68w, 1dCelestia & Luna
59w, 14hThe Sci-Fi Ponies
16w, 23hWriting Gold
55w, 5dDoubled Fun
61w, 1dEquestrian Historical Society
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45w, 6dEquestria's Past
55w, 3dProtect Celestia
53w, 4dPlan to Read
9w, 5dTwilight's Library
32w, 4dfimfiction's favorites
9w, 6dCelestia Is The Best Pony
38w, 10hAlternate Perspectives
16w, 6dStarlight's Fantasy
31w, 2dSt. Xavier Bronies
11w, 3dVallett's Private Library
Change, even that which we most desire, is bittersweet. It's our dual nature to long for the past, while trying to leave it behind.
Leaves crunched beneath a dozen hooves. A small party surrounded Celestia and her sister, three stallions in all. Charging Hoof, and Little Apple (Uncle Apple's young nephew who Celestia felt earned the title) took place along the young mare's sides, while Whip guided them deep into the Everfree forest. The trip had gone under way in a silence that grew uncomfortable for Celestia. Last thing she needed now was a chance to think. But despite her feelings, the chance at conversation seemed remote, all consumed in their tasks and Luna as quiet as ever.
Instead, the rhythm of the steps at all sides lulled Celestia into a sense of daydreaming. Her mind wandered over her situation, taking her back to that early morning. Saying farewell to friends was easier than she expected. The little pangs of sorrow were overwhelmed by the excitement at going to see the mythical unicorns. She hugged some, made promises to others, and for the best of friends, even shared a teary departure. But even under watering eyes, her smile beamed.
With Lightning Kick, that changed. They both embraced and tried to wear their smiles, but Lightning's mood began to rub off on Celestia. Sure, a mother expected a stallion to leave the herd at that age when wanderlust took them, but she was losing both fillies she had expected to keep to old age. For the first time, Celestia felt the sadness extinguish her enthusiasm.
"I will come back, mom." She buried her face in her mother's neck. "I will come back, I promise."
"My dearest Celestia, don't be so quick to give your word." Lightning's wet cheek pressed up against her daughter. "You have a unique life, and it may carry you far and wide before it brings you back here. Promise me instead that you will make good on that gift the stars have given you. That you won't let sentiment be your guide."
"Okay," Celestia sniffled, but did not let go of the embrace. "I promise that."
Lightning shared a similar teary eyed farewell with Luna. At first, Celestia thought that Luna's composure--that of a distant observer-- would win out, but after only a few minutes, her younger sister was bawling and Lightning was drying her tears. What words they exchanged were private, as was Celestia's time with her mother.
And then, with the three stallions, they plunged into the forest at dawn.
She kept her head low to the ground, wishing that something would distract her. Excitement to see the unicorns gradually turned into anxiety. Doubts plagued her mind, growing in strength as each hour passed and she stewed in the silence. Would they like her? What were they like? Did she have any actual magical talent or was that little spark all there was? More and more, she began to chew her lip in apprehension.
Finally, she could stand it no longer. "Are we close?" She forwarded the question to Whip at the lead.
"We're here, actually."
Surprise shook her and she raised her head over the backs of her escort. Yet, all she found was an empty, still forest, answered only by the chirps of a bird. "I--uh, don't understand?"
"They're probably watching us right now." Whip kept his deep voice low. "Checking us out before they show themselves."
She gasped, recalling the stories shared at home when the Sun drew down. Unicorns could turn invisible? She had doubted that bit of lore, yet now …
"Luna? Celestia?" Whip looked over his shoulder and gestured from his neck for the two to come closer. He then spoke at a whisper. "When we meet them, don't reveal you were born as Earth ponies."
"Why not?" Celestia blinked, bewildered. Luna looked between them with curiosity in her blue eyes.
"One day, you may understand more. But for now, just accept that sometimes it's better to wait before you tell your whole story to those you don't know. Only when you feel it is absolutely safe should you reveal the secret of your birth." Having said all he planned to, Whip continued the slow walk with his head forward.
Celestia paused her step, the concept hitting her from somewhere unexpected. Luna stopped next to her, still following the lead of her big sister unthinking. Among the close knit herd, there was never room for secrecy, and a secret was always a temporary state. To harbor one? So different from her life in a familiar herd. She marched forward with that on her mind.
"That's far enough." A sharp male's voice called with a tone of one accustomed to being obeyed.
"Well met, unicorn." Whip halted, those behind him following suit.
A full day and more leading to this. Curiosity surged in Celestia as soon as her hooves stopped, and she peaked around Whip's flank, trying to steal her first glance at the mysterious pony. The unicorn must have been average male size, except he stood erect, much in the manner of the chief mare back home, only that his spiral horn made him appear taller still. His coat of faded gray was so heavily spotted with white that the gray appeared as mere lines between milky spots. The mane and tail, a dusty off-white, flowed behind him well groomed. Celestia would have called him a mere pony with a horn on his head, except for a sheen that made the colors almost imperceptivity richer.
