Canterlot was on edge. The bourgeoisie had been privy to the Summer Sun Celebration within Canterlot and in many of the more celebrated locales around Equestria − Cloudsdale, Vanhoover, Fillydelphia, Los Pegasus, Salt Lick City, Manehattan, Baltimare − so to repeat the Celebration in a serf’s village was not acceptable. Their peasantriness might be contagious. But when the Sun did not rise at the anticipated time, they began to fear the worst: Queen Celestia had tasted too much commoner food and taken to becoming a serf herself, neglecting her royal duty to raise the Sun.
The Royal Guard entered high alert, the Day Guard and the Night Guard putting all their time into quelling the fears of nobles who panicked at the idea that even the Queen could be assimilated by the plebeians. They feared, as all in power do, the uprising of the rabble against them. It took the better part of eight hours to calm the hollering masses of noblemares and noblestallions, but all that the Royal Guard had truly done was put a cap on the boiling pot.
When a cloud of blue starry mist streamed into the city from the Saddle Valley below, many nobles began to panic anew. This was some eldritch magic of the masses, come to drag the rich down to their level! It streamed up Mane Street, up to the gates of the Castle of the Queen, where it began to coalesce into a singular solid form: a towering Alicorn with a pitch-black coat, her feathered bat wings unfurled ominously at her sides, her misty mane and tail billowing out behind her. The aura she projected upon the nobles sent them grovelling to their knees.
And when she spoke, it was with the echoing voice of a legion that carried to the very foundations of Canterlot.
“SUBJECTS OF THE SUN, I HAVE RETURNED FROM MY FORCED SLUMBER IN THE NIGHT SKY! THE TYRANT CELESTIA HAS BEEN OVERTHROWN, BANISHED TO HER SUN FOR ALL TIME! I AM YOUR NEW QUEEN, IN THIS REALM OF ETERNAL NIGHT: NIGHTMARE MOON!”
The diminished spirits of the nobles had been rekindled. This was the subject of fear to their colts and fillies − “if you don’t do as you’re told, then NightMare Moon, the Mare of Shadows, will gobble you up” − and to themselves when they were colts and fillies. As quailed as they were at the prospect of the rabble pulling them down, the idea of NightMare Moon slipping down and out of their worst nightmares aroused a spirit of vigor in them.
They began to gallop towards the main gate, trying to save their own hides, but were waylaid by bolts of lightning, which cowed them into quivering wrecks.
”You cannot run from my everlasting dominion of night!” called NightMare Moon.
A bright pink dwimmer-beam shot by NightMare Moon’s head, blasting a hole through her starry mane. The blasted hole quickly sealed itself, and the black Alicorn narrowed her eyes down at the Mane Square.
Standing there in defiance, pawing at the ground, his alicorn lit up a bright pink, was Canterlot’s Captain of the Royal Guard. He was a Unicorn stallion, tall and broad at the withers, with a sapphire mane that ordinarily was streaked cerulean and dark-blue to either side of his horn, but which was concealed by his guardspony’s helmet. His cutie mark was hidden by his barrel-length golden armor.
“Everypony, stay calm!” he barked to the quivering nobles around the square. “We can stand against her!” His throat began to glow pink itself, and when he spoke, it was with a voice of ten times the volume.
“All personnel of the Royal Guard, rally to me before the Castle of the Queen!”
Within moments, scores of Royal Guards of every race answered their Captain’s call. Pegasi of the Day Guard soared in through the gaps between minarets; Unicorns winked out to their Captain’s side; and Earth Ponies galloped with the enhanced speed of their geokinetic magic. Along with the Pegasi glided the Night Guard, all members of which were an offshoot of the Pegasus race: a Bat Pony. Bat Ponies had bat wings instead of feathered wings, tail fins in place of tail feathers, leonine tails not unlike a Unicorn’s, slitted cat pupils, and fangs for puncturing fruits (they had an exclusively liquid diet).
NightMare Moon arched an eyebrow at the sight before her of the Captain of the Royal Guard at the head of his army of grosses of the gold-clad Royal Guard.
“You foals…” she hissed, a blinding cyan dwimmer-beam lancing out from her alicorn at the Captain. In a flash, his horn lit up, a bright-pink dwimmer-shield appearing before him and his fellow guardsponies, the dwimmer-beam arching violently off of the shield and striking the tiled roofs of the surrounding buildings, shattering tiles and sending charred fragments to the streets below. NightMare Moon’s alicorn dimmed in moments, her eyes narrowed upon the Royal Guard in its entirety.
“I ask you, Captain,” she said with a devilish grin. “How can you and your troops stand against me…” Her mane and tail swelled to massive proportions, before fragments split off, descending upon the Royal Guard like a fine mist. “When you can’t even stand against yourselves?”
The Captain braced himself for some dark magic of NightMare Moon’s, but whatever it was had no effect upon him whatsoever. Emboldened, he pawed dangerously at the cobbled stone with a forehoof.
“You can’t intimidate us with your theatrics, NightMare,” he snarled. “To her, men!”
Two pairs of forelegs restrained the Captain’s forearms, and he looked back and forth in dismay. A Unicorn Day Guard and a Night Guard had blank looks on their faces, the whites of their eyes glimmering with a faint blue light. They were holding him back, and behind them, he could see several more Day and Night Guards had fallen victim to NightMare Moon’s hex as well. The two factions of the Royal Guard were themselves split in twain, to the point where the divisions of Day Guard and Night Guard meant nothing. Free-minded and enslaved were nearer the mark.
“It would seem that some of your Royal Guard are weak-willed enough to submit to my hypnosis,” hissed NightMare Moon, who had appeared directly before the captive Captain, a savage grin on her muzzle.
The Captain struggled against the grip that his fellow guardsponies had on him, to no avail. He considered winking out, but decided he would rather not chance winking himself out all over Canterlot.
“Please! Phalanx! Echo Eyes! Snap out of it!” the Captain called desperately. “It’s me, your Captain! Your friend, Shining Armor!”
“We must obey the Night Queen,” they said in flat droning voices.
NightMare Moon let out a high triumphant cackle, lightning leaping from minaret to minaret above Mane Square. Captain Shining Armor’s ears dropped in defeat. Her laughter spent, the dark Alicorn conqueror lowered her head to his level.
“As the olden Commander Hurricane would have said:” NightMare Moon was almost on top of Shining Armor, her snake tongue flicking between her front fangs. She took in a low hissing breath, leaned in to Shining Armor’s right ear, and almost whispered into it, her tongue dancing at the edge of his outer ear: “Divide and rule.”
Thus ended NightMare Moon’s conquest of Canterlot.
The world was blackness, and Twilight Sparkle floundered about in the lightless void, shapeless. Muffled voices echoed around her, and she reached out with formless appendages, trying to grasp at the source of those conversing voices. She had no clue of what they were discussing, or if those voices even existed outside of Twilight’s own head. She even wondered if her own head even existed, or if she was just some stray collection of barely collected synapses in the mana-leylines that swept Harmonia.
In time, Twilight came to realize that she herself existed in a physical form, and her body began to ache all over, her alicorn feeling as though it were split down the middle. Despite the pain, she felt heaven upon her back. With the pain came memory, and she sat bolt upright.
“NIGHTMARE MOON!” she shrieked, her voice sounding hoarse, her eyes squinting at the white light that encompassed her. Her forehooves came up, blocking her eyes.
“Twilight Sparkle,” snapped a sweet but firm voice, as a hoof gently eased her back down, “You’ve been badly injured in the Forest. You must rest until you’ve recovered.”
Blinking the light out of her eyes, Twilight made out a slender Earth Pony mare with a white coat and pale-pink mane tied back in a bun. She wore a nursing cap emblazoned with her cutie mark − a red cross with a pink heart pointing in towards each indentation. Her blue eyes were shadowed, as though she had not slept in a good long while. As her vision adjusted to the light, Twilight realized she was in a hospital room with faded-green walls and bright-white chandeliers in recessed rectangles in the ceiling. Twilight heard a faint BEEP every one-point-five seconds, in time with her heartbeat.
With a slight start, the nurse mare glanced at something out of Twilight’s field of vision, and beckoned over. A silhouette of a Unicorn doctor appeared behind the curtains to the left of her bed, and the nurse addressed him:
“Tell the visitors in the waiting room that Twilight Sparkle has come to. They must have heard the scream.”
The doctor nodded, retreating back out of view. The nurse looked down at Twilight with a soft smile, and Twilight weakly tried to return it.
“Try not to overexert yourself, dear. You’ve been through an awful lot, and even though you’ve been out a good while, you still need your rest.”
“Where am I?” Twilight asked blearily.
“You’re at Ponyville General,” replied the nurse. “My name is Nurse Redheart, and I have been caring for you these past―”
“Mom!” cried a small boyish voice to Twilight’s left. Looking over, her heart soared at seeing Spike, running over on his short hind legs. His ordinarily slitted pupils were almost round, taking up much of his visible eyes, tears running down his scaly face. With a great leap (for Spike), he reached Twilight’s bedside, his claws wrapping around Twilight’s bandaged left foreleg.
Twilight smiled at him. She was in no mood to ruin Spike’s by correcting him. She brought her other foreleg around to wipe his tears away.
“I’m okay, Spike. Really, I am.”
Spike sniffled, smiling at Twilight. “Thanks to these guys! Didn’t I say you should make some friends?”
With a hesitant glance, Twilight looked up at the five who trotted into the room behind Spike. The same five mares who had followed her into the Everfree Forest were there with her, each giving her a tentative, nervous look.
Twilight had a lot of questions, but she could not ask each question at once.
“How long was I out?” she asked weakly.
“Goin’ on two days now, sugarcube,” replied Applejack. Twilight felt her heart in her throat.
“And… how are my parents?”
The five mares looked back and forth at each other, and Twilight felt a bolt of panic shoot through her heart; what had happened to them?
“Well… you have to understand, Twilight…” began Rarity, “That NightMare Moon did not… take kindly to your little sun spell…”
“But when she tried to dispel it, she just went pew-pew-pew!, and your sun just went like, Uh-uh~,” Pinkie suddenly sang, pronking about the room − Nurse Redheart took a step back to avoid the bouncing party mare.
Twilight raised an eyebrow, her head aching worse than ever, rubbing one of her ears with a forehoof. “Translation, please?”
“NightMare Moon tried to blast your mini-sun outta the sky,” Rainbow Dash said loudly, flapping into the air, “but her dwimmer-beams couldn’t do a thing to it! She was getting, like, seriously ticked off! Eventually, she gave up and went off towards Canterlot.”
Twilight wondered at this unexpected news. How in Harmonia did NightMare Moon not have the power to dispel her heliogenesis spell? Maybe it was because NightMare Moon had only re-emerged from the Moon just hours before…?
“We moved yer parents to th’ walkway ‘round Town Hall, so’s they can get more sun an’ all,” Applejack added, “an’ each of the Ponyvillagers took up th’ call t’ water ‘em whenever they passed by. They’ve already accepted you as one o’ their own.”
Looking around at each of their sincerely concerned faces, a relieved Twilight could not bear to tell them what was really on her mind, and instead resorted to asking another question:
“How did you get me out?”
Silence greeted Twilight’s query, as her compatriots gathered their thoughts. It was Rarity who spoke up first.
“Now, darling, you were quite unconscious when we found you in that meeting hall,” she explained. “The wall was blasted out, and the Elements were missing―”
“The Elements,” Twilight bolted up, despite Nurse Redheart’s protestations. “Please tell me that the Elements weren’t destroyed!”
Four mares and Spike looked back and forth at one another in confusion, while Pinkie Pie smiled.
