression. We have to make sure Equestria knows we can handle things ourselves.”
"Oh…okay," said Corona, taken aback her sister's suddenly dour mood. At this point, she also noticed several dark, sleepy rings under Aurora’s eyes. The gears in her mind started to turn, and an upsetting realization struck her.
“Hey, sis?” Corona said.
“How much sleep did you get last night? Err…I mean, this morning?”
“I got enough,” Aurorareplied curtly.
“Really?” Corona’s voice bore an edge of skepticism. “‘Cause we went to bed right after the sunrise, which I think was sometime around six. And then when I got up, just after noon, you’d already been awake and doing stuff for a while.”
“Well, there were things that needed to be done. I couldn't keep Glass Eye waiting.”
"But you can’t just go without rest!" Corona protested, the skepticism in her voice giving way to worry. "You've seemed kind of…I dunno…edgy lately. You get really down and worried every time something big comes up, and that can’t be good for you. Don't you think maybe you're not getting enough sleep?"
“I’m getting plenty of sleep,” the moon princess insisted. “As long as I’m able to keep studying, training, and doing what needs to be done, then I’m getting all the rest I need.”
“Oh c’mon, Blue! Just relax a little! You just seem so worried all the time lately – first about your magic training, and now about this Ponyville thing. It’s…it’s kind of making me a little worried. About you.”
Aurora froze. The irate response sitting on the tip of tongue died the instant her sister spoke those last two words. Her face fell and she looked sadly at the floor. “I’m sorry, Summer,” she said in a low voice. “I never wanted to make you worry about me. But you’re right…I have been worried lately, about a lot of things. I’m sorry if I took any of it out on you.”
“Oh no, it’s not that, sis. You’re doing fine. Well, okay, maybe you’re just a tiny bit grumpy sometimes, but that’s okay. I’m just sorry you’re feeling so worried.”
“Thanks,” said Aurora. The urge to pace overwhelmed the dark-maned princess, and she rose from her seat at the table and began to walk back and forth across the library floor. “I’m worried that Equestria won’t accept us as leaders. I’m worried some other noble will call us inept or inadequate, and try to seize power for him or herself. There’s…there’s just such a huge burden on my shoulders now. It’s like nothing I’ve ever had to deal with before. I don’t know what I’m going to do, or how I’m going to handle it. I just…I….”
Corona was amazed; Aurora’s voice was beginning to break. Immediately she rose and went to her sister’s side. “You don’t have to handle it,” she said. “Not by yourself. You’ve got a co-princess, remember? And you’ve got a sister who loves you. That’s something, right?”
For a few seconds, Aurora said nothing. Then, without speaking another word, she wheeled around and pulled her sister into a tight hug. “Thank you, Summer,” she said softly, holding her sister in her forelegs and resting her head against Corona's shoulder. “You have no idea how much that means to me.”
“It’s okay, Blue,” Corona assured her. She leaned back into the hug. “It’s no big deal.”
“Yes, it is,” Aurora insisted. “I’m supposed to take care of you. I promised I would….”
“Yeah, and you have. But remember to take care of yourself too, okay?”
Aurora nodded, then let go of her sister and stepped back. “Maybe…maybe we’d better call it a day. We don’t leave for Ponyville until much later tonight, so I guess I have time for a little more rest.”
“Sounds great!” said Corona, her face and tone of voice both brightening. “I can go talk to Glass Eye instead, if you want me to.”
“That’s fine,” Aurora answered. She turned and made for the library exit. “If anypony needs me, I’ll be in my chambers. Probably asleep.”
"Okay, sis. You just relax, okay?" Corona said, levitating the Ponyville letter from the table and carrying it with her as she followed her sister from the room. At the intersection just down the hallway, Aurora paused to give Corona basic directions for how to get to the Royal Court from there. The sun princess nodded happily and set off on her way.
Once she was satisfied that her sister was headed in the right direction, Aurora heaved a tired sigh and headed off in the direction of her bedchambers. By now it was early evening, and the sun hung low and red in the sky and glowed through the palace windows, casting the hallways in a warm orange light. The walk back to her bedroom was long, and Aurora was slow and sluggish; it was as if her body sensed a nap in its near future and was preparing for sleep in advance.
At last she came to the foot of the tall tower, and the door to the spiraling stairwell that led up to the princess’s bedchambers. A guard pony, a tall sturdy pegasus with a white coat and a dull red mane, was posted in the hallway, standing at solid attention just across from the door. Aurora didn’t make a habit of befriending the guards, but this particular one was so often assigned to guard her tower that she’d built up a level of familiarity with him.
“Good afternoon, Lantern Jaw,” she said, a tired smile on her face.
“Good afternoon, your highness,” he replied stiffly. Though on good terms with both princesses, Lantern Jaw’s cold, stone-faced demeanor never faltered.
“Glass Eye will probably come along later this evening,” Aurora told him. “Make sure to let him up, or else I might miss the train to Ponyville.”
Lantern Jaw's cold, stone-faced demeanor faltered. His eyes widened just a tad – it was only for a second, but it was long enough for the princess to notice. She eyed him curiously. “Is something wrong?”
“Nothing, your highness,” he said. When she didn’t stop looking at him, he spoke up again: “Well, you see…I’m from Ponyville, your highness. I grew up there. I’ve heard about the foalnappings and I had been wondering if anything was going to be done.”
A tinge of fear bit at Aurora’s heart, Lantern Jaw’s words rang in her ears. ‘I was wondering if anything was going to be done…’ The night princess often found herself wondering how many of her subjects were thinking the same thing about problems in their own lives. She’d been so inactive since taking the throne –
No. Immediately she cut off that line of thought. It was making her worried again, and at the moment that was the last thing she needed. Now was a time for rest, and she wouldn’t get much if she was too busy tossing and turning in her bed with her mind full of racing thoughts and her heart full of worry. She forced herself to relax, and brought her mind back to the topic at hoof.
“So you’re from Ponyville?” she said to the guard. “If that’s the case…perhaps you could help me out.”
Again, Lantern Jaw’s eyes widened in surprise. “Me, your highness?”
Aurora nodded. “In the letter I received, it said that the locals were blaming the disappearances on a ‘local legend,’ but it didn’t go into any more detail than that. Would you happen to know what ‘legend’ they were referring to?”
For just a moment the guard pony seemed to hesitate. “…yes,” he said at length, his eyes shifting. “It began no more than two years ago, just before I joined the Royal Guard. Ponies around the Everfree Forest claimed sightings of…something in the forest, something that was said to capture foals.”
“Something?” Aurora echoed, her curiosity piqued.
“Yes, your highness,” continued Lantern Jaw. “Especially during thunderstorms. There would be lighting, and the smell of smoke, and…” he paused for a brief moment, seeming to turn the thought over in his mind before resuming. “...and a winged unicorn would appear.”
“Really,” said Aurora, not even trying to keep the skepticism out of her voice. To her knowledge, she and her sister were the only alicorns remaining in Equestria; there had never been evidence of any more.
“Well, yes,” the guard resumed. “I realize it’s improbable, but there were many witnesses, many respectable, reliable ponies who saw it. Even the head of Sweet Apple Acres, and her family line is renowned for its honesty.” His voice dropped several decibels. “In fact, she said that it almost resembled…well….” Though he had been hesitant before, now Lantern Jaw seemed to clam up entirely, completely unwilling to finish his thought.
“What? What did she say?” Aurora prodded him.
“Now, I’m sure she was just confused,” said the pegasus, sounding almost defensive of his hometown’s citizens. “All of the sightings were at night, and there was never any photographic evidence – ”
“Lantern Jaw,” the princess interrupted him, speaking in a firm voice. “What did she say it looked like?”
Lantern Jaw cleared his throat. “Nightmare Moon, your highness,” he said at last. “She said it resembled Nightmare Moon.”
Silence fell. For several moments, Aurora merely stared at the guard, her face inscrutable. Eventually he spoke up again:
“I know it’s ridiculous, your highness. I don’t put much stock in it myself – ”
“Thank you, Lantern Jaw,” the princess interrupted him again. Her voice was blunt, yet neutral. “That will be all. I’m going to rest now.”
“Yes, your highness,” replied the guard, recovering his cold, stone-faced demeanor.
Aurora climbed the stairs to her bedchambers, looking fretfully down at her hooves the entire time. Once in the privacy of her room she removed her regalia and crawled into bed for a nap. She tossed and turned for over half an hour before finally falling into a fitful sleep. Unpleasant foalhood memories, stirred by her conversation with Lantern Jaw, bubbled up from the deep recesses of her mind and plagued her dreams.
Her sleep was not restful that evening.
Geography fascinated Blue Moon. It only made sense, she supposed – her parents were mapmakers, and she picked up a great deal of cartographical knowledge from observing them. She’d follow her father when he made land surveys, watch as her mother drew up charts based on his notes. Inspired, she sometimes made maps of her own, spending long nights sketching landscapes by lamplight.
Her parents were always very supportive and encouraging, but they also never hesitated to offer critique when she needed it. Blue was learning fast, but it wasn’t quite fast enough for her; so she had taken to studying maps in her spare time, hoping that one day she might be as skilled as they were.
Blue Moon’s favorite place to read was on the far end of her backyard, on a small grassy hilltop crowned with an aged oak. Almost every afternoon she’d be there, resting comfortably in the cool shade with a large atlas or geography book spread open before her. With rapt interest she’d study the book’s maps, reading the detailed descriptions and taking in every feature of every landscape. Occasionally she’d flip the page with a hoof, revealing yet another new realm for her eyes to explore.
Today was a particularly pleasant day for outdoor reading. The air was clear and cool, and occasionally a gentle breeze would blow across the hillside, tousling her mane and making the leaves whisper. She would’ve been content to stay there for hours and hours had her sister’s voice not caught her attention.
“Blue! Hey, Blue!”
Blue Moon raised her head, coming eye to eye with Summer Sun. The afternoon sun shone in her golden mane, and her bright smile had a shine all its own.
“What is it, Summer?” asked the dark-maned filly, closing her book and laying it on the grass beside her.
“Wanna catch butterflies with me?” she asked excitedly. “Mom brought us some nets, and I got some jars from the kitchen we can keep them in.”
“Oh…well, Summer, I’m kind of busy at the moment,” said Blue Moon, turning her head to indicate the book. “I’ve got a lot of reading to do right now.” Strictly speaking, it wasn’t required reading; Blue Moon only required it of herself. But it was still very important to her.
“Aw, c’mon, sis,” Summer pleaded. “I just saw a whole bunch of butterflies out in the field. I bet they’ll be gone soon. Can’t you do your reading later?”
There was a pause as Blue gave the matter some thought. Chasing after butterflies seemed like a silly way to spend an afternoon, especially when she could be spending it reading instead. She looked again at her sister: that sunny, innocent smile hadn’t left her face. Summer would be so happy if she agreed to play with her….
“Please, Blue? You’ve always got your nose buried in those books. It’s like you’re addicted to maps or something.”
“I am not,” Blue protested. “I just want to learn as much as I can. I have to prove to Mom and Dad that I can be as good a mapmaker as they are.”
Summer frowned. “What's the rush? You don't have to prove anything to them right now,” she argued. “Besides…I bet you aren’t as good a butterfly-catcher as me. Don't you wanna prove me wrong about that?”
Blue Moon sighed in defeat, reaching aside to close her book. Cartography was important to her, but her sister was more important still. “Sure, Summer,” she said, standing up and smiling. “Let go catch some butterflies.”
Summer’s smile returned, wider and brighter than before. Blue left her book lying under the tree, and together the two sisters ran back to get their nets. For a while Blue’s studies were forgotten in favor of something much more valuable.
Aurora and Corona’s train arrived in Ponyville just before midnight. Though the sky-chariot had been the traditional mode of transport for Equestrian royalty in centuries past, these uncertain times made such open travel unsafe. Instead, a train car had been converted specially for their use. It was a sleeper car, long and wide with bunk-space truly fit for a princess. The carpet was deep and lush and the walls elegantly gilded. Thick dark curtains were drawn over the windows.
The trip was not long, but Aurora managed to catch some sleep along the way. She had awoken from her earlier nap feeling less than rested, with the bitter taste of unpleasant dreams lingering in her mind. The prospect of having to face "Nightmare Moon" – or else something that resembled her – had for very personal reasons kept her from restful sleep. Things had only gotten worse after she and her sister had raised the moon; determined not to let a heavy burden fall on Corona again, Aurora had made certain to carry as much of the moon’s magical weight as she could. It had been a terrible strain and left her feeling even more exhausted than before, but it was worth it to spare her sister the same struggle. Fortunately, the sleep she caught on the train was much more restful, and her dreams more pleasant.
Corona woke her again when the train came to a stop. The Ponyville station was small, with a single platform extending from a simple wooden stationhouse – a far cry from the glassy, elegant affair that stood in Canterlot, but it served the town’s needs well. The building was mostly dark, save for a single lit window; normally the station would be closed at these hours, but special arrangements had been made for the princess’s nighttime visit. It was the only way for them to enter Ponyville discreetly, which the advisory council had deemed a safer move than a daylight parade down the main streets.
