• Published 22nd Nov 2019
  • 900 Views, 66 Comments

By The Light of the Moon - Lets Do This



Faced with Nightmare Moon's approaching return, Twilight, Tempest, and their classmates need help from an expert... a pony named Moondancer. But it's the last thing Moondancer wants to talk about...

  • ...
6
 66
 900

III: A Great and Powerful Summoning

Moondancer burst through the door of her dorm room, and flung off her carryall. Then she hauled out the low trunk from under the bed, and rapidly sifted through the books she kept locked inside it.

"Predictions and Prophecies," she muttered, "that's important. And Star Swirl's monograph on The Nightmare and its Influence, uh huh. Oh, and the original text of the Legend of the Two Sisters, gotta show Twilight that!"

She paused, looking at the treasure-trove of books and scrolls. And then laughed. "Maybe it'd just be simpler to bring the whole trunk? Gotta ask if they can help me haul it over!"

The thought was so unusual, it brought her to an abrupt halt. Suddenly, she had a group of friends that she could ask to do something like that.

A lifetime of caution, of fear, momentarily reasserted itself.

Can I really trust them, she thought, to care about me? To look out for me? To stand up for me? Or are they only interested in me so far as I can help with their project?

She considered it for a while. And then shook her head, smiling.

Like Sunset said -- I gotta give them a chance, let them prove that they're the friends I've always wanted.

Returning her attention to the trunk, she picked out a few other choice volumes to bring with her, then turned to her carryall, to repack its pockets.

And froze.

Hurriedly, she hoofed through the books in its pockets, not finding the one that really mattered.

It's missing, she thought. My journal! All my private thoughts, all my notes to Nightmare Moon! It must have fallen out, back at the Archives!

Her blood ran cold.

What if the librarians find it, and reshelve it somewhere, thinking it's just some random reference book? I might never see it again! Or worse, what if somepony reads it, and then wants to know why I'm writing all these private messages to Nightmare Moon?

Dropping the carryall, she hurried to the door, yanked it open...

... and blinked, startled.

There was a pony standing there, a white, wavy-maned colt. His forehoof was lifted, as if to knock on the door.

"Oh, hi!" he said. "Sorry! Are you Moondancer?"

"Um... yeah?"

"Oh, great! Look, I found this book. It had your name inside the cover, so I figured I'd see if you'd lost it."

"My journal!" Moondancer grabbed it. "Oh! Thanks so much!"

"No problem!" he said. "Hey, just curious, is it a diary of some kind? Don't worry, I didn't read it, apart from looking at the first page or two to figure out what it was. Wouldn't want you to think I'm being nosey, or anything."

"It's okay. And yeah, it's... kinda personal."

"Thought so. Hey, mind if I ask you a question?"

"No, what?"

"Do you really believe in Nightmare Moon? Do you believe she actually exists?"

Moondancer blinked. It never rains..., she thought.

"Well," she offered diplomatically, "there are several competing theories about that... but I suppose every legend starts from some sort of truth, doesn't it?"

"Woah, that is so deep, so wise! You know, I have these friends... and they'd really love to hear anything you can tell them about her."

Moondancer looked around, suddenly aware of the numerous black-cloaked ponies closing in on both of them. One was holding a coil of rope, another a sack.

"Um... hello?" she asked, frightened. "You're not friends of Twilight Sparkle, are you?"

------------------------------

Twilight nervously tapped a hoof on the worktable. She'd long ago given up even trying to pretend she was reading the book in front of her.

"How long's it been?" she asked.

"Since the last time you asked?" Tempest replied. "Three minutes." Then she called over her shoulder. "Grubber! Any sign of her yet?"

"Not yet, boss!" he called from his post by the window, looking down into the open quad below. "It's getting dark down there, though. Won't be able to see much longer."

"You think maybe she changed her mind?" Spike asked. "Decided she didn't want to come?"

Sunset shook her head. "A pony who just got her most heartfelt wish? Not likely, take it from me!"

"Maybe we should have gone with her?" Twilight fretted. "Offered to help bring back... whatever it was she went to get? But then, maybe that would have seemed like we were being pushy? Like we were crowding her, hurrying her? Ohhh! I'm trying to be a good friend here! Or... am I just obsessing about things again?"

"A little of both, maybe," Starlight agreed.

"Relax, Twilight," Tempest advised. "Something may have come up, which she had to take care of. She'll be along."

"Well! Even assuming she does show up," Trixie said, waving a hoof dismissively, not even looking up from her book, "what's she going to be able to tell us, anyways?"

"Trixie!" Starlight objected.

