Princess Celestia and Princess Luna stood before a group of ponies in the Canterlot throne room. It had been about three weeks since the changeling invasion and the arrival of Hermaeus Mora in Equestria and the Princess had sent the individuals before them out to assess the situation. They had just returned from their respective assignments.
"Lieutenant Fleetfoot," said Princess Luna, turning to the baby blue pegasus. "What news have the Wonderbolts gathered?"
"Captain Spitfire is still investigating the far southern settlements," said Fleetfoot, saluting with her wing. "But from what we have learned from the eye witness accounts as well as the accounts from actual Wonderbolts who had encounters themselves, those strange tendril creatures that have appeared have not caused any harm as of yet."
"Is that so?" asked Celestia, rubbing her chin as she remembered Hermaeus Mora scattering his minions to every corner of Equestria while she could do nothing but watch . "Have they done anything at all?"
"Yes, your majesty, and that is the weird part," said Fleetfoot, her voice professional. "Through the accounts of other Wonderbolts as well as my own experience, all they do is hover around establishments such as libraries, schools, newspapers, museums, and town archives, and examine random items such as scrolls and books."
"Just examine?" inquired Luna, arching an eye ridge, "Aren't they taking them?"
"No, your majesty," replied Fleetfoot, "The one I monitored personally at the Cloudsdale flight school, all it did was take books from the library, one by one, and examine them."
"Did it interact with anypony?" asked Celestia, unease in her voice.
"Not intentionally," answered Fleetfoot, "A couple of students, as well as the school librarian approached it before I could stop them, but it paid them no mind and just continued its exploration of the books."
"Is it there at the moment?" asked Celestia.
"No, your majesty," answered Fleetfoot, " After about three days it reached the last book shelve, and after it was finished examining those books, it vanished in a flashed of light green light."
"Just like that?" Asked Luna.
"Yes, your majesty," said Fleetfoot.
The Princesses exchanged a look.
"This is not what I expected," said Celestia.
"Despite his grotesque appearance, I think Hermaeus Mora was sincere," said Luna, "He is only interested in acquiring our knowledge."
Celestia nodded in agreement and turned back to Fleetfoot, "Return to the other Wonderbolts and inform Spitfire to keep monitoring these events, and to get word to us if and when their is any change in this pattern."
Fleetfoot bowed respectively and bolted out the door, ready to carry out what was tasked to her. The next pony in line was a high ranking royal guard named Spear Point, tasked with monitoring the sightings of the tendril portals across the kingdom. Hopefully he did not have worse news
"Your majesty," said Spear Point, bowing respectfully.
"Rise, good soldier," said Celestia, "Have you anything to report? "
"There has only been one incident since that horrible day," said Spear Point, shaking a little as he lifted an envelope with his wing.
Luna grabbed the envelope in her magic, holding the report inside up for her and Celestia to read.
In the Appleloosa's town square, something was going down.
"FIFTY THOUSAND BITS?!" shouted Braeburn, his statson falling off his head to be caught by Little Strongheart before it could be swept away in the wind. "ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?"
"Quite so, good sir," said the light tan earth pony Flim, gesturing behind him to the motorized vehicle they had brought. "For offering you such a good deal on this exquisite machine."
"And my brother and I guarantee you," said his twin Flam, his mustache flaring with his wide grin. "The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000 is the machine to increase the amount of cider this city produces by at least one hundred fold."
“But fifty thousand bits? asked Little Strongheart, Braeburn looking faint next to her. "That's more than at least half of the farmers here make combined. Not to mention, it needs a unicorn to run it, and we only have a few here in town."
"But that's the beauty of it," said Flam, a mischievous glint under his salesman persona. "All it takes is one unicorn and they need not be that skilled in magic either."
"The machine does everything else under its own power," finished Flim.
Braeburn grit his teeth slightly as Little Strongheart hooved him back his hat. The machine was without a doubt a faster method of producing cider, but this price was outrageous. No way could he afford this, even if all of Appleloosa pitched in.
