Twilight’s worries became a reality as they searched Zecora’s hut. It was most thoroughly wrecked. Smashed furniture and keepsakes from Zecora’s homeland covered the floor, both in the main room and in the smaller chamber off to the side where the zebra shaman slept. Twilight asked her friends and John to help search for any of Zecora’s potions, in the hopes that something might have survived. It was no use. The gourds and bottles they were in had been smashed against the stones surrounding her firepit or even on the cauldron itself, which lay on its side.
“I knew Thorn was every kind o’ a skunk,” Applejack said as she gently picked up what remained of a Zebrican mask. Twilight remembered seeing it hanging against the wall. AJ said, “But this was jest plain childish o’ him.”
“Zecora worked so hard on those potions,” Twilight agreed, shaking her head sadly as she looked at what must have been months of work in the firepit, all ruined. “And all her mementoes from home, smashed! She’ll be furious when she sees what happened.”
“If she’s still alive,” Dash muttered, casting a look out the door into the darkening Everfree. Fluttershy gasped to hear it. Dash spun on the others, saying, “Look, I don’t want her hurt, but we gotta be honest, guys. Why would Thorn bother keeping her alive?”
Twilight just looked at her, feeling ill at the logic in Dash’s words. Thorn had already proven perfectly capable of killing casually when angered. But she just didn’t want to accept the idea that yet another of the ponies she knew was dead at Thorn’s hooves, or rather hands.
“Might could be he thinks she knows something he wants to know,” John said where he stood. Twilight saw that he’d gathered up some of Zecora’s once neatly piled firewood, now scattered all over the room. He went to the firepit and dropped it in, bending down to carefully arrange it. Pinkie went to help him and Twilight felt mild surprise at how competently Pinkie aided John in getting a fire going. That is, until she turned around and showed a tuft of her mane was smoldering. Pinkie looked up at it, grinned, and patted it out with her hooves. As she did John added, “You-all said she’s got the name of being the local witch. Might could be that Thorn thinks she’d help him with his own doings.”
“She wouldn’t,” Twilight responded, feeling some welcome hope. She used her magic and set some more wood into the fire, carefully so as not to put it out. “Like we said, Zecora’s a decent pony. She wouldn’t help him in any way.”
“Then he might just want to learn whatair she knows,” John answered her. He indicated the broken potion gourds and Zecora’s worktable, now flung over. He bent down and set it back up, Applejack going to help him. “You said she makes potions and cures. He’d probably like to see if she knows airy thing he can turn to his own profit.”
“That does sound like him,” Rarity cut in from the side. She gathered up what remained of a few small Zebrican statues. She took them over to the table, floating just before her, and carefully set them down on it. Twilight saw several more masks, a small statue of some dark heavy stone, and Zecora’s carved and iron-capped meditation staff already resting on it. “Thorn doesn’t care about anything that can’t be turned to his own ends, does he? He is such a philistine!”
“He’s a lot of things we can’t say,” Pinkie said as she reached into her saddlebags and took out some muffins and bread. Then, to Twilight’s shock, she reached in and somehow took out a pecan pie that looked more than large enough to feed them all before reaching back in and rummaging around some more.
“Pinkie, why did you bring a pecan pie?” Twilight knew she would regret asking the party pony such a question, but she had to make the effort. Pinkie looked back at her and smiled.
“Because the cherry pie wasn’t done yet, duh!” She expertly sliced the pie into sections as she spoke. Twilight looked past her and saw John trying not to smile and failing. Twilight felt her lips curling in a grin to match. Pinkie picked up a long iron spoon and clanged it against the cauldron. “Soup’s on, everypony! Though I dunno why I’m calling it soup when it’s mostly muffins, bread, and pie!” Fluttershy, AJ, and Rarity went to sit down and eat. Rainbow Dash flew over and hesitated.
“Hey, Twi, we got the time for this?” She indicated the sack at John’s belt. “Thorn’s gonna be looking for his spellbook, and there’s Spike and the Crusaders…”
“I know, Dash,” Twilight said back as she sat down, “but right now we need to keep our strength up, and I need to try and figure out what to do next now that Zecora’s not here to help.” She took a chunk of the bread and chewed on it blissfully. It still felt just a little warm from baking. “We certainly can’t just give him the Letters of Cold Fire back, and we can’t just march into Sunny Town and tell him to give up. So it looks like we’re going to wait here, at least until dawn.” If we still have the time, she thought.