“Nope, no Elements, Twilight, but I did find some really great rocks to make rock necklaces for my sisters!”
From out of nowhere, Pinkie produced several shards of surprisingly light stones. They were once five spheres engraved with unseen symbols.
Pinkie had collected the shattered Elements of Harmony.
“Those are the Elements!” Twilight shouted, before grasping her head and groaning in pain.
“Please don’t push yourself!” Nurse Redheart said sharply, moving to push Twilight back down to the pillow.
Twilight moaned in distress, rubbing her alicorn sorely. She absently noted that her head was bandaged as well, her forelock pulled up and tied with a hairband behind her horn, before continuing.
“Okay, so… you found me and the Elements. Then what?”
“Well, we did have a bit of hassle getting back up the slope that the Palace lay at the bottom of, but we managed. We got to the stream, and then…”
Rarity fell silent there.
“Then…?” Twilight pressed.
“That’s when they showed up,” Rainbow Dash finished darkly.
The rumble of thunder drew five pairs of eyes up from the stream to the sky. Streaks of storm clouds bolted through the sky, but Rainbow Dash felt that these could not be the Wonderbolts. The storm cloud trails were too dark for that team of flyers.
When the three dark Pegasi landed directly across the cragodiles’ stream from them, she knew that these were not the Wonderbolts.
Their flight-suits were a deep-dark purple, with dark-gray hoods over their heads − with holes cut out for their ears and manes − and dark-gray forearms and cannons. Golden lightning bolts accented the boundaries. Their yellow-tinted goggles gave the impression of perpetual glares. The flanks of their uniforms bore the mark of a winged pony skull. The mare at their lead had a rich blue windswept mane and tail, pale bluish-gray coat and wings, and a devilish grin.
“In the name of the Moon, you will not make it out of this forest!” she called out, her wings flaring as she pawed at the ground.
“Says who?” countered Rainbow Dash, pawing at the ground herself, her fangs bared.
The mock-Wonderbolt darted at Rainbow Dash, who barely had time to react before being tackled into the air. Her attacker’s muzzle was split in a maniacal grin, revealing a mouth of razor teeth and fangs.
“Says I, Nightingale, Captain of the Shadowbolts!”
“The Shadowbolts?” Twilight echoed.
“That’s what she said they were called,” Rainbow Dash affirmed. “I don’t know who those copycats think they are, but they’re stealing the Wonderbolts’ thunder!”
“Ah think that’s the whole point, RD,” Applejack cut in. “Ah’d wager that they’re a cult that sprung up in worship o’ NightMare Moon ‘round the time the Wonderbolts themselves were founded.”
“So, how’d you get past the Shadowbolts?” Twilight pressed.
A crack of lightning tore through the sky, and Nightingale suddenly drew away from Rainbow Dash. Shaking the stars out of her eyes, Rainbow Dash caught sight of the foe which appeared and drew the attacks of Nightingale.
The advent of Spitfire, Soarin, and Fleetfoot had brought the wrath of Nightingale and her two stallion cohorts to rest upon the Wonderbolts instead of the five escapees from the Palace (Twilight resting unconscious across Applejack’s strong back). Three Wonderbolts did battle against the three Shadowbolts, the night sky dazzled with lightning under the Moon. The bolts generated by the Wonderbolts sent white light dancing against the trees, while those produced by the Shadowbolts seemed to cast an unlight, diminishing all light save the Moon’s. As Spitfire’s warm golden flames licked the night sky, Nightingale produced white fire that chilled the blood to look at.
Even Rainbow Dash’s fangirling out for the Wonderbolts could not outlast her feelings of self-preservation in light of the battle unfolding in the sky above the Everfree, and she descended to the surface, facing her fellow Ponyvillagers.
“How the hay are we supposed to get back now?”
“And then AJ kicked down a tree over the stream, and we all walked across it,” Rainbow Dash explained. “A few cragodiles tried to snap at us, but we managed to get across pretty safely.”
“We thought we’d have a tough time about gettin’ past the timberwolves,” Applejack said, “but one o’ the Wonderbolts − or one o’ them Shadowbolts − sent down a lightnin’ bolt that set that part of Everfree ablaze. All manner o’ creatures ran about, tryin’ t’ save their own skins. We jus’ galloped straight fer the ravine.”
“The fire had weakened several of the trees just at the edge of the ravine, and we managed to cross on one tree that had… rather precariously set itself between the cliff-faces,” Rarity added.
“And then we brought you here,” Fluttershy finished, withdrawing behind her mane.
Twilight closed her eyes, trying to sift through all of this information. Her head was still hurting terribly after hitting it during her one-on-one battle with NightMare Moon, and the influx of sudden information had not done her any favors.
Still, these five had risked hide and hair to make sure she and the Elements had returned safely to Ponyville.
“I’m… grateful,” she began slowly. “Really, I really am grateful. I never would have made it out of there without you five there for me.”
Spike and the five mares smiled at Twilight; even Nurse Redheart, who had retreated towards the door during the tale of their trek out of the Everfree, allowed a small smile to grace her soft features.
“But,” Twilight added, and six pairs of eyes widened slightly; Rainbow Dash narrowed hers. “If someponies hadn’t been trying to make friends with me all day long, or thrown a stupid little party that kept me from concentrating for a single nanosecond, I might have actually been able to do the research that I needed to do to figure out how these Maker-forsaken Elements of Harmony actually worked!”
As Twilight’s tirade progressed, the faces of each of her companions gradually changed. Spike’s face showed growing heartbreak, Rarity and Applejack’s showed progressing guilt, Rainbow Dash’s glower intensified, Fluttershy withdrew further and further behind her mane, and Pinkie Pie started to lose her color, literally. Nurse Redheart awkwardly chose this moment to slip out of the door and into the hospital hallway.
“If I could have just figured that out, then NightMare Moon would have been out of all of our manes! But now, because nopony can just take studying first, the Elements of Harmony are… are…”
Twilight realized that she was crying, her eyes trained on the shards of white rock laying at the side of her bed. Her chest rose and fell unevenly as the horrid truth began to sink in.
The Elements of Harmony were gone.
As was Queen Celestia.
NightMare Moon had won.
The Sun would never rise again.
“The world is doomed…” Twilight sobbed, her ears flopping against the sides of her head, her eyes clenched shut. “Mom… Dad… I’m sorry…”
“As much as I appreciate your being so upfront with us and all that hay,” Rainbow Dash said flatly, flapping up to Twilight, “You’re being a bit of a nag.”
Twilight winced at Rainbow Dash’s language.
“Did you really…” said a meek and soft voice, but Fluttershy was not speaking. Twilight realized with a start that the one who was talking was Pinkie Pie. She had no idea that the pink mare could talk so softly. But she wasn’t pink right now; she was a pale blue. Her ears were completely slack against the sides of her head, and her mane and tail had lost much of their frizz and became merely curly. Twilight could not imagine a sadder or more defeated-looking mare.
“Did you really hate my party…?” Pinkie whimpered with quivering lips, tears leaking from her eyes.
Twilight’s mind could not process how Pinkie did some of the things she did in even the short time they’d known each other, and right now, with how numb her mind was after being unconscious for two days straight, she did not want to deal with something like this.
“I… I wouldn’t hate it, but… That was no time for a party…” she said weakly, treading softly in case she set Pinkie off even further. “I needed to find out more about the Elements of Harmony, and now…”
“If you’ll be begging my pardon, darling,” Rarity cut in, adding a slightly sarcastic edge to the word darling, “I think it’s a bit too soon to be considering this situation a hopeless one.”
“Really…?” asked Pinkie hopefully, her slack mane and tail beginning to curl up and return to a rosy hue again. Her tears ceased as the corners of her mouth turned up in a shadow of a smile.
“Well, we may perhaps have a party that Twilight Sparkle here will find enjoyable, but I was more thinking along the lines of… the Elements.” Rarity gestured a cloven hoof at the Element shards. “How do you know that they have become impotent just from being shattered? How were they created?”
Twilight sniffled. “Well… Queen Celestia always hinted that she and the Queen of the Night had worked together to create the Elements, but…”
“There you have it,” Rarity said with a flourish of her hoof. “Perhaps the Elements’ physical vessels can be destroyed, but not the Elements themselves. They are the greatest magic in Equestria, are they not?”
A shoot of hope blossomed in Twilight’s chest. “They are.”
“And they could not be unmade so easily, could they?”
“Not when you put it like that.”
“So now that we can reasonably assume that these Elements,” Rarity levitated the shards of one Element in her periwinkle dwimmer shimmer, “are not so easily destructible, perhaps we can do some research into how to remake their vessels…?”
“And make them usable again!” Twilight declared, standing up on all fours atop the hospital bed. She must have been projecting such an aura of joy that Pinkie Pie leapt into the air and reverted to her bright pink joyous self once again with a joyous Whee-hee~.
“The Elements are an immutable thaumaturgical force, bound into physical vessels by the Queens of the Day and Night,” Twilight explained very quickly. “If we can study the thaumaturgical properties of the Elements themselves, then we can hypothesize how best to magically repair the vessels themselves. And the only way to do that is…” Twilight rested on her haunches and clapped her forehooves triumphantly. “Research trip!”
Spike planted his face in one of his claws, and four of the five mares with Twilight tilted their heads to the side.
“Whee!” Pinkie leapt into the air, wiggling her hooves and floating in the air for a fraction of a second. “Can we throw a pre-research trip party?”
Twilight hesitated for a split-second, then replied simply, “Sure, why not?”
Pinkie squealed with such high glee that Twilight half-seriously pondered if she would reach a pitch too high for ponies to hear.
“So, by ‘research trip’, you mean… leavin’ Ponyville?” Applejack asked. “Fer… how long?”
“That depends on how easily we can track down information on the Elements of Harmony,” Twilight explained. “Before we officially declare this research trip, I say that we thoroughly scour the Golden Oak Library and―”
“’We’?” Rainbow Dash echoed. “Whatever happened to the whole ’I work alone’ bit just now? I thought we’d just get in your way.”
Twilight huffed through her nose.
“Like it or not, we have to work together,” she said levelly, as much to herself as the others. “Seven pairs of eyes can scour an oak tree’s worth of books faster than two.”
“I pair up with Rarity!” squeaked Spike, raising a claw eagerly. Rarity gave a light ladylike chuckle.
Twilight laughed to herself, Pinkie echoing it for no real reason.
“Alright, Spike. But remember that we’re looking for information on the Elements of Harmony. You can study anatomy later.”
While Spike tilted an eyebrow in confusion, Rainbow Dash, Applejack and Pinkie Pie let out uproarious whinnies of laughter. Rarity sniffed with disdain at such a colorful joke (though her muzzle did scrunch up somewhat), and Fluttershy withdrew behind her mane with a fierce blush.
“Whoo-boy, Twilight!” choked Applejack between guffaws. “Ah didn’t know you told jokes like that!”
“Talk about your off-color jokes!” Rainbow Dash snorted.
“You’re worth a hoot and a half, Twilight!” Pinkie snickered.
Following Twilight’s checkup the morning after, wherein the nurses and doctor found little that they could do apart from insisting that Twilight Sparkle maintain an easygoing schedule and not strain herself, the six mares and the dragon cub found themselves on the dirt streets of a Ponyville under NightMare Moon’s selenic reign. The shattered remains of the five Elements were each kept in the saddle-bags of Twilight’s five companions.
Even with Twilight’s heliogenesis spell, the sky was not as brightly lit as on a pre-NightMare Moon day. It was only about as bright as day in a very small radius around the facsimile sun, quickly dropping off to dusk-levels of darkness before it even reached the other side of the sky from the early-morning sun. Still, it was warm enough, and that was what mattered most. Passing through the unpaved roads of Ponyville, the group of seven met up with many mares, stallions and foals, all of whom greeted and were greeted in turn by Twilight’s companions by name, and offered their deepest and sincerest thanks to Twilight for her replacement Sun.
