In the Saddle Valley that lay between the northern and southern mountain ranges of Equinus, there could be found a modest hamlet called Ponyville. As unimaginative as the name might have seemed at first blush, the settlement was named as such to let anypony traveling towards Canterlot, regardless of race, that they were welcome.
For you see, despite the long-running integration of the three pony races after the unification of the Three Pony Tribes, there were still many cities, towns and villages throughout Equestria which were predominantly one race or another. For instance, the majority of the population of Manehattan on the eastern coast was Earth Ponies, and despite its land settlements the Pegasus city of Cloudsdale remained almost exclusively the residence of Pegasi. There even existed a town almost exclusively of Bat Ponies called Hollow Shades. But through all the continent of Vespucca, there could not be found a single city, town or village that held to such parity as Ponyville. Earth Ponies, Unicorns and Pegasi sharing the same homes and workplaces, voting for the same public officials, buying and selling the same wares in the same marketplace, laughing at the same jokes and sharing in the joy of the same parties.
And now, a Zebra − the former Crown Princess of Pundamilia herself − would begin to call Ponyville home.
Zecora joined the group of Ponies and Deer around the round table in the center room of the Golden Oak Library. Her black-and-white mane was styled in a perfect mohawk, large golden hoops dangled from each ear, and five gold rings adorned her neck to match the five around her left foreleg. She looked about from the foals the Cutie Mark Crusaders and Butter-And-Eggs, to the Deer Cobnut, Strawberry and Fuzzhead, and finally to the seven friends she had made in the zebra capital.
‘Your Pony-land is truly blessed,’ she began with her light Pundamilian accent, ‘but I have something that I must confess. I have never been to a land of this clime, nor to this country in all of my time. My mother the Queen never did allow…’ Zecora looked mildly pained. ‘But that has now changed, this I avow.’
“‘Climb’?” asked Apple Bloom, a small yellow Earth Pony filly with a bouncy red mane tied back with a large pink bow. Her peach-colored eyes over red-freckled cheeks showed her confusion. “What’s she mean by ‘climb’?”
“Is the Zebra-land in a big pit or something?” asked Sweetie Belle, her Unicorn friend with white coat and light-purple mane.
“Did the Zebra-Pegasi have to fly her out?” Scootaloo the orange Pegasus filly wondered, her own tiny wings flapping slightly at the thought.
Zecora chuckled lightly at the foals’ misinterpretation.
“Ah think Zecora’s sayin’ that the climate round Equestria ain’ exactly what she’s used to, girls,” cut in Apple Bloom’s big sister Applejack, the Bearer of the Element of Loyalty, with a slightly wry smile. The palomino wore a Stetson, and her mane and tail were tied off at the ends with red hairbands. “Ain’ nuthin’ ‘bout climbin’ nowhere.”
“Though we did climb up a lotta steps up at the Zebra capital~” Pinkie Pie cut in with a beaming smile and a giggle. Her pink mane and tail were impossibly frizzy, and her teeth shown perfectly white beneath bright-blue eyes.
“Umm, I don’t think that that’s exactly what they meant by ‘climbing’...” murmured Fluttershy breathily, brushing a pale-pink mane away from cyan eyes with a pale-yellow foreleg.
Rainbow Dash scoffed, “What else could they mean by it? I mean, it’s not like we did much else in the way of climbing out there.”
“Don’t forget, though, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight Sparkle replied smartly, “that the Cutie Mark Crusaders aren’t psychic.”
Rarity tittered, “Well spotted, Twilight darling!”
“‘Psychic’?” Butter-And-Eggs, the young colt raised by Deer, tilted his head in confusion. “What’s ‘psychic’?”
“It’s when somedeer can read another deer’s mind, buckaroo,” answered Fuzzhead.
“Or when somedeer can control something with just their mind,” continued Cobnut.
“It would be like if, say, this young Dragon here,” Strawberry indicated Spike, “could control fire with his mind.”
The mulberry drake perked up.
“Whoa… That would be so cool!” He looked towards Twilight. “Do you think I could really do something like that, Mom?”
The lavender Unicorn smiled maternally at Spike, wrapping a foreleg around his shoulders.
“We’ll see, Spike. We’ll see.”
Zecora smiled at the pair, the surrogate mother and son.
‘I am glad for you all, my friends from abroad,’ she beamed. ‘For your good fortune do I clap and applaud. But I have a question that is far less cheery: What befalls Equestria after a reign most dreary?’
Twilight and her band stiffened marginally, glancing back and forth at one another uneasily.
A little over three months ago, Twilight Sparkle, personal student to Queen Celestia herself and a ward of the crown, was dispatched to the hamlet of Ponyville to make friends before the Summer Sun Celebration. This was despite or because of Twilight’s warnings that the 1000-year anniversary of the banishment of NightMare Moon fell upon that day, and a prophecy of old indicated the return of that eldritch Alicorn to bring forth nighttime eternal to the planet of Harmonia. Sure enough, NightMare Moon returned and overthrew Queen Celestia, bringing forth a dark despotic regime to Equestria. Fortunately, Twilight was able to realize the beauty and magic of friendship and utilized the Elements of Harmony − the ancient artifacts which Queen Celestia had previously used so many centuries ago to banish NightMare Moon in the first place − to fully cleanse the Queen of the Night and eradicate the Miasma which had possessed her.
