• Published 28th Feb 2020
  • 4,302 Views, 150 Comments

Ring Around The Moon -- Part II - Lets Do This



The Sun Celebration has arrived. The Nightmare returns. And with the help of some extra friends, Twilight, Tempest, and their fellow students are about to discover just how far the Dark Mare will go to have her revenge...

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The Last Sunset

It was crowded around the main worktable in the tower room that evening, when they all sat down for an early supper. They had Twilight's team, including Spike and Grubber, and the irrepressible Cheese Sandwich. And there were Sunset's new friends from Ponyville -- or old friends, depending on how you looked at it -- plus Sunburst, at Starlight's invitation. The combined group completely filled all the available space around the table.

They'd considered doing something formal, maybe booking a room at a fancy restaurant and dining out, so they could continue to be seen in public as the Celebration partied on into the evening. But in the end, they decided it was better to take a break and order in, so they could have a quiet, private meal in the company of ponies who were in the know.

After a brief debate they settled on Dragon food, from a local hole-in-the-wall eatery that Twilight and Spike knew about. As they passed around the boxes of rice, and platters of noodles, vegetables, and sweet-and-sour lava rocks, they chatted about how busy the day had been, and how well the Celebration seemed to be going. And Twilight made a point to thank each of them personally, for everything they'd contributed throughout the day -- much as she'd seen Celestia do after particularly tricky diplomatic functions.

Toward the end of the meal Starlight looked up, and stared out through the window wall.

"There goes the Sun," she said.

They all turned and watched in silence, as the blazing orb sank in the west, turning golden, then orange and red, and finally slipping away altogether behind the distant hills.

After an unnervingly long interval, the Moon finally arose. It shone bright and cold in the deep purple sky. The Stars twinkled, bright and sharp, in their familiar constellations. The Moon's Mare shadow loomed menacingly, and the Shepherd Stars, positioned in a tetrahedron around the Moon, seemed to be sparkling with particular intensity.

The ponies were all quiet, staring at each other, while Spike and Grubber busied themselves turning lights on around the room.

"We should've been with her," Sunset finally said.

Twilight nodded. "I did ask. She said she preferred being alone, this one final time." Her face fell. "I think I can understand why."

"Heck, yeah!" Applejack said. "Lookin' up at the Moon, knowin' her sister's up there, ready to come chargin' down here on the morrow. Not knowin' what's gonna happen to everything and everypony she cares about..."

Twilight rapped the table with a hoof.

"Well, she doesn't have to worry," she said authoritatively. "Because she's got all of us. And we're not going to let her down. Right, everypony?"

They all nodded in solemn agreement.

"Okay, like we planned, we'll turn in early," Twilight went on. "Try to get whatever rest we can, so we're all ready for tomorrow. And we'll take it in shifts to visit the Celebration area, so ponies see us there. And we'll all head down together tomorrow morning before sunrise, to be ready for the ceremony itself."

She turned to their Ponyville guests. "Applejack, you and the others are more than welcome to stay with us this evening if you want." She smiled uneasily. "To be honest, we'd be glad of your company!"

"It'd be an honor, ma'am! Er, sorry... Twilight!"

Afterward the ponies sorted out who'd be bunking where, and then most of the guests departed to let friends and family know where they'd be. In Fluttershy's case, it was to make certain that her birds were fed and watered properly, and safely tucked in for the night.

Twilight picked out a favorite book and withdrew to sit quietly by the window wall, with Spike for company. She made a show of looking calm and collected, only occasionally glancing up at the Moon, high overhead.

But the others could all sense she was nervous -- tense, like a spring wound too tight and ready to snap. None of them understood why. And it had them all on edge.

Tempest sat a short distance away from her, acting as a kind of implicit buffer wall, affording Twilight the solitude she seemed to want. Grubber was seated next to Tempest, and eyeing Twilight himself with concern.

"Everything arranged?" Tempest suddenly asked quietly, not even looking at Grubber.

"Uh huh." Grubber nodded. "I talked to the pony who runs the curio-shop in Dark Town, called in a favor or two. They'll have guys in place, in the crowd tomorrow. If things go south, you just give the signal. They'll nab Twilight, and get her out of town fast."

"They understand she's not to be harmed? Or held for ransom? I hope that was made quite clear."