"I'm serious!" Trixie poked the book with a hooftip. "We've been at this for hours ourselves, and haven't even made a dent yet! She's a student, just like us! How's she going to be able to tell us anything about Nightmare Moon that we couldn't find out just as well on our own?"

"Because she's thought about this," Sunset said, "read about it, cared about it, her entire life." She looked at Twilight. "That's what we really need here. We don't need just facts, we need experience. We need somepony who owns this, who cares about it more than anything else. And Moondancer's like that, trust me! In fact --"

She came to a halt, a concerned look on her face.

"-- now that I think about it... there is nothing else that she'd need to take care of first."

"And just how do you know that?" Trixie asked. "You only just met her!"

Sunset shrugged. Now was as good a time as any to bring it up. "When I crossed over through the mirror, I picked up this weird empathy talent. I touch someone, and bam, I see things about them: memories, feelings, sometimes stuff they're not even aware of themselves!"

Trixie stared, with a worried look on her face.

"Ooooh, that sounds... freaky..."

"You have no idea!" Sunset said. "It doesn't always work, and it seems to depend on really strong emotion. But when it does, it's like being hit over the head with another pony's entire soul -- not pleasant!"

"My sympathies," Trixie remarked dryly.

Sunset rolled her eyes, then looked around at the others.

"Moondancer should have been here by now. We need to go check on her."

"Right," Twilight nodded. "Let's go! And remember, everypony, last one out locks up! Right, Tempest?"

"Nice to see you're finally learning," Tempest said. "Grubber! You and Spike wait here, in case Moondancer does show up. Let her know we'll be back soon."

"Got it, boss!"

------------------------------

When they reached Moondancer's room, they found the door was ajar, the lights off inside. Motioning the others back, Tempest went in first, shouldering open the door with her armor, glaring about warily. When she motioned curtly for the rest of them, they followed her in nervously.

"Wow, this place is a mess," Starlight said, looking around.

"This? This is nothing," Twilight said sheepishly. "You should see my room when Spike's been busy running errands and hasn't had time to sweep up. Stacks of books, dirty dishes, crumpled scroll paper all over the floor... eeyeah, this is about normal for me."

"Still..." Tempest gave the disarray a practiced eye. "There are signs of a struggle. Books knocked over, an overturned chair. And this --" She pointed a hoof at the carryall lying on the floor.

Twilight quickly checked its contents. "These look like the books she was going to bring! Okay, something must have happened to her. Somepony came here and grabbed her. But why?"

"And who?" Starlight asked. "And how do we figure out where they've taken her?"

"We could ask around the dorm," Sunset said quickly. "See if anyone saw anything?"

"Right, let's get on it!" Starlight headed for the door, followed by others -- or rather, she realized, most of the others. "Trixie?"

The showpony had turned Moondancer's desk chair upright, and settled herself comfortably on it. With her cloak wrapped around her, a pensive look on her face, she sat staring intently into the distance, silent and brooding.

Starlight motioned to the door. "Aren't you coming with us? What are you doing?"

Trixie looked at her, as if in surprise. "Why, Starlight! I'm figuring out where Moondancer is, of course!"

Tempest eyed her sourly. "Oh, really?"

Trixie frowned back at her. Then she leapt to her hooves, adopting her stage voice. "Oh, ye of little faith! Watch in awe, as the Grrreat and Powerful Trrrixie ferrets out the exact place that Moondancer has been taken!"

Spreading her forehooves grandly, she stepped to the center of the room, and came to a halt. Folding her cloak about her, her eyes narrowed, she made a great show of glancing about the room, as if looking for something.

"Trixie..." Starlight said, "we really don't have time for --"

"Shush!" Trixie demanded, with a wave of a hoof. Then she resumed her search.

Tempest rolled her eyes. "This is getting us nowhere!"

Trixie gave her an arch look. "Au contraire! The Great Trixie's powers of observation and deduction are not to be scoffed at! In fact, the Great and Powerful Trixie has already put her hoof on the key to the entire mystery... literally!"

When the others stared at her blankly, she rolled her eyes, and dropped back to her normal speaking voice.

"Look, this is a pony who doesn't get out much, right? Who isn't all that active, who just sits around all day? Doing nothing but reading books? No offense, Twilight!" she added sweetly. "Soooo... ya wanna tell me why there's a receipt from a sporting-goods store on her floor?"

She pointed. They all stared at the slip of paper sticking out from under her left hoof. Trixie grabbed it up with her magic and passed it to Twilight, who read it over.

"Gloves and Skis..." Twilight said. "This is in Canterlot Heights, near the lower slopes!"