Even a month later, the after-effects of the reign of NightMare Moon could still be felt. Though the Nightmare Guard returned to their senses, the merewolves, vampires and hemolupes retreated back to the dark corners of society which they had previously inhabited, and the puppet-dead which had arisen from the grave degenerating into impotent ash, there still remained unrest and distrust of the new Queen who once more sat the throne beside Queen Celestia. Queen Selena’s decision to host a party the very night after the Sun had returned still rang somewhat hollow to many, who felt that an immediate turn towards reconstruction would have been more appropriate. Several expressed the notion that she underestimated the damage that she had caused as NightMare Moon, a notion which she herself responded to with somber resignation.
‘Loaþſome doð ƿe find it to cauſe our ſubjects diſdain,’ Queen Selena had said on a national radio broadcast, ‘but your Queen of þe Night found herſelf quite overcome ƿið þe joy of her emancipation. Ƿe apologiſe moſt forðrightly for our haſte. Henceforð, ƿe ʃall put more ſomber effort forƿard to rebuild a world þat ƿe ʃalt all ʃare, togeþer!’
(Granted, this took several retakes over the course of two days, as she apparently continually underestimated the ability of the microphone to catch her voice, speaking in a volume far too loud for the equipment to withstand and requiring reimbursement by the Equestrian Royal Family.)
“Well, it could be going better,” Twilight Sparkle admitted, idly scanning the pages of Daring Do and the Eternal Flower. “NightMare Moon has no holdouts from her regime; I mean, who in their right mind would want nighttime eternal, even amongst the Bat Ponies? − or, the Drow is what Queen Selena calls them, I suppose. But… ponies are still wary of her, and frankly it isn’t that surprising. The Miasmata are not a well-known species, and the only known specimen died a month ago at the hooves of the Elements of Harmony.” Twilight nudged to the next page. “Maybe we should just give it a bit of time after these changes to NightMare Night.”
In spite of the loudness of the knock − which was followed up by agitated hissing whispers on the doorstep − Twilight found herself not being terribly unsettled. Twice in the past hour had the door been knocked on already, so she found herself inured to it.
But still, who was it?
“Ah’ll git it this time, sugarcube,” said Applejack, slowly rising from the table and striding towards the double-doors. She pulled one of the doors open.
“Aunt ‘n’ Uncle Orange?”
Standing on the threshold of the Golden Oaks Library were a pair of middle-aged Earth Ponies, both of whom were smaller than Applejack (though not by much). The mare’s light-amber mane was done up in an elaborate beehive, and a large orange beauty mark was placed under her right eye. Her pale-yellow coat was perfectly groomed, and she wore a golden necklace laced with green and orange gemstones. Under half-lidded cerulean eyes she wore a soft smile, the sort that one wears when dealing with individuals who are particularly dim. It did not take keen eyes to see lines beginning to form on her face, however cleverly she tried to hide it with make-up. On her flanks were a cutie mark of three orange wedges. Her husband had a short light-pistachio mane streaked faintly with gray, and his pale-gold coat was similarly well-kept. His smile was less condescending then his wife’s, and his cutie mark was of a whole orange.
Applejack gathered her thoughts; what were Aunt and Uncle Orange doing in Ponyville? It was only three moons since the Reunion, and it was typically these reunions when they deigned to grace the Apple family with their presence.
“Ah… Ah had no idea y’all were comin’.”
Aunt Orange laughed to herself.
“‘Y’all’…” she mused. “I still find that so adorable.”
Uncle Orange nodded in response.
“But, if y’all’re here,” Applejack queried, “then where are Sunflower an’ Babs?”
Uncle Orange looked back over his shoulder.
“They should be along presently,” he said, “but it seems that Sunflower’s quite taken with this quaint little village.” He looked about at the thatched roofs, the cobblestone paths. “I say… it really is quite humble, isn’t it?”
Applejack cleared her throat.
“Well, no sense in crowdin’ th’ doormat. Why don’cha both come on in?”
“Oh I don’t know,” Aunt Orange said with a sad tilt of her head, though her smile barely faltered. “I’m sure you Bearers of the Elements have luxurious accommodations that suit the Orange lifestyle, but… we wouldn’t want to impose.”
“No, of course not,” added Uncle Orange, succeeding more than his wife at looking somber. “We wouldn’t want to impose.”
“Oh, it’d be no imposition, Mrs. and Mr. Orange,” interjected Twilight, stepping to Applejack’s side. “I’m sure that Spike and I can work something out to your liking.”
“Oh! Well, in that case…” Aunt Orange took a step forward over the doorstep.
“Whoa whoa whoa, Mom, Pop, don’ leave me an’ Babs out on da stoop!”
A pale-crimson Pegasus swooped down from the rooftops with a filly swept up under her foreleg. Her mane and tail were a brilliant gamboge, lanky and straight. She had a sort of sloppiness about her that, set against her parents, made her look positively bedraggled. Her pink-and-gamboge feathers were well-kept, though, from fetlocks to tail-feathers.
“Oh Sunflower!” gasped Aunt Orange. “What have you done to your mane?”
Sunflower blowed a stray hair out of her face.
“I don’ like havin’ ta wave my mane out, Mom. We ain’t gunna be seein’ none a’ youse white-hitchcollah buds out heah in Ponyville. ‘Sides, my mane’s wavy enough a’ready.”