Dash nodded unhappily as she set herself down beside Twilight. She began to reach for the bread and then stopped, her eyes going wide.
“Wait, wait,” she said, shooting back up into the air as everypony turned their eyes on her, “what if me an’ Fluttershy tried sending a storm into Sunny Town right before the rest of you snuck in and grabbed Spike and the girls? All we’d have to do is make it big and nasty enough and Thorn wouldn’t see his hooves in front of his face. An’ then after that I could give Thorn a few dozen hoofshots to the jaw, and then…”
“Umm, Dash?” Fluttershy spoke up from where she sat, quickly swallowing a mouthful of muffins to add, “I’m sorry to interrupt your planning, but I never learned how to work weather. Remember?”
“Aw, c’mon, ‘Shy,” Dash said, “every Pegasus can do it! You did great that one time you helped. And if not, then I’ll handle that part. So like I said, after we, I mean I, send in the storm and take out Thorn…”
“What about the zombie ponies?” Applejack asked that from where she sat.
“I ain’t scared of them,” Dash answered with a contemptuous sniff. “From what we saw, they can’t fly. They couldn’t even touch Equestria’s best flyer!”
“But they could touch the Cutie Mark Crusaders,” Rarity said, rising up to say it. Dash shot her a dirty look and opened her mouth to say more, but Rarity cut her off. “Please, think, Rainbow Dash! Thorn could just order the Sunny Town ponies to kill them! And that’s assuming that he’d do what we wanted in the first place. Dash, I know you’re almost as good as you think you are,” Dash began to sputter complaints. Rarity simply raised her voice until it whipcracked across the room, “But we are talking about my sister’s life, and Spike’s, and Apple Bloom’s and Scootaloo’s as well! I know that, that keeping Thorn’s hooves off of the spellbook is our primary concern for everypony else’s sake,” Twilight thought she heard Rarity’s voice catch, and she knew she felt it herself at the thought that she might have to sacrifice Spike, “But please, let us do everything we can to save our little sisters and Spike as well.”
“Okay, fine,” Dash grumbled as she sat back down. “Any ideas on how we even find Sunny Town? And hey, what’re you doin’, pal?” Twilight saw she directed the last remark to John. He’d taken some of the bread and was chewing on it as he sat by the broken door, using his knife to scratch some marks into the dirt.
“Twilight said we’d like as not be here all through the night.” He continued scratching the marks into the dirt as he said, “So I figured on trying something that might could help if Thorn sent us any visitors for the night. This is a protective charm I learned some time back, and it’s helped me once or twice.”
“A protection spell?” Suddenly interested, Twilight walked over to where John sat. She watched silently as he finished cutting a circle into the dirt. Set equidistant around it were a dozen symbols she didn’t recognize. She tried a spell to pick up on magical energies, and felt some relief that she picked up on power in it. She must have shown her joy, for she caught how John looked at her. She said, “I’ve been working on how to identify and protect against the magic from your world, John, and I’m getting better. I think I can give Thorn more of a fight then he might expect when we meet.” She indicated the markings with one hoof. “But what is this, exactly?”
“I’m not rightly sure,” John answered her. “I first learned it from a fellow named Jackson Warren, when he and I and some other folks were fighting the Shonokin.” He stopped as though expecting her to ask for more information. Twilight felt her curiosity gnawing at her, but she forced herself to ignore it and nodded for him to continue. “He allowed that it worked against what you might call unwanted company, and I’ve found it right helpful now and then against such. I don’t know how good it is here, but I’ll try it for safety’s sake. Or do you know a better protecting spell?”
Twilight thought for a second, and said, “I’ll try.”
She felt power flow down through her horn as she said the words to the most common such spell. There were stronger ones she knew, but she wanted to save as much of her power as she could for dealing with Thorn and whatever he’d have with him. To her surprise she felt her spell weaving itself around and through the ward John set into the dirt floor. If what she knew of Equestrian magic proved true here, that should double the strength of the ward. It would also make it possible to break it simply by kicking dirt over the marks and ruining it, but that couldn’t be helped. She stepped back and sighed.
“That’s done. Say, John, you don’t know of anything else that can be used to protect against Thorn’s magic, do you?” He looked thoughtful, the firelight from behind them both flickering over his face, before he answered.
