A RETURN/AN EXIT
The individual that had sent Twilight Sparkle the book that she simply could not look away from raised their binoculars to their eyes to glimpse the tall castle down the hill and in the center of town. Spread out along a blanket was a basket of food close by their side. To anyone passing by they must have appeared like just another hungry individual spending their time out in the sun, maybe even bird watching.
They had already spent a day and a half on that grassy hill—sometimes watching, sometimes eating, sometimes writing in their little notebook they always kept beside them in their travel bag. Sometimes they even allowed themselves to nap for a few minutes, even if whole sleep was unaccustomed to them.
Spike the dragon had left Twilight’s castle numerous times since their book had entered their home. Each time he exited without Twilight in tow, the watcher’s thin lips curled into a tight grin. They had never been the type to laugh at such a situation—death was serious business, they knew.
When Spike returned with Twilight’s friends in an obvious frantic search for her, the watcher had actually been reading from a book with their back leaning against a tree. (The book was probably not as all consuming as Twilight’s must have been, but it wasn’t bad.) When the first pony crossed the threshold of the castle entrance, a small blare shot through their head. To either side of the doors had been set two immense stacks of donated books, left there on the morning everything had begun. The two on the bottom of each stack were connected by an unseen and unfelt wire. Whenever a pony or dragon-like creature would cross that invisible wire, the watcher would be informed.
Now things get interesting, they thought, as they munched a fresh apple from their basket and honestly wondered where Twilight might have gone in that far too lavish castle of hers, and if her friends had an actual chance of uncovering her. But it’s been so long already…
Months before that blissful morning up upon that hill, the watcher had knocked down Spike while he hurried home with both arms close to bursting with miscellaneous supplies. Spike had apologized profusely and the watcher had done the same—more emotion entering their monotone speech than perhaps in years. They even helped him with the items they had knocked away, and while doing so touched the dragon near the temple on his head. A few whispered words later and that was all it took to get an inside view of Twilight’s home.
For hours on end the watcher would close their eyes and see the world from a much shorter view. Bobbing to and fro on stubby limbs, Spike went about his business taking care of Twilight’s opulent castle, all while the watcher got a fine layout of everything beyond the walls.
Of course they had visited the library on more than a few occasions, even briefly chatting with Twilight about a book they were pondering checking out. Only two visits later did they stop coming altogether. Anymore than that and Twilight might start to recognize faces—or detect the falseness that lay behind each cherry-picked word. The watcher always had trouble adding a glimmer of life to their eyes. It seemed they had seen all they wanted to in this life.
On every chilling night on the hill, the watcher would wrap themselves in a thick blanket and sip from a thermos filled with black coffee, which had to be reheated often. Times like these, they would not bother with the binoculars at all, for the castle down the mound of dirt only remained dark and unmoving.
Since that day when their life had felt gutted from the inside out, the watcher had known they were destined for something big—something that would live on in books and in stories forever. They were going to accomplish the impossible and destroy the alicorn that had saved everyone, time and again. Or perhaps they’d do something worse.
Sipping their hot coffee and seated comfortably in total darkness, the next question that came to mind was just what page of their thick book Twilight might be on.
Or have you reached the end already? they wondered.
Pinkie Pie trotted along with the rest of her friends, every few moments coming to a stop to talk with different ponies on the sides of the street. The first dozen or so, Pinkie had been hopeful for a definite answer, so her delivery came off as loud and inarticulate. When this only proved to startle off any possible clues, she dialed it back and left most of the talking to the rest.
The day had started with a spring in her step. Now the idea of prancing around felt silly and out of place. Already her hair was on the verge of collapsing inward.
“We’ve been doing this for hours and we’ve gotten nowhere!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed, hovering meters above them. “No one has seen Twilight and that’s all we’ve been hearing! We need to try something different.”
Rarity came to a halt in the road, rubbing an anxious hoof through her mane. “Spike, any luck with the letters to Canterlot?”
Spike shook his head. “Everything I got back says they haven’t seen her—that they didn’t even know she was coming for a visit. Same with the other locations I’ve sent to.”
Rarity nodded solemnly, before facing the rest. She fixed them a worn smile. “Well then, we keep trying! I’m sure if she was kidnapped or if some villain had done something to her, they would’ve tried to blow up all of Ponyville by now or at the very least tried to enslave every dignitary. So in that regard, I would still consider this a case of missing pony… and not something by and large hazardous.”
With that speech out of her system, Rarity spun to start back up the block, stopping the first set of wandering ponies to ask about their friend. Everyone in Ponyville had already known of Princess Twilight, so most statements were a quick, “No,” followed by, “What happened?”
For the sake of the general populace, none of them offered up a conclusive answer.