Reaching the Gazebo, Twilight stopped by her parents, using her dwimmer shimmer to take up the watering can between them and giving a generous watering to them both. Agaves and cacti were water-retaining plants, so admittedly they did not need quite as much water, but they definitely needed as much sunlight as she could muster. She knelt down, embracing the pots holding her parents.
“I swear, Mom, Dad,” she said softly, “I’ll bring back the Sun, and bring you two back.”
Looking up, Twilight’s heart soared at the bright sign hanging up over the agave & cactus. It read in bright paint Please Water Twilight Sparkle’s Parents, If You Have The Time!. Somepony actually took the time to make this, and raise such awareness of her parents’ needs…
“Wh-who made this sign?” she said, tears running down her smiling muzzle.
Pinkie leapt into the air. “It was me, me, me! It was me all over! But it was all Rarity’s idea!” Pinkie gestured with feathery hooves towards the alabaster Unicorn. Rarity raised a hoof up to cover her blush, failing badly at doing so.
“I-it was nothing, really, dear,” she said quickly. “I just thought, it’s such a shame Twilight’s not awake to water her parents, and then, Inspiration struck! I simply could not let such a dear friend of mine take such a heartrending task upon herself, and so I asked Pinkie Pie if she could aid me in this endeavor. And, if you look closely at your parents’ pots, I think you’ll see a little something extra.”
Taking a second glance down at the pots, Twilight sunk onto her haunches as her forehooves covered her mouth, lest she let out a sob of gratitude. Each pot had been itself placed in a slightly wider and thicker pot, each one decorated with Twilight’s cutie mark. The agave’s new pot read Twilight Sparkle’s mother in loopy dwimmer-writing, and the cactus’s new pot read Twilight Sparkle’s father in the same.
Twilight faced Rarity, trotting slowly towards her, her mane shadowing her eyes. Rarity took an involuntary step back; was this too much?
But Twilight threw her hooves around Rarity, sobbing into the alabaster Unicorn’s shoulder.
“Thank you,” she mumbled over and over again. Rarity patted a hoof on Twilight’s back. After a minute or so, Twilight pulled away.
“But… how did you know which plant was my mother and which was my father?”
Rarity winked slyly. “A mare’s intuition.”
Twilight wiped a tear away. “How can I ever repay you for this?”
Rarity waved a hoof firmly in the air. “Think nothing of repayment, my dear. It was the least I could do for such a dear friend.”
There it is again, Twilight thought wearily behind her grateful smile. Why in Harmonia does she want to still be my friend after all of the horse-apples I’ve been putting them through?
The seven reached the Golden Oak Library in no time, though admittedly it would have been slightly faster had they not been stopped every five paces by somepony wanted to shake Twilight’s hoof for her Sun. Regardless, they reached the Library just shy of eleven o’clock ante-meridian, so they had a good few hours left in the “day” before the false Sun had set, and the growing cold of the everlasting night set in.
In the main room of the library, Twilight − with Spike at her side − turned to face the five mares who’d followed her here.
“Alright, everypony,” she said sharply. “We need to put a stop to NightMare Moon’s nighttime eternal as quickly as equinely possible. And to do that, we’re going to need to peruse every single one of these books.” She stamped a hoof on the ground to emphasize each word. “It doesn’t matter how trivial or insignificant you think it is (unless it’s fiction); we need to find any information that we can get on the Elements of Harmony. If we all search together, surely we can find something.”
The party split up into pairs − Twilight and Applejack, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy, Rarity and Spike; Pinkie hopped between each of the three pairs − and each pair took a bookshelf. It was clear from the beginning that this would be a tedious test of patience (especially for Rainbow Dash), but the prospect was not made any easier by seeing just how many books there were to peruse. Since they did not want to chance missing a thing, simply glancing at a page would not suffice. They would have to carefully scan every page of every book in the library to see if they could find anything on the Elements of Harmony.
After the first hour, even Twilight Sparkle had to admit that all of the fun had left this exercise. By her own admission, this was not meant to be an enjoyable exercise, but there was only so much reading that one pony could do. Even Spike’s attempts to woo Rarity were only met by curt remarks that there were more important things to deal with presently than her birthday, her favorite color, her favorite flower, her favorite type of music, what she looked for in a special somepony, and the like.
Mercifully, their search was ended by the discovery of a slip of parchment between Elements of Good Cooking and Emerging Force of Will: A Guide on How to be Assertive. Pinkie Pie was the one to find it, squealing It was under ‘E’~ as she waved it about between her forehooves.
Twilight took the note in her dwimmer shimmer, reading it aloud for her companions.
My deareſt and moſt faithful ſtudent Twilight Sparkle,
I can only hope that you followed your inſtincts and ſearched here in the ‘E’ ſection of the Golden Oak Library firſt, and ſpared yourſelf a headache. Even in the most modeſt of libraries, an alphabetical ſearch for ſpecific ſubject matter can be egregious.
I will mince no words: you will not find anything on the Elements out here in Ponyville. I have a perſonal journal regarding the nature of each of the ſix Elements, and how each is activated, but I have taken care to conceal it outſide of Canterlot, for fear that NightMare Moon would ſee it deſtroyed. Where, I cannot ſay, in caſe this meßage is intercepted. So, I inſtead leave you with theſe laſt few words:
Stay vigilant, my little pony. Too many in Canterlot lack the reſolve that you do to stand up to adverſity. Under NightMare Moon, you will find many enemies. Do not let your ſpirit falter. I have high hopes for you. Ever ſince I brought you under my wing, you have been my beacon of hope. Stay ſtrong.
Of courſe, you muſt keep your friends at your ſide. Never let them out of your heart.
Ponies have ſtrong hearts, my beloved pupil. Under the most adverſe conditions, they can ſtill ſtand ſtrong. Nothing holds higher admiration in my heart. Do not doubt them. All ponies have great capacity for goodneſs. Many do bad things, to be fair, but only when they are angry or ſcared. In time, even the blackeſt heart ſhines with light. Let your friends carry your burden if you find it too great. I aßure you they will not falter. Adverſity brings out the beſt in a true friend.
Calm your mind, and do not puſh them away. Unleſs we ſtand in unity, we will crumble in the night. Learn to make friends. Truſt in them. Unlooſe the bonds on your heart. Rest eaſy, do not ruſh, and take care. Eventually, I know that you will learn the magic of friendship.
Your ever hopeful mentor,
Queen Celeſtia Apolinaria di Equeſtria
Twilight twisted the parchment in her dwimmer shimmer. There was nothing on the back. Queen Celestia may have taken quill to this paper in the hopes of alleviating Twilight’s tension; it was clear now that there was nothing related to the Elements of Harmony or NightMare Moon out here in Ponyville. But if anything, this just made her quest seem even more hopeless; she was trapped in a world of everlasting night, her mentor the Queen was imprisoned, she had no way of reversing what had unfolded, and everypony wanted her to make friends with everypony in the entire universe.
Maybe it was something in the message that Twilight was missing. Perhaps the Queen’s message that Philomena delivered that had given Twilight an added degree of insight, but maybe… just maybe…
“I think the Queen’s hidden a message in this letter as well!” she said brightly.
Rainbow Dash groaned. “What’s with all the hidden meanings with Queen Celestia all of a sudden?”
“I would think it prudent to obfuscate the message,” Rarity said sharply, “in case it falls into the wrong hoofs.”
Rainbow Dash crossed her forearms. “It’s still stupid.”
Twilight had placed the note on the table in the middle of the room, just under the wooden bust of Smart Cookie, one of Equestria’s six founders over two-and-a-half-dozen-gross years ago. Producing a quill, she carefully looked over the letter again, writing a letter in the corner intermittently. After a minute, she smiled brightly.
“As I thought. It was an acrostic!”
“A what?” the six other echoed.
“A coded message where the real message is concealed in the first letter of each sentence,” she explained. “It’s simple, but her previous message tipped me off to the hidden message she could have made in this letter!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Rainbow Dash muttered. “So what’s the message?”
“Studies on Pundamilia Culture.”
Silence greeted Twilight. For a moment.
“The Study of What-now?” Applejack asked.
“It’s a book on the study of the cultures of Zebras,” explained Twilight, eyebrows furrowed slightly in consternation that nopony else knew that. “It was written a long time ago by Masquerade, a noted historian, and it can only be found in the most upscale of libraries. I doubt we’d find it here, but… It can’t hurt to check.”
A quick perusal of the ‘S’ section made it quite plain that there was no copy of Studies on Pundamilia Culture in the library’s stores.
“Now what do we do?” Fluttershy asked meekly.
“Now,” Twilight said with every degree of confidence, “I simply wink out to the Royal Canterlot Archives, get their copy of Studies on Pundamilia Culture, check either page 25 or Chapter 25, and see what hidden messages I can decipher from the text.”
Twilight’s alicorn began to twinkle with her pink dwimmer shimmer, the spell matrices lining up in her mind to wink out to her favorite reading spot in the Royal Canterlot Archives…
And she felt a violent jolt shooting down from the tip of her alicorn all the way to her brain stem, as though she had just galloped at full speed into a steel wall. Her body quaked feverishly, both forehooves clasping at her horn as she fell to her chest.
Spike ran up to Twilight, trying to help her up. “Are you alright?”
“Wards…” she muttered through clenched teeth, tears of pain streaking down from closed eyes. “NightMare Moon must have set up anti-winking wards around Canterlot.”
“Oh my…” Fluttershy gasped.
“So now what do we do?” Rainbow Dash growled.
“There’s only one thing we can do:” Twilight said decisively, stamping a hoof on the ground. “Approach Canterlot on hoof, sneak into the Royal Archives, and sneak a peek at the Studies on Pundamilia Culture!”
“Twilight,” Rarity cut in, waving a hoof to get Twilight’s attention. “If I may ask, isn’t there, perhaps, a more… easily accessible copy of this ‘Studies on Pundamilia Culture’?”
“I’m afraid not, Rarity. That’s the only copy of the book that I’m aware of. It’s very rare, and has a very long backorder time.”
At this, Rarity withdrew her hoof, using it to nervously brush her mane.
“But… walking to Canterlot… It could take days. Away from home. Away from all my amenities. I’ll become simply unpresentable.” Rainbow Dash and Applejack both planted their faces in their hooves. “Why… I might even… grow a… b-b-b-b-b-b-beard.”
Awkward silence hung over the library room for several seconds. Applejack and Rainbow Dash bit their respective lower lips, trying not to laugh. Fluttershy’s eyes widened and her lips drew taut in some sort of distraught emotion, and Pinkie Pie rubbed her own chin pensively.
Twilight knitted her eyebrows.
“Rarity, all Unicorns grow beards, even the mares,” she said matter-of-factly. “Even I’m growing a beard, look.” She pointed at the sapphire stubble on her own muzzle, having not shaved since the night before she left for Ponyville, a pink streak of stubble running directly down the middle of her chin.
“But you don’t understand!” Rarity hissed frantically. This seemed to be a genuinely big deal for her. “My facial hair… It clashes completely with my mane and tail. It is absolutely untamable in every meaning of the word. I would find it unbearable to present myself at the gates of Canterlot with the appearance of a vagabond! Oh, woe is me!” On those last three words, Rarity threw a forehoof to her forehead and reared onto her hind legs dramatically.