"I would make a decision fast," said Flam, his mustache bouncing. "Cherry Jubilee down at Dodge Junction has offered us seventy thousand bits."
"But your little hamlet here looked like it needs it more," said Flim, flashing his brother a wink under his hat. "So we decided to offer it to you first, and for a better deal."
Braeburn looked uncertain, but Little Strongheart gave the twins a glare. Something was off about this and she knew it. The smiles these salesponies wore gave her a bad feeling.
Before she could say anything, a loud crunching noise filled the air, drawing the attention of the Appleloosians and the Flim Flam brothers. They looked to the source of the noise just in time to see the Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000's cow plow vanishing into a swirling black vortex that hung in the air, black tendrils gripping it in parts to pull it in.
Just like that, it was gone.
"Huh...?" mumbled Flim, a sweat drop on his temple. "If you want that feature, it will cost you twenty percent extra."
Braeburn cast little Strongheart a look, one she replied to with a nod. She tapped her hoof a few times, and a herd of buffalo stampeded onto the scene, surrounding them. Flim and Flam could only give nervous chuckles as the buffalo around them huffed their nostrils threateningly.
“This is it?" Asked Celestia, looking up with a puzzled expression.
"If there are any other incidents, they were either not witnessed, or not reported," said Spear Point.
"Very well," said Princess Luna, returning the envelope to the guard. "You are dismissed, but if you hear about anything else, get word to us immediately."
"Yes, your majesties," said Spear Point, taking his leave.
That left Raven Inkwell, Celestia's personal assistant, left before the Princesses. Unlike the others, she had not been summoned, but had arrived here herself, claiming to have urgent news. She was to go last, as the reports regarding the investigation of Hermaeus Mora took priority.
"Alright Miss Inkwell," said Princess Celestia, looking down to the small bespectacled unicorn. "What is it? Are you sure it cannot wait until later?"
"I do not believe so, your highness," replied Inkwell, her long years of working with the Princess making her better equipped to speak to her better than most. "It involves your school."
"Education is important," said Princess Luna, her gaze strict. "But seeing as how Equestria is dealing with a more than unprecedented situation at the moment, are there not more concerning matters at hoof?"
"I think the situation I have to report may be related," replied Inkwell, a piece of paper appearing in her orange magic. "Take a look at this symbol."
Celestia took the paper in her magic and held it up to were her and her sister could look at the drawing on its surface.
"What is it?" asked Luna, looking up at Inkwell. "I do not recognize this symbol."
"I have never seen anything like it either," said Celestia.
"I don't know myself," said Inkwell, "But a teacher of your school delivered this paper when she came to see me. Apparently it's a Cutie Mark."
"A Cutie Mark?" inquired Celestia, Luna looking back at the paper in wonder. "Who has attained it, and what does it represent?"
"That's the strange part, your majesty, multiple young ponies attained it," explained Inkwell, her look becoming one of worry. "All from the Cutie Case Class of your school."
Celestia and Luna all gasped at hearing that. The Cutie Case Class, or Triple C for short, was a division of Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns that was dedicated to the top students of the school who had yet to earn a Cutie Mark. The classes it provided were extremely advanced, for it was most likely that these unique unicorns had a special talent in something so extraordinary, it could only be involved with the most advanced forms of magic.
For more than one student to get their marks in this class at the same time was unheard of.
"Has the mark's purpose been verified?" asked Celestia.
Inkwell offered the Princesses four photos. They gasped as one photo showed a dark blue unicorn filly playing ball with a large bipedal creature, adorned head to foot in black armour with red highlights, another with a tane chubby unicorn colt riding on the back of a light green raptor like creature covered in spiky metal armour, and one with two ponies, a red filly with a pink mane, and a yellow colt with a blue mane, fencing with transparent blue weapons.
"What are they?" asked Celestia. Luna voiced her own confusion.