While the rest of her friends trudged onward, Pinkie Pie found herself held in her spot, a notion working away in her mind as another—far less conclusive—idea wormed its way in.
As much as they had checked through every room in Twilight’s castle, something still didn’t sit right. Something had been missed and had been meant to. Some item didn’t belong and desperately Pinkie tried to remember what it was.
“Gotta go!” she hurriedly told the shuffling plots of each of her friends.
Without another word (and even before the burning thoughts in her mind could come to a justly conclusion) Pinkie galloped back down the street and in the direction of Twilight’s home.
If Pinkie hadn’t have rediscovered that spring in her step when pushing through the castle doors, the watcher would have made note of her invigorated arrival. But since she had begun bouncing along the earth again, she had completely cleared the invisible trip wire that guarded the entrance.
If the watcher hadn’t have overeaten during their lunch and then taken a quick nap in the shade of a tree (they had known the multi-colored friends were still in town, so they only thought time was on their side), they would have seen the pink on pink mare with their own eyes and possibly done something about it.
But risks had always been part of the equation.
Pinkie Pie wasted no time on the first floor of the castle and ascended the stairs at once. Although they had found an open book in Twilight’s bedroom earlier, the contents led to absolutely nothing and nadda. They had been grasping at straws but not a single one had wanted to admit it. But still something far more glaring had been missed.
“Cup, cup, cup, cup…”
Pinkie bounced from one room to the next, unsure of which one she could recall from before. She had briefly heard Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy speaking in one of the empty bedrooms—Fluttershy distinctly pouting while Rainbow tried her best to avert her anguish. Yet she had said something else, as well.
“Coma, coma, coma, coma…”
Fourth room in and Pinkie stood in the doorframe. Something about it felt different from the rest; if she had to put it into words she knew her vocabulary would fail her entirely. Even Twilight had once tried to understand the workings of the pink mare’s otherworldly senses, only to come away with more questions than answers. Pinkie had never been curious about her own gifts. She only used them for the benefit of others. Mostly.
“Twilight?” she asked the room.
When the room did not answer she entered a few steps, listening intently.
Something small had moved in the stillness of the room. Now Pinkie remembered just what it was that had brought her there in the first place.
Quietly edging along the carpets, she came to the bed and closer to the nightstand. Near its edge was the cold and filmy cup of tea Rainbow Dash had made mention of earlier. Hadn’t she heard her move it back on the stand, though? she thought. Again the cup was close to spilling over.
The cup sluggishly forced itself another millimeter to the edge.
Both of Pinkie’s eyes bulged out while her mouth turned into a chasm of hanging tongue and teeth. Softly, she asked the room, “Twilight? Are you doing this?”
Standing on pinpricks, Pinkie did not move a muscle from her place. Over and again she viewed the still cup and then the remainder of bare room. Something was in here. She could feel it. She could sense it.
Finally the cup scooted its way to the edge and toppled over, cracking into half a dozen pieces and spreading the old tea (complete with lemon wedge) along the floor.
It took a lot of steel in her system to not completely freak from the sight.
“If this is Twilight then why won’t you answer me!”
A full minute went by before a thin thread of her pink mane detached from the rest and was pulled toward the back of the bed. Timidly, Pinkie followed her own hair, before reaching out and feeling something that wasn’t there at all.
“Twilight?” she asked a final time.
Less than an hour later and Twilight was still shaking in the cozy confines of her kitchen, gripping the warm soup she held tight in both hooves all the while stretching out each leg every few moments. As much as each movement hurt, it somehow felt better than anything she could remember… after being frozen in a single pose for three painful days.
Her five friends and trusty assistant were either seated along the table with her, or anxiously watching as she took in each trembling spoonful. Having not eaten in a very long time, her stomach at first didn’t know how to react to such treatment. Eventually it found its old ways again and accepted nourishment greedily.
The thick tome of her despair sat closed in the center of the table. Once it had been eventually knocked from her sight by the wandering legs of Pinkie, she had quickly closed its cover before only touching it with the aura from her horn. Using Pinkie for support, she cumbersomely found her way downstairs, before the pink mare literally bounced into the streets to yell to the entire town, “I found her! I found her!”
Each friend appeared openly concerned.
Twilight’s eyes were dry and bloodshot—the bags under both darkened and heavily lined. Not having drunk any liquids at all in the past while, her cheeks were sunk and she looked gaunter than ever. Although Twilight knew each of her friends would have loved to wrap her up in a set of legs upon her discovery, they kept their distance for the moment. She had been hurt. Hurt worse than anything before. And all from some donated book.
“Maybe you should get some sleep, dear, after your soup.” Rarity gave Twilight a reassuring pat on her resting foreleg. “You’ve been up for days, as is.”
