Twilight and Spike reappeared in the throne room in Canterlot. “What was-” Spike began.
The world began to tremble. Not the thunderous booms of before, but a steady quaking, vibrating almost like a masseuse's hooves. Twilight glanced out toward the window- “Look!” she cried. She dashed to the window and used her magic to push it open.
The sun and the moon were both hanging in the sky together. The sun was brighter than on even the hottest summer days, and the moon was full, shining brilliant silver. But even the combined radiance of the two heavenly bodies could not block out the light that flashed and flickered across the sky.
“Hop on, Spike!” Twilight said. “I'll teleport us to the tallest tower!”
“No, not that one, the observatory!” Spike said. “There's a gap in the mountains we can look through!”
“Oh, duh!” Twilight thumped her head with her hoof. “Why didn't I think of that?” Spike jumped up onto her back. “Hold on!” She imagined the cool marble floor of the observatory, the hollow space around the big telescope brushing her skin, and stepped.
She appeared in the observatory and immediately ran to the outside balcony. Spike jumped down, and the two of them looked between a gap in the peaks of the Drackenridge range, gazing out across Gildedale to the distant ridges of the Archbacks.
The sky was pulsing and throbbing. Bursts of every color light blazed in half-instants on the horizon, like fireworks but a hundred times more intense. The shaking of the ground- of the whole world- continued unabated. Around her, pegasuses were hovering up as high as they could to glimpse the remarkable sight.
“I'm scared,” Spike said.
“Me too,” Twilight said gently. She drew him close to her. Without meaning to, one of her wings came out and draped over his shoulders.
Not a word passed between them as they watched the flashing lights on the horizon. They got used to the quaking of the planet after about ten minutes, so they almost calmly watched the battle from a distance. Yet their ease masked an infinity of dread. Suppose the princesses, Falalauria, and Clive could not prevail? All of Equestria- and beyond- would be vulnerable to that black deer with his terrifying red magic. What was he? Where had he come from? Twilight shuddered, remembering his threats to kill all he came across.
For nearly an hour, the battle raged. To the flashing on the horizon was added a distant rising line of black smoke. Something was burning. Twilight supposed, as a princess, she should have called one of the royal scryers to give her a deeper view of what was taking place. But she knew if she got a closer look- if she could see what Princess Celestia and the rest were up to- it would ruin her forever. Merely imagining what they were going through was horrific enough.
Finally, there was a huge blaze of brilliant white light. The sun and the moon pulsed with added brightness, and it almost seemed like waves of strength rippled out from both of them, as though the sky were a great lake. Then all was still. The smoke of whatever was burning hung as a haze in the sky. “I think we should go back down to the throne room,” Twilight said. “That's probably where the princesses will return to.”
Spike wordlessly climbed onto Twilight's back, and with a step she was back in the throne room, its high ceiling decorated with swirling golden stars. She was not the only one present: various ministers and mages were milling about uneasily, talking amongst themselves in ways clearly meant to stave off nerves.
“Princess Twilight!” a voice called over her shoulder.
Twilight turned and smiled. “Professor Wizenbach!” she exclaimed. It was an older unicorn, lines around her eyes. Her coat was dark green and her mane was white. She had been one of Twilight's instructors at Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns, and Twilight had fond memories of her conjuring classes.
“Please, princess, I'm not your teacher any more,” Wizenbach said. “No need to call me 'professor.'”
“And there's no need to call me 'princess,'” Twilight said. “I'll always just be Twilight Sparkle to you.”
“Do you know what's transpired?” Wizenbach asked. “All we heard was that the princesses had been summoned to address some grave issue, and now-” she rubbed her horn, “now my magic circuit is alive with interference. Great power has been exercised.”
“I was up at the observatory,” Twilight said. “I saw something taking place out past the Archback Mountains. I... I have no idea what,” her face twitched a little with the lie.