"Well, what are we waiting for?" Sunset said. "Let's get after her!"

Twilight suddenly looked worried.

"Wait... maybe we should ask for help? After all, what if whoever grabbed Moondancer -- gets us, too?"

She looked up at Tempest. Who glanced around at everyone, a stern look on her face. "That's true..." she observed. "You know, the smart thing to do here would be to report this to the Canterlot Guard, tell them what we know, and let them do their job."

She glanced at Twilight with a smirk on her face.

"Which... if I know them, would involve several hours spent determining whether they have proper jurisdiction, filling out the proper forms, coming up with a list of possible suspects, and eventually assigning some junior officer to knock on a few doors, ask a few questions, and call it a day."

She scowled darkly.

"You may have noticed, I'm not big on doing the smart thing. I say we go after Moondancer, find her ourselves." She shrugged. "It's what good friends would do."

"All right!" Sunset said, pumping a fist.

"Hey, I'm in!" Starlight agreed.

"Ha! No pony left behind, eh, bestie?" Trixie nudged Starlight.

Twilight smiled around at her friends, relieved. Then she looked up at Tempest. "Thanks!"

Tempest gave her a sour look. "Don't thank me, Twilight. You were going to do it anyway. I'm just bowing to the inevitable here."

The ponies quickly crowded out through the door, and headed down the main staircase towards the dorm's front entrance.

And Tempest thoughtfully pulled the door shut after them all.

------------------------------

When the sack was pulled off her head, Moondancer at first could hardly tell the difference. She was sitting on a reasonably comfortable chair, under a bright overhead light. It left the rest of the large store-room she was in dark and obscure... though not entirely. Squinting a bit, she could just make out shadowy, robed figures gathered around her. A lot of them.

"Uhm... hello?" Moondancer said. "Who are you? Where is this?"

One of the robed figures came forward, carrying a heavy book. The gleam of magic flipped open the book and paged rapidly through it. And then the figure lofted a hoof and spoke, somberly and reverently.

"And the prophet of the Mark shall know not whom she addresses, nor the place of the Gathering..."

The robed figures nodded in agreement.

"Okay, this isn't funny," Moondancer said. "What do you all want?"

Pages turned. "The wise one shall not know those whom she has gathered to herself," the figure read, "in the name of She Who Shall Return."

"Look, is this is about my journal? It's just stuff I wrote to myself, okay? Just private stuff. It's not actually messages to Nightmare Moon!"

More pages flipped. "Ah! Here it is. She shall deny the knowing, the telling, and the seeing -- but she has wisdom beyond measure, and shall guide the righteous out of the darkness!"

The crowd of robed figures nodded and murmured approvingly.

Moondancer stared in astonishment at the figure before her, still standing there, one forehoof lifted proudly, as if expecting a benediction, an anointment...

Then Moondancer shook her head, utterly disgusted.

"Seriously?" she asked. "You shove a bag over my head, haul me all the way down here... just to quote Hoofstradamus at me?"

"Uh, sorry?" The robed figure asked, nonplussed.

Moondancer pointed at the book. "Hoofstradamus? The Prophecies, right? I bet it's even the abridged version. The uncut edition you wouldn't be able to hold up like that without a pretty solid table underneath it!"

"But, but... the Master foretold so much... predicted so much!"

"Yeah! By being deliberately rambling and vague! You could flip through that book and find something halfway true about anything. I mean, come on!" Glancing around, she noticed a lectern nearby, which had a few tomes on its lower shelf. "Well! At least you've got Hippasia!" she said, nodding. "She was a real historian. Though she kind of lost it at the end, so you can't trust her later scrolls, right after the Banishing."

The robed figure was staring from Moondancer to the book in her hooves, uncomfortably. Moondancer eyed her pityingly.

"I'll bet you haven't even read Hippasia, have you?"

"Well..." the figure admitted. "She is kind of long and dry. We've only gotten partway through..."

"Figures. Look, take my advice, if you're going to start up some kind of weird cult around Nightmare Moon... at least make sure you're starting with some reliable sources, huh?"

The robed figures looked at each other, then back at Moondancer.

"Maybe..." the leader said hesitantly, "you could give us some pointers?"

Moondancer shrugged.

"Um, I guess... what else you got around here?"

------------------------------

Sometime later, at a transom window high on the rear wall of the store-room, two nervous pony faces edged into view. It was Starlight and Trixie. They rapidly took in the candle-lit scene before them.

Outside, in the alley behind the sporting-goods store, Tempest Shadow was reared up, one forehoof braced against the wall, holding up both ponies with her other hoof. She grunted in annoyance. "You want to make it quick up there?" she whispered. "This isn't as easy as it looks!"