“Be that as it may,” Aunt Orange insisted, parting Sunflower’s forelock so that it fell back under her ears, “you simply must look presentable in front of Queen Celestia’s personal student.”
Sunflower snorted, “I really don’ think she cares ‘bout dat sorta thing, Mom.”
“She’s right; I don’t,” Twilight cut in hopefully.
“Oh don’t listen to her, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” Aunt Orange shook her head, pulling her hooves back from Sunflower’s freckled face.
“Now, let’s take a look at you, Ballarat,” she said, turning her head down to her younger daughter whom Sunflower had set down.
The filly was not built like her cousin Apple Bloom, who was rather lanky like most fillies her age; rather, she was quite bulky and burly for a filly of a dozen years. She had a brilliant gamboge coat, rough and coarse, almost exactly matching her elder sister’s mane, and a brilliant amaranth mane that fell lank across half of her freckled face. Her light spring bud eyes darted about nervously, trying to avoid contact with her mother’s eyes.
“Ballarat Seedling,” said Aunt Orange crossly, “why did you let your elder sister ruin the mane that I had so expertly coiffed on the way out here?”
Babs looked up at Sunflower, the skirt of her tail covering her blank flank seemingly instinctively.
“Well… She kinda felt we’d be stickin’ out sumthin’ wild if we looked too frou-frou,” explained the Orange filly.
Aunt Orange sighed.
“I’ll hold my tongue in lieu of present company,” she said coolly, “but don’t think that I’ll have forgotten this. Now get in, you two!”
The atmosphere turned somewhat frosty as the Orange family stepped in, the family dynamics abundantly clear even to anypony who did not know them. It seemed, Twilight noted, that the reason Aunt Orange was so insistent on keeping her daughters dolled up was not out of any genuine desire to make them look good, but to reflect good upon herself. By the looks of it, Sunflower and Ballarat collectively cared less for appearance than their mother. Though Sunflower’s mane was largely straight and lank, there were parts that were wavy in a completely incongruous way from her more laissez-faire attitude towards appearance. Ballarat’s mane, though short and coarse, still had a hairband that pulled a part of it into a pigtail.
Aunt and Uncle Orange approached the central table with their daughters, eyes casting about the table for a spot to take a seat.
“Hey, Apple Bloom,” started Applejack casually, “why don’t you an’ yer friends entertain yer cousin Babs Seed?”
Apple Bloom brightened up, “Sure thang, AJ!” She and her fellow Cutie Mark Crusaders left their spot at the table and led Babs off towards the pile of books on acuomercology (or cutie-mark-ology, as they called it). Aunt and Uncle Orange looked at the spot that the three fillies had vacated; it was only just enough for the pair of them, and not enough to include their elder daughter.
“Sunflower dear,” Uncle Orange began, “do you think you could sit with your cousin Applejack?”
Sunflower beamed, “A’ course I could, Pop! I really like spendin’ time wit’ my not-city-folk fam’ly!”
With a deft flap in the air, Sunflower swept from between her parents to the spot between Applejack and Rainbow Dash.
“Now… introductions!” began Aunt Orange with a deft clop of her forehooves. “My name is Valencia Orange, and this is my husband Mosely.” She waved a manicured hoof at the stallion to her side. “And these are my daughters Sunflower…” She indicated the pale-crimson Pegasus who was already chatting rapidly with Applejack. “And Ballarat Seedling.” The gamboge filly nodded lightly at her name being called. “But enough about us. Let us talk stocks!”
“So,” Babs began awkwardly, blowing a bit of amaranth mane out of her right eye, “whatcha been up to out heah in Ponyville, cuz?”
“Well,” Apple Bloom began, stretching out her sugar-colored hind leg, “Ah found out a little while back that Ah weren’ th’ only gal in mah school what didn’t have her cutie mark yet.”
“She’s talking about us!” piped in Sweetie Belle.
Scootaloo rolled her eyes slightly, “Obviously.”
Babs’s eyes flicked quickly from her cousin to the Unicorn and Pegasus filly who sat with her, her tail’s short skirt sweeping up to cover her flank.
“Ohh… Blank flanks. Right.”
Apple Bloom beamed at Babs.
“But th’ thing is, we’re helpin’ each other in tryin’ ta git our cutie marks!”
“We haven’t been doing so well,” added Sweetie Belle, presenting her own off-white haunches, “but if we keep on trying, I’m sure we’ll get them!”
“Yeah! And we’ll get them together!” grinned Scootaloo.
Babs nodded noncommittally. “That’s great.”
Apple Bloom looked at her Manehattanite cousin confusedly.
“Why ya look so shifty, Babs?”
“It’s nuthin’, cuz,” Babs said shortly, shifting away from Apple Bloom with ears flopping lankly.
“It doesn’t seem like nothing,” Scootaloo commented.
“Well, it ain’t nuthin’, okay?” snapped Babs, her tail swishing and eyes flashing as she seemed to swell imperceptibly.
“She’s a blank flank, girls, just like us!”
Sure enough, Babs’s gamboge flank was unmarked by anything resembling a cutie mark. Knowing that there was no point in continuing the charade of keeping her blank flank hidden, Babs settled down at the edge of the Crusaders’ circle.
