A sense of eerie, dark calm had settled over the pine forests surrounding Vanhoover. Crickets, frogs, and other wildlife filled the air with lively ambiance, while the occasional gust of wind would shake loose some pine needles, sending them down to join their brethren covering the forest floor. Luna’s moon and stars, being obscured by some clouds forgotten by the Cloudsdale weather team, failed to shine light for any travelers that might have been out at this late hour.
Along one of the many hiking trails crisscrossing the hilly landscape, four young unicorn mares were trying their best to navigate through the darkness back to the lodge where they were staying. They moved in single file, paying extra attention where they placed their hooves on the slanted terrain so as not to trip.
Minuette’s horn was alit with the luminescence of a standard light spell, sufficiently illuminating the path at the front of the line. The light also made her blue coat and two toned white and dark blue mane nicely stand out in the darkness of the forest. She walked with a giddy spring in her step, while also humming a jovial little tune she made up as she went along.
Lemon Hearts used the light to read the map held in her telekinesis. Her yellow coat and light blue mane were easy to make out with or without the light, as were Twinkleshine’s own white coat and pink mane, who had her horn lit with her own light spell.
Moon Dancer brought up the rear. Like Twinkleshine and Minuette, her horn provided much needed light for the group, though she occasionally cut it off in order to use telekinesis to readjust her glasses whenever they slipped too far for her liking. Unlike her friends, who were all naked, she wore her favorite black sweater as a precaution in case the temperatures became too great for just their coats to bear. A negative side effect of this, however, was that she was partially camouflaged with the nighttime atmosphere.
The four mares had spent the past couple of days on a nice, relaxing weekend away from Canterlot to get out and see a little nature. They’d explored the wilderness, took photos, and had such a great time as friends. As today was their last day before they were to depart back to Canterlot, they were determined to squeeze as much fun into their last day of vacation as possible. They’d lost track of time as a result, and were now forced to make the trek back to the lodge in dangerous conditions.
“Hey, Lemon Hearts!” Twinkleshine called up. “Are you sure we’re going the right way?”
Lemon Hearts squinted at the map. “I… think so?”
“Any chance you can give a more definite answer?” Twinkleshine asked, rolling her eyes.
“Look, I’m trying, okay?”
“Ah, chin up, girls!” Minuette called. She turned around, flashing a pearly white smile at them. “As long as we’re going up the hill, we’ll keep getting closer to the lodge!”
Twinkleshine furrowed her brows. “Maybe if somepony hadn’t spent three hours taking pictures of nothing but trees and water, we wouldn’t be lost.”
“But we’re not lost!” Lemon Hearts said with a frown.
“Really? So you know for an absolute fact that we’re going the right way?”
Lemon Hearts glanced back down at the map. She honestly believed it’d be easier to decipher ancient Neighgyptian hieroglyphs than the sheet of paper she held. “Well, um…”
“Yeah, we’re lost.”
“Not so long as we keep going up!”
“What kind of horseapple logic is that!?”
“It’s not horseapples!”
“Oh for crying out loud…”
Moon Dancer tuned out her friends’ bickering, instead choosing to focus on the surrounding forest while thinking about what a lovely vacation she’d had. The fresh scents of pine, the beautiful scenery, the wonderful time spent with her friends– all of it was just what she needed to feel alive again after all the time she’d spent cooped up in her decaying house in Canterlot.
It was a vacation she'd long needed, as she couldn’t remember the last time she’d stepped hoof outside of Canterlot for anything, let alone to see some exotic locales and scenery. She was grateful to have such adventurous friends in that regard, as she’d otherwise have been too afraid to step outside of her comfort zone of Canterlot’s spires and cobblestone streets. She may be stubborn, but she was thankful her friends were doubly persuasive.
Coming out of her musings, Moon Dancer turned to look back up ahead, only to freeze up when she saw no sign of her friends. The trail ahead of her was empty, with not even a small flicker of horn light to indicate her friends were close by.
Panicking, Moon Dancer broke out into a gallop, hoping to catch up with the others. She swerved around wayward trees and ducked under branches, moving as fast as her admittedly sub-par physique would allow her. She made a mental note to start making regular visits to the gym upon returning home.
Suddenly, Moon Dancer found the ground rushing to meet her as she tripped over a rock, landing hard on her barrel. The wind instantly knocked out of her, and she tumbled a little before coming to rest on the side of the trail, her glasses flying off and landing a few yards away. She let out a low moan of agony at the pain in her left hind hoof where she’d hit the rock, but her body as a whole felt okay and intact.
She pulled herself forward with her fore hooves while sweeping the ground in search of her glasses. Locating them, she enveloped them in her telekinesis and stood up. Her vision cleared once she put them back on, and she blinked in confusion at what she saw.
It might have just been a trick of the shadows, but she could swear she saw a figure through the trees, suspended in midair. It appeared to be pony-shaped, but she couldn’t be sure through the darkness. A chill ran down her spine as every sense of calm she’d previously felt evaporated. Whatever that thing was, it was an unknown variable. It looked quite out of place within the surrounding pine.
Fear took hold of Moon Dancer, telling her to keep moving, and she obeyed. She continued along the trail, changing from a gallop to a gait so she wouldn’t trip again. The tranquil forest suddenly seemed a lot more sinister now, seeming to close in on her, reach for her, as she made her way along the trail. All she wanted now was to find her friends and get back to the lodge.
It was such a welcome calm to her senses when she heard Twinkleshine’s voice calling out to her. “Moon Dancer!? Where are you!?”
“I’m here! I’m here!” Moon Dancer called back.
“Follow the sound of my voice!”
Her face splitting into a large, relieved grin, Moon Dancer broke into a fast trot. Eventually she came to a fork in the path.
"Do I turn left or right!?" she called.
After another few moments following the trail, Moon Dancer spotted a glimmer of light through the trees, and picked up her pace. That's when she noticed the outline of a large building emerging through the woodwork. Details made themselves clearer as she came closer: oriel windows, two corner towers; the structure boasted many soft, elegant touches in its overall framework and design. Whoever built the place must've been a fan of Trottingham architectural styles from the past century.
Or, even more probably, it was built around that time period, because just one look at the mansion’s exterior told Moon Dancer it had been abandoned for a very long time. Nearly every window was shattered and every surface was covered with ivy. Many roof tiles had dislodged and were littering the ground in front. The front lawn was overgrown and in desperate need of a trim. The mansion was so rundown that it made Moon Dancer’s own decrepit house back in Canterlot look like the Royal Palace by comparison.
Moon Dancer let out a relieved sigh at the sight of her friends gathered at the front doorstep, and broke once more into a gallop as she rushed to join them.
“Thank Celestia you’re alright!” Lemon Hearts said, embracing Moon Dancer in a gentle hug. “I was worried sick you’d gotten hurt or something!”
“I’m alright, just a little scraped from where I tripped,” Moon Dancer replied between pants. “How come none of you noticed I was gone?”
Her friends’ expressions of relief turned sheepish in response. Rolling her eyes, Moon Dancer briefly returned Lemon Hearts’ hug before breaking away and giving the mansion’s exterior another once over. “What is this place, anyway?” she asked no one in particular.
“Heck if I know,” Twinkleshine said. “But it looks like we’re gonna have to spend the night here since we’re lost.”
Lemon Hearts frowned. “But we’d be breaking and entering,” she protested.
Twinkleshine gave her a bemused look. “Does this place look like it has tenants at the moment?” she asked, gesturing to the dilapidated architecture around them.
“Then we’re going in.” Her tone brokered no room for argument.
“C’mon, Lemon Hearts,” Minuette said, donning a smile as she threw a hoof over her friend’s withers. “Think about it; this is like the perfect bookend to our vacation. We’re gonna spend the night in a spooky, scary, old-timey mansion. How cool is that!?”
Her friends all stared at her deadpanned, unsure if she was being serious or not.
“Anyway,” Moon Dancer said, not bothering to give an answer, “let’s get inside before we get hypothermia.” She turned to the door and pressed her hoof into the doorlock. It wouldn’t budge. “Ponyfeathers, it’s locked.”
Twinkleshine stepped up and tried it herself. It still wouldn’t budge. “Okay then.” She gripped the entire thing with her telekinesis and tried to yank it off the door. Still no luck. “This is ridiculous.”
Moon Dancer shined a light spell on the doorlock’s keyhole. It was all rusted and worn, clearly not having been oiled or changed for some time. “I don’t think we’d be able to get in even if we had the key,” she said.
“Over here, girls!”
The group turned to see Minuette standing in front of the window closest to the front door; the wooden frames looked incredibly loose. She enveloped them in her magic and, with a single good tug, ripped the entire window out of the wall.
Minuette smiled, and tossed it aside to the grass. “Let’s go!” she said, before hopping up onto the windowsill and slipping inside.