“There’s holy words and prayers, though that’d be different for you than for me. And there’s spells as well, but we have that here.” He pointed at the ward before smiling softly and adding, “And old folks I know back home say that evil can’t prevail against a heart that’s both pure and brave. I reckon that may make you ponies safe. I’m not so sure about myself, though.”
“I reckon you’re brave, John,” Applejack said from her place by the fire. Twilight looked and saw her friends lying down together, huddled close for warmth. Rarity lay in the middle next to Applejack, with Pinkie and Fluttershy flanking them, both of the latter already snoozing. Dash flew over and dropped down to lie across everypony else, using them like a mattress. AJ rolled her eyes but said nothing. Rarity grumbled sleepily in her elegant voice and asked Dash to watch out for her mane. Applejack added, “If ya weren’t brave, ya wouldn’t be here in the first place.” She laid her head down, pulled her hat down over her eyes, and dropped off to sleep.
“What else can protect against Thorn’s magic?” Twilight asked again. “I mean physical things that we can try to bring along with us.”
“You got your Elements. Even if they take some time to use, they did save Rarity’s life,” John nodded at the purple-maned unicorn where she slumbered. He lightly drew his fingers along the strings of his guitar where they gleamed in the light. “And silver, as we’ve been seeing. Cold iron in some stories. Some kinds of wood, too, like hazelnut or ash…”
“Wait, did you say cold iron and ash?” Twilight’s ears pricked up at the last part. Before John could answer, she brought Zecora’s meditation staff floating over from the table. She set it down gently between them. She and John both looked closer at it. The metal caps and reinforcing bandings set roughly a quarter down the way from either end showed dull gray, and ornate carvings ran from tip to tip. Twilight lightly touched one with her hoof, a figure something like a fancy cross or hammer. “Zecora told me once that she made this after she got here, from local ash wood and using iron from an old staff of hers that got broken when she needed to defend herself. She said she hammered the iron parts to fit without a forge.”
“That must have taken some doing,” John responded. He carefully felt the staff, then took it and held it in one hand. In his hands it looked just big enough to make a good fighting staff.
“I imagine it did,” Twilight said. Her horn glowed and then so did several of the symbols along the staff, mainly the one like a hammer. “I remember how she said that one especially was sacred to her folk, that it was the sign of the blacksmith. Among her folk smiths are seen as being powerful wizards who made iron to protect zebras from hyenas and crocodiles and evil magic.”
“It’s like that back home in some places,” John said as he set the staff down. She hurriedly got some paper and a quill out to write his next words down. “Air place people worked iron, they saw it and the forge it was made in as holy. Some folks used to swear oaths on horseshoes, and some still think they’re lucky. Blacksmith gods were seen as protectors and champions among most peoples. Gypsies, a people who call theirselves the Rom, used to keep anvils for holy altars. And folks revered and respected the ash tree for a long time in old England and in the mountains. This might could be a help to us all, Twilight, and I thank you.”
“I’m glad,” she said absently as she wrote his words down. She promised herself that when this was all over she’d talk with him for however long it took to learn all he could tell her. And even so, it still wouldn’t be enough, not to know a whole world and the peoples in it. She set the paper back in her saddlebag and yawned. “Sorry, I think I feel a little sleepy.”
“I fancy you earned the right,” John told her. He looked out the door and into the dark. He went to the few windows looking into the room and closed the shutters. One of them was too badly broken. At that one he went to Zecora’s torn bedding and set one of her blankets across the broken window. He went back to sit by the door. Twilight watched with vast curiosity.
“Why did you do that?”
“I want to make sure nary person watching outside can see that light of ours,” he said as he leaned back against the wall, setting his guitar across his lap. Twilight felt a chill at his next words. “We don’t need more trouble than we’ll find.”
“What kind of trouble do you expect?” She asked in a soft voice. She could just hear her friends’ breathing as they slept.
“If you don’t rightly know,” John spoke back in as soft a voice as hers, “Then nair do I. But I know something will be coming along, and I want to be ready when it does.” Twilight saw that he kept Zecora’s staff close by, ready to seize it up if he had to. She nodded again, tiredly. Then, to her own surprise, she walked around the ward and lay down by John close enough to feel the warmth of his body. She looked and made sure that the bag with Thorn’s grimoire was on the other side of him from her. She didn’t want to be lying down next to that.