“Yeah… I ain’t got ma cutie mahk yet. And don’t think that I ain’t bin tryin’. Mom an’ Pop keep me dressed up in frilly frou-frou saddles that hide ma… ma mahklessness.”
Apple Bloom gave Babs a quirked eyebrow over peach-colored eyes.
“Whah th’ long face, cousin? Ya cin join our little friend-group an’ crusader fer yer cutie mark, too!”
Babs averted her eyes.
“Ev’rywheah I go, I’m bein’ judged by ma blank flank. Back in da city, I gotta deal wit’ uddah foals pullin’ at ma tail an’ callin’ me useless an’ ‘Girth Pony’ an’…”
She turned eyes flashing dangerously at the Cutie Mark Crusaders.
“An’ then I come out heah an’ I git told that I’m not useless fuh not havin’ ma mahk yet. Cantcha ponies make up youse minds ‘bout me?”
Apple Bloom and her friends cowered. There was no mistake; Babs Seed was definitely swelling now. Her eyes and hooves glowed bright green, and she stood taller than Applejack at the withers now, and she was still growing.
“Really, Ballarat!” scolded Aunt Orange, breaking off from her discussion of her and her husband’s bountiful stocks in orange groves. “Not in front of other ponies! Get that under control before somepony sees it! What will they think of us?”
Almost literally shrinking before her mother’s lashing tongue, Babs’s eyes and hooves ceased their glowing and she slowly returned to her natural size.
Apple Bloom’s eyes sparkled, and she opened her mouth to say…
“That was so cool, Babs!” Scootaloo piped in, interrupting Apple Bloom’s statement. “Where did you learn to do something like that?”
Babs trailed a spring bud-colored hoof along the ground.
“I didn’t learn anything ‘bout doin’ sumthin’ like dat. ‘t’s been sumthin’ I could do since I was tiny. An’… I can’ really control it. I get angry, an’ I get big. An’ I can’ control when I get angry. All dose bullies back in da city jus’ don’ stop till dey’ve pushed me ovah da edge.” She clenched her eyes shut, fighting back tears. “I hate it!”
Apple Bloom rested a sympathetic hoof on her city-born cousin’s shoulder.
“It’s alright, cousin. We’re here for ya. All three of us.”
“Yeah!” added Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo.
“We have to put up with bullies out here,” Sweetie Belle continued, “but we don’t care what they have to say.”
“They’re just a bunch of stupid dock-heads,” smirked Scootaloo, and Babs could not help but to snicker a little at the orange Pegasus filly’s brazenness.
“We’re gonna help ya figger out how ta git yer cutie mark, Babs,” declared Apple Bloom, a peach-colored hoof on her chest, “bah our honor as Cutie Mark Crusaders!”
Babs looked from the smiling faces of her cousin and the two other Crusaders to the books on cutie-mark-ology, then over to Sunflower looking at her out of the corner of her eye while talking smilingly with Applejack, then over to her parents not even glancing her way as they talked self-absorbedly about their stocks and their obvious prestige…
Babs blew her amaranth mane out of her right eye, smirking at Apple Bloom.
“Suah thing, cuz. Count me in as one a’ ya group.”
“Alright!” Apple Bloom cheered, putting a hoof in the air which Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo hoof-fived. With a bright grin, Babs added her hoof to the group.
“So,” Aunt Valencia said, in an abrupt switch in subject, “when is Queen Selena to arrive? Or is she already here?” She glanced about eagerly, as though hoping to spot the Queen of the Night hiding someplace in the library.
Twilight looked up to the clock, “Well, she’s supposed to be here by quarter-to-four − about three-and-three-dozen-nine − so she should be here in… less than two-dozen minutes.”
Almost as soon as Twilight finished speaking, Spike (who had been sitting quietly at her side since the Oranges arrived) burped up a bright-green cloud of smoke that lingered over the table.
“What in tarnation?”
Aunt Valencia’s hooves flew up to her mouth, as though she had uttered a disgusting swear-word. Virtually every pair of eyes in the Golden Oaks Library flew around to look at her, sweat beading on her forehead. Even Owlowiscious spun his head around from his roost by the agave and cactus at the window to look curiously at the big-city mare.
“Whoa Mom,” gaped Sunflower, smiling broadly nonetheless, “I ain’t nevuh heahd you talkin’ like dat outside a’ da house.”
“I ain’t nevuh heahd Mom talk like dat at all,” mused Babs Seed, her fellow Crusaders snickering behind her.
Aunt Valencia cleared her throat.
“Well, umm, do pardon me,” she stammered in her cultured Manehattan voice. “I do believe that slipped out. But, really, Twilight Sparkle? Haven’t you trained your dragon to not burp when in the presence of company? I thought that of all ponies, the pupil of Queen Celestia…”
“Hey, I can’t help it when I’m getting a message!” Spike cried defensively, scowling at the Orange mare.
Aunt and Uncle Orange gasped.
“He can talk?” the Orange stallion gasped.
“I had no idea dragons could talk,” breathed Aunt Valencia.
Twilight cast a curious look at Applejack’s aunt and uncle. “And how did you expect that Tiamat spoke at the Cosmic Council with the Queens?”
“I… I just thought that there were interpreters,” answered Aunt Valencia weakly. “But… your dragon… he said that he’d gotten a message?”