The rest of the girls each donned a grim expression, simultaneously cursing whatever abstract force of the universe that decreed they were to take shelter in an old, derelict mansion, and have to go through a window to do so. But it still beat spending the night outside with no roof over their heads.
The mansion interior was every bit as decrepit as the exterior. Dust coated every horizontal surface while cobwebs claimed every corner in every room. Cracks ran along the length of every wall, and even some parts of the ceiling. Piles of plaster, no doubt accumulated over years from the ceiling giving way, littered the floor. A musty, moldy smell permeated the stale, dry air.
The ponies set their saddlebags together in a pile before casting light spells to see where they were. The room they were in appeared to be the living room. A couple of couches were lined perpendicular with a quaint, brick fireplace. Portraits of various landscapes decorated the walls around the room, showing areas which might’ve come from the surrounding land, each one faded and peeling slightly in places.
Moon Dancer swept her light all across the walls, looking for a light switch. Finding one, she went over and flicked it on. No light came on.
“Figures,’ she muttered. She turned to her friends. “I’m gonna–”
She flinched in response to a trickle of plaster which fell to the floor in front of her. A quick glance up revealed a small spider web crack in the ceiling. The thought that the ceiling might come crashing down crossed her mind, to which she stepped back a couple paces.
Moon Dancer turned back to her friends. “I’m gonna go find the generator and see if I can get it working.” She turned around and exited through the doorway leading to the foyer. “Be back soon!” she called.
“I’m gonna go explore a little!” Minuette announced. “I’ll bet there’s some cool stuff stashed away somewhere, like treasure or something!” She disappeared through the doorway as well. The ascending echo of her hoofsteps indicated she was heading upstairs.
That left Lemon Hearts and Twinkleshine alone in the living room. After brushing away some cobwebs, Twinkleshine plopped down on one of the couches. She levitated a book out of her saddlebag and began reading.
Lemon Hearts wanted to stay in the living room so badly. Between wandering the dark, grimy hallways of the mansion and staying with her friend in the relative comfort and safety of the living room, she would gladly put up with Twinkleshine’s brusqueness to avoid potentially getting lost.
But the aching in her bladder had other ideas for her. The thought of relieving herself right there in the living room briefly crossed her mind, but a dark whisper telling her there was nothing to be afraid of took root. If she got lost, she only needed to yell and her friends would be quick to find her. The mansion was clearly abandoned, so the only real fear to be had was coming upon a rotted section of the floor and falling to her doom, or having the ceiling come crashing down on her. Perfectly legitimate fears, but not ones she couldn’t buck up and face for just a few minutes, depending on how long it took her to find a bathroom. Surely there had to be one somewhere close by.
“I’m gonna go find the little filly’s room,” Lemon Hearts announced, making her way to the entrance foyer.
Lemon Hearts entered the foyer, and took stock of her surroundings. Directly across from her was another entrance to what looked like a study of sorts. Next to the stairway was a dark hallway; a line of doorways adorned both sides. She made her way down and tried the first one on the left. Inside was a coat closet, with said coats all tattered and dusty. The door across led to a staircase leading down; the fresh hoofprints on the dust-ridden steps told her that Moon Dancer went this way in search of the generator.
Lemon continued down the hall, trying door after door but finding no bathroom on the other side of any. As she explored, the sense of unease she’d felt before gradually lifted, to the point where she felt a spark of excitement each time she opened a new door, curious about what was on the other side.
Along the way, Lemon Hearts passed by a portrait hanging on the wall, depicting three ponies against a lush landscape and bright blue sky. One was a middle-aged green-coated unicorn stallion with a two-toned brown and yellow mane and tail, a thin, well-groomed mustache, and brown eyes. Another was a white earth pony mare with a two-toned red and green mane and tail, and beautiful blue eyes. The third one was a young unicorn colt, probably around thirteen years of age, with a bright green mane and tail, a light blue coat, and bright blue eyes.
Lemon Hearts stopped only for a moment to examine the picture of what appeared to be the family who used to own the mansion. Their smiling faces showed them to be very loving, but other than that, she couldn’t glean much else from the picture. As she turned away to resume her search for a bathroom, she briefly wondered what happened to them, and why the mansion had fallen into such a state of disrepair.
She finally found a bathroom after a few more doors. And just like every other room in the mansion, it was coated with gunk and dust, but with the added detriment of having no windows. She did her best to hold her breath while relieving herself, not wanting to take a whiff of the stale, smelly air. Finishing up, she started retracing her steps back to the living room.
One door, slightly ajar, caught her eye along the way. There was a mini library inside, she remembered, but it seemed she forgot to close the door fully before.
Her newfound curiosity told her to explore a little further, to see what kind of ancient volumes and manuscripts and whatever else were stashed inside. Forbidden knowledge that could rewrite the history of ponykind, or even expand their knowledge of the universe and its existing framework. She had to giggle at her increasingly overactive imagination; of course she wouldn’t find anything so utterly profound in a simple mansion’s library.
Still, the thought of what might be inside was strong enough to convince her to go in. A couple of bookshelves lined the wall directly opposite her, as well as the left adjacent wall. To the right was a mahogany desk, upon which sat an open book.
Lemon Hearts’ attention went straight to the open book. It was odd that, in an otherwise completely abandoned mansion, a single book would be left out as if somepony was reading it after the fact. But the layer of dust covering the book was just as thick as everywhere else, so it had to have been left out when the mansion was initially abandoned.
With that realization, Lemon Hearts was excited to see what it contained. She would be just like Daring Do, uncovering lost secrets to satisfy a hungry adventurer’s spirit, or, in her case, a growing need to prove herself capable of braving the unknown. She trotted over and sat down on the chair after wiping away the dust. Casting a light spell, she began reading the contents of the open page.
Oh Celestia, why did it come to this?
I tried to convince him to stop the experiments, to forget about resurrecting Snowy Pine and let him rest in peace, but he wouldn’t listen. The madness made him blind to reason, or even to Snowy’s pain.
Winter Vista always did blame himself for Snowy’s suicide, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt a little responsible too. I should have seen the signs, and put a stop to their quarreling myself. Then this nightmare could’ve been avoided and we would’ve lived here as a happy family.
But now Winter’s gone, and Snowy’s howls of agony echo through this mansion. I’ve tried to end his suffering, but nothing works. The spell is just too powerful. I’ve only added to my son’s agony.
Maybe the spell will wear off eventually. Sweet Celestia, I hope it does.
I’m going to do it. I can’t bear to live without Winter by my side. If the spell wears off, then all three of us can reconcile in the great beyond. We’ll be a loving, happy family once again.
Lemon Hearts frowned at the contents. She was about to flip a few pages back to read more, when suddenly the room lit up. Turning around, she saw that the lightbulb set in the wall had come on. Moon Dancer had gotten the generator working!
Lemon Hearts picked the book up in her magic and exited the library, deciding to show the rest of the girls her find. On her way back, she briefly stopped in front of the family portrait she passed earlier. The smiling faces it showed now seemed a lot less genuine after what she’d read. She could only imagine what kind of family turmoil they were hiding from the world.
Soulless, black eyes stared back at her.
Lemon Hearts stumbled backward, the book falling from her magical grasp. Her breaths came out ragged as her chest tightened. She stared back up at the portrait, only to find it was normal again.
Was it some kind of trick of the light? Was it just her mind playing tricks on her? Yeah, yeah that had to be it. Reading the journal must’ve made her more edgy than she realized.
Lemon Hearts took a moment to calm down before she picked the book back up and continued on toward the living room. Moon Dancer was already there, lying on a couch, while Twinkleshine was still reading on the other. Both mares turned to watch Lemon Hearts enter the room.
“Back from nature’s call?” Moon Dancer quipped.
Lemon Hearts blushed a little. “Yeah.” She held up the journal. “And I found this in the library.”
“Oh?” Moon Dancer got up off the couch, her bookishness taking over as she closed the distance between them. “And what is it?”
Lemon was about to answer when everypony’s ears flicked. Hoofsteps were descending the stairs, alongside a strange, scraping sound. Everypony turned to the entrance, through which Minuette soon emerged, her horn lit.
“Where have you been?” Moon Dancer asked.
“This mansion is so cool!” Minuette cheered. “There’s all kinds of cool and interesting stuff in the rooms upstairs. The ones that weren’t locked, at least.” From around the corner, she levitated a very large executioner’s axe, bringing it just a scant few inches from Moon Dancer’s face. “There’s a whole wall of ancient axes and swords and spears and stuff, even!”
Moon Dancer cried out as she backed away from the deadly weapon. “Be careful with that thing, Minuette!” she cried.
“Right, sorry.” Minuette gripped the axe so the blade was facing away from everyone.