"Oh, yeah," Grubber nodded. "I made sure they knew that you'd be really put out if she was hurt, boss!"

Tempest frowned. "I want Twilight kept safe, whatever happens. And you --" She glared at him. "You disreputable cake-disposal... you go with her to make sure of it!"

"But... what about you, boss?"

Tempest sighed. "If it comes to that," she said darkly. "Don't worry about me. I can look after myself." Then she shut her eyes. "I just hope I don't have to."

Over at the main worktable, Starlight was going over a complex spell scroll. Not the Field spell, but the other one, the one she'd been working on as a sideline.

"Here we go, Starlight," Sunburst said, trotting over from the library shelves with a number of books and scrolls floating in his magic. "I've got Clover's treatise on Teleportation, plus everything I could find on levitation."

Starlight nodded. "And I've got the mirror portal activation spell here." She gestured with a hoof. "Plus the original version of Star Swirl's time displacement spell."

"Woah!" Sunburst resettled his glasses nervously as he sat down next to her. "That's some seriously advanced stuff, Starlight!"

Starlight smiled sheepishly. "One of the advantages of unrestricted access to the Archives. Nopony asks why you need stuff. Now, if we can finish working out the common basis for all of these, and combine them, we should have the ultimate failsafe spell. It can get a pony to safety, from any place, any time, anywhere."

"Cool!" Sunburst agreed. "But... why do you need something like that?"

"It's not for me," Starlight said, glancing over her shoulder. "It's for Twilight. Just in case something goes wrong. After all she's done for us, I want to be sure she has a way out, if she needs one."

"I hear you," Sunburst nodded. "But let's just hope it doesn't come to that, right?"

"Let's hope," Starlight agreed, as they started going through the texts and taking down notes.

On the other side of the worktable, near the temporary cots that they'd set up for Applejack and the others, Trixie was walking Sunset through the first trick she'd ever learned on her own: the rope cut-and-restore illusion.

"You see?" Trixie said. "In this version, the end part of the rope is actually cut... but I'm holding it in such a way that when I undo the knot..." She tugged the rope-end, causing the knot to fall open, "the rope appears completely unharmed."

"Wow, show that me again," Sunset said, shaking her head in amazement. "Starlight was right -- you make it look so easy!"

"It's Trixie's talent." The showpony shrugged. "To read the crowd, to fool the eye, to give the audience what they want. And sometimes... sometimes I wish I wasn't so good at it!" She gave Sunset a weak smile. "Thanks for keeping an eye on me. Just to make sure Trixie doesn't pull any fast ones... tonight of all nights."

"Not a problem." Sunset returned the smile. "You still haven't heard anything from... you know who?"

Trixie shook her head. "Not a thing, Sunset. I feel like she's abandoned me! Like... I just don't matter to her any more. Assuming I ever did."

"Well, you matter to us, that's for sure." Sunset grinned reassuringly. And then her expression turned somber. "What do you think of our chances tomorrow? You think we'll actually pull it off?"

"Of course!" Trixie smirked. "Twilight will make it work. She's so smart, so perfect! She always has the answer. Except when she doesn't, of course -- and then she goes all to pieces!" Trixie giggled. "But Trixie feels confident Twilight will pull it off, as usual."

"Well, you're the only one who is. We're all on edge tonight. Especially Twilight, for some reason. And it's more than just the obvious, I can tell. I just wish I knew what it is that's got her so nervous."

"Hmph! Probably obsessing over minutia, as usual," Trixie said. "She needs to learn to chill, see the big picture, that's all."

"Maybe so." Sunset considered it for a bit. "But, just as a backup... have you ever made a pony disappear?"

"Well..." Trixie considered it. "Once Trixie made a whole grain silo disappear! But that was because it was full of hay-dust and the firework spell kinda sorta backfired." She grinned, embarrassed.

"Well, if anything should go wrong, let's you and me work together to provide a distraction, huh? Let Twilight and the others get to safety. Then we can regroup, and figure out what to do next. Okay?"

"Of course!" Trixie smiled proudly. "Distraction? That's Trixie's middle name!"