“Then bring a razor!” Rainbow Dash said bluntly. “We’ve got bigger things to worry about than making sure our facial hair matches our forelocks!” For good measure, she flipped her forelock as she finished her sentence.
Twilight sighed, stroking her stubble with her forearm.
“Bring a razor if you must, Rarity,” she said. “But we have to travel light. Don’t being anything more than what you need. We’ll live off of grass and dew if we have to, but we have to get that book!”
“If ya don’t mind mah askin’, Twilight,” Applejack asked, “what in the wide world of Equestria is so important about that book?”
“Yeah,” agreed Rainbow Dash, her forelegs folded. “I mean, it’s not like Zebra rhymes are the way to fix these Elements.”
Twilight scowled slightly at Rainbow Dash’s slight at Zebra poetry.
“Maybe not, but Queen Celestia may have hidden a message in there that has information we need related to the Elements of Harmony.”
Her eyes settled on each pony in turn: Applejack, with her scars and Stetson; Rainbow Dash, with her cocky arch to the eyebrows; Rarity, with her sleek coat; Fluttershy, with her meek turn of the head to hide behind her mane; and Pinkie Pie, with her bouncy mane and indomitable joy. Twilight reached down to Spike, who took her hoof in his claw.
“I’m leaving Spike in your care, while I go and get the Studies on Pundamilia Culture.”
Spike wasn’t the only one who said it; each and every one of the five mares in front of Twilight said it at varying degrees of volume and length.
“No way am I letting you go off like that without me, Mom! …Err, Twilight. I waited right by your bed in the hospital the minute that they brought you in, and I don’t want to see you like that again! I’m going with you, wherever you go, from now on!”
Spike said all of this with more of a fortitude that Twilight had ever heard out of her drake ward. She did not doubt that he was a strong-willed little dragon, but this was different from refusing to go to sleep at your usual bedtime. This was a quest, one fraught with peril and dangers that could very well take your life. As confused as Twilight was as to what Spike meant to her, she knew that she couldn’t put his life at risk.
“Spike,” she said softly, “I really appreciate it, but I can’t let you get hurt. That’s why I want you to stay with Applejack and the others until I’ve returned. That’s the safest place you can be.”
“But I’d feel safer with you!” Spike hugged her foreleg.
Twilight was confused; exactly who was trying to keep who safe?
“Sugarcube,” began Applejack, stepping forward towards the table, “Ah understand ya mean well, but Ah reckon yer tryin’ t’ shoulder a burden that’s too big for ya.”
“We followed you into the Everfree,” continued Rainbow Dash. “I think that that kinda makes us enemies of NightMare Moon, too.”
“It would make me feel just awful if I couldn’t do what I can to help,” Fluttershy added, shadowing Rainbow Dash.
“I would be remiss to let you undertake such a task on your own,” Rarity said, trotting to stand alongside Fluttershy.
“And you’re gonna need me to help keep your frowns upside-down!” Pinkie gleefully squealed, pronking back and forth behind the other four.
Twilight locked eyes with each of the five mares sharing the room with her. Each one wore a hopeful smile upon their muzzles. Looking down, Twilight saw Spike smiling hopefully as well. Smiling down at her only friend, Twilight nuzzled him gently, before slowly looking up at the other mares.
“You don’t have to do this.”
“Like hay we don’t!” Applejack said sharply, stomping a hoof. “Yer our friend, and we’re stickin’ to ya like apple butter to Fancy toast!”
“You wouldn’t have made it out of Everfree on your own, and that was before NightMare Moon took over Canterlot!” Rainbow Dash added.
“I would simply not be able to live with myself if I let you go alone,” said Rarity.
“I’m afraid I’ll just get in the way,” Fluttershy said, “but I would really rather be there to help you… if that’s okay with you…”
“Everypony needs a laugh and a smile!” Pinkie cheered.
Twilight blinked. Earlier, she’d thought that she was better off without these ponies who seemed to want to be her friends simply for the sake of being her friends. But now, after all that they’d had to say, and all that she had seen them do, she realized that their efforts were not simply selfish. They were genuinely looking out for her. Ordinarily, she would not have cared that their care was genuine, but a fire had been kindled in her heart on realizing the care these ponies showed for her parents.
Twilight found herself smiling.
“If you girls really want to come with me, there’s something we’ll all have to do.”
It turned out that Pinkie Pie’s home was a large two-story home, with a loft, that looked more like it was made out of gingerbread than wood. The tiled roof was the exact shade of milk chocolate, detailed with what looked exactly like white frosting. One of the rafters at the top bore a weathervane shaped like a pony holding a candy cane in its forelegs. The loft, clearly added later on, was shaped like a cupcake decorated with pink icing, three purple stalks at the top alight with lanterns posing as larger-than-life birthday candles. Twilight marveled at the candy-cane pillars flanking the front door before Pinkie kicked in the front door with a forehoof, the door ricocheting off of a set of springs.
Her parents must have gotten used to that, Twilight thought, looking about the store-space that made up what once had to be a living room. There was a fragrance of freshly baked cookies in the air, and Twilight was instantly transported to her fillyhood days, with her beloved Smarty Pants doll at her side, snagging her mother’s cookies from the cookie jar.
“I’m hooo~ome!” Pinkie called out in a song-like tone, bringing Twilight back to the present.
An Earth Pony couple emerged from the door to the kitchen. The male of the pair was tall and gangly, while his wife was short and plump, though a certain tautness of her belly told Twilight that she was expecting. The stallion had a bright-yellow coat, a brilliantly orange mane, orange freckles, and an underbite. The mare had a dark-pink mane that swirled not unlike the icing on a cupcake, and a light-cerulean coat. The stallion’s eyes were deep-green, and his cutie mark was a set of three carrot cakes. The mare had a cutie mark of three cupcakes, pale-pink baubles dangling from her ears, and bright pink eyes.
Between the pair of them, though they put on joyous airs, Twilight couldn’t help but to note a slight air of fear about the two. She could understand why; the false Sun would not last forever, and they perhaps feared Mrs. Pie foaling under an eternal night.
“Welcome home, Pinkie!” said the stallion, he and his wife bringing up a foreleg each as Pinkie dived into a hug. Twilight felt a tug at her heartstrings; her own parents had not been able to hug her like that in almost twelve years.
The mare looked over Pinkie’s shoulder at Twilight, and smiled. “I suppose you are Pinkie’s new friend, Twilight Sparkle from Canterlot?”
“Yes, I am, Mrs. Pie,” replied Twilight.
Pinkie and the baker mare and stallion gave Twilight a peculiar look for a moment, then Pinkie began to laugh uproariously, rolling around on the floor. The baker couple laughed far more sheepishly, and Twilight suddenly felt her face flushing.
“We’re not Pinkie’s parents, dear,” the mare said with a wave of a fluffy fetlock. “We employ her and fill her living space.”
“But she’s as dear to us as any daughter,” said the stallion, resting his head on top of Pinkie’s, who returned the hug with rib-crushing force, if his bulging eyes were any indication.
“I love you too, Daddy Carrot Cake!”
The mare cleared her throat.
“My name is Cup Cake, and this is my husband, Carrot Cake − Pinkie, dear, would you kindly let him go? He needs to breathe − thank you. And we are the proprietors and founders of this confectionery-slash-bakery: Sugarcube Corner!”
After this came Twilight’s more proper introductions of herself and Spike to Mrs. and Mr. Cake, which led them into the Cakes’ living quarters behind the store-space and the kitchen. There, the party explained to the Cakes the endeavor that Twilight was going to undertake and which Pinkie was going to join her on.
“And we’re gonna throw a pre-research party to boot!” Pinkie piped in as Twilight finished her explanation to the Cakes. “Think you can swing some of the usual party cakes, cupcakes, carrot cakes, pound cakes, pumpkin cakes―”
“Pinkie,” Mr. Cake said quickly, waving a hoof at Pinkie. “I think we can handle a bit of a big order. Though, we’ll have to be careful with our flour after this. We can expect a bit of a decline in buying flour now that…”
“Now that the night’s fallen,” finished Mrs. Cake darkly.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Cake,” Twilight said in what she hoped was a sympathetic tone. “With any luck, the Sun will be back soon, and your business will flourish again.”
“And you can’t spell ‘flourish’ without ‘flour’~!” Pinkie said brightly, bouncing up to the ceiling. The Cakes smiled up at her, and Twilight couldn’t help but to crack a smirk too. What’s wrong with me…? Twilight thought. It’s not like I think of these ponies as friends or anything… She tried to ignore Spike’s snickering directed at her smirk.
Fluttershy’s home was a small cottage beyond the edge of Ponyville, not even a minute’s trot away from the Everfree Forest. A stone bridge crossed the creek − perhaps the Everfree was not as close to the house when it was first built? − and an unpaved road led from the bridge to a low wooden fence, encircling a cottage with a small field, and in that field were a chicken coop and a small gardening shed.
“You live alone, Fluttershy?” Twilight asked.
“Oh no, of course not,” Fluttershy replied, smiling softly. “I live with some of my very best friends.”
“Really?” Twilight said in bemusement, looking to the cottage. It really looked too small for more than two or three ponies.
“Oh yes,” affirmed Fluttershy. “I couldn’t possibly let so many bunnies, mice, rats, cats, dogs, bats and such go without a safe place to go to so close to the Everfree.”
A large shape lurched by one of the trees, and Twilight gave a start, diving in front of Fluttershy.
“It’s a bear! Run, you guys. I’ll distract it!”
But Fluttershy fluttered right past Twilight, raising a hoof towards the bear. Before Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer could envelop Fluttershy and snap her away from the beast, the bear actually leaned in to Fluttershy’s hoof and began to growl in pleasure as she scratched the top of his head.
“You’re just a big old softie, aren’t you?” Fluttershy said gently to the bear.
Twilight took a step back, wondering if Fluttershy had lost her mind, and also what she could possibly do to get Fluttershy away from the bear before it mauled her. Before she could make up her mind, though, Rainbow Dash put a hoof on her shoulder.
“Cool your wings there, bookworm,” Rainbow Dash smirked. “As crazy as it sounds, she’s got this.”
“B-b-but… it’s a bear!”
“Yeah. A bear with killer cravings for porridge. And believe me, Fluttershy cooks it just right.”
Twilight stared in awe at the bear as it lowered itself onto all fours, then its belly, as Fluttershy rubbed a hoof on its forehead. The yellow Pegasus was letting out a low growl in a melodious rhythm that sounded more like a purr. The bear certainly seemed harmless enough now, but…
“But… how did you know that that bear liked porridge to begin with?” Twilight sputtered.
Fluttershy removed her hoof from the bear’s forehead − its paws curled contentedly at the grass − and looked to Twilight with a deeply loving smile.
“I didn’t,” she said softly. “I just saw this poor little thing at the edge of the Everfree, and he looked positively starved. Although, he did lash out at me…” Fluttershy looked down at four large, deep claw marks on her left flank, across her cutie mark, and Twilight winced as she realized how the yellow Pegasus got those scars. “But I knew he didn’t mean it. Harry here tells me that he just lost a fight against an urstrix.”
“You call him Harry?”
“He calls himself Harry. But I offered him my porridge if he would spare me. I know that bears don’t normally eat porridge, but… he just looked so hungry…”
“You were going to feed an animal that very well could haven eaten you? What if he just ate you after that?”
Fluttershy’s smile never faltered, and her sweet tone stayed completely unchanged as she retorted, “I would have been glad to know that my last act on this good earth was an act of kindness.”
To this, Twilight had no reply.
“And it worked out in any case.” Fluttershy looked back to Harry the Bear, smiling sweetly down at the bear, who waved at Fluttershy with a floppy paw. “He really is a big sweetie. All I did was give him a bowl of porridge, and he’s been such a help in keeping harmony off here at the edge of Ponyville. He helps me get honey for Ponyville, too; Everbee honey is some of the best in all of Equestria.”