Waiting for them on the platform was Ponyville’s mayor. She was a rather young-looking unicorn, raven-maned with a coat of deep blue. About her neck was a simple gray collar adorned with a black bowtie. She bowed respectfully as the princesses stepped off the train, flanked on either side by royal guard ponies.
“Welcome to Ponyville, your highnesses,” she said. “I’m Mayor Tally Mark. On behalf of Ponyville, allow me to say that we are honored by your visit.”
“We’re….” Aurora cleared her throat. Her life as a princess up to now had been mostly confined to within the palace walls; this was the first time she’d ever had to address one of her subjects and she wasn’t entirely comfortable. “We’re glad to be here, Mayor.”
“Wonderful!” Tally Mark continued. “I can’t begin to thank you enough for coming to address our concerns personally.”
“It’s what we’re here for!” Corona chimed in, smiling brightly. “So what do you need us to do first?”
“Ah.” The mayor seemed to hesitate. “Well, there is one issue in particular – it’s the main reason we requested your aid, actually.”
“The foalnappings?” guessed Aurora, judging by Tally Mark’s darkened tone of voice.
“Well, yes,” said the mayor. “But there’s a bit more to it than just foalnappings. Since that message was sent, things have gotten a little more complicated.”
“Complicated?” Corona echoed, her expression quizzical. “What do you mean?”
“Perhaps it would be simpler if I showed you.” Tally Mark turned about, turning back her head to address the princesses. “If you’ll follow me, your highnesses, we’ve a carriage waiting just outside the station.”
Aurora and Corona followed the mayor off of the platform and through the stationhouse, passing quickly through the front doors and onto Ponyville’s dim streets. There waiting for them was a carriage, black and roofless, pulled by four strong earth stallions. The princesses climbed into the back seats, and the mayor into the front.
With a small procession of guards following close behind them, the carriage started to move through the sleeping township. By all appearances, Ponyville was decidedly quaint and old-fashioned: old red-brick houses and storefronts lined the cobblestone streets, and here and there gnarled, ancient oaks burst from the ground and towered over the surrounding structures. The moon hung low and bright in the sky, illuminating the courtyards and fountain squares; but all was still and soundless save for the clacking carriage-wheels and the steady hoofsteps of the guards.
At last they stopped; they had arrived at the hospital. Aurora and Corona shared a curious glance, then stepped out of the carriage and followed the mayor through the entrance. They passed the front check-in, and Tally Mark asked if they could see “the patients” in so many words. The ponies behind the desk seemed to know what she meant, and allowed them inside after offering reverent greetings and thanks to the princesses. At their request, the guards stayed behind in the lobby.
Tally Mark then led them down a long white hallway, explaining the situation as they walked. “A little over a year ago, ponies started to come to me claiming to have seen…something. Most of these reports came from ponies who live near the border of the Everfree Forest, so we assumed they were just unfamiliar creatures wandering out of the woods. It happens sometimes.”
“I see,” said Aurora, knowing already where the mayor’s story was going.
“But the reports kept coming in, again and again from the same ponies. They were absolutely certain that they had seen a winged unicorn in the forest, especially on stormy nights. And when foals who lived near on the border of the Everfree started to go missing, we knew we couldn’t ignore it any longer. Even Pink Pearl, manager of Sweet Apple Acres, reported a sighting – in fact, she was the only one who ever saw it up close. She claimed that it resembled – ”
“Nightmare Moon?” Aurora finished for her.
For the briefest of moments, Tally Mark stopped in her tracks and stared wide-eyed at Aurora. “Why, yes....” she affirmed, sighing in sad resignation. “Pink Pearl is a good pony, but her report has set the whole town abuzz with rumors that the 'ghost of Nightmare Moon' has returned to haunt the Everfree. Has the word really spread as far as Canterlot now?”
“One of my guards is from Ponyville,” explained Aurora. “He told me about the sightings.”
“Oh dear. It wasn’t Lantern Jaw, was it?”
“Actually, yes, it was,” Aurora replied, confused by the mayor’s tone. “Why do you ask?”
The hallway came to a stop before a wide set of silvery-gray double-doors. Tally Mark placed a hoof on the rightmost door and said, “Like I said earlier: it might be simpler if I just showed you.”
With that, she pushed the door open. Inside was a long ward, with twin-sized beds lined in rows against either wall with a pony sleeping in each one. Many had breath masks and catheters running into their resting forelegs, connected by tubes to hanging bags of fluid. Teal-garbed nurses moved silently from bed to bed, attending to the patients and sometimes speaking to one another in hushed whispers. All was quiet save for the soft beeping of machinery.
In the bed nearest the door slept an aged pegasus stallion, gray-coated with a mane of dull puce. He was unfamiliar to either princess, but after a moment Aurora was struck by an uncanny family resemblance.
“That looks like…is that…?”
“Lantern Jaw’s father,” whispered the mayor. “He’s lived on the border of the Everfree for many years. He was one of the first ponies to bring in sightings of that…thing, whatever it is.”
“What’s – ” Corona started loudly, but then caught herself and lowered her voice. “What’s wrong with him?”
“We don’t know. A week ago he simply stumbled into the hospital and collapsed. He’s been in a coma ever since.” She motioned to the other sleeping patients. “The same thing happened to all of them. These are all ponies who live near the Everfree Forest, and each of them claimed repeated, almost regular sightings of that creature. And then they all ended up here – exhausted, comatose, drained like batteries. And all within the last week, no less.”
“Do you think this has any connection to the missing foals?” Aurora asked.
“Many of these ponies are parents of the missing foals,” said Tally Mark, “but that’s likely just because of their proximity to the forest. Whatever did this to them is probably what took their children as well; we just have no idea what it is.”
After that they took leave of the ward. Aurora was glad to put the sad sight behind them; seeing those ponies lying there just made the weight of her responsibility seem much more tangible than before. She knew that her subjects’ lives depended on her, but actually seeing them there, hanging in the balance, was deeply disquieting.
Though she said nothing of it, Corona felt much the same way. Her cheerful grin from before had all but dried up, leaving nothing but a troubled frown in its place. She didn’t often give much thought how great her responsibilities as an Equestrian princess were – she was usually so focused on her flight training that the reality of ruling a country didn’t cross her mind. It was a little distressing, now that she really thought about it. But she wasn’t too worried; she was sure Aurora knew how to handle it. Aurora would take care of everything. She always did.
At the same time, unbeknownst to Corona, a strange determination woke in Aurora’s heart. Ponies – her subjects – were suffering and afraid, and it was her job to help them. This was her opportunity, she remembered; this was her chance to prove that she and Corona were capable rulers, worthy to sit upon the thrones of Equestria. Saving this town from its ghostly tormentor, whatever it really was, might just be enough to earn their nation’s confidence. She decided at once to focus her attentions on solving the problem as quickly as possible.
“Excuse me, Mayor,” she said once they had returned to the lobby. “But you mentioned Pink Pearl earlier…do you think we could meet her?”
“Actually,” said Tally Mark. “I was hoping you might ask. I informed of your visit just a few days ago, and she practically demanded an audience with you. She’s staying at Sweet Apple Estates – she refused to be hospitalized, even with a broken leg.”
“A broken leg?” Corona echoed, tilting her head curiously. “How’d her leg get broken? It didn’t have anything to do with that Nightmare Moon thing, did it?”
“In a sense, yes,” answered the mayor. “But I think you’d be better off hearing it from her. She’s got quite a story about her encounter with it – and she may just be the only pony in town who can help us get to the bottom of this.” With that, Tally Mark made for the door. “This way, your highnesses. I’ll have the carriage take us to see her.”
Without another word, Aurora and Corona followed the mayor back outside and climbed again into the carriage, setting off once the royal guards had fallen into formation behind them. As they left, Aurora cast a single glance back at the hospital, thinking of those ponies that lay comatose in their beds – especially of Lantern Jaw’s father. ‘I was wondering if anything was going to be done…’
“Yes, Lantern Jaw,” she murmured to herself. “Something will be done. I promise.”
The carriage clacked along the road. The buildings grew fewer and further between as they passed through the town’s outskirts. Eventually they left Ponyville’s boundaries altogether and entered the open countryside; the cobblestone street turned into a dirt road and the ground became hilly and uneven. Trees sprung up around them, dark and old and twisted but bright-leafed and alive. In the moonlight they could see bold red apples hanging from their aged branches.
Then at last, coming over a rise, they saw it: vast, sprawling fields of apple trees, their bright green tops aglow in the moonlight, opening before them as far as the eye could see. In all shapes and sizes they grew, some high and lean and others thick-trunked and ancient, and upon them all bright apples hung gleaming, red and green and gold and pink. Everywhere the landscape was coated with them, from dense groves that gathered in low dales to endless rows that marched across the rolling hills. The orchard extended even to the very edge of the horizon, where tall trees stood stark on distant hilltops silhouetted against the low-hanging white moon.
Corona was awestruck. “Is this…?”
“Sweet Apple Acres,” the mayor finished for her, with more than a hint of pride in her voice. “The oldest and largest apple orchard in Equestria. Founded over one thousand years ago, and passed down through the Apple family line from generation to generation.”
“It’s extraordinary,” said Aurora, gazing wide-eyed across the fields.
Tally Mark simply smiled.
After passing through a green-painted wooden gateway, the carriage finally came to a stop before a huge white manor-house. On the wide front porch stood a finely dressed servant-pony, who politely opened the doors for the mayor and princesses. “Miss Pearl is expecting you, your highnesses,” he said with a courteous bow. “She’s waiting just inside.”
Aurora and Corona exchanged another apprehensive glance. Tally Mark stepped by them, striding through the front door. “Don’t worry, your highnesses,” she said. “Pink Pearl’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Corona shrugged in resignation, and without another word the sisters followed the mayor through the door. Inside was a spacious sitting room, beige-walled with a huge red rug spread across the hardwood floor. Fixed in the center of the rightmost wall was heavy marble fireplace, crackling and aglow with heat. An earth pony sat silhouetted before the fire. She rested on a large cushion, her back to the door.
“I figured yall’d show up sooner or later,” said the pony. “Come ‘round front, your highnesses. I’d like a word with y’all, if’n you don’t mind.”
The sisters stepped hesitantly around the speaker. Once closer, they could make out her features in the firelight: her coat was a creamy white color and her short mane was leafy green. A pink apple-shaped Cutie Mark adorned her flank.
“Pink Pearl at your service, your majesties,” she said, nodding her head. “I’d get up ‘n bow, but as y’all can see,” she glanced down at her left foreleg, wrapped in a cast, “I ain’t in any shape to be standin’ up at the moment.”
“It’s quite all right,” Aurora assured her, and she really meant it. She was getting tired of ponies bowing to her everywhere she went.
“Oh, come now, Pearl,” Tally Mark joked, stepping up beside Aurora. “You’ve never let something as small as a broken leg keep you down before. Why so feeble all of a sudden?”
Pink Pearl smiled. “Maybe I’m just humblin’ myself up for the princesses. A pony can afford to do that sometimes, y’know.” She looked back up at Aurora and Corona. “You’ll have to forgive me and Tally Mark. We’re old friends, y’see.”
“We like to poke fun,” said the mayor. “It’s a little hobby of ours.”
“But I’m right glad to help however I can, your highnesses,” said Pink Pearl with unmistakable Apple-family sincerity. “I’m just as itchin’ to get this case wrapped up as you are.”
“Great!” said Corona, smiling cheerfully. The rug beneath her hooves was thick and soft, so she sat down on it, tucking her legs beneath her. Aurora did the same – she was a little uncomfortable towering over the resting earth pony, anyway. Behind her, Tally Mark continued to stand; at her height, she was at eye level with both princesses.
“So, um…” Corona started again. “How’d your leg get broken? Mayor Tally Mark said it had something to do with that…um, thing that you saw.”
The earth pony’s face darkened. “As a matter of fact, yeah. It did. And it’s gonna pay for it next time I see it! I won’t be ready to get back to applebuckin’ for weeks, the way this here leg is broke – and I don’t take kindly to bein’ put outta work.”
“Now now, Pearl,” Tally Mark chided gently. “Don’t get overzealous. Just tell the princesses what happened.”
“Right, right. Sorry, Mayor, just ventin’ a little. Can’t help myself sometimes.” Pink Pearl then sat up, repositioning herself on the cushion to meet the princesses’ eyes. Her grim face glowed in the flickering firelight as she began her story. “Now I’d seen that critter about a dozen times beforehoof – I thought it looked a mite like Nightmare Moon, but I never got a good enough look at it to be sure. But just a week ago, when folks started turnin’ up at the hospital, I knew I just couldn’t sit around on my rump anymore – I had to do somethin’. Whatever the hay that thing was, I’d had enough of it stealin’ foals and puttin’ ponies in comas.”
“So,” Tally Mark interrupted, “without telling anypony, she charged into the Everfree by herself. No map, no idea where she was going, no backup – ”
“Hey! I’m tellin’ this here story. And it’s just fine without any commentary, thank you very much,” Pink Pearl said with mild indignation. When the mayor fell silent, the earth pony began again: “So yeah, I kinda ran in there all by my lonesome. But I knew what I was doin’! I’d been out in those woods a whole bundle of times before and I knew my way ‘round.” She looked aside solemnly. “Except that night. That night things were different.
