A low rumble stirred the tunnel as a loud clanking echoed through the tunnel. Wooden steps above them slid into place with dull thuds, one by one locking into place to guide the ponies out. The last one came to rest and light poured in from above. They ascended quickly but carefully, emerging back into the foyer.
“Hoo-whee!” Applejack whooped. “The garden sure was pretty, but there’s just somethin’ about the open sky no amount of shiny plants can replace.”
Twilight stretched, flexing her wings out as she yawned. Hopeseed froze mid-stride stepping from the stairwell, staring hard at the doors. Twilight and Applejack shared a concerned look.
“Hopeseed?” Twilight asked. “Is everything okay?”
Hopeseed fidgeted with her bandana and looked to the floor, a flush running over her cheeks. The ground began to rumble as the stairwell disappeared from view, the floor around the pool locking into place. The rumbling stirred the pond, making splashes and ripples cascade across its surface. Hopeseed seemed to not notice, and only just managed to avoid getting splashed.
Twilight walked up to Hopeseed, the wood creaking under her hooves. “Hopeseed,” she said, crouching to her eye level. “I know you’re scared, but you want to help your garden, right?”
“Mm-hmm,” Hopeseed murmured and nodded—but she couldn’t stop a bead of sweat trickled down her forehead. “Do you think everypony is gonna be mad at me for hiding?”
“Nah. Even if they are, I’m sure they’d be more relieved to find you ain’t hurt,” Applejack said, walking over to join them.
“And you’re sure you don’t want to tell Ivy and your parents about the garden?” Twilight asked, gently touching Hopeseed’s mane.
Hopeseed flinched away. She took a few unsteady steps forward, pausing to look up at Twilight with a thoughtful look. “Yeah,” she said, looking back down at the floor. “I’m sure. I just—” she gulped. “I don’t want anything to mess it up before tonight.”
Hopeseed turned back to face Twilight and Applejack. “They do want me to make it… right?”
Twilight nodded, smiling warmly. “They don’t just want you to succeed,” she said, “they know you can.” With a reassuring wink, she and Applejack trotted to the doors and pushed them open.
The sunset-stained sky peeked its way through the canopy, bathing the village with a mottled late-evening glow. The trio paused at the sight, faint smiles tinting each of their faces. Twilight looked out into the evening, marvelling at the festivities.
The last of the day’s light streamed down onto a long line of colorful tents arranged on either side of the main pathway. Ponies were hustling between them, carrying decorations, hauling carts of food, bringing building materials to incomplete tents, and other busywork.
“Heh, it’s just like the Crystal Fair,” Applejack said. “Just with less… immortal unicorn-demon-things tryin’ to swallow everything up.”
Hopeseed trotted down the stairs, Twilight and Applejack scrambling to keep up. Twilight thought she saw a twinkle in the filly’s eye as she smirked. “I always liked the festival when I was little. Every year I’d stuff my face with caramel apples and pies and candy before the ceremony but now…” She glanced up at the decorations with a grunt. Wooden carvings and totems with the sun and moon emblazoned on them lined the edges of roofs, sat on the food stand countertops, hung from firefly lanterns—the imagery was everywhere.
Her ears lowered and she shook her head. “Now it’s my turn… Gotta be brave, gotta be—” Hopeseed muttered. She gulped, her eyes darting around. Her pupils shrank to points as she started breathing heavily, taking a few steps back and stumbling into Twilight. Twilight quickly caught the panicking filly, deftly stretching a wing to maintain her own balance.
“And you will be brave, Hopeseed.” Twilight said, helping her back to her hooves.
Hopeseed looked up at Twilight and nodded, sniffling as a single tear ran slowly down her cheek. She took a deep breath and dusted herself off. Applejack touched a reassuring hoof to her shoulder. “Hopeseed, you’ve got this. Trust me, Twi’s helped me out of more ‘n a few pickles before, and she ain’t let me down. I know you won’t neither.” She ruffled the unruly mop atop Hopeseed’s head. “It’ll all work out,” she said with a grin.