Off to the side, Moondancer sat at her own worktable, putting the finishing touches on The Legends and Truths Concerning Nightmare Moon. She looked up and around at her friends, in particular at Twilight. Then she shook her head in distress. She wished there was something she could do for Twilight, anything at all, to help with whatever it was that was troubling her. But she didn't want to intrude. Twilight had a lot to deal with right now. Best to just not be a bother, Moondancer told herself, unhappily.

Throughout it all, Cheese Sandwich trotted around the room happily, apparently unconcerned, a tray of cupcakes balanced on one hoof.

Suddenly turning and crossing the room, he headed over towards the window wall, trotting right past Tempest as if she wasn't even there.

And to everypony's surprise, she let him get away with it.

He plunked down next to Twilight and Spike, and offered the tray. "Cupcake for your thoughts?"

"Oh, hi!" Twilight said. "Thanks, Cheese, but really I'm not hungry right now."

"A lot on your mind?"

"You could say that," Twilight sighed, staring up through the window.

"Wanna talk about it?" Cheese grinned. "I promise I won't tell! Party pony's honor!" He crossed his heart, wiggled his hooves, then put a hoof over one eye.

Twilight stared at him. "What are you doing?"

"Oh, it's something Pinkie taught me. For when you're making an extra-special kind of promise: the kind you absolutely, positively don't ever want to break!"

Twilight smiled at that... briefly. And then her expression turned serious again.

Cheese eyed her. "I tell you what," he said. "I'll tell you something that's been worrying me, make it a fair trade."

"Oh? What?"

"Well...

I may have told a little fib,
About my pony past,
I hope that when you hear the truth,
You will not be aghast...

And then he suddenly dropped back to a speaking voice.

"I want to level with you, Twilight. This Celebration? It's actually only my third major gig so far." He nodded at her surprised look. "Truthfully! Yeah, sure, I've thrown a few parties here and there. But small stuff, nothing on this scale. In fact... if it wasn't for Pinkie helping out, I'm not sure I'd have made it work on my own."

"But it's been great!" Twilight protested. "The Celebration's a huge success. Everyone's enjoying it. They're having a great time in spite of their fears!"

"And I'm glad for that," Cheese said. "Really I am. But... I just didn't want you thinking I was somepony I wasn't. I can't do it all on my own. Most of the time, I have help, from ponies who need to feel like they're part of the fun, part of the excitement. Ponies who have just enough party-pony in them, and only need someone to lead the way, give them a reason to show it. Or someone they can pin the blame on. Either way, it's all good." He grinned. "So... you're not mad at me?"

"Are you kidding?" Twilight smiled. "You've been exactly the party pony we need, Cheese. Right from the very start."

"Thanks, Twilight."

She gave him a suspicious look. "And... you're telling me this... why?"

"Because," Cheese said, giving her a look, "I'm not the only pony here trying to pull off something alone... when she really should call in her friends to help."

Twilight stared at him, her mouth open. And then she shut it, and nodded.

"You're right, Cheese, I am. It's just... well, it's felt like it's my responsibility and nopony else's. But that's just silly... isn't it?"

"Well," Cheese suggested with a gentle smile, "why don't you tell us all about it? And then we'll know."

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

A few minutes later, they were all gathered around the worktable.

"I want to apologize," Twilight said. "I've been keeping something to myself, something very important. And that's been the problem all along, hasn't it? Ponies not telling ponies things they should." She shook her head. "I'm definitely Celestia's student. I'm starting to act just like her."

"What is it, Twilight?" Sunset asked, glancing around at the others.

"When the imprisonment spell ends, and Nightmare Moon returns, Princess Celestia isn't entirely sure what will happen. In particular, what's going to happen to her. But she's pretty sure it'll mean she won't be here to help us -- that we'll be facing Nightmare Moon all on our own!" Twilight nodded at the looks on their faces. "Yeah... that's just how I felt. But the Princess feels that we're ready, that we have what it takes to succeed. She believes in us. She trusts us. She's certain that if any ponies can pull this off, it's us."

"Well, okay then," Sunset said, seriously. "So we will. Right, everypony?" They all nodded. "It's scary, yeah," Sunset went on, "but we'll deal. We can do this." She grinned. "The same way we've been doing it all along: one hoof at a time."

Starlight nodded in agreement. "So... is that all you were worried about, Twilight?" she asked with a nervous grin.

