Princess Twilight Sparkle stared into the small mirror she held before her and was not particularly pleased with what she saw. It had been five years now since her coronation and the deep bags under her eyes were a testament to the toils and responsibilities of being a princess. Any day now she feared she would have to start plucking gray hairs out of her mane.
Her musing was interrupted when a large jolt sent her flying upwards, her head bouncing off the roof of the carriage. The shock nearly caused her to drop the small mirror, but she managed to grab it again with magic before the fragile glass hit the floor. Grumbling as she held a hoof to her smarting head, she opened up the window, poking her head out into the freezing air.
“Sorry about that, your highness!” one of the transport ponies called out through the rushing wind. “Expect a bit more turbulence up ahead! There are some nasty storms in the area! We’re ahead of them, but don’t expect us to take off again anytime soon once we get there!”
Twilight frowned, closing the window and cutting off the blast of chilled air. Not ‘Transport ponies’. They had names. She had promised herself she would try to remember them more often. “Steel Wind”, and… “Razor Wind”. That was right; she had worked with them before. They were brothers, dependable as you can get when it came to long distance transport, but had a knack for causing trouble off the clock. It was getting so hard to keep track of it all…
Twilight let out a deep sigh and stared out the window, slipping her mirror back into one of her bags. The silhouettes of the approaching mountain range seemed almost ominous as they slowly grew closer, like the waiting maw of a gigantic beast. An unnecessarily dark setting for the Princess Conference she was about to attend.
Disregarding how important it was for the four princesses to meet at least once a year and discuss all manners of politics and plans for Equestria’s future, she was looking forward to this trip for another reason. These gatherings were also a reunion for her and all of her friends.
Made an official tradition by Pinkie Pie three years earlier, it served as a chance for all of them to get together. Ambitions, dreams, and responsibilities had unfortunately scattered the six friends across Equestria. Twilight made sure to keep in touch of course, but only on a yearly basis like this could everypony’s schedules all match up at the same time. Her heart fluttered with the anticipation of seeing them all after what felt like far too long.
Twilight braced herself as the carriage shook again, before steadying into a gradual decline as it passed under the cloud cover. Her destination slowly came to view below her. She could see a large mansion nestled in a valley between the peaks of three of the largest mountains. The grounds were blanketed with snow, but even from here she could see that behind the mansion there was a large patch of green, perhaps a garden of some sort.
After a smooth landing on a shoveled out runway, Twilight exited the carriage, wobbling slightly after having been being cooped up for so long. Grabbing her bags from inside with magic, she turned to see Razor and Steel already unhooking each other from the carriage, glancing up uneasily at the storm.
Twilight pulled herself up into her regal demeanor, and nodded her head slightly to the two brothers. “Thank you very much for your service, Steel and Razor Wind. You’ve done an excellent job, especially with the weather the way it is. You are both dismissed, and can leave at your will. I do however ask that you use your best judgment as to whether or not it’s still safe to fly back.”
Both brothers blushed, pawing at the ground and turning away slightly. “Thank’ya very much, Yer Highness. We were just doing our jobs, that’s all. But by the looks of things we might be stuck here for the duration. Sorry if we’re intruding on your conference and all,” said the slightly larger, grayish stallion who Twilight was mostly sure was Steel Wind.
“Here, lemme get that for you!” a voice called out from somewhere up above, echoing across the valley. After a slight pause and rushing of wind, there was a massive explosion of rainbow colored light and a thundering boom, blasting away the clouds and revealing the sun framing Rainbow Dash as she raced back towards the ground.
Even as the sonic rainboom began to fade away, Twilight could already see the storm clouds creeping back in. “Well, there’s your chance. Better take it while you can,” Twilight said. Bowing one more time, the two brothers took off into the clear sky, leaving the carriage behind. Weather permitting, they would return in a few days when the conference was over.