“Whenever it happens,” she said, “wake me up.” She faintly heard him promise to do that. She looked out into the dark, wondering where Spike and the girls were, if they were frightened or hurt. We’ll come and save you, she thought, that’s a promise.
She laid her head down on her forelegs and slept.
“HEAD ‘EM UP AND MOVE ‘EM OUT! YOU WANT TO LIVE FOREVER LIKE THE PRINCESS?”
Along the northern and western fringes of the Everfree, by Froggy Bottom Bog, Luna’s Night Troopers put hooves to dirt and started trying to penetrate the woods, looking for any sign of the invading sorcerer’s forces. They tried working their way inwards as best as they could towards where they’d been told Sunny Town lay. They were on edge. They’d heard from the Guardsponies stationed in Ponyville about the kind of things that were inside the Everfree, and more, of the events of the past few days. They were well armed, alert, ready for anything. They penetrated inwards under the trees, deep enough that the branches closed in above and around them.
So when the Foggy Bottom Hydra came roaring out of its swamp at them; when packs of timber wolves with armored collars on their necks leapt baying from the trees to rend and tear; when pony-sized spiders and even larger scorpions dropped from the trees above to bite and sting; when manticores and owlbears and cockatrices charged out of the underbrush; when immense panthers who never appeared to be where they really were leaped on them to slash with barbed shoulder-tentacles, they didn’t fall apart into panic. They formed up, and fought, and slowly fell back to the points where they’d entered the woods. And most of them escaped with their lives.
Most of them.
I don’t rightly remember how much time passed before I became aware that we had us some company outside, and not what I’d call a natural sort of company.
I jerked up from dreams I’d been having. First they’d been good, of me playing my guitar for these ponies and some others back in their town. Only this time Evadare stood there with me, and they all clapped their hooves and cheered when I told them all she was my wife. Fluttershy and Rarity came up and gave her flowers and some gemstones made into fancy ruby slippers. I played some more music and they clapped and cheered all the more, until I saw how the sun didn’t move airy bit through the sky. I asked Twilight why, where she stood right by me.
“Princess Celestia wants to hear your songs too,” she said, a-smiling on me. “Why do you think we asked you to play outdoors?”
Then that dream ended, and I had another, not near so nice. In it I saw black shadows a-coming all out from and over the Everfree, with one made like a giant winged and horned horse above it all. Air thing those shadows touched turned into ashes, and he laughed to see it all. Applejack and Apple Bloom and all the rest of the ponies I’d met were walking out from under him, only they looked dead like the Sunny Town ponies. Whatair they stepped on died under their hooves. I stood down before him with Twilight right by me again. I told her we had to either run or fight.
“John, why would I run from my own master?” She said those words, and turned and looked on me. Her coat looked black as a coal mine at midnight, and the pupils of her eyes were slits running up and down like on a cat. Standing by her was something like a long skinny dragon made from parts of different animals all stuck together, and he grinned on me like a crazy man.
I tried to play my guitar and call her back to herself. The dragon-thing with her just laughed and tapped me on the head, and of a sudden I couldn’t play airy note. It all came out a jangled mess. Twilight came at me, wicked and laughing, and the dragon and the shadow horse with her. And before they touched me I woke up. I felt right glad to do it too.
I looked around inside Zecora’s ruined tree house and saw what I’d seen afore. Twilight snoozing lightly by me, and her friends sleeping by the firepit, all in a pile. They must have slept lightly, for when I started awake, so did they a moment after.
“John,” Twilight said aside of me, her voice low and soft, “did you hear that?”
Hear what? I almost inquired her, and then I did hear it. The soft scrape of a horse’s hoof outside, right by that ruined door. I rose up and went to it, careful to not scuff up the ward I’d cut into the dirt. Twilight followed me. She looked right scared but ready for whatair might happen. Wings beat softly, and Dash flew over to hover by us both. I set my hand to the door to open it for a peek when someone outside spoke.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” Whoair spoke was a stranger person or pony to me. By the way Twilight and her friends looked, they didn’t know them either. The voice spoke again, sounding worried. “Please, is there someone there who knows Apple Bloom? I, I’m her friend Ruby from Sunny Town. If you can help her, please ask me in. There’s something I can’t see at the door and it won’t let me pass.”