"Sorry, Tempest!" Starlight whispered back. "You can lower us down now."

Tempest did. Then the five of them withdrew a short distance down the alley. "Well? What did you see?" Sunset asked.

"Not much," Trixie said, "A candle-lit room, full of ponies wearing dark robes."

"And Moondancer's there," Starlight added, "sitting on a chair right in the middle of them. They've got books open, all around her... it's like some kind of arcane ritual!"

"Omigosh!" Sunset said. "Some kind of cult? Like maybe one worshipping Nightmare Moon? Just like out of the history books!"

Twilight looked puzzled. "Yeah... straight out of the history books. I mean, didn't the Nightmare cult pretty much die out in the early third century?"

"Well this one," Starlight said, "looks very much alive. And they've got Moondancer! We've got to get her out of there!"

"There's too many to rush them... it'd be too risky." Tempest rapidly considered options. "We should sneak in, try to grab her fast, before they even know we're there."

"Actually..." Trixie said, tapping her chin with a hoof, "Trixie has a much better idea. You know what we've got here?" She giggled, and rubbed her forehooves together. "A ready-made audience!"

"Trixie..." Starlight warned, with a worried look on her face.

"Hear me out!" the showpony said. "The Grrreat and Powerful Trrrixie knows how to read a crowd. And this one is just begging for a show!" She grinned. "All we have to do is figure out how to stage it properly..."

------------------------------

"Yeah, okay, there was the Heresy of the Nightmare Shadow," Moondancer allowed. "But that faded out way back in the fourth century, along with most of the other schisms. Most of the standard histories today accept the Monist theory. It only makes sense, right? Why would a good and kind ruler, who was also supposed to be incredibly smart, agree to be taken over by some kind of dark force, huh? Doesn't add up, right?"

The robed figures all nodded. "Right!" one said. "When you put it like that, it's pretty hard to disagree!"

Another tentatively raised a hoof. "But, didn't Cloudmane the Thunderous, in his History of the Nightmare, report an eyewitness account of a bicameral transformation?"

"Him?" Moondancer sniffed, and shook her head. "He's post-Banishment, writing in the late second century! And he based his work on accounts that were already second- or third-hoof to begin with. There's no way he could've given anything like an eyewitness account."

"Woah..." said another robed pony. "You really know your stuff!"

"Yeah!" said a third. "It's amazing how you can keep all this straight so easily."

"You're so authoritative," said a fourth, "so confident, when you get on a roll like that."

"Well..." Moondancer shrugged, smiling sheepishly. "I've been reading and thinking about the Mare most of my life. It's a hobby, I guess." She glanced around at the robed figures. "So... now we've got all that straightened out, any chance you might just... maybe... let me go?"

The roomful of mysterious hooded, cloaked figures all looked utterly heartstricken.

"Aw, do you have to?"

"You've taught us so much!"

"Yeah! I wish all our meetings could be like this. This is cool!"

"Could you at least," said the robed pony holding The Prophecies, "stick around long enough to meet our leader? I just know she'd love to talk with you, ask you questions."

"She really would!" another said. "And speaking of which, shouldn't she be here by now? She's usually so prompt, what's keeping her?"

"She'll be along. Oh, please! Won't you stay until she gets here?"

The robed figures all nodded imploringly.

"Please?... Would you?... It'd mean so much!"

Moondancer looked around at the darkly cowled, shadowy figures, staring at her raptly and beseechingly. On the one hoof, it was surprisingly pleasant, having a completely rapt and attentive audience like this.

On the other hoof, it was downright terrifying...

"Look, I appreciate the attention, I really do. But... I'm not an historian. I just read a lot! This is just a hobby of mine. I'm not the pony you need here..."

"On the contrary!" called a proud, raspy voice. "You are precisely the pony we have sought, to lead us into the grand new future that lies ahead!"

A door had opened across the room, through which a beam of light fell from the front room of the building. Silhouetted in it was a proudly stern figure, cloaked in a robe so black it made everyone else's look brown, and wearing a heavy gold chain necklace.

She swept into the candle-lit room, the door swinging shut behind her. The crowd of robed figures quickly made room, as she stalked unhesitatingly straight through their midst, ending up right in front of Moondancer.

Reaching out a hoof, the new pony casually snatched The Prophecies from its owner. She snapped it open, her magic paging through it with confident authority. Finding what she sought, her robed hoof stabbed down onto the page.

