As they approach the border of the Everfree, Midnight's ears twitch towards the forest and she inhales slowly through her nose, the increasingly familiar scents and sounds of the place a welcome change after spending two full nights among Ponyville's constructed streets and houses. Dawn fades into visibility on her right, giggling as she draws her wings to her sides and executes a quick aileron roll above the rapidly thickening canopy. Luna and Lunar Trail meanwhile watch the two sisters from a short distance behind them, Luna's tail snaking over to poke at Lunar's armored hindquarters – said stallion frowning and quickly looking around for the source of the unexpected touch. After a few seconds his roaming gaze lands on Luna, his princess meeting his eyes just long enough to reply with a coy smile and a wink. The tips of his ears tint red and he quickly averts his gaze, sending Luna another nervous glance a minute later before speeding up to fly on Midnight's left.
"Beautiful night tonight," Lunar comments, examining the moon and stars populating the perfectly clear sky.
"Mhm," Midnight replies, sparing a glance for the darkened realm above then returning her gaze to the forest below.
"I wasn't expecting it to be this peaceful, seeing as pegasi don't control the weather here," Lunar continues. "Is Everfree weather normally this calm?"
Midnight shrugs, "Sometimes."
"I've only heard about how chaotic the Everfree is supposed to be – during training all they said was to avoid flying over it at all costs, period. Isn't it difficult to not know what the weather is going to be like even an hour from now?" Lunar asks.
"It's weather," Midnight states bluntly. "As long as it's not incredibly windy or stormy or cold, it doesn't matter what it's like."
Lunar Trail winces, "Ah. Right. Makes sense."
No words are spoken for a few minutes, the increasingly awkward silence broken only by the regular sound of air moving over their wings. Gathering his courage, Lunar risks a glance in Midnight's direction, finding her still staring at the trees passing beneath them.
"Your mane and tail look nice," Lunar Trail offers.
Midnight's gaze falls on him once more, her brow knit, "Um… thanks?"
"How do you clean it?" Lunar queries, "Just swipe somepony's shampoo every once in a while?"
"No," Midnight replies, "we make a paste from a few plants."
Lunar nods, "Huh, that's kind of neat."
"It's irritating," Midnight grumbles.
"So it gives you a rash or something?" Lunar Trail asks sympathetically, "I had something like that happen once. That was not a pleasant night."
Midnight rolls her eyes, "I mean making it is irritating. So is talking about it."
"Oh," Lunar replies, ears drooping.
Looking again at Midnight, his gaze lingers on the pair of fangs poking out from between her lips, his tongue lightly running over his own smaller set of sharpened canines, "If you don't mind me asking, there is something else I am a bit curious about. What does blood taste like to you?"
Midnight's wings freeze for an instant at the peak of her upstroke and she quickly glances at the inquiring stallion, "What?"
"Well," Lunar Trail says, smiling as Midnight restarts her wings with a few rapid beats to regain lost altitude, "I thought maybe you'd rather talk about that than the weather, or your hair. I've also been told that thestrals taste fruit juices differently from other types of ponies, so I'm a little curious if vamponies have something similar with blood."
Midnight simply stares at him, her expression inscrutable.
"Soo… ?" Lunar Trail prompts into the lengthening silence, the end of his tail slowly coiling and uncoiling despite the speed of their flight.
Midnight sighs, glancing at the forest for a moment, "Vampony blood, whether it's my own or somepony else's, is really bitter. Changeling blood is even worse. Otherwise it depends on the pony."
"Is the taste entirely random?" Lunar Trail asks curiously, "Or is each tribe kind of similar?"
Midnight shrugs, "It can be pretty similar sometimes, but mostly it's just random. Some are more filling than others too; I only need a few mouthfuls of the red apple stallion, for example."
Lunar Trail's smile returns, pouncing on the volunteered piece of information, "I'm guessing he's your favorite then?"
"Nope," Midnight replies, a mischievous grin spreading across her face. "My favorite is Luna."
Lunar coughs, his wings momentarily losing sync with each other and throwing him off balance, "But how would – you snuck up to the library while we were sleeping and bit the Princess?!"
"Be at ease," Princess Luna states calmly, closing the gap to fly more closely behind them. "Midnight has done no such thing. I offered her my own blood in the hospital before I called for you."