"No, actually, there's something more," Twilight said. "And this is the real shocker. Even if all goes well, it's just possible that Celestia might not return, afterward. And if that happens, then... well, she's given orders that put me in charge."

"In charge?" Starlight asked. "Of what? Of Canterlot?"

"Of everything!" Twilight said desperately. "Of Equestria! If Celestia doesn't return, she wants me to succeed her as Princess. Me!"

"Woah!" Grubber said, eyes wide.

Moondancer nodded. "Took the words right out of my mouth!"

"Gosh, Twilight!" Spike shouted. "You, a Princess? That... would be... awesome!"

"No... it... would... not!" Twilight retorted. "Celestia wants me to decide what to do if she doesn't return. She's putting the future of the entire nation in my hooves. And I'm not ready for that! I'm not ready to make decisions for an entire country! Not on my own, that's for sure! So, I'm telling you all this because I'm going to need help, lots of it! From friends I know I can trust and rely on..."

She looked around at them all.

"... like, all of you?"

The group looked at each other, then back at Twilight.

"Twilight," Tempest said sourly, "do you honestly think there's any doubt whatsoever that we're with you on this? One hundred percent?"

"You said it!" Moondancer nodded. "We've got your back, Twilight. All of us!"

The others nodded in agreement. And then Sunset grinned... and laughed.

"Now I get it," she said. "Now I know why that look on your face was so familiar. It's exactly how I used to look, whenever I thought hard about what it would mean, if Celestia made me a Princess. Excited, and kinda terrified, all at the same time." She nodded. "I get it, Twilight, totally. And don't you worry, Moondancer's right. Whatever happens, we've got your back. We'll face Nightmare Moon tomorrow, get that all sorted out, and then... well, assuming we should be so lucky we'll figure out the rest as it comes. Deal?"

"Deal," Twilight said, grinning. "And thanks, everypony. You don't know what a relief it is, having friends like all of you." She sighed nervously. "I hope that never changes -- not ever!"

"Seriously?" Tempest smirked. "Not much chance of that happening, is there?"

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

Later in the evening, having escorted Starlight and Trixie down to the Celebration area to take their watch over the festivities, Tempest trotted back through the crowds camped out in the Library quad, Grubber at her heels, heading back towards the tower.

As she neared the base of the stairs, she came across Rose, who appeared to be settling a minor dispute between a couple of tourists. Somewhat mollified, the ponies returned to their makeshift campsites. And Rose turned and spotted Tempest. She swiftly came to attention and saluted.

"Evening, Commander!"

"Rose," Tempest nodded calmly. "At ease. Everything quiet here?"

"Mostly. Though it's a good thing everyone's in a holiday-making mood." She glanced around at the tents and blankets. "This kind of crowd, it could get ugly otherwise." She edged closer, dropping her voice to a whisper. "We could have the Guard move them back from the tower, ma'am. Just for safety's sake, and to give you all a little more space?"

Tempest shook her head. "Twilight won't hear of it. We're here for them, is her view. We're their protectors. And many of them have come a long way, from all over the country, to be here for the Celebration. So as long as they're behaving themselves, and not damaging the grounds, she's okay with it. We'll manage."

"Okay, then. We'll keep watch over them, Commander."

Rose saluted. Tempest returned it, and the guard pony trotted away to check up on the other guard posts.

"You're gettin' good at this, boss!" Grubber chuckled. "Almost respectable! I mean... not that you weren't already," he added hurriedly. "But... it suits ya, it really does!"

"Almost respectable?" Tempest echoed, with a thin smile. "Coming from you, I know that's a compliment."

"Er... right, boss! You said it!" And then he suddenly fell silent, his eyes wide and staring.

"Well, well!" said a snidely brutal voice. "If it isn't Little Miss Smash-and-Grab herself."

Tempest looked up, and found herself facing a tough-looking gray stallion, with a ginger mane and sideburns and a hard-edged, predatory look.

She felt Grubber huddled against her foreleg, shivering in terror. "Ididn'tbringhimIdidn'tbringhimIdidn't--mmp!" He fell silent when she gently kicked him.

Tempest herself nodded to the stallion. "Knock Down," she said, coolly.