"Here it is: Her wisdom shall summon the Night, and the Night shall reign supreme! You see, my friends? At long last, we have found the key! The pony of the Mark, who shall bring about the return of the imprisoned Queen of the Night -- Nightmare Moon!"

The cloaked ponies looked at each other, uncertainly.

"Um, pardon me for asking," one said, "but are you feeling all right? Your voice sounds really different tonight."

The pony glanced around, then quickly coughed into a hoof. "Hay fever," she said quickly. "It's why I was late tonight. But not too late," she quickly added in a grand tone, "to witness the Great Return itself! For tonight, my friends, tonight we are finally ready. Tonight we shall perform... the Summoning!"

There was a puzzled silence from the crowd.

The black-robed pony looked around at all of them. "Uh, you know? The bit at the end, where there's this incantation, and... oh, for crying out loud. Look, right here!" She showed them a page from the book.

"But... I thought that was a chant that turns hay into gold?" said one of them.

"No, no," said another, "you're thinking of the spell on page 353. This one's a warding spell to drive off flies."

"You're both wrong!" said a third, "it's a cure for halitosis and impacted hoof! I know that for a fact, because my grandmare swears by it, and --"

"Enough!" shouted the leader. They all fell silent. "Foolish ponies!" she went on. "That's what Hoofstradamus wanted you to think! But it is in fact the secret incantation, the very secret incantation, known only to the true elect, that will unlock the prison of Stars, summoning the Mare of Darkness, the Mistress of the Night -- Nightmare Moon!"

"But... wait a minute," Moondancer said. "I thought the Legend foretold the Return would be on the longest day of the thousandth year? We're nowhere near the solstice yet."

The black-cowled figure face-hoofed, then quickly recovered. "Aha!" she snapped. "That was intentional, to throw the nonbelievers off guard, so they wouldn't suspect the truth: that when the pony of the Mark appears, we would be able to summon the Mare ourselves, at any time, catching them completely off guard!"

The robed ponies drew back nervously.

"So... we're actually going to summon Nightmare Moon... now?"

"That's not possible... is it?"

"Look, if we're going to be here late tonight, I'm going to need to get a message to my sitter."

"Hang on a minute," said a more sharp-minded follower. "Didn't Moondancer just say that Hoofstradamus was basically a false prophet? So, that incantation can't possibly work! Uh... right?"

The black-cloaked leader held up a hoof for silence. "Oh, yes it can! Ye ponies of small minds and little faith! But it only will if she reads it! She denies it only so that you would not suspect her true power -- the power of the bearer of the Mark, to summon the One who gave it to her!"

She swung back to Moondancer. "Read it! And summon the Dark Mare, to protect and lead her faithful followers to glory!"

Holding out the book, she pointed imperiously at the page with a hoof...

... and allowed just enough power into her horn so that it lit up her face, inside the hood. It was Trixie, smiling and winking slyly at Moondancer.

Nervously, Moondancer took the book from her. She felt every eye in the room fixed on her as she cleared her throat and then read the words:

Per lux lunae, de Mare redit
Ad lusibus de Noctem aeternum
In littus de tempore...

She glanced around, feeling more than a little silly. "See?" she said. "I told you it was all a bunch of --"

She got no further. A sudden, sourceless gust of wind whipped through the room, snuffing out the candles the cultists had lit, leaving Moondancer once more spotlit in the darkness by the bright light overhead.

Outside, there was a crash of thunder. Brilliant flashes of lightning blazed through the windows.

Then, without warning, the rear door of the room was smashed off its hinges, landing with a thump on the floor.

Framed in the windswept, flickering light outside was a tall, cloaked figure. Its horn was a brilliant sword of blue, actinic light, its shadowy, hooded face obscured by its armored helmet.

The dark pony strode into the room, its every step a floor-shaking armored thump. It came to a halt, gazing around imperiously at the cowering figures all around...

... and then down at the startled beige pony sitting in the chair.

"Aha! There you are! The pony who bears our Mark, who has freed us from our long imprisonment. We are most grateful to thee -- Moondancer!"

"N-n-nightmare Moon?" Moondancer's eyes were wide and staring. This can't be happening, she thought. It's got to be a trick... I can't have just summoned Nightmare Moon! Or... can I?

"You know me?" she whispered to the towering dark figure.

"But of course!" The mare laughed. "We have known thee all thy life, ever since you first received our Mark and were set on the path to our liberation. How could we not know a pony so valued to us, so worthy? And how could we not spring to thy defense, when thou hast need of us?"

Her gaze swept the room again, unpleasantly.