“That’s amazing, Fluttershy!” piped up Spike excitedly. “You can tame anything!”
Fluttershy’s ears drooped slightly, withdrawing behind her mane slightly. “Oh, um… I wouldn’t quite say anything… I’ve always had trouble with ravens…”
Deciding to not press Fluttershy down a path she was uncomfortable with, Twilight brusquely changed subjects.
“You said you live with friends. Who are they?”
At this change of subject, Fluttershy perked up.
“Oh! I live with my friend Angel Bunny − he’s a bunny-rabbit − and the Mouse family, and all sorts of different birds, and badgers, and raccoons, and hedgehogs, and porcupines.” She fluttered into the air, her eyes closed in glee. “Oh, my heart is fluttering just thinking about them!”
Twilight’s eye twitched.
“Those are pets, Fluttershy, not friends.”
“Maybe you think that,” Fluttershy replied, and Twilight gave a start at the sudden sharp edge to Fluttershy’s tone, “but I see each animal as an individual. I don’t see them as pets.”
“I − I’m sorry,” Twilight said hastily, quailing under Fluttershy’s intense stare. “I didn’t know you felt that way.”
Fluttershy’s eyes softened. “It’s okay, Twilight. You just didn’t know. Shall I introduce you to all of my friends?”
Twilight shrugged a forehoof. “I might as well. A few more friends can’t hurt.”
“Angel Bunny is a complete dockhead.” Twilight muttered as the party left Fluttershy’s cottage.
“Oh, I’m sure he didn’t mean to throw that carrot at your head, Twilight,” Fluttershy said gently, fluttering just over Twilight’s shoulder. “I’m positive that his paw slipped.”
“Six times in two minutes?”
“Well… maybe once or twice. But once you get to know him, Angel Bunny is a real sweetheart.”
Twilight sincerely doubted it, but as they were still quite within earshot of Fluttershy’s cottage, she held her tongue and set her trot towards Ponyville proper once more. Her generated Sun was at about high noon.
The animals who lived in Fluttershy’s cottage − specifically, Angel Bunny, a family of five mice, four robins, three bluebirds, seven sparrows, five pigeons, six ferrets, three badgers, four hedgehogs and two porcupines − had all listened in on the explanation that Fluttershy would be away for an indeterminate amount of time. This was when the first carrot struck Twilight in the face. Angel smiled innocently, but the carrot always seemed to “slip” from the white rabbit’s paw whenever Twilight mentioned the idea of Fluttershy leaving.
The animals had started a protestful din, but Fluttershy chirped, cheaped, twittered, chittered and squeaked to each in turn that she was not going to be away forever, and it was to bring back the real Sun. It was around this point that the last carrot “slipped” from Angel’s hand onto Twilight’s muzzle.
“I suppose we could stop by my parents’ place on the way to Sweet Apple Acres,” Rarity added, once they’d passed between the two homes at the edge of Ponyville. Passing by were a gray Pegasus mare, a chestnut Earth Pony stallion, and their pale-purple Unicorn filly. “It’s not terribly far from Sugarcube Corner. We could perhaps have gone there first, but I imagine that Fluttershy needed to tend to her animals.”
“Thank you for your consideration, Rarity,” smiled Fluttershy.
“What about your house, Rainbow Dash?” Twilight asked pointedly.
Rainbow gave a nervous chuckle. “My place is way on the other side of Ponyville from Sweet Apple Acres. And besides, you non-Pegasus guys would have to figure out how to walk on clouds to drop by.”
“Well, there is the cumulatory spell―”
Rainbow Dash sneezed violently, in a manner that sounded suspiciously like Egghead!.
Twilight scowled, and Pinkie Pie trilled, “Geshundheit~”
The home that Rarity’s folks lived in was at the end of a cul-de-sac leading off from Sugarcube Corner. It was surprisingly… homely for a home that Rarity Belle grew up in. Indeed, Rarity seemed to have slunk quite low to the ground, trying to remain unseen as she approached the house. Twilight raised an eyebrow, but then recalled Rarity’s haute-couture accent and almost regal manestyle.
Her ears flat against her head, Rarity trembled as she raised a hoof to the door. She hesitated for a long, long moment. Pinkie whispered in Twilight’s ear, “Do you think she knows how to knock?”
Finally screwing her courage to the sticking-place, Rarity tapped faintly at the door, before huddling against it, trying to remain as small and unassuming as possible.
The door swung open, revealing a beefy Earth Pony stallion with Rarity’s white coat, a faded brown mane and mustache, and three hoofballs for a cutie mark. He was wearing a collared shirt, navy-blue, decorated with horribly clashing white and yellow flowers. Though his coat was the same shade as his daughter’s, his had a rather uncared-for quality to it, starkly different from Rarity’s expertly cared-for coat.
“Well, buck me ta the goalposts and call me a figskin!” He had a very pronounced Chicacolt accent, so unlike Rarity’s. He pulled her up with his faded brown hooves and pulled her into a tight hug. “I didn’t know you were droppin’ by just in time fer Sweetie to git home, Rares!”
“Really, now, Father…” Rarity gasped out.
It was at this point that Rarity’s father noticed the five other mares and dragon cub on his doorstep, and loosened his grip slightly. Rarity slid to the doormat in numb shock.
“If I may ask, who th’hay’re these ponies, Rarity?”
Rarity, picking herself up, dusting off her coat as best she could, gestured towards her father.
“Everypony, this is my father, Hondo Flanks.” There was the slightest hesitation before she said her father’s name.
“But my Sunday mornin’ quarterbackin’ posse also knows me as ‘Magnum’!” he cut in with a cheeky grin.
Trying to ignore her father’s lack of classiness, Rarity pointed to each of the five mares in turn.
“Of course you’ve heard of my spa friend Fluttershy − ” Fluttershy withdrew behind her mane. “ − and there’s also Rainbow Dash − ” Rainbow did a loop-de-loop. “ − Applejack − ” Applejack crossed her right legs in front of her left. “ − Pinkie Pie − ” Pinkie pronked twice. “ − Twilight Sparkle from Canterlot − ” Twilight waved sheepishly, giving a very faint smile.
“And I’m Spike!” Spike cut in, pushing his way towards Rarity and her father, putting on rather obvious airs as a gentlecolt. “And might I say, Mr. Rarity’s Father, that you have a very lovely daughter.”
Rarity gave a light lady laugh. “Oh Spike, you flatterer!”
Hondo let out a nasally laugh, and Twilight saw Rarity’s nose wrinkle at the sound of it. He leaned down to Rarity’s ear and whispered in a mock-conspiratory tone, “Looks like ya’ve got yourself an admirer, Rares.”
“Really, Father,” Rarity said with a dismissive wave of her hoof, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Twilight had a very good idea that Rarity was putting on airs.
“Hondo?” called a mare’s voice with a strong New Jennet accent. “Is there someone out there?”
“Rares’s back with some friends a hers,” Hondo called back into the house.
“Really?” the voice said excitedly. “Well, let ‘em in, Flankie! There’s still some a Sweetie’s Rose Velvet Cake left over from last night.”
Rarity put on a forced smile. “I… wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
They entered the home, and it was plain all the more why Rarity made it such an issue as to avoid being seen entering into this house. The home’s homeliness was only greater on the inside, and the interior design was severely lacking, even to somepony with such a novice idea of interior design as Twilight Sparkle. A Unicorn mare, short and round, was standing near the kitchen doorway. She had her purple mane, identical to Rarity’s in color but not in sheen, in a tall beehive behind her horn. Her coat was a light pink, and she wore a pair of large pale-yellow baubles in her ears.
“Well, come on in to the dining room!” she said in her New Jennet accent. “Dinner’s just about ready! It’s yer favorite, Rarity: spaghetti, with lotsa oregano!”
“Sounds… lovely,” replied Rarity, sitting on her haunches at the modest dining table, her mother stirring the cooking pot with a skimmer in her mouth. From this angle, Twilight could see that her cutie mark was of three choco-chip cookies, one with a bite out of it. After a few moments, Rarity turned to her friends, seated awkwardly around the cramped dinner table, and gestured towards the cooking mare. “And this is my mother, Pearl Bubbles.”
“I sell cookbooks under th’ name ‘Cookie Crumbles’,” Pearl added brightly. “And little Sweetie likes to do summa her mom’s recipes. I’m ever so proud of her! Oh, and that reminds me. Sweetie Belle’s gonna be home from school soon!”
“Already?” Twilight piped in, looking at the clock. “But it’s barely half past eight.”
“Schools’ve been letting out early since you’ve been out,” Rainbow Dash explained. “I guess a lotta parents got worried ‘bout their foals.”
No sooner had Rainbow finished speaking than a small series of knocks came at the front door, before it slid open and a squeaky little filly’s voice chimed in with, “Mommy, Daddy, I’m home!”
Looking through to the living room, Twilight saw a tiny Unicorn filly trotting with short legs around the couch to the dining room. Her coat was sleek and white, just like her big sister Rarity, and her mane and tail were pale-purple with pale-rose highlights, perky and poofy. Her pale-green eyes were bright with youthful energy, and her flank was devoid of a cutie mark.
“C’mere, ya little rascal!” beckoned Hondo, reaching out with a foreleg to wrap his younger daughter in a one-armed hug, nuzzling her mane with his other foreleg. “One a’ these days, yer gonna be too big fer me ta hold like dis!”
“Did Miss Cheerilee walk you home, Sweetie?” asked Pearl.
“I did, Mrs. Bubbles, don’t you worry,” came a bright mare’s voice from the front door. There, Twilight now noticed, was an Earth Pony mare about her age, slender and yet not frail. Her bouncy pale-rose mane did not quite fall over soft light-green eyes. Cheerilee’s coat was a moderate cerise, and her cutie mark was of three smiling flowers. Curiously, she had pale-rose feathers around her fetlocks; did she have a Pegasus in her immediate family?
“Yer a lifesaver, ya know that, Miss Cheerilee?” Hondo said. “Ya really didn’t have ta take the time out ta walk each filly ‘n’ colt home from school.”
“It’s my job, Mr. Flanks,” Cheerilee explained brightly, “to make sure that every filly and colt learns the joy of knowledge. And I can only do that if each filly and colt is safe and sound.”
“I guess it also helps that our little Sweetie is a regular little angel,” Pearl said as she endearingly ruffled Sweetie’s mane.
Cheerilee chuckled briefly. “I suppose so. Well, take care!” She turned and closed the front door behind her.
“Rarity, isn’t Miss Cheerilee just the greatest teacher ever?” Sweetie said brightly, turning to Rarity with a big smile. Sweetie gave a double-take. “Wait… Rarity?”
Rarity smiled slightly sheepishly. “Long time no see, Sweetie Belle.”
Sweetie Belle let out a high squeal of My big sister’s home! and started bouncing about the room declaiming her adoration of her big sister. Pretty soon, Pinkie Pie joined in, seemingly just for the sake of joining in, pronking along behind her.
Birds of a feather, Twilight thought, before she realized she herself had a smile on her face.
Once they had gotten Sweetie Belle to settle down, they all sat down and helped themselves to Pearl Bubbles’s cooking. Twilight found it quite well-cooked, though Twilight’s mind was not on the cooking, and she doubted Rarity’s was either. After the plates were cleared of spaghetti and sauce, Pearl Bubbles produced from the ice-box a plate laden with some sort of black burnt lump.
“And now fer the dessert: Sweetie Belle’s take on an old family recipe: Rose Velvet Cake!”