Painfully Twilight shook her head, the aches in her neck causing her to shut her eyes. “Not yet,” she told her, even while the steaming bowl directly in front of her blurred in her vision. “Someone has made a threat to my life and all of yours, simply because of your relationship to me. As far as I can tell, they don’t want to toy with me or try and rule Equestria. For reasons unknown they have a vendetta against me… and if what they’ve written in those pages holds any merit, which I’m sure it does, they hold one against all of you, as well.”
“But what did we do?” Fluttershy asked to her right, head bent and worry on her face. “What could you have possibly done, Twilight? You’ve always helped everyone. Done what needed to be done to save ponies.”
Twilight nodded, seemingly not able to keep her tired eyes off the closed book on the table. “I do what I always believe to be the right thing to do. That’s all. Whoever wrote this book and the spell attached to it doesn’t care about any of that. That’s the reason they targeted me in the first place. Although I’d never call myself a hero or use the term at all, that is what they’ve labeled me as. And now they want that hero to fall. Along with her friends.”
Rainbow Dash shot into the air. “Simple! Then we stop reading books! At least ones that don’t cover the continuing adventures of Daring Do, obviously. But what else could they plan on doing? I think if they were stronger than any villain from before, they’d have challenged you out in the open. So what are we up against now? A coward who likes to write? We’ve dealt with worse.”
Twilight glanced up to the blue pegasus. “But we’ve also dealt with villains we’ve known about—weaknesses, history, whereabouts. This is something new. Something very dangerous. We need to move forward with caution.”
Rarity tugged at her leg again. “Then maybe some sleep would be the best course of action.”
Twilight barely had the energy to argue much more. “Only for a few hours. And no one can leave the castle during that time.” With her horn she levitated the brown book from the table and whipped it into the fire at the center of the library. A modicum of glee entered her pained chest as she watched the flames first lick the edges of the book before devouring its thick center. “And no reading, either,” she told them all bluntly. “We don’t know if other books have been tampered with.”
Applejack played with her hat on the table before raising a single brow. “Umm, Twilight, not to sound so negative after all this negativity, but shouldn’t we have been holding on to that book? I mean, isn’t it a piece of evidence now? Maybe there were some clues written on the inside.”
Twilight finished her soup and slowly found her hooves, wobbling in place. “Anything of worth in that book I memorized days ago. I wouldn’t be able to sleep unless I knew it was on its way to being nothing but ashes.”
Stumbling from side to side, Twilight then went to the library to crash on the couch. Only seconds later did the blankness of sleep overwhelm her.
“I found her! I found her!”
The watcher shot awake from the sudden noise and instantly brought the binoculars to view. They grimaced as the pink earth pony danced in the street before darting back inside the castle. When they crossed the threshold the mild alarm went off in their head. This time they ignored it fully.
Only minutes later did the rest of Twilight’s friends gallop to the scene. It must have only felt natural to them—to race to potential danger with the knowledge they would always come away unscathed and unchanged. This must have been like any other adventure to them, later turned into some story to kill time when conversations lulled between them. But those stories always had happy endings. The villain was either defeated and turned to stone or reformed or banished or sent to Tartarus to think about what they’ve done. Twilight has never gotten her hooves truly dirty before, maybe because she’d never had the chance to try. But there was a first time for everything.
“Now what will you do?” they asked to no one.
Although they had a good idea.
Two hours and twenty-two seconds later Twilight Sparkle opened her heavy eyes and for a wonderful moment forgot just why she was lying on the puffy couch in the library; one blissful second where the events of the past three days were forgotten and replaced with serene thoughts that used to swim around in her cranium. But with renewed energy came a whole wallop of pains—mostly the ones seizing each joint as it had grown rigid during her downtime.
Slowly she motioned off the couch and to a seated position. Then she placed her cumbersome head onto a hoof.
Rainbow Dash hovered into the room. “So what’s the plan then, Twilight? How do we find this pony and then shove our collective hoof down their throat?”
Twilight pressed her other hoof into her temple. “It might not even be a pony, Rainbow. Most of our other villains haven’t been ponies at all—only creatures.”
“Then how do we stop it from trying something else?”
Twilight got to a standing position and methodically stretched out each leg. “We find them first. And then we go from there. And more than anything we try and stay a step ahead of them, even if that might prove difficult.”
Rainbow swooped down to wrap a leg around her. “Cheer up, Twilight. You got your friends watching your back. What could go wrong?”
“I hope nothing,” Twilight answered dourly. “But first things first, we need to figure out who sent that book here.”