“I… thanks…” Hopeseed whispered, wiping the tear from her face. She looked down the path, then up at Applejack, then back down the path. She stood a little taller and said, “I’ve got this.”
The trio walked down the road, watching the last of the tents fly up with coordination rivalling Twilight’s own. Ponies of all shapes and sizes were setting up their stalls, the scent of fresh cooked treats and snacks wafting through the air. Applejack yanked Twilight back on course, finding her drifting toward a caramel apple stand.
“Sure is lively, ain’t it?” Applejack asked, perhaps a bit too loud. “Reminds me of home.”
Twilight pouted. “It wouldn’t have taken that long,” she whined. Hopeseed couldn’t help but giggle.
Ivy’s home came into view as they rounded the last corner. Though there were no activity tents or food stands set up nearby, plenty of decorations were littered around the small field all the same. Twilight shared a nod with Hopeseed, the latter’s eyes full of determination, and knocked.
“Come in!” Ivy’s muffled voice cried out from inside.
Twilight pulled open the door with a loud creak and peered inside. Ivy was hunched over a map spread across her living room table, a cup of tea balancing precariously on the corner. With a pair of reading glasses on her face and a quill in her mouth, she scribbled X after X on the map. Without looking up, she mumbled, “Come in, come in! Don’t got all night, you know,” the quill shaking in her mouth as she spoke.
“Miss Bramble? We have somepony here who would like to speak with you,” Twilight said as they walked in. Hopeseed peeked in from the doorway.
Ivy looked up from the map, her quill clattering to the table as she gasped. “Hopeseed!” She cried, “Oh, thank Celestia you’re safe!” She stood as quickly as her frail body would allow (Twilight swore she could hear creaking) and picked her way over papers scattered across the floor. “Just where in Equestria have you been, child?” She said. Hopeseed let out a small eep and ducked back behind the doorway. Twilight started after her, but the young filly stumbled back into the cottage.
“I-I…” Hopeseed stammered, her ears turned flat against her head.
“Miss Bramble, please don’t be too hard on her, she was just—” Twilight began.
“You had so many of us worried sick!” Ivy cut her off. “We thought something might have happened to you. We didn’t know where you were, if you were safe, if you were even coming back,” she said, shaking with emotion.
Hopeseed felt tears forming in the corners of her eyes, but she sniffled and fought them back.
“Now look,” Applejack said, stepping over to stand between the two. “I know you’re upset at her for runnin’ off and causin’ a headache ‘n all, but you could at least be grateful she ain’t hurt!” Applejack said with a nicker. She stomped her hoof against the floor, causing a few trinkets on a counter to rattle.
“We… I…” Ivy sighed heavily and adjusted her glasses with the tip of her hoof. “You’re right. I’m sorry, Hopeseed. We were all just so worried.” She offered her hoof to the filly, who gingerly took it.
She turned and slowly made her way back to the table, Hopeseed in tow. Twilight and Applejack followed close behind. “Tea?” She asked wearily. “A pot just finished a moment ago.”
Before anypony could respond, Ivy rolled up the map and stashed it under the table. She brandished three more teacups from seemingly nowhere—Seriously, how did she do that? Twilight thought—and set one down in front of each guest. Ivy filled each cup, dropping two sugarcubes into Hopeseed’s cup with a splash.
Ivy took a long sip and sighed. “I’m sorry, young ones. It’s just been so stressful today. Doing the head count of all of the appropriately-aged yearlings, making sure we have enough food for all of the stalls, tending to the forest, organizing the search for Hopeseed…” She nodded toward the rolled-up map.
“I can definitely relate to that,“ Twilight said with a giggle. She cleared her throat loudly and looked at Hopeseed. “Is there anything you wish to tell Miss Bramble, Hope?”
Hopeseed trembled and took a deep breath, holding it for a second. “I’m sorry,” came tumbling from her mouth. “I just got really scared! There’s a lot of pressure with everything about the festival. A-And I had to—” she suddenly cut herself off with a bite on her lip.