“I’m telling you Twi, these storms have a mind of their own. I’ve been out here for a week now busting them up, to keep this place from being drowned in snow, but they just keep coming back. I think this blizzard is the big one they’ve all been building up to, and it's practically chomping at the bit,” Rainbow Dash said, coming to a graceful landing next to Twilight and pulling up the goggles on her flight suit.
“I hope it can last a little bit longer,” Twilight said. “My brother and sister aren’t supposed to arrive till tomorrow. Whose idea was it to hold the conference here anyway?”
“Fluttershy’s, I think,” Rainbow Dash said. “Something about the garden and the history. She really loves it here; she’s been working as caretaker for months now. This place is pretty cool, even if the location leaves a bit to be desired.”
“I see,” Twilight said.
The two friends stared at each other for a moment in awkward silence before they both burst out laughing.
“It’s good to see you, Dash,” Twilight said, wrapping her forehooves around her in a tight hug.
“You too, Twi,” Rainbow Dash said as she returned the hug with an ear splitting grin.
After a few more moments, Rainbow Dash pulled away from the embrace, glancing back up at the sky. “I’ve got some more clouds to go bust. We can catch up more later on. Just go on inside, the others are all here already. Later!” she shouted before she took off again.
Twilight made her way to the front porch, pausing for a moment to admire the intricate woodwork on the set of wide double doors. As she pushed them open, she was greeted by a blast of warm air and a flood of soft lights inviting her inside.
“Welcome to Dragon-Mare manor. I hope you enjoy your stay,” a soft voice greeted Twilight as she stepped inside, and she almost shifted her mannerisms back into ‘Princess Mode’ when she realized the formal greeting had come from Fluttershy.
“Fluttershy!” Twlight said, caught somewhat off guard. “Um… that dress looks lovely on you.”
“Oh, thank you very much. Rarity made this for me. I really like it,” Fluttershy said, preening slightly at the complement. Her gown resembled something you’d expect to see on a palace servant, but it was far more elaborate and well designed, along with a purple and gold trim similar to that which adorned the mansion.
“Would you like me to take your scarf?” Fluttershy asked, bowing her head slightly and extending a forehoof.
“Thank you, but come on. What are you doing Fluttershy? You don’t have to serve me,” Twilight said, letting her bags float down to the floor and taking off her scarf.
“Oh. But I’m um, working as the caretaker here right now. And I’ve been taking my job very seriously, and that includes looking after all of the guests and making sure they’re comfortable,” Fluttershy said.
Twilight chuckled, smiling and shaking her head at the earnest sincerity in her friends tone. “Alright, if you insist.” Twilight floated her scarf up for Fluttershy to take, but as soon as she had a decent grip on it, Twilight yanked back, granting her a startled “Eep!” as Twilight pulled Fluttershy into a surprise hug.
“It’s good to see you, seriously. And don’t you dare play servant during this entire trip! All of us deserve some time to relax, you hear me?” Twilight scolded. She pulled back from the hug and bopped Fluttershy on the nose playfully. Fluttershy began to blush and turn away, her mouth working soundlessly.
“Are Princess Celestia and Luna here already?” Twilight asked, her question snapping Fluttershy out of her stupor.
“Oh, um, yes. They got here this morning, but they’re both pretty tired from the journey, so they don’t want be disturbed until tomorrow.”
Twilight nodded, frowning. It would’ve been nice to get some personal time with the two, but oh well. “So, where’s my room?”
“It’s upstairs and to the left,” Fluttershy said, pointing up the set of wide stairs in the middle of the entrance hall. “Third door on the right. It’s marked as yours, so, um... Just let me hang this up, I’ll show—“
Fluttershy was interrupted by the sound of two sets of hooves from above, followed by harsh voices.
“Dangit! Y’just don’t get it, do ya? Yer completely missing the point, as always!” Applejack skidded into view at the top of the stairs, looking frazzled as she wheeled around to face her pursuer.