Twinkleshine briefly looked up from her book, rolling her eyes at Minuette’s childish excitement, before returning to enjoy her book. A flash of metal in her eye’s corner told her to duck, which she did, her head narrowly avoiding being split open by the axe.
“Minuette!” she shouted.
“Sorry! Sorry!” Minuette repeated. Back and forth the axe swayed, Minuette’s magic struggling to keep a firm grip on it. “This thing is really heavy!”
“She’s gonna get herself killed at this rate,” Twinkleshine whispered to herself, and retreated further away from Minuette’s wild axe swinging.
Minuette finally got a good grip on the axe. She then brought it over to a far corner of the room, safely leaning it against the wall before returning to the group.
“So, anyway…” Lemon Hearts presented the journal to her friends. “I found this in the library.”
“Oooh, what is it?” Minuette asked.
“It looks like its the mansion's owner's journal.” Lemon Hearts passed the book to Moon Dancer, who took it in her own magic. “The final entry is… well, pretty grim.”
Moon Dancer opened the journal to the last entry. Twinkleshine and Minuette looked over her withers and read silently along with Moon Dancer. By the time they were done, each mare either looked incredibly sad or, in Twinkleshine’s case, indifferent.
“Well, that’s depressing,” Minuette said, her usual cheerful tone tainted by sorrow.
“I’m just surprised that nopony saw fit to tear this place down for the last hundred years,” Twinkleshine said.
Moon Dancer said nothing, keeping her gaze on the page as her eyes gained a worried glint. She continued scanning the contents of the entry for a while before turning to look at some distant corner of the room, staring beyond it to the rest of the mansion. She swept her gaze all around the ceiling while flicking her ears back and forth, as if listening for something specific.
Lemon Hearts noticed her friend’s unusual behavior. “Is something wrong, Moon Dancer?” she asked.
Moon Dancer seemed not to hear her friend’s question. She turned her attention back to the book and flipped to the previous page, and quickly scanned the contents. Once finished, she flipped to the page before that and read that entry. She repeated this process several times, all while her friends waited anxiously for her to say anything.
Finally, Moon Dancer closed the book with a sigh. “Well, that’s troubling,” she muttered.
“Moon Dancer?” Minuette ventured. “Are you okay?”
Moon Dancer finally acknowledged her friends with a small smile. “Yeah… Everything’s fine.” She trotted over to their saddlebags and laid down, resting her head against her own. Lighting her horn, she flicked the light switch off, once again casting the room in near total darkness. “Let’s just try to get some sleep.”
Everypony else shared a brief worried glance, before shrugging and following suit, joining Moon Dancer by their saddlebags. Despite the less-than-ideal sleeping conditions, the four mares soon fell fast asleep.
Everything was still dark when Twinkleshine opened her eyes.
She blinked once, then twice, adjusting to the darkness. Her mind played catch up with her body as it tried to process why she was awake despite it not being daylight outside yet.
The aching in her barrel quickly answered her query.
Groaning, Twinkleshine got up and stretched, getting her blood flowing and mind clear. She then leaned down and gently nudged Lemon Hearts. “Hey, Lemon?” she whispered.
Lemon Hearts shifted a little, but didn’t wake up.
Twinkleshine nudged her harder. “C’mon Lemon, wake up.”
Lemon Hearts moaned as she cracked an eye open. She looked up at Twinkleshine, annoyance clear in her features. “What?” she said, groggily.
“Where was the bathroom?”
“Down the front hall, sixth door on the right.” Lemon Hearts buried her face in her saddlebag.
“Thanks.” Twinkleshine tip-hooved out of the living room and to the entrance foyer.
Now that Twinkleshine was venturing further into the mansion, she had to admit that it was kind of spooky. The quiet ambiance, dark, claustrophobic hallway, and creaking of loose floorboards under her hooves all added up to create a sense of unease in her gut. She’d never, ever admit it out loud to anypony, of course, but she definitely wanted to spend as little time away from the group as possible. Moreover, all the dust she was kicking up with her hooves could potentially ruin her coat, and that would never do.
Finally, she reached the sixth door on the right. She quickly opened it up and slipped inside, flicking the light switch. She then made to answer nature’s call.
Twinkleshine had just finished when her ear flicked in response to the distant sound. It sounded like the floor creaking.
Twinkleshine arched a confused brow. Those sounded like hoofsteps. Had one of the girls followed her? If they were trying to scare her, it wasn’t funny!
Twinkleshine listened as the creaking gradually got closer. Yes, they were definitely hoofsteps, she realized. Somepony was walking down the hall outside. What confused Twinkleshine, however, was that the hoofsteps were coming from the opposite direction as the living room. Had one of the girls been unable to sleep and decided to explore the mansion?
Panic began settling in as Twinkleshine realized that theory made little sense. She’d only been gone for two minutes, and nopony had followed her. If it was one of the girls, they would had to have gone the long way around through the study, but could they really make it to her current location in only two minutes, despite knowing almost nothing about the mansion’s layout?
The hoofsteps had now reached the bathroom door. Alongside them, Twinkleshine could hear what sounded like very soft moaning. A bead of sweat dripped down her face as she tried to decide on a course of action. Whoever was on the other side could be some crazed loon escaped from an insane asylum, or even a starving homeless pony who’d taken up residence in the abandoned mansion. She hoped it was the latter, or something equally harmless.
“... Who’s there?”
The hoofsteps came to an immediate stop next to the door. Twinkleshine backed away and levitated a ceramic soap dish from the sink counter, ready to smash it against the head of whatever came through if they turned out to be hostile.
Nothing happened at first. Twinkleshine’s heart pounded in her chest in anticipation of what might come through. She couldn’t even keep a steady grip on the soap dish, which shook like a leaf in her telekinesis.
The doorlock clicked. Twinkleshine prepared herself as she watched the door slowly swing open. A faint, pony-shaped outline could be seen in the dark hallway.
“Wh-Who are y-y-you?” Twinkleshine stuttered.
The pony’s only response were more soft moans. Then a light blue hoof stepped into the bathroom’s light. Twinkleshine managed to relax a little at the familiar sight of a stallion’s hoof. Another hoof stepped through.
Twinkleshine’s blood ran cold.
A large, rusted nail pierced the pony’s fetlock. Bits of dried blood coated the fur around it.
That hoof was followed by a body, then a neck, and finally a head, all the while a creeping sense of horror and disgust overtook Twinkleshine as more gruesome details about the stallion revealed themselves.
Chunks of rotted, loose flesh dotted the pony’s coat, marring the pretty blue color with a putrid purplish red, while dust and grime coated the bulk of the body. The stallion’s chest was torn open, revealing the colorful organs within, some of which hung out of the open cavity like spaghetti on a fork. His green mane and tail were wildly unkempt, with several bald spots dotting his scalp. His eyes were glazed over, while his mouth hung open to reveal rotted, yellow teeth and a rancid, rotting tongue.
The stallion edged closer to Twinkleshine, his deadened gaze fixated on her.
Twinkleshine shrieked. She smashed the soap dish against the stallion’s head. He stumbled back a little, only to be pushed back as Twinkleshine barreled through him, bolting from the bathroom and down the hall.
“Girls! Girls!” she shouted once she’d entered the living room. “Wake up! C’mon, wake up pleeease!”
Her friends were all roused from their peaceful slumber. They rubbed the sleep from their eyes before fixating their collectively annoyed expressions on Twinkleshine. “What is it?” Lemon Hearts asked weakly.
Twinkleshine pointed a shaking hoof behind her. “Th-Th-There’s a m-m-m-monster here!”
Her friends all blinked in unison. Their expressions all turned bemused before they plopped their heads back down on their saddlebags. “Go back to sleep,” Moon Dancer said tiredly.
Twinkleshine stomped her hoof. “I’m serious! There’s a–” Her ear flicked. Panic overtook her again as she bolted into the living room, jumping behind the nearest couch before curling herself into a shaking ball. “He’s coming this way!”
Minuette lifted her head up, brow arched in curiosity. “What’s coming this way?”
“Wait a minute.” Lemon Hearts lifted her head up, looking towards the doorway. “I heard something.”
Curious, Moon Dancer strained her ears. Sure enough, the faint sound of hoofsteps was steadily approaching the foyer. Moon Dancer got up and ran through a mental list of disarming spells. Whatever was coming would never get the chance to hurt her or her friends.
Finally, the stallion turned around the corner into the living room. Moon Dancer, Lemon Hearts, and Minuette all immediately froze where they stood. The sluggish, decaying form shuffled towards them on three hooves, while the one with the rusty nail embedded in it reached towards them.
”K-Kill me,” he said in a hoarse whisper.
“Do something Moon Dancer!” Twinkleshine shouted.
Moon Dancer lowered her horn, shooting forth a magic blast straight at the stallion’s head. He instantly stopped in his tracks.