“He did,” Twilight replied brightly, her dwimmer shimmer lighting up around a rolled-up parchment at the exact spot where Spike’s burp-cloud had settled. “It’s how Queen Celestia and I maintain long-distance contact.”
“Is he… a familiar of the Queen’s?” asked Uncle Mosely.
Spike looked affronted.
“No I’m not! She just taught me how to do magic with my fire-breath to help Mom out.”
Aunt and Uncle Orange’s eyes flicked to Twilight in sharp confusion, as did Sunflower’s and Babs’s.
Twilight scratched behind her ear with a forehoof.
“Well, he’s not my son in a biological sense, but I did hatch his egg with my magic, so… I guess that makes me his mother. And I have raised him all his life. But really, what’s in this letter that Queen Celestia sent me?”
Unfastening the red ribbon and seal, Twilight unfurled the parchment and read her mentor’s elegant dwimmer-writing:
My deareſt and moſt faithful ſtudent Twilight Sparkle,
My dear little ſiſter Selena ſhould be on her way preſently to Ponyville, via Pegasus-drawn carriage. She eagerly awaits the opportunity to inſpect the NightMare Night preparations that you and your fellow Ponyvillagers have put together. As unſettled as ſhe may have been at the notion of a holiday that has demonized her for a meggroßium, I ſincerely feel that ſhe ſees this as a chance to enſure her ſtanding with the next generation. And I have aßured her − as I aßure you now − that I had no part in the onſet of NightMare Night. I would have been remiſs to forbid my little ponies to celebrate when there is the urge to, ſo I have made an effort over the großenturies to ſoften the preſentation of NightMare Moon in ſuch celebrations.
But I digreſs. My darling Selena approaches Ponyville, my beloved Twilight. Let her know that ſhe is ſtill welcome, that ſhe is always welcome. This paſt month has ſeen many ups and downs for her; her magic ſtill returns from the Miaſma’s hold on her.
I ſtill have affairs to ſettle here in Canterlot before I arrive in Ponyville, but know that I await the newly celebratory face of NightMare Night!
Your loving mentor,
Queen Celeſtia Apolinaria di Equeſtria
PS: As I underſtand it, your friend Pinkie Pie finds it amuſing that I continue to write my ‘s’s in a particular faſhion. Such ſimpliſtic ſatisfaction ſtirs ſolace in Queen Celeſtia. Stifle not ſtirring ſnickers behind your ſnout.
Reading the Queen’s postscript, Twilight bit down on her lower lip and let out a small and short laugh.
“Twilight Sparkle?” queried Aunt Valencia Orange with a quirked light-amber eyebrow. “Are you feeling quite alright? You seem like you’re acting quite like a middle-class Equestrian.”
“Pinkie, you’ve got to read the Queen’s postscript,” Twilight snickered, pretending not to hear the social-climber of an Orange. The pink Earth Pony poked her head over Twilight’s shoulder, reading the last few lines at the bottom of the parchment…
And Pinkie Pie looked disappointed.
“A joke’s not funny if you keep doing it over and over again,” she said with narrow eyes and crossed forelegs. “If jokes were that easy to make, then nopony would need a party planner pony.”
As if on cue, the postscript shimmered, the letters swirling around and shifting:
PS: Pinkie Pie piles packs of puce pumas pell-mell partway to Ponyville Penitentiary.
Pinkie’s eyes almost literally popped out of her head at the sight of the changing letters, while Twilight snorted lightly out of her nose at the baseness of the Queen’s magical application. In short while, Pinkie Pie began to short and giggle to high Elysium at the rearranged postscript.
“P-p-p-p-p-p-please, Queenie Celestia~!” trilled Pinkie, rolling on the floor with feathered hooves on her slightly rotund stomach. “You’re p-p-p-p-pulverizing my p-p-p-p-potbelly!”
Uncle Mosely Orange cast a worried eye upon the pink Earth Pony on the polished wooden floor.
“Twilight Sparkle… Are you sure that the Elements of Harmony didn’t just turn one of your fellow Bearers insane?”
Twilight shook her head amusedly.
“She’s always been like this, as far as I know. This is just Pinkie being Pinkie. She’s the Bearer of the Element of Laughter, so it stands to reason that she loves to laugh and see other ponies laugh.”
Valencia cleared her throat.
“Yes, well… that’s all well and good, but… I must confess myself disappointed that our dear little Applejack has fallen into…”
But she cleared her throat again and said nothing.
“What? Fallen inta what?” Applejack said sourly. “Don’ be shy, Aunt Blenheim.”
Aunt Orange flushed, her cheeks blotchy as she snarled at Applejack.
“Don’t call me that! I left that name behind when Ah… when I got my cutie mark!”
“Ya don’ seem ta have a problem with it when Granny Smith’s th’ one sayin’ it,” retorted Applejack.
“That’s because she’s my mother. Blood is thicker than orange juice, dearie.”
“If it is, then why do ya put on yer airs at family reunions? Ya ain’ got none a’ yer frou-frou Manehattanite pals ‘round ta judge ya.”
“I… I, for one, haven’t thrown away a golden opportunity to chase after rainbows!”
Applejack took in a deep breath to offer a heated retort…
“AJ,” cut in Sunflower, touching her pinions to Applejack’s side, “now’s probably not da time.”