"As for the rest of you... how dare you treat our servant so cavalierly, with such disrespect!" She looked at Moondancer again, her voice turning silkily threatening. "Shall I banish them to the Moon in my stead? As fitting punishment for their discourtesy?"

"Umm... I don't think that'll be necessary," Moondancer said, worried. "Just... make them promise not to do it again."

The dark mare stamped a hoof. "Swear it!" she demanded. "On pain of thy lives! Swear eternal allegiance to she who bears our Mark! Or suffer our undying wrath!"

The robed ponies cowered abjectly, bowing in subservience. And none more so than the black-robed leader, who prostrated herself at the dark mare's hooves. "Queen of the Dark, Empress of Night," she intoned, "look with mercy and lenience on us, your chosen few--"

"You!" The dark mare snarled. A cloaked, armor-clad hoof lifted, pointed at her. "I have had more than enough of you! Strutting about, calling on my name, as and when it suits you! You, who would use my servant as a stepping-stone to power? You, who speaks my name, yet seeks only to rule in my stead? Finally, I shall be free of you!"

Her voice lifted in a triumphant roar, her horn sizzling with power. "Begone from me, wretch! Begone from my dominion, from my world! Thou art banished, eternally! HENCE!"

"AIEEEEE!" The black-clad pony found herself wreathed in swirling, flickering arcs of golden fire. She leapt up, moved to flee, and found herself pinned in place, unable to escape. She flailed her hooves wildly, wailing. One hoof went up, came down...

There was a loud explosion, a cloud of choking smoke. When it had cleared, there was nothing left of her, save the robe and chain, lying on the floor.

The cult members gasped in horror.

"And the same fate," the dark mare warned them, "awaits all who would challenge my absolute authority! Now!" she went on, suddenly dropping into a silky, conversational tone again, "let us see the faces of our chosen few, those who have been selected to serve us. Remove thy cloaks! Stand forth in our presence, under our Night -- unmasked and unafraid!"

The ponies all looked at each other. No one wanted to go first.

The dark pony growled threateningly. "Well? Are you not our true followers? Why do you fear to be seen and known! Have we not sworn to protect those who stand with us? Who act in our name? Or... do you doubt my power? Shall I provide another demonstration?"

Shivering, the ponies quickly began pulling off their robes. One of the first to appear was the white, wavy-haired pony who had come to Moondancer's door. His cutie-mark, she noticed, was three blue snowflakes.

Behind her, there was a gasp.

"Double Diamond?" It was Starlight, pushing back the hood of her robe.

"Starlight!" The white pony smiled in recognition. "I didn't know you were one of us!"

"Well, I'm not, actually, but -- what the hay?"

Other faces were appearing, in the circle of light around Moondancer. And as they did, Starlight was looking from one face to the next, in mounting surprise. "Party Favor? Sugar Belle? And... Night Glider, wasn't it?"

"Hey, Starlight!" Night Glider fluttered her blue-gray wings. "You actually remember us? Cool!"

Next to Starlight, another robed pony shoved back its hood. It was Twilight, and she was looking at Starlight in surprise.

"You know these ponies?"

"Well, uh... yeah! They're all from my hometown, Sire's Hollow!"

"Seriously?" Sunset asked, lowering her own hood. "Just out of curiosity," she added, "is anypony here not from Sire's Hollow?"

A few tentative hooves went up.

"So... Diamond," Starlight asked, "how did you all get here?"

Double Diamond shrugged. "After you and Sunburst left, it just seemed like anypony who was anypony was headed to Canterlot. So a bunch of us pooled our bits and took the train here, to seek a future for ourselves. It's worked out better for some than others. I was able to land this awesome job at Gloves and Skis, and I've been helping out others who find it harder to make ends meet."

"That sounds wonderful, actually," Twilight said, uneasily, "so... how did you all end up in a Nightmare cult?"

"Well..." Diamond looked ashamed. "As Starlight can probably tell you, none of us really felt much sense of purpose to our lives. Even coming here, we just didn't seem to be getting anywhere, each of us on our own."

"But then we ran into this really smart, charismatic pony," Sugar Belle said. "She brought us together, gave us books to read, organized these meetings..."

"Yeah! She gave us a real sense of purpose." Party Favor agreed. "She made us feel like we weren't useless noponies. She made us feel like we had a future, a destiny..."

"Wow..." Starlight said. "Must have been some pony! So... where is she?"

The cultists looked uncomfortably at the crumpled robe and chain lying on the floor.

"I suppose she must be on the Moon by now..."

"Au contraire!" called a voice from the far side of the room. "The Grrreat and Powerful Trrrixie may be down! But she is never out!" Pushing through the crowds, she stalked over to stand next to Starlight, grinning. "Lucky for us we found this other pony's robe in the front closet, along with the others we borrowed."