“I got lost. I ain’t sure how, but I did. Maybe I was just so dead-set on findin’ that thing that I didn’t pay much heed to where I was goin’. So I just sorta wandered around, hopin’ to find a way out – or better yet, to find that nightmare critter so I could give it what for. After about an hour I found myself in the middle of a whole bunch of old burned-out houses, like some kinda town in the middle of the woods.”
At this point, Tally Mark stepped in again. “In the past, ponies have tried to ‘tame’ the Everfree – small communities have sprung up in the woods, but they never lasted very long. I imagine those were the ruins of just such a village, long-lost and forgotten.” She smiled at Pink Pearl in apology. “Sorry for butting in again, it just seemed important.”
“Aw, it’s all right, mayor,” said Pink Pearl, dismissing her concerns with a waved hoof before turning back to the princesses and continuing her tale. “Anyway, that was when I heard it: some kinda screechin’, howlin’ sound. I ain’t gonna lie, it chilled me right to the bone. Then from out behind one of the old buildings comes this…thing. It was tall, taller even than y’all, your highnesses. And there was no mistakin’ it – the horn and the wings, the helmet, that shark-toothed grin. It was Nightmare Moon, as I live and breathe.”
There was a pause. Aurora and Corona shared an uncertain glance.
“You don’t…you don’t think it was the real Nightmare Moon, right?” Corona asked after a long silence. “I mean, she’s mostly just an old mare’s tale….”
“There was only one ‘real’ Nightmare Moon,” said Aurora. “That was Princess Luna. And she’s….” she trailed off, finding it difficult to finish her sentence.
“Gone. Yeah, I know,” Pink Pearl finished for her, sullen-voiced. “But I know what I saw. It was Nightmare Moon, or else somethin’ that looked just like her. Maybe a ghost…if y’all can believe in such a thing, of course.”
“What happened next?” asked Corona.
“Well, needless to say, I was…well, I was a little spooked. And for a second, her horn lit up with a weird green glow. Then…then, I’m not totally sure what happened. I started feelin’ funny: I got a bad headache, and I felt a mite tired, and kinda woozy. But then I planted my hooves and stared her down, and looked as fierce as I could. Whatever she was up to, I wasn’t just gonna let her have her way with me.
“Well, she didn’t like that. Her horn quit glowin’, and she sorta screamed at me – no words or anything, just noisy shriekin’. And then she charged at me. Now, starin’ down Nightmare Moon is one thing, but starin’ down a Nightmare Moon that’s runnin’ right at you is another thing altogether. So I, uh….”
Pink Pearl looked down, her face flushed. “So I ran, okay? Just took off through the woods. I think she was chasin’ me, but I didn’t look back. Then I tripped over a big rock and fell on my foreleg real funny – it hurt like hay, but I managed to haul myself outta the Everfree. When I got back, I got some farmhands to take me to the hospital and the doc told me it was broken.”
For a moment all was silent as Pink Pearl’s story sank in. Corona wasn’t sure what to say. Hearing about what she and Aurora might have to face was a little distressing; she hoped that Aurora might decide to put it off until the end of their visit, after they had addressed Ponyville’s other, smaller problems.
In the meantime Aurora sat quietly, running through the details over and over in her mind. At length she looked again at the farm pony. “This ghost town you saw…do you know where it is? Or how we might find it?”
“Well…not exactly, your highness. I know it ain’t too deep in the woods, but I wasn’t really payin’ too much attention while I was runnin’ back out. Fortunately,” she glanced at Tally Mark, “I’ve had a little help figurin’ things out.”
“We keep some old maps of Ponyville in the town archives,” explained the mayor. “Some of them are over a hundred years old, and have those abandoned woodland communities marked. I let Pearl borrow one of them….”
“…and I’ve been lookin’ over it, tryin’ to pinpoint just where I was when I saw her.” Pink Pearl then turned her head, staring pointedly at a tall wooden bookshelf across the room. “It’s sittin’ on that shelf over yonder. Tally, you mind gettin’ it for me?”
“Certainly,” said Tally Mark. The unicorn trotted away from the hearth, scanning the shelf for a moment before seizing a thick roll of map-papers in her horn’s magical grip. She returned to the fireside, unrolling the crinkly parchment and spreading it on the floor before the princesses.
“Ooh, maps!” said Corona excitedly. “Blue is – er, Aurora’s really good with maps. Right, sis?”
“Our mother is a cartographer,” Aurora explained. “And our father is a land surveyor. We grew up working with maps – well, I did, at least. Summer wasn’t – er, Corona wasn’t quite as interested, but I learned a lot.”
“Well then, lookie here, your highness,” said Pink Pearl, pointing with a hoof to a spot circled in red. “I’ve been lookin’ over these here maps for a couple days now, and I think I got it narrowed down to two spots: here….” She moved her hoof, pointing to a similarly marked spot. “…and here. There’s only one track that goes through the Everfree, and these two lil’ towns are on either side of it.”
Aurora took a closer look: indeed, there appeared to be small villages marked on the map, alone and isolated in the middle of the dense forest. Each one stood less than a mile distant from a long, winding dirt pathway that cut through the woods.
“This looks promising…” she said softly, then turned back to address Tally Mark. “Mayor, do you think we could investigate these towns tonight? I’d like to get to the bottom of this as quickly as we can, and they seem as good a place as any to start looking.”
At this Corona’s eyes widened in surprise. Aurora really wanted to go into the forest tonight? She bit her lip nervously, but said nothing in protest – Aurora knew what she was doing. Usually.
“Certainly, your highness,” answered Tally Mark, failing to notice the worry on Corona’s face. “The Everfree Forest is just a five-minute’s carriage ride from here. We can set out at once, if you like.”
“Good,” said Aurora, rising to her hooves. Using her magic, she picked up the map and rolled it back into a scroll. “Thank you so much for your help, Miss Pearl,” she said to the farm pony. Corona stood as well and nodded happily in agreement.
“Oh, it was my pleasure, your highnesses,” replied Pink Pearl. “Y’all just take care, y’hear? And if you do find that thing…whoop up on her for me, will you? Kick her flank real hard. A whole lotta folks are in bad shape because of whatever the hay she did to ‘em, and a whole lotta parents are worried sick about their missin’ foals.”
“We won’t forget,” said Aurora, once again remembering the sight of those poor ponies in the hospital. “Believe me, we won’t.”
Carrying the rolled-up map with her, Aurora and her sister returned with the mayor to the waiting carriage. Tally Mark instructed the earth ponies to take them to the border of Everfree, and soon they were off again. The royal guards followed close behind them, stern and silent as ever.
“Blue?” Corona whispered to her sister. “Are you sure about this? Couldn’t we…I don’t know, couldn’t we inspect the town hall first, or something? Why do we have to do this tonight?”
“Because it’s the most important issue,” replied Aurora, softly but firmly. “It can’t wait. Lots of ponies are depending on us – we have to get this done as soon as we can.” She looked aside, eyeing the passing apple trees as she spoke. “Besides, this is our chance – a perfect chance to prove that we’re capable leaders. We have to take advantage of it.”
“Oh...okay.” Corona turned aside as well, watching the dark landscape pass before her eyes and trying to ignore the knot that was forming in her stomach. She didn’t realize it, but her sister was doing exactly the same thing.
The first time Blue Moon ever saw Princess Luna was at a Nightmare Night celebration, the first year after her family had moved nearer to Canterlot. It was Summer Sun's enthusiasm and curiosity that drove her to attend, even though Blue wasn't much fond of Nightmare Night herself. But she would do anything to make her sister happy.
Both fillies had briefly met Princess Celestia in the past, on the few occasions when she had visited their parents, but the princess of the night was still very much a mystery to them. Like all foals their age, they knew their Equestrian history: the story of Luna's banishment, and of her return a thousand years later. But that wasn't the same as meeting her in person.
As per tradition, Princess Luna had promised to make a guest appearance (as "Nightmare Moon," no less) at the town's annual festival, and on the eve of Nightmare Night the whole community buzzed with excitement. A great open-air tent was erected in the town square, dark blue canvas with painted stars to match the princess's mane. Sweets vendors and costumed entertainers set up shop up and down the busy streets, and eerie orange lanterns were strung on long lines between buildings and lamp-posts. By nightfall the square was filled with excited ponies, all chatting and laughing and dancing to the tunes of local musicians.
Blue and Summer arrived late in the evening, just as the celebration was getting under way. Many ponies, mostly old ones, were standing around the square with foals gathered all around them, telling ghost stories and recounting Nightmare Night folklore. Blue Moon half-listened, catching snippets of eerie yarns about Windigos and Will O' the Wisps, but her attention wandered – they were just old mare's tales, as far as she was concerned. It wasn't until somepony struck up the story of Nightmare Moon that she really started to listen.
"Every Nightmare Night for hundreds of years," rasped the storyteller, an actual old mare, "Nightmare Moon has visited our town! She flies through the streets, searching for little foals who are out past their bedtimes!" Her voice grew dark and ominous. "And if she catches you, she'll gobble your little Cutie Mark right off your flank!"
The gathered foals gasped. Summer and Blue made no sound, but sat listening intently. They knew that most stories like this one were no more than myths, but they were fascinated by them anyway; tales of Equestrian princesses, real or imagined, always piqued their interest.
"You!" said the old mare, pointing with a bony foreleg. It took Blue Moon a moment to realize that she was pointing at her.
"I'll bet Nightmare Moon comes after you first! She'll think that cookie-shaped Cutie Mark of yours looks awful tasty!"
Blue stepped back, offended. "It's not a cookie!" she cried. "It's the moon!"
"Actually, it kinda does look like a cookie," Summer giggled in amusement.
"Well, you'd better HOPE it's not a cookie," the storyteller continued, "or Nightmare Moon will come and gobble it up!"
The foals laughed. Blue Moon turned away, her head low. "C'mon, Summer. Let's go find something else to do."
For another half-hour the sisters wandered about the festival, dancing, bobbing for apples, and chatting with what few other foals they knew. At last the orange sun sank below the horizon, and the sky turned dark blue and diamond-studded. They turned their ears to the chattering crowd – it seemed the princess was due to show up any minute now. Summer practically bounced with excitement; Blue Moon was rather more apprehensive, but she stuck around for her sister's sake.
Then at last it came, as sudden and startling as a bolt of lightning. From out of nowhere, broiling dark storm clouds filled the sky. Thunder rumbled, white lightning split the night, cold winds whistled and howled all about them. Then came the fluttering of leathery wings – a swarm of bats passed overhead, heralding the approach of their dread master.
"Despair, ye ponies!" boomed a voice, a deep, dark, dreadful voice, coming from somewhere above. "For now cometh Nightmare Moon!" A dark shape, huge and black as midnight, swept over the crowd's heads and came to a stop hovering over the square. Wings outstretched, her horn glowing with black moonlight, the princess of the night leered over the mass of ponies below her. Upon her head was a silvery-blue helm, and stars twinkled in her flowing mane. Her eyes glowed, white and pale as death. Nightmare Moon, in the very flesh, had arrived.
At this sight the crowd went wild. Some cheered joyously, while others screamed in gleeful terror. It was all an act, of course, but that was part of the fun; it was what Nightmare Night was all about.
In that moment, Blue Moon decided that she really didn't like Nightmare Night. She didn't like it at all.
As quietly as she could, the dark-maned filly slinked away, finding cover in a dim alleyway not far from the square. She leaned against the wall behind her, squeezing her eyes shut and waiting for the noise to die down… and for the churning in her stomach to go away.
"Blue? Are you okay?"
The voice caught Blue Moon by surprise, and she started. She relaxed again when she looked up to see her sister standing over her.
"Oh… yeah, Summer. I'm just fine. Don't worry about me."
"Oh. Okay, I guess." Summer turned her head around, glancing out of the alleyway and taking stock of the cheering crowd. "Nightmare Moon" continued to swoop above the square in a dazzling display. She looked back at her sister, still scrunched uncomfortably against the cold bricks. "Um, Blue… are you scared?"
"No, I'm not scared," Blue Moon insisted. She was never scared – she couldn't allow herself to be. If she was scared, who would take care of Summer? "Look, can we go home? I don't really like Nightmare Night all that much, all right?"
"It's okay, Blue," said Summer. "I wasn't having that much fun anyway."
Blue got up from her hiding place and walked at her sister's side. Together, the two fillies trotted back down the darkened streets for home, leaving the noise and spectacle behind them.
The border of the Everfree Forest stood just over a mile from Ponyville's city limits. It rose from the earth like a veritable wall of woodland, dark and dense and thick with heavy foliage and many hanging vines. Along its edge the trees were wild and ivy-coated, all reaching out from the dark with long twisted arms. The wall had but a single opening, a small mouth down which ran a narrow dirt path. Even on this moonlit night, the path vanished into shadow not more than a few yards into the woods.
Aurora and Corona stood at the edge of the trees, staring into the gloom. Corona strained her vision, but she couldn't make out what lay down the path. A wind seemed to blow from out of the woods, faint and chill like the breathing of some massive beast. It unsettled her deeply, as though the forest was aware of their presence. It was not making her feel welcome.