Ivy took another sip of tea. “You were scared.”
Hopeseed simply stared into her cup and nodded.
“I was scared too when I was your age,” Ivy said with a weary chuckle.
Hopeseed looked up from her drink. “You were?”
“Indeed,” Ivy said. “I was absolutely terrified of the whole thing, and I just couldn’t understand why everypony was fretting over a silly ol’ festival.” She took another sip of tea. “But I saw how happy everypony was. All of those smiling faces…”
Ivy slowly rose from the table and walked to the wall of pictures. She gazed at the photo of herself, a gentle smile spreading across her muzzle. “Thorn Patch, Celeste Thicket, and Poppydazzle…” her voice trailed off. “Long gone now, but they were so proud of me. Their pride carried me through the ceremony.”
She sighed wistfully, her hoof grazing a curious photo—not one of a pony or part of the village, but a close-up of a white flower. Its broad tepals bloomed into a six-pointed star, a slash of orange running from curled tip to base. Three flat stamina peeked from inside a deep central tunnel, each seemingly a different shape.
“What’s that?” Hopeseed asked, getting up from her seat to get a closer look.
“Ah, this?” Ivy said, straightening the frame. “It’s a special flower I was taking care of before the ceremony.”
Twilight and Applejack quickly exchanged glances, joining them by the wall. “I think I’ve seen this in a reference book before,” Twilight said.
“Oh? Have you now?” Ivy asked playfully, her eyes twinkling in a manner Twilight hadn’t seen before.
“It looks like a dragonsbreath lily!” Twilight beamed. “But they only grow in the Dragonlands, so how did you…”
Ivy chuckled, waving off the question. “I honestly couldn’t tell you, Princess. I was helping in our family garden and one day it just suddenly appeared in the far patch. Maybe it was a blessing from the tree, or even from further above. It bloomed like that,” she nodded to the picture, “just before my Argent Moon, so my friends knew I could pass the trial.”
Hopeseed stared up at the photo with wide eyes, struggling for words. Despite the aged photo, something about it spoke to her. Twilight blinked—was that another tinge of magic?
“I…” Hopeseed said, turning to face everypony. “I can do this. It’s scary, but I can do it,” Hopeseed said, grinning nervously.
“Wonderful!” Ivy said with a clap. “Now then, I think you two should run along and enjoy the festival! The ceremony doesn’t start until sundown, so why not get something to eat? I’ll take Hopeseed and help her get ready for tonight.”
“I think that sounds just dandy, Miss Bramble!” Applejack said. She playfully nudged Twilight. “We can get you one of them apples you were droolin’ over.”
“That does sound wonderful!” Twilight said. A most un-princess-like rumble came from her stomach. Twilight blushed and let out a nervous laugh.
“Oh yeah, definitely need some apples,” Applejack said with a smug grin.
“You’ve certainly earned a respite, young ones. I’ll call back the other search parties now that Hopeseed is safe. Just be sure to meet us at the stage before sundown,” Ivy said. She looked down at Hopeseed with a smile. The filly swelled with pride and smiled back broadly.
Twilight gave a gentle nod. She could feel her own pride welling up within. Is this how Celestia feels whenever I accomplish something?
“We will. Thank you so much for your hospitality, Miss Bramble,” Twilight said, bowing to excuse herself. “We’ll see you then.”
“Y’all stay outta trouble now, y’hear?” Applejack said, winking at Hopeseed before following Twilight outside.
In just the short time spent with Ivy, the plaza around them had exploded into a bustle of activity. Groups of ponies were wandering about, laughing and playing and eating. Twilight’s stomach rumbled loudly as the scent of corn on the cob, apple pie, and all sorts of goodies saturated the air. She stopped to watch a group of three fillies—even younger than Hopeseed—crowded around a brightly-colored tent, scrambling over each other to get closer to a chestnut-colored colt. A faint orange aura glowed around the colt just before he reared back, flinging a small hoop into the tent with his mouth. A stallion’s voice suddenly bellowed, “And we have a winner!” as the group of fillies cheered.