Wizenbach missed her student's tell, however. “Princess Luna was later to leave that Princess Celestia. She instructed us to gather all the strong mages in the castle and wait for them here. I do hope everything is all right. I have a bad feeling about-”
Suddenly, with bursts of light and flickers of space, the creatures in question appeared just below the royal thrones. Celestia was first. Steam was rising off her body, with a particularly thick trail coming off her horn. But she ignored everyone as she galloped toward the middle of the throne room. “Healers!” she cried. “I need healers at once!”
Twilight soon saw why. Something black was splayed across her back, charred nearly to a crisp. Her heart skipped a beat as she could just make out two pronged horns sticking up from what might have been a head.
“Healers, please!” Celestia pleaded, all air of command gone from her voice.
“We have him, my princess!” said two of the unicorns, their horns shining. Clive- or what was left of him- was lifted off Celestia's back and onto a stretcher that teleported into place.
“I've been keeping him stable!” Celestia said. “I know he can still be saved! I know-” her eyes began to waver, “I know...”
“You did a fine job, Your Highness,” said one of the healers. “He's probably going to make it. We'll take it from here.” With that, the two of them teleported away, taking the stretcher with them.
Celestia sighed, a display of emotion very uncharacteristic for her. Then she did something even more abnormal: she laid down in the middle of the floor. The ponies she had summoned immediately rushed to her, and her great body was soon surrounded by insistent advisers and helpers.
“I have to tend to the princess,” said Wizenbach. “You may wish to stand aside a bit, Twilight.” Twilight's eyes stung with hurt, and Wizenbach smiled gently. “I know you want to see her, but I think she needs some space, which is why I'm off to shoo everypony back.”
“I...” Twilight swallowed her fear. “I understand, Wizenbach. Please try to give her some peace.”
With a nod, Wizenbach trotted toward Celestia. Twilight looked upon Celestia, her eyes still small and anxious, and felt worried again. She had almost never seen the princess in such a state. She looked like a spooked animal, her ears twitching in every direction.
“Princess Twilight Sparkle.”
Twilight and Spike nearly jumped out of their skins. They whirled around. “Princess Luna!”
For the second time today, Luna had come up behind them, and now she glanced coolly over them. Like Celestia, her body was steaming. “I do not believe my sister noticed thy snooping, back on the mountains,” she said. “And after some reflection, I have decided not to reveal it to her. She needs no further stress, which the knowledge of thee disobeying her would certainly provide.”
“Oh, thank you, princess!” Twilight said. She glanced again toward Celestia. “Is Princess Celestia going to be okay? What's wrong with her?”
“Physically, nothing,” said Luna, “as nothing is physically wrong with me. We are hardier than we look, Twilight Sparkle. But what is inside cannot be so easily protected.” Luna sighed. “The pronghorn Clive is... dear to her. He suffered greatly during the clash.”
“Oh,” Twilight said, her mind trying to wrap around the odd idea. “I'm sorry to hear that.”
“But as the healers intimated, we believe he will make a full recovery,” Luna said. “I wish I could say the same for the lands we annihilated.”
“Annihilated?” Twilight repeated. “I saw something burning...”
“The Shimmerwood,” said Luna, making Twilight gasp. “It is damaged, perhaps beyond repair.”
“Definitely beyond repair,” said a voice over Luna's shoulder. Twilight and Spike looked up to see Falalauria moving toward them. The silk streamers in her antlers had been reduced to rags, and the ends were burnt off. But like Luna, she seemed no worse for wear otherwise. “I can See it now. The Shimmerwood is lost.”
“My heart breaks for thee, Lala,” said Luna. “Thy deer are welcome in Equestria until they can find a more permanent home.”
“That should bring them some comfort,” said Falalauria.
“And on that note, I must begin to prepare for their arrival,” said Luna. “How many wouldst thee say, Lala?”
“Oh, some thousands,” said Falalauria. “More than you could house in Canterlot's spare places.”