Applejack’s growing hostile look softened as she looked at her cousin out of the corner of her eye. Glancing at the Cutie Mark Crusaders and the latest recruit Babs, she saw that the four fillies had expressions of fearful trepidation on their round faces. She took a low sigh.
“Fergit about it, Aunt Orange. This is NightMare Night. Let’s not rattle th’ cage.”
“Thank you, Applejack,” replied Aunt Orange with a relieved smile. “I’m glad that you shall let bygones be by―…”
“Don’ think Ah’m fergittin’ about this, though. Ah’m not keen on some things ya’ve done, but it ain’t sumthin’ Ah want ta ruin th’ new NightMare Night with. Queen Selena’s due ta arrive soon.”
Twilight nodded at Applejack’s ending assertion.
“That’s right, Applejack. We should probably head out and inspect what everypony has been doing.”
With that, the dozen-seven in the room − Twilight Sparkle and Spike and their five Ponyvillager friends, the four Cutie Mark Crusaders, Cobnut and his family and Fuzzhead, Zecora, and the Oranges − slowly rose from their seats around the Golden Oak Library and made their way out towards greater Ponyville.
Ever since its foundation less than eight-dozen years before, Ponyville had demonstrated itself a very humble sort of hamlet. Because of its proximity to the royal capital of Canterlot, many ponies assumed that the village would quickly rise up at the rapidity that New Amstirrupdam showed when it became Manehattan, the Big Orange. However, as the douzaides passed, it became bafflingly clear that the ponies of Ponyville were content in remaining a tight-knit family of a relatively small two- or three-gross, rather than ballooning to a megagross or more.
There were many who felt that Queen Celestia should have mandated that Ponyville expand outwards and upwards, but no such mandate came. As puzzling as it may have been to some, Ponyville remained a sharp contrast to cosmopolitan metropolis that sat on the mountainside to its north.
“‘Welcome to Ponyville, Queen Selen’?” Twilight read from the sign in front of the Gazebo. “What happened to the ‘a’ at the end?”
“We couldn’t fit it on,” mused Golden Harvest sadly.
“Well, we’ll have to redo it, then,” Twilight said decisively. “This NightMare Night presentation must be absolutely perfect if it is to leave the holiday’s old image behind.”
She rounded on a mulberry Earth Pony mare.
“Pinot Noir, how are the supplies from the vineyard progressing?”
Pinot Noir batted cerise eyes pleasantly, gesturing a cerise hoof towards the table stacked with bottles of fine wine and numerous glasses.
“They are indeed progressing well, Miss Sparkle,” she said in her light Fancy accent. “Mary and myself ‘ave test-tasted a good number ourselves.”
“Oh, I can bet you two did,” teased Rainbow Dash.
“Rainbow Dash!” scolded Rarity. “You know better than to make insinuations regarding another mare’s…”
“Oh no, it iz quite alright, Miss Rarity,” cut in Pinot, and she swayed her sizable hips suggestively as she winked. “Mary can be quite… forward when she wants to be.”
“Too much information!” squealed Fluttershy with a wing over her eyes.
Pinot laughed throatily.
“Oh, I tease, I tease! Would you like a sample, Miss Sparkle?”
“Oh no, I think I’ll pass,” Twilight said genteelly. “I’m sure there will be plenty in stock for the festival.”
“Wine…” mused Aunt Orange aloud. “I must say, Applejack, it still surprises me to see such a cultured drink out here in Ponyville.”
Applejack said nothing, only furrowing her eyebrows in response. She had set herself up as the better mare by offering the olive branch, and if Aunt Blenheim was going to continue to make snide comments and cutting remarks the whole day long, then so be it.
“And Ditzy Doo,” Twilight approached the gray Pegasus mailmare, “how are the preparations for the muffin menagerie?”
The gray mare saluted Twilight brightly, her left eye meeting Twilight’s; her right eye looked aimlessly up at the sky.
“Muffin platoon is all armed up and ready to be deployed, Mon Capitain!”
Twilight giggled a little at the silliness of Ditzy Doo. In the month she’d spent living in Ponyville, she had long since accepted the semi-random statements that came to the flighty but altogether capable mailmare. Despite her misaligned eyes, or because of them, Ditzy Doo was an exceptional deliverer, knowing where each pony lived by house and not by address.
Also, her muffins were to die for.
“Twilight?” asked Sweetie Belle.
“Is NightMare Night really gonna change forever?”
“I’m afraid so, Sweetie Belle,” Rarity said sympathetically. “You see, Queen Selena, who has been held in psychic captivity by the erstwhile NightMare Moon, does not hold the present incarnation of the holiday NightMare Night in highest esteem. Now that she’s been cleansed on that dreadful creature’s evil influence, the Queens have decided that it’s time for a change.”
“But Ah liked NightMare Night th’ way that it was,” cried Apple Bloom, her muzzle scrunching up. “Ah liked goin’ out in costume an’ gittin’ candy from ev’rypony ‘round Ponyville.”
“And I liked it when Rainbow Dash would spook ponies by bucking thunder-clouds in the middle of it all!” Scootaloo said emphatically with a swing of one of her hooves.
Spike shrugged, “We never really did NightMare Night up at Canterlot. Nopony ever really put out anything like that. And when they did, there were never any gems that anypony was giving out.” He frowned darkly.