For a few moments, all was silent. The girls all anxiously stared, waiting for Moon Dancer’s spell to take effect. The stallion’s body twitched once, then twice, before what little life there was left in his eyes receded. One after another, his legs buckled, falling and splaying out on the floor. And it might’ve been a trick of the light, but all of the girls could’ve sworn they saw him smile a little before he completely fell to the floor.
The girls all waited for a few more moments. When it became clear the stallion wasn’t getting back up, they all breathed a deep, collective sigh of relief.
“What in the name of Celestia just happened?” Minuette asked.
“And what is that... thing?” Twinkleshine asked from her spot behind the couch. “And is it dead for good?”
“It’s a zombie, or, more scientifically, a ‘revival dead’,” Moon Dancer explained. “And yes, it’s dead. I cast a nullification spell on him, so the revival spell keeping him alive was neutralized.” An inquisitive frown crossed her muzzle as she took a step toward him. “As for who he is, well…” She turned to see Lemon Hearts had a look of stark realization plastered over her face, to which all the pieces clicked in Moon Dancer’s mind. “Is he really…?”
Lemon Hearts nodded. “It’s Snowy Pine, no doubt about it,” she said. “He looks exactly like the colt in the family portrait back in the hallway.”
“So,” Minuette started, her voice unusually shaky, “all that stuff in the journal was true?”
“I thought it might’ve been,” Moon Dancer muttered. She stared down at Snowy’s corpse, mourning, for a few seconds before lifting it up in her magic. “We should bury him,” she said, and turned to her friends. “Anypony wanna help me?”
“No way am I going anywhere near that thing!” Twinkleshine declared, crossing her hooves with a resolute frown.
Moon Dancer looked between Minuette and Lemon Hearts. Minuette shifted uncomfortably, clearly none too thrilled with the offer either. Seeing her friends’ disinterest, Lemon Hearts stepped forward with a proud smile. “I’ll help,” she said.
“Thanks, Lemon,” Moon Dancer said.
With that, the two of them left to the foyer and out the front door, leaving Twinkleshine and Minuette alone.
Everything was silent once Moon Dancer and Lemon Hearts left. Twinkleshine came out of her place behind the couch and onto it, where she immediately curled up into a feeble little ball with a frightened look in her eyes. Minuette couldn’t stand it, and even the mansion did nothing to break the total stillness of everything; not so much as a creak or a groan of settling framework interrupted the thick silence.
“So, uh…” Minuette scuffed a hoof across the floor, wracking her brain for something to start up a conversation between her and Twinkleshine. “... Zombies really exist. How ‘bout that, huh?”
“Not helping me, Minuette,” Twinkleshine said in an uncharacteristically soft voice.
She must’ve really been scared, Minuette realized, if all the brusqueness was gone from her tone. That wouldn’t do; she needed to cheer her friend up. She came over and carefully, so as not to startle her, rested a comforting hoof on Twinkleshine’s withers.
“Don’t be scared now, Twinkie,” she soothed. Yep, she was really out of it if she wasn’t even rolling her eyes at her for using that nickname. Her ear flicked at the sound of some falling plaster, but she paid it no mind. “So we got attacked by a zombie pony. So what? It’s gone now; we’re all fine and dandy. Let’s just put it behind us and enjoy the rest of our vacation, hmm?”
Twinkleshine gave no response for a few moments, all while Minuette stroked her withers comfortingly. When she eventually turned her head to meet Minuette’s gaze, Minuette felt a surge of warmth to see the small smile on Twinkleshine’s lips.
Suddenly, Twinkleshine’s eyes shrank to pinpricks, her smile instantly giving way to a look of sheer terror.
Minuette arched a brow. “What’s the matter?”
Twinkleshine scurried across the couch, climbing over the arm, all while keeping her gaze fixed past Minuette.
Minuette turned around, and her own eyes shrank at the sight before her.
A moving, undulating mass of shadows was climbing down the wall, pouring out of a newly opened hole in the ceiling. It scaled the length of the wall and started spreading across the floor towards the two mares, bobbing forward like an ever-creeping wave.
Minuette’s mind went blank and her senses shut down, shocked by what she was seeing. The shadowy mass rolled closer to her, unabated, while Twinkleshine backed farther away, her mouth opening and closing dumbly like a fish.
The shadow mass passed over the wallside bulb, to which it exploded, scattering glass everywhere and plunging the room into greater darkness. This snapped Minuette out of her daze, and she made to turn around and bolt, only for her hooves to trip on one of the couch legs, making her fall over. She turned to look back, face horror-stricken, as the shadow mass had now reached her. It moved up her legs, consuming them like an inky tide, before stopping at her barrel.
A hot, burning sensation spread throughout Minuette’s stomach. Desperately, she tried to crawl away, but the living shadow seemed to be gripping her with an intangible clutch, as it stayed over her as she moved. The burning sensation turned scalding. The fiery pain lancing through her barrel made Minuette cry out in agony.
Twinkleshine didn’t think. She ran to the entrance and slipped into the foyer, before bolting down the hall. A brief glance behind her showed the shadows were following her. Along the wall they crept, reaching for her like ghostly appendages. She didn’t spare another glance behind her as she galloped down the hall, not caring where she went as long as she kept running away from the terror chasing after her. A million questions fought to be at the forefront of her mind, and not one of them succeeded. All Twinkleshine could think was to keep running, to find someplace to hide.
Eventually, she found herself in the mansion’s kitchen. She wasted no time in pulling open one of the cupboards and stowing away inside. Mold and cobwebs stuck to her body as she squeezed herself in among all the various kitchenware, but she didn’t care. She was finally safe from the terror that had consumed her friend. Upon this realization, Twinkleshine let out the breath she’d been subconsciously holding, and took in a few lungfuls of stale, dusty air, working to calm herself down.
Once she was settled down, her mind worked to catch up with what was happening. Instantly, her thoughts turned to Minuette. Her friend seemed to be in pain when she’d ran, and Twinkleshine couldn’t shake the voice in her head saying she was a coward for doing so. But what else could she have done? What could she do against a mass of living shadows? Nothing at all. So why should she feel guilty about running?
Another little voice made itself known, saying it was because she’d abandoned her friend. Even if she couldn’t help, true friends didn’t abandon each other, no matter what. Twinkleshine felt a couple of tears roll down her face at that realization, and she buried her face in her hooves, her body wracking with choked sobs.
Twinkleshine spent the next couple minutes crying in the cupboard. She mourned the loss of her friend, the overly cheerful equine enthusiast Twinkleshine had come to love and admire despite how ignorant she could be at times, whom she'd known as far back as magic kindergarten. Minuette had sought to comfort her after Twinkleshine had been scared out of her wits, and she'd repaid her by running away when Minuette needed her help the most.
She wasn’t a true friend after all. She was a coward.
… No. No, she could still be a true friend.
Twinkleshine opened the cupboard and crawled out. Standing up, a determined frown crossed her muzzle. Her friend needed her, and dammit she was going to help!
Twinkleshine bolted from the kitchen back down the hallway. The living shadowy mass was nowhere to be seen, possibly having passed by her hiding place and gone off somewhere else. All the same, Twinkleshine kept her eyes peeled for any flicker of movement as she whizzed down the newly darkened hallway.
She turned the corner back into the living room. “Minuette!?” she called out, stepping in. She cast a light spell and swept it over the floor. Minuette was nowhere to be seen.
“Minuette!?” She took a few more steps forward, searching between the couches. “Where are you!?”
A bead of sweat fell from Twinkleshine’s brow. She cast her gaze up towards the ceiling, at the hole the shadow mass had poured from, but saw nothing.
She took another few steps forward, toward the far corner of the room. She let out a surprised shriek as her hooves tripped over something, making her stumble a little. Her brief jolt of panic was soon to fade, however, as confusion took hold in response to the sensation of something wet and gooey under her hooves. She shined her horn downward.
Her blood froze.
“Help me... please,” came a hoarse whisper from behind her, followed by the scraping sound of hooves against wood.
The floor around Twinkleshine’s hooves was coated with bloody guts, melted into a thick paste that clung to her hooves like mud. Little bits of steam wafted from the intestinal matter.
“Help… me… Twinkleshine.”
Body trembling, Twinkleshine shined her horn light further back, and felt bile rise in her throat. The back half of Minuette's body, severed from the rest of her, lay on the floor in a crimson pool. Her abdomen was exposed, revealing all the melted guts and organs that were spilling out onto the floor. But aside from that, her body looked as pristine and healthy as ever, which only made the sight of its detachment all the more revolting for Twinkleshine.
The scraping sound behind her stopped, and Twinkleshine felt something weakly prod at her fetlock. She didn’t want to turn around. She didn’t want to confirm what she knew happened to her friend. She wanted to cling to what little ignorant hope she still had that her friend wasn’t severed in half, and was, in fact, playing a very cruel joke on her. For once, she would’ve gladly laughed at her own expense to make that a reality.