Trepidatiously, Twilight sniffed at the pile of black ashes that had been piled onto her plate. Her ears went flat at the sensation of nose-hairs being burnt away, but she noticed that Rarity was eating it without any outward reaction out of the corner of her eye. Sweetie Belle was smiling expectantly at Twilight, who was the only one who had not touched her “slice” of Rose Velvet Cake. Hesitating no longer, Twilight scooped up some with her fork and levitated it towards her mouth.
It tasted exactly like nails. Chewing it slowly, Twilight found it very dry, like she was chewing dirt. Trying to ignore the fact that Pinkie was chowing down as though it was hay from the Elysian Fields, Twilight slowly swallowed.
“It’s good,” she said quickly.
“Really?” Sweetie Belle squeaked.
“What’re you talking about, Twilight?” Rainbow Dash blurted from across the table. “This stuff is just―”
Rarity shoved her hoof into Rainbow Dash’s mouth, glaring daggers at her. It was only after the rainbow-maned Pegasus gave an imperceptible nod that Rarity removed her hoof.
“Wh-what I’m saying is that,” Rainbow Dash said, her nose wrinkled as her eyes darted up and down the table, “this stuff is awesome!”
“It is?” Sweetie Belle repeated excitedly.
“It sure is, sugar,” Pearl said, nuzzling her daughter. She had an excellent poker-face.
Trying not to let herself hurt at the sight of such a loving mother doting on her daughter, Twilight cleared her throat and explained the reason why they had come there. As she explained the situation of the Elements and NightMare Moon to Rarity’s family, Twilight wondered whether she should have brought each of these five’s families to one place and explained it all at once. That, perhaps, would have been more efficient. However, that could lead to potentially more interruptions, and perhaps some families might get into a fight, and that would take precious time in breaking up the fights. As far as Twilight knew, which was precious little, there were no quarrels between the families of these five, but better safe than sorry.
“And yer sure ya thought this all the way thru, Rares?” Hondo asked his older daughter.
“Positive, Father,” she replied. “I simply couldn’t bear to let Twilight go off on such a quest all on her own.”
“And I’ll be there to make sure that Rarity stays safe!” Spike interjected.
Sweetie Belle giggled. “But you’re just a little dragon!”
“Well… I have a big heart!”
“We have faith that you’ll keep our Rarity safe, little guy,” Pearl said softly, tickling under Spike’s chin.
“You will make sure that Opal Essence is taken care of, right?” Rarity asked her parents.
“Sure thing!” squeaked Sweetie Belle. “I’m great with cats!”
Rarity gave a forced smile. “I’m sure you are, dear.”
Rarity let out a none-too-subtle sigh of relief as soon as they left the cul-de-sac. “I daresay, that was a bracing encounter.”
Twilight cocked an eyebrow at Rarity. “Your parents weren’t that bad, Rarity.”
“I would agree to disagree with you on that spell, my dear,” replied the fashionista. “Did you see just how tacky their dress sense was? How can they possibly let themselves show in public?”
“Just be glad that you still have parents,” Twilight said darkly, her ears drooping.
“Oh,” gasped Rarity. “I’m terribly sorry, dear. I didn’t mean to―”
“Don’t worry about me, Rarity,” Twilight interrupted. “I’ll fix the problem of my parents on my own.” Looking for some way to lighten the mood, if only for her own sake, Twilight decided to change the subject. “So, what about your little sister?”
Rarity’s eyes began to sparkle. “Sweetie Belle… Well, she is a darling little dear, though her cooking could use some work. She might be a bit enthusiastic for my tastes sometimes, but I love her more than anything in the world.”
“Rats!” hissed Spike, on Twilight’s back − he was still a baby dragon, and walking to and fro throughout Ponyville was taking its toll on his hind claws.
“So, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight said to the rainbow-maned Pegasus, “Should we visit your folks’ home and tell them that you’re―”
“My parents live in Cloudsdale,” Rainbow Dash said, her eyes not meeting Twilight’s. “They’ll find out sooner or later what I’m doing.”
Before Twilight could puzzle out the reason for Rainbow’s evasiveness, her ears flew back in response to a sudden shout from a completely unfamiliar voice.
“HEY RAINBOW DASH!”
Her eyes darted around for the source of the shout, and settled on an approaching cloud of dust and dirt. At its head was a small Pegasus filly, with a wild cerise mane and a light-orange coat. Her pale-purple eyes were sparkling with unbridled energy as she rode up on a scooter, her small wings buzzing at her sides.
Just as soon as she’d taken in the details of this filly’s appearance, Twilight gaped as noticed a pale-blue Unicorn mare with a mixed dark-blue-and-pale-gray mane about to cross between the filly and her party. Before Twilight could shout Watch out!, the filly leapt off of her scooter, her wings not giving her flight, but supporting her in the air just long enough to clear the space over the blue Unicorn mare, her scooter whooshing by underneath just as the mare realized what was happening.
Twilight blinked in astonishment − and the blue mare shook her hoof in surprise and anger − as the Pegasus filly landed back on her scooter, resumed her forward momentum, and skidded to a stop just before a smirking Rainbow Dash. Now that she was closer, Twilight could see that this Pegasus filly had no feathered fetlocks, and her coat was unkempt, as though she had been caught in a number of schoolyard scrapes in the very recent past. She had a small scar in the middle of her chin.
“Rainbow Dash! Rainbow Dash! Did you see that? How was that for a sick scooter move?” the filly said very excitedly.
Rainbow Dash tousled the filly’s mane, making it appear even more disheveled.
“That was pretty sweet, squirt!” she said with a smirk. Then she frowned, sat on her haunches, and pointed at her own skull. “But… you forgot the helmet.”
“Aww, I can take a little rough-’n’-tumble, Rainbow Dash,” the filly said dismissively. “I’m awesome, just like you!”
“Well, that is true,” Rainbow Dash said, her chest swelling with pride, before resuming her stern stare upon her admirer. “But you still gotta keep safety first, Scootaloo. Especially with this whole ‘nighttime eternal’ deal. There might be a big, dark rock that you don’t see until it’s too late.”
The filly named Scootaloo looked down ashamedly, her ears drooping slightly. “You’re right, Rainbow Dash. I shouldn’t be so reckless. I mean, my wings haven’t even grown in yet…”
“Hey kid!” Rainbow Dash leaned forward, raising Scootaloo’s head by the chin. She smiled down at Scootaloo with such warmth that Twilight was astonished. “Don’t be so glum. You’ll never be pullin’ those sweet moves for all Equestria to see with that attitude. Be careful, wear a helmet, knee and elbow pads if you can get ‘em, but only when you’re practicing. When you’re really, truly, absolutely, 110% certain that you’ve nailed it, then you can ditch the safety gear.” She pulled in the filly with a wing, holding Scootaloo to her barrel. “I don’t want to see you hurt yourself, Scoots. You’re the most awesome filly in Equestria, and don’t you forget it!”
Rainbow Dash nuzzled Scootaloo, and the little orange filly returned the favor. After a moment, Rainbow Dash nudged Scootaloo back towards her scooter.
“Enough with the mushy stuff, kid. You gotta get home. School might’ve let out early the past couple days, but the Sun’s still out like a light. I’m sure your parents are worried sick about you.”
Scootaloo was just putting a hind hoof to the dirt road, and she went stiff at the last sentence. Twilight noticed, though it was only because she had a sharp eye for the most minute changes in a pony’s demeanor. (She put it down to her years of chemistry under Queen Celestia’s tutelage.) After a moment that contained an eternity, Scootaloo smiled up at Rainbow Dash, though Twilight noticed that the smile seemed a little forced.
And Scootaloo darted off without another word.
Twilight looked to Rainbow Dash.
Rainbow Dash looked to Twilight.
“Did you notice that?”
“How she was about… about…”
Twilight felt her throat constrict. This really wasn’t her business. Whatever state of existence Scootaloo’s parents were in was Scootaloo’s business alone, and what she told Rainbow Dash about her folks was Scootaloo and Rainbow Dash’s business. With a heart of lead, Twilight sighed, “Nothing.”
Rainbow Dash rolled her cerise eyes. “Whatever. I think Ponyville’s turning you weird.”
As the group made a turn to the west, towards Sweet Apple Acres past the Ponyville Schoolhouse, Twilight could not help but contemplate the look in Scootaloo’s eyes. It was a look that Twilight was intimately familiar with, because those eyes were eyes she saw in the mirror every day.
The eyes of an orphan.
The miniature Sun generated by the heliogenesis spell projected a light just as bright as the real deal. However, because it was far smaller, and closer, the light it put out created starker shadows than would have been present under the genuine Sun. It gave a certain emptiness to the main building of Sweet Apple Acres, which was exacerbated by the lack of tents pitched up around the orchards.
“Your relatives all left, Applejack?” Twilight asked.
“Well, they all got ta tend to their own farms,” replied the farmer mare. “Ah mean, in this eternal night, th’ trees need all the tendin’-to that they can get.”
“Including your Aunt and Uncle Orange’s orange groves…?”
“They farm stocks,” Applejack corrected, “up in Manehattan.”
“Oh,” Twilight said softly. “Sorry.”
“Don’ sweat it, sugarcube. Ah’m sure their stocks’re gonna take a bit of a hit, an’ they gotta make sure ta sell an’ protect their investments an’ the like.” In answer to Twilight’s gaping look, Applejack continued, “Ah spent a while livin’ with them up in Manehattan as a filly. Before Ah realized how much Ah love apple-farmin’.”
The group of seven had now come to the front door to the Apple abode. When Applejack reached up to knock, she found that the door slid open. Through the open door, Twilight saw a homey space, cushions set up around the edges of the room for comfortable sitting on the wooden floor. The wallpapering was a soft grassy green, supplemented by framed paintings of orchards and portraits of Earth Ponies. Seated upon three of the cushions, a small circle of candles burning in the middle of the room, were Applejack’s big brother Big McIntosh, little sister Apple Bloom, and grandmother Granny Smith. Curled up at Apple Bloom’s hooves, watching Applejack with bright black eyes, was a brown Border Collie with white spots. The matriarch of the Apple family gave a wrinkly smile and beckoned to the group.
“Sit yerselves down, if ye kindly,” she said gently. “Ah’d like to see if ye’ve thought this through, Applejack.”
Applejack blinked. “What do ya mean, Granny?”
“She means that yer goin’ off on a quest a some sort,” said Big McIntosh, and Twilight’s feeling of shock was apparently lesser than Applejack’s. The Border Collie whimpered slightly at Big Mac’s words.
“If Big Mac’s talkin’ in more th’n just Yeps ‘n’ Nopes, this ‘quest’ mus’ be somethin’ serious,” Apple Bloom said, looking around at the faces of the older mares and stallion. “Applejack, what do Big Mac ‘n’ Granny mean bah a ‘quest’?”
Applejack looked back to Twilight and the group behind her. Twilight gave her a small nod; they’d told everypony else’s families. Applejack gave a low, long sigh as she faced her siblings and grandmother.
“Ah’m goin’ with Twilight Sparkle here ta find out how ta get these here Elements a Harmony ta work again,” she shifted her weight to allow the Element fragments to rattle in her saddle-bags. “Ah don’t intend ta let anypony tell me otherwise. Ah’m goin’, and that’s final.”
Granny Smith’s expression was unreadable. Big Mac looked somewhat stern. And Apple Bloom… Apple Bloom looked absolutely crestfallen, an expression mirrored by the dog.