“Gems?” Valencia Orange gasped. “Why in the world would somepony give up gems? They’re so valuable!”
“Because Dragons eat them,” Twilight answered. “Dragons find gems valuable for an entirely different reason.”
Babs rubbed a forehoof slowly, “I ain’t nevuh been much fer dis heah holiday; too many kids pokin’ an’ pullin’ at me up at da city. But Sunflowah’s been pretty swell at keepin’ ‘em off my back long enough fer me ta git a bag a’ treats!”
Sunflower gave her little sister a noogie, grinning sloppily.
“‘Cause nopony messes with ma little sis!”
“Please, keep it together, girls!” Mosely Orange said. “You never know when Queen Selena is due to arrive.”
“Yes sir,” murmured the two sisters, each blowing a bit of mane out of their eyes.
“Sorry ‘bout Mom ‘n’ Pop bein’ such putzes,” Babs murmured to Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo. “Dey don’ ceah foah da country life.”
“Ah ain’ got much experience with city life,” Apple Bloom replied, “but Ah don’ see no reason not ta care fer it. Ah mean, AJ didn’ stick it out much, but Ah’ve read about some a’ th’ thangs y’all have up there. Thangs like subways an’ elevators an’ buildin’s that’re taller than trees! How did y’all do stuff like that?”
Babs smiled sheepishly, “I don’ really know. I didn’ build any a’ dem buildin’s. I ain’ no engineeah.” She blinked. “Oh yeah! Youse guys met da Queen of da Night, didn’cha? What was it like meetin’ hah?”
“It was pretty swell!” Apple Bloom said brightly. “Ah ain’ never met a Queen before, an’ Ah never thought Ah’d meet one ever.”
“And she stood up for us against a mean old bully named Diamond Tiara,” continued Sweetie Belle, beaming.
“She’s got awesome bat-looking wings, too!” Scootaloo grinned, flapping her own tiny undergrown wings for emphasis.
The Mayor of Ponyville approached Twilight, her pince-museau and silvery mane glinting in the afternoon as she smiled.
“Twilight Sparkle,” she said amiably, “are the new NightMare Night preparations to the New Queen’s liking?”
“We’ll know soon enough, won’t we?” Twilight replied.
A blare of a trumpet rang out from the north, and the hullabaloo of Town Square came to an abrupt halt.
“Look!” cried out Butter-And-Eggs, pointing a butter-yellow hoof up in the direction of the trumpet’s call. “That’s not a bird!”
“Nope, don’t look like it!” added Pinkie Pie, pulling a pair of binoculars from out of nowhere and affixing them to her face. “It looks like some sorta flying chariot thingy!”
“It’s the Queen of the Night!” cried Aunt Orange, before setting upon her daughters. “Quick, make yourselves presentable!”
The surrounding dozens of ponies in Town Square turned their eyes northward and skyward as the chariot descended towards Ponyville, drawn by a pair of winged Royal Guards. As it drew close, it was apparent that one of them was a Pegasus and the other a Bat Pony, a Drow. A runway had been cleared out alongside the Gazebo for the chariot and its most regal passenger, and it was the target for the new arrivals from Canterlot. The ponies flanking the runway sank to their knees as the Royal Guards alighted upon the ground with sharp whinnies, the golden wheels of the chariot bouncing along the cobbled road as it came to a halt beside the Bearers and their party of ponies, Deer, a drake and a Zebra.
With a flap of midnight-blue feathered bat-wings, Queen Selena Artemis di Equestria disembarked from her chariot, alighting upon polished-black greaves to the sounds of paparazzi snapping pictures.
The younger sister of Queen Celestia Apolinaria di Equestria, Queen Selena was smaller and slightly less beautiful than her elder sister. Though her front half bore a coat of pale gray-blue, her coat was a midnight cornflower from her wings back. Her voluminous light-azure mane was bound by a hairband behind her tall black crown and between her ears, and both mane and tail-skirt were tied near the ends by additional hairbands. Her lion-like tail was not marked at the dock by tail-feathers, but by fins not unlike a Bat Pony’s. A sapphire-blue patch of fur shaped like a five-point star marked her right cheek, beneath cyan eyes with oval pupils. Her graceful smile revealed vampiric fangs. As she spread her wings, glowing-white secondaries caught the sunlight and dazzled the eye.
‘Fair citizens of the town of Ponyville,’ spake she, and her voice boomed as a legion, ‘your Queen of the Night has arrived to oversee the transformation of this fell holiday, into a joyous and rapturous FEAST!’
Twilight could not help but to smile. Already did Queen Selena sound much more in tune with the times; though her faintly Germane accent remained, it was significantly less pronounced, and even one of the least educated ponies could freely interpret her words without confusion.
But her usage of the Royal Canterlot Voice did make it difficult for another reason to listen to: volume.
“Really, Queen Aunt Selena,” whined a voice from another figure as it descended from the chariot, “you must keep your voice down. It’s bad enough to be so far away from my manicurist.”
A white Unicorn with a perfectly coiffed amber mane stepped down from the chariot after Queen Selena. He was quite tall at the withers, and he had quite the pleasant appearance. He wore a white collar with a blue bowtie, and not a single amber hair at the end of his leonine tail was out of place. There was a dashing glimmer in his icy blue eyes that spoke of a lifetime of luxury.