Her legs almost didn’t cooperate, so shaky were they, as Twinkleshine turned around and shined her horn down at her hooves. Minuette’s anguished face stared back up at her, and she stopped prodding Twinkleshine’s fetlock.
“I’m sorry,” Twinkleshine whispered.
She brought her fore hooves up and, with as much force as she could muster, slammed them down onto Minuette’s head. The resulting sickening, bone-crunching sound was a knife to her ears. Flecks of blood sprayed everywhere, unnoticeable in the dark of the room. A low groan escaped Minuette’s smashed mouth. Twinkleshine brought her hooves up again and slammed them down again. The second time was less painful for her.
Again and again Twinkleshine smashed Minuette’s head, pure instinct overriding all other senses. And yet, she managed to cry. With each smash of her hooves, she felt her eyes water up a little more, all while her choking sobs filled the otherwise silent room.
Finally, her legs were too tired to continue. Twinkleshine could only tremble where she stood, letting the tears fall from her face. Her mind raced to catch up with her, sorting through the maelstrom of emotions swirling through her head. When she finally realized what exactly had happened, Twinkleshine let out a pitiful cry and fell hard on her haunches, shaking the floorboards a little.
Her ear flicked in response to a soft, metallic scraping sound coming from behind her. Slowly, she turned around. There was a flash of metal through the darkness. Twinkleshine’s eyes bulged and her body went stiff as something slammed down onto her skull.
“Well, that’s that,” Moon Dancer said as she levitated the last shovelful of dirt into the makeshift grave, before patting it flat.
Lemon Hearts rubbed her fore hooves together, doing her best to keep warm in spite of the cool nighttime air. “You think we should say a few words, or something?” she asked, looking mournfully down at Snowy’s grave.
Moon Dancer shrugged. “We didn’t know him. Besides, he wanted this.” She gestured with her head back toward the mansion. “C’mon, let’s get back to the others.”
The two of them first brought their shovels back to the garden shed by the side of the mansion, before making their way to the front door.
“As soon as we get back to the lodge, we’re gonna send for a messenger chariot,” Moon Dancer said along the way. “The princesses need to know about what’s happened here as soon as possible.” Her eyes took on a dark glint, piercing through the nighttime air. “Necromancy has been outlawed for the past five hundred years, and they’re gonna want to search the mansion for any corresponding spellbooks so they can destroy them.”
Lemon Hearts nodded her agreement with a smile. “It’s a good thing I have a connection with Canterlot Castle, then.”
They opened the newly unlocked front door and slipped inside. Immediately, they were surprised to see that all the lights were out, once again bathing the mansion in darkness.
“What the...?” Moon Dancer looked into the living room. Twinkleshine and Minuette were nowhere to be found.
“Moon Dancer, look at this.”
Moon Dancer followed Lemon Hearts’ voice, noticing her friend pointing to something on the floor. She followed her hoof to find a spread of glass scattered across the hallway. Looking up, she confirmed it belonged to the wall light. That explained why the hallway was dark again.
“What do you think did this?” Lemon Hearts asked.
Moon Dancer shook her head. “I don’t know.” She turned around and stuck her head into the living room again. “Minuette!? Twinkleshine!? Is everything alright!?”
“C’mon girls, no jokes please!” she called. “What happened to the lights!?”
Moon Dancer trotted into the room, casting a light spell. Back and forth she swept her horn, looking for any sign of her friends, but found nothing. Perhaps they’d left to explore the mansion out of boredom? That theory was quickly pushed aside, as surely Twinkleshine would’ve stayed behind if Minuette wanted to go explore more.
Moon Dancer felt a chill run along her spine as genuine panic began to settle in. She came further into the room, searching every square inch of the floor for any sign of a scuffle, or hoof prints, or anything that would help her understand what happened to her friends. She heard Lemon Hearts follow along behind her, and a quick glance back revealed her friend looked to be every bit as concerned for their friends as she was feeling.
She made her way toward the far corner of the room. Suddenly, she felt a gooey substance cling to her hooves. Confused, her shined her light downward, and only grew more confused at the purple gunk smeared across the floor.
“What is this?” she heard Lemon Hearts say behind her.
Moon Dancer was about to reply when a flash of blue and white appeared within her horn’s light. “Minuette!” She took a few steps forward. “What’re you do–”
It was like somepony had stabbed her brain with a cold stake. Moon Dancer’s breath caught in her throat while her entire body went rock still. Her mind failed to comprehend what she was seeing in front of her.
Minuette’s severed lower body sat still and lifeless in a pool of pasty guts, like a rock in a puddle of mud. Through the darkness, the faint outline of another shape caught Moon Dancer’s attention. Shining her light over it almost made her gag at the sight of Minuette’s crushed skull. An eyeball hung loosely from its socket, dangling just above the floor in front of her friend’s bloody, smashed face.
Lemon Hearts’ reaction was a shrill shriek of horror which could’ve reached all the way to the top floors, breaking the calm tranquility of the mansion with her ear-piercing wail.
Moon Dancer stared dumbly, her mind an unorganized mess of possible reactions and emotions. Too shocked was she to react or make a coherent response at first, her mind working to comprehend the horror she was witnessing.
“Twinkleshine!?” she managed to finally say. “Where are you–!?”
That’s when she saw it. Her horn light passed over another figure resting on the floor, a little ways ahead of Minuette’s front half. Moon Dancer settled her light on the figure, and this time actually did gag at what she saw.
Twinkleshine’s corpse lay on the floor nearby the corner. The large battle axe Minuette had brought earlier was embedded in her skull, just next to her horn. Small trails of blood trickled down her friend’s lifeless face onto the floor, her eyes glazed over and mouth open in a permanent state of shock.
Moon Dancer fell to her haunches. Once again, her mind all but shut down while trying to make sense of what was happening. Everything had been just fine when she and Lemon Hearts left not a mere half hour ago, and yet, somehow in that short stretch of time, both of her friends had been brutally slain.
And that’s when it finally hit her.
Her friends were dead.
Moon Dancer’s eyes turned misty and her breaths became choked sobs. She buried her face in her hooves, letting the tears mat her hair and fall through to the floor, mixing in with the blood around their hooves. Lemon Hearts was quick to join, and the two cried together in the dark for some time.
The how of their friends’ deaths didn’t matter, only that they were gone from this world. Memories of their friends rose to the surface of their minds. Happy memories of the four of them playing hoofball in the park, or strolling through Canterlot’s market district on the lookout for interesting knick-knacks, or even that very vacation, and all the sightseeing they’d done before winding up in the mansion. It was enough to eventually help them calm down enough to get back up and start thinking coherently.
“We need to get back to the lodge,” Lemon Hearts said, panic gripping her voice as she cast her eyes about the room. “Whatever did this might still be in this mansion.”
“It’s still too dark outside,” Moon Dancer argued. “And too cold too. We’ll freeze before we can figure out where we’re going.”
“Our friends are dead for Celestia’s sake!” Lemon Hearts cried, grabbing Moon Dancer’s withers and shaking them. “We need to get out of here! Now!”
“Get your hooves off me!” Moon Dancer cried back. She shoved Lemon Hearts off of her and straightened her sweater. “I know, Lemon. I’m trying to remain logical so we don’t end up joining them.” She fought to suppress another choking sob as she said that.
“Well then what do we do?”
Moon Dancer was about to respond when the sound of a hoofstep from above caught her attention. She turned her head up toward the ceiling, her attention squarely on the floor above. Whatever, or whoever, was up there might’ve killed their friends; the thought of blasting the ceiling apart as an act of revenge briefly crossed her mind.
The ceiling above creaked and groaned as a series of hoofsteps strode across, more plaster falling with each step. Moon Dancer tracked the path with her horn over their heads, all the way across the ceiling before stopping next to a newly formed hole at the spot where she remembered plaster was falling earlier.
Then all was silent.
Moon Dancer and Lemon Hearts waited for something to happen. Anything.
Moon Dancer could feel Lemon Hearts shaking behind her. She didn’t blame her friend. Moon Dancer was feeling more afraid now than she’d ever been in her life. She wanted to bolt from the mansion, but her logical side combined with her scientific desire for answers was winning out.
When nothing happened for a good minute, Moon Dancer shined her horn's light over the hole. Nothing but empty darkness greeted her.
“C-Can we p-p-please go now?” Lemon Hearts stuttered.
Moon Dancer sighed, and turned to her friend with a comforting smile. “Okay. I’ll grab a blanket or something and then we’ll spend the rest of the night outside. Can you wait another minute?”
Lemon Hearts sighed. “Okay. I can do tha–” Her breath caught in her throat and her eyes bulged. Her mouth opened and closed with mumbled gibberish as she pointed a shaky hoof toward the ceiling.