“Twi! You comin’?” Applejack grunted, motioning her over. She had found the caramel apple stand!
“Oh! Coming!” Twilight said, hustling over to join her friend, who shot the princess a grin. She licked her lips, already salivating from the smell alone.
“Now let’s see if these Peacegrove ponies can hold a candle to Apple family cookin’!” Applejack boasted with a smirk.
“Candle Holder?” came an excited voice from the stall. “She’s two stands down at the ring toss and—hey! It’s you!”
“Holly!” Twilight said happily, her wings spreading as she hopped with glee. “I thought you were helping Ivy look for Hopeseed?”
“I could ask you the same thing!” Holly said, her eyes widening at the display. “We decided that since there were so many ponies out but we still had to work on the festival we thought it would be a good idea to look in shifts, so here I am running this stall for right now until Auburndale comes to replace me. Did you guys have any luck?”
“We found her, Holly. Now take a breath before ya pass out on us,” Applejack said, leaning on the counter.
“Really?” she squealed. “That’s so so so wonderful! I'm so happy I could just explode! Where’d you find her, huh? Huh? Huh? Huh?” Holly punctuated each question by leaning closer to Applejack over the counter, bopping her on the forehead.
“Woah, easy now!” Applejack said, pushing the ball of excitement away. “We found her in her, uh… I mean, she was below…” she stammered, nervously looking around. “W-we found her in the Tree! Yep, that’s where she was. All up in the… Tree. With the books. And the… yeah.” Beads of sweat formed on her brow as she murmured to Twilight, “…technically.”
“We’ve already brought her back to Ivy, and she said she’s going to let everypony else know,” Twilight said, taking Applejack’s place at the counter.
Holly let out a huge sigh. “Oh thank the Princesses!” She glanced at Twilight’s horn and wings, suppressing a giggle. “I guess that includes you too, huh?” She stifled a snicker, which grew into uproarious laughter, as she planted her face against the counter and pounded it with a hoof. Twilight looked toward Applejack, who was fighting the urge to join the contagious mirth. She rolled her eyes and waited.
After a moment, Holly took a deep, gasping breath. One last “Hah!” escaped, and she finally composed herself—as well as she could, anyway. “So! Can I get you two some caramel apples?”
“Yes!” Twilight exclaimed, exasperation dragging her vowels out. She leaned over the counter, taking a look at all of the different choices. Holly yelped and stepped back, flailing to avoid tripping over the debris littering the inside of the stand.
Applejack smirked and pulled her hungry friend back. “Yes, Holly. Two, if ya wouldn’t mind.” Applejack said.
Holly bounced to the back of the stall, picking two of her favorite apples—Goodbye, Phil and Bill! she thought—and swiftly returned with the treats in tow.
“They look delicious,” Twilight said, her mouth watering. “How much?”
“On the house! Ivy’d make me clean the cobwebs from the tallest branch of the Tree if she found out I charged a princess for something!” Holly said, bouncing in place on her hooftips.
Twilight hesitated, looking away for a moment. Receiving special favors due to her title still made her uncomfortable. “Right,” Twilight said, forcing the word out.
“Thank ya kindly!” Applejack said, accepting both caramel apples from Holly with a nod. Holly waved them goodbye, bouncing happily once more before disappearing under the counter.
Twilight and Applejack walked slowly down the row of tents. The festival began to wind up, the sound of laughter, idle chat, and play filling the air. A couple of giggling fillies pelted past the duo, an exasperated stallion chasing after them.
“Now this is what makes it all worthwhile,” Applejack said, taking a big bite. “Don’tcha-ghee?”
Twilight nodded, chewing on the tacky caramel. As they walked, different types of fireflies woke up along the trail, their lanterns amplifying not only spectacular greens and yellows, but reds and blues as well. The decorations seemed to dance on their own in the natural light, casting shadows and reflections all around. They came across a small gap between a pair of tents, taking a seat in the grass to rest.