"But..." Double Diamond said, "if you're still here, then what about --"

He nervously peered up at the looming dark pony, who had been watching them all in tolerant silence. She tossed her head, throwing back her hood...

... it was Tempest, smirking proudly.

"You shouldn't believe everything you're told," she said. "Or even everything you believe."

Moondancer let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "Wow... you're really good at this, Tempest. You even had me convinced!"

Tempest smirked. "I have a knack for improv," she said. "Plus, I had some excellent drama coaches." She exchanged a smile with Sunset... and, reluctantly, with Trixie as well. "Oh, and by the way," she added to the cultists, "sorry about the back door -- I was expecting it to put up more of a fight. We'll fix it up before we leave..."

She came to a halt, realizing they were all staring at her armor, gleaming gold under the spotlight.

"A Royal Guard?" Nightflier gasped.

"Oh, gosh!" Double Diamond's shoulders fell. "I guess this means that we're all under arrest, officer?"

"What?" Tempest blinked. "Oh, the armor. Don't worry, I'm not with the Guard, I just have this on loan from them for now." She lifted an armored hoof and stared at it sourly. "Still not wild about the color. Grubber was right, it is a little too bling for me."

"But..." Sugar Belle winced. "Even so, we're probably still in big trouble... for kidnapping and such, right?"

"Look... about that," Twilight said quickly, "no one's been hurt. And I bet you all realize now that forming an arcane cult and summoning an ancient and powerful evil is not really the safest way of dealing with life issues, right?"

The ponies all willingly nodded.

"So... I think we'd be okay with a solemn promise to find some better way to spend your spare time. If that's okay with you, Moondancer?"

Moondancer nodded readily. "I'm totally fine with that. It was a little frightening at first, but then talking with all of you about my favorite subject... well, that was a lot of fun, actually!"

"Hey, for us, too!" Sugar Belle said. "You know so much!"

"Well, why don't we all get together regularly," Starlight suggested. "For donuts and such, just to chat? I'd love to spend time catching up with all of you. And if any of you still need help making ends meet, maybe we can pool our minds, come up with some way to help?"

"Who are you," Double Diamond said, grinning at her, "and what did you do with the real Starlight Glimmer?" He laughed. "That sounds great to me! How about all of you?"

The rest of the group nodded willingly.

Twilight smiled around at her friends, and the former cultists, relieved everything had turned out all right, that it had all been sorted out so equitably for everyone...

"All right! Stay where you are! And keep your hooves, horns, and wings where we can see them!"

They all turned, and saw the Captain of the Guard marching in through the rear door. He was closely followed by a number of other Guard ponies, who quickly moved to surround and corral the former cultists.

"You ponies are under arrest!" the Captain intoned. "On suspicion of kidnapping, plus assembly in furtherance of a summoning, as well as other prohibited Dark Magic, to be determined at a later date!"

There was a short, tense silence, as the cult ponies looked at each other and at the stern-faced guards.

And then Tempest turned and strolled over to face the Captain, staring at him eye to eye. "I wasn't aware," she said, evenly and assertively, "that it was against the law to gather for a book club discussion..."

------------------------------

"Excuse me? But... a book club?"

Princess Celestia sat tall and regal upon the Sun Throne. Before her, surrounded by the guards, were Twilight and her friends, plus the group of ponies from the cult. The Princess was wearing a look of bemused skepticism as she spoke.

Tempest nodded. "Yes, Your Highness," she said, with solemn imperturbability. "These ponies merely organized a book club, with a particular focus on ancient myths and legends. They invited Moondancer to lead a presentation and discussion, given her experience with the subject. All quite harmless, actually."

"Highness!" the Guard Captain snapped, "we'd received reports earlier of an apparent kidnapping. And of mysterious figures seen skulking about the streets in dark robes... who were known to congregate at the storefront in question." He gave Tempest a challenging glare.

Which she returned, an eyebrow raised.

"You're never heard," she asked mildly, "of live-action role-playing? Dressing up, to get into the spirit of things? And of initiation ceremonies?" She shrugged, as if it was perfectly obvious. "The group was merely giving its newest member a traditional hazing. As far as I know, Moondancer herself had no complaints about it. Am I right?"

Surprised, Moondancer nervously bowed to Celestia. "It was... actually kind of fun, Your Majesty!"

"Indeed?" Celestia didn't yet seem convinced.

"Really!" The Guard Captain played what he thought was his winning card. "What about the bangs and flashes we observed? The shouting and screaming?"