"Ya remember me! Touching, that is. Like old times, huh? And you're lookin' pretty sharp these days. Yeah." He nodded smugly. "When we heard that Princess Celestia had picked a pony with a scar and a broken horn to watch over her little group of heroes, well, we knew there couldn't be that many ponies answerin' to that description... if you take my meanin'."

"What do you want here?" Tempest said coldly.

"Well! Whaddaya got for me, Fizzle Pop? Or you callin' yourself Berry Twist these days?" He chuckled. "Heh! You had so many phony names, they musta hadda entire cabinet at the guard house just to keep track of ya!"

"My name is Tempest Shadow," she snarled. "And I don't have time for the likes of you. There's nothing to drink, and no one to fight, so why don't you just move along?"

"Oh! Gonna get disrepectful, eh?" His eyes narrowed, his jaw set. "What if I was to pass along word to certain parties that you were here, huh? I bet even Verko himself might pay good bits for info like that! Or," he added, with a clumsy attempt to look cagey, "what if someone were to let your little friends here know about your, heh, colorful past? Maybe even drop a note to the Princess herself, huh? How long you think she'd keep you in that uniform, in charge of this little group?" He nodded, smiling cruelly. "Yeah... I imagine you'd want to keep that kinda thing nice and quiet. And all it'd take is a few bits in the right pockets every now and then. Regular, like..."

Tempest's eyes narrowed. She'd never liked being put in a corner. She tensed angrily. Her horn fizzed and snapped angrily. She felt Grubber cowering in fear, ready to run for it. She readied herself to charge, to strike, to club the living daylights out of this ghost from her past that would... not... stay... dead...

"Evening, Commander! Everything all right here?"

Startled, Tempest looked around. It was Shining Armor, trotting up to her and offering a salute. "Captain," she greeted him, getting a hold of herself.

"And who do we have here?" Shining Armor gave Knock Down an examining look.

"Buzz off, Goldie," he snarled. "Just havin' a private conversation... with an old friend." He leered at Tempest confidently.

"So I heard." Shining Armor replied, evenly. "Now, you wouldn't be thinking of trying to blackmail one of Her Highness's Royal Guard, would you?"

"Oh, not at all!" Knock Down sneered. "Just sayin' there are certain things about her past that she might not want you Royal Guard types to know about!"

"Oh, I know all about Tempest's past," Shining Armor said, calmly. "She told me herself."

Caught by surprise, Knock Down blinked. "Huh?"

"Yeah. She said it wasn't safe, having dark secrets some shady character might come along and try to hold against her. So she made a full deposition -- with names. And the Princess granted her amnesty, in recognition of her honesty, diligence and service to the Court. So the Commander has nothing to hide from us. And nothing you could possibly hold against her."

"Oh. Uh... well, then. Good for her."

"But, that said..." Shining Armor went on, more sternly, "even attempted blackmail is still a chargeable offence. And given the current crisis, it might even verge on interference with business of the Crown..." He eyed the grey stallion levelly and coldly. "Maybe even high treason! Though that would be for Her Highness to decide. And she'd certainly look harshly on anyone attempting to interfere with the business of Miss Sparkle and her team. Very harshly indeed!" He nodded. "I think we might be well advised to have you brought in for questioning... maybe even have you held on suspicion of interfering with defense of the realm..."

He let that hang for a moment, teeth bared. And then smiled calmly.

"Unless you are, in fact, just an ordinary citizen, here to enjoy the sights of Canterlot, celebrate the Summer Celebration, and welcome in the new millennium. Just like everypony else is doing, eh? What do you think?"

Knock Down looked like he'd picked up a length of rope and discovered that it had eyes -- and fangs.

"Uh, er... yeah, yeah," he finally said. "Just visitin', for the Celebration and all. And I'll just... get back to it. Sorry to trouble ya, officer."

"Fine," Shining Armor nodded. "Off with you now. And don't you worry about your safety, while you're here in town. We'll be watching out for you..."

"Er, uh... right. Thanks. Aw, geez..."

Turning, the stallion hurried away, glancing nervously in all directions.

And Shining Armor turned to Tempest.

"I don't think we have to worry about him anymore. Or anyone he's silly enough to talk to about this."

Tempest eyed him uncomfortably.

"I never told you anything, about my past."

"No need," Shining Armor replied. "What's past stays past, that's how I feel about it. And I'm sure Her Highness, if it ever came up, would agree completely."