Moon Dancer swiveled her head around up to where she was pointing, and repeated her friends’ actions.
Soulless black eyes, attached to a faded, white pony head, stared back down at them. Fury, more palpable and intense than anything either mare had ever experienced, or indeed, thought was possible, shot through their very beings, paralyzing their senses. Every trace of sorrow they previously felt for their friends was eradicated, replaced by sheer horror.
The three locked gazes for a few seconds before the white pony retracted from view. Instantly, Moon Dancer and Lemon Hearts felt their senses return to normal.
Before they could begin to process what had happened, however, a flicker of movement in the hole caught Moon Dancer’s eyes. She looked, and in the space of light her spell created, was shocked to see a mass of shadows pouring out of the hole. Down the wall it crawled, moving in undulating waves, like something out of a nightmare. As soon as the shadow mass reached the floor, it came straight towards her and Lemon Hearts.
She was barely aware of her own actions. Her hooves practically moved of their own accord, fueled by little more than pure, raw survival instinct. Everything was a blur as Moon Dancer pounded the floorboards, bolting from the living room to the foyer and the front door. She had it open in an instant, and was outside in another. She was about to slam the door closed, but a flash of yellow halted her action for just long enough, before she did actually slam the door.
The two friends spent the next several moments catching their breath, while their minds tried and failed several times to process what had just happened. Moon Dancer, especially, found herself at quite the loss for an explanation. Or, at least, one that she wanted to agree with. Ghosts? Total rubbish. That’s what her academic self had always known, while her scared, little filly self that had long since passed away believed in.
Now that scared little filly Moon Dancer was resurrected, while her academic self was getting beaten up for its inability to rationally explain everything that she’d just seen.
“What in Equestria was that?” Lemon Hearts practically cried.
Moon Dancer sighed. “You’re asking the wrong mare.” She turned back to the front door. “What we just saw…” She shook her head, and turned back to Lemon Hearts. “I don’t know. I was too shocked to really make sense of anything.”
“It might’ve been a trick of the light or something, but…” Lemon Hearts paused for a moment, as if collecting her thoughts. “... Did that, uh… ‘ghost’ have a mustache?”
Moon Dancer blinked. “Did it what?”
Lemon Hearts shifted uncomfortably. “I mean, it looked like it did, at least to me.”
Moon Dancer wracked her memory of the terrifying encounter, trying to recall such a detail of the ‘ghost’, as it apparently had to be called. But nothing came up; she’d been too distracted by its sheer presence to make out specific details of its appearance.
“I’ll take your word for it,” she replied, and gave Lemon Hearts an inquisitive glance. “Why should that matter?”
“Well, that family portrait in the hallway featured a pony with a mustache,” Lemon Hearts explained. “I-I think he’s Winter Vista, from that journal entry.”
“So you’re saying that was his ghost–” Moon Dancer cringed speaking that word out loud, “–back there?”
as “I guess he didn’t want to say goodbye to his family, even after death.” A tear fell down Lemon Hearts’ face as she looked downcast. “It’s so sad…”
Moon Dancer could only sit on her haunches and rub her temples. Through all the insanity she’d experienced, she was still determined to use logic to solve the presented problem. They were stuck outside in the freezing cold night, with the vengeful ghost of some old baron or whatever preventing them from going back inside for warmth. They would need to placate Winter Vista’s ghost in order to make it through the night.
To that end, Moon Dancer wracked her brain for any and all information regarding ghosts she’d managed to accidently come across in her lifetime. The most widely accepted trait of ghosts, she remembered, was that they remain bound to the mortal realm because of unfinished business or extreme despair from their time alive. They had to help Winter Vista overcome whatever problem was keeping him from moving on, and Moon Dancer had a good idea as to what that was based on everything that was in the journal.
Winter’s ghost didn’t appear until after she’d ended the spell keeping Snowy’s corpse alive. It made sense that would’ve sparked his rage, living or dead, to see his son taken away from him by four total strangers, trespassing on his property no less. Swan Song’s journal entry indicated she was going to commit suicide, and if she did so before she became aware of her husband’s spirit haunting the mansion, it would make sense he’d also be upset to lose her so soon after losing his son.
With all this information, Moon Dancer formed what she hoped would be the right plan to placate Winter’s ghost. Whether vengeful spirits were want to listen to reason, she didn’t know, but she could certainly hope and pray this one would.
All they needed were both Snowy Pine and Swan Song’s corpses. They knew exactly where Snowy was, and Moon Dancer had a hunch she knew where Swan Song was as well.
“Okay, I have a plan,” she finally said, drawing Lemon Hearts’ attention. “I don’t know how much merit it actually has, but I get the feeling it just might work.”
Lemon Hearts blinked. “... Okay,” she said, warily.
“This is what we’re gonna do,” Moon Dancer began explaining. “We’re gonna present Winter’s family to him to show him he needs to move on. If he’s stuck as a ghost because he’s upset his family is gone, then maybe we can convince him to move on by making him realize that his family is waiting for him on the… other side.”
Lemon Hearts’ expression turned to concern as she appeared to process Moon Dancer’s explanation. “I… guess that makes sense, but…" Her expression turned nervous. "... Do we really need to go back inside?”
“Yes,” Moon Dancer said, neutrally.
Lemon Hearts sighed. “Okay. But we don’t know where Swan Song is at, do we?”
“I think I know.” Moon Dancer turned and began crossing the front lawn toward the treeline. “Go dig up Snowy’s body!” she called back. “I’ll be back with Swan Song really soon!”
Moon Dancer was well past the treeline before she could hear Lemon Hearts’ reply.
Down the trail Moon Dancer ran, bobbing and weaving around trees, trying to retrace her steps to the spot where she believed she’d seen Swan Song’s corpse. Her job was made especially difficult by the fact that all the trees looked the same without any distinguishable landmarks. But still she went on, scanning the right side of the trail with her horn light, hoping to catch a glimpse of the figure she’d seen earlier in the night.
The silent tranquility of the forest was no longer comforting to her. Everything seemed to be unnaturally still, and Moon Dancer felt more than one chill run the length of her spine at just how… dead everything seemed. Not a single sound of wildlife to be heard, nor the whistling of wind gust through the canopy, shaking leaves loose. It all served to encourage Moon Dancer to pick up her pace, gradually turning her brisk gait into a full-on gallop.
A sense of déjà vu washed over Moon Dancer as her hoof struck something hard, once more sending her flying through the air and crashing along the side of the trail, her glasses flying free from her muzzle. Sharp stings of pain shot all throughout her body, making Moon Dancer wince in agony as she pushed herself to her hooves.
Realization hit her like a ton of bricks. She’d spotted what she believed to be Swan Song’s corpse right after tripping the first time. Quickly, Moon Dancer located her glasses, put them on, and began scanning the surrounding woodwork with her horn’s light. It wasn't long before she spotted it some ways off the trail, hanging underneath a tree with particularly large branches.
Her horn’s light revealed a little more detail of the hung figure than her bare eyes could see previously. Through the trees, she could make out a faint splotch of white against the darkened tree bark, topped off with the barest visible shade of pink.
Moon Dancer wasted no time in running off the trail toward the figure, excitement bubbling within her every step of the way. More details became clear as she got closer. Swan Song’s corpse was wearing a tattered, fancy white dress and a battered, pink feathered hat. Its skeletal face was hidden beneath the hat, while the faint image of its decomposed body could be seen through her clothing in Moon Dancer’s horn’s light. The noose tied around its neck was old and worn, and a rusted stepladder laid on the ground in front of the hanging body.
Moon Dancer switched off her light spell, then wrapped the rope in telekinesis as she began undoing the complicated knot. A century of time exposed to the elements had strengthened the knot’s grip, and Moon Dancer found even her magic struggling to untie the noose. And without a decent source of light to aid her, Moon Dancer found her task doubly hard, but she persevered.
Eventually, the knot came undone. Moon Dancer caught the corpse before it could fall to the ground, making sure the skull was facing away from her as she caught it. She noticed something tumble out of the dress’ pocket onto the ground with a soft thud. Bringing the object up to her face revealed it to be an old-fashioned brass key. She wondered what it could go to, and why Swan Song kept it on her person when she committed suicide. She decided to keep it, figuring it might be important later on.
Putting the key back in Swan Song’s dress pocket, Moon Dancer turned around and made her way back to the trail, before retracing her steps back to the mansion.
It felt so surreal to her, carrying the corpse of a dead mother through a dark forest, back to her home in an effort to appease her vengeful ghost husband. The sheer absurdity of the whole situation would’ve made Moon Dancer laugh any other day, but the sorrow she felt for her dead friends prevented this.