"Oh! Those were merely special effects," Trixie put in smugly. "Stage magic! Mostly courtesy of my Great and Powerful assistant here!" She patted Starlight on the back, making her blush. "She's coming along so nicely!"

The Captain was having none of it. "And," he persisted, "when we followed the students into the establishment, to ensure their safety, we observed several ponies reading from arcane texts that are clearly on the restricted list, so we..."

"Excuse me?" Celestia's gaze swung to him, disapprovingly. "When you followed them in?"

"Uhm... yes, Your Highness! Because of the importance of --"

"Ahem!" Celestia silenced him with a glare. "Chief Steward!"

"Highness?" The wigged pony came to attention.

"Owing to the lateness of the hour, would you see to it that any of our young book club members here who desire it, are given suitable accommodation for the evening as guests of the Palace? And Tempest, will you please escort Twilight and the others back to your own rooms? Including Moondancer of course, assuming that she wishes to go with you?"

"Absolutely!" Moondancer nodded eagerly. "Thank you, Your Highness!"

"You are most welcome, my little pony. Off with you all, now! I need to have a small discussion," she said, a sharp edge in her tone, "with my Guard Captain here. About paying attention to orders..."

Tempest knew well enough not to push things any further. Barely glancing at the suddenly very nervous Captain, she bowed her head subserviently to the Throne. Then she gathered up her friends with a quick nod of her head. "You heard the Princess!" she said briskly. "Let's not impose upon her wise and generous understanding any further, hmm?"

With amused and relieved smiles, the other five ponies followed her out of the Audience Hall.

------------------------------

"Woah!" Moondancer said, admiring the lofty, glass-walled, library-like atmosphere of Twilight's tower room. "This place is... impressive."

"Don't worry, it gets everyone like that!" Starlight assured her.

"And now that you're working with us," Twilight added, "you're welcome to come here, to read or study, whenever you want."

"Thanks!" Moondancer turned in a slow circle, taking it all in. And then her gaze fell on the tabletop model of the storage loop.

"Oh, wow! Are you building a harmonic lattice?"

"Pardon?" Twilight followed her over to the table, where Moondancer eyed the model excitedly.

"A harmonic lattice!" she said, matter-of-factly. "It's an application of crystalline harmonics. You use the implicit resonance of an array of tuned crystals to establish a geometric standing wave, which is much more stable than the field created by a single gem alone." She pointed with a hoof. "See? If you had tuned crystals here, here, and here, then you could easily amplify the field's power a thousandfold, without any loss of stability!"

"Wait a second," Sunset said. "I thought the whole point here was to try to split off streams of magic, to perform spellwork? But what you're saying is, there's a way to make the standing wave of the loop even stronger?"

Moondancer nodded. "And the effect extends beyond the lattice itself. It creates a field of stability, of matter, energy, and magic! You just need enough gems to define the space of application. Oh, and power, of course -- buckets of it!"

"Where'd you read something like that?" Twilight asked, astonished. "I've been looking through every book on magic and gem enchantment I can get my hooves on, and I haven't come across anything of the sort!"

"Oh, it's in a research text on gemology," Moondancer replied, a little sheepishly. "I picked it up last month, on a whim, just to give it a read. I probably still have it kicking around in my room, if you want it?"

"Oh, yeah!" Twilight said. "Sounds like that could really help us!"

"No kidding!" Starlight said, staring at the model. "We've been looking at this project completely backwards! It's not a storage loop to power spells... it's a field generator! A harmonic field generator!"

"Like... the Elements of Harmony?" Twilight said, looking astonished.

"Oh! You've read about them, too?" Moondancer asked. "They were what Princess Celestia used to imprison Nightmare Moon. Here, there's a book that describes them. It's one of the ones I went to my room to get."

Shrugging out of her carryall, she dug into a pocket and pulled out a thin red volume, which she gave to Twilight.

"The Elements of Harmony: A Reference Guide," Twilight read. Then she looked up at Moondancer, in amazement. "Why did it take me so long to realize what a good friend you are?" she asked. "I mean, you've got the bookworm thing even worse than I do! And that's saying something!"

Moondancer smiled back, and shrugged.

"All I ever needed was a good friend I could share it with."

"Well, now you have five of them!" Sunset said, hugging her. "Right, everypony?"

Twilight willingly hugged Moondancer too, and so did the others. Even Tempest uneasily put a forehoof around the group, and joined in the moment.

Wiping her eyes, Moondancer looked around at all of them... the friends she'd longed for, all her life.

"So," she said. "anyone want to help me move a trunkload of books?"

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!