“Ponyville!” Twilight cried. “Lady Falalauria, Ponyville has plenty of space for your deer to stay in. We're also right next door to the Everfree Forest, which has lots of ambient magic. It might be just what they need!”
“Art thou volunteering Ponyville, Princess Twilight Sparkle?” Luna asked, her deep blue eyes leveling on Twilight. “Is that a royal proclamation?”
Twilight swallowed, suddenly feeling the weight of her office. But she straightened her back and steeled her eyes. “Yes,” she said. “It is a proclamation. I, Princess Twilight Sparkle, officially decree that the deerfolk of the Shimmerwood are welcome in Ponyville as they adjust to life without their home.”
“Then it is done,” said Luna. “Ponyville is also near White Tail Wood, another forest that should prove hospitable to the deerfolk. I shall begin to make preparations at once, starting with a letter to Ponyville's Mayor Mare. On that note, might I borrow thy dragon, Twilight Sparkle?”
“You bet!” Spike said. “I'm at your service, princess.”
“Then come, young Spike,” said Luna. “We have a great many letters to deploy.”
They began to head out of the throne room- “Wait!” Luna stopped and turned around. Twilight Sparkle was holding up a hoof. “Princess...”
“Well... that thing,” Twilight said. “That black deer. What was it?”
Luna was silent for a few moments. She stole a glance at Falalauria. “A ghost, Twilight Sparkle,” she finally said. “A shadow of the deep past. Be thankful it is gone.” With that, she moved to a canter, Spike beside her, and left for the throne room's great doors.
When they were gone, Falalauria said, “I might not have called him a ghost. Ghosts are ultimately harmless, after all.”
“Oh!” Twilight said, jumping a little. She had briefly forgotten the great deer was in her midst.
Falalauria looked down at her, her starscape eyes unsettling at such close distance. But her smile was warm. “Twilight Sparkle,” she said. “I believe this is the first time we have officially met.”
“I suppose it is,” Twilight said. “It's wonderful to make your acquaintance, Lady Falalauria.”
“Likewise,” she said. “Congratulations, by the way, on your new castle.”
“What?” Twilight asked. “My Lady, I don't have a castle.”
“Oh?” Falalauria said. Her eyes seemed to shift. “Ah, my mistake, I was Seeing a bit too far ahead. Still, you will love it when you get it.”
“Some of my friends have met you before,” Twilight said.
“Rainbow Dash, Applejack, and Rarity, yes,” said Falalauria. “They are doing well, I think. Applejack is currently abroad.”
“She is!” said Twilight. “She's been in Gildedale the past two weeks, visiting a stallion she knows there.” Twilight suddenly gasped. “Oh no! I hope she's all right!”
“She is fine,” said Falalauria, her eyes shifting again. “She was on her way back through the Drackenridge Mountains when the battle took place, and at any rate, the damage did not extend past the Shimmerwood. Gildedale is safe.”
“I'm so sorry about your home, My Lady,” Twilight said.
“I knew its days were numbered,” said Falalauria. “The world is beginning to change. Or, rather, the world is always changing, but its shifting was beginning to work against us. Fortunately, my deer should be able to adapt. The question is, will the difficult days ahead tax them too far? I do not think so, but I confess, it is not a matter I have bent my Sight upon too much.”
Twilight battled with her own skepticism as Falalauria spoke. Her three friends had, of course, told her much about the Lady of the Shimmerwood, including the most amazing thing about her: her ability to see the future. Twilight had strong opinions about prophecies, mostly on the negative side of them. She tended to view fortune telling and farseeing as hoaxes, barring a few instances she had found and could not explain. Yet here was a creature who claimed she could read time like a book. Would Twilight dare voice her opinions aloud?
“You know, Twilight Sparkle, I can see across Space as well as Time,” said Falalauria. “So I knew you were there also.”