An hour later the seven of them stood in front of a decrepit bookstore near the other side of town. Its windows had been whitewashed and a sign hanging from the overhead awning boasted a “FIFTY-PERCENT OFF SALE”. If its rundown condition was of any indication, it meant that such sale hadn’t done all that much to boost business. Crossing into its dimly lit interior, Twilight’s first thought was if it was still open at all.
“Hello?” she asked the empty entryway. “Anyone here?”
A mare with brown hair and thin reading glasses popped up from under a circular desk, a lock of her mane already swinging in front of her eyes. She appeared more startled than the rest of them. “Sorry about that!” she said earnestly. “Sometimes when business is a little slow I try and sneak in a good read under the desk.” She paused to ponder a moment. “Now that I think of it, business has actually been very slow, as of late.” The mare fixed her slanted glasses and regarded the seven of them, ending with Spike near the floor. “Oh wow! A lot of customers. What can I help you with today?”
Twilight placed both forelegs on the counter. Any good-natured expression clearly left back at the castle. “I want to inquire about a book that was sent to me. A used one. A very dangerous one, in fact.”
The mare appeared unfazed. “Can I see the book?”
“I burnt it in my fireplace.”
The worker blanched at the notion. “Well that’s no way to treat a book.”
Twilight did not budge from her stance. “The book in question tried to kill me, as well as threatened the lives of my friends.”
“Well… that’s…” The mare readjusted her glasses unnecessarily. “That’s just odd.”
“Yes it is,” Twilight agreed. “The mail-mare that delivered a stack of books including that one left an invoice that they all came from this book store. Some used, some new—purchased or donated to the new library. I need to know if you have any information on who brought in that book. I have no doubt in my mind it was a one of a kind text.”
“A one of a kind item that you burned in your fireplace,” the mare corrected.
Twilight nodded and felt her jaw tighten. “For the good of us all.”
A pregnant pause later and the mare behind the counter got to work opening drawers loaded with old receipts and slips of crumpled paper. Once she’d given them a quick once over, she tossed them to the counter where one of the seven would gingerly glance over in search of something worthwhile. Twilight took a long roll and hastily scanned down the list of purchased books, only to crumple it up between both hooves.
“This isn’t getting us anywhere,” she huffed. “I need to know what ponies brought into your store, not what they bought to read later.”
The mare with the glasses shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you then. If ponies bring in books to donate, we’re usually more than happy to except. There’s very little reason to keep track of such a thing.” She fell back in her chair, sighing loudly. “If only the manager was in. All week and I’m the only one in.”
Suddenly Twilight felt anxious. “You don’t own this place?”
“Nope. Mr. Leaf does,” the mare said. “Although I haven’t seen him in days.”
Now Twilight felt a shiver inside the stifling shop. “Did someone send him a book, perchance?”
The mare stared at her awkwardly. “We’re sent dozens of books a day. I wouldn’t know.”
“The last time you saw him, was he leaving the store?”
She shook her head. “No. The last time was when I came back from lunch and found the place completely empty. No note or anything. So I’ve been opening and closing only when I have the chance. Although business oddly hasn’t changed all that much…”
Twilight’s pulse quickened. “Where’s his office?”
Nearly stumbling against overturned books and sideways tables, Twilight crept through the darkened hall at the back of the store. A single door to the right had been left open ajar, a thin strip of light cutting across the opposite cracked wall.
Twilight approached quietly, hoping to catch the sounds of something—anything at all. Yet the first thing to find the searching mare wasn’t a noise at all, but a smell. Something rotten.
Nudging open the door, she first glimpsed the empty desk and then the table lamp still aglow near its edge. Approaching timidly, she placed both hooves along the surface, carefully edging them across. Only at its center did she feel what she had hoped she wouldn’t.
In the middle of the desk was the invisible outline of an open book, along with something that felt like the wispy edges of a mane.
“Celestia, why?” she whispered, before grasping the invisible tome and flinging it into the corner.
The still head of Mr. Leaf came to rest on the bare surface of his desk, his dry eyes now focused on the wood and not the book that had stole his attention until he stopped breathing. His cheeks had sunken in considerably and his skin appeared frail and thin. It was hard to tell how long he might have been lying there for.
The first thing Twilight did was turn his head to close his eyes. For no reason at all, this innocent pony had died. He had not known why but somehow he had become a target of a vendetta against her. Twilight knew then she would see this through to the end.
“You might wanna have a look at this, Twilight,” Applejack said nervously, somewhere behind her.
Twilight spun around and found the book she had shoved from the desk, propped open against the floor. Upon its many pages was a single sentence, repeated a thousand times over.
“What do you think it means?” Rarity asked them all, although none would respond.
A deep chill found Twilight’s stomach as she read and reread each carefully written line.
It said: “A single event can change our perception on most everything.”