“Applejack, sweetie,” Rarity said as she trotted into view, drawing out her words as if she was admonishing a child. “Come on now. Be reasonable! I love your apples – I do! But just because I love them doesn’t mean I want them all the time. A girl needs a little variety!”
Applejack snorted, stomping her hoof down so hard the chandeliers shook slightly. “Of course y’do,” Applejack snarled through gritted teeth. “And just what the hay am I supposed to do when you up and decide that you’re bored of—“
“Twilight, darling!” Rarity squealed as she noticed Twilight, immediately breaking off from her fight to dash down the stairs and hug her friend. “Oh, I don’t mean to be rude but are you getting enough sleep? You look positively dreadful. But not to worry. Even if you do have that big meeting tomorrow, make sure you get plenty of rest and relaxation, okay?”
“Uh, thanks, Rarity. I’ll do my best,” Twilight said with a note of concern in her voice as she pulled away from the hug. “Are you two fighting about something? Is everything okay?
“Nah, it’s nothing to worry about, Twi. We were just having a bit of a disagreement,” Applejack said as she made her way down the stairs, her earlier anger seemingly evaporated. “If y’really wanna know, we can talk about it later. But Rarity’s right, you should really be taking better care of yourself.”
Twilight frowned, but shrugged and decided to let it go, giving Applejack a quick hug. “I’ll hold you to that, Applejack. But it’s good to see you too.”
“Right, well. Fluttershy, can y’help me in the kitchen with some things? There’s still some stuff I wanna get ready for dinner.”
“Um, sure. But I have to show Twilight to her room first,” Fluttershy said, glancing between the two of them.
“No, that’s fine, go with her. I should be able to find it myself pretty easily,” Twilight said.
Nodding, Applejack and Fluttershy trotted off, presumably towards the kitchens, leaving Twilight and Rarity alone in the entrance hall. Rarity looked over at Twilight and nodded her head in the direction of the stairs, and two ascended together.
“What on earth is that?" Twilight asked, stopping once she reached the last step and looking up.
“Oh, that ghastly thing? That is the… namesake of this manor. Or at least an artist’s interpretation of her. I don’t really like it, but Dash seems to think it’s the coolest thing she’s ever seen, and Fluttershy practically worships her for some reason,” Rarity said, scrunching her face up.
Adorning the wall at the top of the stairs, looking down at all who entered the mansion was a massive portrait of what, at first glance appeared to be a magnificent golden alicorn with a short purple mane. Except for the scaled, leather wings, the line of spikes running down her back all the way into a coiled dragon’s tail, and her somewhat bestial features, she could be easily confused for a relative of Princess Celestia.
“So she’s why they call it 'Dragon-Mare' manor, huh? I didn’t think it was such a literal title,” Twilight mused, conjuring a ball of light to illuminate the painting a little better. “Why does she look so sad?”
Rarity frowned, looking at the painting a little closer herself. “I’m not really sure darling. There’s a big legend associated with it and all, but I can’t say I’ve really paid much attention. There’s a plaque here, but it doesn’t really explain anything, per se.”
Twilight moved the ball of light lower and inspected the plaque Rarity had pointed out before beginning to read out loud.
“From a wish sprouts a seed of power
To grant your heart's deepest desire
Bless this seed with your greatest love
But this love must be born in blood
In death lies truth – the heart laid bare
No sacrifice too great
Rend asunder, and begin anew.”
Twilight blinked, quickly reading over the passage again. “Well that… certainly is morbid.”
“That it most certainly is. I swear, I can feel her eyes following me every time I walk past this staircase,” Rarity said, shuddering visibly. “Anyway, Twilight, our rooms are in opposite directions. Third door on your right, I believe. I’ve got some things I’m working on at the moment, so I’ll probably see you at dinner. Ciao!”
Twilight nodded and waved as Rarity trotted off down the right hallway. Instead of leaving immediately, she stayed to inspect the painting a bit more. Just who was this Dragon-Mare? She was familiar with many old pony-tales, but this one had apparently slipped past her. In any case, it was clear that she’d have to ask Fluttershy or Rainbow Dash about it later. She also had a hunch that there was a library somewhere in the mansion where she might be able to find out even more.