"Oh. Thanks. Uh... why?"

Shining Armor smiled. "You've got my sister's back. So I've got yours." He snapped a respectful salute. "Commander."

After a moment's pause, Tempest uneasily returned it. Then Shining Armor swung about and headed off on his own rounds, as if nothing unusual had happened.

Tempest watched him go. So did Grubber, huddled beside her. "Wow..." he breathed. "We sure lucked out on that one, didn't we, boss?"

"Yeah," Tempest said. "We sure did." There was a puzzled look on her face. "It doesn't usually go that smoothly..."

The hedgehog peered up at her. "Somethin' wrong, boss?"

Tempest shook her head, uncertain. "Probably nothing. Come on, Grubber. The guards have got things well in hoof down here. Let's head back upstairs."

Grubber eyed the tower stairs wearily. "Eeeeh. Don't suppose I could get a lift, huh?"

Tempest stared down at him. And then she nodded.

Grubber stared up at her. "Seriously, boss?"

"Just this once." She knelt down and let him scramble up onto her back. And then she turned and headed up the stairs.

Grubber leaned around to look her in the eye. "You feelin' okay, Tempest?"

"I don't know." She shook her head. "Something's not right, Grubber -- something important. Twilight thinks so, Sunset thinks so. All of them do. And I should know what it is, what I need to do to keep them safe. It's my job!"

Grubber nodded. "Really matters to ya, doesn't it?"

Tempest came to a halt and stared up the curve of the stairs, towards the tower room and all her friends at the top. "More than anything," she whispered. "More than life itself. I just can't fail them, Grubber! I just can't!"

He put a comforting paw on her neck. "You won't, Tempest. And if there's anything that I can do to help, you just lemme know, okay?"

She eyed him. "Just stick close, Grubber, and be the good friend you've always been."

"Heh, you got it, boss!"

Tempest gazed up the stairs again.

"And when I tell you what to do, Grubber, you do it," she said. "Because it'll mean everything in the world..."

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

In the darkness of the tower bunkroom, the gentle nudge of a hoof gradually brought Twilight awake.

"Ohhh! I don't want to get up. Five more minutes, mommy?" Twilight whispered.

"Well," Tempest replied, amused, "I suppose we could all go take care of Nightmare Moon by ourselves, and let you sleep in."

Twilight's eyes snapped open. She peered up through the window, at the deep purple, star-filled night sky.

Then she looked up at Tempest. Who nodded.

"It's show time."

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

When Twilight trotted out into the main workroom she found the rest of the Advanced Projects team already up and waiting for her.

"Cheese and our friends from Ponyville went on ahead," Sunset said. "Just in case there were any last minute snafus at the Celebration Area."

"So it's just us," Starlight added, nervously. "Ready to make our grand entrance."

"Our Great and Powerful entrance," Trixie corrected her, just as nervous.

"And your carriage awaits," said Shining Armor, as he mounted the stairs from the entry doors. "I'll just see you all off, and then I need to go take Princess Cadance into hiding, as planned."

Trotting over to Twilight, he gave her a deep bow. "Ready when you are, Your Highness!"

"Shiny!" Twilight laughed. "Don't even joke like that!"

"Oh, it's no joke," he replied seriously. "Princess Celestia's orders. As of sundown last night, you are officially acting Princess of Equestria."

Twilight stared at him. "She didn't."

Tempest nodded. "She did, actually. But I wasn't going to say anything about it." She gave Shining Armor a stern glare.

"Oops. Sorry." He looked sheepish. "Well, in any case, there is a carriage waiting. What with the crowds outside and lining the streets, we figured it was safer than walking."

Twilight nodded. She took a steadying breath, and glanced at the others.

"Let's go."

They made their way down the stairs, with Tempest in the lead and escorted by Guard ponies, their horns singing brightly to light the way.

As they approached the bottom, a tired but enthusiastic cheer went up from the watching crowd. And waiting for them was an open-air carriage, with a honor team of Guard ponies already harnessed to it.

"Hop in," Shining Armor said. "The guards will get you there safe."

Twilight winced. "Oh, I wish you were coming with us, Shiny!"

"Me too. But you've got Tempest. And I know she'll look after you." He and the Commander exchanged a solemn nod. "And I'll see you again when this is all over."