"Heh," she chuckled, doing her best to lighten the mood. "That road looked a lot bigger on the map than it does in real life, huh?" She looked at her sister, hoping for a laugh. But Aurora stood still and silent, staring straight ahead, her expression neutral.
A few yards behind them, the carriage sat parked at the edge of a dirt road. At its side stood the mayor, along with the six royal guards that the princesses had brought with them. "The path isn't wide enough for the carriage," Tally Mark explained. "And it winds a great deal, making it impossible to maneuver except on hoof. I'm afraid you'll have to walk the whole way, unless you'd prefer to fly."
"We'll walk," said Aurora bluntly. Her horn lit up, and with her magic she held the borrowed map before her eyes. For a moment she studied it; then she took a slow, shaky breath in an effort to calm her jumpy nerves. It was quiet enough that the mayor and the guards couldn't hear it, but Corona did. It troubled her.
"Mayor," said Aurora, turning back to face Tally Mark. "How many foals have vanished in total?"
For a moment the mayor paused, startled and saddened by the question. "Seventeen, your highness," she said in length, her voice low and dark. "Seventeen foals have disappeared into those woods in the past two months. Why do you ask?"
Aurora turned around again and gazed into the darkness. "I just needed to remind myself what I'm doing this for," she said, her voice little more than a whisper. Then without another word, she stepped forward, walking solemnly into the forest's mouth. Corona followed close beside her, and behind them came the heavy hoof-falls of the guards. Tally Mark climbed back into the carriage and bade the earth ponies to return to Ponyville. There was nothing more she could do from this point on. It was up to the princesses now.
The moment they stepped into the forest, Corona was struck by a suffocating sense of claustrophobia. The path was narrow and grew narrower the further they walked, and all around the forest was pitch-dark, choked by vines and foliage. The air was thick and close like a musty cellar, but Corona still felt a wind on her face, like a cold breath that seemed to drift from somewhere deep in the heart of the woods. She resisted the urge to shiver, looking instead at her sister to reassure herself; as long as Aurora wasn't too frightened, there was no reason for her to be frightened either. The knot in her stomach untied itself every time they shared a glance.
When she wasn't reassuring her sister, Aurora herself continued to walk with her eyes forward, pausing only occasionally to study their surroundings and compare it to the map. They were still on the right course, it seemed, but they had many miles yet to go.
Within minutes of setting out, the forest turned denser and darker and the atmosphere more oppressive. The trees grew wilder here, their thick limbs crossing and writhing together like serpents overhead, forming a roof of black and green. Beneath the canopy all was plunged into shadow; only here and there did silvery slivers of moonlight pierce through the shade. Soon the princesses were forced to light the way with their horns: twin glows of sun-gold and moon-silver shone like lanterns down the forest path.
But worse than the darkness was the noise – or rather, the lack thereof. At the forest's edge there had at least been the sounds of night-birds and chirping crickets; but here, in the thick of the forest, a dead silence hung in the air. The darkness all around them produced no woodland noises, keeping quiet as a tomb. Corona heard only her own hoofsteps and her sister's, and the slow rhythmic trudge of the guards behind them. It was almost nerve-wracking.
After a while Aurora paused again to consult her map, and Corona leaned over to whisper in her ear. "Hey, Blue…how much further?"
"It's not far now," said Aurora, showing her sister the map. The dark canopy above them was marked; it was about three-quarters of the way from the forest entrance to a small crossroads. "Once we get there, we'll have to take one of two routes: there's a path that goes east, and another that goes west. Either one could lead us to the ghost town Pink Pearl described."
Corona turned her head slightly, eyeing the guards: they stood stock still at attention, waiting for the princesses to move again. "Good. I really wanna stop soon – those guards are making me a little nervous. It's like they're following us or something."
"Summer!" Aurora whispered harshly, trying to fight the smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. In a moment she regained her composure. "Summer, this is nothing to joke about. We've got a serious job to do here."
"I know, I know," Corona conceded. "I'm sorry. But I really am nervous. I don't like this place. It's like those awful woods we used to get lost in when we were fillies, except a whole lot worse, because it's so much bigger…and darker."
Aurora had to resist the urge to drape a protective wing over her sister. They both needed to look strong and independent in front of the guards. But she leaned closer and whispered, "It's okay, Summer. Don't worry. I've got us a map, remember? Just like old times. We'll be fine, I promise."
Corona answered her with a smile, and together they continued forward.
At last they came to the intersection, where another trail, even smaller and narrower, crossed over theirs. No signpost or marker stood at the crossroads; had she not been looking for it, Aurora might have missed it entirely. On either side the path led into deeper darkness, like a tunnel beneath the trees, disappearing into pitch black just after just a few yards.
"All right," said Aurora, loudly enough for the guards to hear. "The path on the left leads to the eastern village, and the one on the right leads to the west." She turned her head, looking down each path in turn, and then sighed in frustration. "I suppose this means we'll have to split up."
"Very well, your highness," said the guard at the front of the line. They were all gray-white pegasus stallions, and Aurora had trouble remembering their names. "If you wish, three of us may accompany you down the left path, and the others will follow Princess Corona down the right."
"No!" Corona said, loudly and suddenly. There was fear in her voice, and it echoed in the trees all around them. Then her face flushed, and she looked sheepishly at the guards. "I-I think I'd rather stay with Aurora," she said more quietly, her eyes cast down in shame.
"It's okay, Summer," Aurora assured her gently. Then she looked back up, addressing the guards. "I think it'd be best if my sister and I stay together. We work better as a team anyway. Two of you can come with us down the east path, and the other four can take the west by themselves. Return here after an hour and report anything you find."
"As you wish, Princess," said the lead guard. He glanced back at his subordinates, and with a few jerks of his head he issued them a complex series of orders. Nodding in compliance, four of the guards broke off and marched down the path to the right. In moments they had vanished down the dark path, the sound of their hooves fading into the night. Corona's eyes followed them until they were out of sight.
Aurora took another slow, quiet breath. Her nerves were jumping again, but she made every effort to keep it to herself. She looked again at the map – there was nothing more she could learn from it right now, but it calmed her anyway because it gave her a sense of control. She knew where she was going; it was just a matter of making herself go. Sharing one last look with her sister, she trotted slowly down the east path and into darkness. Corona followed at her side, much closer to her than before, and behind them came the guards. Four sets of hooves echoed in the still, quiet forest.
Corona brightened her horn-glow. This path was even darker than the main one, and it was thick with rocks and roots that burst through the dirt and made for uneven footing. More than once she nearly stumbled. After a minute's walk it became clear that the path was leading downhill, towards a low river basin where broad willows grew. Their long, sinewy arms hung like tendrils from above, glowing ghostly pale in the sisters' magical light. A few of them hung low enough to brush against Corona's head, which made her deeply uncomfortable; it felt like being touched by some unfamiliar creature.
She glanced again at Aurora to reassure herself, but what she saw only worried her more. Aurora's stoic façade was slipping; her sense of control was intact, but a deeper fear had now seized her. Since the previous night it had sat like a cold stone in her stomach, but only now was its icy touch beginning to reach her heart. Corona noticed the change in Aurora's demeanor, in her darting eyes and her shaky breath. Her jumpy nerves were clearly getting jumpier.
"Hey, sis?" Corona whispered, keeping pace with Aurora. "You okay?"
"I'm fine," the night princess whispered back, but her tense, shaking voice betrayed her. She clearly was not fine.
"Are you sure?" Corona pushed. "Because you sound kind of nervous. You're not, er…" Corona lowered her voice. "You're not scared, are you?"
"No. Not really. I'm just…" Aurora paused, searching for the words. "I'm a little… tentative about what's going to happen when we reach the village."
"Oh… well…" Aurora lowered her head. "That's… that's just another way of saying scared, all right?"
Corona was surprised. "Scared? I didn't know you ever got scared, sis."
"Well I do, and I am. And I'd rather not talk about it."
"Are you sure?"
Aurora paused in her tracks, releasing a defeated sigh. It would do her a world of good to talk about how she felt – and who better to talk to than her sister? Her eyes met Corona's and she started to walk forward again. "At first I wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible," she went on, slackening her pace just a bit, "but now I'm not so sure anymore. It's much harder to think about it now that we're almost there – now that it's almost right in front of us."
"I guess I understand. It's kind of like what I had to do last week in flight training."
"Hmm?" Aurora said, her interest piqued. "How do you mean?"
"See, Coach Skybolt set a cloud about thirty feet above the ground and I had to glide down from it. I was really excited to try it at first, but every time I walked up to the edge I got scared. It was a whole lot harder to jump when I could see the distance I had to fall right in front of me."
"So what did you do?"
"Skybolt told me not to think so much about it: just run and leap as fast as I could, and get it over with quickly. And she was right. I tried it one more time and I didn't look down, I just ran up and jumped. And that made it a lot easier, I think – I glided down and landed and didn't get hurt."
"I see," said Aurora. Her gaze wandered, and as she walked she stared into the darkness of the passing woods. "I guess that's what it's like. I'm getting close to the edge now, and it's hard not to look down."
"Well, I think it was pretty cool, the way you wanted to get this done tonight, even though you were scared," said Corona. "I probably would've put it off until the end of the visit. You're really brave, sis. Did you know that?"
Aurora smiled bashfully. "Thanks, Summer."
At last the downhill slope ended and the path leveled out again. They had reached the edge of a dark stream, flowing almost soundlessly through the forest. The path ran alongside it, weaving between hoary willows and dipping here and there into small black pools. The air was warmer, almost steamy in places, and Corona felt beads of moisture strike lightly upon her face. They were entering a bog. The path turned soft and muddy and a mist filled the air, glowing white and gold in the light of their horn-lamps.
The further they walked, the thicker the mist grew; soon it was so dense that the guards, marching not ten feet behind the princesses, appeared to them as nothing but dim silhouettes in the murky gray. Every so often they would come upon a huge willow, looming like a beast in the fog, only for it to vanish into the blankness again moments after they passed it. Tiny rivulets ran through the muddy ground beneath their hooves, blurring the once-clear dirt path. At times it seemed to them that the path had vanished entirely, and they were now just wandering amongst the trees.
"I don't like this," Corona mumbled.
"Neither do I," agreed Aurora. "This swamp is marked on the map, but the path should go clear through it. This doesn't seem right."
"Maybe we could ask one of those guards to fly up above the fog, and see what's what," Corona suggested. She looked back over her shoulder. "Hey! Could one of you guys – "
She stopped when she realized there was no one there. The guards' thin silhouettes had vanished altogether and their heavy hoofsteps had fallen silent.
"Where…where did the guards go?" Corona asked timidly, hoping Aurora could give her an answer.
But Aurora couldn't. She stared hard into the dark, blank mass of fog, but saw nothing. They had been separated somehow – either the guards had gotten lost, or she had. Aurora's pulse quickened as a hint of panic began to set in; but she took yet another long, slow breath, commanding herself to remain calm. Nothing would be solved by losing her cool.
"They must've lost sight of us," she said. "I'll bet they took a wrong turn around one of those willows and just kept going." Sighing in exasperation, she rolled her eyes. "Glass Eye shouldn't have even bothered sending those guards with us. They're so inattentive it makes me wonder if they're as blind as he is."
"But, um…we can still find our way, right?"
"Of course we can, sis," said Aurora, holding up the map again. "We must be near the river, at least – that's probably where all this mist is coming from. If we can find it, I can figure out where we are on the map. Now where is it…?" Her eyes wandered through the fog and her ears listened for the sound of running water.
Corona looked and listened as well. But all around her the world seemed blank and quiet; no sound reached her ears other than her sister's soft breathing, and no light reached her eyes other than the glow of her horn. She turned about, looking in the opposite direction that Aurora looked, hoping she might spy a break in the mist; but saw something else instead.
A faint glimmer of light appeared through the fog, some distance away from her. Corona looked closer: there, flickering soft and faint through the mist, were tiny yellow lights. They floated and danced like stray sparks from a bonfire drifting on the wind. No, not drifting – as they came closer, they seemed to be moving of their own will, swarming around like fireflies. There were almost a dozen of them, approaching fast.
"Hey, Blue…what are those?"
Hearing Corona's voice, Aurora turned and looked as well, catching sight of the lights. "I don't know," she answered. One of them flew just before her eyes. Aurora expected to see it attached to some sort of insect, but there was nothing there: just a point of yellow light, hovering on its own and floating gently through the misty air. "I've never seen anything like this before."
"Do you think they're friendly?" Corona asked, smiling as one of the lights passed in front of her face. She giggled softly. "They're kind of cute."
"I…don't think we should be making friends with them," said Aurora. "Most of the species in the Everfree Forest are still undocumented – these things could be dangerous."
"Well, they don't look dangerous." The sun princess's eyes followed the lights as they passed between her and her sister. Then they gathered in a swarm on the other side, swirling and dancing. They seemed to be waiting for something. Corona studied them closely – their movements looked almost beckoning. "I think they want us to follow them."
"I really don't think that's a good idea," Aurora tried to protest, but Corona had already begun to trot through the mist in pursuit of the lights. With nothing else to do, she followed her sister, magically carrying the map at her side. Something about this didn't sit right in her gut, but it seemed a better option than just standing around in the fog.