As they ate, Twilight's gaze idled on the guardian tree looming over the festival. Her thoughts churned in her head, slowly drowning out the dull roar of the villagers. “It's been over a week since this started…” she muttered, sighing quietly.
Applejack looked over at her friend, staring off into space. “Hey Twi, you okay?” She asked.
“Huh?” Twilight replied distantly. “Yeah… I'm fine.”
“No you ain't. You’re a worse liar ‘n I am, and I’m the gosh-darned Element of Honesty.” She scooched a little closer. “What’s the matter?”
Twilight's ears lowered as she blushed. “Can’t hide anything from you, can I?”
“Eenope. Worried ’bout Hopeseed, right?” Applejack asked, taking the last bite of her apple.
“Well, yes and no. I think she’ll do fine, but I can’t help but think about…” Twilight said, staring across the plaza at the Tree. “I’m just nervous for her, that’s all. Not to mention my own problems.”
Applejack swallowed her bite, deftly flicking the stick into a nearby bin. “For starters,” she said, “I think she’s gonna do just fine. I mean—don’t get me wrong, I’m a little worried too. I ain’t never seen a garden do all that before, but I can’t help gettin’ the feelin’ that she’s somethin’ special.”
Twilight looked down, idly drawing a circle in the dirt with her hoof.
“Second, don’t you get all fussin’ and mopin’. Once we see Hopeseed through all this, you’ll have all the time in Equestria to lick this magic problem. And I know you Twi, you ain’t never let magic beat you before, and I know you ain’t about to start now,” Applejack said, grinning with pride.
Twilight smiled thinly. “I hope you’re right. We’ll help Hopeseed with the ceremony tonight, get back to Ponyville tomorrow night, and I can compile more detailed earth pony notes.” She put her head in her hooves with a groan. “Assuming I even get any sleep tonight. These ridiculous dreams—”
“Twi?” Applejack said, reaching over to cover Twilight’s mouth.
“You got this.” Applejack stood, offering a hoof to her friend.
Twilight accepted, allowing herself to be pulled to her hooves. “You’re right. And if this crowd of ponies is any indication, it’s almost time for the ceremony.”
A steady stream of ponies were flowing toward the Tree—even the stall runners and food vendors were joining the crowd. Twilight and Applejack pushed their way into the drove of villagers, melting into the crowd.
The duo found themselves arriving at the ceremonial stage. Flickering lamps adorned the oversized goblet. Something about them caught Twilight’s eye—What was it? As she peered closer she realized that these fireflies left gold and silver trails in the air behind them. She had never seen species like these before! The patterned curtain behind the goblet danced in the otherworldly light.
The crowd of ponies steadily swelled as the sun set, the lanterns seemingly shining brighter as nighttime drew closer. A figure took to the stage, casting a long shadow across the curtain. As it approached, the dancing lights revealed the face of Ivy Bramble.
Ivy cleared her throat, and the throng of ponies instantly grew silent. “Fillies and gentlecolts!” she said, her aged voice ringing clear across the plaza. “Today is our most special day of the year, for sunset marks the beginning of the Festival of Argent Moon and Aurum Sun.”
A cheer erupted from the villagers, who stomped their hooves into the dirt in thunderous applause.
“Each year, it is up to the oldest yearlings to put their wits and skills to the test to seek out the silver-gold blossom—what our ancestors called la arĝenta-oro—which blooms in the forest only once a year on this night. It is through our children that a path to the future is carved, and the blessings of the Argent Moon will ensure they, and our village, do not stray off that path into the darkness. Let us reflect.”
Ivy lowered her head as the rest of the village followed suit. Twilight and Applejack glanced around, then at each other, the unfamiliar ritual catching them off-guard. They joined the villagers in silence.
“Now,” Ivy’s voice cut through the still air. Everypony rose their heads in response. “Will our yearlings please join me on stage?”