Filing that riddle away to tackle later, Twilight made her way down the left hallway, quickly coming to a door emblazoned with her own cutie mark. This was obviously it. As she reached out to open the door, Twilight hesitated. There was one friend she hadn’t run into yet…
Grinning mischievously, Twilight backed against the wall to side of the door, and swung it open with magic.
“Surprise!" Pinkie Pie screamed as she burst from the room in a corona of confetti and streamers, fired straight from her party cannon and crashed directly into the wall.
“Huh? Twlight? Where’d you go?” Pinkie Pie asked, wobbling as she tried to stand while distracted by the stars circling her head. “Wait! Oh no, I knew I shouldn’t have set my party cannon on maximum! I must’ve hit her so hard that she’s all partied out!”
Unable to suppress her giggles, Twilight leapt forward, tackling Pinkie Pie and calling out “Surprise!” before she could fully regain her bearings. Both mares collapsed onto the ground, rolling around in gales of laughter.
Pinkie Pie began bouncing around Twilight as she regained her breath. “Wow, you sure got me there! I had a big surprise planned for you and everything; I was going yell surprise and then fire myself out of the party cannon to give you a surprise party hug but then you gave me the surprise party hug!”
“How about just a regular hug to finish it off then?” Twilight asked as she embraced Pinkie Pie again.
“Ooh, those are nice too!”
Twilight stood up as she reached the chapter break, stretching her legs and wings. Her throat was starting to get a bit sore from reading out loud. A glass of water would help, but she also remembered there was a spell to strengthen vocal cords for long bouts of oratory.
“This is very interesting, Fluttershy! I’m enjoying it a lot. I tend to get pretty immersed in books when I read anyway, but this feels like I’m really there as part of the story,” Twilight said.
Fluttershy had a glazed look in her eyes, completely lost in the telling of her own writing. At Twilight’s address, she snapped back to attention. “Oh. I’m glad you’re enjoying it so far.”
“Well, we’ve got a cast, a location, a closed circle, and a dark legend. Seems ripe for a mystery to me! I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out,” Twilight said, giving an earnest smile. Although quite frankly, Fluttershy’s vision of the future was a little off-putting.
“Just one question, though,” Twilight said, tapping the book with a hoof. “I know it’s in a hypothetical future and all, but how come Spike isn’t with me?”
Fluttershy froze. Her eyes widened and her mouth hung open as the color drained from her face.
“Uh, Fluttershy? Are you okay?”
“Ohmygosh,” Fluttershy blurted out as she dove forward, grabbing her book and flipping through it rapidly. “No no no, oh no I’m so sorry, Twlight. I can’t believe I would do something like this!”
“Do what, exactly?” Twilight asked, raising an eyebrow.
Fluttershy drooped, sinking low onto the floor and covered her face with her hooves. “I, um. I guess I must’ve gotten so caught up in the story I wanted to tell about the six of us that I… forgot to put Spike in the story entirely.”
Twilight blinked a few times, staring down at her friend before bursting into laughter.
“Please please please don’t ever tell Spike, he would be so hurt. Oh, how could I do something like this? I’ll um, go back and add a line near the beginning about how he’s sick with the flu and couldn’t make the trip,” Fluttershy wailed, trying to hide her head under a nearby pillow.
Twilight lent a hoof to Fluttershy to help her up. “Hey, it’s fine. We won’t tell Spike. Although really?” Twilight raised an eyebrow. “You forgot about him even with all this stuff about ‘Dragon-Mares’?”
Fluttershy nodded meekly and Twilight took the book and found her place again. “Give me a few minutes to get some water and cast a spell and we’ll keep going, okay?"