"Maybe they're trying to help," Corona suggested as the lights led them on, slicing through the haze and weaving in and out between tall willows. "They heard that we were lost and they're leading us out of the woods!"
"Well, they're leading us somewhere, that's for sure." For some reason, Aurora couldn't shake the feeling that she knew what those lights were. There was some vague memory in the back of her mind that made her suspicious, but she couldn't quite put her hoof on it; it was like trying to recall a dream. But it made her anxious all the same.
There was a soft splash, and Aurora felt her hoof land in something wet. She looked down and saw that she was standing in a shallow, murky pool full of peat and mud. Corona was just in front of her, her own hooves splashing in the swamp-water, following the dancing lights.
"Summer, stop!" Aurora called out. "They're leading us deeper into the swamp!"
"It's okay, Blue!" her sister shouted back. "The ground's still really solid. See?" She bounced lightly up and down to prove her point, splashing muddy water about her legs.
"Well…all right," said Aurora. She caught up with her sister and continued onwards. "But I still don't like this. Something about those lights bothers me, but I'm not sure what."
On they went through the misty marsh. The fog was finally starting to clear, and their surroundings became visible – in the glow of their horn-lights, they could see the swamp: gray, fallen logs lay half-submerged, and here and there thick Cyprus knees rose eerily from the black, misty water. The lights, flitting about like a swarm of fireflies, led them on along a muddy path, but soon the pools about their feet grew wider and thicker with peat. Corona did her best to hop lightly through and around them, but every step sent her hooves sinking into the murk. It was a lot of work to drag them back out again; the mud seemed to suck them down. Before long both sisters were slogging through the swamp, with the water often reaching above their fetlocks.
"Eeuugh," complained Corona, picking a hoof out of the peat. She shook it dry, only to muddy it again when she took another step forward. "I think the water's getting deeper."
Suddenly Aurora stopped in her tracks. Prompted by her sister's observation, a memory came clear into her mind – a memory from a Nightmare Night long ago, of an old storyteller and a spooky old mare's tale to which she had paid little heed at the time, but that now felt inexpressibly important.
"Summer, we need to turn around," she said sternly. "Those lights aren't helping us. They're just making us more lost."
"What do you mean?"
"Those are Will O' the Wisps," Aurora explained. "I remember hearing a story about them, a very long time ago. They're a kind of forest spirit. They lure ponies off of the path and into a swamp to drown. That's what they're trying to do to us."
"But…" her sister started to protest, glancing back at the lights – but they were nowhere to be seen. All she saw now was the darkness of the swamp. Their "guides" had abandoned them, stranded in the mire. Corona's head fell in shame. "I'm sorry, Blue. I just really hoped they were leading us out…I didn't like being lost. I should've listened to you."
"It's all right, Summer. I didn't know what they were at first, either." Aurora picked her hooves up out of the mud and prepared to turn around. "But I think it'd be best now if we just go back the way we came."
"Yeah… okay," Corona mumbled, moving to follow her. As she turned, she cast one last glance in the direction the spirits had been leading them – and froze. Just ahead, across a wide swampy pool and through a thick patch of brambly foliage, stood an old gray brick wall, half-fallen down and covered in ivy. "Blue Moon! Look! We're here!"
"What?" Aurora asked, looking back.
"It's a building! See?" Corona said excitedly, pointing with a hoof.
Aurora came up to her sister's side, brightening her horn-glow for a better view. Ahead through the brambles was the wall, and beyond was a large moonlit clearing. In the silvery glow she could make out the shapes of several more structures in varying degrees of dilapidation: some were nothing more than old foundation slabs crowned with crumbling brick walls. It was the remains of a village, old and desolate, but clearly made by ponies.
"I don't believe it," Aurora muttered. "It's the ghost town. We really have made it!" Immediately she scanned for a safe path to the clearing – she didn't like the look of that boggy, peat-filled pool that stood between them and the foliage on the other side. It seemed rather shallow, but Aurora didn't trust her eyes.
"Yay!" cried Corona. "Told you those lights were here to help. C'mon!" And with that, ran for the clearing…and straight towards the pool.
But it was too late. With a tremendous splash, Corona sank into the mire. It was, in fact, deeper than it looked: the murky bog reached up to the princess's knees. Immediately she tried to wade through the muck, but with every attempted step she only sank deeper; the quagmire sucked her hooves down like quicksand. Soon she could no longer even lift her legs, and still she felt herself sinking.
"Blue!" she cried, her voice nearly breaking with panic. "I can't move! I can't move!"
"It's okay, Summer. Just calm down and don't struggle." Aurora was close to panic herself, but she tried her best to keep her voice steady. This must've been where the Will O' the Wisps were leading them, to this horrid pool. She fought back a shudder – if she hadn't realized where they were being led, they both might've stumbled into the mire.
"It's okay!" Aurora said again. "Just hold on. I'll get you out of there somehow." Her eyes scanned the swampy ground for a long branch or a vine, but she saw nothing useful below. Looking up, she spied the long creeping arms of a willow dangling from overhead, and taking one in her teeth she gave it a mighty tug and broke it free.
"Take this!" she shouted, tossing one end to her sinking sister. Corona caught it with her magic and tried to pull it within biting distance, but the willow arm simply wasn't long enough; she had run too far into the murky pool. Already she had sunk so far that the morass reached above her knees, and it was becoming increasingly hard not to struggle.
Corona's crimson eyes were wide with blind terror. "Blue… what do I do?!"
"Just hold on!" Aurora repeated firmly, pulling the vine back to dry land. "I'll try to make it around to the other side. I can reach you from there."
"But can't you just fly over?"
"Summer, I can barely get off the ground under normal circumstances! There's no way I could fly at a time like this!" Inwardly she berated herself for being so poor a flyer, but quickly stopped herself; there would be time for that later. Right now her sister needed her. "Just hold on!"
Aurora then dashed around the edges of the pool, hoping to find some safe path to the other side. The mire was wide and there seemed to be no clear way around it, save for a long, fallen tree, half-submerged longways in the murky water. It looked old and rotten, bare of bark and slippery, but Aurora saw no other way around. Carefully placing one hoof after another upon the log, she tread slowly from one end to the other, more than once nearly slipping into the swamp herself. But after a few tense moments she made it across to the edge of the clearing. Here the ground was more solid, with thick green grass and tougher soil.
"Here!" Again, she cast the willow branch into the swamp, aiding her throw with a bit of magic. At last Corona seized it in her teeth, just as the murk-water reached her stomach. Aurora planted her hooves firmly on the ground, took the other end of the branch in her mouth again, and pulled. She tugged for all she was worth, leaning back against her sister's weight and groaning in effort. The swamp put up a terrible fight, dragging back Corona back with what seemed like the strength of a dozen earth ponies; but at last, it started to give way.
Corona felt herself being pulled from the mire. Slowly but surely, the muck was releasing its death grip, and she felt herself rising out of the swampy pool and inching towards the shore. Soon the upper halves of her legs were free again, followed by her knees, and then both of her forelegs. She grasped madly at the ground, finally planting her front hooves on the bank of the mire.
"It's working!" she said through gritted teeth. "I'm almost out! I'm – "
Both sisters froze. The sound had come from somewhere behind Aurora, from the direction of the ghost town. The night princess's blood ran cold, and the willow branch fell from her mouth.
"Anyway, that was when I heard it: some kinda screechin', howlin' sound. I ain't gonna lie, it chilled me right to the bone."
Pink Pearl's words rang in Aurora's head. Her pulse quickened – this was it.
Corona dropped her own end of the branch, pulling herself out of the pool and onto dry ground. She stared with frightened eyes past her sister and into the clearing. "Uh, sis… what… what is that thing?"
Aurora didn't answer. The air behind her grew chilly, and every hair from her tail to her mane stood on end. Slowly, with shaky breath, she mustered every ounce of willpower she had and turned around.
In the clearing stood a pony. She was tall, taller even than the princesses themselves, and bore huge black, feathery wings on her back. Her mane and tail were midnight-blue, flowing ethereally in the pale moonlight. About her neck hung the regalia of Equestrian royalty, colored silvery light-blue, and atop her head was a warrior's helm pierced by a long black horn. She stood many yards away, just outside a ruined brick home; but even from so long a distance, Aurora and Corona could both see the savage, toothy smile on her face.
"Nightmare Moon…." Aurora breathed.
At the sound of her name, the monster shrieked again. It was a hideous high-pitched sound that pierced their ears like a blade of cold steel. Aurora winced, unable to move, unable to fight, unable to think. Icy fear ran through her veins and froze her where she stood. Once again, memories of a long-past Nightmare Night came to her mind; but now they inundated it, paralyzing her thoughts with fearful visions and ringing with voices as clear as yesterday:
"Nightmare Moon will come and gobble you up!"
"Despair, ye ponies! For now cometh Nightmare Moon!"
"Blue… are you scared?"
Aurora trembled, her knees giving way. She collapsed, shutting her teary eyes as tightly as she could. There was nothing else she could do.
"Blue!" Corona cried, striding quickly to the fallen princess and kneeling at her side. Aurora's eyes were still shut fast, and tears streamed from their edges; Corona had never seen her sister in such a state. Raising her own eyes, she watched in dread as the nightmare before them advanced slowly, stepping towards them with grim purpose. Her black horn began to glow sickly green, and Aurora's trembling grew fiercer and her breathing heavier. It was doing something to her, Corona could tell – but what?
Well, whatever it was, she wouldn't let that thing get away with it. "You leave my sister alone!" she shouted at the advancing terror, now no more than a stone's throw away. Rising up to her full height, Corona's face hardened and she fixed a determined glare on her enemy.
Nightmare Moon now turned to her, meeting the princess's fierce eyes with a fiery white gaze of her own. She opened wide her mouth and let out another shriek, even more terrible than the first, and it sounded horribly triumphant, like a cruel burst of laughter. Corona shrank back a bit, but held her ground even as fear took her heart. No way was she letting this monster keep her from helping her sister.
"Oh yeah?" she shot back in answer to the shriek. "Well I don't think you're so scary! C'mon, show me what you've got!" And with that, she charged.
She didn't really know what she intended to do. Corona didn't usually think that far ahead. Impulse guided her decision and she ran with it, as she so often did. And this time, it cost her.
Grinning madly, the monster fired a luminous green bolt from her horn, striking Corona square in the chest. The force of the blow still sent her crumpling to the ground with a breathless grunt, the wind knocked from her lungs. For a painful moment she lay there, too shocked to move so much as a muscle; then she feebly raised her head, catching sight of her petrified sister trembling on the ground.
"Blue…" she said weakly, trying to recover her breath. "Help…."
Nightmare Moon strode to the fallen princess. Once again, her horn glowed ghostly green, and she looked down at Corona with hungry eyes, hissing and laughing wildly.
Amidst the shrieking, amidst the hideous laughter and the sounds of the fight, Corona's feeble plea for help pierced Aurora's defensive shell. At last she opened her eyes: Nightmare Moon towered high over her sister, still grinning maniacally like a predator over its defeated, trembling prey.
Fear turned to anger. Aurora's icy blood boiled. She rose again to her hooves, staring the nightmare in the face with blazing eyes. Something inside her snapped; she felt her own magical energies welling up beyond the boiling point.
"Leave. Her. Alone!"
Nightmare Moon had only a second to react before she was struck by the magical equivalent of a ten-ton load. A radiant blue aura slammed into her, knocking her clean off her hooves and flinging her backwards quite some distance. With a mighty crash she collided with a wide oak tree, striking it with such force that the trunk splintered into flying bits of wood. She tried to rise to her hooves again, but fell to the ground after a single attempt, her will to fight utterly spent.
Aurora stood panting, breathless, as blue wisps of smoke rose from her horn. She'd never been able to summon that much energy before – it was as exhilarating as it was exhausting. But she spent no more time dwelling on it, and instead ran right to her sister's side. "Summer! Summer, are you all right?" she cried, her voice almost frantic.
"I'm… I'm fine," said Corona, picking herself up. Aurora knelt down at her side and helped her to stand. She coughed once, but after a moment her breathing returned to normal. "I'm okay. But what happened to – "
"AM IS NIGHTMARE MOON!"
Both princesses spun around to face the source of the shrieking voice. There, at the base of the splintered trunk, stood their defeated foe – but no longer did she resemble Nightmare Moon. Now she was just a small, black creature, with insectoid wings and a stringy, pale green mane, hobbling weakly towards them and trying her very hardest to muster some sense of menace. She was failing miserably.
"Am is Nightmare Moon!" she shrieked again in a failing voice.
"It's… it's a changeling," Aurora said, astonished.
The little changeling stumbled, falling upon the grass at Corona's feet. "Hungry… so hungry…" she whimpered, her voice raspy and broken. "Please… no hurt… please…."
For a long while the sisters stared at the slight creature, listening apprehensively as she cried softly and watching her little chest rise and fall with each labored breath.
"Blue," said Corona at last, looking up to meet her sister's eyes. "What do we do with her?"
Springtime was Summer Sun's favorite time of year – next to summer, of course. She supposed it must have something to do with the feeling of freshness and rebirth that the season brought, when everything was new and bright and green, and the air was warm and the pink flowers bloomed and danced in the spring breezes. But mostly, she knew, it was because butterfly-catching season had come again.