“Hey, sure you can!” Pinkie came hopping up to the door. “Come right - uff!” I saw a purple glow come onto her muzzle and it closed right shut. Pinkie gave Twilight a glare. Twilight gave her an annoyed look back.
“Pinkie! If she can’t just walk in, there’s probably a good reason for that!” Pinkie worked at her muzzle with her forehooves and pulled Twilight’s magic muzzle away somehow. While she did, Twilight looked at me and said, “John, that ward of yours. Does it work on everything, or…?” I could see she hoped I’d say yes.
“No, only on unnatural things,” I responded her. She looked afraid. I saw past her how Applejack and Rainbow Dash set themselves between Rarity and Fluttershy and whatair waited outside. And when they did that, I took a deep breath and opened that door.
What I saw surprised me, because it was a pony I knew. It was that little gray one with the blond mane I’d seen my first night here, with Apple Bloom in the Everfree. She looked skittish and ready to run, and more, I could see something about her I hadn’t recognized that first night. Her eyes showed like yellow balls with no pupil or white to them, nothing like other pony’s eyes. And despite how dark it looked out - if Equestria were that much like Earth, I’d figure it to be maybe an hour or so of midnight, either way - she showed clear in it with a glow that didn’t come from our fire.
“Please,” she said again, that poor sorry-looking dead thing there, “please, let me in. Apple Bloom, she’s my friend, she’s in trouble and she needs help!”
I wondered myself what to say to a horse haunt, but Pinkie just bounced up the closer and looked her in the eyes. Twilight hissed her name at her. Pinkie ignored it to just give Ruby a long look afore she spoke again.
“Oh, we thought you were one of those nasty-bad yucky zombie ponies from Sunny Town, but you’re just a ghost pony. Now, are you a good ghostie, or do I have to giggle at you until you go away?” Pinkie said to her. Ruby looked as confused as airy soul’d be when they first met Pinkie. “I thought you’d be a zombie pony too and be stumbling around and going all ‘BRAAAIIINS!’ but you’re not a zombie, you’re a ghost, and I guess that even if you did want to eat brains you wouldn’t have anywhere to go with them since I never heard that ghosts have stomachs even if some people in John’s world put out food for them like how we give candy to Nightmare Moon on Nightmare Night but I guess you know all about Nightmare Night because that’s when all the ghosts and monsters come out to play and -“ Pinkie closed her mouth and made a zipping motion along her lips when she saw Twilight’s horn a-start to glow. Twilight just gave Pinkie a dirty look. Applejack walked up aside of me while she did.
“Wait, y’all really are Ruby?” She spoke to the haunt in the door. “I remember, Apple Bloom said ya helped save her from yer ghost friends when she followed ya to Sunny Town.”
“I did, and please let me in,” Ruby said, almost bouncing on her front hooves the way a worried or angry horse will, “Before something happens to her. Thorne wants to keep her prisoner, but my father Gray Hoof and Three Leaf and all the others are getting angry over how long he’s made them wait already! They said they’d make her one of them this time, and the other two fillies and that little dragon with her too…” She might have said more but right then Twilight pushed her way in between her and Applejack.
“Applejack, Pinkie, John, Ruby or whoever,” she said as she looked from one of us to the other, her ears flicking back and forth, “Listen to me. There are no such things as ghosts! Now, I…”
“No such things as ghosts?” Ruby said, and she sounded tired, like someone who hears the same argument over and over. “Look Miss Twilight, I’m sorry to break it to you, but there are such thing as ghosts and the undead. From what the others in Sunny Town have said, you’ve seen some of the proof yourself. And you’re seeing more of it before you!” Twilight still looked ready to a-argue it. Ruby just sighed and walked over to some of the wreckage in the yard and strolled right through it. I reckon I gopped to see that, and so did Twilight. Ruby came back over to us and said, “Now please, please, LET ME IN! I don’t want my only friend to get hurt!”
“Afore we do or say airy thing,” I spoke to her, “Just show me if you can touch this.” I stepped out of the house and up to her. I heard Twilight gasp, and Applejack gave me a quick, “John, watch y’self!”
I just walked up to that little dead pony where she stood. I crouched down by her and held out my guitar with its silver strings. She looked at me, and I saw the realization come into her eyes.