Twilight Sparkle rolled over in her bed, yawning and blinking her tired eyes. Frowning as she tried to remember where exactly she was, she got up slowly and made her way over to a nearby window. Only pitch blackness and a howling blizzard greeted her from the outside world.
“I guess I dozed off earlier… I’m sure someone would’ve woken me up if it was time for dinner, so I probably haven’t missed anything yet,” Twilight said, talking to herself as she let out another yawn. Even though she hadn’t planned on napping, she felt a lot more refreshed and comfortable and was glad she had.
After taking a few more moments to stretch and finish waking up, Twilight poked her head out into the hallway. Now that the world outside was covered in the deep dark of winter, the hallways were illuminated by soft and flickering lamplight, casting every corner with eerie shadows.
As Twilight made her way back towards the entrance hall, past the painting and down the stairs, she remembered Rarity’s words from earlier. A chill ran up Twilight’s spine and she quickened her pace slightly to escape that strange feeling of being watched.
When she was standing at the base of the stairs in the entrance hall again, Twilight paused, looking around at the various hallways and doors that all extended from this central hub. “Where did everypony go, I wonder…”
Before she could make a decision on which direction to start exploring, Twilight jumped as the front doors burst open with a resounding bang when a pony sized snowball crashed through them, the blizzard outside taking the opportunity to enter uninvited.
After realizing what was happening, Twilight smiled wryly at the snowball, which had a rainbow colored mane poking out the top of it. As Twilight made to close the doors with her magic, Rainbow Dash burst from the snowball, scattering snow everywhere as she shook herself off violently.
“I give up. You win this time, blizzard,” Rainbow Dash said through her chattering teeth.
“Is it really that bad out there?” Twilight asked, giggling slightly at the state of her friend.
“Oh! Hey again. Yeah, it’s pretty rough. There’s nothing more I can do out there,” Rainbow Dash said as she shook more snow out of her ears.
Frowning, Twilight glanced at the door. “Do you think my brother and sister will be able to make it tomorrow?” It wouldn’t be the end of the world if the conference was delayed by a day or two, but everypony did have their own schedules to worry about.
“I don’t think even a dragon could fly for long in this weather,” Rainbow Dash said, grinning. “But hey, that just means a longer vacation for us before all that important junk happens, right?”
“Well, that’s certainly one way of looking at it,” Twilight said, returning Rainbow’s grin.
“Man, I’m starving. Is dinner ready yet?” Rainbow Dash asked, changing the subject.
Twilight frowned, looking back around at the various doors. “Dunno. I just woke up from a nap. I’m not even sure where the kitchen is, to be honest.”
Rainbow Dash laughed as she clapped Twilight on the shoulder playfully. “Geez Twilight, I’ve been outside busting my feathers and you’re in here napping? Sure sounds great being a princess. Come on, the kitchen’s this way.”
Twilight crouched playfully, spreading her wings and lighting her horn with a quick burst of magic. “Better be careful, Rainbow, I’m pretty sure an Alicorn Princess could do your job with little effort!”
“You? A weatherpony? Pleaase. You wouldn’t last a day out there. I bet I could do your job way easier than you could do mine.” Rainbow Dash paused, looking back as she opened a door to the lower left of the stairs. “You coming or what?”
“Princess Rainbow Dash. I’d like to see that!” Twilight giggled as she teleported into the hallway Rainbow Dash was making her way down, coming out in a gallop as she wordlessly challenged her friend to a race.
Rainbow Dash was faster of course, in addition to actually knowing where she was going, and quickly zoomed through the hallways trying to leave Twilight behind. She was able to keep up however, mostly by
cheating teleporting ahead whenever she had the chance.
Fluttershy squeaked as the two mares burst into the kitchen at the same time, collapsing to the floor as they rolled around with laughter.
“Hey, come on Twi, that’s against the rules!” Rainbow Dash said in between breaths.
“Who said there were any rules?” countered Twilight, standing up and wiping a tear from her eye.