“Oh!” Twilight said. “Do you... do you think Princess Celestia knows?”
“Judging by her actions over the next few days, I do not believe so,” said Falalauria. “However, I can never quite be sure with Tia. She has some Long Sight too, and her motives are always her own.”
“Do you think I should tell her I was there?” Twilight asked.
“Not unless you feel guilty about it,” said Falalauria. “For the moment, keep it to yourself. And for my part, I am glad you and Spike were there. You needed to see what transpired.”
“I'm glad you approve, at least,” said Twilight.
“Things have happened as they were meant to happen,” said Falalauria. “For that, I am grateful.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Tia!"
“Princess Celestia!” Twilight cried with glee, for she was moving toward them, her eyes their normal, gentle selves again. Twilight ran to her, and Celestia gathered her up in a nuzzle.
“I'm all right, Twilight Sparkle,” Celestia said gently. “I'm sorry for having frightened you.”
“I... er...” Twilight suddenly felt ashamed of having disobeyed Celestia's order.
“I was just telling Twilight Sparkle about everything that transpired in the Archbacks,” Falalauria said. “I was even showing her some of my memories with a magic link. I hope that's all right, Celestia.”
“It's perfectly fine, Falalauria,” said Celestia. “She deserves to know. I would hold off showing her the battle itself, though- I don't think her mind is ready for that yet.”
“Indeed,” said Falalauria. “The experience was nearly enough to drive me mad, despite all my eons of magical power.”
“Thankfully, the darkness has been averted,” said Celestia. “Lala, I wish you'd taken a moment to tell me just what, or rather, just who we were dealing with in your message. If I'd known the magnitude of the danger, I would have tried to assemble additional allies.”
“Who could have come in time?” Falalauria asked. “Princess Cadence in the Crystal Empire was too far away, and none of the deerfolk in the Everfree Forest had anything like the power that was needed.”
“I could swear one or two of the Elders have passed through Equestria lately,” said Celestia. “At the very least, I could have broadcast a call for help on all planes of magic.”
“The Elders cannot be found if they do not wish to be found, Tia,” said Falalauria. “You know that. And they frequently do not wish to be found. You did the best you could. And it was enough.”
Celestia arched an eyebrow. “Is that a note of hesitance?”
“Is it?” Twilight asked.
“Perhaps,” said Falalauria.
Celestia's eyes shifted at this, and they locked into Falalauria's gaze. The two of them peered into each others' eyes, piercing rose pink meeting infinite starry night. They stood looking in silence- but not simply looking. If Twilight tweaked her magic a little, she thought she could sense meaning in the air. It seemed as though a whole conversation were going on between the eyes of the Regent of the Sun and the Lady of the Shimmerwood.
Finally, Celestia blinked, and nodded. “I see,” she said. “I must prepare.”
“As must I,” said Falalauria.
“Together, then,” said Celestia with a smile.
“Always,” said Falalauria, her own lips spreading with happiness.
“You know, Lala, no matter the circumstances, I'm always happy to see you,” Celestia said.
“And I you,” said Falalauria. The two of them nuzzled. “My old friend, what would I do without you?”
“What do you mean?” Twilight asked. “Prepare for what?”
“Future things,” Celestia said. “Things as yet unguessed.” She glanced down and caught Twilight's eye. “Twilight Sparkle,” she said, “I believe it's time for you to return to Ponyville. Things will be too busy in the next few weeks for us to focus on our flying lessons.”
“Princess Twilight has graciously decreed that my deerfolk are welcome in Ponyville while they sort out their new lives,” Falalauria said.
“Wonderful!” Celestia said. “Ponyville and its surrounding country are the perfect places for deer. But in that case, Twilight, you had really better be going. You have some explaining to do back home.”
“I know,” said Twilight, suddenly uneasy about how her order would be received by Ponyville's inhabitants. “Princess Luna is using Spike to send letters right now. Once he's done, we'll leave.”