Rarity gasped so sharply that Twilight thought for a moment that her throat would bleed raw.
“Y… You are Prince Blueblood, Duke of Canterlot!” she breathed.
The stallion in question grinned in a rather self-assured way that made Rainbow Dash seem positively humble.
“Why yes, indeed I am.”
“But I have read so much about you in all of the gossip columns. They say that you are the most eligible bachelor in all of Canterlot.” The alabaster Unicorn suddenly stood in a much more stately fashion than she had assumed before, a demure bat of her eyelids clearly intended to woo. Twilight recalled how Rarity so delighted in the idea of living in Canterlot, and knowing who this stallion was, she could not help but fear that her Ponyville friend was setting herself up for a bad fall. “But why in the world do you hold the titles of Prince and Duke?”
“Prince is just my given name; Blueblood is my family name,” Blueblood explained coolly. “Mommy and Daddy gave me that name to remind me of the lifestyle that I would lead here. Did you know that my lineage can be traced back to the sister of Queen Aunt Celestia’s mother?”
“Can it?” Rarity replied in astonishment, though Twilight detected a hint of foreknowledge in Rarity’s tone; this clearly was something she had read in her gossip columns. “Do tell me more, Duke Prince Blueblood! You may begin your inquiries with myself, you handsome stallion, you,” she said with a faintest hint of amorous lilt to her tone. Applejack palmed her face in a hoof.
Twilight made to speak to Rarity and warn her of the pit she was about to set hoof in, but…
‘Please, dear nephew,’ interjected Queen Selena, placing an armored hoof on the Unicorn elite’s shoulder. ‘Thou mayest pursue thy fancies at thine own pace at a later time. Anon, we must attend to the festivities…!’
As Queen Selena reared back triumphantly, crimson-red bolts of lightning arched across the sky, bathing Ponyville in bloody light. Twilight grimaced; if Queen Selena was keen on changing the image of NightMare Night, then this was entirely the wrong approach to take.
Queen Selena settled back down to her forelegs and cast her eyes about in confusion; she clearly was not in control, as became clear when the lightning persisted, darting from rooftop to rooftop, blackening weathervanes and sending shattered roof-tiles to the roads below. Ponies ran in terror, abandoning their stalls and their wares (though Mary Smith-Noir and her daughter Mornen Noir had to almost literally drag Pinot Noir from their vineyard wares) for fear of their lives.
The Queen of the Night rounded on her two guards,
‘Flash Sentry! Wind Chill! Dispatch yourselves and ascertain the origin of this fell threat!’
The pair of Guards saluted, bright Pegasus and dark Drow, and spread their wings…
Before being quickly laid low by a crimson bolt each, collapsing to their barrels with cries of shock.
Queen Selena spun on the spot, a deep-royal-blue dwimmer shimmer blazing along her alicorn and her wings spreading to their fullest breadth…
And chain-lightning the color of blood ensnared her, clamping her wings to her sides and her legs to her belly. The glow of her dwimmer shimmer faltered and died. Her cyan eyes darted about in fright and alarm.
“What in the world…?” gasped Aunt Orange.
“What’s happening, Mom…?” whimpered Butter-And-Eggs, huddling under Strawberry’s legs.
Pale smoke began to seep up from the earth beneath them, mini-arcs of red lightning appearing sporadically. By now, most everypony had abandoned Town Square save for those who had arrived with the Bearers from the Golden Oak Library.
Zecora gaped at the lightning caging Queen Selena.
‘I have read of no magic like this in any tome. This is new to me abroad as it would be at home.’
“Aunt Selly!” cried Blueblood in fright, cowering on the ground in a manner completely unbefitting royalty.
“What could have caused this?” breathed Twilight. This was a terrible disaster! No sooner had Queen Selena made her first real public appearance since her liberation from the Miasma, than she was apparently ensnared once more by evil. And on NightMare Night no less! Nopony would ever associate this with anything good or wholesome anymore…
And a maniacal cackle filled the streets of Ponyville.
“Good afternoon to you all, Ponyville!” boomed out a very familiar voice, but with far more power and force than any had heard from it.
And it seemed to boom out from the lightning itself.
“Your savior from the days of unending night has returned to you, to right what has been wronged to her!”
The lightning branched out from around Queen Selena, coalescing into an equine shape in front of Twilight. Red light filled the lavender Unicorn’s vision, and she brought up a foreleg to shield her eyes.
“Mom…?” Spike gasped, his nictitating membranes sliding over his eyes to block out excess light. “Is this who I think it is…?”
The laughter boomed out once more.
“Behold, Equestria, Ponyville, Twilight Sparkle, the absolute power of the one known only as…”
The lightning flared out, and dissipated from the equine shape. Lowering her foreleg, Twilight beheld a pony she had not seen in near-on to three months.
A brilliant azure coat… Ragged cornflower mane and tail-skirt… A pale-purple cape and wizard’s hat, both patterned with pale-yellow and blue stars… The only thing that seemed to have changed was the most peculiar amulet she wore on her chest. But then Twilight met her eyes. There was a crimson gleam in her pupils, bleeding out into the dark-violet of her irises. And her smile… no smile should have looked so savage as she declared her name:
“The Great And Powerful Trixie!”
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