Turning to Fluttershy, she said “Hey. Sorry if we’re intruding Fluttershy. Maybe we got a little carried away there.”
“Oh no, it’s okay. Um, dinner’s not quite ready yet if that’s what you were wondering. But it should be soon.”
Nodding as she glanced over the kitchen, Twilight was struck by a sudden twinge of melancholy. If only fun like this wasn’t such a rare occasion nowadays.
“Argh! I’m sooooo hungry, Fluttershy. Come on, give me a little taste! Pleaaase?” Rainbow Dash begged, hovering over to the food Fluttershy was preparing like a persistent fly.
Fluttershy huffed up, and waggled a spoon at Rainbow Dash threateningly. “No. You’ll have to wait for it just like everypony else. It tastes much better that way.”
Grumbling, Rainbow Dash flew out of the room and around the corner, mild curses echoing down the hallway. “It does smell really good, Fluttershy. You must have worked hard,” Twilight said.
“You don’t get any either, Twilight. Even if it is you,” Fluttershy said before turning back to the pot she was stirring. “But um... Thank you.”
Smiling, Twilight stood in the kitchen in silence for a few moments, watching Fluttershy cook. She seemed so at home in this kitchen already.
“Um, Twilight… I hope you don’t mind me asking or anything, but you seem a little down and I was just wondering if everything is okay?“
Twilight sighed and shook her head, smiling at the fact Fluttershy was able to pick up on her mood. “It’s nothing, really. I just… miss you guys a lot. It’s so great to see you all like this… but I miss the times when this kind of a thing happened every day, you know?”
Fluttershy made a quiet sound of acknowledgement as Twilight shared her feelings, but stayed focused on her work for awhile before she put her spoon down and turned around to face Twilight. “Do you remember the conference last year?”
Twilight frowned, raising a hoof to her chin. “Down on the rainbow beaches of Mareami? That sure was a great party. Why do you ask?”
“It was such a beautiful place, and I’d love to visit again. But Pinkie insisted we try somewhere new every year so it would leave a lasting impression each time,” Fluttershy said, her eyes focused with uncharacteristic determination.
“Pinkie Pie certainly knows her parties,” Twilight said, thinking back. “That’s right… you drew the short straw, so you got to pick and plan the next event. So you chose here then?”
“Yes. I mean, um, well…” Fluttershy faltered, looking down and fidgeting slightly. “I m-miss you too, Twilight, but um. I’m working as hard as I can because… I want us all to create memories we can cherish forever. Even when we can’t be together.”
Twilight stared at Fluttershy, considering the blushing mare’s situation. Dreams and ambition had pulled them all further apart than any of them truly wished. Rainbow Dash had become a champion flier and fulfilled her dream of joining the Wonderbolts. Rarity was a world renowned fashion designer and had exclusive contracts in major cities all over Equestria. Applejack had found herself the manager of dozens of farms after Flim and Flam had returned one year, promising increased production, storage, bottling, and distribution for a much more reasonable price. And Pinkie Pie was well… Pinkie Pie. But Fluttershy?
For all Twilight knew, Fluttershy’s dreams were never lofty or ambitious. She still lived in her cottage, tending to her animals, her closest friends only stopping by to visit when they could make the time. So if she had been here for several months already, working hard to make everything perfect…
Twilight’s heart leapt for her friend, and she trotted over to place a hoof on her shoulder. “I’m sure this will be the best conference ever. But as long as we’re all together, it’s all worth it in the end.”
Fluttershy turned a deep crimson and crouched behind her mane, her mouth working soundlessly. “Th-thanks. I’ll um, do my best,” she managed to squeak after a long pause.
Twilight grinned wryly as she decided to snap Fluttershy out of her embarrassment with a simple observation. “Your pot is boiling over.”
With an adorable yelp, Fluttershy spun around, nearly tripping over her own hooves as she clamored for the spoon. Laughing, Twilight levitated another spoon down from the shelf and helped get the pot under control.
“Here, let me help out a bit.”