Lunar Trail looks forward, Luna's explanation doing little to to dispel the sudden image of Midnight biting the princess under his protection from his mind, "Oh."
"And it was amazing," Midnight continues dreamily, ignoring the somewhat miffed stallion to her left. "It was like drinking the moon and stars, but also all the blackness between them. Nopony else has ever come close to tasting like that. I wonder if all alicorns have two flavors."
"Two?" Luna asks quickly, her left ear twitching.
Midnight nods, still staring off into the distance, "Mhm."
Well, that's interesting, Selena comments.
Indeed, Luna replies, her mind beginning to wander after the implications of Midnight's statement. I had strongly suspected they were getting something beyond physical nutrients from feeding, but this certainly confirms that assumption. Perhaps something that vamponies and changelings are deficient in on their own, based on her description of their taste.
Silence again envelopes the trio as they each keep to their own thoughts, though one by one their attention is drawn to Dawn's boredom-fueled and increasingly strange flight patterns.
"So… " Lunar Trail says after a time, his focus drifting from an upside down Dawn back to Midnight, "have you ever had thestral blood?"
Midnight gives him a flat look; however, before she can speak, the leaves of a particularly large oak tree they had passed over mere seconds ago rustle and she looks behind her, eyes widening, "Uh-oh."
Suddenly a shadowy blur slams into Midnight, the translucent and vaguely pony shaped blob of darkness dragging her into the forest below.
"Wait!" Dawn shouts as a second, barely visible shadow wraps around her barrel and pulls her towards the trees as well, "Mmooooommm~"
Luna's horn immediately glows to life, encasing her and Lunar Trail in a shell of magic – a third vampony impacting the protective barrier a split second later. The vampony's shadow magic partially dissipates as he bounces harmlessly off the shield, his wings flapping unevenly for a moment before he once more vanishes from sight, Luna nevertheless tracking his descent.
Lunar Trail follows Princess Luna's gaze, minutes passing while the pair watch the gently rippling leaves of the trees below them. Glancing at the shield still surrounding them, he slowly sheaths his shortsword, "Uhm… what should we do now, Princess?"
"It would seem that this is something of a family matter," Luna replies delicately, "so we believe it would be best to not intervene for the time being."
Lunar Trail dips his head, relaxing as he returns to watching the Everfree, "As you say, Princess."
Midnight dislodges her attacker with a kick as they rush towards the ground, flaring her wings just in time to flip herself around and land on her hooves, though the layer of moss coating the forest floor fails to provide enough traction to prevent her from skidding into a nearby tree. The other vampony gives her no time to recover, Midnight managing only a couple dazed steps before he rams into her, knocking her away from the trunk and onto her back. Blinking stars from her eyes, Midnight raises her forelegs to defend herself, baring her fangs as she feels a pair of hooves step on her right wing. Her bravado vanishes the moment she recognizes the pony next to her however, mouth closing and hooves dropping to her chest as she raises her chin to expose her throat, "H-Hi Dad."
Wisp glares down at his eldest daughter, lowering his head to let his canines lightly touch either side of her windpipe – Midnight holding perfectly still save for the rapid expansion and contraction of her abdomen as she tries to catch her breath.
Wisp's head jerks up at the sound of something else crashing through the canopy, Eclipse landing heavily on three hooves with a wriggling Dawn held tightly to her chest by the fourth, "Good, you've got Midnight, now get off her so we can get out of here."
As she speaks, the vampony who had attacked Luna joins the family, Dusk coming to a hovering stop just above the mossy ground before landing with a wince.
"Did you get the alicorn?" Wisps asks.
Dusk shakes his head, exhaling sharply as he rolls his right shoulder, "Shield."
Wisp groans, "Okay, then we really need to leave before they-"
"NO!" Dawn shouts, struggling free of Eclipse's hold to stand on her own four hooves.
Wisp's eyes narrow, his irises glowing dimly, "What?"
Dawn retreats a step, ears drooping as she lowers herself to the ground, "The p-princess just wants to talk to us."
Wisp blinks, "What."
"It's true," Midnight adds supportively, "she-"
"Shut up," Wisp hisses, glaring once more at his still pinned daughter. "You were supposed to help Dawn feed, you had ONE JOB, and instead you both go missing for a night, and then when we go out to look for you we find you, apparently willingly, leading an alicorn right to us! You don't get to speak!"