"I do not know, Princesses," admitted Inkwell hesitantly. "The children can summon them on a whim, but they have not caused harm, and seem to do the bidding of the child who summoned them without question."
"How many can do this?" asked Celestia.
Inkwell gestured to the final photo, that depicted the four foals, their flanks to the camera, showcasing this new mark.
"They seem to have taken a liking to each other, forming a tight knit group," explained Inkwell, "The weirdest part is that according to accounts from the kids parents, they all got their marks at the same time, when Hermaeus Mora appeared in the sky."
Both Princesses gave her a stunned look.
"We have to contact Hermaeus Mora somehow," said Luna, a look of great worry on her face. "This has something to do with him, I know it."
"And I think we have a way that you can do that," said Cadance, entering the throne room alongside Shining Armor.
"Cadence," said Celestia, approaching her fellow Alicorn, "Did you find what you were looking for?"
Cadence gave her a smile.
"Are you certain about this, Cadence?" said Shining Armour. He and Cadence standing in the same ally Chrysalis had lured her too so long ago.
"You don't use dark magic like that and not leave a trail," said Cadance, walking around the ally with her head bowed low, her horn pulsating with magic.
Shortly after the paralysis Twilight cast on them wore off, Cadance and Shining Armour have devoted every waking moment trying to find a way to get her back. They had started by interviewing the witnesses, but that led to nowhere, but then Cadance had an idea. If she could locate the cave Chrysalis had sent them to, they might find some clues there.
"Found it," said Cadance, her horn sputtering as she lifted her head up. "Now all we need is to..."
"I don't like this, Cadence," said Shining, worried. "Hermaeus Mora...we don't know what he is capable of."
"Which is precisely why we need to rescue Twilight from him," said Cadance, give her fiance a look. "Need I remind you of the part you played in her getting exposed to him in the first place."
Shining only lowered his head shamefully, "Okay."
"Good," said Cadance, her horn lighting with a different spell.
She was less than pleased to hear how Shining had treated Twilight when she was fully filled in on what had happened during her incarceration. Twilight’s friends had filled her in before taking their terrified younger sisters home to Ponyville. Those poor kids did not deserve to go through what they did.
She was determined to make it right, and Shining was going to help her, if he still wants to be with her.
With a blue flash, both Cadance and Shining Armour disappeared from the ally to reappear in a dark cave that they both illuminated with their horns. Nodding to each other, the two began their trek, not knowing if this was the right way, but they were going to search the whole cave if they had to.
"Do you have any idea where the right part of the cave might be?" Shining asked.
"I'm afraid not," admitted Cadance, her attention forward. "When Chrysalis sent me here, I fell and hit my head, I must have lost consciousness before Hermaeus Mora found me."
"I am sorry this happened to you, honey," said Shining Armour sadly.
"There is someone who deserves an apology more, Shining," said Cadance sternly. "Not everypony was fooled by Chrysalis's charade."
Shining could only look down in shame. But before anything more could be said, a glistening ahead brought their attention. Looking forward, they both gasped as they beheld an ornate book stand suspended over a pool of ink, a creepy looking black book resting upon it.
"When Twilight was young, she said Hermaeus Mora spoke to her through a magic black book," said Shining Armour, holding the object before the Princesses in his magic. "If he talked to her through it, I'm guessing he also transported her to this 'Apocrypha' place, through it as well."
"I have never seen anything so foreboding before," said Luna, examining the book in Shining Armour's magic closely. "I can sense that something about it is truly terrifying."
"You have not opened it, have you?" asked Celestia nervously.
"No," said Cadance, "we do not know anything about it or who it relates to."
"Good," said Celestia' relieved. "Luna and I will do everything we can to figure this evil book out. Then we will mobilize the guard and..."
"I do not think that would be a good idea, your majesty," said the country voice of Applejack.
Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, Princess Cadance, Raven Inkwell, and Shining Armour all looked up to see Twilight’s friends enter the throne room.