“So… yer leavin’ us?” said Apple Bloom with teary eyes. Even her bow seemed to be drooping dejectedly. “Doncha love us anymore?” She scampered up to Applejack, throwing her forelegs at her big sister in a feeble attempt to hit her, but it ended up turning into a hug around one of Applejack’s own forelegs. The Border Collie trotted up to Applejack as well, resting her head at Applejack’s hooves with a whimper.
Applejack embraced her little sister.
“Ah love y’all jus’ the same as ever, Apple Bloom,” Applejack said, lowering her head to her sister’s eye level, “an’ that’s the honest truth. Ah wouldn’t trade ya for any other little sister in all th’ wide world. Ah couldn’ possibly ask fer a more loyal work dog than you, Winona,” she said, addressing the dog, who barked eagerly at her master. “It’s because Ah love y’all that Ah gotta help Twi figger out how these Elements work.”
“And if’n ya don’t mind mah askin’,” cut in Granny Smith, pulling out an ear trumpet, “what the cock-a-doodle are them Elements?”
“The Elements of Harmony are a powerful thaumaturgical force of concordance, the same force which banished NightMare Moon a meggrossium ago,” Twilight explained.
“Come again?” Big Mac said.
Twilight sighed heavily. This was what she’d get for consorting with ponies who didn’t read the same level of books as she did.
“Let me start again, Apples,” Twilight said sharply. “The Elements of Harmony are a collection of six powerfully magical items that Queen Celestia used to banish NightMare Moon to the Moon a dozen-gross years ago. I have reason to believe that they are the only means of defeating NightMare Moon for good and bringing back the Sun.”
Granny Smith nodded slowly, closing her eyes.
“Ah understand how ya feel, AJ, and Ah won’t stop ya.”
“But, Granny…!” squealed Apple Bloom, her mismatched hind legs kicking at her grandmother in consternation.
“Apple Bloom…” Granny Smith said sharply.
“Sugar-foot,” Applejack said gently, “This is a problem fer all a’ Equestria. All those cousins ‘n’ aunts ‘n’ uncles who up ‘n’ left yesterday? Well, their farms aren’t lucky enough to have a fake Sun circlin’ overhead. Their orchards are facin’ a whole heap a’ trouble with the Sun not bein’ there to warm things up. Ah’d bet that snow’s already fallin’ ‘round some parts.” She held her sister close. “Ah don’t wantcha to grow up in a world with no Sun. Nopony knows how long Twilight’s fake Sun’ll last, so Ah gotta do what Ah can ta help mah friend fix this mess.”
Apple Bloom’s nose wrinkled as she struggled to hold back more tears. She clutched her sister’s foreleg even more tightly.
“At least let me come with y’all.”
“No doin’, little sis,” Applejack replied firmly.
“Applejack, Ah’m not a baby! Ah can take care a’ mahself!”
“Maybe ‘round the farm, but…” Applejack sat on her haunches, rubbing one of the scars on her left foreleg. “Ya know them nighttime beasties off in th’ Everfree that me ‘n’ Big Mac protect the farm from?”
Apple Bloom nodded. Winona whimpered involuntarily.
“Well, they’re gonna realize soon enough that the Sun ain’t gonna poke her head out anytime soon, and start prowlin’ about to lands outside a’ Ponyville. They ain’t gonna come near Sweet Apple Acres, so long as Big Mac holds down the fort.”
“Eeyup,” Big Mac said, as an affirmation of his protection of farm and family. Applejack smiled at him shortly.
“All them nasty creatures − manticores, chimeras, owl-bears, timberwolves…” Applejack let out an infinitesimal shudder. “They’re all gonna be on the prowl all over Equestria, an’ Ah don’t wantcha to be in more danger than ya need ta be.”
Apple Bloom gave a shuddering sob. “Applejack…”
“Let ‘er go, Apple Bloom,” Granny Smith said softly, placing a feeble foreleg on the small of Apple Bloom’s back. “Ain’t nuthin’ you can say that cin change Applejack’s course now.” Apple Bloom buried her head in Granny Smith’s chest, her sobs muffled by her grandmother’s fur.
“If it makes ya feel any better, Apple Bloom,” said Applejack, tilting her Stetson down slightly, “Ah’m not leaving till tomorrow at… well, the crack a’ dawn, Ah guess ya could call it. An’ it’s not like we’re gonna slip out like neighnja in th’ night. Ah hear tell that Pinkie Pie here’s gonna be throwin’ somethin’ of a farewell party, t’ give Ponyville a bit a’ hope fer our quest.”
Apple Bloom looked back to Applejack, a small smile gracing her teary muzzle.
“See? You just gotta smile away your tears~” chirped Pinkie Pie, producing a blue balloon the exact color of one of the balloons on her cutie mark. It even had a yellow string! “Here’s a balloon to keep your spirits up!”
Apple Bloom took the balloon, her smile broadening as Twilight saw the balloon reflect in her eyes.
As far as Twilight had known, parties were something that needed to be planned out reasonably far in advance, to allow for all the preparations to fall together in all the right places. The pre-research trip party invitations were sent out by Pinkie Pie at about half-past-two in the afternoon; the invitations indicated that the party would not begin until four, giving Twilight, Pinkie and the party only an hour-and-a-half to prepare.
Still, Twilight had to be impressed with the camaraderie of Pinkie’s adopted parents the Cakes, who had baked up several trays’ worth of cookies, cupcakes, muffins and the like while Pinkie was with Twilight trekking back and forth around Ponyville; of the neighbors of Sugarcube Corner supplying their living room and dining room tables to lay out the treats in the circle around the Gazebo; of Fluttershy’s call to the rabbit and jackalope warrens to send out the invitations and collect the RSVPs.
Twilight found herself, though, perplexed by something about Pinkie Pie. There was a certain something about her that had changed since they left Sweet Apple Acres, and Twilight was sitting on her haunches, rubbing her now-stubble-free chin, watching Pinkie leap from table to table, placing party favors, plates of cookies, cakes and streamers, when she realized what it was:
One of the blue balloons in Pinkie’s cutie mark was missing. Her right flank was decorated with only one blue balloon and a yellow balloon.
“Pinkie…” she began tentatively. How did one tell a pony that their cutie mark was different on each flank?
“What is it, Twilight? Is something missing?” she asked.
“Uhh…” The question was so near the mark that Twilight stumbled mentally. “Eh… Your… balloons…”
“Oooh! You’re absolutely right, Twilight! This party need balloons!”
And before Twilight could utter another word, Pinkie twisted her head around, bit down on her left flank, and pulled off the yellow balloon. Twilight’s jaw dropped as she watched Pinkie tie the blue string off onto one of the tables, the yellow balloon bobbing innocently above the cakes and muffins. And then Pinkie reached down to bite off another balloon.
“P-Pinkie… please stop…” Twilight gasped feebly. This was so far out of her league, so far out of her comfort zone, that she was struggling to find her breath. “Pinkie… if you… keep this up… your… your cutie mark will…”
But Pinkie had already pulled off a fifth balloon, each of the five tables in front of the Gazebo decorated with a balloon in a blue-yellow-blue-yellow-blue sequence. Twilight rubbed her eyes with a forearm, blinking as well to make sure she wasn’t imagining it.
No, she wasn’t.
Pinkie Pie had gleefully pulled off all six of the balloons in her cutie mark, given one to Apple Bloom to cheer her up, and used the other five to decorate a party.
“Pinkie… your… flank… it’s blank…”
Pinkie began to pronk towards another table, giving Twilight an accidental view of her newly cutie mark-less flank, when Twilight felt a pair of hooves seizing her by the shoulders, spinning her around from facing the Gazebo to face the pony behind her: Pinkie Pie.
Pinkie’s eyes were wide, and her teeth were clenched.
“Twilight, why aren’t you helping with the party? It was your idea!”
Her mind catching up with her eyes, Twilight pondered the physical impossibility of Pinkie Pie being in front of her, pronking aimlessly about, and behind her spinning her around at the same time. She decided she’d worry about it later.
“Uhh… I just… never did anything with a party before…” Twilight said evasively, glancing to Pinkie’s flanks, looking at the tables behind her. Pinkie’s flanks were once more adorned with three balloons, one yellow and two blue, apiece. But there were still five balloons on the tables behind Twilight, and no other sign that Pinkie could have been around the tables only ten seconds prior.
Pinkie seemed satisfied with Twilight’s answer. She let Twilight go, smiling brightly.
“Okie-dokie-lokie~! Then you can just help to receive the RSVPs!”
There were exactly a dozen yellow balloons and one-dozen-eleven blue balloons hanging above the tables when the party goers began to arrive. Twilight decided that she was not going to question how Pinkie somehow managed to find a new way to break the laws of common sense and physics every time she turned around. She had enough on her plate having to contend with ponies making her care about them, and the issue of everlasting night potentially wilting her parents.
Even so, the scientist in Twilight Sparkle needed to know: what did these balloons feel like? Taking one in her dwimmer shimmer, Twilight reached up and touched a blue balloon with her hoof. It was soft and fuzzy, like Pinkie’s coat. Noticing that Pinkie was giving Twilight an odd look, she quickly rejoined the festivities.
The party was, as far as Twilight was concerned, more of a success than her welcome party. She had several reasons to believe this: For one, there was no sense of pending urgency to prevent NightMare Moon’s return, as NightMare Moon was already loosed upon Equestria. Secondly, the party was in Ponyville Square and not in a library, so the noise level was not necessarily a violation of protocol. Thirdly, there were no hot sauce bottles.
Each of the families that she had met that day were present as well, as were the other nine-dozen-odd ponies of Ponyville. Rarity tried in vain to pretty up her parents’ outfits, but there was only so much that her glitter spell could cover up their clashing apparel. The Cakes were turning down any pay that anypony desired to make for the wares they set up for consumption at this party. An Earth Pony magnate named Filthy Rich was placing a big order on Apple family food products with Big McIntosh, while a pale-pink filly at his feet with a tiara for a cutie mark, matching the tiara on her head, was hounding him at his heels.
“Daaaad!” whined the filly, roughly brushing her pale-purple-and-white-streaked mane. “We’ve been buying Apple products too much! Don’t you know how much of a money pit it is to waste our money on their food?”
“Diamond Tiara, don’t be ridiculous,” scoffed Filthy, who preferred to be addressed as Mr. Rich. “I find them to be quite reliable business partners.”
“Reliable, my cutie mark!” Diamond Tiara countered, shaking her flanks slightly. She took notice of Twilight, smirked, and approached Twilight, practically oozing with haughty self-absorption.
“You must be the new mare in town,” she said, with none of the nasty tone in her voice and every degree of oily fawning that Twilight heard from all manner of social climbers back in Canterlot. Diamond Tiara took a shallow bow. “My name is Diamond Tiara, and my daddy, Mr. Rich, is the wealthiest pony in Ponyville.”
A light-gray filly who had been standing by the stallion alongside Mr. Rich cantered over. Her pale-silver mane was braided in a ponytail to her right, and her cutie mark was of a silver spoon with a bright-pink heart at the tip of the handle.
“Silver Spoon,” Diamond Tiara said to the gray filly, “this is that new mare that I was talking about. She’s from Canterlot.”
“Ooooh!” said Silver Spoon, her purple eyes widening behind cyan-framed glasses. “She must have a lot of conne―”
A pale-pink hoof shoved itself into Silver Spoon’s mouth. Twilight narrowed her eyes slightly at this display. Diamond Tiara must have noticed, as she offered a nervous smile up to the lavender Unicorn.
“W-well, if there’s ever anything you need, just ask me or my daddy!” Diamond Tiara said sweetly.
“Really?” Twilight said, raising an eyebrow.
“Really,” replied Silver Spoon, smiling brightly. “Her dad has lots of connections to all sorts of different businesses in different cities.”