Eclipse eyes the branches above, "We don't have time for this."
"You're right," Wisp agrees, stepping off Midnight's wing and spreading his own slightly larger pair.
"Wait," Midnight says, standing and gingerly folding her wings to her sides. "Dawn was telling the truth, they really do just want to talk with us."
Wisp grits his teeth, "I don't know what lies they told you, but the only reason they'd tolerate your existence is so they could use you to find the rest of us in order to-"
"In order to finish killing us off like they almost did 1000 years ago?" Midnight interrupts.
"…how did you know about that?" Wisp asks quietly.
"Wait, hold on a second, what do you mean 'almost killed us off'?" Dusk demands.
"About 1000 years ago the Equestrians tried to exterminate our entire species," Wisp answers tersely.
Dusk stares at his father, mouth hanging open, "What?! How would – you never – we go into their town about once every couple weeks, why didn't you ever tell us?!"
Eclipse sighs, "Because we didn't want you to grow up terrified of the ponies you depend on to survive."
"And we didn't want to risk any of you being stupid enough to try and get revenge," Wisp adds irritably.
"They do just want to talk though," Midnight says, tenderly rubbing the two hoof-shaped bruises forming on her wing. "They didn't realize we were the ones they were killing back then."
"They didn't know?!" Wisp shouts furiously, "They slaughtered thousands and nearly killed off our entire race, how could they possibly not know? That's-"
"The alicorn gave me her blood," Midnight states simply.
Wisp blinks, then blinks again, several long seconds passing before he manages another word, "That's… I-I… what?"
Midnight takes a deep breath, "The alicorn, Luna, willingly offered her own blood to me, which healed the injuries I got from fighting an undead vampony, which is what they were originally fighting a thousand years ago and what they thought we were too – they didn't even know we existed until a couple nights ago. And when Dawn and I got separated after I was attacked by the undead vampony, the purple alicorn, Twilight, found her and brought her to where they were keeping me in their hospital. Then last night I helped Luna and Twilight, as well as some of her friends, to take down the undead vampony. And then during the day another alicorn showed up and apologized for at least the fourth time for what they did 1000 years ago, and one of Twilight's friends even offered to let me feed on her."
Her brow creases, "Unn…less she meant 'drink' as in water or something, in which case that's going to be kind of awkward, but regardless." She gestures at her flank, "Drinking Luna's blood also added a moon to my cutie mark."
Wisp stands gaping at Midnight, his eyes slowly traveling from her face to her flank and back again, "An… undead… you can't be serious."
Midnight shrugs, "I don't know about undead, but I do know that he kept moving after I broke his spine, and that his blood smelled… not even just bad, it smelled wrong. I'm not sure how else to describe it. 'Even worse than dried changeling blood' is as close as I can think of."
"And I made friends with some fillies in town who call themselves the Cutie Mark Crusaders," Dawn chimes in. "They're going to help me get my cutie mark since none of them have their cutie marks yet either. Oh, and also the rainbow pegasus saved us from the undead pony."
"Look, I know how crazy this all sounds," Midnight continues as Wisp shifts his gaze back and forth between his two daughters, looking utterly lost, "and it's really complicated, but they say they want to help us to live peacefully with the rest of the ponies in Equestria, and I believe them."
Eclipse looks up towards the forest's canopy, her lips pressed into a thin line, "…I think we should hear what the alicorn has to say."
"Y-You do?" Wisp asks, frowning a moment later, "Wait… what? Why? What could she possibly have to say that would matter, after what they did?"
Eclipse sighs, "Given… whatever all that was that apparently happened, and that Midnight's cutie mark changed, it doesn't seem completely impossible that what their princess told Midnight is the truth. So at the very least I want to hear what she wants from us from her own mouth."
Wisp gives her a hard stare, Eclipse meeting his eyes unblinkingly until Wisp lets out a long groan and looks away, "Fine, we'll go hear what she has to say."
"Midnight, you, and I will hear what she has to say," Eclipse corrects, shifting her attention to her son. "Dusk, I want you to take Dawn home and wait for us, just in case. If you don't hear from any of us within an hour, spread word to everypony else and then get as far away from here as possible."
Dusk bobs his head once, turning to move deeper into the Everfree, "Come on, Dawn."
"But-" Dawn tries to protest.
"Dawn," Wisp states clearly, pointing at Dusk, "follow your brother."