"Three Earth ponies, and two filly unicorns come wandering into the forests. Such an unusual arrangement. And far from an Earth pony's home." No jest could be found in him. Dark eyes approaching black marked them with suspicion.
"We come with a matter that concerns your herd." To the unicorn's tone of command, Whip responded plainly and with his own kind of dignity. "We've come to return two of your kind who were among ours." Whip stepped aside and revealed his daughters.
Celestia felt exposed as those dark eyes fall on her. A flush came over her face and her knees wobbled despite the fact she tried to stand straight. She felt as much as saw that Luna sidled a few inches closer to her side once Whip left.
It became easier to stand once she saw the surprise on the unicorn's face. "What's with her colors?"
"That is a mystery to us," Whip answered.
His eyes narrowed, aggression filling his voice. "She is well into her years as a filly. Why was she not taken to us as a foal?"
The unicorn shot Whip a glare, but turned his attention back to the girls. "Your names."
"Celestia." She hoped her voice didn't betray her nervousness. "And Luna."
The midnight blue unicorn shuffled out but remained quiet, the question answered for her.
His eyes narrowed again, this time in contemplation. The chief turned to a unicorn next to him who Celestia only just noticed. Quiet, and stoic as a rock, he was easy to miss. Short for a stallion, with a curly mane and tail, a gleaming horn of silver sat upright on his head. Flank and shoulders slim, he held himself strangely for his stature: his gaze brimmed with an inner intelligence and he stood like a pony twice his size.
The chief unicorn whispered to his partner who nodded and exchanged a brief word. To the guests, he turned again. "We will accept Celestia and Luna into our herd where they belong, despite their age. You three Earth ponies may return to your fields."
Whip gave the chief a curt nod then went to Celestia and Luna. In turn, he wrap both in a hug, his neck to theirs. "Take care of each other. Who can you trust more than a sister?" He chuckled, though his amusement was darkened by the moment.
Luna might have teared up again, but pursed her lips and tried to appear strong as Whip and her exchanged one last glance. Celestia's chest tightened at the sight and when Whip turned to her, but she fought off any more reaction than that.
"I love you both." With that, he turned away and the Earth ponies left.
"Come." The chief's commanding voice gave no tolerance for delay and the sisters jerked their heads toward him. Impatience marked his gait, a hurried trot. When they came along behind him, he spoke again "Why did the Earth ponies wait so long to bring you here?"
"Uhh, it's complicated?" Celestia grinned wide, innocent only in the fact she felt clever remembering Whip's answer.
The chief grumbled under his breath and stopped before the trunk of a massive tree. With a magic glow of gray, the bark on one side of the great trunk folded away and rumpled with a property like hair and ease of brushing aside a leaf. Beneath that covering rested a hole large enough for a pony to slip in with ease.
Celestia had to pull her jaw off the forest floor. She rubbed her eyes with one forelimb and stared agape once more, looking from folded faux-bark, to the hole and back again. Luna exchanged a glance with her, blue eyes wide in wonder and astonishment.
It took a nudge from the small, gray unicorn to get them moving, and they both filed in, wonder not diminished in the slightest. Inside, she found the seams where wood joined wood. Three, or possibly more lesser trees had been molded into the appearance of a single great tree, hollow on the inside, but with a ramp that spiraled up to the top.
"Ebon Swift!" The chief's voice echoed in the confined space.
The sound of hooves clopping on hard wood came from on high and a black unicorn trotted down the ramp.
"Ebon, I need you to babysit these fillies. I need to call a council. Until then, they are under your care."
Fillies! Celestia spat the word in her mind. Blood boiled within her. Babysit! She glared at the chief's backside when he left the trunk.
The façade of bark fell over the hole, but the inside remained lit by a soft, yellow light that Ebon sent high above them with magic.
"Babysit?" he said with a good natured laugh. His light aloft, Ebon smiled to both of them wide and friendly. Compared to the chief or Whip, he was young, but unmistakably into an age where he could be called a stallion. A black mane fell long around his black shoulders, suiting his name. Ivory teeth appeared all the brighter set into a dark face. "These two young, beautiful mares?"
The glare was wiped off Celestia's face, and her cheeks flushed red. "Th-thanks you." The fumbling of her words only made the blush brighter. Luna shuffled a forelimb on the floor and averted her gaze, but stole a glance at Ebon with her own light flush.
"Don't mind ol' Grumpy Gus, he can be like that when he has something on his mind." The moment the words left him, he winced and made his way over to the hole to peek out. "Don't tell him I said that, or Silver Spear for that matter."