Thoughts of Minuette and Twinkleshine dominated Moon Dancer’s mind all along her journey. Two mares she’d come to accept and love as friends, now gone. Killed in a fit of rage by a vengeful spirit, all because she'd taken away his son. To that end, Moon Dancer couldn’t help but feel responsible for their deaths. She knew she shouldn’t feel so, and yet, the sting in her heart didn’t lessen no matter how much she tried to convince herself. But, deep down, she knew they, wherever they currently were, didn’t blame her for what happened to them. They were true friends to the end.
Finally, Moon Dancer exited the treeline onto the mansion’s front lawn. Immediately, she made her way around the mansion to the east garden, where Snowy Pine’s grave was. Stepping around the corner, however, Moon Dancer was confused to see no sign of Lemon Hearts around the garden. Frowning, she closed the distance between herself and the garden, specifically the grave. It looked exactly the same as when she and Lemon Hearts had left it earlier.
“Lemon Hearts!” she called. “Where're you at!?”
She let loose a bout of nervous laughter. “Nice joke Lemon Hearts! You can come out now!”
Panic overtook Moon Dancer, and she hurriedly began searching for her friend. She checked every single plausible hiding spot all around the mansion’s exterior: in the garden shed; underneath the back porch; inside the old dog kennel; even the surrounding treeline. Any thought that Lemon Hearts might’ve gone back inside the mansion was quickly cast aside; she'd made very clear her reservations about going back in even with Moon Dancer's company.
Moon Dancer eventually found herself back on the front lawn, exhausted from running around while carrying Swan Song’s corpse in her magic, and chilly from the night air getting to her. She looked to the trail leading to the mansion’s grounds with a look of worry. Had Lemon Hearts decided to abandon her and try to reach the lodge all on her own? Surely Moon Dancer would’ve noticed her friend passing by if she had. Where was her friend!?
“Lemon Hearts!” she called weakly. “Lemon Hearts! Answer me!”
“C’mon, Lemon Hearts, where are you?” Moon Dancer fell to her haunches, the corpse dropping from her magic. “Please don’t… do this…”
She fell over completely, burying her face in her fore hooves, and began sobbing. She didn’t want to believe it, but the reality had finally registered in her mind.
She was completely alone now.
Moon Dancer had truly believed she could save both herself and Lemon Hearts. She’d been willing to banish all her previous skepticism about the existence of ghosts if it meant both she and Lemon Hearts could survive the night against the vengeful spirit of Winter Vista. She’d have even been willing to trade away every single book in her vast collection for a chance to undo this entire vacation, just to prevent both Minuette and Twinkleshine’s untimely demise. But she’d truly believed she could save at least one of her friends.
And she’d failed.
If she couldn’t save any of her friends, could she save herself? Was there even a point in trying? Nopony would believe her ghost story, and the fact that she’d return as the sole survivor would automatically make her the number one suspect to their murders. That was if she even managed to survive the night, the odds of which weren’t looking good. Maybe she should just lay down and let herself die. She’d be able to see her friends again, and she could apologize for letting them down.
Moon Dancer stood back up. She wiped a sleeve over her face, cleaning away her tears before lowering it to reveal eyes full of resolve. She still had friends. Her sister. Twilight Sparkle. Everypony she’d met and befriended at the last Annual Equestrian Magic Symposium. She had a duty to them to live on. Live so she could see all their smiling faces once again. They all believed in her, and she wouldn’t be a true friend if she completely abandoned them.
Moon Dancer picked Swan Song’s corpse back up in her magic, and strode purposefully toward the mansion’s front door. There would be plenty of time for mourning after she placated Winter’s ghost.
The mansion seemed even eerier now than it’d been earlier. Knowing now that there was a vengeful spirit lurking inside certainly helped to contribute to such a quality. Further still, knowing it attacked with a living shadow mass, and her only source of light being preoccupied with holding his wife’s corpse, left Moon Dancer's courage out to starve.
Moon Dancer hadn’t been hesitant about entering upon first arriving at the mansion with her friends. Now, however, she was finding it hard to muster the willpower just to take a few steps forward. The idea that maybe she could draw out Winter’s spirit right where she stood crossed her mind. It was an appealing belief, but a niggling little voice in the back of Moon Dancer’s mind told her it wouldn’t work. Such a convenience seemed too good to be possible.
Moon Dancer set down Swan Song’s corpse for a moment, using her freed horn to illuminate the foyer, particularly the ceiling in search of any more holes the shadow mass could come from. Seeing nothing, she felt a little courage boost in her, enough to get her moving.
She picked up Swan Song’s corpse and proceeded up the staircase. They creaked and groaned under her hooves, killing the permeating silence and providing Moon Dancer with a little, much needed comfort. The faint whistling of wind could be heard upstairs the farther up she got, probably from a shattered window. She even began stomping on each step an extra time before moving forward, just to create more comforting sound. Anything to create a livelier atmosphere and calm her sensitive nerves was welcome to her.
Moon Dancer reached the top of the staircase without any trouble. Up top was a hallway leading to more rooms on either side, while in front of her was an open door leading to what looked to be a conservatory, if all the decaying, wilted plants were anything to go by. Moon Dancer’s target was the room directly above the living room, so she turned left down the hallway, stopping in front of the first door on her left.
The door was closed, so Moon Dancer once again set down Swan Song to use her magic on the doorlock. To her horror, it was locked. She shined a light spell to find an old-fashioned keyhole, just like the one on the mansion’s front door, underneath the hoof press. Her initial panic gave way to realization when she remembered the key in Swan Song’s dress pocket. She retrieved it and inserted it into the doorlock. To her immense relief, it clicked open.
Moon Dancer put her hoof into the press, but stopped for a moment, lost in thought. What might she find on the other side? What drove Winter Vista to haunt this room in particular upon dying? Why did Swan Song lock it up, yet allow her son’s corpse to roam the mansion grounds completely free?
Moon Dancer shook her head, clearing away her barrage of needless questions. All that mattered right now was placating Winter’s spirit. She gently creaked open the door, its ancient hinges squeaking with a hundred years of zero maintenance. A small flickering light greeted her, growing as the door opened wider. Candlelight. She opened the door all the way.
The room looked like a bizarre combination of an office space and a sacrificial altar. Near to the door were a couple of mahogany desks littered with papers and toppled inkwells, while a filing cabinet rested against the left wall. Lit candles lined every wall, and Moon Dancer briefly wondered how in Equestria these candles could burn for a hundred years, before the possibility that Winter’s spirit kept them lit crossed her conscience. It made about as much sense as everything else she’d seen thus far.
What attracted the bulk of her attention, however, was the rectangular pedestal set near the far wall, surrounded by four more lit torches and a series of green runic symbols set into the floorboards in a circular formation. Clear evidence of Winter Vista’s alleged necromantic activities.
Immediately, the rancid smell of death assaulted her nostrils, making her eyes water. She took a moment to wipe them clean before closing up her nostrils and proceeding forward, Swan Song’s corpse floating behind her. She made her way around the desks and up to the altar, resting Swan Song on it with delicate precision.
“Winter!” she called, further illuminating the room with her horn. “Your wife is here!”
She waited for a few moments, but nothing happened. No moving shadows. No thumps or bumps. No flicker of white or anything to signify Winter’s presence.
It suddenly dawned on Moon Dancer that she had no idea how to properly communicate with spirits. And with that realization came a heightened sense of vulnerability. Never once had she read a single book on paranormal subjects, having dismissed the entire idea as foalish campfire story material. Still, she had a plan in mind, and she had no choice but to stick to it.
“Come on out, Winter!” Moon Dancer called again, more panicked. “There’s no reason for you to remain here. Think of what your wife would want.” She pointed to the corpse.
Moon Dancer began pacing back and forth, a comforting habit to kickstart her mental processes. She needed to approach this situation calmly and scientifically, or as much as she could hope to. Ghosts still had feelings, she knew, if Winter’s previous actions in response to his son’s ‘death’ were any indication. They could feel loss, rage, and vengeance, so it made sense that they could be reasoned with. She just needed to find the right method for Winter’s ghost.
Moon Dancer suddenly passed through a cold spot of air as she passed by the altar. She stopped, sparing a glance at the corpse. She thought she saw a tiny orb of light whiz past her.
She blinked. “What the…?”
Moon Dancer’s hair stood on end. That sound had come from the doorway.
She turned, and her breath immediately caught in her throat.
Standing in the doorway was Winter Vista’s spectral form. His entire body was a consistent pale white, while his mane and tail were a faded double hue of brown and yellow. His cutie mark was absent. Empty, black eye sockets stared back at Moon Dancer, filling her very being with pure, raw dread. The darkness all around his ghostly body bobbed and undulated in an eerie dance.
Moon Dancer’s entire body went stiff with shock, yet internally she was amazed. An actual ghost, right here in front of her. So much to be learned and studied, so many experiments one could conduct. Equestria’s understanding of reality itself could be flipped on its head with this one discovery.