Dawn's eyes travel between each of her family members before giving in, lowering her muzzle to stare at the ground as she trails after Dusk.
The others watch them go, Eclipse sighing after they've been hidden by the surrounding trees for a few minutes, "Midnight, go tell the alicorn-"
"Luna," Midnight corrects.
Eclipse rolls her eyes, "Go tell Luna that we will speak with her, but if she wants to talk to us, then she can come down here."
Midnight acquiesces with a nod, spreading her wings and jumping towards the leaf-obscured sky.
Lunar tenses within Luna's barrier the moment something breaks through the treetops, his tail's grip on his sheathed shortsword relaxing once he recognizes the incoming object as Midnight.
Stopping in front of Luna's shield, Midnight taps the hollow, glowing sphere twice, "Huh, neat. Anyway, Luna, I told my parents about everything that happened the last couple nights, and uh… well, they're definitely not happy about any of it. At all. But they've agreed to at least listen to what you have to say, so… follow me."
Luna touches the inside of her shield with the tip of her horn, the protective barrier popping like a punctured bubble – Lunar Trail's gaze darting in all directions during their descent while Luna pushes aside obstructing leaves and branches with her magic. Reaching the ground a short distance from the location of her previous landing, Midnight trots forward, Luna and Lunar walking more slowly in her wake to allow a respectful distance to form between the vamponies and themselves.
Midnight's parents watch the approaching alicorn and thestral, their eyes tracking every move and frequently flitting up to Luna's inactive horn. A loud *SNAP* echoes through the trees as Luna steps on a particularly large twig, both parents jumping back with fangs bared and half hidden by shadows before realizing the source of the sound. Lunar Trail reacts in kind, leaping in front of Luna with his shortsword drawn and a faint white glow outlining his hooves. Midnight freezes mid-step, staring at Lunar while her ears swivel towards her parents.
"Lunar Trail, stand down," Luna says after a long, tense pause, slowly pushing the now broken twig to the side and out of her path.
"With all due respect, Princess, I think it would be best if I stay where I am," Lunar Trail replies under his breath, eying the still hostile stance of the two new vamponies. "At least until we know they aren't going to attack you again."
Luna's jaw clenches, though her attention never leaves the pair of hazy forms opposite her, "I am not asking your opinion on the matter. I am telling you what you shall do. Now."
Lunar Trail flinches, immediately dropping his defensive posture and backing up to stand just in front of Luna.
"At my side," Luna commands.
Lunar Trail slowly moves to Princess Luna's right side, maintaining his focus on Midnight's parents while splitting his scrutiny between them and the surrounding trees.
"Sheath your weapon."
Lunar Trail hesitates, meeting his Princess' steely gaze for a bare instant before quickly sheathing his blade, the weak light surrounding his hooves likewise fading.
"Our apologies," Luna says, managing a mostly sincere smile as she takes a couple more steps forward, Lunar Trail remaining next to her while she moves. "We had hoped our meeting would not begin on such an… aggressive note. But regardless, I am Luna, and this beside me is my guard, Lunar Trail."
A few seconds pass in silence, Midnight's parents trading an uncertain look before releasing their shadow magic. Midnight lets out a sigh of relief, taking the opportunity to finish walking over to stand beside her mother who steps forward as well, mouth twitching in a failed attempt to return Luna's smile, "Hello. I am Eclipse. And this is my mate, Wisp."
Wisp glowers, "Our daughter said that you wanted to talk to us?"
"Indeed," Luna replies, swallowing past the lump forming in her throat as she takes a seat on the mossy earth. "I need your help to arrange a meeting with all the vamponies who are living in the Everfree around Ponyville."
Wisp's eyes narrow, "And why would we do that? I don't even want to be talking to you right now."
"I suppose I should have started with that, actually," Luna answers, mentally kicking herself. "We are unsure to the exact level of detail Midnight has told you about the events of these last nights, but the crux of the matter is that the existence and nature of vamponies is now known to all of Ponyville, and will likely soon be known across all of Equestria. What this means, is that you will no longer be able to remain hidden, since now ponies will know how and where to look for you. And while I completely understand any distrust you have of us, we would very much like to prevent some ponies' inevitable distaste over your unique dietary needs from growing into outright conflict. To that end, we would like to meet with the vamponies who live around Ponyville, so that we may begin working towards some kind of agreement or framework which will ultimately allow your race to live alongside the other tribes in harmony. It is also our hope that whatever understanding we come to can then be applied to any other towns which have vamponies living nearby."