"C'mon, Blue! There's more of them in the field by the creek!" After calling excitedly to her sister, Summer picked her butterfly net up in her mouth and ran down the hillside.
"Slow down a bit, Summer!" Blue Moon came running up to the hilltop behind her, pausing for a moment to take hold of her own net. But Summer barely heard her, as she was already busy leaping through the meadow chasing the winged rainbows she held so dear.
Catching butterflies had been a traditional pastime of theirs for almost a year now. Summer was the more enthusiastic about it – it had been her suggestion in the first place, after all – but in time Blue had grown to enjoy it as well, even if only because it meant spending more time with her sister. In spite of all their differences, time spent together was one thing that they both treasured.
While Blue stood stationary in the middle of the field, swatting at whatever butterflies came near, Summer was busy having more success. Giggling, she leapt into the air, netting two or three butterflies with every swing and letting them fly free a moment later just so she could have the pleasure of catching them again. Her colorful prey flitted above her head and across the meadow, leading her gradually under a cluster of short, gnarled crabapple trees that stood near the edge of the wood. She was so mesmerized by the dancing colors of the butterflies' wings that she didn't even notice the bird's nest until her net had already struck it.
With a tiny crash, the nest dropped from the low branch to the ground, sending its contents – three startled, frantically chirping robin chicks – tumbling across the grass. Summer dropped her net with a worried gasp, rushing at once to where the baby birds now lay. Two of them quickly hopped up on their tiny legs, but the third lay still.
"Blue!" she cried. "Come here, quick!"
"What is it?" Blue dropped her net, running across the meadow to her sister's side. "What happened?"
"I… I didn't see the nest up there," Summer said, her voice trembling, "and I knocked it over, and…."
Blue Moon nodded in understanding. Her heart sank as she noted the fallen nest and the unmoving baby bird. "Oh, Summer… I'm sorry. These things happen sometimes."
Summer lowered her head to the ground, prodding the bird with the tip of her snout while its siblings watched with concern. When it didn't move, tears started to fill her eyes. "It… it was an accident…." She sat on the grass, scooping the poor thing into her hooves and nuzzling it gently. Blue came to her side and placed a comforting hoof on her shoulder, unable to say anything else.
Before Summer had time for any further self-reproach, the chick started to move. Its legs and wings twitched subtly, its eyelids fluttered, its beak opened with a quiet "chirp!" A moment later it hopped down from Summer's hooves and joined its brother and sister, tweeting happily.
"Oh!" Blue stood up in surprise. "Huh. I guess he was just stunned."
Summer smiled warmly, drying her eyes. "Nah. He just needed a little love, that's all."
Corona looked down. At her feet lay the sad, wretched creature that her sister had just defeated, rasping in pain and writhing about in the dirt. Its shrieking voice had broken down to the point that it was unintelligible, nothing but sad whimpers and the occasional pained hiccup. When she looked closely Corona could swear she saw tears flowing from its half-open eyes.
Aurora stood across from her in silence, staring down expressionless at the pitiful sight. There was no malice in her blue-green eyes, but no apparent sympathy either. The moon shone brightly in the clearing behind her, casting her shadow over the poor, sniveling creature where it lay.
"Blue?" said Corona, prodding her sister again. "What do we do with her?"
"I don't know." Aurora glanced about, turning her head towards the crumbling buildings that stood beyond in the clearing. Her eyes narrowed. "Stay here," she said firmly, and began to walk towards what remained of the town square.
"Wait! Where are you going?"
"To find the missing foals." Aurora stopped, pointing a hoof to the creature. "I've read a lot about changelings. They usually keep their victims imprisoned somewhere close: a cave, a cellar, a hidden room, something. It could be anywhere in this town. We have to find it."
"You think she's keeping them here?"
"Summer, this thing has likely been capturing foals for months. Changelings are parasites; they have to keep their hosts alive somehow, or else they'll be no good to them. If it's been…" Aurora shuddered as the next few words came squirming uncomfortably out of her mouth. "…If it's been feeding on them, then it must be keeping them nearby."
"But don't changelings feed on love? I thought they only fed on love." Corona looked back and forth between their downed enemy and her sister, her ruby eyes full of confusion. "How could she get them to love her? And why would she disguise herself as Nightmare Moon? None of this makes any sense, Blue."
Aurora's face scrunched contemplatively, and she sighed in defeat. "You're right. It doesn't. But we don't have time to work out all of the details right now. What's most important right now is that we find the missing foals. We can figure out the hows and the whys later, once they're safe."
"Okay, sis," Corona nodded sullenly. "Whatever you say. You know best."
Aurora's steely expression softened. "No, Summer," she said glumly, her ears drooping. "No I don't. Not really." She stepped back to Corona's side, meeting her sister's eyes with sorrow and regret. "I'm sorry for getting us into this mess. I'm sorry for leaping before I looked." She reached out a hoof, running it lovingly through Corona's mane before resting it on her shoulder. "And I'm so, so sorry you were almost hurt."
"Don't worry about me, Blue! I'm fine! Really!"
"But you almost weren't!" Aurora snapped. "You almost weren't fine. I almost lost you, Summer. I-I… I thought I was about to lose you." Aurora stopped herself as her voice started to choke. After a deep breath she began again. "You were almost hurt, and it's mostly my fault. But that thing," she pointed to the changeling, "is just as much to blame as I am. And it's not just us, either. A lot of ponies have been hurt by this creature. Remember Pink Pearl? Remember Lantern Jaw's father?"
"Well… yeah...." Corona's eyes fell again upon their defeated foe, now quiet and still. The last few minutes passed through Corona's mind: all of the shrieking, the pain, the sight of her sister paralyzed with terrible fear. She thought of Lantern Jaw, still unaware that his father lay comatose in a hospital bed. She thought of the families – seventeen, the mayor had said – who still missed their foals. Her expression hardened. "Well, okay. I'll keep an eye on her."
Aurora smiled thankfully. "Good. Now don't move. I'll be right back." With that, she made her way deeper into the ghost town, leaving her sister to keep watch over their fallen enemy.
Now the forest grew still, but not entirely quiet. Here at the edge of the clearing, between the swamp and the ruined town, the woods sounded much livelier, gracing Corona's ears with the chirping of crickets and the song of night birds. It was a refreshing change from the suffocating silence of the deeper woods, and it helped her calm her nerves. It seemed to have the exact same effect on the changeling as well; the little creature's eyes had fallen shut and its heavy breathing had slowed and softened, interrupted only once in a while by a gentle sniffle or twitch.
"Tired little girl, aren't you?" Corona joked, smiling to herself. But her smile faded as she eyed the changeling more carefully. The blue flesh along its back appeared blackened and bruised and was pin-cushioned with splinters of wood. Corona remembered the resounding crack it had made when it struck the tree; it was a wonder the poor thing had even had the strength to walk afterwards.
"Hey," she leaned in, prodding it with her snout. It shifted a little, snorting in its sleep. "I'm sorry Aurora hit you so hard. But she had to save me. You were about to…." She paused in thought – what had it been trying to do? "What were you trying to do, anyway? Why were you pretending to be Nightmare Moon? Why would you want to scare everypony?"
The changeling laid still and quiet, saying nothing. Its eyes twitched and fluttered in sleep beneath closed lids, but it made no other movement.
"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense for you to be here, really," Corona continued. "I always thought changelings lived in big swarms. That's what Blue says, at least. Why would you be out in the forest all by yourself?"
Again, there was no reply.
Pausing, Corona frowned solemnly. "I don't know why I'm telling you all this, either. I guess I just wanted someone to talk to. You don't mind, do you?"
Still no answer. Corona's frown deepened and she sat back on her haunches with a tired sigh, resting her weary, aching limbs. Bored, she idly scraped the dirt with her hoof, noticing now that she'd lost her shoes in the swamp and that the lower parts of her legs were still caked with half-dry mud. It had, on reflection, been quite a night – lost in an unfamiliar forest, separated from their escort, stuck in a swamp, attacked by Aurora's worst fear – it was amazing she and her sister were still in one piece.
Half-smiling, she looked down at the changeling. "I guess it's been quite a night for you too, huh?" Her eyes ran up and down its little body, noting again the bruises and splinters – and now, something else as well. She'd seen illustrations of changelings before, but they all looked rather… well, fuller than the one that lay before her now. This one looked almost emaciated, its stomach thin and its little legs bony and fragile.
"I'll bet you're really hungry, huh? I can't imagine that there's much love out here in these woods for you to feed on. What's been keeping you alive?" Corona thought back, recalling the way its horn had glowed when it had attacked them, when Aurora had fallen to the ground in paralyzing terror. Wasn't that the way changelings fed? "But you weren't feeding on love, were you? It looked like you were feeding every time we got… Oh!"
The princess sat down, resting her head on her crossed forelegs at eye level with the sleeping changeling. "You were feeding on our fear, weren't you?" she whispered. "You couldn't get any love so you had to eat ponies' fear. That can't be healthy for a little changeling like you. No wonder you were so hungry."
"Blue?" Corona rose to her hooves, spotting her sister returning from across the town square, her hooves clacking in a loud canter across the mossy, ruined cobblestone. "What's up?"
"There's nothing here," she reported. "All the homes are built on granite slabs to keep them from sinking into the swamp – no basements, no cellars, no hidden rooms. If it's keeping the foals around here somewhere, it's not in one of those houses."
Aurora's eyes moved around, searching through the trees. "Maybe there are other buildings nearby…."
"Or some sort of cave…."
"Or a huge hollowed-out tree…."
At last Aurora paused, turning back to her sister. "What?"
"I don't think that's what she's doing," said Corona, and proceeded to explain her theory in as few words as she could.
"On fear?" Aurora echoed, puzzled. "I… I suppose it's possible. Love is the most inherently magical of all emotions, which is why changelings feed on it. But from what I've read, it's conceivable that they might…." She trailed off as horror seized her face. A shudder ran along her back, from her tail to the tips of her wings. "Summer, if it's been feeding on the captured foals' fear… I don't even want to think about what kind of condition they're in now. Come on, we've got to – "
"But she can't be!" Corona protested. "Look at her! She's starving! If she had seventeen foals to feed on, don't you think she'd be a lot less hungry?"
Both sisters looked down at the slumbering creature. It was just a scrawny as before, just as lean and gaunt – but now something seemed different. It lay perfectly still; its tiny chest no longer moved, its eyes no longer fluttered beneath their lids. The sound of its breathing had fallen silent.
"Blue?" Corona's voice shook. "Is… is she okay?"
"Doesn't look like it," Aurora replied coldly.
"Can't we do anything for her?"
"Summer, I don't think we really should. Even if it isn't responsible for the foalnappings, then it – "
"No!" Corona cried, scooping the unmoving creature into her hooves. She sat back down and pressed its tiny body protectively against her chest. "She was just hungry! And probably lonely, too, out in the woods all by herself. Where's the rest of her swarm?"
"I don't know," Aurora admitted. "There's no way to know. It's possible that it got lost… or was abandoned…."
Corona nodded sadly. "And now she's really hurt. We've got to do something for her!"
"Summer…" Aurora began slowly, but found herself at a loss for words.
When Corona spoke again, her voice was barely more than a solemn murmur as she cradled the changeling. "I don't want her to die, Blue." She lowered her head, squeezing her eyes shut to keep the tears at bay.
"I know, Summer. I'm sorry. I wish I could… I wish…." She trailed off.
"What is it?" the sun princess, opening her eyes again. Aurora was looking down at her – no, at the creature in her forelegs – and Corona looked down as well. Its tiny black horn had begun to glow, a pale ghostly green, so faint it was almost imperceptible. But quickly the light grew stronger, and as it did Corona felt an odd sensation, a giddy, bubbly warmth that seemed to flow from her heart into the tiny body in her forelegs. Try as she might, she couldn't hold back a giggle. "Hey, Blue… what's it doing?"
"Put it down!" Aurora commanded, fear and concern written all over her face. "It looks like it's feeding on you."
"Well, it doesn't hurt or anything," Corona argued. "And look! She's waking up!" At that moment, the changeling began to stir, slowly at first, no more than a slight twitching of its legs and a fluttering of its insectoid wings. But soon its eyes – her eyes – fluttered open: wide blue-green orbs, looking up at Corona not with malice or ravenous hunger, but simple curiosity.
"Hey there!" Corona cooed softly. "Feeling better?"
The changeling tilted her head inquisitively. She opened her mouth, perhaps to speak, but all that came out was a gentle cough. Her legs moved more vigorously now, like a cat begging to be put down. Corona moved to set the creature on the ground; she wobbled for a moment on weak legs, but soon regained her balance. Then she turned around and sat, looking up at Corona again. And now she was smiling.
Aurora stepped around to her sister's side. "It seems to like you now."
"I guess nopony's ever actually given her love before. She's always had to try and take it."
Before Aurora had a chance to respond, a sudden sound caught both their ears: the heavy trudge of hooves, echoing through the crumbling buildings and across the square. It was a familiar sound, one Corona had missed ever since they had gotten lost among the willows. The sisters moved to the edge of the moonlit square, gazing into the darkness beyond the town's edge, and spotted two familiar shapes moving towards them from some distance away.