“That’s right, the others told me it hurt to try and get close to you when you held this towards them.” She reached her neck out and set her nose to the strings. It felt maybe the least bit colder where she touched them. She stepped back and looked at me. “Now do you believe I’m not here to hurt anypony?”
“I reckon we are,” I said. I turned and walked to the door and said, “Please come inside, Miss Ruby.” She sighed and followed me inside. I saw her twitch as she passed through the door and over the ward, like a fly lit on to her, but she showed no sign of any more hurt. I went to where the ponies sat by the firepit and so did she, and there we both sat down. Pinkie looked happy like always. Twilight and Applejack both seemed wary. The rest just stared at her.
“So…” Twilight said as she walked up to Ruby, looking at the soft glow and at her solid-color eyes, “you’re supposedly a ghost? From Sunny Town? You don’t look a lot like those other - things, we’ve seen from there.”
“That’s because I’m not like them,” Ruby shook her head to say it, her short mane spilling back and forth as she did. “They, they’re the ones who burned me all those centuries ago. Or was it years?” She shook her head again and looked at Applejack. “You’re Apple Bloom’s sister. She said something about you and Nightmare Moon once. You helped Celestia banish her to the moon, right? After she cursed Sunny Town, made us,” she looked down at her hooves like she felt shame, “What we are now?”
“No, we cured Nightmare Moon,” Twilight spoke up again. “She was sent to the moon a thousand years ago after she rebelled against her sister. She came back when the stars were right two years ago and banished Celestia. But before she could do any more than that, my friends and I,” she waved her hoof around at them all, and I saw how they puffed theirselves up just a bit, “Found the Elements of Harmony and used them to cure her, to bring Luna back.”
“Was he with you?” Ruby said, giving me a look. “I don’t remember hearing about a human in it. They were legends even back when we made Sunny Town, when we ran away from the Cutie Pox…”
“I wasn’t there, Miss Ruby,” I told her. “I’m here now, though, and what’s this you said about Apple Bloom? Can you lead us to her?” She looked back at me, and even though I knew her to be a friendly haunt like Lute Meechum or Devil Anse Hatfield or even General Washington who I’d met for maybe a minute, I still worked not to flinch back from her. You looked into her eyes, it was like looking into a bonfire.
“It all just gets so confusing,” she said, shaking her head. “Not just what Apple Bloom tells me, but my own memories. We keep having that party again and again in Sunny Town, every night. Roneo keeps losing his gift for Starlight, and I have to find it again, and, and then the curse hits and…” She looked at the magnifying glass on her flank and shivered. “Then Mitta tries to hide me, but my father and everypony else panics when they realize that I have the plague, and they drag me to the big fireplace in our house, and th-then they…” She looked down and her shoulders began to shudder, and she made sounds like weeping. I reached out, hesitated maybe a second, and set my hand on her shoulder. She felt cold, but solid air other way. I reckon she needed to think on it to make herself able to go through things. I looked at the ponies and saw how they looked on Ruby. Not scared so much as sad now.
“There, now, it’s okay.” Fluttershy walked up on her other side and nuzzled her. “We won’t hurt you. But how can we find Apple Bloom?”
“I was friends with Luna,” she said. “I loved her stars and she loved talking about them, said I was her only real friend. She told me later, after she became the Nightmare, that she came to Sunny Town after I’d,” she swallowed, “After what happened, and when she asked about me nopony would look her in the eyes to answer. Finally she cornered Mitta and got the truth from her. And then she just surrounded the whole town with a wall of solid night nopony could get past and hurled lightning down into it again and again until they were all dead. And she cursed them,” and now a shiver of fear to her voice, and I reckon maybe I felt it to hear her. “She cursed them to never have any peace, for the earth to cast them out and the Summerlands to reject them, until they asked for my forgiveness. And she made me,” she indicated herself with her hoof, “What I am, so I could hear their apology and watch them suffer.”
“But, Ruby,” Rarity spoke up, staring at her with wide eyes, “If that’s true, then Sunny Town’s been in the Everfree for more than a thousand years! Are you telling me that nopony there ever asked for your forgiveness in all that time? After one thousand years of being those,” she shuddered and made a face like saying it disgusted her, “Those monsters in the dark?”
“They just said it’s my fault anyway, for befriending Luna,” Ruby answered her, sounding tired. “They keep doing that party over and over and over, thinking that if they just do it one more time it’ll finish the right way and they’ll never have to say they’re sorry.”