Worry flickers across Luna's face, "And, while I truly do not mean for this to come across as a threat, time is very much of the essence if we are to prevent ponies who do not wish to be fed upon from taking matters into their own hooves."
"I don't see why we need to change in order to accommodate their discomfort," Wisp says tersely. "We have already been living peacefully alongside your kind both before and after you nearly wiped us out. We have been living next to Ponyville for centuries, and nopony in the town even noticed. You are their leader, why don't you just tell them to get over themselves and let things stay the same as they always have been?"
"You are right, I could do that," Luna answers carefully. "But I won't, because the fact of the matter is that things are different now than they were even just a few nights ago. I do not dispute your right to survive, need for blood included, but your right to survive does not extend to forcing an entire town to submit to your needs. Doing so would likely cause many ponies to simply leave, and if too many leave then you will not be able to survive on whomever remains. Should I then force ponies to stay against their will? And if ponies are forced to stay, or simply unwilling or unable to leave, they could resort to other methods to try and prevent vamponies from feeding on them. Should I then enforce punishments harsh enough to make them unwilling to defend their own homes?"
Wisp snorts, "If you leave, then we leave. We're here because it's convenient, not because we have to be."
"Besides, if they are so averse to us being here, why should we even stay?" Eclipse asks coolly. "There aren't very many of us; we could easily relocate to live close to some other town that wouldn't know to look for us."
"You could move," Luna admits, "however the changelings living in Ponyville, who were also discovered over the course of the last two nights, knew of a way to figure out which towns vamponies are living by."
"And they told you?" Wisp demands.
"Yes," Luna replies, "and-"
"Backstabbing bugs," Wisp hisses.
"And I am glad that they did," Luna states forcefully, "not because it is my intention to use that knowledge to force your hoof, but because it demonstrates how having vamponies nearby is in fact a good thing. By their account, it is due to your presence that many of the Everfree's predators – well, other predators – are kept at bay. Were you to leave, it is all but certain that Ponyville will come under attack from wild manticores, chupacabras, and the like, and they would be after far more than a little blood."
"It is my hope," Luna continues, "that through talking to and learning about each other, this mutually beneficial relationship can be kept intact despite the change in circumstances."
Eclipse raises an eyebrow, disdain dripping from every syllable, "And yet, despite how nicely you have chosen your words, it still sounds like you are saying we need to entrust our future to you since we can't hide and we can't leave. But just because we don't have any particularly good options doesn't automatically make yours a better one, especially with what your kind already did to us, so why should we trust you or believe a single word you've said? Our hunting patterns can change if they have to, if that's what's giving us away."
Midnight frowns, "Because-"
"Quiet, Midnight," Wisp says loudly, cutting her off.
Luna swallows, her throat suddenly dry, "Well, I… if what Midnight and now I have told you is not enough, and if you are truly still so skeptical of my intentions as to question every word I speak, then there is very little I can do in this moment to prove to you otherwise."
"I see," Wisp replies, a hint of triumph lacing his voice. "So if we refused to find the others and bring them together to speak with you, what would you do?"
"I-I… " Luna stammers, a cold pit forming in her stomach, "I suppose… there would not be anything left for me to do here, so I would return to Ponyville."
Eclipse meets Luna's worried gaze, holding it with her own, "Then that is what we choose. Get out of our forest."
Her words strike Luna like a blow, ringing in her ears dimming all other sounds as they reverberate around her skull along with two of her own.
Midnight jerks around to stare at her mother, "Wait-"
"Shut up," Eclipse interrupts without so much as glancing at her daughter.
"Dad, you can't-" Midnight says in an attempted appeal to her other parent, however a glowing-eyed glare from Wisp is all she gets in reply.
Luna opens her mouth to speak, however no words come out and she instead bows, finding her voice by the time she lifts her head, "If that is what you wish."
Taking a hesitant step backwards, Luna pauses for one last hopeful second before turning and walking away, her ears limply folded down as she stares unseeingly at the moist dirt and moss beneath her hooves. Lunar Trail watches the vamponies for a few seconds more, then turns on his heel to follow in Luna's plodding hoofsteps.