"The guards! I guess they found us, then?"
"Actually, I think they were on the right path the whole time," Aurora explained. "I spotted the road on the other side of the square, leading into town; we must've wandered off of it at some point, and they just kept on following the trail." Her face flushed, and she half-smiled sheepishly. "I guess we'll have some explaining to do."
Corona smiled along with her, but then a terrible thought leapt into her mind. "But what about the changeling?" she cried. "We can't let them see her. They might want to hurt her!"
"Summer, for all we know, it might still want to hurt us! We can't just – "
"Princess Aurora! Princess Corona!" The guards' grim voices rang out as their hoofsteps drew nearer. They would be upon them in moments.
Aurora sighed. "Look, just… we'll keep her – keep it hidden somewhere," she whispered harshly, "And we'll decide what to do with it later. But let's deal with the guards first."
"Okay," Corona nodded, just as the guards – two sturdy, pale gray pegasus stallions – finally reached them, stopping at attention just in front of them.
"Your highnesses." The guard on the right bowed his head respectfully. "We thought we'd lost you. We must have become separated in the swamp." He looked the princesses up and down, taking note of Corona's mud-spattered legs and missing shoes. "What happened? Are you both all right?"
"More or less," Aurora answered. "We had a… an encounter, with a… um…."
"A wild animal!" Corona chimed in, beaming brightly. "But Aurora took care of it. And the swamp ate my shoes."
"Oh… I see," said the guard on the left. "So you found no sign of the foalnapper?"
Aurora and Corona shared a glance. "We… no, no we didn't," said Aurora. "The missing foals are definitely not here, at any rate." She issued a heavy, weary sigh, gazing back at the misty swamp behind them. "And at this point, I don't think we're likely to find anything else. Maybe we'd better head back to Ponyville. Preferably by a different route, if there is one."
"As you wish, your highness." The guard on the left made a few intricate jerks of his head, and the guard on the right nodded before turning about and trotting back across the square. "Lieutenant Ironhoof will find the other two guards and have them return to Ponyville by air. If the both of you would prefer to find another way out of the forest, I will accompany you."
Aurora thanked him, and then turned to her sister. "Corona, go get the map, would you?" She winked, slightly and subtly enough that the guard didn't catch it.
But Corona did. "Oh! Sure thing, sis. Be right back."
While Aurora stayed at the edge of the square chatting up the guard, Corona quickly made her way back to the edge of the swamp, just out of earshot. The changeling had moved a bit, and now sat trembling in the shadows under a tall willow, watching Corona with curious, uncertain eyes. The sound of the guards' approach must've frightened her, Corona thought – the poor thing must be as scared of ponies as they were of her.
"Nothing to be afraid of," said the princess, reaching down to stroke the creature's back with a comforting hoof. The changeling closed her eyes, snuggling affectionately into her touch. "We won't let anypony hurt you. But we're gonna have to figure out a way to hide you from the guards…."
Somewhere overhead, an owl cried out, its ghostly call of "who?" haunting their ears. Both the pony and the changeling turned their gazes upward; there in the tree sat a huge horned owl, gray-feathered and grim-faced. For a moment it leered down at them with round yellow eyes, and then with a great flap of its wings it leapt from the tree and flew off into the night.
When Corona's eyes returned to the changeling, something about her face had changed. The fear in her eyes was gone, replaced by what looked like a spark of an idea. Her tiny mouth curled into a grin, and her horn began to glow green again. Corona stepped back, as confused as she was curious. "Hey, what are you up to?"
In answer to her question, the green glow of the changeling's horn rose and extended outwards into a swirl of emerald, surrounding and obscuring her tiny body. There was a faint flash of white, and when the light died down the changeling was gone. In its place stood a short, stocky owl, identical to the one they had just seen, save for the ghostly greenish glow in its eyes.
Corona beamed. "Sweet! I'm sure the guards won't have a problem with an owl following us around. You're a clever little girl, you know that? Now to find the map so we can get out of here…." Her eyes wandered across the murky, marshy pool, scanning for the map as best they could in the dim forest light. At last she spotted it: on the ground across the mire she'd nearly sunken into lay the tattered, mud-spattered forest map. Aurora must've dropped it just before she'd rescued her from the swamp. It was too far away for Corona to reach it with her magic, and she certainly didn't feel like trying to wade through the muck again.
The changeling, still in owl form, waddled awkwardly to Corona's side. She looked up at the alicorn's distraught expression, and then at the map – and then, without any prompting, she spread her newly-feathered wings and rose into the air, flying shakily and haphazardly across the murky pool to where the map lay. Once there, she clasped the parchment in her talons and took to the air again, stronger this time, and with more confidence in her wing beats. She flew back and dropped the map on the ground beside Corona before settling comfortable atop the princess's back.
Corona craned her neck to meet at her gaze with confusion in her eyes. "Um… well, thanks, but… you didn't have to do that for me. I mean, it's not that I don't appreciate it, but… why help me?"
"Feed," she said in a coarse, croaking whisper. "You… feed me." It seemed to struggle with the next word, but eventually got it out. "…friend. You… friend?"
Something about the look in the changeling's green owl-eyes gave Corona pause. This wasn't the same creature that had attacked them earlier. It wasn't just that she appreciated a meal that she didn't have to fight for; being shown genuine affection had changed her somehow, opened her heart – whatever kind of heart changelings have. The thought of it made Corona smile.
"I'd love to be your friend," she said tenderly. "You've never had one before, have you?"
The "owl" shook its head sadly.
"Well, come on then! I'll help you make some more friends. But you're gonna have to keep up the owl act if we want to fool the guard, okay?"
When the changeling nodded, Corona turned forward again, picking up the map with her magic and trotting quickly back to the edge of the ghost town. When she arrived, Aurora and the guard were still deep in conversation: Aurora had kept him busy by having him give her a full report of the night's events from his perspective, and the bored, tired look on her face told Corona how interesting it must be. They both turned to look at her as she stepped back to her sister's side.
"I got the map!" Corona announced, passing it to Aurora. "It's a little muddy, but I think you can still read it."
The guard leered at the bird atop Corona's back. "Pardon me, your highness, but is that…?"
"Oh, this little guy? He's just a… well, we found him in the swamp. He wants to come home with us."
"Oh, yes," Aurora laughed nervously, taking hold of the map with her magic. "Corona's always been good with birds." She eyed the "owl" with mistrust, which shrank under her fierce gaze. Corona felt her new friend trembling on her back, and turned back to quietly shush her with a gentle nuzzle.
"Um… very well then, your highnesses. I don't suppose Glass Eye would object if Princess Corona wished to bring home a…." He searched for the word. "…a pet? A souvenir?"
"A new friend," Corona announced proudly.
"Close enough," said Aurora. Once more she turned to the disguised changeling and mouthed the words don't you dare try anything, and then unfolded the map and held it before her eyes. "Hmmm… it looks like there's another way out of the Everfree that doesn't lead back through the swamp. If we keep following that road" – she pointed to the road across the square that led east out of town – "then we'll come out not too far from Ponyville, even closer to town than we came in."
"Sounds good to me!" said Corona. The guard nodded, and without further ado the three of them set off down the trail.
For almost half a mile the path was paved with cobblestone – a remnant of the abandoned town – though it was broken up in many places, and overgrown with moss and lichens, and thick tree roots burst here and there from under the stones. Their footing was constantly uneven, and the changeling-owl bounced along on Corona's back, barely able to keep her balance. Eventually the trail became dirt again, and started moving uphill, out of the swamp and into a higher wood of solid earth and tall, dark pines. For a time the canopy of trees parted and the sky opened above their heads, brilliantly lit by the moon and innumerable stars, and the air was fresh and cool – but the branches closed in again after a short while, plunging them back into the Everfree's stifling gloom. All the while, multiple times a minute, Aurora would glance with stern eyes at the creature on her sister's back, but it never did anything more threatening than return her gaze.
Finally they caught sight of the trail's end, glowing with moonlight like the end of a long, dark tunnel. Excited, the princesses quickened their paces, leaving the guard in the dust some distance behind them. Corona's heart swelled with relieved joy to finally be free of that accursed wood; and, judging by the pace Aurora kept with her, her sister felt much the same way.
With a mutual sigh of relief, the princesses stepped out into the open air. Ponyville stood not more than mile away over rolling hills; they could see the dim figures of its houses and brick towers, windows all aglow with cozy yellow light. Amidst them rose the stately dome of the town hall, where the Mayor had promised to meet them once they'd returned.
Corona eyed the changeling that still sat atop her back. She was turning her head all about, taking in the new scene with what looked like both fear and wonder. Love and worry mingled in the sun princess's heart, and she turned to her sister for guidance. "Blue… what are we going to tell the Mayor?"
"I don't know," replied Aurora. She too set her eyes on the changeling; the look in the owl-creature's eyes was somber, almost apologetic. "She'll want to know about this. We can't keep it a secret from her."
"I know," Corona agreed solemnly. "I just… I don't want anything to happen to her now, Blue. Don't you think she's been through enough for one night?"
Aurora chuckled softly. "It – she – isn't the only one, Summer," she said with a tired shake of her head. "She's not the only one."
In spite of some bad hide-and-seek experiences early on, the forest behind Blue Moon and Summer Sun’s home eventually became the sisters’ favorite place to play – at least during the daytime. In spring and summer the treetops shone a wonderful leafy-green in the sunlight, and fresh breezes would come whistling through the trunks, shivering the branches and making the woods ring with a song of its own. Summer, having long since conquered her fear of getting lost, would lead expeditions through the bright greenery in search of lands unknown. Blue Moon would follow close behind, carrying her trusty map and compass in a saddlebag, making note of every new landmark they uncovered. It was perfect fun for both of them: Summer got to tramp through the woods, and Blue got to practice her cartography, and best of all, they got to spend hours together, just the two of them.
On one particular summer afternoon, the pair stumbled across a shallow, muddy creek they had never seen before that ran along the bottom of a small, but steep, ravine. A thick, mossy oak trunk lay fallen across the ditch, forming what looked to be a serviceable bridge. Determined to prove that the woods no longer frightened her, Summer leapt onto the log.
“Up here, Blue! This way!”
“I dunno, Summer,” Blue replied. “That log doesn’t look very safe. It’s all covered with moss. You’ll probably fall.”
Doubt clouded Summer’s bright eyes for the briefest of moments before bravado drove it out. “Aw, c’mon, Blue! It’s not that bad! See?” She stepped a couple of pace further onto the bridge, taking care not to slip on the moss.
Aurora watched, flabbergasted. “Summer! Be careful!”
“It’s okay!” Summer assured her, stepping forward again, now quite confident in her own sense of balance. “It’s not scary at all! All you have to do is not look down!”
Needless to say, at the very moment Summer spoke, she looked down – and saw that the ditch was a fair bit deeper than she had first thought. The murky stream that ran along the bottom suddenly looked like a tiny, distant river on the floor of a grand canyon. A sudden dizziness took hold of her, and she swayed uneasily on the bridge. “B-Blue?” she called out. “I-I-I can’t move! Blue!”
“Don’t panic!” Blue shouted, struggling to follow her own advice. “Just… just turn around really slowly, and come back!”
Trembling, Summer obeyed, turning as slowly as she dared. Then her hoof met a particularly slippery patch of moss. Then, suddenly, the sky was where the ground should be, and there was a loud shriek and a terrible splash.
Twenty minutes later, she found herself, bruised and band-aided, neck deep in the sudsy water of her bathtub back home.
“I’m sorry, Blue,” she mumbled. “Thanks for fishing me out. You’re always taking care of me.”
“It’s okay,” replied her sister, who sat just beside the tub. “It’s what I’m here for, remember? Just… just don’t do things like that, okay? You really scared me.”
Summer nodded sadly. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I just wanted to show you that I wasn’t scared.”
“I know, Summer. But you should probably say you’re sorry to Mom and Dad, too. They’re the ones who really took care of you; I just pulled you out of the water.”
“M’kay.” Summer hung her head, eyes closed – and then, after a brief spell of silence, she grinned. “Hey, Blue?”
“Thanks for being there. I’m really glad you’re my sister.”
Blue wasn’t sure what to say. She just smiled in return.
Tally Mark’s office, situated on the uppermost floor of Ponyville’s city hall, was a modest square room with beige walls, a hardwood floor, and a great mahogany desk sitting just in front of a wide window. The desktop was buried under mountains of paperwork, stacked and organized roughly into “to do” and “done” sections; the former pile was much larger than the latter. After seeing the princesses off, she had come back expecting a long night of tiresome reading, scribbling her signature on dotted lines, and turning page after uninteresting page. She most certainly did not expect Aurora and Corona to return a mere few hours later, and she’d expected them to bring a live changeling into her office even less.
“You just found it?” she asked, peering with suspicious eyes over stacks of papers at the timid creature on Corona’s back.
“Well, uh…we….” Corona stuttered.
“No,” Aurora stepped in. “It… she attacked us. This is the ‘ghost’ that everypony has been seeing, masquerading as Nightmare Moon to feed on ponies’ fear. I don’t know how she copied the form, though – wouldn’t she have had to see Nightmare Moon with her own eyes first?”