“You were also a-saying about Thorne,” I asked her. “That you can find him and get us to Sunny Town.”
“I can,” she said, looking a little happier to say it. “I’m good at finding things. And please, you’ve got to help save Apple Bloom.” She began heading for the door, and Twilight and her friends followed after her. I stayed just long enough to make sure the fire was out, and to take up that iron and ash staff. I liked the heft of it, and if I ran into Thorne or maybe even one of those other Sunny Town ponies, I’d learn for myself if maybe it wasn’t just a little bit harder than their heads.
I went out into the dark to find the girls and Ruby at the edge of Zecora’s clearing. I saw Twilight and Ruby a-talking to each other. Her glow made just enough light to see them by. The rest were shadows in the dark, though by now I could tell them apart by the things like Pinkie’s bouncing and her puffed-up mane, or Dash’s hovering in the air.
“We’re glad for your help,” Twilight said to Ruby as I caught up, a-holding up one hoof to get her attention. “But why are the other Sunny Town ponies helping Thorne?”
“He,” she looked away, like she felt shamed, before she said, “He made us a promise. If we helped get his spellbook back, and kept an eye on him,” she pointed her hoof at me, “He’d use the magic from the Letters of Cold Fire to give us our lives back. He’d make us be alive again.”
“But he can’t do that!” Twilight yelled and winced, like she’d been caught talking out loud at a fancy concert or the like. She added a little quieter, “I’m no longer as sure as I once might have been about curses not being real, but I do know Equestrian magic. Something that powerful just can’t be lifted like it was no more than some cantrip, it can only be broken by the alicorn who set it. And since Nightmare Moon doesn’t exist anymore…”
“That’s what my father and the others told Thorne,” Ruby said. She began leading us all into the woods, following what looked like glowing hoofmarks in the dirt and fallen leaves of the forest floor. I saw Applejack staying by the rear and nodded to her. She’d make sure none of us fell behind. I went up by the front where Ruby and Twilight spoke.
“They were going to frighten him and that light-green unicorn with him away, but he made some marks in the dirt, and said some words that burned in our heads, and then they were all on their bellies before him,” Ruby said to Twilight. I listened to her with the one ear and tried to keep the other one open for whatair might be around us, though the normal night sounds you hear in a woods seemed quieted down then. I wondered me if it was because Ruby was a haunt, or because of all of us a-tramping through the woods. Ruby said, “Thorne said he’d been chased away from Ponyville because he defied Princess Celestia, and he wanted sanctuary with us. Gray Hoof and the others laughed at him and said they didn’t owe anything to the living except death. Then Thorne said he could make them all live again.”
“I remember,” I said to her and Twilight alike. “When I saw some of your people in Ponyville last night, they said some such thing about how they were needing Thorne’s spellbook for just that reason.” Ruby nodded at me.
“Yes, and Thorne wasn’t happy when they came back without it. He hurt them, somehow.” She shuddered again. “They were scared. They’d never felt real pain since their deaths, but Thorne reminded them that if he could hurt them he could heal them too.”
“But breaking an alicorn’s spell?” Twilight wondered at her.
“Thorne said that when he gets his spellbook back, he can use it to remake the world of the,” Ruby frowned and said the word right careful, “The Svartaskoli, and that in it everything will be as he wishes it to be. He’ll be the new alicorn there, the king of a new Equestria, and if he wants us to be alive again we’ll be alive again.” Twilight frowned at that. I guessed she thought on the show Thorne gave all the ponies, where he’d bragged of doing all those things. Ruby added in a worried voice, “But he’ll need somepony to take our place. He says that he’ll have to take a life for a life for everypony in the village. We’ll get to live again, but others will have to take our place.”
“Which others?” I asked, though I felt sure I could guess who he’d chosen.
Ruby just looked from me to Twilight and the others. They stopped, and I heard them gasp as she said, “All of you. Thorne promised to put our curse on Ponyville and make you all into undead ponies, drain away all your lives and give them to us.”
“Wh-what? That’s horrible!” Fluttershy said, “Who’d take care of my animals?”
“No no no!’ Dash waved her hooves like to chase something away. “No way do I want to be a ghost in the Everfree! I’d never get to be a Wonderbolt! And I don’t want to see it happen to anypony else, either!”
“Ruby!” Rarity gasped at her. “You and the others, you can’t help him do this! It’d be worse than murder to do such a thing!”