"Silver Spear." Ebon let the disguised tree bark close again. "He's the quiet one always next to the chief. That chief would be Phantom Spell, the Grumpy Gus you just met. My name, I am sure you have heard only a second ago, is Ebon Swift." He inclined his head to the sisters, a playful grin ever present. "It's unusual for me to not recognize two mares around here. What would your names be?"
The white unicorn composed herself, remembering the dignified tone her father took. "I am Celestia. Well met."
"Luna." The midnight blue pony attempted to make her announcement strong, but her voice squeaked out her word under the strain of her shyness. Embarrassed, she drew back a single step, letting her sister stand at the front.
"Well met. Two beautiful names for two beautiful mares. So, tell me." Ebon's eyes glittered in magic light and he leaned in just a hair with interest. "What's your story? If I am to guess, you are new."
Celestia returned a short nod. "We were raised as--" She stopped and recovered without missing a beat. "--by Earth ponies. They just brought us here only a moment ago."
"Is that so?" The exclamation was more for surprise than an actual question. He sat back on his haunches at the thought. "Then you know nothing of the unicorns?"
"Only the stories passed down."
Luna, who had slowly been moving forward from her sister's side, gained her voice. "Which isn't much."
"Hmm, perhaps I understand now." Ebon nodded his head, and raised a hoof to his chin in thought. "That explains Grumpy's grump, alright." He hopped from his haunches and turned to walk up the spiral ramp. "Whelp! There is a lot I need to show you, then. If you don't mind, follow me."
The dozen of hooves thudded on wood and echoed across the chamber as they climbed higher and higher. Turning an ear and an eye, Ebon spoke to the mares behind him while leading. "May I ask something, Celestia?"
"Is that mane color natural?"
Celestia tilted her head up at the stallion. "I'm … not sure what you mean?"
"The pink. Is it …" Ebon took a moment to rephrase. "Was it the color you were born with?"
"Oh, ha, ha!" Her cheeks pulled back in a smile. "Yeah, I was a pink-haired filly."
Ebon nodded his head up and down in a slightly exaggerated motion. "Very interesting! I don't think I've seen anything like it."
"May I ask you a question?"
He turned his head with a broad smile. "Any question at all, and I'll answer."
"Can unicorns--" her voice dropped low, in a sense of awe. "Turn invisible?"
The black stallion burst into a laugh and stopped as the ramp ended at another hole. "Oh, no! That'd be way to much effort. Especially, when we have--" With a white glow of his horn, he pulled back the hole's cover. "--this."
Light--natural light--poured inside the tree, smothering the magic glow provided by Ebon, who wore a giddy grin. Celestia and Luna walked past the black stallion and stood at the edge of the tree, staring out.
Neither could hide their gasp. They had travelled up into the forest's canopy and into a whole new world. In front of them, a wide, long branch extended forward with a flat, wide base large enough for two ponies to cross comfortably. That branch met far ahead by other branches and tangled together in smooth transitions like the joining of strands in a spider web. Down, up, this way and that, the web stretched on in the canopy, unicorns coming and going from tree to tree on their own business. All of this in a world swimming in green leaves, above, below, either side, and bathed in cool shade as the sun trickled through.
"Welcome to the unicorn herd." Ebon's said in supreme smugness. "And this is how we hide."
Celestia stole several more breathes, still taking in all she saw. Timid at stepping forward, it felt as though the world would vanish once she touched it.
"C'mon." Ebon trotted gaily between them and the branch creaked with his passage. "I'll show you around."
Luna stared down at the pathway and tentatively placed her hoof on its smooth surface. Next, another hoof, than three. Finally, she stood high above the ground, on this living bridge. A smile parted her features and she looked up to Ebon for approval.
Kind eyes met Luna, then turned to Celestia. "You are quite safe, I'll catch you if you misstep."
Taking a deep breath, she willed herself forward all at once and found her hooves clopping on a strong surface.
"There we are." He turned back and led the sisters along the pathways, showing them bends and turns that extended far in all directions of the canopy. "Phantom Spell did have some reason to call this 'babysitting,' even if the word is a bit harsh. You two don't know our ways and until you do, it's best you stick close to me. With a little time, you'll pick it up. Otherwise, it won't be safe. The first thing you need to know about is the birds."
"Birds?" Luna asked.
"Birds. We use them to give warning. Different bird calls, different warnings. Ahh, here we are." Ebon stopped and gestured up with a hoof. High in the branches sat a mare of brown, her head going back and forth in a pattern Celestia recognized as similar to the sentries of her own herd. But over her, a woven mesh of vines and leaves camouflaged her from the sky. "This is just one such look out. This one is responsible for making sure no crazy griffin accidently chooses to rest here. If one does …" Ebon pointed to a series of birds of several shapes and sizes, that snoozed, preened, or rested on a branch close to the mare. Tied about the ankle with a vine, none attempted escape. "The lookout uses one of them to send out a call. Other lookouts will echo the bird's call until the rest of us know what's going on, which lets us know where to go for cover. We have these all over, guarding the sky, watching the ground … so if you hear a bird's call, do as I do and stay quiet."