But none of that meant anything right now.
Steeling her courage, Moon Dancer stood tall and rigid, trying to look as authoritative as possible despite the fear coursing through her veins. “Winter Vista?”
The apparition did and said nothing, merely continuing to stare at her, his stoic expression unchanging.
“You can’t stay here anymore,” Moon Dancer continued. “I’m sorry about your son, but he asked me to end the spell. Can’t you see he was miserable? How much pain he was in?”
Still no response.
“I’m… I’m sorry you lost him. And your wife.” She stepped aside so Winter could see Swan Song’s corpse. Still he displayed no emotion. “They’re probably waiting for you on the other side. So please… relax, I guess.” She capped off her plea with a warm, hopeful smile.
A long, agonizing silence stretched between them for what felt like forever to Moon Dancer. Winter Vista did and said nothing to indicate he’d heard her plea. All the while, the shadows continued their eerie, horrifyingly unnatural dance behind him.
It came like a ton of bricks. Moon Dancer doubled over as the very air in the room seemed to press down on her, intending to cement her into the floor. What she could only describe as hatred, in its rawest, most pure form bombarded her psyche, sending her into mental spirals alongside the physical one.
The air thrummed with power as Winter Vista finally took a step forward. Then another, falling into a slow walk towards Moon Dancer, the shadows moving along with him. He passed by the first desk, sending every paper upon it flying through the air, whereupon each one was instantly burned to ashes the second the shadows passed over them. This repeated with the second desk.
“Please… listen to… me,” Moon Dancer croaked. The magic in the air was so powerful it felt like a cart was pressing down on her head. “Move on… from this… world.”
Winter took no apparent interest in her plea. He continued moving closer to the altar, the shadows still swirling and churning all around him, ready to claim her as their newest victim. Now he was a mere five ponylengths from her; the shadows extended a little in front of him.
Three ponylengths; the shadows just one.
Moon Dancer shut her eyes. This was it. She was going to die here. She imagined everyone’s grief and sorrow back home after learning what happened to her and her friends. At least she was going out staring danger in the face rather than cowering in a corner somewhere. And it wouldn’t be long before she could see her friends again, in whatever kind of afterlife reality had created.
She took a deep, relaxing breath, and waited for the shadows to claim her. She turned her mind to thoughts of happy times spent with her friends. Better to go out happy than in a grip of terror.
But nothing happened.
No burning sensation. No searing pain of being roasted alive. Nothing.
Moon Dancer kept waiting, but as the seconds ticked by without her feeling anything, she eventually realized something was wrong. At least, wrong in the sense that something was stopping Winter from roasting her to the bone, which was good for her.
The heavy magic in the air seemed to dissipate, replaced with something different. Something… more comforting.
Moon Dancer cracked an eye open, only for both to shoot wide as her vision filled with pale white and a faded red and green pattern. She looked up, unbelieving of what she saw standing between her and Winter Vista’s spirit, who, for once, seemed to exude something other than hatred.
Between him and Moon Dancer was the spectral figure of an earth pony mare. She had the same soulless, black eyes and pale white body as Winter, but with a two-toned faded green and red mane and tail. Her cutie mark was also absent. No shadows swirled around her like they did with Winter.
Moon Dancer felt a strong sense of happiness exude from the mare. Like a warm blanket draping over her, all the hatred weighing down her psyche lifted, replaced by a comforting, motherly feeling the likes of which she hadn’t felt since leaving for Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. She stood up, a large smile crossing her muzzle as she realized Swan Song's spirit was protecting her.
The two apparitions stared each other down for several seconds, exchanging not words, but feelings. Emotions, in their purest, base form without any verbal words to accompany them. Moon Dancer could feel the sensations traded by them touching her heart, allowing her to give context to their exchange.
Swan Song was disappointed in her husband for everything he’d done, but also sorry she failed to understand how serious his trauma was after Snowy committed suicide. Winter Vista was sorry for how he’d treated Snowy Pine which drove him to commit suicide, and subsequently kill his father upon being resurrected. He wanted more than anything for the three of them to come together again as a happy, loving family.
Swan Song’s spirit approached her husband and, in a display that managed to be sweet despite the fact that neither ghost shed their stoic expressions, gave him an affectionate nuzzle. Winter Vista returned the gesture, and the feeling of warmth Moon Dancer felt spiked in turn.
Gradually, the spirits faded from view, disappearing into thin air. The shadows accompanying Winter Vista quickly retreated back into the darkness of the mansion, leaving the room still and silent, save for the still flickering candles adorning the walls.
Moon Dancer stood still for a good, long while, letting her mind decompress from everything that had happened. She fell to her haunches upon returning to full consciousness, before falling on her back with her hooves splayed out. The events of the night were finally exerting their toll on her body.
Her eyes slowly closed as exhaustion fully took over, and she drifted off to sleep.
Lemon Hearts shivered underneath the ancient fertilizer bags, her breath coming out as a series of visible puffs as she furiously rubbed her hooves against her barrel to keep herself warm. Moon Dancer had been right about the risk of hypothermia; Lemon Hearts had never denied that. The risk had been worth it, at least at the time. Now, she wished she’d accompanied Moon Dancer back inside.
Lemon Hearts had tried to muster the courage to dig Snowy Pine back up like Moon Dancer had told her, but her cowardice had won out, and she’d hidden in the garden shed. An old, smelly pile of fertilizer bags had sufficiently kept her hidden from Moon Dancer’s sight when she checked the shack for her friend. It pained Lemon Hearts to hear Moon Dancer's worried exclamations in search of her, but she couldn't bring herself to answer, knowing she would have to accompany her friend inside the mansion.
Now, Lemon Hearts wished she’d answered and followed her friend inside. Who knows what might’ve happened to her all on her own? Some friend she was.
Suddenly, Lemon Hearts’ ears flicked in response to a distant sound. It was incredibly faint, a soft creaking sound, followed by a gentle click. Her eyes widened with surprise and relief. Had Moon Dancer made it out okay after all? She scooted out from under the fertilizer stack and stood up, brushing some ancient dust off her coat. The sliver of sunlight shining through the ajar doorway was a huge relief for her freezing form.
Lemon Hearts let out another cold, visible breath and scrubbed her body warm before slipping outside into the warm sunlight. Immediately, her ears were filled with the sweet, uplifting sounds of forest wildlife. Singing birds, wind rustling the leaves, and more helped bring a sense of calm to her frightened spirit.
She wasted no time in making her way around the side of the mansion toward the front door. Rounding the corner, she stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of Moon Dancer standing out on the front lawn, everyone's saddlebags strapped to her barrel. Her friend was staring out at the forest ahead, seemingly in a daze, like her mind was elsewhere, but happy if the large smile splitting her muzzle was any indication.
“Moon Dancer,” Lemon Hearts whispered, before her own muzzle split into a wide grin and she took off running toward her friend. “Moon Dancer!”
Moon Dancer turned her head to see her friend approaching, her eyes bugging at the sight. “Lemon Hearts!” She too took off running toward her friend.
The two mares charged each other in a tackle hug, sending them sprawling to the ground in a pile of limbs and laughs. Soft tears fell from their faces, mixing in with the already heavily dew-laden ground.
“Whoa,” Moon Dancer said, breaking the hug. She looked at Lemon Hearts’ body in alarm. “You’re freezing!”
Lemon Hearts blushed. “Eheh, yeah…”
Moon Dancer levitated off her sweater. “Here,” she said, giving it to her friend.
Lemon Hearts accepted it with a grateful nod and slipped it over her body. The resulting warmth was very welcoming. “Thanks, Moon Dancer.”
“Where were you?” Moon Dancer asked, barely keeping herself from shouting. “I was worried sick when I came back and couldn’t find you.”
“I was in the garden shed, underneath those fertilizer bags.” Lemon Hearts sheepishly scuffed a hoof. “I’m… sorry I didn’t answer you.” She hung her head in shame. “I’m such a coward.”
Moon Dancer sighed and wrapped a hoof around her friend’s withers. "Ah, forget about that. The important thing is that we’re safe, and that Winter’s finally been put to proper rest.”
Lemon Hearts looked into Moon Dancer’s eyes with a big, admiring smile, before it quickly fell into a frown. “We’re safe.”
Moon Dancer instantly caught on to Lemon Hearts’ meaning. “Yeah…” The two were quiet for another few moments, silently mourning the loss of their two friends.
“C’mon,” Moon Dancer finally said, and passed Lemon Hearts her saddlebag. “We’d better get back to the lodge and report everything that’s happened.”
Lemon Hearts nodded her agreement, and the two took off down the forest trail.
They never once looked back at the mansion, and so never saw the figure watching them from the broken window.
A figure with soulless black eyes, a pale white coat, and a faded two-toned blue and white mane.