Tally Mark nodded hastily. “There’s an old statue of Nightmare Moon just on the border of the Everfree,” she explained. “We used to hold Nightmare Night celebrations there, before the forest began to grow more dangerous.” She glared again at the little changeling. “But… I’m sorry, your highnesses, but what is it doing here? Is it not responsible for the foalnappings?”
“She couldn’t be!” Corona objected. The changeling hopped down off of her back as she spoke, and stood wobbling on weak legs before collapsing to the floor in a tired heap. Corona scooped her up with magic and set the tired creature on her back again. “The poor little thing was starved. If she had been stealing love from foals, wouldn’t she have been healthier?”
Aurora nodded in solemn agreement. “My sister has a point. Seventeen foals would keep a changeling well-fed for years. And besides, I searched the ghost town; there was nowhere she could’ve been hiding them. I hate to say it, but I don’t think that our ‘ghost’ problem is related to the disappearances.”
“But it is responsible for the ponies in the hospital?” Tally Mark probed, eyeing Aurora uncertainly.
“Well… yes,” Aurora admitted.
“But she’s not like that anymore!” Corona cut in. “She was just scared and hungry and alone!”
“What she means,” Aurora explained to the confused Mayor, “is that this creature was just lashing out from instinct, and probably desperation as well. When Summer – when Princess Corona voluntarily offered her love, it… changed her somehow. For the better.”
“Now she really likes me,” Corona continued, looking back at the changeling. “Aw, look! Now she’s fallen asleep.”
“The point,” Aurora finished, “is that I don’t think she’s much of a threat anymore.”
The Mayor looked back and forth between the two princesses. Aurora had a worn and frazzled look about her, but Corona was in even worse shape – her legs coated to the knees in dry brown mud, her golden mane mussed and tangled, her once-smooth coat all speckled with dirt. She smiled, but it was a weary smile, so faint and fragile that it looked likely to disappear entirely if the princess didn’t get some rest soon. Tally Mark lowered her head with a quiet sigh as she worked her troubled mind.
At length, Aurora spoke up again. “If there’s anything else we can do….”
After a pause, Tally Mark shook her head. “No, thank you, Princess. You’ve done this town a wonderful honor just by coming here. I can ask no more of you tonight.”
Aurora smiled in reply, but her glad expression was tainted with shame. “I… I appreciate your kind words, Mayor. I’m so sorry we couldn’t have been more helpful.”
“It’s quite all right,” the Mayor assured her, after hesitating for an instant. “You’ve solved the more baffling of our mysteries: the mysterious alicorn, the comatose ponies, Pink Pearl’s story – hm, I suppose she’ll want to know about this, too.” She laughed gently, imagining how her friend might react to the news, before her smile faded again. “We’ll just have to continue our search for the missing foals ourselves.”
“But we can still help with that!” Corona argued, though her argument might’ve sounded stronger if it hadn’t ended in a colossal yawn. She blinked tiredly. “Or, um… maybe we can come back another time and help.”
Tally Mark nodded. “Perhaps that’s for the best.”
Aurora bowed her head in gratitude, and Corona followed her example. “Thank you, Mayor. You’ve been remarkably patient with us both. If there’s anything more we can do for you, or for Ponyville….”
“I assure you, Princess,” Tally Mark said earnestly, “It’s me who should be thanking you. But… I’m sorry, your highnesses, but I must know: what do you plan to do with that?” She pointed a hoof at the changeling.
Both princesses’ eyes fell upon the tiny creature, still resting atop Corona’s back. She yawned, fluttered her insect wings, and snuggled her smiling face closer into Corona’s yellow coat.
“We haven’t quite decided yet,” Aurora admitted after an uncomfortable silence.
“We could take her back to the palace!” Corona suggested brightly. “I wonder if they’d let us keep her there….”
“Probably not,” Aurora answered quietly. Her face darkened, and for a moment she looked broodingly at the floor. Then her head rose again, and she met Tally Mark’s gaze with pleading eyes. “In the mean time, Mayor – would you mind, well… not mentioning this to anypony? The changeling, I mean.”
“You certainly don’t need to ask me, your highness,” replied the Mayor. “But… well, the fact is that there are over a dozen ponies sleeping in our hospital right now. Knowing that a changeling is responsible would make it much easier to help them, to know how best to treat them.”
Corona frowned sadly. “Oh. I didn’t think about that….”
Aurora scrunched her face in contemplation. Keeping the changeling a secret was one thing, but the thought of outright lying to her subjects churned her stomach. “Perhaps,” she said at last, “I could show the changeling to one of our researchers back in Canterlot. I’m sure he or she could figure out a treatment.”
For several seconds, Tally Mark seemed to contemplate this. Then she nodded. “That sounds reasonable. But I must implore you, your highness: please hurry. I can’t keep the truth from my citizens indefinitely, not when a solution is so close at hoof.”
“I understand,” said Aurora, and meant it wholeheartedly. She hadn’t forgotten her promise. Something will be done.
With that, they left the Mayor’s office. Corona briefly woke the sleepy changeling so that she could resume her owl disguise, and once their guards rejoined them, they made their way to the carriage. The ride back to the train station was blanketed by an uneasy quiet, and Aurora and Corona found themselves unable to meet each other’s eyes. The “owl” had now hopped up on Corona’s shoulder and perched there, sleeping; the guards silently accepted its presence, and marched along in perfect step behind them all the way to the station. Black smoke was already rising from the locomotive’s funnel by the time they arrived, and within a minute they were on their way home.
The train ride was slightly less uneasy. The windows were still overhung with thick curtains, and the warm golden glow of the coach’s wall-mounted lamps was cozy and soothing. Free of the guards’ overbearing presence, Aurora at last spoke, unburdening her troubled mind.
“We can’t keep her,” she said to her sister, eyeing the sleeping changeling. “You know that, don’t you?”
“Of course we can!” Corona argued. “Nopony needs to know about her yet. Except maybe Glass Eye. He wouldn’t mind, would he?”
“But we can’t keep her a secret forever. Summer, we’re struggling to gain approval as it is. How would the rest of Canterlot react if they found out that we’re keeping a live changeling in the palace?”
“But we can’t just turn her over to the council!” Corona hugged the “owl” closer to her chest. “They wouldn’t understand. They’d probably try to hurt her somehow! Can’t we just let Glass Eye see her? He’d know what to do. He always does.”
Aurora sighed. “Summer, I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. I just… I just….” Her head fell in silence, and for a moment she simply sat listening to the quiet clacking of the train-wheels as it raced along the tracks. When she spoke again, her voice was low and uneasy. “I’ll talk this over with Glass Eye,” she agreed. “But we can’t just let this issue sit forever. We’ve got a bigger responsibility to our subjects than to one little changeling.”
Corona frowned, but nodded. “I understand,” she said sullenly.
After that, the ride was silent all the way back to Canterlot.
When at last they arrived, it was still some hours before sunrise. More guards met them at the train station and escorted them through the city’s quiet streets back to the palace. It was a short walk down a wide stone boulevard, but it felt much longer to the sisters for the weight on their shoulders – or rather, the weight that sat perched, still sleeping, on Corona’s shoulder. The silvery moon above seemed unusually bright, shining down on them like a comforting smile, a friendly face trying to tell them that all was well. Corona eventually relaxed, but Aurora’s mood only seemed to grow darker.
Glass Eye met them just inside the gate and received them warmly. Leaving the troop of guards behind, they followed him down the dim castle hallways and upstairs to his office, where he stopped just outside the tall wooden door.
“It would appear you two had quite the adventure,” he said with a sly grin, noting Corona’s muddy legs, missing shoes, and disheveled mane.
The sun princess grinned sheepishly in reply. “Heh heh… yeah, I guess you could say that.” She then looked down and blushed, seeing that her muddy hooves had left tracks across the elegant carpeted floor. A sudden flash of guilt struck her when she realized that she must have left Tally Mark’s office in the same state. “Hey, Aurora?” she said. “Would you, would you mind if I got a bubble bath? Right now?”
Aurora nodded understandingly. “Go right ahead. I’ll explain everything.” Her horn glowed with a pale blue-white energy, and she magically lifted the still-slumbering “owl” from Corona’s back to her own. The old unicorn eyed it curiously, but smiled in tentative approval.
“A new friend, perhaps?” he inquired as he opened the door for her.
“Exactly,” Aurora muttered, stepping inside. Glass Eye took a moment to turn back and offer Corona a friendly wink before joining the other princess in the office. The door closed, leaving her alone in the hallway.
Tiredly, Corona made her way up the spiraling tower staircase and stepped through the door just beside her bedchambers. Inside was a spacious and warmly-lit room of beautiful white stone, at the center of which stood a large round bathtub. After shedding her mud-stained regalia, the weary princess selected a few soaps from a nearby shelf, switched on the faucet with a loud squeak, and settled into the tub as it quickly filled with steaming-hot water.
A bubble bath, Corona quickly discovered, was precisely what she needed. After hours of trekking through woods and sitting uncomfortably in trains and carriages, just the steamy air and soothing scent of the soap was indescribably rejuvenating. Already she could feel the sudsy water lifting the grime off of her coat. She sighed contentedly, relaxing her weary, aching limbs as she sank deeper into the foam, happy for the moment just to lose herself and forget. Aurora would work everything out, she told herself – just like she always did.
At some point in her repose she must have fallen asleep. A knock on the door jarred her awake and she sat up quickly. “Hello? Who’s there?”
“It’s me.” Aurora stepped inside, not waiting for an invitation; she knew her sister wouldn’t mind. She shut the door behind her and made her way to the side of the tub.
Corona smiled at her – but her smile faltered when she remembered what Aurora had spoken with Glass Eye about. “So, um… what did he say?”
“He’s agreed to let us keep the changeling hidden for now,” Aurora explained. “On the grounds that….” She seemed to struggle crossly with the rest of her sentence, but at length the words came crawling uncomfortably out of her mouth. “…on the grounds that I take her to see Lord Stargazer tomorrow, and let him figure out what to do.” She shuddered at the thought. “But that wasn’t all we talked about. Do you remember that this was supposed to be a test of our abilities? To see if we could handle a crisis?”
“Oh, yeah. Did we pass?”
Aurora shrugged. “Well, we didn’t quite pass, and we didn’t quite fail. Glass Eye thinks we did the best we could, given the situation. He went to speak with the council for a short spell; the only thing they all agreed on is that we’d been through enough for one night. Lost in the woods, attacked by a ‘wild animal’ – it was enough to convince them to give us a few days off.”
“Oh. That’s good, I guess.”
Silence fell, and for the first time that night, it wasn’t terribly uncomfortable. In the aftermath of a misadventure, the sisters finally felt at ease to simply enjoy each other’s company. Corona sank back into the bath, and Aurora sat close beside her, staring across the room and out the window on the far wall at the cold, starry sky beyond.
“Blue,” Corona finally spoke up. “I’m sorry.” There was an uneasy shadow in her voice.
“Sorry?” Aurora echoed. “About what?”
“Everything.” The shadow in Corona’s voice spread to her face, and she looked down shamefully. “I was all kind of my fault, really. I got us lost in the swamp. I fell in the bog. I got hurt by the ‘ghost.’ You had to save me, and Glass Eye has to cover for us, and Tally Mark got mud tracked all over her nice office floor.” She turned, casting her sad gaze out the window as this new, unhappy thought flowered in her mind. “It’s always been like that, hasn’t it? You have to save me, and somepony else has to clean up the mess.”
“If it makes you feel any better,” Aurora said tenderly, “it’s really mostly my fault.”
Corona turned to look at her. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve been trying to be the sensible one,” Aurora continued. “I’ve been trying to be the one who takes care of you, of Equestria, of everything. But I haven’t been doing that at all. I’ve made awful decisions. I led us head-first into a problem we weren’t ready to solve. I let you get hurt. And now I’m keeping a secret from most of the kingdom. Summer… Summer, I’m a terrible princess. And I’m a terrible sister.”
Corona sat silently for a while as well. The shadow over her face seemed to grow deeper – and then, in a strange flash of insight, it started lift. A faint smile broke out on her lips, like the summer sun, her namesake, peering out from behind a wall of clouds. “I guess that just means we both have a lot to learn,” she said. Her voice brightened considerably. “And you know what? It’s okay. I mean, you don’t need to worry about it or anything. We’re not perfect, but we’re getting there, aren’t we? We’re still just learning.”
“Well, I suppose so,” Aurora conceded.
“And besides,” Corona went on, “I don’t care how good a princess you are, or how many mistakes you make, or anything.” She turned her smile directly on Aurora. “I’m still really glad you’re my sister.”
For several seconds, Aurora stared back at her with glistening eyes, unsure of what to say. That smile was so warm, so bright, so sincere, that it seemed to melt her worries away entirely. “Th-thank you,” she said at last, with a noticeable catch in her voice. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that.”
“It’s no big deal,” said Summer, sinking blissfully back into the sudsy water. “Now go on! You’re probably gonna need a bath, too. Lemme have mine!”
“Okay, okay!” Aurora turned and stepped away from the tub, shaking her head and suppressing a laugh. She stopped at the door and smiled back. “I love you, Summer. I’m… I’m glad you’re my sister, too.”
“Love you too, sis. And thanks.”