The talk of griffins caused a lump to form in Celestia's throat and she nodded with a swallow.
The warning system taught, Ebon spent the rest of the day showing the new unicorns routes around the forest to different places of safety hidden inside the hollowed trunks of trees. The nature of the forest and need for concealed entrances made the task difficult, so Ebon taught and retaught the locations until the memories formed strong, stressing the importance of remaining hidden.
"Do wolves or cougars try to sniff us out?" Through the day, Luna had just gained enough knowledge to become inquisitive.
"Those little guys?" Ebon laughed and shook his head. "No, nothing that small. They were chased out of this side of the forest years ago. Occasionally, a lone coyote might try to wander through, but a quick zap of lightning sends him on his way."
Her pupils grew enormous, and her lips curved into a silent oooh. "You can do that?"
"Not myself," he chuckled. "But some can."
Celestia narrowed her gaze. "Then who do we hide from?"
For the first time in a long while, Ebon stopped smiling. "There are creatures out there far too dangerous to confront, even with magic."
"Like who?" Luna asked again.
"Hydra, ursa, when griffins travel in groups, wyvern, manticore, loup garou, trolls, gnolls, occasional human explorers, dragons, well maybe not so much dragons. Dragons aren't much interested in ponies, but it's best to play it safe. Nothing quite as scary as a dragon that I know of."
"Oh," Luna all but whispered, blue eyes wide.
"But, that's why we have built this place, and so far, so good."
The rest of the day passed adding routes and safe areas, for either on the ground or in branches--for all the complicated cultivation of the trees, walking the forest floor remained just as vital and it had its own set of hiding holes. Eventually, the sun crested the horizon, and the colors of dusk settled into the sky.
"Enough for today? I think so." Ebon nodded his head, and trotted along the tree-paths to another hole in a wide trunk. "Make sure to stay only in places where you know the route to another safe room. You'd never want to get caught outside when a warning goes off." He chuckled to himself, peeling back the covering with a glow from his horn. "Here we are. It'll be where you can rest for tonight." Ebon lifted another magical light aloft to the low ceiling.
Celestia filed in, Luna right behind. At the word "rest" Celestia breathed a long sigh.
"Been a long day for you, hasn't it?"
The elder sister nodded. Thinking back, the single day felt like many as a memory. The early rise, departure, long and nervous trek through the woods. And then, here, paths to memorize, a new herd, and unfamiliar ways, words, concepts. Her legs ached, her mind fatigued in retaining what she learned, and emotionally she was used up. "It has."
"Time to rest those eyes, then." Ebon gestured with his horn. "I'm sure you need no guide to your beds, but if you need anything, just walk down that ramp and ask. Tell them you are the new arrivals, and that should be enough. Sleep well."
The cover closed in a ruffle, and Ebon's magical light already began to fade without his presence. "Beds?" Celestia asked herself aloud as she shuffled to a pile of leaves that had a quality of being knitted together with magic. "Like river 'bed?'" Ebon didn't think to explain what he meant, and what did a river bed have to do with sleep anyways? Earth ponies slept on soft grass, not "beds." Touching a hoof to the leaves, they gave the feeling of cushion and Celestia promptly flopped herself hard into its embrace. Close enough.
She expected sleep to come quickly. It did not.
The light had long since faded. Only pitch black greeted Celestia's groggy eyes, and she debated if there was a purpose in opening them at all. Enclosed in a room up high in a tree, not even moonlight softened the night. To her sister's call, she groaned.
"Celest, I can't sleep."
The elder sister groaned again, in agreement.
"It's … weird here. It's too high up. And I can't see."
Thoughts of the cool earth filled Celestia's mind. Thoughts of peaceful nights on the field of grass.
"And no one is here. Everyone is sleeping all separated in other trees, instead of together. Celest?"
"Can I sleep next to you?"
The woven leaves across the room ruffled, the sound of hooves approached. A moment later, she felt the brushing of a warm body against hers and Celestia adjusted to make room so Luna curled against her side.
"Are you thinking of home?"
"Maybe I miss it."
"Do you miss it?"
Luna's mane rustled as she shook her head. "No."
"I don't know. Maybe I miss mom and dad. And grass. But not home."
Celestia closed her eyes and rested on the leafy pad once more. A long sigh left her. Luna's chest lifted in her own. Sleep still did not come easy, and her night was filled with the dull ache of knowing what she left behind.