Ivy stepped aside as one by one, young fillies and colts of all colors marched onto the stage in an orderly line. Excited parents and loved ones cheered and waved at their children as they took their place on stage, many of them blushing or recoiling with embarrassment.
“There’s Hopeseed!” Twilight whispered, pointing at the filly standing nervously near the back of the stage. Hopeseed fidgeted with the bandana that hung around her neck.
“These young fillies and colts will be the ones taking part in the ceremony tonight, and in doing so will take their first steps into adolescence,” Ivy said. “With their efforts tonight, they will help strengthen and reinforce the magic that protects our home.” Many of the villagers cheered.
“And let us not forget tomorrow!” Ivy said, projecting her voice above the cacophony. “At high noon, the Aurum Sun will shine over the Tree with a golden light, blessing us with a bountiful harvest!”
The crowd of ponies cheered again, the dull roar echoing off the canopy. Something about Ivy’s words resonated with Twilight. Golden light… Twilight looked up at the Tree, squinting to discern lights far above. Indeed, small golden motes began to form around the leaves, dripping like water from high above. Fireflies? She thought. No, these are different…
“Before we begin the festivities, I would like all of us to formally extend a warm welcome to not one, but two guests of honor,” Ivy said, directing the crowd’s attention toward Twilight and Applejack. “If you haven’t already, please welcome Princess Twilight Sparkle and her friend Applejack to Peacegrove Village!” The crowd collectively turned to face the duo, applauding joyfully. Twilight blinked, her attention ripped from the canopy before smiling awkwardly and waving to the nearby villagers.
Ivy turned to face the Tree, her head slowly following its trunk skyward. Through the gaps in the canopy, a twilit sky could be seen. Twilight felt a strange sensation steal her attention back to the Tree—as if it knew her name and was calling it, ever so quietly. She shifted from hoof to hoof, struggling to get a closer look. The light flowing from the Tree brightened, the color slowly shifting to a deep silver. Those definitely aren’t fireflies, she thought, squinting as the wisps shone brilliantly. Covering her eyes with a hoof, she glanced at the ponies nearby. None seemed to notice the light. Earth pony magic!
Ivy turned back toward the crowd, her head lowered solemnly. “From sundown until midnight,” she said, raising her head high. “That is the window for our yearlings to seek their own silver-gold blossom. Yearlings, are you ready?”
Most of the yearlings were already moving with anticipation—the excitement onstage was second only to the hum of the crowd. A few were looking around nervously, taking cues from their peers. Hopeseed was among the latter.
“Then without further ado…” Ivy began.
The yearlings suddenly snapped to attention, several taking on exaggerated athletic stances. Hopeseed deftly untied her bandana and pulled her mane into it, retying it to the back of her head in one swift motion.
“In the name of the lunar Princess and all of her blessings…” Ivy’s hoof rose into the air.
The crowd fell silent, overtaken with anticipation. The last moment before sundown ticked by for an eternity—when something extraordinary happened.
Twilight’s breath caught as the silvery wisps hung in the air, suddenly motionless. They pulsed, slowly at first, waves of aether sparkling over the tree in a mist. Even from this distance, she could see the leaves moving as the magic pushed against them. Nopony else seemed to be focused on the Tree—all eyes were on Ivy and the yearlings.
The mist coalesced over the Tree as veins of silver running beneath its bark lit up. The light spread in all directions, illuminating from the highest branches to the roots beneath the soil. The magic spread from the tree across the ground, flowing through the village and out of sight. The web of silver glowed bright, eliminating all shadows Twilight could see. ‘Silverglade’ indeed, she thought.
Suddenly, the light pulsed once, and the crowd began to cheer wildly. Twilight looked to Applejack, whose jaw dropped in amazement. Their eyes met. “You seein’ this Twi?” She shouted. Twilight nodded, her heart swelling as the crowd settled down. A few foals were even playfully poking at the silver veins, making the light dance around their hooves.
Ivy’s voice suddenly boomed across the plaza as she brought her hoof down in an arc. “I declare the one thousand, thirty-third Festival of the Argent Moon… begun!”