“I don’t want to do it!” Ruby almost yelled back. “And I’m not helping them! It’s the others. They say we’re owed this, that if hurting some of ‘Celestia and her monster sister’s little ponies’ is what it takes, then so be it!” She broke off and shivered. “I begged them not to listen, but they just beat me and chased me into the Everfree. They can touch me like I was still alive, they just don’t do it very often.” She looked at me. “That night I saw you, I thought Thorne sent you to bring me back. I’d gone to warn Apple Bloom about it, but you showed up first.”
“I wasn’t a-coming after you,” I answered her. “I was just a stranger. But I did help Apple Bloom stop the thing Thorne tried to set on us both.” I tried to pay attention to the forest while we spoke. I wondered myself if I heard other hoofbeats, close by but trying to be stealthy.
“I know now,” she nodded me back. “But then earlier Thorne brought Apple Bloom and her friends into a cage inside my father’s old house in Sunny Town. They’re all afraid, but the little dragon and the Pegasus told Thorne that they weren’t scared of him.”
“That’s Scootaloo,” Dash said, sounding proud. She ducked under a low-hanging branch with moss dangling from it. “She’s one tough little filly. Kinda like me.”
Ruby just nodded, watching her trail while she walked. “I sneaked in later, and Apple Bloom told me to go and get her sister and Twilight and John, because they’d save them all. And so I went. I was going to just pass by that zebra’s hut on my way to Ponyville in case you were there, and well,” she shrugged, “there you were.” She looked back at her trail of those glowing hoofprints then. “It gets kind of tricky from here on,” she said, her voice low, “and we’re just a few miles from Sunny Town. Better be quiet.”
“Why don’t ponies find Sunny Town more often?” I heard Applejack ask, but quieter than we’d been speaking. “It sounds like a right good-sized place, even if it is in the middle o’ the Everfree. You’d think pegasi flyin’ over would see it, if nothin’ else.”
“You can’t see or find it unless they want you to find it,” Ruby whispered back. “And even if you do, unless you get very close all you see are ruined buildings. And if you go any closer, you don’t ever leave.” She looked back on us all, her eyes like soft yellow lamps. “Now please, no more questions. I have to concentrate to do this.”
So we followed a pony haunt there under the leaves of the Everfree, a-wondering ourselves what we’d find with her leading the way. For a time we didn’t speak any more, we just followed Ruby in and out and around trees and bushes and rocks. Once we stopped when we heard something a-using nearby, something big that made the ground shake when its feet came down. You felt the regular thud, thud, thud of it coming up through your legs.
“Whatair was that?” I whispered to Ruby and Twilight after it passed by and left us. Twilight looked at Ruby like she wondered herself.
“Something bad,” was all Ruby said, and we went on. Right soon after that we came up on an old trail. I bent and looked close as best I could in that dim light under the trees. I saw it’d been a road a long time ago. You could see where the grass had been tramped down and grown back in different-like from the way it did on the sides of it. And there showed another sign we couldn’t mistake. Those rotted-looking hoofmarks, dozens of them, both a-coming and a-going along it.
“This is it, isn’t it?” Twilight said to Ruby, keeping her voice soft.
“Yes,” Ruby responded her. “This is the trail into Sunny Town.”
“Should we be rightly using the road up to Thorne’s front door?” I asked her. “I’d rather he didn’t know about our being here.”
“This is the only for a short bit,” Ruby said back to me. She turned and gave me a look from her glowing yellow eyes. “Just until we get up to the outskirts of the village. Then I know another way around, and we can use that to get in…”
While she’d been speaking we’d all walked along the trail, and when she of a sudden stopped so did we. I heard a surprised noise behind me as somebody walked into somebody else. It kindly sounded like Pinkie and Fluttershy. I didn’t look to see who it was right then, for someone else stood in the trail before us. And they showed the red and black and bones of the Sunny Town ponies.
“Ruby,” it said, and it sounded like a woman’s voice, or maybe I ought to say a mare’s. It stepped closer, and I could see how it looked like she’d been weeping on howair much of a face she still owned. “Ruby,” she said again, and her voice sounded so sad it felt like she’d nair laughed or smiled in her life, “You know you’re in so much trouble for this.”
Ruby just stepped away from us, a-looking surprised. She said just the one thing.