“But… none in Canterlot,” Diamond Tiara sighed, her ears drooping. “All we have to deal with out here in this rube-town are hicks like the Apples and insane ponies like that Pinkie Pie.”
“Pinkie’s the big party planner around here, though, isn’t she?” Twilight asked, swallowing the bile rising up from her chest at the description of the Apple family as hicks. “Didn’t she throw you a cutieceañera?”
Diamond Tiara hesitated. “Well… yeah, she did. Last week, actually. I suppose it was fine, but she’s still crazy!” She cleared her throat. “Anyway, you have to know it better than anypony what it’s like having to deal with peasants like the Apples. I mean, you were at their little reunion, weren’t you?”
“It wasn’t exactly little,” Twilight said, trying to keep a level tone, “but yes, I was there.”
“Well, it’s not too late for you, then,” Diamond Tiara said, pacing in front of Twilight now, her smile taking on a more sinister turn at the corners. “You can always switch sides, sign a few deals with Daddy. You don’t want to be sullying your reputation by consorting with the wrong sort.”
Twilight’s eyebrows narrowed. Before she could offer her answer, Apple Bloom trotted over. “Hey, Twilight? Aren’tcha gonna have some more fritters?”
Several things happened in that instant. Apple Bloom sighted Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon talking to Twilight, and took a step back sharply, her ears going back and her teeth clenched. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon caught wind of Apple Bloom talking to Twilight, and rounded on her with malicious glares. Twilight found herself taking a step forward.
Diamond Tiara gave a devilish smirk.
“You see what I’m talking about here, Twilight?” she said with an accusing hoof pointed at Apple Bloom. “This filly’s ten years old and she still hasn’t gotten her cutie mark. Neither do two others in our class, and one of them is Pegasus pony who can’t even fly. Silver Spoon has her cutie mark. I got mine just last week. It’s all too clear what sort of company a Canterlot elite like you should be keeping!”
At which point Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon shared a special hoofshake, which involved bumping both forehooves together high, then low, then just the elbows of one each, then bumping their cutie mark-marked flanks together, to a singsong chant of “Bump, bump, sugar-lump rump!”
Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon looked back up to Twilight, smiling in what they must have hoped was an endearing fashion. Twilight ignored their looks and glanced at Apple Bloom, who was teary-eyed and sulking, biting her bottom lip to hold in what might have been a wail of sorrow.
“I know what company I should keep, and it’s not yours.”
Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon almost cheered, but realized that Twilight was talking to them. She was also levelling a glare at them that would have levelled a mountain if she had that power.
“But… but… I’m the richest filly in Ponyville! My Daddy’s got connections! What does that filly have that I don’t, other than a batty old grandma who couldn’t remember her own name?”
“I’ll tell you what she has:” Twilight kneeled down over the two bullies, who quailed under her intense glare. “A heart. A loving family. The will to extend a helping hoof without expecting anything in return.”
“But… isn’t it weird that she doesn’t have a cutie mark yet? She’s ten!”
“I was ten when I got my cutie mark,” Twilight growled, “the same day I entered Queen Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. And I’ll have you know that most of the fillies and colts who entered already had their cutie marks.”
Diamond Tiara let out a high laugh, which caught the attention of many passers-by. “So you were a late-bloomer? I’m surprised that Celestia took you in as her student!”
Twilight’s eyes narrowed.
“Don’t you dare to talk down about Queen Celestia,” she said, her voice shaking with rage.
“What’s going on here, Diamond Tiara?”
Mr. Rich had trotted over, his deal with Big Mac finished.
In an instant, Diamond Tiara had started crying, blubbering into her father’s foreleg.
“Daddy, Daddy! Queen Celestia’s student was being mean to me!”
“I was there, Mr. Rich!” shouted Silver Spoon. “She called Diamond Tiara a doodoo-headed little nag!”
Filthy Rich arched a brown eyebrow at his daughter and her best friend, then faced Twilight with a look of sad understanding.
“What’s your side of the story?” he asked.
“There are no sides to it, Daddy!” Diamond Tiara seemed to have forgotten she was supposed to be crying. “All I did was ask to be her friend and she started yelling at me!”
“Your daughter was trying to kiss up to me, Mr. Rich,” Twilight explained, causing Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon to shoot her murderous looks, “and I, having grown up in Canterlot amidst all sorts of hooflickers and brownnosers, was able to spot a shallow attempt at flattery. And then she started to verbally assault the Apple family, especially Apple Bloom here.” Apple Bloom nodded at Twilight’s mention of her name, attempting to rub away the tears from said lashing.
“But most ponies have their cutie marks by the time they’re my age, Daddy!” the tiara-wearing bully said in defense. “Isn’t it just wrong that she doesn’t have hers by now?”
“Who cares if she’s got a blank flank?”
Scootaloo had appeared from behind Twilight, glowering at Diamond Tiara.
“It’s not like that’s a bad thing,” Scootaloo continued.
“It… it means that she’s not special,” Diamond Tiara replied, clearly holding her tongue with her father behind her.
“It means she has potential,” said another voice, and Sweetie Belle appeared from Twilight’s other side. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon gaped at the two new blank-flanked fillies that had appeared. Twilight, for her part, was a little relieved that ponies more the proper age had decided to stand against the bullies.
“It means she could be great at anything,” said Scootaloo.
“And she doesn’t have to be stuck being stuck-up like you two,” Sweetie Belle said with a surprisingly sharp tone.
Diamond Tiara levelled a death glare at the three fillies − and Twilight − before snarling, “Of course you blank-flanks and teacher’s pet would team up together. I should’ve known a screw-up like you who turned her parents into plants would’ve―”
“DÉGUEULIS DAZZLE RICH!” bellowed Filthy Rich, causing his daughter to shrink down to her haunches, her ears swiveling down. That he had used the name that he had given her, rather than the appellation she gave to herself upon earning her cutie mark, meant that she had well and truly screwed up.
“I am withholding your allowance for a month for your cheek today.”
“No buts, Diamond Tiara. That’s another week of lost allowance. You have been very rude to your classmates, and an esteemed guest, the Queen’s own disciple. Think about how you treat the less fortunate, and I’ll reinstate your allowance in five weeks. Five weeks. Now, get home.” He pointed off down the street, and Diamond Tiara trotted miserably off, glaring at anypony who looked at her.
“Mr. Rich, I―”
“I’ll be sure to let your parents know that you took part in this, but that my own Diamond holds the manticore’s share of the blame. You can go.”
Silver Spoon returned to the party proceedings, brighter than Diamond Tiara, but with a lesser spring in her step.
“I’m terribly sorry for my daughter’s attitude,” Mr. Rich said to Twilight and Apple Bloom. “Ever since her mother left, she’s been…”
“I understand,” Twilight said lowly, looking at her hooves. “I know that some ponies who’ve lost their parents can say things that hurt. Hurt bad.”
“You look like you understand all too well,” said Filthy Rich.
“Hey, what’s with all the long faces?” came Pinkie’s high singsong voice, bounding into the makeshift circle of Twilight, Apple Bloom, and Mr. Rich, and Twilight realized that everypony at the party had stopped partying and was looking at them. “This is a party, right? A time to hang out with your friends and make new ones!”
Twilight blinked at Pinkie, before smiling and trotting off to the punch bowl, which a mulberry Earth Pony mare was standing beside.
Apple Bloom, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle looked back and forth amongst each other.
“Wanna go grab some apple fritters?” Apple Bloom offered.
“Do we?” squealed Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo excitedly.
Twilight’s facsimile Sun had set, and it was closing in on half-past-ten at night when the party began to wind down. The Mayor of Ponyville stood at a podium set before the doors of Town Hall, and clopped her hoof against the sounding block to get Ponyville’s attention. Twilight vaguely noticed pinkish roots at the roots of the Mayor’s mane.
“Fillies and gentlecolts of Ponyville,” she began once the party goers had reached silence, “three days ago, an ancient legend came to pass, and NightMare Moon returned to our lands, imprisoning our Queen and darkening our queendom.”
Dark murmurs broke out amongst the populace.
“Now, to make sure that we receive the greater picture of what is going on here, I invite up to the stand… Twilight Sparkle!”
Doing a double-take at her name being called, Twilight looked around. Of course, no other pony had to be named Twilight Sparkle in Ponyville, and the looks that everypony else was giving her only confirmed that she was the Mayor’s addressee.
“Go on, Twilight,” whispered Spike, standing at Twilight’s side (next to Rarity as well). He was nudging Twilight towards the podium. Reluctantly, first at a trot, then a canter, Twilight made her way through the parting crowd of ponies to the podium before Town Hall. The Mayor, smiling encouragingly at Twilight, surrendered the podium to Twilight, who placed her hooves nervously upon it. She became aware of the fact that she was sweating, but she didn’t dare to wipe it away. She had to appear resolute to these ponies, so that they would not fear the NightMare.
“P-Ponies of Ponyville,” she started. “I’m… Twilight Sparkle, from Canterlot.”
“We know!” called out Rainbow Dash from the crowd. “Get on with it!”
Twilight cleared her throat irritatedly.
“Anyway, I am Queen Celestia’s personal protégée, and I have learned many spells during my time in her tutelage. The Sun that lit up Ponyville these past three days was the product of the Queen’s heliogenesis spell. Maybe she knew this day was coming. I don’t know. I don’t know what was on the Queen’s mind the days and nights leading up to NightMare Moon’s return. But I do know this: If we want to stop NightMare Moon once and for all, we’ll need the six Elements of Harmony.”
Confused murmurs broke out.
“I know. I only just knew of them because of the high-level books that I had access to in Canterlot. I can only assume that the Elements are not well-known outside of the particularly well-read. N-not that I think you Ponyvillagers don’t read,” she added hastily, but the crowd just continued to watch her patiently. She sighed. Great impression you’re making on them, Twilight. “It’s just… even I don’t quite understand the Elements of Harmony. I do know, though, that their magic cannot simply be limited to their physical vessels. Even though NightMare Moon smashed the Element stones, I’m positive that they can be restored. The Queen has told me where I can find more information on the Elements:
The crowd of ponies glanced as one up to the mountainside to the north, where Canterlot was situated in its glory. In the three days since NightMare Moon descended, the city had seemed to undergo a radical transformation. From white and gold to deep-blue and black, the sun-and-moon heraldry replaced simply with Moon banners, the whole city seemed to have gone to the dark side.
“Don’t be afraid, everypony,” Twilight called out. “I won’t be going alone. Five of your very own have volunteered to accompany me to Canterlot. If you five would kindly join me up here. Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie.”
The five trotted up, along with Spike. Once up on the tier with Twilight, they faced the crowd they had just left. Applejack gave a humble smile and doffed her Stetson, Rainbow Dash gave a cheeky grin and wink to the crowd, Rarity struck a glamorous pose by hoisting her left hind leg to her barrel and flicking her mane with her right forehoof, Fluttershy hid her face behind her mane and shrunk down to her haunches, and Pinkie hopped in place several times, flipping upside-down occasionally. Spike hopped up onto Twilight’s back.
The crowd had begun to murmur amongst itself in confidence. Twilight could see a few smiles amongst the faces down there.
At the crack of dawn tomorrow, we will depart for Canterlot, to claim further information on the Elements of Harmony, so that we can use them to defeat NightMare Moon, and bring back the day!”
Twilight found herself shouting those last four words, and the whole of Ponyville cheered to the skies at her proclamation. Many were leaping into the air, several Pegasi were doing loop-de-loops or barrel rolls in the air, and some Unicorns were sending dwimmer-sparklers up into the air in celebration of the oncoming return of the Sun.
“We’ve ignited the sparks of a full-blown rebellion,” Applejack murmured.