"You promise, B.B.B.F.F.?"

He grinned. "Count on it, sis!"

Twilight and her friends climbed into the carriage and found their seats. Shining Armor positioned himself alongside, and lifted his hoof to signal the harnessed guards to set off.

And then...

"No! Wait! Please! Bring them back!"

Twilight and her friends all turned to see a wild-eyed, dappled Appleloosan pony charge out of the crowd, straight at the carriage. He didn't get more than two lengths before the nearest gold-armored guards pounced on him and restrained him. Tempest herself jumped to the rim of the carriage, putting herself in front of Twilight and glaring fiercely at the captive.

But the pony didn't struggle. He just hung in the guards' grip, eyes pleading. "Please..." he gasped. "Just bring them back to me! That's all I ask!"

Shining Armor sighed wearily. "We don't have time for this. Detail, hold him! We'll question him later."

"No, wait!" Twilight leaned around Tempest. "Let him go!"

Surprised, the guards holding the stallion glanced at Shining Armor. And then they reluctantly, grudgingly released the agitated pony, though they remained ready to grab him if he made any sudden moves.

"Bring who back?" Twilight asked him gently.

"My wife, ma'am... and my daughter," he gasped, pulling off his hat and holding it contritely. "Timberwolves got 'em, last month. But ever since, I've been having these dreams, ma'am! They said all I had to do was come here, and swear allegiance to... you know..." He nodded towards the Moon, high in the sky. "And they'd be returned to me."

The crowd gasped, and stared at him in horror and disgust.

So did Moondancer -- though it was in worried recognition. "That's how she did it," Moondancer whispered to Twilight.

"What?" Twilight looked at her.

"It's how Nightmare Moon won over so many ponies, the last time, when she fought Celestia," Moondancer said urgently. "She sent them dreams, promising whatever they wanted most if they followed her. For bereaved ponies in particular, she promised them the return of their loved ones. She claimed not only to be Mistress of the Night and of Dreams... but of Death itself!"

"But I didn't want to believe it!" the dappled pony yelled. "I didn't want to! I want to believe in Celestia! I want to believe in you, Twilight! Just... bring them back to me? Bring me back my wife and my baby girl? And I'll know which side I belong on, for sure!"

Twilight bit her lip nervously, looking from the anguished stallion to the crowd all around him.

Then she reached to unlatch the carriage door.

"Are you out of your mind?" Tempest hissed.

But Twilight didn't listen. She climbed down from the carriage, with Tempest following right behind her, tense and watchful. The other ponies leaned over the rim of the carriage, just as worried.

Twilight hesitantly reached out a hoof, gently took hold of the stallion's. She looked him right in the eye.

"I'm very sorry," she said quietly. "But I can't. Nopony can." Before anyone could react, she went on. "But my friends and I, we're about to go do everything we can to make sure there'll still be a world in which they can be remembered. A world in which they'll never be forgotten, because there'll always be good and kind ponies like you who want to keep their memory alive!" She shook her head sadly. "All I can ask is that you trust me, that you trust us. We'll do everything we can, I promise! For you... and for them. Just trust us? Please?"

The stallion stared down at her, tearfully, miserably.

And then finally, minutely... nodded.

Twilight smiled in reply. Then she glanced around at the crowd. "I'm sorry, we really do need to go!" she said. "Can someone help this pony for me? Please?"

The crowd looked at each other in surprise. And then nearby ponies moved to put their hooves around the distraught stallion, comforting him as he finally broke down in tears. The guards all stepped back to give them room.

Relieved, Twilight turned to climb back into the carriage. And Shining Armor gratefully gave the signal for the guards drawing it to set off.

Gradually, the shocked crowd all around began to applaud, and then cheer again. Soon Twilight and her friends were riding along through the streets of Canterlot through a roaring crowd, as if nothing had happened.

"Nice one, Twilight," Sunset finally said, nudging her shoulder. "I thought empathy and understanding was my bag."

But Twilight simply sat on the carriage seat, downcast.

"Nopony should ever make a promise like that," she whispered, tensely. "Nopony should ever be allowed to!"

"Yeah..." Starlight nodded in agreement. "Because you'd have to be a Princess yourself to resist it!"

And beside her, Trixie just nodded, miserably.